Tag Archives: environment

TWIFF:Congress says it’s OK to dump coal waste in rivers & streams

By Christopher B. Daly

Yes, elections have consequences.

Near the head of the line of interest groups who supported President Trump in the election and who now want favors is the coal industry. In the first few days of the new Congress, both the House and Senate wasted no time in giving a green light to surface mining companies to resume their dirty ways. Both houses have passed legislation to reverse the “Stream Protection Rule” — which does pretty much what it says. But evidently, that regulation was just too burdensome for the coal industry.

Make no mistake: the pollution that results from lifting this rule will not harm the “coastal elites” who opposed Trump in the election. No, the pollution will go into the streams in Coal Country, where voters (well, white ones anyway) voted for Trump in big numbers. He is literally fouling their waters.

With friends like that, does the white working class really need enemies?

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Trump at a campaign rally last October in Pennsylvania. Photo by BU alum Dominick Reuter, AFP/Getty

 

 

 

 

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This Week in Fossil Fuels (6/19/15)

By Christopher B. Daly 

We take you now to the Vatican . . .

. . . where a pope who took the name of the saint who cared the most about birds and animals and all living creatures decided to take a stand on the moral issues raised by pollution, rampant consumerism, and brutal inequality. He is telling believers to forget about that line in the Bible about God giving man “dominion” over the planet. Instead, he’s telling believers to read the rest of the Bible and catch the main drift, which emphasizes humility, stewardship, and love.

Here’s a summary, courtesy of the Holy See Press Office, and here’s the full text.

Here’s the “lead” (in which Francis invokes his sandal-wearing, vegetarian, tree-hugging namesake):

1. “LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.[1]

–Uh-oh. What happens when the institution of the papacy flip-flops? Could be awkward for American Republicans. (Especially those American Republicans who expediently cite papal teachings on issues like abortion and birth control when it suits them.)

–Especially when the American electorate is moving the other way.

ELSEWHERE in fossil fuels . . .

–Batteries have long been the weak link in the transition to electric power. Could this guy have an answer?

–On the divestment front: add the pro-business MIT to the list of U.S. universities bailing out of investments in coal (and tar sands). Go, you Beavers!

–And here’s a series on coal-fired plants. Phew.

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This week in fossil fuels

By Christopher B. Daly 

To the best of my knowledge, no one in the mainstream media covers the fossil fuel business as a beat. So, as a public service, I am launching a series of occasional roundups to bring attention to seemingly disparate events that all flow from the world’s dependency on oil, gas, and other fossil fuels. From exploration to extraction to transportation to combustion, there are many steps in the process of using these fuels. I hope to draw collect stories and images about every phase and all the players — drillers, shippers, refiners, retailers and their many lobbyists, p.r. teams, and investors. I hope to touch on the current flashpoints involving issues like fracking and divestment, while also keeping an eye on the traditional roster of spills, blowouts, pollution, and corruption.

So, here goes:

–As if settlers from Europe have not done enough to the native peoples of the Americas, here is a story about the sale of land that is holy to the Apaches. What could be so important? You guessed it: oil

Despite these protections, in December 2014, Congress promised to hand the title for Oak Flat over to a private, Australian-British mining concern. A fine-print rider trading away the Indian holy land was added at the last minute to the must-pass military spending bill, the National Defense Authorization Act. By doing this, Congress has handed over a sacred Native American site to a foreign-owned company for what may be the first time in our nation’s history.

–Here is the early stage of efforts to clean up the latest oil spill into the Pacific Ocean off Santa Barbara. (Not to be confused with the notorious 1969 spill.)

–Big Oil objects to the safeguards sought by Obama even as he gives the industry to drill in the Arctic.

