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Dow Dives 317 Points, Erasing A Month Of Gains

Jul 31, 2014

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The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost more than 317 points today, closing at 16,563, wiping out the index's gains for the month of July.

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More than 170 volunteers in the Brattleboro area have contributed urine to the Rich Earth Institute field trials. (Mike Earley/Courtesy of Rich Earth Institute)

Should We Return The Nutrients In Our Pee Back To The Farm?

by Eliza Barclay
Jul 31, 2014

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Abraham Noe-Hays, research director of the Rich Earth Institute in Vermont, applies urine to a five by five-meter test plot on a hay farm. Seth True of Best Septic pumping urine from the 275 gallon tank. A family of three can fill a tank this size in eight months.

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Let me guess how you feel about your urine: Get that smelly stuff away from me as fast as possible?

A small group of environmentalists in Vermont aren't as squeamish. Instead of flushing their pee down the drain, they're collecting it with special toilets that separate no. 1 and no. 2.

Then they're pooling the urine of the 170 volunteers in their pilot project (a quart or so, per person, daily and eventually giving it to a farmer, who's putting it on his hay fields in place of synthetic fertilizer. The goal is to collect 6,000 gallons this year.

The logic driving this avant-garde project of the Rich Earth Institute, based in Brattleboro, Vt., is that it's foolish and wasteful to part with the precious nitrogen and phosphorus that moves right through us from the food we eat — especially when farmers have to buy fertilizer at great expense for those very same nutrients.

What's more, founders Abraham Noe-Hays and Kim Nace tell The Salt, once our urine enters the wastewater system, drinking water carries it to a treatment facility, where the nutrients become pollutants that can contaminate waterways and cause algal blooms, among other issues. By that point, the urine has also mixed with poop and all kinds of other chemicals in the waste stream.

"One goal is preventing the pollution caused by peeing in water — keeping pee out of the waterways and protecting water quality," says Noe-Hays. "And we can also make agriculture more sustainable and resilient by returning these nutrients to the soil. Urine is an inherently local and renewable source of fertilizer."

The idea of "pee-cycling" has much in common with biosolids, or sewage sludge that's been transformed into soil amendment for farmers. Several wastewater treatment plants in the U.S. have been making and donating biosolids, which are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, to farmers to years. But the practice is controversial because some activists claim that even biosolids could contain harmful chemicals.

The average human generates 8 pounds of nitrogen and almost 1 pound of phosphorous in a year's worth of urine. And those nutrients come in a form that plants can use. Though Rich Earth is the only legally authorized and publicly documented urine reuse project in the U.S., many other countries — rich and poor alike — have recognized its potential, and are conducting their own research.

Urine from a healthy person is sterile. So using it on farmland is considered safe: Even the World Health Organization has guidelines for reusing urine in agriculture.

The problem, though, is that with the urine-diverting toilets, which some of the REI volunteers are using (and have been available in Sweden since the 1990s), the pee may get contaminated. So to kill off germs, Nace and Noe-Hays are testing two sanitization methods: pasteurization, or storing it for a month or more, which allows the alkalinity to develop over time and kill microbes.

They are also trying to determine if there are medicines in the waste that might wind up in plants grown for food. So they're sending samples to researchers at the University of Buffalo and the EPA to find out.

So far the only farmer using the product grows hay as a forage crop for animals. When the Rich Earth team measured the impact of the urine applied to her hay fields in 2013, they found that yields increased dramatically. And word has gotten around their community; they now have a waiting list.

"We have more farmers who want urine brought to them than infrastructure to do it," says Nace. "But we can only begin to service this region. We would like to have enough [scientific] documentation that it could be replicated at the state level."

Scaling up such a project isn't just a hope of hippie Vermonters. Samantha Antonini, a researcher at the Center for Development Research at the University of Bonn in Germany, assessed two rather complex and expensive technologies for turning urine into fertilizer and found that agricultural yields with urine fertilizers were comparable to those achieved with commercial fertilizers.

Europeans, and particularly the Swedes, are intrigued by the idea, she says. But "there's a long way to go before you can even think of using urine as a commercial fertilizer given the rather stringent regulations in the EU."

