Wildfires burning around the West. Rising seas lapping at the East. Animal feces, coal ash, and fertilizer fouling waterways from the Carolinas to the Midwest. Bridges, roads, and pipelines crumbling across the country. With the midterm elections less than a month away, communities across the United States face some of the most formidable scientific, environmental, and technological challenges in decades. On November 6, voters from Alaska to Florida will choose not just their next governor, state representative, or member of Congress, but to some degree how we live for decades to come. “This is the most important election of our lifetime,” says Bill Holland, New Mexico policy director for the League of Conservation Voters.In the 36 gubernatorial and 470 congressional races around the country, some of these challenges, like opioids and fossil fuels, are campaign issues, while others, such as climate change’s role in severe wildfires, don’t appear on any candidates’ platform. But, whether these matters are on their minds, the victors will face them once sworn in. Their decisions will help shape how well storm-ravaged communities adapt, whether the water is safe to drink, how open our internet will be, and more.These are the top science, technology, or environment issues facing each state—plus Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. Even if it never surfaces on the campaign trail, science is always on the ballot.
Alabama: Keeping drinking water drinkable
With more than 100 mines, the Black Warrior River watershed is one of the largest coal-producing regions in the South. It also provides drinking water for Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and other Alabama cities. While the mines employ hundreds of people, runoff from the operations carries
heavy metals, acids, and sediment into waterways. Strip mining — in which workers scrape the surface of a mine and sometimes dump the waste rock into river valleys — is one of the worst culprits. worst culprits. Environmental groups, including the Black Warrior Riverkeeper, say the Alabama Department of Environmental Management has failed to enforce laws that would protect water quality in the region. They’ve filed several lawsuits to compel the department to address the issue.
Alaska: Guarding calving grounds
The 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is home to North America’s largest caribou herd. It also encompasses what energy companies believe is the biggest untapped oil and gas reserve left in the U.S. Companies have angled to drill in the refuge’s coastal plain for almost four decades, but congressional attempts to open the lands failed amid concerns that it would
damage the caribou’s calving areas. Now, the industry might get its wish. Last year, Congress authorized drilling in the area as part of a tax reform bill, and directed the Bureau of Land Management to offer oil and gas leases to energy companies by 2024. BLM has received a proposal for seismic exploration of the 1.6-million-acre plain this coming winter. Longtime drilling proponent Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and other supporters say development would be limited to no more than 2,000 acres. But a U.S. Geological Survey study of the effects of such development on caribou found that the animals avoided calving in any areas with concentrations of drilling infrastructure, which could cause the mammal’s numbers to dwindle. Similar studies also found that the herd avoids areas near oil and gas fields in the Canadian side of its range.
Arizona: Water conservation
For decades, two massive reservoirs—Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada border and Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border—have stored water from the Colorado River for cities and farms in Western states, including California, Nevada, and Arizona, as well as Mexico. But a triple whammy of prolonged drought, this past winter’s paltry Rocky Mountain snowpack (which feeds the river’s lower basin), and years of overuse by cities, farms, and factories have left levels low enough to risk a water shortage—the first ever—
within the next two years. By the end of this year, Lake Mead will be at 1,080 feet above sea level, just 5 feet above the threshold that triggers the declaration of a shortage. If that happens, under agreements among the states that share the basin’s water, Arizona and Nevada, who have the most junior rights in the basin, would face the biggest cuts. Grand Canyon State water managers recently began drafting a drought contingency plan to soften the blow through conservation and other measures. The team hopes the legislature will approve the plan when it reconvenes in January.
Arkansas: Monitoring confined animal feeding operations
The animal waste and dirtied water flowing out of high-density hog farms, a type of confined animal feeding operation (CAFO), have
troubled clean-water advocates for years. The fate of Arkansas’ largest—C&H Hog Farms, a 6,500-head facility in the Buffalo River watershed—could determine the collective destiny of all other CAFOs in Arkansas. In operation since 2012, the facility has been hotly contested by some residents and local environmental organizations, including the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance and the Ozark Society. The groups worry that the estimated 2.5 million gallons of annual waste will leak into waterways and cause harmful algae blooms (rapidly growing colonies that produce toxins) downstream. The state Department of Environmental Quality suspended permitting of other CAFOs in the area, and, earlier this year, continued its crackdown by denying the facility’s renewed operating permit. C&H has appealed the decision.
California: Forging paths forward
To some degree, California and its nearly 40 million residents face almost every issue in the country. Where the Golden State sets itself apart, though, is in how its solutions to those issues can often set a national standard. Climate change is at the root of its most pressing issues—a five-year drought,
more-frequent wildfires, and water scarcity—but the state’s long-running push to expand renewable energy is facing challenges. Gov. Jerry Brown and some state lawmakers worry that President Trump’s embrace of fossil fuels will interfere with state’s 12-year-old effort to cut greenhouse-gas emissions and its new plan to go carbon-free by 2045. Thanks to a range of measures—capping industrial emissions, setting high vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, and providing incentives to switch to solar—the initial plan has met its goal of slashing greenhouse gases to 1990 levels four years ahead of schedule. (That’s more ambitious than targets in other states, which aim to cut emissions to higher 2000 levels.) In August, however, the Trump administration proposed revoking California’s authority to impose its own automotive standards. These and other federal climate-change rollbacks might be enough to sway voters, according to some analysts. The state is also a bellwether in the national debate about internet freedom. Home to the nation’s leading tech companies, California is working to fill the regulatory vacuum left by the June federal repeal of Federal Communications Commission net neutrality regulations. This past August, state lawmakers passed a bill that will bar internet-service providers from slowing or blocking websites, and restrict “zero-metering,” the practice of not counting preferred services and apps against a customer’s monthly data limits. But days after Gov. Brown signed the bill into law in September, the Justice Department filed a legal challenge against it, arguing that internet runs between states, and is therefore subject to federal oversight.
