Poachers and pastoralists are poisoning African vultures at an alarming rate, with several species in danger of disappearing. What’s the big deal? Before their numbers were decimated, vultures residing in or commuting into the Serengeti ecosystem during the annual migration—when 1.3 million white-bearded wildebeests shuffle between Kenya and Tanzania—consumed more meat than all mammalian carnivores in the Serengeti combined. Lose the vultures and there’d be some ugly knock-on effects. Read all about it in my feature for National Geographic.
Photo by Charlie Hamilton James.
December 14, 2015 2 Comments
Audubon Magazine has just published, with stupendous photographs by Len Jenshel and Diane Cook, my feature on the transformation of the humongous Fresh Kills landfill, on Staten Island, into a 2,000+ acre nature preserve. I loved reporting this story because I got to spend time outdoors with field biologists — men and women studying birds, bats, and turtles in the former dump, which was formerly a wetland and formerly replete with wild mushrooms, edible plants, freshwater springs, all manner of birds, and fin- and shellfish galore. The new park isn’t exactly restoration — we’re not getting that glorious wetland back — but I think it’s gonna be pretty awesome.
June 29, 2015 No Comments
It depends. For a highly qualified answer, take a look at my latest feature, in Ensia magazine.
Urban farming is booming, but what does it really yield?
Photo by nski
April 27, 2015 No Comments
… to your pocketbook, to the environment, to the world’s hungry bellies? Read my latest story for National Geographic — entitled “One Third of Food Is Lost or Wasted: What Can Be Done” — by clicking on this word.
If I could legally reproduce on this page the opening photograph, by Robert Clark, I would. It’s spectacular, though a little confounding. Perusing a USDA list of foods wasted in a year by the average American family, the photo team bought all this food shiny and new, in accurate quantities, and arranged it artfully around the Waldt family of New Jersey. The Waldts, by the way, probably waste less than the typical family (that is, less than 1,600 pounds of food a year). They cook most of their meals from scratch, plan meals carefully, dine out infrequently, and re-purpose and eat all their leftovers. (Naturally, they compost their remains.)
Most of the food in the photo was donated to a halfway house after the shoot. But the Waldts grilled most of the big beautiful salmon, cured the rest as ceviche, and used the bones for stock. Their dog, who’s also in the photo, ate the skin.
As some kind soul tweeted about my story: “Come for the photo, stay for the words.”
(Big tip of my hat to food-waste gurus Jonathan Bloom, at www.wastedfood.com, and to Tristram Stuart, at www.feedingthe5k.org, Dana Gunders, at www.nrdc.org, and all the excellent number crunchers at the USDA’s Economic Research Service.)
October 20, 2014 2 Comments
My latest piece for OnEarth magazine
In the chill of a New England April, Chad Coffin, a 12th-generation Mainer, raced against the dying of the light, the rising of the tide, and the prospect of his livelihood falling to pieces. Wearing chest waders, earmuffs, and multiple layers of hoodies, he muscled heavy wooden fence rails—strung with netting and aluminum flashing—into the soft muck at the mouth of Freeport’s Harraseeket River. He secured the sections with stakes, pounding them 2.5 feet into the seabed with a sledgehammer before moving on to the next plot. When the tide rose too high to work, he knocked off for a bit, returning for the next cycle. For three and a half weeks Coffin struggled—without complaint—in the tendon-ripping mud of the intertidal zone, battling hypothermia, frostbite, snow, and wind. By the end of that time, he and his clamming colleagues (along with some less rugged volunteers) had erected fourteen 30-by-30-feet, 18-inch-high aquatic corrals as part of the largest-ever investigation into how softshell clams might be protected from the ravages of European green crabs.
Coffin, who rocks a Yanomami haircut and has the build and physical intensity of a rugby player, has been clamming commercially his entire adult life, playing a prominent role in his state’s $17 million clam fishery (the third most lucrative, after lobsters and elvers). But he and his fellow Maine clammers have been watching with alarm in recent years as the population of green crabs has soared, and as the population of softshell clams, also known as steamers, has commensurately grown scarce. Introduced to various shores during the 1800s via the ballast water of European ships, Carcinus maenas now inhabits both coastlines of the United States, as well as those of South Africa, Australia, Tasmania, and Japan. Maine’s cold winters used to knock down crab populations, but water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine have been warming by roughly 0.5 degrees per year for the past decade—faster than almost any other ocean region in the world. And therein lies the problem.
Like many invasive species, green crabs have few natural predators, and softshell clams, which evolved without any intertidal crab species nipping at their umbos, have no defenses against them. (In Europe, the presence of a castrating barnacle in the green crab’s ecosystem is enough to hold the species in check, but Maine—for good reason—has no interest in importing this creature.) Aided by an unlimited supply of food and no competitors, green crabs have been marching up the Maine coast like Sherman through Georgia. The crabs were so thick last summer, one local told me, that “you could cross Biddeford Pool on their backs.” Armed with rakes and traps, angry citizens went after the crustaceans (which rarely exceed four inches from spike to spike, and which actually range in shade from red to brown to their eponymous green), eventually removing 14,000 pounds of them in Freeport alone. But it wasn’t enough. In Brunswick’s Buttermilk Channel, a former clam hot spot, “it wasn’t uncommon to find 500 crabs in one trap,” according to Dan Deveraux, Brunswick’s Marine Resources Officer. “We were inundated with them.” Meanwhile, Brunswick’s population of harvestable softshell clams had been falling precipitously—between 2011 and 2013, in fact, it had declined by nearly 38 percent.
