July 6, 2010

Tonight’s program is something of an Ecotopian potpourri. Over the past couple of weeks, a number of news items and announcements have come to our attention, and we haven’t been able to include them in the show. So tonight we are going to hopscotch the Ecotopian universe, with stories including a hotel constructed out of recycled trash, a bikeway made from recycled printer cartridges, an announcement concerning a lawsuit affecting northstate water, and editorial responses to the president’s handling of the Gulf oil catastrophe.

Listen to the program.

Northstate Water Issues

Listeners may recall that just a few weeks ago, we interviewed Jimmy Brobeck, a water researcher and analyst for Aqualliance, and he warned of efforts that are being made to bypass thorough environmental reviews by groups that want to transfer huge quantitites of northstate water to quench the insatiable thirst of the south.

 Here’s the Aqualliance press release–it reads:

 Federal Water Transfers Challenged in Court
Sacramento Valley Communities, Farms, and Fish in Jeopardy

AquAlliance, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, and the California Water Impact Network have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to protect the economy and the environment of the northern Sacramento Valley.

The Bureau‟s Environmental Assessment and Findings of No Significant Impact for the 2010-2011 Water Transfer Program reveals plans to export 395,000 acre-feet of Central Valley Project and State Water Project water to buyers south of the San Francisco Bay Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta. To replace the water sold to San Joaquin Valley growers in low-priority water districts, the plan would permit Sacramento Valley surface water right holders to substitute 154,237 acre-feet of groundwater to continue rice production.

The plaintiff groups allege that the [materials submitted  by the water purveyaors] violates the National Environmental Policy Act  because, among other things, it: …
–Contains a fundamentally flawed alternatives analysis, and
–Inadequately analyzes the impacts from implementing the two years transfer program.

The lawsuit seeks a comprehensive environmental review for the water transfer program. Repeated water transfer projects in the last decade have all occurred without the benefit of thorough federal or state environmental analysis, which would require the establishment of baseline conditions, comprehensive
monitoring, and the disclosure of impacts. 

The Aqualliance web site also includes extensive background material on the case and on other efforts to draw down the water table in the Sacramento River Valley.  There will be a public commentary opportunities, including a July 14 hearing at the Chico Public Library, 1-3 pm.  We encourage listeners to check all this out on the website, aqualliance dot net.

They also provide a link to this fascinating editorial from the Monterey County Herald, which challenges the argument that  farmers in the San Joaquin Valley need all that extra water being proposed for shipment from the northstate and elsewhere. It reads:  [The] Sky hasn’t fallen over water allotment reduction:

Let’s return for a moment to last spring, when doom and gloom descended on the San Joaquin Valley in the form of water-allotment reductions that, we were told, would bankrupt the farmers, idle the workers and turn the region into a modern dust bowl.

Perhaps you remember when TV commentator Sean Hannity, with ample PR help from the huge Westlands Water District, went on the air with a series of heart-tugging stories about how farms and jobs were being lost because wrongheaded environmentalists and federal officials were diverting “valley” water to protect insignificant smelt and salmon.

In western Fresno County, the bedraggled farm town of Mendota provided the perfect backdrop for photo opportunities featuring busloads of sad-eyed field workers supposedly thrown out of work by the likes of the Sierra Club.

Unfortunately for the recreational and commercial fishing industries and others with an interest in keeping the environment in balance, Hannity and other easily misled news operations largely missed the story about the dramatic decline in the salmon population caused, largely, by San Joaquin Delta pumping schedules that traditionally favored field crops over fish.

Well, guess what. Farm income did slip last year in Fresno County. By 75 percent? Fifty percent?

Try 4.5 percent.

The county-by-county annual crop reports came out this week, and Fresno County retained its title as the king of California agriculture, producing $5.4 billion in receipts.

“I don’t know how ag did it, but they did it,” said Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner Carol Hafner. “This is our third year of more than $5 billion in value.”
It really is not a mystery. The growers did it by relying on water allotments that had been hoarded, by turning on their own pumps and by raising prices.

It is significant that the neighboring counties of Kings and Tulare saw much sharper declines in farm income, 25percent and 19percent, respectively, but not because of lost irrigation water. Dairy is a larger factor in those counties, and wholesale milk prices plunged in 2009.