Colorado: Quelling wildfire
The Spring Creek Fire scorched 108,000 acres of southern Colorado in July, making it the
third-biggest blaze in the state’s history—and this past summer was its worst fire season in more than a decade. While August monsoons diminished the risk, the burns’ effect on vegetation led to another problem: floods. Without roots to hold the soil, sheets of water overflowed waterways and washed out roads. In the coming years, a Centennial State collaboration with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder could help officials and land managers prepare for the next big burn. The prediction system will combine weather data, vegetation type, topography, and fire-behavior models to determine where a blaze will spread, how severe it will become, and how it will behave. The project, which is in the testing stage, has bipartisan support in the statehouse.
Connecticut: Bad air days
During a heatwave this past August, health officials issued a warning that has become very familiar to residents of the Nutmeg State: Elderly folks and people with asthma should stay indoors until smog levels subside. Air pollution remains a problem throughout the Northeast, but Connecticut has it worst: For two out of the past three years, the state has had 30 bad air days—when levels of ground-level ozone, a component of smog produced by vehicles and other sources, reached levels that could lead to asthma attacks and breathing problems. Neighboring Massachusetts, the state with the next-worst quality in the region, experienced about 3. The daily crush of commuters on I-95 is part of the problem; transportation accounts for 36 percent of emissions, according to the state’s 2013 greenhouse gas inventory (its most recent). Connecticut is also a victim of geography: It sits below an
air-current highway that streams pollution from coal-fired power plants in Midwestern states. The state is one of 19 (including the District of Columbia) challenging the Trump administration’s decision to freeze fuel-economy standards for cars and sport utility vehicles at 2020 levels. Gubernatorial candidate Ned Lamont is among those making noise about the decision and has also vowed to put more electric vehicles on the road; challenger Bob Stefanowski has not taken a position on the issue.
Delaware: Blocking offshore drilling
Tiny Delaware is mostly coastal, and its economy relies heavily on beach tourism. In 2016, nine million visitors generated $500 million in tax revenue. So when President Trump announced plans to
open most of the nation’s coastline to offshore energy development, state officials—worried about tourism-killing oil spills and unsightly derricks—swiftly moved to fill the regulatory vacuum. This past June, lawmakers passed a bill that bans offshore oil and gas drilling in the state. Gov. John Carney, who has spoken out against Trump’s plan, signed the measure September 20. While state waters extend only 3.5 miles offshore, companies wanting to develop in the zone would still have to get state permission to build pipelines and other infrastructure. The bill grants local regulators the authority to deny such permits. Companion legislation also empowers the state to take legal action to challenge oil and gas leases in federal waters.
Florida: Coastal protection
With 8,436 miles of coastline, more of Florida is at risk from sea-level rise than any other continental U.S. state. A recent
University of Florida study found that levels rose more than 0.79 inches per year between 2011 and 2015 along the Sunshine State’s east coast. A May report by the Union of Concerned Scientists predicted that, in a worst-case scenario, three Florida communities, including two in the Keys, could experience double the current rate of tidal flooding by 2030; by 2045, 15 more communities, including Miami Beach, could see increased inundations; and 14 more, including Cocoa Beach-Cape Canaveral, Fort Lauderdale, and Jacksonville Beaches, would be regularly swamped by 2060. Despite this and other analyses, local lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott have resisted statewide efforts to prepare for a waterlogged future. Some coastal communities are beginning to adopt their own measures to deal with the rising waters; Miami Beach, for example, has redesigned stormwater-drainage systems and plans to raise roads by 2 feet—although some residents have fought those efforts, saying elevating streets could hurt property values.
Georgia: Conserving marshland
Georgia harbors one-third of the East Coast’s remaining salt marshlands, which filter pollutants, buffer against storm surges, and provide habitats for birds, shrimp, crabs, and other wildlife. But the Peach State’s marshes are in trouble. A recent
University of Georgia analysis found a 35 percent drop in vegetation along the coast over the past 30 years. A spike in temperatures and prolonged drought are largely to blame—as is encroaching development. As building continues, legislative pushback has been sparse: A bill, introduced by state Rep. Matt Dubnik, would create a specialty license plate to generate funds to support wetlands conservation and restoration.
Hawaii: Reconciling wildlife protection and green-energy development
The Aloha State and California share the most ambitious green-energy target in the nation:
One-hundred percent of the archipelago’s electricity must come from renewable sources like wind and solar by 2045. But the proliferation of wind turbines has come with an unexpected cost. The structures are killing large numbers of endangered Hawaiian hoary bats, the state’s only native land mammal. Under a special provision of the Endangered Species Act, a trio of Hawaiian wind farms secured a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to cover the accidental “take” of 92 bats over 25 years, but they’ve reached that limit in just six. Earlier this year, wind generators asked the agency to raise the limit to 483 bats. To receive the expanded permit, the companies will have to show what measures they’ll take to minimize harm to the bats—such as shutting off turbines when winds are mild to avoid collisions, and using ultrasonic sound to shoo the critters from the blades.
Idaho: Sharing the forests
For decades, Western states have sought greater say in how the government manages federal land within their borders. The fracas has often ended up in court, but Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and other officials have come up with a compromise that could help ease those tensions—at least relating to the state’s 20 million acres of federal forests. Under the
new “good neighbor” plan, foresters will work alongside U.S. Forest Service officials on federal projects, such as thinning overcrowded areas to reduce wildfire risk. “We’ve made a lot of progress on the politics of forest management,” says John Freemuth, a professor of public policy at Boise State University. Policymakers and public land advocates around the West are keeping an eye on how the new collaboration plays out.