Softshell clams have been on the menu in this part of the world for a very long time. Archeologists have found their shells tucked inside Native American middens that date back more than 5,000 years. “But we don’t know if we’re going to have softshell clams in another decade,” says Robert Steneck, a marine biologist at the University of Maine. Exaggeration isn’t unknown near town wharfs, but here’s one reason why even state biologists had, by this past spring, begun hinting at the possibility of an impending crab-pocalypse: green crabs actually appear to be expanding the range of salinity and temperature that they can tolerate. As a result, lobstermen are now catching larger crabs in deeper waters, where lobsters lurk. Last September, a fisherman was shocked to find that a bucket of green crabs had survived in his backyard for a month without food or water. A sea urchin fisher in the town of Lubbeck discovered that the green crabs he had captured the previous October—and abandoned in his fish totes during a bitterly cold winter—were still alive come April.“Green crabs are almost impossible to eradicate,” says Denis-Marc Nault, a biologist with Maine’s Department of Marine Resources. “They’re incredibly hardy, and their reproductive rate is through the roof.” Green crabs grow quickly and spawn early, producing up to 160,000 eggs in a single reproductive cycle. They are fast and agile; they eat voraciously (a single crab can gobble up to 40 clams a day); and, somewhat amazingly, they’ve learned how to steal bait from, and then escape from, traps that have been set for them. They thrive in all the different elements that make up the sub- and intertidal zone: in woody debris, in eelgrass beds, on rocky bottoms, and in mud, sand, and rock. Moving north, against the prevailing southwest currents in the Gulf of Maine, Carcinus has managed to wipe out at least two year-classes of clams in some areas. Giant steamers are still out there, observers note—but no one wants to eat the big ones. (Small clams taste sweeter, and look better on a restaurant plate.) More to the point, big clams can’t sustain a fishery if their offspring don’t survive. After closing the shellfish beds of Northern Bay a few years ago due to poor water quality, Nault returned in 2013 to find “no clams—just chipped-up shells over 900 acres of tidal flats,” he says. “It was frightening, a complete loss.” It wasn’t an anomalous finding: when Brian Beal, a professor of marine ecology at the University of Maine, surveyed 22 sites in the formerly rich clamming beds near Freeport, he found exactly zero live clams in the 110 core samples that he took.
The response of Mainers to hissing, clacking green crabs boiling out of peat banks and scrambling out of traps has been a kind of controlled panic. In August of 2013, the state held a one-day crab-trapping survey in an effort to help officials determine the crustacean’s relative abundance. Volunteers from 28 towns captured nearly 19,000 medium-to-large specimens (the smaller ones escaped). “There was just this sense of emergency,” Devereaux says. “We didn’t do a population estimate, because that would have meant trapping and releasing them”—which, naturally, no one wanted to do. (Most crabs were crushed or dropped into pots of hot water; some were delivered to a local farmer, who used them for compost.) Last winter, Governor Paul LePage held a Green Crab Summit, at which 600 scientists and citizens assembled to discuss the problem. Later LePage announced the formation of a special green-crab task force, which recently declared that commercial lobstermen no longer need to buy a license to harvest and sell the crabs, and that the green crab fishery will stay open this coming winter, even as other crab species will remain off limits. But in the absence of a booming market—green crabs, while edible, aren’t popular menu items in American seafood restaurants—opening up the fishery isn’t the same thing as ensuring a big haul. If no one wants to buy them, no one is going to want to catch them, either.
* * *
Since human beings first began burning fossil fuels in earnest, starting with the Industrial Revolution, the world’s oceans have become, on average, 30 percent more acidic. The more fossil fuels we combust, the more carbon dioxide settles in the oceans. Once there, it forms carbonic acid, which hinders the ability of bivalves like mussels and softshell clams (but not crustaceans), to build their protective shells. Nitrogen runoff from our coasts—from sewage, fertilizer, pesticides, and other manmade pollutants—only exacerbates the acidification process. Thinner shells make clams more vulnerable to predation. “They use up more energy to thicken their shells in acidic water,” explains Steneck. “Green crabs use their chela, or big claws, to shred the clams, and their mouth parts to chew them.”
Considering all of the crab’s advantages, then, can the humble softshell clam—not to mention the people who harvest it for a living—survive? The Freeport Softshell Clam Experiment, a $600,000 collaboration between the University of Maine and the Downeast Institute for Applied Marine Research and Education, may soon provide some answers.
At low tide on a sparkling June day, Brian Beal, a sizable man wearing hip waders and a cap advertising a brand of crab meat, and Sara Randall, the Freeport Softshell Clam Experiment’s scientific coordinator, putter away from a Freeport wharf with Chad Coffin at the wheel of their boat. At Staples Cove, Beal swings his legs over the gunwale and slogs across the muck toward the 14 fenced plots that Coffin laboriously erected two months ago, which are adjacent to fourteen different, unfenced plots whose dimensions are marked only with corner stakes. Each of the 28 plots contains four subplots: two with netting, and two without. Each of the 112 subplots has been planted with softshell clams—20 per square foot—that Beal grows by the hundreds of thousands in his homemade upweller, a bivalve nursery made up of two rows of connected plastic barrels through which seawater constantly flows.
To an outsider, the experiment looks fairly inauspicious. But it promises to answer an extremely important question: Which kind of barrier—Fencing only? Netting only? Fence plus netting?—best protects clams from their most lethal predator?