Protesters carry a large sign as they rally at the Port of Seattle, Monday, May 18, 2015, in Seattle. Demonstrators opposed to Arctic oil drilling were showing opposition to a lease agreement between Royal Dutch Shell and the Port to allow some of Shell's oil drilling equipment to be based in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Protesters carry a large sign as they rally at the Port of Seattle, Monday, May 18, 2015, in Seattle. Demonstrators opposed to Arctic oil drilling were showing opposition to a lease agreement between Royal Dutch Shell and the Port to allow some of Shell’s oil drilling equipment to be based in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

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Hey, Midwest: Keep your stinkin’ pollution!

By Christopher B. Daly

Those of us who live downwind of the Rust Belt states have been breathing their fumes since the early days of the Industrial Revolution. We have done a pretty good job (I know, I know: we have a ways to go) to clean up our own skies. Here in Massachusetts, we have a mix of nuclear, fossil-fuel, and alternative energies, and we have a comparatively high-tech economy that does not depend on digging up long-dead plants and dinosaurs and burning the carbonic residue. So, the last thing we want to do is have our skies polluted by your fossil-fuel plants.

Now, eight Northeast governors are asking the EPA to do its duty and actually protect the environment by cracking down on the Midwest sources of pollution. From the Times:

The East Coast states. . . have for more than 15 years been subject to stricter air pollution requirements than many other parts of the country. Their governors have long criticized the Appalachian and Rust Belt states, including Ohio, Kentucky and Michigan, for their more lenient rules on pollution from coal-fired power plants, factories and tailpipes — allowing those economies to profit from cheap energy while their belched soot and smog are carried on the prevailing winds that blow across the United States.

And, Midwesterners — While you are cleaning up your act, please do me a favor: Tell your industry trade groups to stop buying time on television to sell me on the virtues of “clean coal.” There is no such thing as clean coal and never will be.

Let’s grow up and move on. Don’t waste your time trying to cling to fossil fuels. The sooner you give them up, the better off you’ll be — not to mention everyone downwind.

Cough, cough! NYT

Cough, cough!
(NYT)

That is a power plant cooling tower in Kentucky. Below is a photo I took outside Xian, China, last spring. Believe me, we really do not want to sink to their level. The way to out-compete China is to pull away in terms of cleanliness, not dirtiness. (This was not a stormy day, either. Just another day in China.)

Cough, cough! Chris Daly

Cough, cough!
(Chris Daly)

 

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Fall leaves: let’s leave them where they fall

By Christopher B. Daly 

Ah, another late-fall day here in New England. Full of watching the winter juncoes arrive, harvesting the last root vegetables, and listening to the roar of the leaf-blower. Sure enough, where I live just outside Boston, Monday mornings in fall bring an invading army of landscapers. Just after most of my neighbors have started their commute to work, those of us who work at home bear the brunt of the commercial landscapers’ day-long assault.

I am not advocating a radical, tear-up-your-lawn, no-mow approach (although there’s no harm in that, either.) Nor am I advocating a ban on lawn mowers and a return to hand-powered mowers (although there too, I think we could do a lot better).

I am calling for a deep reconsideration of a practice that has become de rigueur here in the suburbs, but which our ancestors would have considered demented. That is the compulsion to remove every fallen leaf from our lawns, driveways, and walks.

According to an article in the New York Times, there is a growing trend (is there any other kind?) toward re-thinking the assumption that all leaves must be whisked “away” to somewhere else. As an ecologist could tell you, there is no such place as “away.” Everything goes somewhere.

Let’s consider the leaf.

A leaf is part of a plant that allows it to live by conducting photosynthesis, converting sunlight into energy, which fuels the plant. In doing so, plants take in carbon dioxide through their leaves and emit oxygen. In this way, leaves do an enormous amount of good for the planet and for each one of us — also known as “ecosystem services.”

So far, so good.

In this part of the world, though, most plants drop their leaves in the fall to prepare for the rigors of a snowy, icy winter in which there may be no liquid water available for many months. The leaves fall to the ground, where they form “leaf litter,” a mat of leaves that — if left alone — would eventually decompose and join the soil, enriching it with organic material. The leaf litter is the plant’s attempt to shape the environment in its favor, as for example, when a pine tree drops some of its needles to form a dense, acidic mat below that discourages other plants but favors more pine trees. (I suspect that almost every plant harbors a secret plan to take over the world.)

