Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

Eli Chen

Science Reporter
Sylvester Brown and Tamara plant sweet potato seeds in front of Union Avenue Christian Church in June.
Kim Oswalt | St. Louis Public Radio

Encouraging more residents to grow fruits and vegetables in St. Louis could depend on making it easier for residents to acquire vacant lots, according to a new survey. 

The St. Louis Food Policy Coalition, consisting of environmentalists, policy experts and community leaders, collected 854 responses that came from nearly every neighborhood in the city. Residents were asked about their interest and participation in urban agriculture and the challenges they faced in doing so.

A dead zone with sediment from the Mississippi River carries fertilizer to the Gulf of Mexico.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

This story was updated to clarify how the EPA would proceed. 

The Environmental Protection Agency will  propose regulations on nutrient pollution by mid-December 2017 to settle a lawsuit filed by an environmental group in U.S. District Court. 

The Missouri Coalition for the Environment filed a lawsuit against the EPA in February for not adequately addressing the issue of nutrient pollution through the Clean Water Act. The EPA has agreed to propose rules by next year, unless the agency approves criteria submitted by the state before the deadline. 

Nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients enter waterways through fertilizer runoff and sewage treatment plant discharges. An overabundance of such nutrients have caused fish kills, harmful algal blooms and dead zones along the Mississippi River.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto on July 14, 2015.
NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Data from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft suggest that a syrupy ocean filled with ammonia could dwell beneath Pluto's icy shell. 

There is no direct evidence for an ocean on Pluto, but scientists argue it's very likely, given that a subsurface ocean would explain the planet's particular rotation and tectonics. In a recent paper published in the journal Nature, researchers mused that an ocean at extremely low temperatures could be maintained if it contained ammonia. Ammonia has also been detected by the New Horizons probe on two of Pluto's moons. 

"It expands our ideas on what oceans can be," said Bill McKinnon, a Washington University professor and co-principal investigator of the New Horizons Mission. "We'll probably find, ultimately in our exploration, that things are even stranger than we think."

Missouri Department of Natural Resources

The Missouri chapter of the Sierra Club plans to put pressure on state lawmakers to make sure St. Louis and Kansas City are better represented on the Missouri Air Conservation Commission. 

The commissioners are responsible for enforcing the Clean Air Act in Missouri. Members are appointed by the governor and approved by the state Senate. There are currently five commissioners and two vacant seats, which have been empty for some time. 

Environmental activists say that the current commissioners have been ineffective at addressing air quality in Missouri's metro areas. The St. Louis area doesn't meet federal air quality standards for ozone and Jackson County, which includes Kansas City, does not meet the federal air quality standards for sulfur dioxide. Both pollutants at elevated levels can pose a risk to children, the elderly and those with respiratory issues.

Provided by Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

Engineering researchers at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville are helping the Illinois Department of Transportation develop strategies for managing stormwater runoff on highways.

Highways and roads interrupt the natural flow of water during rains and especially heavy precipitation could cause much of the runoff to overload sewers. Runoff also can taint the water quality of the rivers and streams that it enters.

Asha Paudel

Donald Trump's victory in the presidential election has put many environmentalists and scientists on edge about U.S. commitments to fight climate change, since the president-elect has previously called climate change a "hoax" and vowed to "cancel" the Paris climate agreement.

Among the nervous scientists is Missouri Botanical Garden ethnobotanist Jan Salick, who has studied the effects of climate change on indigenous peoples since the early 2000s. Earlier this month, Salick attended the United Nations annual climate change meeting in Marrakech, Morocco. 

She spoke to St. Louis Public Radio's Eli Chen about her research and the challenges scientists face in the current political climate. Here is the conversation:

A dead zone with sediment from the Mississippi River carries fertilizer to the Gulf of Mexico.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Environmental advocates are calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to manage nutrient pollution from states that border the Mississippi River. 

The Mississippi River Collaborative, a group of environmental policy experts, recently released a new report that describes how the 10 states along the river are not making progress in reducing the amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus that eventually make its way down to the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone. 

An energy efficient light bulb.
National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Nearly 80 percent of St. Louis' greenhouse gas emissions comes from buildings, according to 2015 data from the city's sustainability office. A new partnership with a national energy efficiency initiative could help St. Louis address the impacts its buildings have on the environment. 