After surveying his square plots, Beal, who has studied clams for 30 years, trudges 50 feet to an array of 80 plastic flowerpots that have been sunk down into the muck, their tops level with the seabed. This section of the experiment, he explains, is testing whether crushed clamshells, which are alkaline, can sufficiently buffer acidic sediment, allowing baby clams that have been planted in the pots to settle and their shells to thicken as they mature. Some of the pots are controls, containing only baby clams (known as spat); some contain spat and broken clamshells; some have spat, broken shells, and netting for protection against crabs; some have spat and netting, but no broken shells. “And how do we know whether the clams are growing better because of buffering, or because the shards give them places to hide?” Beal asks. “That’s where the ‘magic plot’ comes in,” he answers himself. He points to a pot sprinkled not with broken clamshells but with shards of pink granite, which mimic the physical features of the shells without changing the pH of the water.
“This is a major, major experiment,” Beal says, surveying his watery kingdom of fencing, nets, stakes, traps, and pots—most of which can be seen only at low tide. “Now look over there,” he says, pivoting toward Spar Cove. “We’ve got netting over different densities of adult clams, and we’re testing whether wild spat preferentially settle in areas thick with adults. If they do settle out gregariously, and there’s a vast difference, a town might want to erect fencing” across its coves to protect clam beds. “You can’t just plant clams anymore,” Randall says, somewhat wistfully. “You have to protect them.” Indeed, if softshell clamming is to survive a warming world, it may eventually come to look more like farming than fishing.
Not long ago, Staples Cove was filled with lush and healthy beds of eelgrass: waving green fronds that serve as a nursery for half of Maine’s commercial fin- and shellfish populations, as well as for bryozoans, worms, hydroids (cousins to jellyfish), and countless other creatures. Eelgrass beds provide habitat and sustenance for wading birds, and they reduce water pollution by absorbing nutrients. The beds also dampen wave energy and slow currents, helping to buffer shorelines. But as green crabs dig through the mud in pursuit of their next meal, they loosen eelgrass roots and shred eelgrass blades; in this way they have gradually transformed tens of thousands of acres of Maine’s coves into moonscapes of sticky gray mud, peppered only with snails. Since 2001, eelgrass beds in Casco Bay, which sweeps from Cape Elizabeth to Bath, have declined 58 percent. Green crabs are the primary cause.
Upland, crabs have dug galleries into the peat banks, causing them to slump. “In the summertime, you can hear them clicking along the shore in the thatch grass,” Randall says. The eroded banks spew smothering sediment into the coves. Clams aren’t the only shellfish species to suffer; throughout the region, mussel populations have also been obliterated. “It’s not because their larvae have died,” Steneck, the University of Maine marine biologist, says. “I think they’re being eaten by green crabs. That’s the most parsimonious explanation.” Teasing out cause and effect in a dynamic ecosystem is notoriously complicated: overfishing, pollution, climate change and acidification may also play a role. “We’re seeing both biodiversity and ecosystem services degraded by the green crab,” he adds. “This is a big event, there’s no question about it.”
Steneck is quick to include economic benefits under the umbrella of ecosystem services provided. As he puts it, “We’re part of the ecosystem, too.” Maine has roughly 1,600 licensed clammers, and for every dollar they earn, the processors and other local businesses that serve them take in three more. But clams have grown scarce enough that this year the city of Brunswick cut 7 of its 57 commercial harvest licenses and closed two large growing areas. From a bench outside the Harraseeket Lunch and Lobster Company, which Chad Coffin’s family owns, Coffin tells me that “seafood restaurants and wholesaler-dealers are in decline.” He gestures toward the restaurant’s menu board. “Look,” he says. “The seafood basket now costs $28.95. Fish is just too expensive [for restaurants] to stay in business.” This past summer, Coffin earned $110 per bushel of clams that he brought in, compared with the $30 to $40 per bushel he earned 20 years ago. “You always get the highest price right before a collapse.”
But if clams are disappearing, as Coffin suggests, then why have Maine’s annual clam landings hovered consistently at a weight of around ten million pounds for more than a decade? “I’m buying them from a wider area,” John Dennison, a clam wholesaler in Freeport, tells me. “There are no small clams nearby.” Coffin echoes Dennison. “I’m digging the last of the clams,” he says. “First, the clams in the low intertidal zone disappeared, maybe ten years ago. Then the mid-intertidal clams disappeared five years ago. Now, the only remaining clams are in the cobble, in the high intertidal.” Once those are gone, towns like Freeport, Brunswick, and Harpswell, just up the coast, will be far poorer places—not just economically but culturally and biologically as well. Clams filter and clean water, of course, and they’re a terrific and delicious source of protein. But in Maine, they’re also integral to the heritage of many coastal communities. Brunswick’s town seal tellingly features the images of a logger, a professor, and not one but two clammers. “Losing the clams would have a real social impact,” Coffinsays. “Type A guys like me, we need a place to rip mud.”
