Your Environment Update for June 18, 2015

  • Pope Francis during a visit to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, November 25, 2014. Photo: European Union 2014, European Parliament, via Flickr

In this week’s Environment Update, we take a look at an avian flu epidemic on Pennsylvania’s doorstep, and hear how the Pope is throwing himself into the climate debate.

Is an Avian Flu Outbreak Heading for Pennsylvania?

An outbreak of bird flu caused the price of eggs to skyrocket earlier this year, and we may not be out of the woods yet. The current outbreak of avian influenza is the worst in the nation’s history, killing more than 48 million chickens, mostly in the Midwest. Now agriculture officials in Pennsylvania and Ohio, both among the top egg-producing states in the country, are warning the outbreak is right at our doorstep.

Avian flu has already cost the industry $1 billion in Minnesota, Iowa and other Midwestern states. Now, cases of the highly pathogenic virus have been confirmed closer to home in Ontario, Indiana and Michigan.

Agriculture officials say the first U.S. poultry were infected by wild birds, but now the flu seems to be spreading from farm to farm. Penn State University avian pathologist Patty Dunn says that is an unusual trend, as poultry does not mingle with wild birds at most industrial farms.

“What’s been surprising is how it has moved in some farms that have established quite good biosecurity practices. So it’s been puzzling,” she says.

The USDA and officials in Pennsylvania and Ohio are all calling for heightened security on poultry farms, emphasizing the need for clean equipment. The states are concerned about the potential loss of flocks, which could cost the industry billions more.

Reporting by Julie Grant.

The Pope Sounds Off on Climate Change

This week, a highly anticipated environmental writing by Pope Francis—a set of teachings known as an encyclical—was leaked by an Italian magazine, and many are calling its contents nothing short of revolutionary. It accepts that climate change is a man-made threat to human life and warns that there will be “grave consequences” if people don’t make changes in lifestyle and consumption.

Some American politicians, like Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Jeb Bush, have criticized the Pope for speaking out on climate change. Santorum says Pope Francis should leave that to scientists. But Daniel Scheid, an assistant professor of theology at Duquesne University, a Catholic University in Pittsburgh, says the environment and climate change are a natural fit for Catholic theology.

“Our use of water, our use of land, our treatment of the oceans, and our reaction to human-made climate change, the choices that we make are moral choices because they reflect what we care about,” Scheid says.

Scheid says the Pope’s climate appeal isn’t about blame and economic burden, so much as a responsibility to care for people and the earth. He points out that may be an easier message for Catholics to hear and act on.

Big Fines for Texas Gas Driller

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection announced Tuesday a record fine against a Texas gas driller. The agency says Texas-based Range Resources failed to fix a gas well that polluted groundwater and a stream in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania. The $8.9 million fine is more than double any previous penalty issued by the DEP against a gas driller.

Reporting by Julie Grant.