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Tag: "environment"

The Pro-Coal Waste Party

[ 72 ] March 26, 2014 |

Republicans may hate national parks, but they love dumping coal waste into streams.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a bill that would allow coal mining companies to return to an old practice of dumping mining waste into streams.

House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, called it part of an effort to stop what Republicans call the “war on coal” and a “pro-growth jobs bill.” Triangle Republican members of Congress Renee Ellmers, Howard Coble and George Holding voted for it, as did Rep. Mike McIntyre, a Democrat. And Democratic Reps. David Price and G.K. Butterfield voted against it. The vote was 229-192.

Well, I suppose it does create some jobs to dump coal waste into streams. Of course, it would also create jobs to clean up streams. But the hippies would like that idea. So, no, let’s dump coal waste into the streams instead.

Air Pollution Deaths and the Globalized, Outsourced Economy

[ 30 ] March 26, 2014 |

The World Health Organization released a report yesterday showing that 7 million people died in 2012 from air pollution. This was 1 out of every 8 global deaths and twice previous estimates. These deaths are highly concentrated in Asia and result from two sources. First, women are dying from indoor cooking stoves in nations like India. This killed 3.3 million people in southeast Asia alone. Second, air pollution in Chinese cities is killing people left and right. That led to 2.6 million deaths in southeast Asia. The first problem is certainly very real and there are a lot of experts and NGOs working on cooking stove issues. The second is more interesting because a good bit of this comes from the outsourcing of American industrialization. Of course, Chinese industrialization is quite complicated and results from many factors, the most important of which is the Chinese state’s desire for immediate modernization at all costs. But it’s not like American consumers have no culpability here.

Americans used to die from this pollution. In late October 1948, a weather inversion hit the town of Donora, Pennsylvania. A steel and zinc-producing town for U.S. Steel southwest of Pittsburgh, Donora sat in a valley where under certain weather conditions air would stagnate. As it did so, it mixed with pollutants from the smokestacks belching pollution into the atmosphere. Normally, the pollution was bad but the winds would move it out of the valley. During periods of air stagnation though, Donora’s environmental problems, already bad, became a poisonous soup. Nearly all vegetation within a half-mile of U.S. Steel’s Donora Zinc Works was dead even before the disaster struck. On October 27, air pollution and weather patterns became a deadly combination. A thick yellowish smog hung over the town as people breathed in poisonous gases such as nitrogen dioxide, sulfuric acid, and fluorine. The smoke lasted until November 2. Despite heroic efforts by local fire and police forces, as well as the town’s eight doctors who worked night and day, twenty people in Donora died and another 7000 became sick. Nearly 800 pets also died.

That doesn’t happen here anymore. Americans rallied to pass environmental legislation, including several successive Clean Air Acts, to force companies to clean up their operations. But the response of corporations was to move abroad in order to keep on polluting. NAFTA facilitated this. The increased air pollution companies could emit meant profit. It also meant over 36,000 children visiting Ciudad Juarez emergency rooms between 1997 and 2001 because of breathing problems. Mexican federal spending on environmental protection fell by half between 1994 and 1999 at the same time that American corporations polluted the nation like never before.

Eventually much of this production moved to China, whether directly outsourced or to be exported to the United States as the U.S. stopped producing much steel. In January 2014 alone, the United States imported 3.2 million tons of Chinese steel. American corporate interests do not own these Chinese steel companies, but they do own thousands of other heavily polluting factories in the country. Recreating pollution is why companies move from the U.S. to China. They want to avoid “environmental nannies” as companies have called Natural Resource Defense Council health director Linda Greer, who frequently writes about these issues. The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing, a leading Chinese environmental NGO, released a report in October 2012, detailing the massive pollution by apparel factories that contract with U.S. corporations like Disney. The report noted subcontractors for Ralph Lauren discharge wastewater filled with dyes and other pollutants into streams and do not use pollution reduction devices on coal boilers, thus releasing extra pollutants into the air. Chinese people are protesting the pollution but their government has little tolerance for these protests, which pleases foreign investors. A recent scientific estimate shows that in 2006, U.S. exports were responsible for 7.4 percent of Chinese sulfur dioxide, 5.7 percent of nitrogen oxide, and 4.6 percent of carbon monoxide. Earlier estimates suggested one million people die in China from air pollution each year, but we now see it is much higher. How many of these people fall thanks to outsourcing? It’s impossible to know, but the answer is some.