It would indeed be frightening to have type A guys like Coffin at loose ends. But what scares fisheries biologists most is the green crab’s potential impact on Maine’s lobster industry, which directly employs 5,900 people and generates $364 million annually. There would seem to be reason to worry. In 2013, lobstermen began discovering large green crabs in their deep-channel traps. Green crabs favor lobster bait, and in shallower water they even compete with lobsters for barnacles. But while lobsters can gain access to a barnacle’s meat only by crushing its shell, a crab can get to it by crushing the shell and also chipping at it and prying it open. In one 2006 study, crabs outraced lobsters to food resources in every single trial that pitted them against one another. And sometimes, lobsters are the food resource: when the study’s authors placed juvenile lobsters in front of green crabs, the crabs dominated in 6 out of 11 rounds—subduing, and then eating, their opponents. As the authors concluded: “It appears that green crabs have the potential to negatively impact native juvenile lobster.”
Over the years, entrepreneurs have proposed various schemes to convert Carcinus into cash. One pet-food manufacturer in North Carolina has expressed an interest in adding crab to her cat chow, but says she requires a steady supply of 25,000 pounds a week in order to do so—an amount that no one can guarantee, especially at the relatively low price (25 cents per pound) that crab buyers are willing to pay. Others have proposed using crabs as fish meal. “But green crabs contain too much limestone,” says Denis-Marc Nault of Maine’s Department of Marine Resources. “That’s good for cod or halibut, but we’re not growing those fish in pens here.”
Crabs as lobster bait? Maybe, but who’s going to pay enough for the crabs when they’re available just about everywhere? (Besides, Steneck says, “You crush a crab, and its extra-visceral fluids may act as an alarm to other crustaceans.”) Crabs as industrial ingredient? A businessman from Arundel, near Kennebunkport, is studying the feasibility of using green-crab chitin as an extract in food and pharmaceuticals. But, again, regularly catching, storing, and transporting a sufficient quantity of green crabs at the right price may prove problematic. Crabs as culinary sensation? They are, reportedly, tasty—but removing their tiny shards of meat is an awful lot of work, and if New Englanders want to eat crab, they have ready access to native Peaky Toe, blue, Jonah, and rock varieties.
Still, Ron Howse, of New Brunswick, has been talking for nearly a year about paying 30 to 35 cents a pound for green crab, then exporting the creatures, live, to the massive, seafood-crazy Asian market. If his plan ever comes to fruition (it’s been put on hold numerous times), Howse will be the latest participant in a growing culinary movement that seeks to reduce populations of invasive species—lionfish, wild boar, nutria, bullfrog, northern snakehead—by eating them. (One website, eattheinvaders.org, even provides recipes online). Some caution that rebranding an invasive species as the next “it” food has the potential to exacerbate the problem by spreading these creatures farther afield as new markets are created. While that’s a valid concern, green crabs are already just about everywhere. Nault says he has no objections to Howse’s scheme, but he also doesn’t think that it would make a serious dent in green crab populations, given the creatures’ reproductive rate and other competitive advantages. Officially, Maine remains committed to eradicating Carcinus maenas, not to managing it as a sustainable resource.
Ten miles up the coast from Freeport, Brunswick is running its own experiments with fences and traps. But it’s also doing something different. “I spend a lot of time on the flats,” Dan Devereaux, the town’s marine warden, explains. “And four years ago, we started noticing an influx of quahog seed.” That was something of a surprise. Sixty years ago, quahogs (also known as a little-neck or hard clams) were the predominant industry in Brunswick’s resplendent Maquoit and Middle Bays; wagons would pull onto the beaches and cart away so many bivalves—destined for that evening’s chowder and clams casino—that the fishery was, by the late 1950s, exhausted. Now, however, quahogs seem to be thriving in places where softshell clams have been wiped out.
At dead low tide, Devereaux and Darcie Couture, a local marine biologist who’s consulting for Brunswick, step into an airboat and roar over the 1,200-acre Maquoit Bay, whose bottom used to be a vivid green but is now—like the bottom of Staples Cove—a depressing shade of gray. “These changes are so dramatic,” Couture says. “The rapidity and scope are shocking.” When they’re a hundred yards out, Devereaux kills the engine next to a large rectangle of netting that’s been staked to the muck. Couture lifts a corner of the netting, reaches underneath, and extracts a one-inch quahog. “See its notch?” she asks, scrutinizing the outer edge of its gray-and-white shell. Couture planted this clam and 750 other hand-notched quahogs just like it into a pair of plots last May, and has been periodically checking in to weigh and measure them ever since. “These guys will reach market size in two years,” she says.
Quahogs could turn out to be one of those species that benefits, at least in the short term, from climate change, Couture suggests: they actually do well in warmer water. And, importantly, their shells are thick enough to stymie a green crab. “We’re studying quahogs to see if they could be a replacement industry for softshell clammers,” Devereaux says. “We need to have a solid adaption plan to climate change, or our softshell clammers will be the last of the Mohicans.” So far, quahog meat is more of a mid-Atlantic enthusiasm than a Gulf-of-Maine one, but Couture envisions introducing it—or, more accurately, reintroducing it—to New Englanders one day as a locavore specialty.
On the other side of the boat, which rests just outside of Couture’s plot, I reach my hand into the cool, soupy mud and feel around, like a farmer harvesting potatoes. Within seconds, I pull up a quahog nearly two inches across. “That would sell for $2.50 in the Oyster Bar at Grand Central,” Couture says. I plunge my arm back in to the water and pull up one quahog after another, feeling like a kid collecting a spill of someone else’s coins.
Through its universities and research centers, Maine is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in its all-out effort to outwit the European green crab. So far these expenditures have shown that an intensive focus on trapping has the potential to reduce populations. But tending these traps is incredibly time consuming, and Maine has 4,000 miles of coastline to defend. Fencing can be effective at keeping crabs out of narrower inlets and bays, but such barriers require a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers before they can be installed. And maintaining them is a labor-intensive process: They must be cleared of debris daily, and they don’t hold up well to storms.