The city recently joined the City Energy Project, a joint initiative by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Institute for Market Transformation, which provides funding and resources to cities to create programs that improve energy efficiency in buildings. St. Louis expects to receive over $500,000 in assistance from the project. 

"In tackling our greenhouse gas emissions from existing buildings, a program that focuses on existing buildings is going to help us achieve some of our climate protection goals and objectives," said Catherine Werner, the city's sustainability director.

A cautionary sign at a fence around the West Lake Landfill Superfund site, which contains World War II-era nuclear waste.
Véronique LaCapra | St. Louis Public Radio

The Environmental Protection Agency has extended its deadline to propose a plan to clean up the West Lake Landfill Superfund site. 

Federal officials had aimed to decide whether to partially or fully remove the World War II-era nuclear waste at the landfill by the end of December, but they decided to postpone the decision. Recently, there were allegations that radioactive contamination from the West Lake Landfill was found on residential property.

Married couple Michael and Robbin Dailey sit in their home in Spanish Village. They allege that the radioactive contamination found on their property came from the West Lake Landfill.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

The Environmental Protection Agency is planning to test areas in Bridgeton for radioactive contamination.

Federal officials are responding to allegations made by residents near the West Lake Landfill. In a lawsuit filed Tuesday against against landfill owner Republic Services, Michael and Robbin Dailey claimed contamination from the Superfund site was found in their home.

According to a letter from an EPA lawyer, the agency plans to sample dust and soils at the home and other areas in Bridgeton.

EPA officials have previously said there is no evidence that radioactive material has migrated away from the site.

A Nissan Leaf getting charged up in a parking lot.
Nissan

Motorists in Missouri will soon see new signs pointing to alternative fuel sources along interstate highways. The signage is part of a recently announced Federal Highway Administration effort to create 85,000 miles of alternative fuel corridors across the country.

The signs aim to ease "range anxiety," or motorists' worry that they will run out of fuel, for those who drive cars that run on electricity, propane, natural gas and hydrogen. The initiative could encourage such motorists to travel further.

Spporting the use of low-emission vehicles could help the nation reach its goal of cutting at least 80 percent of greenhouse gases by 2050, the FHA officials say.

A researcher holds a tray of Zika virus growing in cells at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
Huy Mach | Washington University School of Medicine

New research from Washington University provides the first evidence of a human antibody capable of protecting fetuses from the Zika virus. 

In pregnant women, the virus can cause severe birth defects, most notably microcephaly, in which infants are born with abnormally small heads. 

According to a paper published this week in the journal Nature, scientists tested multiple human antibodies on infected pregnant mice. One antibody, ZIKV-117, was able to defend the mice fetuses from all existing strains of the Zika virus. 

Wash U virologist Michael Diamond, a co-author of the study, said the finding makes significant progress in combating the virus.

A member of Washington University engineering professor Rajan Chakrabarty's laboratory lights up forest material in a combustion chamber.
Provided by Washington University in St. Louis

Recent studies have indicated that wildfires such as the ones that have raged in the western United States could have a cooling effect on our climate. But early findings by engineers at Washington University suggest that wildfire smoke could have a warming effect on the atmosphere. 

Using material from forests in the west, Wash U scientists have been recreating wildfires in the laboratory to understand the effects such events have on climate and public health. Research predicts that wildfires could occur more frequently and for longer periods of time. A 2012 study suggests that the area burned by wildfires in the United States could double by 2050.

A gray bat cave on St. Clair, Mo., resident Nick Norman's property. It is located several hundred feet from where Mermamec Aggregates has built a surface mine for gravel.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

It would be an understatement to call Nick Norman an animal lover. A visit to his family's 200-acre property in St. Clair, Mo., will reveal quickly that his mission in life is to save them.

For example, he has shared his home with Charlie, a 170-pound African spurred tortoise. When Norman found Charlie, he was a malnourished company mascot. Charlie now spends his days marching slowly around Norman's yard, feasting on watermelons. 

Botanist Nigel Taylor checks the stems of cassava plants at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur.
File photo | Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis developers of genetically-modified organisms have called into question a New York Times report that compares the yields of genetically modified crops between North America and Europe.

