Archive for the ‘environment’ Category

On being peaceful but not pushovers in a Trump Administration

January 20, 2017

I live in downtown DC and have my windows open this Inauguration Day, and I can hear the whirring of helicopter blades ebb and flow as they circle back and forth to monitor protestors. The pops of flash bangs thrown by the police. Sirens have been breezing past all morning and afternoon. I know most of the protests in DC were peaceful, but the one outside my door unfortunately was not.

I have had a lot of ideas about what to write re: Trump, but this seems top of my mind for me right now: Let’s keep our protests against Trump civil. Throwing rocks at police, breaking car windows, and lighting trash cans on fire in the middle of the street threaten to feed Trump’s desire to show how terrible the country is. By lighting that match, folks are quite literally fueling the fire that feeds into the narrative that Trump is spewing to the public, and we don’t need to be doing him any favors. 

It’s not just that protest downtown that count my eye today. I saw an article in The Washington Post today about a 10-year-old boy who was holding a sign with a picture of an aborted fetus, handing out anti-abortion flyers, who was shoved and taunted by protestors. His dad brought him to DC. An anti-Trump protestor ran over and comforted him, saying she didn’t want his experience in DC only to involve hate. What will this impressionable boy leave DC thinking? That those liberal protestors are horrible and cruel, and he is even more confident and resolute in fighting their agenda? That Trump is right about them? These protestors don’t define all protestors we’ll see this weekend, but how can you carry signs that profanely decry Trump as a monster and then adopt his hateful bullying tactics in the next step?

I know not everyone believes in peaceful protest. I know that liberals have been criticized for bringing knives to gun fights, told they are too soft and not willing to do whatever it takes to win. I don’t think liberals can always take the high road, so to speak, if we want to protect progress.

There’s a lot to be angry about as the next administration and Congressional majorities threaten to take away the Affordable Care Act that has helped the poor, the elderly, the extremely sick; to deport 11 million immigrants, some of whom have called the US home for most or all of their lives; to put more guns in schools; to toss violence against women away as unimportant.

Already, the new administration has scrubbed the White House website of pages relating to climate change and LGBT rights. As we watch the administration eliminate the environment and equality as priorities of the president, and as we anticipate further gutting of issues we think are crucial and important, we cannot be pushovers if we want to preserve the progress we’ve made and still can make. We cannot be silent. We cannot do nothing. But the foundation of our fight cannot be violence, unless we want to set that as a precedent – which I sure hope we don’t want to do.


Teen Mom 2: Coal mining, child support, and self-doubt

January 20, 2012

Where to begin this week with Teen Mom — coal mining? Child support? Jenelle’s ability to somehow convince everyone in her life that her often delusional perspective makes total sense? Let’s take these topics on, inverted pyramid-style.

Teen pregnancy, class, and coal mining 

I never thought I’d see the day when two of the topics that really interest me — teen pregnancy and coal mining — would intersect, but this episode made subtle mention of them. Leah briefly mentions that her husband, Corey, is taking a coal mining certification test. Later, Corey makes a quick remark about spending his days working in a coal mine.

Leah and Corey live in Elkview, West Virginia, a city surrounded by coal mines that sit just an hour and a half from Raleigh, West Virginia, where the Upper Big Branch mine disaster killed 29 coal miners in 2010. When mining companies are lax about following — or in some cases blatantly ignore — safety regulations because they want to maximize profit, coal miners are put in extreme danger.

The job already puts coal miners at increased risk for health problems such as black lung, not to mention the higher rates of heart, lung, and kidney disease found in those who live in mining communities.

I wonder how much of Corey’s decision was based on his own socioeconomic standing. The Charleston area’s unemployment rate has steadily been decreasing, dropping from 7.6 percent in June 2011 to 6.4 percent in November 2011, but Corey is also limited in his job search because he has a high school education and needs a full-time, decent-paying job because he has a family to support — and coal mining jobs have an average starting salary of $60,000 per year. That’s quite a luring paycheck for someone with a family and no college education.

With 17.8 percent of West Virginians living below the poverty level — higher than the national average of 14.3 percent — residents are already at a disadvantage class-wise. The percentage of people with a high school diploma is 3 percent below the national average, with the percentage of people with a bachelor’s degree 10.4 percent lower than the national average. Born into this socioeconomic scenario, teens like Corey and Leah would have to work harder than many to move above these statistics. Add two children into the mix, and Corey likely sees coal mining as one of his only options — which is an unfortunate predicament considering how dangerous it is.