In the developing world, however, she thinks these systems could be especially helpful who don't currently have access to any sanitation. But so far, there isn't much demand for it. Still, "ecological sanitation" is becoming a bit of a buzz word — the wonky version of "pee-cycling."

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An Israeli Merkava tank near the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip border in southern Israel, on Thursday. The Pentagon confirms that Israel tapped a U.S. weapons stockpile for tank rounds. (UPI/Landov)

Israel Allowed To Tap U.S. Munitions Cache For Gaza Offensive

Jul 31, 2014

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Abraham Noe-Hays, research director of the Rich Earth Institute in Vermont, applies urine to a five by five-meter test plot on a hay farm. Seth True of Best Septic pumping urine from the 275 gallon tank. A family of three can fill a tank this size in eight months.

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The Pentagon has confirmed that Israel was given permission last week to dip into a little-known U.S. munitions stockpile to draw tank shells and illumination rounds for its ongoing offensive in the Gaza Strip.

NPR's Tom Bowman reports that the billion-dollar U.S. "emergency" stockpile, based on Israeli soil, was established in the 1980s as part of an agreement of expanded cooperation between the two nations.

A report from the Congressional Research Service says the cache of U.S. arms and equipment, known as the War Reserves Stock Allies-Israel (WRSA-1) program, can be used by Israel with U.S. approval. The last time the U.S. granted access to the arsenal was during the 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, CRS says.

The confirmation comes as the White House today said Israel must do more to protect civilians from harm following an Israeli artillery attack that struck a U.N. school housing hundreds of refugees, killing 15 and wounding more than one hundred.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest called the shelling of the school "totally unacceptable and totally indefensible."

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Parker Millsap. (Courtesy of the artist)

Parker Millsap On World Cafe

Jul 31, 2014 (WXPN-FM)

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Abraham Noe-Hays, research director of the Rich Earth Institute in Vermont, applies urine to a five by five-meter test plot on a hay farm. Seth True of Best Septic pumping urine from the 275 gallon tank. A family of three can fill a tank this size in eight months.

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Our guest today is singer-songwriter Parker Millsap, who recently performed live in the World Cafe studios with his trio. Just 21, Millsap is from the small town of Purcell, Oklahoma. He grew up in a Pentecostal church, and much of his music is based on that experience.

Millsap moved to California to intern at a recording studio before returning to Oklahoma to launch his music career. His self-titled debut album is out now.

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Parker Millsap. (Courtesy of the artist)

To Find America's Nuclear Missiles, Try Google Maps

Jul 31, 2014 (WXPN-FM)

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Abraham Noe-Hays, research director of the Rich Earth Institute in Vermont, applies urine to a five by five-meter test plot on a hay farm. Seth True of Best Septic pumping urine from the 275 gallon tank. A family of three can fill a tank this size in eight months.

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Earlier this week, NPR ran a short series I did on America's land-based nuclear missiles. One diagram in particular raised a few eyebrows: It showed the location of a Missile Alert Facility, along with the silos for 10 nuclear weapons.

Ken Albertson summed up what several of our readers were thinking: "Thanks for the map. Can you now publish the GPS coordinates. You've been real helpful, Kim IL Sung."

In truth, the location of these weapons is no secret.

The missiles and their command bunkers have been in the same place "for decades," Air Force Capt. Edith Sakura of the 90th Missile Wing Office of Public Affairs wrote in an e-mail. "They are near county and state roads that are public access to people. You need security clearances to access the sites; however, it would be hard to 'hide' such facilities."

Moreover, as other commenters noted, the sites are already visited by foreign militaries. Russian officers regularly inspect U.S. missile silos to make sure America is adhering to international arms-control treaties. (And the U.S. sends its own observers to Russia.)

The missile base I visited, Foxtrot-01, is right there on Google Maps.

When I needed a break from writing the series, I found myself scrolling around Nebraska and Colorado, looking for silos and bunkers. See how many you can find.

But here's a disclaimer: Don't actually try GOING to any of these locations. Heavily armed security forces respond to intruders, and very bad things will happen.

Geoff Brumfiel is a Washington, D.C.-based correspondent with NPR's Science Desk.

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