How many of those lives could be saved with better environmental standards on products imported to the United States? American companies may not be responsible for all or even most of the suffering of the Chinese working class from pollution, but they certainly contribute to it. Outsourcing production means that we as Americans look overseas and talk about Chinese air pollution, but we are completely unaware of our responsibility for at least part of that smog. In a globalized economy and integrated world, it’s dishonest to separate out responsibility based around what is convenient for us. We hear that ideas and capital and jobs flow around the world, but labor standards and environmental standards, well that’s just impossible. Not only is that an incorrect assertion–it is of course possible to set global standards at some level–but it also serves the interest of capital, as we see the pollution happening across the globe as something totally disconnected from our lives and something we can do nothing about it. This mentality generates profits for corporations.

The Palisades and Privatized Nature

[ 58 ] March 25, 2014 |

I think one of the most telling environmental issues of the decade will be the question of whether LG will be allowed to build an office building in the Palisades, the area of New Jersey just north of New York and an unspoiled viewshed for millions of people driving across the George Washington Bridge. Four New Jersey governors, including 2 Republicans, are opposing the project.

In The Rise of Silas Lapham, one way William Dean Howells paints Lapham as both a man of his Gilded Age times and something of a uncouth newcomer is his attitude toward nature. Lapham believes the natural world is for any man to use for his own personal gain, particularly when it is Lapham’s personal gain. So he paints rocks with his paint, advertising himself in places of great natural beauty.

In effect, LG’s plans to build the office tower, openly articulated by the company as claiming the view for itself and its employees, is the New Gilded Age version of Lapham’s world view. Beginning in the Progressive Era, government began claiming

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the natural world for the public. Even if the actual people were often ignored in land management over the years, it became much harder for private companies to engage in simple land grabs for private benefit.

Today, we are moving into the New Gilded Age with aplomb. As part of this, conservative forces are articulating their true beliefs about labor and nature, beliefs often subsumed behind socially responsible rhetoric for decades. Will LG be allowed to engage in a Lapham-esque appropriation of the natural world for its own business purposes? This is a very important question that may go a long ways to determine the future of public lands in the U.S.

I’m Sure This Will Be the Technological Solution That Will Finally Allow Us to Conquer Nature

[ 96 ] March 25, 2014 |

Agriculture has spent over half a century fully committed to better living through chemistry, using massive applications of industrial fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides to produce enormous harvests. In the short term, it has worked, but the long-term success of this plan is far from assured. The biggest problem is that humans may try to control nature, but they can’t control nature. To borrow a central theoretical term from my professional field of environmental history, nature has agency and it pushes back against human domination. Specifically in this case, plants develop resistance to chemicals, forcing agribusiness to create ever more powerful poisons that weeds will soon again resist.

So the new strategy is biological engineering, creating a sort of Weed Genome Project to eventually create more effective herbicides. Which I am sure will not work in the long term, but I suppose at this point agribusiness will keep doubling down on profitable chemical applications until the entire system collapses under the weight of declining petroleum supplies.

The End of the Asian Forests

[ 23 ] March 24, 2014 |

The burning of Asian forests, particularly but not exclusively in Indonesia, continues unabated. This is usually reported on for the public health aspects of it since the smoke from Sumatra wafts over the rest of southeast Asia. That’s a huge problem, but of course there is also the destruction of the ecosystem. When I traveled in Sumatra in 1997, I saw some of this and it was mostly poor people engaging in slash and burn farming. That’s not the case anymore. Today, it’s big landowners burning land for palm oil and paper plantations. The method of clearing land is horrible because of the environmental cost to people’s lungs, but that’s not what I want to focus on here.

In the 1980s, as environmentalists rallied to save the last ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest, workers, who considered themselves environmentally responsible stewards of the land, were angry because of their lost livelihood. Of course, the companies were lying to the workers as they were already moving operations to other forests, but leave that aside for now. One point the two timber workers unions made repeatedly was that the United States was now exporting its forestry to countries with far fewer environmental restrictions on forestry than the U.S. By moving timber production to Brazil or Indonesia, we were dooming other forests while doing nothing about consumption in the United States. And that’s basically a correct analysis of the situation. That doesn’t mean that we should have cut down the last old-growth forests, in fact environmentalists were completely correct on this. But the saving of American forests in no way reduced consumption of forest products. The transformation of tropical forests into plantations for the export market is one result of this.

Exxon Valdez

[ 42 ] March 24, 2014 |

Happy 25th Anniversary to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Those were some good times. What did biologists discover from it? That the oil industry is horrible for wildlife:

Scientists had traditionally believed that oil basically had to cover an animal or embryo to hurt it. But the evidence they saw in Alaska suggested it didn’t take much oil to do a lot of damage. And that damage could manifest in different ways.