To be fair, it certainly was a tough year for Fresno County agriculture. A small portion of the federally subsidized water was indeed lost to the fisheries, so farmers scrambled to change crops and planting patterns. Some fields were taken out of production in order to protect recent large investments in tree crops, including big water users such as citrus, almonds and pistachios.

Times certainly were tough in dusty Mendota. Times have always been tough in Mendota. Almost assuredly, the income of Fresno County farmworkers dropped more than the 5.4percent overall decline in farm income.

But times are tougher yet along the docks and harbors of California, where the salmon harvest has been wiped out by a water delivery system dominated by ag interests aided and abetted by Hannity and others who wouldn’t want the facts to get in the way of a sad story.

Obviously the Monterey paper is more interested in fishing and sports than in the fate of the water table in the northstate, but the helps to rein in the notion that without northern water, the California Agricultural Economic Engine will grind to a halt.  You can access that editorial through the Aqualliance web site, and here’s the direct link at ecotopiakzfr.net

Gulf Oil and Global Oil ManagementOf great and continuing concern is the BP Gulf Oil spill, and we want to offer a sampling of editorial opinion.

From the Times-Union, Albany, New York, comes this editorial, dated June 17:  “Beyond the gulf, a new course” :

“The most telling words spoken Tuesday about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill didn’t come from President Obama but from an oil executive, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson.
“‘When these things happen, we are not well-equipped to deal with them,’ Mr. Tillerson acknowledged at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing.

It’s as good an argument for the President’s moratorium on offshore drilling as we’ve heard lately.

Some might say Mr. Tillerson was stating the obvious two months into a disaster that continues to spew upward of 2.5 million gallons of crude into the gulf each day. But many still needed to hear it, particularly those who want to believe, or at least assert, that the disaster could have been stopped by now, if only BP was more committed to plugging the leak or the President was more forceful, as if this was a matter of sheer will.

The reality is, the oil industry is in way over its head on deepwater offshore drilling, and so are we all. For too long, we have allowed the issue of offshore drilling to be reduced to just another political disagreement, as debatable as whether one likes the Yankees or the Red Sox.

What’s leaking out of BP’s well a mile underwater, what’s washing up on beaches and killing fish and other wildlife isn’t an opinion. It is evidence of the current limits of human technology. It’s a matter of fact.

Yet already, even some residents and officials in the gulf region are saying Mr. Obama’s moratorium, which suspends 33 drilling operations and holds off any new well permits, is too onerous, because it will only further damage their economy.

We appreciate how serious it is to shut down a source of livelihood for so many people and stop exploration in an oil-rich region that supplies a third of the nation’s needs. But just imagine how different the world would be today if, on April 19, the federal government had realized how inadequately prepared the industry was to deal with an accident, and shut down drilling. America would not have an environmental catastrophe, one that will take years to clean up, on its hands. The nation cannot risk another.

Mr. Obama was right to order a six-month moratorium. He should extend it for as long as it takes the oil industry to prove it can fix its mistakes and accidents — and to be able to do it in a matter of days, if not hours.

And Congress needs to learn the lesson of the gulf and move forward with a national energy policy that heeds the President’s call — not at all different from other calls we’ve heard for decades — to tackle our addiction to fossil fuels. A policy that redirects our energy, if you will, to more efficient buildings, factories and means of transportation, and to developing and refining sources of energy that don’t cause problems we can’t fix.


And far away, coming from the Anchorage Daily Statesman, is this story concerning British Petroleum by reporter Lisa Demer and printed in the mcClatchy Newspapers:   Is it time to consider barring BP from federal oil leases?

The federal government should consider barring oil giant BP from drilling on federal land or holding onto its existing leases, says a recently retired federal attorney who spent years dogging BP’s operations in Alaska.

“There comes a point in time where we say enough is enough,” said Jeanne Pascal, who worked for 18 years as a Seattle-based attorney for the Environmental Protection Agency. “Because BP has definitely turned into a major serial environmental criminal.”

Pascal said that BP has been convicted of environmental violations three times since 2000 – twice in Alaska – and that the April 20 Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico that sparked what President Barack Obama calls the biggest environmental disaster in the nation’s history fits a pattern of behavior. She said BP got off too easy when it was allowed to plead guilty in 2007 to a misdemeanor for a record North Slope spill in 2006. No individual was charged.