And so the prospects for protecting the softshell clam industry would appear to be bleak. Nevertheless, there is some hope. Last winter was unusually cold and long in Maine, and the number of green crabs that scuttled into Brunswick and Freeport traps this past summer was far lower than the numbers from 2013 and 2012. Crab hauls in Harpswell’s Quahog Bay were, by contrast, far higher—but notably, so were its populations of softshell clams: Quahog Bay has been closed to shellfishing for more than a decade. Many are asking: Were this year’s crabs simply lurking in deeper, colder water, waiting for the temperature to rise before launching their attacks on the intertidal zone? Or could it be that the especially cold winter served to knock their population back to a more tolerable level? Because scientists don’t have enough years of data, they’re unable to say whether last year’s higher numbers or this year’s lower numbers are the anomaly. Thanks to the efforts of trappers in Quahog Bay, Darcie Couture says, we do know that “there is a healthy, fairly large, deeper-water population—and now we have no excuse not to be ready for them the next time green crabs surge.”
As Steneck puts it, “The most important factor in limiting the green crab is water temperature. And the trends—this summer’s colder water notwithstanding—are not in the softshell clam’s favor.” He falls silent as he considers the future. “Unless the green crab population collapses, I think the softshell-clam fishery will be gone.”
Photo by Eric Burgers
October 20, 2014 No Comments
As oil trains derail across the United States, a windswept—and vulnerable—stretch of Montana’s Glacier National Park underscores the folly of transporting crude by rail
The trains roll throughout the day, running east and west along the snow-blanketed tracks of northwestern Montana, dipping low along the southern edge of Glacier National Park. Boxcars, intermodal freight containers, and bulk cargo clamber up and then down the Continental Divide. Night falls, and yet another train emerges from the east, accompanied by a thin metal-on-metal shriek. First to appear are two locomotives, their headlights tunneling through the darkness, then 103 tanker cars, dull black with hymenopteran stripes. Inside the tankers are two and a half million gallons of light, sweet crude, freshly pumped from North Dakota’s Bakken shale formation.
For more than a century railroads have hauled freight and people through this stretch of the Rockies. Glacier owes its existence, in fact, to the Great Northern Railway, which back in 1910 vigorously promoted the legislation that would establish a brand new national park, to which the railroad would soon be hauling wealthy visitors. Railroads, of course, are integral to U.S. commerce, and no one blinks when mile-long trains pass through small towns, big cities, and vast stretches of prairie, desert, and forests. Or at least they didn’t blink until recently, when shippers began to fill so many of those railcars with oil. In 2009, western crude filled a mere 8,000 tanker cars; in 2013, thanks to increased production in the Bakken, it filled 400,000.
The vast majority of America’s oil is still transported via pipeline, which is a significantly cheaper means of conveyance than rail. But building new pipelines to handle the glut of Bakken crude is expensive, time-consuming, and increasingly stymied by political opposition; by landowners unwilling to grant easements; and, if the pipeline crosses federal land, by heightened environmental review. Train tracks, on the other hand, already crisscross the nation, and freight railroads are now investing tens of billions of dollars on new locomotives, on the upgrading of track, and on so-called transloading facilities, where oil is either funneled into unit trains (which consist of 100 or more oil tankers) or pumped out of them and transferred to refineries, river barges, or ships. In 2013, 69 percent of Bakken oil traveled by rail; that percentage is expected to reach 90 percent this year.
But with that increase comes another—an increase in the risk of environmental catastrophe. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, at least one train, on average, slips off the tracks in this country every single day. Multiply the number of train cars carrying crude oil by 50, as we did between 2009 and 2013, and you multiply the odds of a leak, a major spill, or—worse—a massive explosion commensurately. And depending on where, when, and under what circumstances such an accident were to take place, the impact could range from manageable to utterly, epically devastating.
* * *
On a snowy day in January, I follow via automobile as the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway climbs west out of the plains near the small town of East Glacier, in a part of Montana known for its wicked winds. Gusts of over 100 miles an hour aren’t uncommon here. Driving with a local resident, I note the remains of a porch that has blown off a house and into a tree, several steel posts bent 90 degrees by westerly gales, and a railroad-erected windscreen covering the train bridge over Midvale Creek. No trains have fallen off the bridge, but high winds have been known to blow boxcars off their tracks in other exposed stretches.
Photo: Joel Sartore
Pushed and pulled by two locomotives at either end, the oil tankers depart East Glacier, attain an elevation of 5,272 feet at Marias Pass, then begin their long descent, contouring along steep mountainsides, snaking through a series of wooden avalanche sheds, and curving around wetlands until they emerge, 60 miles west, in the equally tiny town of West Glacier. It’s all incredibly scenic—snow-brindled conifers, distant peaks, granite outcrops—and Amtrak tries as hard as it can to take advantage of the scenery by routing its Empire Builder passenger train through this corridor during daylight hours. Alas, there’s so much competition for rail space from oil trains these days (and, increasingly, coal trains) that the Empire Builder now has an on-time rate of less than 50 percent. Oil trains have similarly stalled the transport of North Dakota grain, causing its price to spike 20 percent. But when there’s enough light, those eastward-bound Amtrak passengers get to see, on their left, the peaks of Glacier National Park; on their right are the splendors of the Flathead National Forest, a 2-million-acre tract, half of which has been officially designated as wilderness.