It’s this cycle that keeps low-income people in coal mines, putting their health and safety at higher risk than higher income people who can afford a college education that won’t leave them in the coal mines (they’ll have equally or more lucrative career options with less danger to their health and safety). I know Leah gets some type of compensation for the show, so I’d be interested to know how that all works and to hear his motivation for choosing this job.

Jo and child support

This argument is a he-said, she-said battle. Kailyn says that Jo isn’t around when Isaac visits him, and that Jo wants to split Isaac’s expenses right down the middle — something she thinks is unfair given their unequal incomes and the fact that Jo still lives at home with his parents. Jo thinks that Kailyn is trying to get Jo to support her — claiming that she wants to live off him and the government, refusing to get a better job because she wants to work with her boyfriend.

I’m not sure what the arrangement was, but Kailyn isn’t in the wrong to formally ask for child support. They’ve had trouble in the past coming to verbal agreements when it comes to custody and had to go to court for that, and Kailyn seems to be struggling even with nonprofit assistance with her housing. Jo isn’t supporting Kailyn, but providing her with money to feed, clothe, shelter, and provide for Isaac — costs they should be splitting down the middle anyway.

And does anyone else take issue with Jo just devolving to call Kailyn a bitch whenever he isn’t getting his way? She’s a bitch, a piece of shit, etc., always being called these things in front of their son — it just makes me cringe.

Jenelle’s running mouth

As an aside, does anyone else notice that Jenelle speaks so assuredly that everyone around her just nods their head, agreeing that her logic makes sense, when really she is just spouting bullshit? I think I’ve heard her say that she needs to “get established” and “establish herself” about 974 times ever since her episode of 16 and Pregnant, and I still have no idea what it means.

It’s very peculiar, literally watching someone deceive themselves on camera — watching a teenager talk pretty maturely as if she knows everything about the world but then lives as that immature, still-learning young person who only seems like she actually knows what she’s talking about. Having the knowledge — yes, I need to go to school and get a job and stay away from my deadbeat boyfriend — to create a formula for success, but completely not listening to her own advice.

I think I find it fascinating because I have a tendency to try and find assurance in my own decisions by talking to other people, explaining my thought process and the reasons why I did something in an effort to really convince myself — rather than them  — that my decisions were the right ones. I think people especially do this when they know deep down they’re making poor decisions, but they want to display a confident exterior so people won’t question or challenge these poor decisions.

Massey kept 2 sets of safety records, hid hazards from gov’t

June 29, 2011

New information regarding the mine explosion that killed 29 coal miners at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia details how mine operator Massey Energy kept separate sets of safety records, some entryways and tunnels weren’t treated for excessive coal dust because they were too small to fit the equipment needed to do so, and readings taken at the mine dispel Massey’s claim that a sudden, natural burst of Methane caused the explosion.

NPR reports:

Mine owner Massey Energy kept two sets of records that chronicled safety problems. One internal set of production reports detailed those problems and how they delayed coal production. But the other records, which are reviewed by federal mine safety inspectors and required by federal law, failed to mention the same safety hazards. Some of the hazards that were not disclosed are identical to those believed to have contributed to the explosion.

Massey needs to be held responsible for these deceptions — they intentionally hid from safety inspectors that their mining operations were hazardous, and this led to the deaths of 29 people. Coal is dangerous not only to the environment, but to the coal miners for this very reason — people like Massey’s former CEO Don Blankenship are so obsessed with profits that they’ll stop at nothing to produce as much coal as possible with little regard to the consequences.

Michele Bachmann vows to axe EPA if elected president

June 14, 2011

You know what would be a great idea? Axing the Environmental Protection Agency. Because voters don’t really like clean water or air, anyway.

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann promised to eliminate the “job killing federal agency” if elected president in 2012, playing off the misconceptions that (1) the EPA’s only job is to try to regulate carbon dioxide and (2) since global warming is a big hoax, the EPA really isn’t necessary. So without the EPA, who exactly would ensure that drinking water is safe or that toxic waste is properly disposed of?