Illinois: Cleaning up the Great Lakes
Fifty years ago, the Great Lakes—the world’s largest source of freshwater—were widely polluted. But after a decades-long federal cleanup effort, the
lakes have begun to rebound. The upward trend might be in jeopardy, though. A June executive order, which revoked a 2010 order by President Barack Obama to protect and restore Great Lakes ecosystems, could open the door to oil and gas development—and the potential for spills that could foul drinking water and harm aquatic life. Congressional candidate Sean Casten, a biochemical engineer and clean-energy entrepreneur, has made Great Lakes protections a campaign issue, accusing incumbent Rep. Peter Roskam of not doing enough. Though it should be mentioned that Roskam has fought a separate Trump effort to defund the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, aimed at protecting water quality and ecosystem health.
Indiana: Containing coal ash
The Hoosier State has more coal-ash disposal ponds than any other, and
tests show groundwater near 15 power plants is contaminated with a cocktail of cobalt, lead, arsenic, boron, molybdenum, radium, and thallium. So when the EPA announced in July changes to coal-ash regulations adopted by the Obama administration, the Hoosier Environmental Council and other advocates in Indiana warned that the move could leave more of the state’s water resources vulnerable to pollution. The new rule ditches the requirement that state officials force coal companies to monitor groundwater, and gives states more flexibility in determining how companies should handle ash dumps. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management has indicated it will now loosen requirements; though some companies, such as the Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO), have said they plan to continue monitoring groundwater and proceed with coal-ash pond closures.
Iowa: Curbing farm pollution
Black Hawk Park, Cedar Falls, United States
Kansas: Dry-cleaning chemicals in residents’ water
This past summer, an
investigation in the found that hundreds of residents drank and bathed in water fouled with the dry-cleaning chemical perchloroethylene (PCE) for more than six years—and that state officials failed to inform the communities. At one site, PCE levels in the groundwater were 8.1 parts per billion; Wichita Eagle newspaper EPA limit is 5 ppb. As many as 22 other contaminated sites may have gone unaddressed, according to the investigation. A 1995 state law lobbied for by the dry-cleaning industry appears to be largely to blame. The Kansas Drycleaner Environmental Response Act included a provision that directed state regulators to refrain from looking for contamination from dry cleaners and “make every reasonable effort” to keep sites off the EPA’s Superfund list. Residents are calling for the state to scrub up the areas and for lawmakers to strike the part of the legislation that bars checking for PCE leaks in groundwater.
Kentucky: Fighting opioid abuse
More than 1,500 people died from drug overdoses in the Bluegrass State
in 2017, an 11 percent increase over 2016—with heroin, fentanyl, or both involved in many of them. State lawmakers are taking a multipronged approach to tackling the problem: They’ve limited fills to three days (rather than the five- to seven-day bars in most states) to keep doctors from overprescribing the meds; state Attorney General Andy Beshear has sued seven pharmaceutical companies for failing to disclose how addictive their painkillers are; and a bipartisan bill to legalize medical cannabis, which for some could be used as an alternative pain medication, will likely be reintroduced in the 2019 legislature. “We’re still not taking this seriously enough,” Gov. Matt Bevin cautioned at the National Governors Association meeting in July.
Louisiana: Land loss
More than 2,000 square miles of Louisiana have slipped into the Gulf of Mexico since 1932. (Even a lab that studies flooding
might have to move because of rising waters.) Encroaching seas are only partly to blame; erosion and subsidence—sinking of the land because of its underlying geology—allow water to encroach farther than it otherwise would. The loss of storm-surge-buffering wetlands also puts the shoreline at greater risk during severe weather. Hundreds of thousands of homes, economically important fisheries, and tourist centers like New Orleans are all in the danger zone. Now, the state has a plan to fortify the coast. Initiatives include restoring wetlands, and breaching barriers to reconnect the Mississippi River with its floodplain and deliver land-building sediment. But finding enough funding to implement the $50 billion plan has been a challenge, in part because of lower-than-expected oil and gas revenues that help fund the program.
Maine: Keeping smog in check
This past July, Maine Gov. Paul LePage
asked the EPA to exempt much of the state from the Ozone Transport Region air-quality program. Created under the Clean Air Act, the 11-state partnership monitors and limits emissions that cross state lines. Under the regulation, the Pine Tree State’s paper and lumber mills must cut pollutants such as the volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides that contribute to smog. LePage, at the behest of the forest-products industry, contends that Maine contributes little to the Northeast’s smog issue; environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine, however, say that the coalition is why the state’s ozone levels remain low, and that backing out would only dirty up their air.
Maryland: Protecting the Chesapeake
The Chesapeake Bay defines Maryland. The estuary—the third largest in the world—runs down the state’s middle, and generates billions of dollars each year in recreation, tourism, and seafood revenues. For decades, pollution from industries, farms, and cities in the watershed
was so severe that crab and oyster populations shrank, spurring the EPA to mandate a cleanup in 2010. Halfway to the 2025 deadline, progress has been uneven: The watershed states (Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York—plus Washington, D.C.) have cut phosphorus and sediment, but, according to a July report, there’s still too much nitrogen. Common in fertilizer, the chemical washes off fields and causes oxygen-sucking algae blooms. The EPA has asked the states for specific nitrogen-reduction plans in the next phase of restoration. In some corners of the Bay watershed, cities are also struggling to cope with a 55 percent increase in heavy rains. Ellicott City, a nearly 250-year-old town in Howard County, has experienced two once-in-a-millennium-level floods within two years—the latest delivering 8.4 inches of rainfall and a 17-foot surge. Hydrologists suspect a number of factors are to blame, including the conversion of forests to pavement and a lack of flood infrastructure. Parts of Baltimore, Anne Arundel, and Prince George’s counties also dealt with increased flooding this year, but the state’s elected officials are divided over what to do. They passed a measure in 2012 requiring municipalities to reduce the risk by installing new flood-taming infrastructure paid for by a new “stormwater fee;” The law was repealed after critics maligned it as a “rain tax,” but environmental advocates and affected residents are pushing officials to reinstate it.
