American notes, Aug 15

American notes is a weekly round-up of environmental news, views and tidbits from around the US – brought to you this week by Chris Agass.

A strong gust of wind: America’s wind-energy industry declared it had reached a new milestone this week, having installed enough capacity to power 13 million homes. The achievement is largely thanks to a surge in new wind farms coming online as developers rush to complete projects before the possible expiration of the government’s crucial production tax credit (PTC) – an investment incentive for renewables – at the end of the year. A new report from the US Department of Energy said America was the second fastest growing wind power market, behind China, in 2011 and found that wind contributes more than 10% of total electricity generation in six states and provides more than 3% of the country’s total electricity supply. But the study also noted clouds ahead. “Behind these positive headline numbers, the domestic wind industry supply chain is currently facing severe pressure, due to uncertain prospects after 2012,” said Ryan Wiser, staff scientist at Berkeley Lab and co-author of the report.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney recently confirmed that, if elected, he would not extend the PTC when it lapses at the end of the year. And with declining profit margins and increasing concern over manufacturing capacity, the current gust could soon pass and US wind energy forced onto the backburner.

Chevron blaze: A federal investigation into the Chevron oil refinery fire is questioning why possible pipe corrosion was missed by inspectors during an audit of the facility late last year. That inspection did lead Chevron to replace an old pipe – but not the one which caught fire last week, sending plumes of black smoke over the San Francisco Bay and causing thousands to seek medical attention in one of the worst US refinery fires in recent years. A dozen workers were engulfed by vapour and narrowly escaped injury when it ignited, investigators have said.

The incident has also pushed up fuel prices in the area, including in the city of San Francisco, located 10 miles to the south. The pressure is now on to establish the root cause of the accident and how it could have been prevented.

Ash pond set to close: Pennsylvania’s eerie azure coal-ash pond, known as “little blue” and once earmarked for tourism development, is being closed down by state authorities on environmental health grounds. Despite its scenic value, the pond – situated just south of the Ohio River – is said to be a public health hazard due to the waste ash impounded here. Environmentalists backed the decision, saying it was the first time the authorities had taken aggressive action over such a facility. But the larger question of how the United States should deal with its ash from coal plants – at 140 million tonnes a year, one of the nation’s largest waste streams – is still unanswered, with regulations stalled at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Hungry bears: A Colorado shop had an unexpected visitor when a black bear broke in and stole some candy in what has been dubbed a case of “cookie cannibalism”.  Meanwhile in Norway, a family of bears destroyed a cabin and drank 100 cans of beer.  Bear encounters have been three times more common than normal in some parts of the US this year. What’s going on? Are these animals getting over confident? Feeling mischievous? No, they’re just hungry, says Grist (which also has footage of the looting). With the increasing droughts and heatwaves, regular bear food is getting scarcer. Expect more shoplifting.

Curiosity on Mars: And, in the latest update on Nasa’s Mars expedition, here’s a colour-enhanced view of the Curiosity rover on the planet’s surface. The image was taken by Nasa’s high resolution imaging satellite as it flew overhead.