Archive for February 10, 2008

Search for 3 Workers Missing in Sugar Plant Explosion Stymied as Sugar Hardens

PORT WENTWORTH, Ga. — Search crews found no trace Sunday of three workers still missing in the smoldering remnants of a sugar refinery explosion last week that left five people dead and injured dozens more. Officials called off the search at sunset, but had not yet searched a part of the Imperial Sugar plant that was still burning and where the buildings were dangerously unstable.Sugar still burning in two of the refinery’s three badly damaged, 100-foot storage silos threatened to weaken the towering structures to the point of collapsing if the fire wasn’t extinguished soon, Fire Chief Greg Long said.

He said firefighters hoped to smother the silo fires Monday by using construction cranes to dump sand into silos. One of the silos blew up late Thursday, possibly after combustible sugar dust ignited.

Long said search crews had covered 95 percent of the massive refinery. While more bodies were not recovered, Long said it was unlikely company officials were wrong to believe three more workers remained inside.

“They have used diligence in getting me the exact number of people,” said Long, who knows the missing workers personally. “They’re confident in it. Unfortunately, I need to be confident in it.”

Long said the areas that had not yet been searched were on the first floor of a building near the explosion, including a break room, where upper floors had collapsed.

After shoring up the building, crews would have to squeeze into tight spaces among the rubble to search them.

Mounds of sugary sludge pouring out of the silos Sunday was solidifying, creating another obstacle to the recovery efforts. A firefighter said his search team had to use power tools to tear down a door glued shut by sticky sludge.

“As you’ve got sugar that’s crystallizing and running down the chutes, it’s like concrete,” Savannah-Chatham County police Sgt. Mike Wilson said.

Strong wind coming off the Savannah River made conditions even more hazardous for crews trying to prevent the silos and plant buildings from collapsing, Savannah Fire Capt. Matt Stanley said.

“We have a very windy day and a very weak structure,” Stanley said.

Meanwhile, none of the five recovered bodies have been positively identified, said Savannah-Chatham County police Detective Josh Hunt.

Hunt said investigators have asked families for medical and dental records and any information about specific medical conditions, broken bones or surgeries the workers may have had to help identify the bodies.

“Unfortunately, due to the severity of this disaster, it’s going to be a difficult conclusion to reach,” he said.

Seventeen workers remained hospitalized Sunday in critical condition with severe burns. Three others were released Sunday, said Beth Frits of the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta.

One of the critically injured, 49-year-old Gene Daniel Bryan Jr., moved his head Sunday in response to relatives, even though he was in a medically induced coma, said his sister, Penny Daley.

Bryan, a supervisor, led several of his employees to an exit but they had to flee down a staircase that was engulfed in flames, Daley said in a telephone interview.

“It’s hard to say it makes it all worth it, but I’m just glad to say he was able to help somebody,” Daley said.

Imperial Sugar was one of the largest and oldest employers in this city of 5,000. The vast refinery was a network of warehouses, silos and buildings eight stories tall connected by corridors of sheet metal.

Imperial officials have said sugar dust in a silo used to store refined sugar before packaging likely ignited like gunpowder. Sugar dust can be combustible if it’s too dry and builds up a static electric charge.

Sources:  News 4 Jax, First Coast News.

Oh, MAN.  I never thought of the problems that would occur with tons of liquified burned sugar cooling and forming an impenetrable barrier.

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The Touch, the Feel, and Now the Heal of Cotton

Its cultivation may be ancient—dating as far back as 5,000
years ago—but cotton, and its characteristically soft, downy
fibers, could be just what modern medicine has been waiting
for.

Believed to have first been grown in the Indus Valley of
current-day Pakistan and India, cotton is a favorite fiber in terms
of its innate softness, breathability, and agronomic abundance.
Nothing wicks moisture away better on a steamy August day. No
other fabric feels as naturally smooth and airy against the skin.
And now, thanks to research done by an ARS chemist in New
Orleans, Louisiana, this fabric basic is poised to help address
one of our healthcare system’s most costly medical conditions:
debilitating chronic wounds.

Read the rest at Agricultural Research Magazine.

Clothes that will stop hemorrhages, bandages that will promote healing of pressure sores, and sheets that are absorbent and kill microbes. All of these are in development.