Scott West agrees. He was the EPA special agent in charge of the criminal investigation division in Seattle that investigated BP Alaska’s operations.

“The people who are making the decisions playing fast and loose on that (Gulf) rig – ‘Hurry up, we are over time, we are over budget, let’s take the shortcut’ – if they’d seen some of their peers go to jail for those kinds of decisions, maybe they would have said, ‘You know, my bonus this year just isn’t worth it,'” West said, referring to congressional allegations that BP cut corners to save money on the Deepwater Horizon project.

Both West and Pascal have been speaking out publicly since their retirements.

“BP keeps saying that they follow safety protocols and safety is their goal and health is their goal and the environment is their goal,” Pascal said. “But look at their record.”

That record includes:

-A felony conviction in 2000 for failing to report immediately illegal dumping of hazardous waste by a contractor at its Endicott oil field in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea. The punishment: Five years’ probation, $7 million in fines and civil penalties and another $15 million to create an environmental management system.

-A misdemeanor conviction in 2007 stemming from the biggest oil spill ever on Alaska’s North Slope. In March 2006, a BP worker discovered crude leaking from a corroded Prudhoe Bay transit pipeline – 200,000 gallons in all. BP, which admitted that its system for monitoring and preventing corrosion was inadequate, was put on three more years’ probation and ordered to pay $20 million in fines and penalties.

-A felony conviction last year for a 2005 Texas City, Texas, refinery explosion that killed 15 people, injured another 170 and devastated a community. BP Products North America Inc. was fined $50 million and put on three years’ probation.

Pascal said there were other ruptures, explosions and near misses over the years, plus a propane price-fixing case in the Midwest that BP settled with a deferred prosecution.

West said he thinks that BP made a conscious decision not to invest in aging infrastructure for North Slope fields with declining oil production.

“We kept hearing a phrase called ‘operate to failure,'” – a reference West said meant that critical systems and equipment were operated until they broke down instead of maintained.

The federal investigators in the Texas City case were “finding the exact same patterns of neglecting worker safety and environmental concerns to save a few dollars,” West said. “That, of course, indicated to us that it was corporate-wide. It wasn’t just isolated to a particular operating unit.”

BP insists that it puts safety first and is following up on what it promised to do after the 2006 Alaska spill.

“As we said at the time, BP holds its environmental responsibility as a core corporate value,” BP spokesman Steve Rinehart said in an e-mailed response to questions. “We made, and continue to make, significant improvements in our integrity management programs.”

Before she retired in March, Pascal specialized in debarment, a process in which companies are prohibited from federal contracts because of environmental crimes or performance issues. It’s time-consuming, complex and even when successful, might not prevent a company from operating, Pascal said.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, BP was debarred in 2008 as a result of the 2007 Alaska conviction, but the action simply meant that it couldn’t get any new federal contracts at Prudhoe Bay. It didn’t lose its state-issued leases or its ability to operate the field. The only contracts that might be affected relate to its sales of fuel to the military, and a different BP company refines the oil and sells the fuel.

“So it did not have any (significant) impact on its business,” Pascal said of the 2008 EPA debarment action.

Because of the Gulf spill, the federal agencies involved with BP – the EPA; the Interior Department, which oversees federal drilling leases; and the Defense Department, which buys the fuel – need to evaluate whether a more sweeping debarment is in order, she said.

Targeting the company’s executives is another possible way to make a tougher legal point, Pascal and West argue.

West said the investigation into BP’s 2006 spill at Prudhoe was at first aimed at bringing felony charges against corporate executives on the theory that they knew pipes were dangerously corroded and didn’t act.

That position seemed to be supported by Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Steward in a June 12, 2007, e-mail in which she said that pledges from BP officials that, “They had changed their attitude of aggressive cost cutting in 2005 and that they were changing how they did things” weren’t enough to avoid prosecution.

West is still angry that two months later prosecutors decided to allow BP to plead to a misdemeanor.

“Here we had a case where we had the potential to go way high. Even to the London headquarters of BP … and we’re settling for a corporate misdemeanor?” said West, who said his team had only begun to examine 62 million pages of documents that BP provided.