Massachusetts: Repairing aging gas lines
series of explosions along natural-gas pipelines in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, Massachusetts, on September 13 killed one person, injured 25, and sparked several fires. The event has focused attention on delivery safety—especially in states with aging infrastructure. Initially, inspectors found that the pressure in the pipes just before the explosions was 12 times what’s normal: 6 pounds per square inch instead of 0.5 pounds; a recent report tips ongoing repairs on old iron pipes as the root cause. Families affected by the blast have filed a class-action lawsuit against Columbia Gas of Massachusetts for negligence. Massachusetts has some of the oldest conduits in the country, and the incident has drawn the attention of officials elsewhere who are also dealing with the problem of outdated infrastructure. The National Transportation Safety Board and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration have issued warnings to utilities that aging pipelines need to be replaced for years. But it isn’t cheap: New pipelines can cost more than $1 million per mile.
Michigan: Updating infrastructure to prevent water poisoning
Four years after lead contamination in Flint’s drinking water made national headlines, Michigan has adopted the strictest lead rules in the U.S. In June,
regulators finalized requirements to eliminate lead service lines by 2040. “As a state, we could no longer afford to wait on needed changes at the federal level,” Gov. Rick Snyder said in a statement. Under the new Michigan Department of Environmental Quality standards, public water utilities will have to swap out the state’s 500,000 lead pipelines, and cut the amount of lead in drinking water below 12 parts per billion (the EPA limit is 15 ppb). Utilities, which will have to pay for the work, say replacing the lines will be too costly and won’t necessarily prevent another Flint-like crisis. A big part of the problem there, they note, is that the city failed to add anti-corrosion chemicals when it switched its water source to the Flint River. The new rules do not require corrosion-control evaluations when municipalities turn to alternate sources. Gubernatorial candidate and former State Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer has proposed a replacing the state’s aging water infrastructure faster. Her opponent, state Attorney General Bill Schuette, led the investigation of the crisis that resulted in charges against 15 former and current Flint and state officials.
Minnesota: Minding mining
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is famous for its crystalline waters, evergreen forests, and moose herds. But just upstream in Superior National Forest lie rich deposits of copper and nickel, and mining companies are making a new bid to plumb the precious metals. Amid concerns from some residents, the outdoor recreation industry, and some lawmakers that the earth-moving could send mercury and arsenic into the protected area, the Obama administration
placed a moratorium on mining in the area in late 2016. The Trump White House has peeled back those rules and recently gave Twin Metals Minnesota (a subsidiary of a Chilean company) the go-ahead to dig on the lands. Another firm, PolyMet Mining Co., wants to extract copper and nickel in the nearby Lake Superior watershed. The issue has divided residents: Outdoor recreation outfitters and environmental groups are suing to overturn the decision. Meanwhile, mining interests, some labor unions, and a few politicos are defending the mines as job creators. Rep. Rick Nolan, who angled for the lands to be opened up (they’re in his district), is not running for re-election; both candidates vying for his seat, Pete Stauber and Joe Radinovich, also support mining in the area, as do gubernatorial hopefuls Tim Walz and challenger Jeff Johnson.
Mississippi: Rebuilding bridges
Failing infrastructure is a
problem across the country, but in Mississippi, it’s a full-blown crisis. Nearly 500 bridges are in such disrepair that the state Department of Transportation (DOT) had to close them—in some cases isolating rural residents. Communities and local businesses are pressing Magnolia State lawmakers to fix the deteriorating thoroughfares, but measures to deal with the problem have yet to gain traction. After the tax-averse legislature failed to pass a repair plan this past March, Gov. Phil Bryant announced that the DOT would immediately close another 83 bridges. Engineers and inspectors deemed the aging crossings unsafe for vehicles.
Missouri: The fake-meat debate
Missouri has become the epicenter of a fracas between meat producers and the burgeoning “fake meat” industry, a market that has
jumped 24 percent since 2015. This past May, the legislature passed a bill that bars makers of flesh substitutes from using the word “meat” on their labels. Backed by the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association and pork producers, the bill could stifle growth of a new industry, according to meat substitute producers. Columbia-based Beyond Meat, for instance, could likely have to change its name, and warns that the measure could result in job loss. The company, together with University of Missouri researchers, has developed plant-based burgers, chicken strips, and sausages that closely resemble real meat. Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown says the bill would do little to convince consumers to opt for the real thing. In late August, vegan food maker Tofurky, along with the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, filed suit against the state, arguing that the new law stifles free speech and hampers competition.
Montana: Land use
What activities—mining, logging, livestock grazing, recreation—should and should not be allowed on Montana’s 27 million acres of federal land has been a flashpoint in Big Sky Country for decades. This year, access advocates have 29 Wilderness Study Areas in their sights, but these untrammeled tracts are good candidates for permanent congressional protection. At the behest of state lawmakers, Rep. Greg Gianforte has
introduced two bills in Congress to allow logging and mining on the largely untouched areas. Environmental groups argue the lands, which total 690,000 acres, are worth protecting. At public discussions on Gianforte’s bills held in August—including one hosted by challenger Kathleen Williams—Montanans expressed a range of views on the measures: Some are worried about the impact on wildlife and ecosystems, while others hope for access for off-road vehicles and economic gains from diversifying permitted uses on the lands.