Using data from the United Nations, an investigative report published over the weekend by the Times claimed that "genetic modification in the United States and Canada has not accelerated increases in crop yields or led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides." Agriculture in the United States and Canada has embraced GMOs, while many European countries have banned cultivation of them for many years. The article also cites a National Academy report released this year that said there is no evidence that using GM crops have accelerated yield. 

In a statement released Monday, Monsanto said that it's tough to compare yields between large geographic areas, such as the United States and Europe.

A metallic green sweat bee sits in a case among other species at Associate Professor Gerardo Camilo's Saint Louis University lab.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

In a community garden in central St. Louis, Saint Louis University biologist Gerardo Camilo walked methodically, scanning the plants while holding a butterfly net. Then, he stopped and stared intently at a patch of impatiens. 

He was pursuing a bee that was weaving in between the stems of the flowers. In one fell swoop, he swung the net down and clutched the net with a fist to trap the bee inside. He examined his captive with a quizzical expression. 

"Wow! I have never seen this in my life," Camilo said. "What the hell are you?"

Camilo and other scientists have found that bee populations are abundant and very diverse in urban areas, compared to rural areas, a finding that could help save endangered bees, important pollinators.

(via Flickr/KOMUnews)

In Missouri, 27 percent of  carbon emissions are caused by the transportation sector, according to a national report. 

Local environmental advocates are using the findings by the nonprofit think tank, Frontier Group, to argue that providing more carbon-neutral transportation options could improve public health and safety. The report includes multiple policy recommendations to reduce transportation's impact on the environment, including incentives for consumers to purchase electric cars and creating more paths for pedestrians and bikers. 

An underground fire has been smoldering in the southern part of the Bridgeton Landfill for more than four years. Now the state is concerned the north quarry may also be heating up.
Missouri Department of Natural Resources

This story was updated Oct. 20 with a response from Republic Services — The Missouri Department of Natural Resources has ordered Bridgeton Landfill LLC owner Republic Services to study the increased groundwater contamination detected at the site.

In a letter addressed to Republic Services engineer Erin Fanning last Friday, MDNR engineer Charlene Fitch provided a detailed review of groundwater sampling reports that span from October 2014 to April 2016. The sampling was conducted by a contractor hired by Republic Services. It noted increasing levels of hazardous substances that exceed federal levels, particularly benzene, which can increase the risk of cancer to those exposed to it.

The endangered running buffalo clover.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Outdoor activities like hiking and camping can help people appreciate nature and encourage public support for conservation, but a new study finds that such recreation can also be harmful to the environment. 

In the most comprehensive survey of threats to rare plants conducted in 20 years, researchers from the Missouri Botanical Garden and the University of Missouri-St. Louis analyzed data on threats to nearly 3,000 rare plants in the United States. As scientists report in the journal Biological Conservation, they discovered that outdoor recreation was the most common threat to plants, above residential development and agriculture.

An adult female chimpanzee arrives at a termite nest with two fishing probes. She transfers one fishing tool to her offspring, who uses it to fish for termites, while keeping the other tool for her own use.
Screenshot taken from video by the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project.

In 1960, Jane Goodall saw two chimps remove the leaves off of small twigs and used them as tools to fish for termites in the ground, which they ate.

It was the first time a scientist observed chimpanzees turning an object into a tool and using it for a specific purpose. But it was unclear how the chimps learned to do this. More than 50 years later, scientists have for the first time captured videos of chimpanzee mothers teaching their offspring to fish for termites.

The footage, taken in the Republic of Congo by researchers from the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project and Washington University in St. Louis, show several examples of mother chimpanzees handing termite fishing tools to their young.

Provided by The Land Institute

Story updated at 1:18 p.m. Oct. 18 | Originally posted at 7:45 p.m. Oct. 11

Some scientists dream of a future in which people can add sorghum, intermediate wheatgrass and other currently wild perennial plants to their diet.

In St. Louis, researchers at the Missouri Botanical Garden and Saint Louis University are developing a list of wild perennials, which live for many years, to recommend for domestication. Researchers say such plants have the potential to make agriculture more sustainable and feed a growing human population.

Volunteers at a previous cleanup event organized by Dutchtown South Community Corporation with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
Provided by Dutchtown South Community Corporation

Four neighborhoods in south St. Louis could look a lot cleaner in the next couple years, thanks to new local efforts to address illegal dumping.