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Rising Food Prices Intensify Food Insecurity in Developing Countries

Recent hikes in oil prices have raised serious concerns in low-income countries, both because of the financial burden of the higher energy import bill and potential constraints on imports of necessities like food and raw materials. Higher oil prices also have sparked energy security concerns worldwide, increasing the demand for biofuel production. The use of feed crops for biofuels, coupled with greater food demand spurred by high income growth in populous countries, such as China and India, has reversed the long-term path of declining price trends for several commodities.

Worldwide agricultural commodity price increases were significant during 2004-06: corn prices rose 54 percent; wheat, 34 percent; soybean oil, 71 percent; and sugar, 75 percent. But this trend accelerated in 2007, due to continued demand for biofuels and drought in major producing countries. Wheat prices have risen more than 35 percent since the 2006 harvest, while corn prices have increased nearly 28 percent. The price of soybean oil has been particularly volatile, due to high demand growth in China, the U.S., and the European Union (EU), as well as lower global stocks.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated that the high food prices of 2006 increased the food import bill of developing countries by 10 percent over 2005 levels. For 2007, the food import bill for these countries increased at a much higher rate, an estimated 25 percent.

Price Rises Will Have Greatest Impact on Import-Dependent Countries

The 2006 ERS Food Security Assessment report for developing countries projected a slight increase in food availability during the next decade, mainly because of improvements in Asia. This increased availability is projected to lead to a 5-percent drop in the number of food insecure people in the 70 low-income countries included in the ERS analysis. But, with the recent surge in food prices, prospects are not so bright for many of the lowest income countries. Projections of food availability consider both domestic production and food imports. Changes in import capacity have direct implications on the food security of low-income countries where food import dependency has increased because of greater demand stemming from income and population growth, as well as slow gains in domestic production. For highly import-dependent or highly food-insecure countries, any decline in import capacity stemming from rising food prices can have challenging food security implications.

Food Price Hikes in 2006 Offset by Record Crops and Higher Export Revenues

In 2006, higher food and oil prices resulted in an estimated decline in total commercial imports by the 70 developing countries. However, most of the expected impact of higher oil and food prices on food security was offset by favorable weather leading to record or above-average crop production, as well as higher export earnings of some of the low-income countries. Higher prices for copper and aluminum brought significant financial gains to some of the poorest countries, such as Zambia, Tajikistan, Guinea, and Mozambique. Increased construction in China, which accounted for 50 percent of the growth in consumption for copper and aluminum metals, prompted the rise in metal prices, according to an International Monetary Fund (IMF) report.

Strong demand growth for labor in industrial countries and emerging markets also helped offset the impact of food and fuel import price increases in several countries. In Central America, remittances (transfers of money from foreign workers to their home countries) grew to account for 10-20 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2005, supporting growth in consumption. Asia is the largest recipient of remittances, accounting for 45 percent of the world total; IMF estimates that remittances contributed to about 10 percent of GDP in the Philippines and Nepal. Sri Lanka benefited from the economic boom in oil-exporting countries because more than 80 percent of its migrant workers were working in the oil-exporting Gulf States.

But will export prices for less developed countries continue to grow in the medium term, preventing an erosion in terms of trade for low-income countries? The 2006 IMF Outlook report argues that prices of metals will decline because the reserves of metals are more plentiful than oil reserves. The price trend for agricultural raw materials is less predictable because weather-related shocks will continue to create annual price volatility.

Grains and Oilseeds Crucial in Developing Country Diets

Price increases for grains and oilseeds are of particular concern to low-income countries as these commodities constitute a large share of their citizens’ diets. Low-cost grains historically have been a dietary staple in the poorest countries. In low-income Asian countries, grains account for an average of 63 percent of the diet; in North Africa and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS—11 former Soviet republics), about 60 percent. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the region most vulnerable to food insecurity, grains account for nearly half of the calories consumed. The share of grains in the diet is lowest—about 43 percent—in lower income Latin America. In all regions, the situation varies by country. For example, in Bangladesh, the share is 80 percent, while in Eritrea and Ethiopia, both among the most food-insecure countries in the world, the share is around 70 percent.

The vegetable oil share of diets in low-income countries has risen as higher incomes made processed foods more accessible. For example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, the share of vegetable oil increased from less than 8 percent of the diet in 1980 to 12 percent in more recent years. In lower income Asian and Latin American countries, the share is now roughly 10 percent, up from 5-7 percent in 1980.

Read the rest at Amber Waves.

While I do feel compassion for the people affected in the developing countries, some of the food insecurities have less to do with rising commodity prices than they do with exceptionally stupid political policies (hello, Hugo Chavez and Robert Mugabe).