Nebraska: Expanding internet access
1.9 million residents are spread over 76,824 square miles of land, making it one of the nation’s most sparsely populated states. This dispersion presents a huge challenge in connecting households and farms to the internet. According to census data, 81 percent of homes in the Cornhusker State’s metro areas have internet access, compared with 73 percent in smaller cities and rural areas. The gap can be perilous: Many can drive two hours or more to reach medical care; a connection would allow them to use telemedicine for quicker diagnoses and earlier treatment. Access can also help farmers become more efficient and competitive by allowing them to employ sensors and other networked systems to monitor metrics like soil moisture and crop health. While competition among providers has hindered progress in some states, in Nebraska, companies like Cox Communications—which used a state grant to wire up a “ Wi-Fi bus“—are collaborating with regulators to address digital deserts. A new law signed by Gov. Pete Ricketts this past April created a multidisciplinary Rural Broadband Task force and authorized the state Public Service Commission to give grants to companies that submit the lowest-cost bids for connectivity measures. “Closing the rural digital divide is an all-hands-on-deck exercise,” says Gus Hurwitz, a telecommunications expert at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Nevada: Debating the fate of Yucca Mountain
In Nevada’s tight senate race, both incumbent Sen. Dean Heller and challenger Rep. Jacky Rosen claim to be the most capable of quashing a controversial
30-year-old plan to build the U.S.’s only permanent, high-level nuclear-waste storage facility in Nevada. Developing Yucca Mountain, a volcanic rock ridge about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, has been fraught since Congress identified the site in 1987. Continued concerns over groundwater contamination and the potential for spills during transport ended with the Obama administration mothballing the project in 2009. Now, amid a new push for nuclear power, the dormant program—which proponents say is the safest option for storing such waste—might get a revival thanks to a House vote and a proposed $120 million White House budget boost, both aimed at expediting Yucca’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission license.
New Hampshire: Maintaining renewable-energy growth
New Hampshire is at a crossroads in its efforts to produce more renewable energy. Under a
2007 state rule, utilities must include more green power in their mix of sources. The 2018 target is 18.7 percent; by 2025, that target will be 25.2 percent. Granite State lawmakers recently passed bills to goose both the solar- and timber-based biomass industries, but only one survived the governor’s veto pen. The failed measure would have quintupled the allowable size of solar projects that qualify for net metering (the practice of selling excess power back to the grid). But incumbent Gov. Chris Sununu, who faces renewable-energy advocate Molly Kelly, nixed the measure, saying it would drive up electricity prices—already some of the highest in the nation. Lawmakers did, however, override his veto for a law requiring utilities to buy more power from six faltering biomass plants in the state. But the Energy Justice Network and other critics question whether biomass should qualify as a clean renewable: Burning wood emits sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulates, as well as heat. Still, proponents point out, biomass produces far fewer greenhouse gases than fossil fuels: 18 grams of CO2 (equivalent) per kilowatt hour, compared to 840 for oil and 1,001 for coal.
New Mexico: Drought
The average annual temperature in New Mexico has risen about 2.7 degrees over the past 45 years, making it one of the fastest-warming states in the union. Climate-change-fueled drought has dewatered long stretches of the Rio Grande, withered crops, and forced ranchers to reduce cattle herds. A lack of planning by state water managers and government officials—
experts have warned of more-frequent drought for years—hasn’t helped. The parched conditions also have turbocharged the natural fire cycle; as of late September, 26 large forest fires had burned across the state. With the consequences of climate change at residents’ doorsteps, managing it is a recurring theme on the campaign trail. Gubernatorial candidate Michelle Lujan Grisham vowed to ramp up renewable energy development, calling for 50 percent of the state’s electricity to come from climate-friendly sources by 2030—and reach 80 percent by 2040. The efforts could bolster the state’s solar industry, which could be hurt by Trump administration’s solar tariffs.
New York: Restoring water quality
The Empire State has a lot of water cleanup ahead. According to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, as of this past August,
54 bodies of water have harmful algae blooms—rapidly growing nutrient colonies that can kill marine life and cause illness in humans. Fueled by warming waters, blooms lace both salty areas such as Long Island Sound and freshwater deposits such as the Finger Lakes. At the same time, industry might also be compromising the wet stuff. In 2015, residents of Hoosick Falls, a village in eastern New York, discovered the chemical perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in its water supply, blaming the nearby Saint-Gobain Performance Plastic manufacturing plant. Though the state sided with the villagers and set aside $25 million for relief efforts, the town is still waiting on an alternative source of H2O. Lawmakers are addressing the state’s overall clean-water issues broadly: They’ve passed $2.5 billion in funding to replace pipes and install new treatment systems; estimates from the state comptroller’s office, however, put the cost of proper plumbing closer to $40 billion.
North Carolina: Regulating coal ash
In the Tar Heel State, officials are grappling with how to handle a nasty byproduct of coal-fired power: the
toxic ash that incinerated carbon leaves behind. After a 2014 ash spill in the Dan River, state lawmakers directed Duke Energy to close off and contain all 32 of its North Carolina ash basins. But stored waste and chemicals such as arsenic and lead can still continue to seep into the waterways. ( Hurricane Florence floodwaters have further exacerbated the issue, breaching two containment dams.) In April, the state Department of Environmental Quality fined the coal company $156,000 for ground- and surface-water contamination from ash stored at its power plants—the latest in a series of fines. Advocates, including the Southern Environmental Law Center, however, say the state should strengthen cleanup requirements, particularly in light of the EPA’s July decision to toss 2015 federal standards and give states greater authority to set coal-ash regulations. North Carolina is also home to the world’s only population of red wolves, a species poised for a ( second) extinction. After hunting and other threats led the carnivores to be declared extinct in the wild, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced a colony in 1987. Today, only about 40 remain, and wildlife advocates fear that a new Interior Department plan to allow landowners to kill wolves outside their protected habitat could wipe out the rest.