“This is a particularly sensitive part of the world,” Mark Jameson, of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), tells me, before ticking off its various designations: United Nations Biosphere Reserve; UNESCO World Heritage Site; hydrological apex of the North American continent; ancestral hunting grounds of the Kootenai, Salish, and Blackfeet tribes. “The park and the forest are major engines of the rural economy”—nonresidents spend more than $714 million in the region—“and these streams contain numerous species of concern, including the bull trout and the westslope cutthroat trout.”
As 2013 drew to a close, Jameson’s group began to ponder, for the first time, the repercussions of a nightmare scenario: What if a unit train were to derail here, spilling millions of gallons of oil into this unspoiled environment before bursting into flames and triggering a catastrophic explosion? Unfortunately, such a scenario isn’t so farfetched. Last July, 63 tankers filled with Bakken crude derailed and exploded in Lac Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and incinerating the center of the small town. Then, in November, 25 cars of Bakken oil derailed in an Alabama swamp: the ensuing explosion sent 300-foot flames into the sky and continued to burn for three days. In December a Bakken oil train collided with a derailed grain train in Casselton, North Dakota, spilling 400,000 gallons and burning for close to 24 hours while more than a thousand residents evacuated their homes in sub-zero temperatures. Since March of 2013, in fact, there have been 10 large rail-related spills of crude in the U.S. and Canada. Just two weeks ago, a southbound Canadian Pacific train leaked a trail of about 12,000 gallons of crude oil through nearly 70 miles of southeastern Minnesota.
Historically, crude oil has been placarded as a product with “low volatility,” the kind of oil that couldn’t be lit with a blowtorch. But in the wake of the Lac Megantic disaster, investigators determined that the crude coming out of North Dakota had a much lower flash point than other forms of crude, and posed a much more significant fire risk if released. (Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources is concerned enough about this risk, apparently, that the agency now requires the flaring of Bakken crude’s volatile compounds before it will allow barges to carry the stuff down the Mississippi River in that state.) The DOT-111 tankers that hold the oil are another problem entirely. Today, 85 percent of the 92,000 tank cars that haul flammable liquids around the nation are standard issue DOT-111s. For decades the National Transportation and Safety Board has been warning that this type of tanker car, in particular, punctures easily. Last fall, the Federal Railroad Administration told the Petroleum Manufacturers Institute that it had found “increasing cases of damage to tanker cars’ interior surfaces,” possibly caused by “contamination of crude by materials used in fracking.”
Earlier this year the American Association of Railroads petitioned the DOT to impose new standards on tanker cars, including thicker head shields and improved valve coverings. But retrofitting or redesigning tankers to resist corrosion and puncture would cost the industry around $3 billion, remove cars from service in an already tight market, and take several years. Lobbyists for Canadian and U.S. oil producers have asked regulators not to rush into rules that could hurt their profits, preferring that they focus instead on addressing “track defects and other root causes of train accidents.”
* * *
The derailment of a unit train along Glacier National Park’s U-shaped southern boundary is what one might deem a low-risk proposition that nevertheless carries a high-hazard potential. The cold, clear waters of this corridor—where Bear Creek, key trout-spawning territory, joins the wild and scenic Middle Fork of the Flathead River—are pristine, and they support a lucrative rafting, kayaking, and fishing industry. “Once oil gets into moving water, there’s no cleaning it up,” says Scott Bosse, the Northern Rockies director of the conservation group American Rivers. “We saw this with the Yellowstone River [pipeline] spill of July 2011, where less than 1 percent of the 63,000 gallons of crude was recovered.”
Residents of the canyon that runs between the park and the forest note that BNSF employees are a constant presence along the tracks, tweaking, upgrading, replacing, and surfacing the company’s investment. Despite their attentions, derailments along this stretch aren’t unknown: there have been 37 between 2000 and 2012—on the high end, compared with other Continental Divide railroad crossings. Some have involved strong winds; some are attributed to human error or equipment failure. According to one oil-train conductor based in North Dakota who asked to remain anonymous, BNSF pushes its employees hard. With so much traffic on the rails, he told me, “we’re working longer than the legal limit, and we’re sleep-deprived. Older and more experienced conductors and engineers are retiring, leaving us with young and inexperienced workers.” Another BNSF mechanic whom I met as he was ordering lunch at a roadhouse near Essex, Montana, told me that wet rails were a perennial problem. “Trains spin their wheels and dig holes in the track.” The grade, too, worried him. “It takes a lot to stop a train coming down from the Pass.”
* * *
So how would a worst-case scenario play out? Picture this: a unit train jumps the track just west of the Continental Divide. Cars tumble off the rail bed, bouncing and ricocheting off each other. Tankers puncture, oil spills and flows, and a spark detonates a massive explosion.
Then the phone rings in the Flathead County Office of Emergency Response, an hour and a half away in the town of Kalispell.
Photo: Loco Steve
Cindy Mullaney, deputy director of that office, explains what would happen next. “What we’d do is send the jurisdictional fire chief out to size up the situation: what have we got, where’s it going, which way is the wind blowing, and do we have ways to mitigate it,” she says. “If the spill is in the river, we have boom, absorbent pads, and sea curtains cached here in Kalispell. The road department has more of that stuff.”