For example, oil under rocks and in sediments contaminated clams that sea otters ate. It didn’t kill the otters outright: Wildlife biologist Dan Esler of the U.S. Geological Survey says it shortened otters’ lives and suppressed the population for 20 years.

“The understanding that lingering oil could have chronic effects on wildlife populations was a new and important finding, and one that we did not anticipate at the time that we started the research,” Esler says.

Through years of research, scientists discovered another unexpected effect, this time related to fish eggs. The clue came from pink salmon, which weren’t doing well even years after the spill. To figure out why, Rice’s team exposed pink salmon embryos to tiny amounts of oil.

“We were dosing them with oil that you couldn’t see [and] you couldn’t smell. But we were doing it for a really long time,” Rice says. “And six months later, they had abnormalities.”

Rice says it was one of the many “wows” that came from his years heading up a NOAA team researching the spill’s effects.

But hey, I’m sure everything is back to normal in the Gulf after the BP spill and that we should continue right on drilling like nothing ever happened.

Today in the Sixth Extinction

[ 79 ] February 15, 2014 |

Are you having a good day? Well, you aren’t anymore.

Making Poultry Producers Pay Up

[ 36 ] February 9, 2014 |

Maryland legislators have introduced a bill to make the state’s poultry producers pay a whole 5 cents a bird to protect the Chesapeake Bay watershed from runoff from these incredibly polluting facilities. Governor Carcetti O’Malley has backed away from such legislation in the past, afraid of angering big business in his desperation to become president. Of course, the poultry plutocrats are claiming this will drive all production out of Maryland. But this is obviously sensible legislation given the enormous environmental impact of meat production on the waterways of the mid-Atlantic.

The Wages of Coal

[ 35 ] February 6, 2014 |

Plumer has a good summary of one of the nation’s most underreported energy/environmental problems–coal ash storage. Storing this nasty stuff safely is a real problem. Environmentalists have pushed for new regulations, but the Obama Administration has moved very slowly. What’s the risk of coal ash?

One big worry is a sudden catastrophic spill like the one that happened in Tennessee. But there’s also the risk that ash could contaminate the water or air on a smaller scale, too. Coal ash often contains a variety of toxic elements like selenium, mercury, and lead — although the precise amounts vary. These heavy metals can pose health risks to humans and wildlife.

The big spills are somewhat rarer, with the 2008 Kingston disaster in Tennessee being the biggest to date. But it’s not impossible: The EPA has identified 45 wet ash ponds around the country that are “high hazard” — that is, if the encasing broke, it could lead to a loss of human life. (It would be as if a massive dam broke.) Two of those high-hazard ponds are located at Duke Energy’s Dan River site in North Carolina.

The risk of smaller contamination is also worth noting. In its 2010 proposed rule, the EPA identified a variety of ways this could threaten human health: If the coal ash was deposited in an unlined landfill or sand pit or quarry, some of those toxic elements could leach into the groundwater or migrate off-site. Or liquid waste could leak into surface water during a flood. Or dust from dry ash could become airborne.

The environmental group Earthjustice has found 207 sites in 37 states where coal ash has contaminated the water or air in violation of federal health standards. For example: Out in Prince George’s County Maryland, millions of tons of coal ash from a landfill leaked into a nearby creek after two recent hurricanes. Out in Nevada, the Moapa River Reservation has alleged that dry coal ash was frequently blowing into their communities from uncovered dumps, leading to a rash of illnesses.

Not surprisingly, the facilities where this stuff is stored tends to be in impoverished areas and so whether in big or small accidents, the poor are the one paying the wages of coal production. This is very much an environmental justice issue, as much as it is an energy policy issue.

AFL-CIO Coming Out for Keystone

[ 109 ] February 6, 2014 |

For quite awhile, the AFL-CIO has tried to tread a middle ground on fossil fuel development. Understanding that its constituent unions had differing feelings on the issue and finding itself between the knowledge that it desperately needs alliances with other progressive organizations in order to remain a politically potent force on one hand with the demand for immediate jobs on the other, it tried to remain relatively neutral on the Keystone XL Pipeline and other issues.

That neutrality seems to be slipping as Richard Trumka has recently started supporting the pipeline and other fossil fuel projects.

The nation’s leading environmental groups are digging their heels in the sand by rejecting President Obama’s “all-of-the above” domestic energy strategy—which calls for pursuing renewable energy sources like wind and solar, but simultaneously expanding oil and gas production.

But it appears the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, won’t be taking environmentalists’ side in this fight, despite moves toward labor-environmentalist cooperation in recent years. On a recent conference call with reporters, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka endorsed two initiatives reviled by green groups: the Keystone XL pipeline and new natural gas export terminals.