North Dakota: Preserving air quality
Vast and sparsely populated, North Dakota has historically had some of the best air quality in the nation. Bismarck, for example, ranks among the
American Lung Association’s top five least-polluted cities. But a recent oil-and-gas surge is testing the state’s ability to balance economic development with environmental protection. In July, Meridian Energy Group began constructing an oil refinery about 3 miles from Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The company claims the facility will provide 200 permanent jobs, but a trio of advocacy groups, including the Dakota Resource Council, are concerned that the resulting pollution will foul the park’s air. The groups sued the state in July; the plaintiffs contend that Meridian underestimated how much sulfur, methane, and other pollutants the facility will emit, and that the state health department’s monitoring requirements are inadequate. The legal challenge to the facility’s permit was dismissed in September; other suits are still pending.
Ohio: Finding opioid solutions
The opioid epidemic is a top campaign issue for gubernatorial nominee Richard Cordray, a former consumer-protection official in the Obama administration. He’s
openly blamed his opponent, current state Attorney General Mike DeWine, for a 20 percent spike in drug fatalities from 2016 to 2017—largely driven by an increase in fentanyl use. Ohio has one of the highest opioid-related overdose death rates in the nation. But opioid experts note that there’s little an attorney general can do to aid treatment or stop doctors from over-prescribing the drugs. DeWine did sponsor law-enforcement training as well as sued drugmakers and distributors for downplaying the addictiveness of such meds. Through the state’s job-creation agency’s “Third Frontier” program, Ohio also offered $20 million in grants for innovative solutions, including a $3 million effort to develop “abuse-resistant” opioids.
Oklahoma: Reducing earthquakes caused by oil and gas development
Earthquakes in Oklahoma are up about 13,000 percent in the past decade, according to
U.S. Geological Survey data. The uptick coincides with an increase in oil and gas development—more specifically, the practice of injecting wastewater into deep wells. Several landowners and the Pawnee Nation have sued natural-gas companies over resulting property damage. But the case is difficult to make: While a new study published in the journal suggests injection wells can trigger tremors several miles away, and a Science 2015 report from the Oklahoma Geological Survey linked the wells to property damage, it’s hard to connect damage from a rumbler directly to a specific constellation of wells. A federal court recently dismissed a class-action lawsuit filed by homeowners. Current state laws won’t do much to prevent further damage: A 2016 measure allowed the oil-and-gas authority to regulate how much wastewater goes into wells; the effort reduced minor tremors but did little to curtail the bigger ones, prompting calls to further limit the practice.
Oregon: Curbing pollution to protect water
From sea to peak, Oregon is struggling with the consequences of climate change. Its low-elevation mountain snowpack—which provides crucial river flows for cities, farms, and fish when it melts each spring—is shrinking faster than similar reserves elsewhere in the West. The state’s saltwater resources are in trouble too.
A 2017 study by Oregon State University found that increased carbon pollution has spiked ocean acidity along the Pacific Coast, making the area one of the worst in the world for oysters, crabs, and other marine life. But even as Oregon launches a collaborative working group of scientists, fishermen, and wildlife and agriculture officials to find workable solutions, legislative efforts to pass an emissions-reduction program have sputtered. Supporters hope a proposed “cap-and-trade” measure, which would require the state’s biggest CO2 emitters to either reduce their output or buy overages from other businesses, will finally pass in the 2019 legislative session.
Pennsylvania: Figuring out fracking
The Keystone State sits atop one of the richest natural-gas deposits east of the Mississippi, making it a poster child in the national debate over hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Opponents of the drilling technique—which involves pumping sand and a
largely unknown chemical cocktail deep into the ground to pry open rock fissures and release trapped gas—scored a major victory this past spring. The Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that creating gas-releasing fractures that extend beneath neighboring property amounts to trespassing. Analysts expect the ruling to inspire a wave of similar suits across the country. Meanwhile, politicians remain at loggerheads over the issue: While a new set of regulations in 2016 gave the state the authority to institute their own safeguards for drilling near public-water resources, industry advocates in the legislature continue to fight further restrictions.
Puerto Rico: Preparing for the next storm
Puerto Rico is still recovering from the 2017 hurricane season, which saw two storms pummel the territory, leading to
more than 2,975 deaths—the worst natural disaster in its history. The local Climate Change Council says the island remains unprepared for the realities of intensifying storms, severe droughts, and eventual 2-foot sea-level rise that scientists predict. “Delayed decisions may cost human lives, destroy critical infrastructure, and damage the economy,” the council wrote in a 2013 report. Yet over the past decade, numerous fortification plans have fizzled, and a climate-change bill introduced this past January focused only on cutting emissions. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares is looking to the 50 states for help by providing more federal funding to preparedness efforts. He’s encouraging Puerto Ricans in other states to vote for representatives and senators who pledge to do so.