U.S. Attorney for Alaska Karen Loeffler, who headed the office’s criminal division at the time, defended the decision. “We knew everything that we were going to be able to prove,” she said. The $20 million fine, she said, “sent a very strong message.”

Pascal and West said that for a company the size of BP, whose quarterly profits are measured in the billions of dollars, the fine was minuscule.

“To me the message has been given to BP loud and clear,” West said. “You are protected. You are beyond prosecution.”


And finally, as we sample stories and editorials concerning the oil spill, comes this editorial from the Washington Post, urging us to put the spill into a larger context of a national energy policy: “Obama’s TV speech undersells how energy policy must change”

FROM THE Oval Office […] President Obama argued that the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico underscores the need for America to transition from fossil fuels. But even as he attempted to rally Americans by invoking heroic American achievement in World War II and in space, the president didn’t talk much about what could make such a transition happen.

The answer is that oil, gas and coal have to become more expensive to spur research into cleaner energy and encourage efficiency and switching. This could be achieved with a gradually rising tax on fossil fuels or a “cap-and-trade” system that makes utilities and others pay to pollute. The government could rebate most of the proceeds directly to Americans and invest the rest in energy research and transition assistance. When a price is placed on burning dirty fuels, market forces will drive the sort of transition Mr. Obama proposes.

The president knows this. In other speeches before and after the gulf spill, he has argued for it. Yet on Tuesday he only hinted at this and seemed to suggest he’d be open to energy legislation that doesn’t raise the price of carbon.

For that, Republicans bear considerable blame. To be consistent with both science and their philosophy, they should favor a market-based approach. Most on the national stage instead prefer irresponsibly to pillory the idea as a “job-killing national energy tax”; they propose command-and-control energy programs that they think might be more popular. Democrats with ties to coal or manufacturing interests meanwhile dilute the policy, demand payoffs to support it or shortsightedly oppose it. Legislators in both parties champion more federal spending for their favored technologies.

But the harsh political climate is all the more reason why presidential leadership is essential. Passing comprehensive climate legislation isn’t likely to be easier in the next Congress. As the president begins to push on crafting a compromise energy proposal next week, he’ll have to be more forthright on what true change will require.


Plastiki and the High Seas

Deep into the southern hemisphere is the Plastiki, the  catamaran constructed from recycled plastic bottles that is wending its way to Sydney, Australia.  At noon,  today, July 6,  in the northstate, it was 6 am tomorrow in the South Pacific, and the Plastiki was nearing Sydney at -22 degrees latitude, 116 degrees longitude.  The temperature was 55 degrees, and the Plastiki was proceeding at zero knots, suggesting the winds were pretty flat.  They’ve been at sea now for 109 days and have logged 6944 nautical miles.

Listeners may recall that we have conducted two interviews with Jo Royle, the skipper of the Plastiki, and we are hoping to have a conversation with her after the Plastiki lands in Sydney in a few days.

Meanwhile, we have been following her blog and want to read a couple of interesting entries–this one about a torn sail, written just a few days ago:

Just as the night really fell in; just as the off watch had finally drifted off to sleep, which is always tricky straight after dinner; just as I had made Mat and Max a yummy hot chocolate, the treasured last jar – bang!

‘Why is the sail flapping?’ Max said immediately, as I asked Mr T to come and help me. The head sail had ripped along one of the seams two-thirds of the way up, leaving us with a ‘flying jib’, flapping in the air.

It was fairly windy with a two meter swell running through, so Max bore down wind to ease the pressure in the sail, as well as limiting the waves over the heads of T and I on the foredeck.

On a normal boat bringing down a ripped sail and swapping it out for another one would not be such a big deal – but the Plastiki keeps us hot on our toes as she will only allow a couple of minutes without flying a head sail before she rounds up into the wind and tacks. Then tacking back is such a big deal. On the way from San Fran to Xmas [Island] it once took us 5 hours to gybe the boat back round! […]

Last night with Max on the helm – [several of us] ran around preparing the hoist of the new sail before dropping the one now flying in two pieces. The bows are so narrow it is tricky working two sails at a time up there. Smooth manoeuvres and we were off sailing again in no time.

An afternoon of stitching today, and we are now ready in case the same thing happens again.