When I ask her whether the geography of the corridor presents any specific challenges to emergency response, Mullaney replies matter-of-factly. “The biggest problem is that you’re on uneven ground,” she says. “A lot of it’s very steep and rocky. There’s a huge amount of snow in the winter. You throw a river in there, the avalanche danger, the limited communication capabilities, limited evacuation sites with a helicopter, the long distance from any type of resources, … it’s gonna be challenging, no doubt about it.”
Montana has six highly trained and well-supplied hazmat teams spread out around the state. The nearest to the Continental Divide, however, is 90 minutes away. Closer to the corridor are a handful of local fire departments that can respond more quickly but that must nevertheless rely on volunteers—most of whom lack up-to-date (or in some cases, any) turn-out gear, advanced training, and the right tools for containing spills or combating fires borne of hazardous materials.
Depending on where it happened and how high the winds were blowing, Charles Farmer, director of emergency services for Glacier County (just east of the Continental Divide), says that an accident in his area could be “devastating, catastrophic. We’d have no capabilities to handle it. We would organize an evacuation.” Ben Steele, East Glacier’s fire chief, answers in much the same way. “We’re not even close to having enough people to respond if there’s a spill,” he tells me. “We typically get only six or seven volunteers to respond. We haven’t had any training on hazardous materials.”
We talk about the Casselton and Lac Megantic unit train fires, which burned so intensely that responders couldn’t even count the number of cars that were going up in flames, right before their eyes, for more than a day. I ask Steele how he and his volunteers would manage such a situation. “We’d use the rule of thumb,” he tells me. “You hold up your thumb in front of your eye and you back away until the fire is completely hidden.” Meanwhile, a conflagration in the steep, windy canyon could rapidly spread over hundreds of acres. And a spill in the river, especially during the spring runoff season, “could pollute 1,000 miles of shoreline.”
* * *
Jeffery Mow has been the supervisor of Glacier National Park for fewer than six months, but he has special reason to worry about oil-related accidents. A lean man with a cheery, eager manner, he began his Parks Department career more than two decades ago in Alaska as a ranger, and then later a supervisor, in Kenai Fjords National Park. After the Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989, Mow investigated the 11-million-gallon oil spill for the Park Service and the Department of Justice. (Oil washed onto the shores of both Kenai and Katmai National Parks.) Then, when the Deepwater Horizon gushed more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2011, the U.S. Department of the Interior sent Mow to Louisiana to act as its incident commander. Despite massive billion-dollar cleanup operations in both locations, he says from behind his desk in the park’s West Glacier headquarters, “the legacy continues. The oil is still out there.”
Shortly after arriving at Glacier, Mow recalls, “several people brought it to my attention that, gosh, these are really long trains coming through here. That piqued my interest.” Soon afterward, he sat down with officials from BNSF, from whom he learned that he’d be seeing a minimum of one unit train a day—containing 3 million gallons of oil—and up to 10 unit trains a week. Mow also learned, to his dismay, that BNSF’s contingency plan for that oil was “their contingency plan for any other hazardous material they transport, which usually comes along in mixed loads.”
Photo: Loco Steve
But as Mow well understands, Bakken crude is no ordinary hazmat. BNSF recently hired a consultant to forge a detailed response plan specific to hauling crude through this region. Matt Jones, a railroad spokesperson, said it would include highly detailed maps of the entire route and strategies on how to deploy containment booms in the Middle Fork of the Flathead River or any other nearby body of water. For his part, Mow says he hopes that whatever form the new approach takes, it will entail simulations such as field and tabletop exercises that will allow local officials to rehearse their responses. “We want to have a robust ability to respond, and not try to figure out what we’re doing when we’re in the middle of it,” he says.
Park officials are also eager to learn if the railroad—which is already planning to spend $5 billion to expand capacity, maintain track, and buy locomotives and equipment in 2014—will be building any more avalanche sheds. Currently, eight of these structures have been erected to protect trains from the snow that regularly plummets down 40 separate avalanche paths within a 9-mile stretch. In 2004, three avalanches derailed 119 empty rail cars and struck a commercial truck on the highway; a fourth narrowly missed cleanup crews. Between them, these avalanches shut down the tracks for 29 hours, creating a 70-mile backup of freight traffic.
Concerned with the ongoing potential for financial and human carnage, in 2005 BNSF requested permission from Glacier National Park to control avalanches using explosive charges and military artillery. But before the park could complete its own environmental impact study, the railroad withdrew its request. The environmental impact study went forward, however, and in the end rejected the use of explosives in favor of building new snow sheds. The cost: $5.4 million, amortized over a 50-year period. The railroad, “which had been concerned enough about train safety to propose bombing the national park,” according to the NPCA’s Michael Jameson, declined to build.
Regarding their decision, Mow simply sighs. “It’s not something we can force them to do,” he tells me.
* * *
I glance out the window of Mow’s office and take in the primeval forest of Douglas fir, aspen, birch, and lodgepole pine. A pair of bald eagles spirals over the southern end of Lake McDonald. Perhaps moved by the elemental beauty of the scene, Denise Germann, the park’s management assistant, jumps into the conversation. “This isn’t just a track moving to a destination,” she says, with some passion. “It’s a track moving through public land, going through pristine country. It’s going through land that has many different [values]—whether it’s recreation or economic or scenery or wilderness.”
She’s recapping, essentially, all that we’ve been discussing so far. And yet it bears repeating, since no plan of anyone’s devising can possibly guarantee safe passage through a high-risk corridor of a hundred or more oil-filled tanker cars a day.