Rhode Island: Paying for climate resiliency
The Ocean State is a national leader in the fight against climate change. It built the nation’s first offshore wind farm in 2016; it created 15,000 new green jobs; and, in July 2018, Rhode Island was the first state to
file suit against fossil-fuel companies for climate-related damages like eroded beaches and the saltwater contamination of groundwater. (Previously, only cities like New York and Imperial Beach, California, had pursued legal action.) The nation’s smallest state has good reason to be worried: A recent Union of Concerned Scientists analysis warns that by 2045, almost 900 homes will face flooding from rising seas. Warming temperatures contribute to threats like drought and heat waves, but also could heat the oceans, pushing valuable cold-water-loving species like lobster and cod farther north. As the state awaits the fate of its legal challenge against 21 companies, officials are implementing the climate action strategy Resilient Rhody. These initiatives range from restricting and pulling back coastal development to restoring storm-buffering wetlands and improving emergency-response systems.
South Carolina: Monitoring oil cleanup
In December 2014, residents near the western South Carolina city of Belton
spotted pools of gasoline. They’d discovered that energy giant Kinder Morgan’s underground Plantation Pipeline had spilled almost 370,000 gallons of gas into a tributary of the Savannah River. While the company has repaired the line, petroleum pollutants such as benzene and toluene continue to seep downstream. Two local groups, Savannah Riverkeeper and Upstate Forever, have filed suit under the Clean Water Act to force Kinder to continue the cleanup. Their case received a boost in May, when the U.S. Court of Appeals denied the company’s request for a rehearing—though it plans to ask the Supreme Court to review the case. While local officials support the lawsuit, incumbent state Attorney General Alan Wilson has sided with the defendants; his challenger Constance Anastopoulo has been quiet on the issue.
South Dakota: Finessing fossil fuels
Fossil fuels are front-of-mind for South Dakotans. The upcoming
Keystone XL pipeline will cross the state as it ferries oil from Canada to the U.S. Last November, the existing Keystone pipe spilled 210,400 gallons of crude oil onto farmland near the northeastern town of Amherst. Residents worry that the new project will only increase the risk of future accidents. The Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, whose lands lie just downstream of where the conduit would cross the Cheyenne River, has vowed to stop it, while a trio of measures introduced by Democratic state lawmakers to regulate the pipeline industry have run out of gas. Meanwhile, the Mount Rushmore State’s congressional delegation is united in favor of ethanol. While the biofuel’s credibility as a clean alternative to fossil sources remains questionable, the industry pumps almost $1 billion into the local economy, and the state is home to the world’s largest producer: POET. In April, the EPA under the Trump administration granted fossil-fuel refineries 25 waivers, excusing them from a 2007 law that would otherwise require them to blend in proportions of biofuels each year. Industry leaders worry the move will decrease demand, and ethanol producers and farm groups sued the EPA over three of the waivers in late May.
Tennessee: Strengthening water standards
The Volunteer State is awash in water-quality troubles. Exhibit A: Two years after the state lowered stormwater runoff standards for new construction projects, regulators have
proposed more easements for real estate developers and transportation officials seeking to pave wetlands and divert streams. Exhibit B: Environmental group Tennessee Riverkeeper is suing the town of Pulaski, an hour south of Nashville, for the release of 30 million gallons of untreated wastewater; when the town’s infrastructure overloads during heavy rains, human waste can combine with runoff, overwhelming treatment plants and fouling waterways. Exhibit C: In eastern Tennessee, locals are pushing for the closure of the U.S. Nitrogen plant, which opened along the Nolichucky River in 2016, after a series of pollution violations. Riverkeeper and other groups say tougher regulations, strict enforcement, as well as infrastructure improvements are necessary to solve the state’s water woes.
Texas: Flood management and rural healthcare
Healthcare access is also top-of-mind among Texans, especially those in sparsely populated areas. About 36 percent of low-income rural residents
do not have health insurance, compared with 29 percent in urban areas, making Texas one of the worst states in the nation for the rural uninsured, according to a report from Georgetown University and the University of North Carolina. To compound the problem, 14 rural hospitals have shuttered since 2010. Residents must rely on urgent-care centers or drive several hours to the nearest city for care. Healthcare advocates, including Dayna Steele, candidate for Texas’ 36th congressional district, are vocal about closing the gap. Steele has called for the state to incentivize healthcare providers to stay in rural areas and expand broadband connectivity, which could aid in telemedicine.
Utah: Protecting public lands
This past December, President Trump shrank two national monuments in Utah: Bears Ears by 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante by about half. This past August,
a draft plan from the Bureau of Land Management confirmed that the removed acreage would be opened up for mining and drilling—precisely what conservationists at groups like the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance had feared. Beehive State politicians say that the monuments, both established within the past 25 years, are an unnecessary restriction on development, but those in favor of protection say the lands are key to keeping wildlife habitats and fossil troves intact. Currently there are five suits in federal court that challenge the president’s move. Those who want to open up the lands are “a very small group of people,” says Nada Culver, senior counsel and director of the BLM Action Center at the Wilderness Society. “It’s so hard to see this happening.”
Vermont: Landfill expansion
The Green Mountain State’s last open landfill, the 78-acre Coventry facility near the Canadian border, could soon become even bigger, much to the
chagrin of local residents and some of our neighbors to the north. The owner, Casella Waste Systems, has applied for a permit to expand into 51 acres of adjacent land, which would allow it to take in 11 million more tons of trash and stay open another two decades. But locals worry that the project will contaminate groundwater and nearby Lake Memphremagog, which provides potable water for about 200,000 people in Quebec. Casella officials say they will minimize groundwater pollution risk by double-lining the new addition and funneling any contaminated fluid into storage tanks, but Canadians who live nearby worry those safeguards might not be sufficient. This past July, a member of Canadian Parliament, Denis Paradis, urged Vermont regulators and incumbent Gov. Phil Scott to delay public meetings on the proposed expansion until the International Joint Commission, a body charged with resolving water disputes between the U.S. and Canada, can study potential effects on the lake. In August, officials agreed to hold off on granting the expansion, pending groundwater testing. Neither Scott nor challenger Christine Hallquist has taken a public stance on the expansion.