The "So Fresh, So Clean, So Creative Southside St. Louis" project, initiated by the Dutchtown South Community Corporation, recently received a $120,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The two-year grant will fund efforts to educate residents on how to report illegal dumping, which is common in the neighborhoods of Dutchtown, Marine Villa, Gravois Park and Mount Pleasant. DSCC is working with the nonprofit group Brightside St. Louis to help with cleanup and education efforts.

The St. Louis County Building Commission members (Jeff Aboussie, Barry Glantz and John Finder, right) listen to Sierra Club supporters on August 2015. The model house is covered with the names of 529 area residents who want stricter energy efficiency stan
Veronique LaCapra

A set of construction standards that lower environmental requirements for new residential buildings could soon be approved by St. Louis County officials. 

The county's Building Code Review Committee has approved a draft ordinance on the building codes. The proposed ordinance, which will be sent to the county's Building Commission, dismisses energy efficiency measures from the 2015 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) that would require new homes to reduce air infiltration, install more energy efficient lights and add more increased wall and ceiling insulation.

Forestry Commissioner Skip Kincaid points out the insecticide injections given to a tree in north St. Louis.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

On a residential street in the Central West End neighborhood, a worker wearing a hard hat and a safety vest used a chainsaw to cut the branches off of an ash tree. The tree and the ones next to it were marked for removal because the emerald ash borer, an invasive species, has come to St. Louis.

The Asian beetle has decimated ash trees across the country since the early 2000s, particularly in the Midwest and the Northeast. In recent years, the emerald ash borer has spread to 28 counties in Missouri, most recently to Franklin County.

Missouri Department of Conservation's lake sturgeon coordinator Travis Moore holds a tracking device above a tagged lake sturgeon.
Provided by the Missouri Deparment of Conservation

Missouri Department of Conservation officials are stocking the Meramec River with lake sturgeon, a species that is endangered in the state, in hopes of raising their population. 

The lake sturgeon, a fish that can grow up to 8 feet and live for over a century, declined sharply in the 19th century due to over harvesting and river projects that removed its habitat. State wildlife officials began stocking the species in the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and their tributaries in 1984.

Coldwater Creek turned a milky white over the first weekend of October.
Julie Hartwell via Facebook

Updated Oct. 4 with details on the contamination source — The Missouri Department of Natural Resources has identified a paving company as the source of the white contamination that appeared in Coldwater Creek over the weekend. 

In a statement released Tuesday, the state agency said an accident caused a truck carrying a chemical called Modifier A/NA, an additive used to make concrete, to spill the product into the creek. The St. Peters-based Pavement Solutions was responsible for transporting the chemical.

The concrete additive has low toxicity to humans and aquatic life, according to a Materials Safety Data Sheet for the product.

Mississippi River, dredging, Eads
Rachel Heidenry | 2008 file photo

A $9 billion bill in Congress that could improve waterway navigation and water systems in Missouri is a step closer to being signed into law.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 399-25 to approve the Water Resources Development Act — in a rare show of bipartisan support. The Senate passed its version of the bill earlier last month. 

The Water Resources Development Act, authorized every two years, gives the green light to the Army Corps of Engineers to improve navigation, water quality and work on other water projects.

Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Washington University in St. Louis has been awarded a nearly $24 million grant from the National Science Foundation to open a research center that could develop solutions in medicine and agriculture. 

The Science and Technology Center for Engineering MechanoBiology involves eight faculty members from Wash U. They will be joined by faculty from University of Pennsylvania, Boston University and other institutions.

Provided by St. Louis Area Diaper Bank

As the St. Louis Area Diaper Bank approaches one year in operation this weekend, the organization is running a week-long drive to collect 100,000 diapers. 

According to the National Diaper Bank Network, one out of three families in the United States cannot afford diapers. The cost of diapers can total  about $1,000 a year per child and for some low-income families, buying them can take up to 15 percent of the parents' take-home pay.

Marchelle Vernell-Bettis, a trauma ICU nurse, wears a button during an informational picket for St. Louis University Hospital's nurses union.
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated Sunday, Sept. 25, 5 p.m. with vote results Nurses at Saint Louis University Hospital have approved a new three-year contract that addresses union members’ concerns over working conditions.  

Their first agreement with SSM Health, which acquired the hospital in 2015, includes a commitment to keeping enough nurses on duty and a requirement that managers give nurses eight hours to rest between shifts.

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