Mow acknowledges her statement with a somber nod. And as he does, I can’t help but recall what Larry Timchak, the president of the Flathead Valley chapter of Trout Unlimited, told me at an earlier point during my trip to Montana.
“The probability of an accident over time,” he said, “ is 1.”
This piece originally appeared at OnEarth.org; top photo by Mike Danneman/Getty.
February 21, 2014 2 Comments
Cork Lorax Patrick Spencer (he’s actually the executive director of the Cork Forest Conservation Alliance) brought me to Portugal last summer to show me some oak trees and hammer home a few points about wine closures –aluminum, plastic, and cork. I wrote about this amazing trip for OnEarth. You can muddle through that story, or you can go straight to the source and hear Patrick make a compelling case for the natural option (cork, that is) in less than fourteen minutes in this TEDx video.
It’s a nice talk, and it succinctly maps out the negative cascade effects of switching to noncork wine closures. But I’ve got to say: Patrick is a lot more exciting in person, minus the suit jacket. He’s a delightful and hugely knowledgeable traveling companion, which I mention here because he’s organizing tiny eco-tours to three Spanish cork regions during harvest season, 2015. Travelers will learn and watch how cork is harvested, visit wineries, sleep in agritourismos, drink a lot of vinho verde, and avoid all contact with cork-company PR professionals. If you are interested, follow the CFCA link and tell Patrick I sent you.
February 13, 2014 No Comments
NPR’s Dan Charles did a piece yesterday for The Salt on farmers growing non-GMO corn and soy. This piece builds on my story, in Modern Farmer, about commodity growers planting conventional seed. Why? They can save money on the seeds (genetically modified corn seed can cost up to $150 a bag more than non-GM seed) and earn more on the back end by selling to buyers willing to pay a little extra ($1 a bushel for corn, more for soy) for grain uncontaminated with GMOs. Like the farmers in my story, The Salt’s farmers plant conventional seeds for non-ideological reasons: it’s what their customers want and will pay extra for. Note that most of them live near the river systems — Illinois, Missouri, Ohio –that send barges of grain out into the non-GMO consuming world.
Lynn Clarkson, founder of Clarkson Grain, which sells conventional and organic corn and soybeans, sees the market for conventionals expanding, thanks in large part to demand from animal feed companies. That’s what my reporting turned up as well: small farmers who sell at greenmarkets and to natural grocers don’t want GMO feeds, nor do producers who sell meat or dairy products to institutions like colleges and to Whole Foods (which plans to label all its foods containing genetically engineered ingredients by 2018).
But what will happen to the premium – which incentivizes farmers to keep their conventional grain separate from GM grain all the way from planting through harvest, storage and transportation — if more farmers get on board? Chris Huegerich, the farmer I profiled, used to receive a 50-cent premium on every bushel he sold to Cargill, in Blair, Nebraska. But this past year, the premium disappeared, thanks to a plethora of farmers planting conventional corn in that area. That’s good for Cargill: for Huegerich, not so much. But he’s not giving up on non-GMOs. In fact, he’s planting even more of them this spring.
February 5, 2014 No Comments
Back before my knees began to ache, I ran in my neighborhood park, a 585-acre swath of meadows streaked through and bounded by mostly deciduous forest. Unlike most urban runners, I avoided the paved ring road and stuck to the interior, seeking out sketchy paths and abandoned viaducts, crumbling stone staircases and piney glades. I was looking for soft footing, and I was looking for that experience of exploration, of seeing-for-the-first-time, that every devoted woodland visitor wants. I chose my routes by impulse, never deciding which way to turn until a decision, like a fallen branch, rose up to smack me in the face. In this manner, I became familiar with parts of the park that most visitors never see.
Now that my running days are over, I shuffle through a tract of the park’s interior, called the Midwood, with eyes cast down, mostly oblivious to the solitary men who stroll past with backpacks slung casually over one shoulder. This is a special area, dimly lit and damp. It contains the park’s oldest trees—mostly tulips and oaks—and its highest canopy. In the summer, white flowering goutweed, a showy invasive, brightens the forest floor. In the fall, it’s blue wood asters. Birders come through during the migratory season in search of flycatchers and other transients, but my quarry is more prosaic.
In my right hand is a yellow-shafted grabbing tool and in my left a large plastic bag, which I slowly but steadily fill with things that aren’t supposed to be in the woods: malt liquor bottles, crack baggies, chip wrappers. But those items are ancillary to my main target, the specialized detritus of sexual congress: lube tubes, soiled tissues, amyl nitrate poppers, and, of course, used condoms. I had often seen men—young and middle-aged, white, brown, and black—loitering on these forest paths, some of which are paved in mulch and some of which are informal, like deer trails. In my running days, I assumed that the men, who held cell phones and carried small bags, were selling drugs. Only later did I realize their business was almost exclusively sexual; the drug sellers stuck closer to the ring road. …
January 16, 2014 No Comments
Went down the other day to see the new Whole Foods at 3rd Avenue and 3rd Street, hard by the ol’ Gowane. Nice to see the company installed several drinking water fountains –frost resistant, too — in the park that surrounds their permeably paved parking lot. Sip and savor as the smell of CSOs (which dump raw sewage into the canal following as little as 1/2 inch of rain) wafts off the turn-around basin to the south (that’s the Harvest Dome 2.0 in the background). So happy to see new fountains springing up, and looking forward to seeing more as Canal cleanup and development proceeds.
December 22, 2013 No Comments