This is what brings some plants into conflict with some humans. The conflict is particularly acute between the deciduous trees (like oaks and maples) and the suburban homeowner. Suburban homeowners are, by definition, also suburban landowners, so they are involved whether like it or not in land-use policy.

Overwhelmingly, suburban landowners are putting their land to use in the same way: growing grass for lawns. They are, in other words, farmers who grow a single crop, which is to say that they are involved in “mono-culture.” Oddly, suburbanites devote a lot of time and money to raising that one crop, only to cart it away and pay to dispose of it. They do not eat it, and they do not feed it to any livestock (rabbits do not count).

Part of the expense in maintaining a grassy lawn is the cost of protecting that lawn from the leaf litter. If all the trees in all the yards in an area like the one where I live in New England were allowed to drop their leaves undisturbed, our yards would soon begin to look like the forest floor rather than a grassy lawn. The leaves in the leaf litter layer would overlap and smother most grasses.

Hence, the great fall mania for leaf clean-up.

Originally, most Europeans who settled in this part of the world did not bother with a lawn. They sensibly built their houses close to the road, leaving just enough room for a front garden. In back, most people would have had a historic_societybarnyard — a patch of hard-packed dirt between the house and the barn. Most of the rest of the land would be fields and orchards or it would be left more or less wild as a living resource for harvesting wood and foraging all kinds of useful things. Those ancestral New Englanders had real outdoor chores demanding their time and strength, and they could not possibly have squandered any time raking leaves just for the hell of it.

In the 19th century, the lawn made its debut, and in the 20th century, the lawn conquered millions of acres of U.S. land.

At mid-century, when I was a child, most suburbanites handled their own yard care. In my neighborhood in Medford, Mass., I can recall only one family that hired a landscape service, and they were the wealthiest folks around. Everyone else just got out there and took care of their yards, or else they hired a teenager to do it for them. People like my father waited until the trees had dropped nearly all their leaves, then he started raking at the point farthest from the street. He raked the leaves into a long mound at the edge of the street. Then he did what everyone else did: he took  some matches out of his pocket (where he kept them because he was a smoker) and set the leaves on fire.

For a child, this was one of the great rituals of the year, a communal festival of sorts, with great sounds and smells and the infinitely absorbing allure of an open fire. As children, we tended those leaf fires, blowing on them, feeding them with dry leaves, trying to build the biggest fire the adults would tolerate. photo-chicago-boys-raking-and-burning-leaves-wilmette-street-1955Yes, there was some danger involved, I suppose, but at that stage in our national evolution, children were expected to learn to handle risk, not to avoid it. If the tail of your jacket happened to get burned while you were squatting to blow on some nearby embers, that was a lesson learned.

Sometime in the 1970s or 80s, under the banner of the environmentalist goal of clean air, every town I know of in New England banned the practice of open burning of leaves. (Yes, the air is cleaner, but, of course, something was lost in the process, too, and that needs to be acknowledged.)

Which brings us to the present. Nowadays, a dwindling number of suburban homeowners continue to do their own gardening and yard work. More and more, my neighbors summon commercial landscapers (and not the kid down the block, who is too busy anyway). This brings us an odd sight: like soldiers before battle, the landscape workers, who are engaged in a supposedly healthful form of outdoor exercise, first gear up with headphones, surgical masks, and sunglasses. After all, they know better than anyone just how obnoxious the portable, gas-powered leaf-blower is, and they want to protect their ears, their lungs, and their eyes.

220px-Aa_backpackleafblowerThey need protection, too. The average leaf-blower emits up to 70 or more decibels of noise along with some amount of smoke from its unmuffled, two-stroke, gas-fueled motor. But that decibel rating is a figure for a single well-maintained blower. The ones I experience are often old and banged up, and the guys who use them often gang together forming sonic artillery three to four abreast. Motors roaring, they wave their tubes from side to side, like a sci-fi elephant.