Virginia: Preparing for sea-level rise
Rising seas are lapping at states all along the East Coast, but the stakes are especially high in Virginia. Scientists expect levels in the Old Dominion to swell by at least 1.5 feet by 2050, swamping shoreline cities like Hampton Roads and Virginia Beach, and the 4,300-acre naval base in Norfolk. Since the 1980s, the area has experienced a
350 percent uptick in “sunshine flooding”—rising waters from high tides rather than storms. And March data from researchers at the College of William and Mary shows sea-level rise is accelerating: now 5.1 millimeters a year, compared with 4.6 millimeters a decade ago. Officials are deploying patchwork fixes like dikes and porous pavement (which allows water to sink into the ground beneath), but some coastal residents are resistant to what might be the optimal solution: retreat to higher ground with the help of government buyouts.
Washington: Taxes for carbon emitters
Voters here could make history. The ballot includes a measure to establish a carbon fee, a surcharge on most (but not all) sources of fossil-fuel emissions. If adopted,
lawmakers expect the program to raise about $1 billion a year for clean-energy development and other efforts to fight climate change. Starting at $15 per metric ton of carbon, the price would rise by $2 per ton of emissions each year. If Washingtonians greenlight the fee—which enjoys support from environmental, labor, social-justice groups, and local tribes—the state will be the first to adopt a such a scheme. Fossil-fuel companies have spent millions opposing the program, focusing primarily on its exemption for certain polluters, such as a coal-fired power plant set to shutter in 2025. Other critics, such as the group No on 1631, say the fee—which would tack 14 cents to the cost of a gallon of gasoline and about 15 cents a gallon to the cost of home heating oil—amounts to a tax that would hit low-income residents hardest.
Washington, D.C.: Doubling down on drainage
D.C.’s drainage is overwhelmed during storms, sending pollutants that normally would run to treatment plants into waterways that empty into the Chesapeake Bay. The overflow, which is worsening as storms intensify, threatens the region’s progress in cleaning up the estuary. In June, the EPA issued the District some of the most stringent
water-management directives in the region. The agency called for D.C. to 1) “immediately” reduce the amount of E. coli washing into the Bay; 2) create more “green infrastructure” such as gardens, vegetated roofs, and porous pavement that allow rainwater to sink into the ground; and 3) plant almost 7,000 new trees each year, 3,000 more than the previous guidance. “Most of the permits I’m familiar with in the other [Bay] watershed states don’t have these numerical requirements, don’t talk about trees, don’t talk about street sweeping, don’t talk about green roofs,” says Lee Epstein, Lands Program director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. He and other advocates say the new permit is an improvement, but it might not address the stormwater problem swiftly enough.
West Virginia: Monitoring natural gas
Natural-gas production has
increased fivefold in West Virginia over the past decade. Some lawmakers and residents worry that the state will repeat the same policy missteps with the natural-gas industry that it did with coal: imposing only a few regulations to protect water and ecosystems, and offering generous tax breaks that result in little revenue for the state ( the fourth poorest in the nation, with a poverty rate of 17.9 percent). A proposed tax on natural-gas companies from Gov. Jim Justice to fund a pay raise for teachers fizzled this past spring amid strong pushback from industry leaders.
Wisconsin: Protecting groundwater
Unregulated groundwater pumping by farms has lowered levels in 22 lakes and several streams in central Wisconsin, spurring an outcry from lakeside homeowners, anglers, and environmental advocates such as Clean Wisconsin. Generally speaking, overpumping lowers the water table, causing spring-fed streams to drop as well. Many of these waterways are also polluted. An influx of nitrogen from farming fertilizer has spurred the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to add 242 bodies to the state’s “
impaired waters” list, bringing the total to 1,124. In some areas, fertilizer and animal-waste runoff is making its way into private wells. In Kewaunee, Wood, and Juneau counties, between 40 and 50 percent of the sources are contaminated with E. coli or nitrates. “Literally people have excrement coming out of their taps,” says George Meyer, who headed the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources from 1990 to 2002 and is now executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. Meyer and other advocates say the state legislature and Gov. Scott Walker’s administration have failed to enforce clean-water rules and groundwater protections; challenger Tony Evers, who has a slight lead over Walker according to a Marquette University Law School poll, has called for strengthening water-safety measures.
Wyoming: Combusting over coal
More than any other state, Wyoming—by far the nation’s top coal producer—stands to economically benefit from the
Trump administration’s decision to scuttle the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which set strict limits on carbon emissions from power plants. The new rule encourages coal-fired generators to become more efficient but does not impose a carbon-emissions cap. (Wyoming is one of a dozen coal-producing states that challenged the Clean Power Plan in court.) While analysts expect the changes to prolong the life of a few plants, some point out that coal’s bigger problem is that natural gas and renewables now outcompete it. The black stuff accounted for about half of the nation’s electricity 10 years ago, but a series of plant closures have cut production to about one-third. More facilities will likely shutter over the next two years, according to the S&P Global Market Intelligence. Environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, say they will sue if the Trump plan, which is still being finalized, goes into effect. Cowboy State candidates universally back the coal industry. But at the same time, a new energy source is on the rise in Wyoming: wind. In the next few years, about 5,000 megawatts of new wind energy could come online in the state.
Update 12:07 PM 10/17/18: A previous version of this article stated Bill Holland’s title as “New Mexico policy director for the League of Conservation Voters.” It has been updated to “State Policy Director for the League of Conservation Voters.”