 Jo Royle’s blog continues the morning after the sail replacement episode:

This morning, as I was cooking up some breakfast – using last night’s left-over rice, to make rice cakes, egg and Bill’s yummy dried Kale. As I was about to serve up, I decided that a sprinkle of cheese on top would do just the job. On reaching into the jars cupboard underneath one of the saloon benches, I was greeted by a whole host of uninvited passengers. Various species of maggots, the whole story of the evolution of maggots all hosted in one cupboard. Sharing the same 20 by 15 foot cabin space as the seven of us.


I quickly forgot about the cheese, closed the cupboard and served breakfast before sharing the treat with everyone.

We then got to work, boiling pans and pans of hot water, lifting every jar (about 100), out of the cupboard and on deck into the process line of the various buckets to be cleaned. First step to be immersed in boiling hot soapy water, next to be wiped, then scrubbed around the rims with a tooth brush. They were clingy little critters.

One of the jars of beef stew had smashed- there was still some chunks of meat in it, with the remainder of the sauce all over the jars below. My body shivers as I think about reaching in for the broken jar, crawly things all over it!!!

At watch change over Vern stepped in to save the day. He proceeded to spend about three hours ensuring every maggot went swimming. He then cooked dinner!

A tired bird joined us for dinner tonight, circling the boat for about half an hour, before successfully landing on the tri attic, putting any trapeze artists in the cirque de soli to shame.

We’ve posted the link to Jo Royle’s blog on our website, and you can learn more about the voyage at the http://www.plastiki.com.

And Some Good News About Ink Cartridges

Lemery Reyes at Newsdesk, an Australian website, writes that:

 An Australian national park just got a little more green: it built a new bike pathway with recycled printer cartridges.

The Simpsons Gap Bicycle Path stretches 10.5 miles inside the West MacDonnell National Park. The pathway was made with recycled plastics and printer cartridges. The national park is located in the central part of Australia, and is over 1,200 miles away from Melbourne.

According to the Northern Territory government, the project was completed by local contractors for $330,000 and is part of a tourism stimulus package.

“Here at Simpson’s Gap repairs and upgrades to the Bike Path Bridge are now complete, leaving us a safer bridge for riders with a great natural aesthetic,” said Parks and Wildlife Minister Karl Hampton. “In keeping with our government’s commitment to sustainable development, the bridge is made from recycled plastic decking, saving landfill, trees and ensuring a longer life with less maintenance.”

 “Every year more than 120,000 people visit the magnificent West MacDonnell National Park and by investing in our parks we are able to ensure visitors have a unique experience while we protect our environment.”

According to the Australian National University, over 80 percent of used toner cartridges are thrown in landfills. They also report that Australians throw away 18 million cartridges every year. Currently, there is a program called “Cartridges 4 Planet Ark” in Australia. The organization that initiated the recycling program, Planet Ark, released a research study in April about the continent’s recycling habits.

 “The research found more than 90 percent of Australians correctly dispose of everyday household recyclables but when it comes to recycling e-waste (electronic waste) such as printer cartridges, almost 50 percent of people are getting it wrong,” said Planet Ark’s Campaigns Manager, Brad Gray. “It’s really encouraging that most Australians recycle their paper and plastic packaging but when it comes to e-waste recycling we still have a long way to go.”

“Printer cartridges are complex items which are unable to be recycled alongside everyday household waste,” added Gray. “When we put the wrong items in a household recycling bin, we contaminate the entire contents of the bin and reduce the effectiveness of the whole recycling process.”

According to Planet Ark, they can also process and recycle cartridges. Other cartridges are returned to the original equipment manufacturer to process or recycle at a different location. The other materials kept are used to make aluminum cans or park benches.

“Many of the components that make up a printer cartridge, such as steel, plastic and ink, are reused to make new resources such as fridges, park benches, rulers, pens and more,” reported Planet Ark.


 Next Week on EcotopiaWe’ll be interviewing Dr. Kerry Crofton, who has written a new book about cell phone radiation dangers.  She’ll talk with us about the research that demonstrates those dangers, how to recognize symptoms of radiation effects, and how to protect yourself and your family from them.  She’ll be talking with us from British Columbia via a land line, not a cellphone!