If it’s wet, they just redouble their efforts, roaring longer and louder to try to move those wet leaves from here to there. If it’s dry, watch out. Blasting away with their jets of air leaving the nozzle at nearly 200 mph, the leaf-blowers move more than leaves. They also pulverize and aerosolize pretty much every other small thing on the ground: bird shit, mouse dung, mold, cigarette butts, dust, allergens, pollen, weed seeds — it all swirls together in a choking, irritating mini-cyclone of detritus. And, oh yes — if your landscaper sold you an application of a herbicide or pesticide, then some of those poisons are going up in the toxic swirl, too. No wonder the guys on the crew try to protect themselves.

Usually, they blow the leaves onto a huge tarp, which they haul to the street. Then, they use a giant vacuum cleaner to lift the leaf pile into the back of their truck. What happens next is another ecological crime.

They haul all the leaves away. In other words, they deplete the yard of a significant amount of organic material that would otherwise rot and recycle into the soil. So, the removal of the leaves seriously depletes the land of its natural fertility. This is clearly a demented activity. Why do homeowners let the landscapers pilfer this valuable material?

Then comes the kicker: the landscapers will be back in the spring to sell the homeowner a treatment with . . . artificial fertilizer! This is to compensate for loss of the free, natural fertilizer that the yard would enjoy if the leaves were left in place. This is the equivalent of a burglar selling you your own stuff back!

To make matters worse, the removal of all those leaves means that the landscaped yard has no leaf litter. That is, there is no part of the yard in which certain organisms can winter over and carry on their lives. Many beneficial insects depend on the leaf litter for food and shelter. Without it, the yard is nearly barren, featuring only the useless lawn. And of course, no bugs means no birds (unless the suburbanite also hangs a bird-feeder — another unnatural act; don’t get me started on that one!) as well as no toads or all kinds of other creatures that were here before us.

All in all, the landscaped suburban lawn is pretty much an ecological disaster. Too often, it is a wasteland of clipped grass and exotic ornamental shrubs, shaded by a couple of non-native trees like Norway maples. This is a high-maintenance, expensive, inefficient approach that alienates the homeowner from nature, exposes the landscaping crew and the neighbors to noise and air pollution, and impoverishes our landscape.

We can do better.

[In another post, I will try to suggest some ideas for bringing some ecological sanity to the suburbs. Meanwhile, get a rake and a broom.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Studying plastics in the ocean

By Christopher B. Daly 

One of the bedrock principles of ecology is that there is no such place as “away” – as in phrase, I threw that away. In fact, the Earth is a closed system. Everything has to go somewhere. If you try to throw something away, it has to go somewhere.

In recent decades, we have been throwing a lot of plastic into the world’s oceans. No surprise: it’s still there. And it’s not going anywhere soon. Most plastics are very persistent, and while they may break up into smaller and smaller pieces, those tiny fragments keep swirling around the oceans.

Another insight from ecology is that most situations present opportunities for

Plastic fleck covered with bacteria  Sea Education Assn

Plastic fleck covered with bacteria
Sea Education Assn

someone. In the case of the billions of flecks of plastics, it turns out that they can serve as a “home” for all sorts of microbial communities.

A story in today’s Boston Globe reports on research being done by the indispensable Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. All those new environmental niches — known collectively as the “plastisphere — support colonies of micro-organisms.

That’s not to justify the pollution of the oceans with persistent plastics. They create all sorts of problems throughout their lengthy lifetimes.

One highly visible example involves balloons. Many of the mylar and nylon balloons that are filled with helium escape from the parties where they were intended to be enjoyed. All too often, a balloon escapes and flies “away” — except, as we know, there is no place called Away. Eventually, those balloons come down, and a lot of them seem to fall into the oceans. Many of them stay there, snagging fish and gagging turtles. Others wash ashore and litter ourIMG_2339 beaches.

A few weeks ago, walking on a south-facing beach on Martha’s Vineyard, I started noticing just how many balloons there were. My non-scientific finding: A LOT.

 

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