“There’s no environmental reason that [the pipeline] can’t be done safely while at the same time creating jobs,” said Trumka.

In response to a question from In These Times, Trumka also spoke in favor of boosting exports of natural gas.

“Increasing the energy supply in the country is an important thing for us to be looking at,” Trumka said. “All facets of it ought to be up on the table and ought to be talked about. If we have the ability to export natural gas without increasing the price or disadvantaging American industry in the process, then we should carefully consider that and adopt policies to allow it to happen and help, because God only knows we do need help with our trade balance.”

The call came amidst a series of three speeches by the AFL-CIO leader pushing for more investment in energy and transportation infrastructure. Trumka did not specifically praise Keystone and natural gas exports during the first speech, at the UN Investor Summit on Climate Risk on January 15, and it is unclear whether he will in the remaining two. But the labor leader’s comments on the conference call were enough to peeve environmentalists.

I understand the need for jobs. But the AFL-CIO is just wrong here. Yes, members need jobs. And if the pipeline is going to be built anyway, then they should be union jobs. But there is also some moral component to the jobs that we create and actively supporting the jobs that are contributing to catastrophic climate change is not something the federation should be doing.

I’m sure that no small part of this is that unions like the Laborers who have most actively supported the pipeline are a lot more powerful than the opposing unions and they care more about it. So no doubt Trumka is feeling the pressure internally. But this just reinforces the belief that basically every other progressive organization in the country has toward American unionism–out of touch, inclined toward political reaction, clannish, and old-fashioned. Now, maybe unions shouldn’t care what anyone else thinks. Certainly that’s been the position of many of the building trades going back to their creation. But labor should also stop wondering why other progressive movements don’t take it seriously.

Regulating West Virginia

[ 19 ] January 21, 2014 |

Why doesn’t West Virginia have decent environmental regulations? Because the state legislature has to approve each one!

West Virginia imposes an unusual hurdle for its Department of Environmental Protection: Regulations it writes are not enforceable until approved by the Legislature, giving lawmakers influenced by lobbyists a chance to revise them. Last year a regulation requiring natural-gas drillers to disclose the chemicals injected into the ground during hydraulic fracturing was revised at the request of Halliburton, the giant oil-services company, to keep the disclosure confidential.

In recent years the Department of Environmental Protection has moved to weaken limits on the amount of aluminum, a mining pollutant, in state waterways. Last year a bill sought by coal lobbyists ordering the department to revise limits on discharges of selenium, which is toxic to fish and expensive to clean up, passed the House of Delegates and the State Senate without opposition.

“A lot of our elected officials think it’s political suicide to take a stand against coal or in favor of the E.P.A.,” said Angie Rosser, the executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, a conservation group.

Other notes from this excellent article:

1. Joe Manchin is horrible.

2. The largest employer in West Virginia is Wal-Mart.

3. West Virginia politicians are all-in for an industry that has left the state 49th in the country in median household income, down from 47th in 1969.

Pipelines vs. Trains

[ 65 ] January 21, 2014 |

As another oil train is dangling over a railroad bridge in Philadelphia, some wonder whether pipelines or trains are better for transporting oil. The answer from available evidence in the United States seems that the difference is fairly negligible.

Including major derailments in Alabama and North Dakota, more than 1.15 million gallons of crude oil was spilled from rail cars in 2013, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

By comparison, from 1975 to 2012, U.S. railroads spilled a combined 800,000 gallons of crude oil. The spike underscores new concerns about the safety of such shipments as rail has become the preferred mode for oil producers amid a North American energy boom.

The federal data does not include incidents in Canada where oil spilled from trains. Canadian authorities estimate that more than 1.5 million gallons of crude oil spilled in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, on July 6, when a runaway train derailed and exploded, killing 47 people. The cargo originated in North Dakota.

But then:

The March 2013 Exxon Mobil Pegasus tar sands oil pipeline disaster in Mayflower, Arkansas that poisoned nearby wetlands and killed dozens of birds, turtles and snakes. Exxon has never provided a definitive total of how much oil spilled, estimating 210,000 to 294,000 gallons. Mayflower and its wildlife are still struggling to recover.

An 840,000 gallon oil pipeline rupture in North Dakota discovered last October, but that may just be the tip of the iceberg. According to one news report, there have been hundreds of publicly unreported oil pipeline spills in North Dakota in the last two years.

A 27,000 gallon fuel leak in Utah last March that could’ve been much more disastrous if not for a beaver dam.

17,000 gallons of crude oil spilled by the Koch Pipeline Company in Texas last October.

In other words, transporting oil from Canadian tar sands is going to be terrible for the environment and public health of the United States whether it comes via pipeline or rail and both need to be opposed.

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