This Week on Earth: February 2-8


By Jamie Leventhal and Jamie Schmid

The Disaster You Didn’t Hear About: Brazil’s Broken Dam

O rompimento da barragem de rejeitos da mineradora Samarco, cujos donos são a Vale a anglo-australiana BHP, causou uma enxurrada de lama que inundou várias casas no distrito de Bento Rodrigues, em Mariana, na Região Central de Minas Gerais. Inicialmente, a mineradora havia afirmado que duas barragens haviam se rompido, de Fundão e Santarém. No dia 16 de novembro, a Samarco confirmou que apenas a barragem de Fundão se rompeu. Local: Distrito de Bento Rodrigues, Município de Mariana, Minas Gerais. Foto: Rogério Alves/TV Senado

The contributors to this weekly environmental news recap at In Our Nature pride ourselves on finding timely news sources, but there are some stories that deserve more recognition than the media has given them.


In November 2015, one of Brazil's worst environmental disasters occurred when a major dam burst, causing massive flooding and pollution. The dam, owned by BHP Billiton and Vale SA, was used at an iron ore mine. According to CNBC, roughly 32 million cubic meters of mud spilled out from the wreckage, killing 12 people and polluting rivers with dangerously high levels of arsenic and mercury.


The Guardian reported that this toxic sludge-infused water has cut off the drinking supply for over a quarter of a million people. Statements by the mine operator at the rupture site and both corporations allege that the spillage does not contain tailings, or potentially harmful waste substances from mining. They claim that all of the excess mud from the broken dam presents no apparent danger to humans. The United Nations has recently criticized the companies for an insufficient research effort and response to the disaster.


This human-caused disaster has done unimaginable damage on Brazil's delicate ecosystem, and will take decades to clean up.

Obama's New, Green Proposal

President Barack Obama is photographed during a presidential portrait sitting for an official photo in the Oval Office, Dec. 6, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

In his last year in office, President Obama is aiming high with his new environmental policies.


Obama put forth a proposal this week to add a $10-per-barrel tax on all domestic oil and oil imports, which would slowly be phased in over a five year time span. He plans to put this new revenue towards $300 billion worth of green transportation systems throughout the next decade. This would include funding projects like mass transit, high-speed rail, self-driving cars, freight upgrades, and more according to Vox.


But don't get your hopes up yet--many House Republicans have already denounced the proposal and plan to shoot it down in Congress. If it were ever passed into law, it could provide the country with a jump start to move the nation's dependence away from fossil fuels towards a cleaner future.

You Thought Flint’s Water Was Bad?


 We are all familiar with the Flint water crisis by now. But if not, here is a quick overview. 

            Flint changed its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River. This river water corroded the town’s lead pipes, causing the lead to leach from the pipes into the drinking water. 

            It turns out Flint is not the only town in Michigan with a lead problem. Records from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality show that six private water suppliers in Michigan exceed federal limits on lead and copper. Additionally, two Michigan municipalities also exceed this cap.

            The scary part is a lot of cities still use lead pipes. Kalamazoo, Michigan has 8,122 lead pipes in its underground system. Although these states put anti-corrosive agents in the water, there is always risk of malfunctioning or negligence. 

Michigan isn’t alone, either. Eighteen cities in Pennsylvania and 11 cities in New Jersey have lead levels that are higher than those in Flint. Officials in these cities don’t want to take the attention away from Flint, but the public needs to understand how lead poisoning exists beyond Michigan’s borders.

            This should be a reminder to all United States cities to be on top of their water supply system--or else we could be in for another Flint disaster.  

Whales Stranded on British Beach

One of the saddest sights to witness is the death of a beached whale. Such a mammoth and magnificent creature deserves a peaceful death. Almost 30 sperm whales have recently died along the European coast, and this past week a sixth sperm whale died on the coast of Norfolk, England.

            Beached whales are not uncommon. However, to have so many die in such a short period of time raises the level of concern. Scientists collected samples of the dead carcasses and are conducting experiments to determine why so many whales washed up on the sandy beaches.

            One theory being tossed around is the idea that the whales took a wrong turn. Experts say only a few males need to swim the wrong direction for the whole pod to become disoriented and stranded. However, we won’t have any definitive answers until the scientists perform autopsies on the dead giants.

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