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In Texas, Dairies and Ethanol Plants Threaten Groundwater Supplies

Agriculture is booming on the Texas High Plains, but the prosperity may be short-lived. The Ogallala Aquifer, the region’s primary irrigation water source, is receding fast, and experts predict the demand for water will exceed the available supply in 10-20 years.

“It’s a huge issue,” says Vivien Allen, forage agronomist at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. “You can’t be out here and not be passionate about it, because it’s writing the whole future of this region.”

Allen is project coordinator for research comparing the water-use efficiency of various cropping sys- tems. Begun in 1997, the work has found that systems that include for- ages, especially warm-season perennial grasses, can save signifi- cant amounts of water.

In the last five years, however, dairies have moved into the region in a big way. About 485,000 dairy cows are now in an area that extends just across the borders of New Mexico and Oklahoma, and that number is expected to double in the next four to five years. The dairy expansion, along with five planned ethanol plants, makes saving the aquifer an ominous challenge, says Allen.

(Editor’s Note:  The dairy trend has been toward having large herds of cows and bringing the feed to them rather than grazing.  Unfortunately, the land in question in Texas is arid.  The cotton farmers recognized the problem years ago and have optimized their irrigation methods to 95% efficiency.  However, the dairies coming in have traditionally used corn silage for feed.  Corn is a very thirsty crop that requires a lot of water.) 

Funded by the Texas Water Development Board with money secured by a bill sponsored by Sen. Robert Duncan, the project involves researchers from Texas Tech, Texas A&M University, USDA and other entities, plus a nine-member producer board. The eight-year project just completed its third year.

Rick Kellison, a producer from Lockney, TX, is project director. He says detailed records are kept on various crops, ranging from monoculture cotton to forages for livestock. At the end of each growing season, growers get an economic analysis for each field, showing the net return per acre.

“We also report to the grower how much money he’s getting per acre-inch of water,” says Kellison. “It gives him a value of what he’s selling his water for.”

The most significant finding so far, he says, is the amount of water and money that can be saved by growing forage sorghum instead of corn for silage. Most of the new dairies moved from areas where corn silage is king, so silage corn acreage has been skyrocketing. Corn uses as much as 50% more water than the fully irrigated cotton it usually replaces.

But Texas A&M research, verified in the demonstration project, shows that some newer sorghum varieties can match the yield and quality of silage corn on 40-50% less water.

“So sorghum is more profitable,” says Kellison. “We think we can make a major impact if we can get this story told both to the dairies and to the growers.”

“That’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not going to get us to a sustainable level of water use,” adds Allen, and Kellison agrees. Both worry that continued dairy expansion will negate all water conservation efforts. Kellison points out that it takes 6,000 acres of irrigated cropland to feed a single 3,000-cow dairy – about 2 billion gallons of water per year.

Attracted by the region’s low human population and inexpensive land, the dairies moved in with encouragement from municipalities wanting to bolster a sagging rural economy. Kellison says the dairymen he knows are sophisticated, knowledgeable businessmen who don’t want to cause problems.

“But I don’t know that they got all the information they might have needed before they relocated here as far as the amount of water that was available,” he says.

Allen believes the ethanol plants are a mistake, too. They’re being built largely to process corn shipped in from other states. Much of the corn consumed by regional feedlots has traditionally come from the Midwest. But high corn and fuel prices are testing the economics of shipped-in grain and encouraging local production. With three nearby markets – dairies, feedlots and ethanol plants – she fears the transition from cotton to corn will continue.

“It’s pushing the incentive in the wrong direction,” says Allen. “We’ve got to have incentives to save water.”

While agriculture’s future on the Texas plains looks cloudy, Allen sees reason for optimism in the trend back to grazing. If the dairy expansion can be curtailed and enough land can be put back into grass, it might save enough water to permit some cropping to continue indefinitely. But she foresees it being limited to the best land and the best crop genetics, using the most efficient irrigation systems.

If the region is able to solve its problems, Allen figures it’ll be the “poster child” for other areas facing similar situations.

“The issues of water, and now energy and water, go hand in hand,” she says. “And the issues are so profound out here, if we can find solutions, we’ll be the place the rest of the world looks to for answers. But we cannot continue as we are right now; it isn’t going to happen.”

It would seem to make a lot more economic sense to build ethanol plants where there is a nearby source of corn that wouldn’t have to be shipped long distances and that has a climate with adequate rainfall to support its growth.

Source: Hay and Forage Grower

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