Does anyone actually think that without the EPA, polluters would simply self-regulate and voluntarily take steps to reduce pollution? That they would be more concerned with human health than their own profits and wouldn’t exceed EPA pollutant levels without the government checking in on them? And it’s not just about regulating carbon dioxide, which some people think is harmless to the environment — it’s lead, it’s arsenic, it’s radiation, it’s acid rain, it’s nitrous oxide, it’s volatile organic compounds, it’s countless toxins that have been proved hazardous to our health.

People like Bachmann want to frame environmental issues only in terms of climate change so that climate change skeptics become environmental skeptics. But by attacking the EPA as a whole, Bachmann is playing a risky hand — people might be skeptical of climate change, but people also want safe drinking water, clean air, and protection from hazardous chemicals. Suggest putting those in jeopardy, and you’ll lose support from all sides of the political spectrum.

VegWeek discounts are disappointing portrayal of vegetarian options in DC

April 19, 2011

This week is VegWeek, which is a great concept in theory — meat-eaters pledge to go meatless for a week, and restaurants offer discounts so meat-eaters can see that eating vegetarian is delicious and not really much different than the food they eat now. But looking over the VegWeek specials in the DC area, I’m disappointed.

There are only about 10 discounts available, and a few of those are for cooking classes and not restaurants. And even then, a few are dessert-oriented. I think this unfortunately reflects how a lot of people feel about vegetarianism — that if you’re vegetarian you have to eat at specialized vegetarian, vegan restaurants, or if you want to eat something without meat, it’ll have to be a dessert because, well, how can you eat meals without meat?!

It’s great to get traffic to vegan-oriented and vegetarian-oriented restaurants to show meat-eaters that meals can be delicious with meat or animal products, don’t get me wrong. But vegetarians and vegans don’t live in a bubble, and you don’t have to sacrifice being social and going to “regular” restaurants just because you choose not to eat meat. Sure, you’ve got to be more selective — when everyone wants to chip in for chicken wings or nachos, you might have to politely decline or suggest something more veg-friendly — but it’s not impossible.

I like the idea of discounts on vegetarian and vegan food, but I just wish more restaurants were participating. I don’t want people to look at the short list of VegWeek participants and think it’s representative of how many vegetarian or vegan options are in the area, because it’s definitely not. You can go pretty much anywhere and find something on the menu that is either meatless or can be made without meat, so give the challenge a try. It might help get wider vegetarian selections at restaurants if more people are asking for more vegan and vegetarian options, too!

‘Coal or nuclear?’ is the wrong clean energy mentality

April 13, 2011

Have you ever listened to an argument for a while and thought to yourself, “You know, both sides are missing the point entirely”? That’s how I feel when the coal and nuclear camps fight about which side is a cleaner form of energy.

You’ve got articles like this one that claim that coal is more dangerous than nuclear and articles like this one applauding how safe nuclear power is, and yet no one addresses the bigger problem: high levels of energy consumption are what breed the high demand for different types of power. Instead of focusing most of our efforts on fulfilling a current standard of energy needs, why aren’t we more vocal about and focused on energy efficiency? Instead of building more power plants to meet the status quo, we should be looking for ways to reduce the need for those extra power plants by making our energy go further. Individuals should be reducing extraneous energy consumption too, but I’m focusing on the bigger entities and how they’re spending their time and money and brainpower.

The argument between nuclear and coal seems like a dead end because both are dangerous in different ways. Admittedly, I agree that coal power is more dangerous than nuclear power. Coal pollutes the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, mercury, arsenic, and lead; acid mine drainage from abandoned coal mines leave waterways running orange with excess iron, aluminum, and acid; mountaintop removal mining leaves toxins in the air and water, not to mention leaving people’s homes wide open to extreme flooding.

But I don’t want this to be interpreted as a free pass to nuclear — nuclear isn’t crystal clean. The difference is that coal is guaranteed to be constantly polluting the atmosphere, endangering communities nearby and often leaving coal miners to work in unsafe and dangerous conditions, so the flow of danger and the actual negative consequences are constant and expected. Nuclear is regularly lauded as a safe alternative, but the problem is that when nuclear malfunctions, the results can be instantly catastrophic. It’s a constant, predictable stream of pollution with coal versus the possibility for a gargantuan amount of pollution if things go awry with nuclear (e.g. current worries in Japan about high radiation levels in food and radiation seeping into the groundwater under the plant). And of course, there’s the problem of where to store all that radioactive nuclear waste.

Anyway, commentators solely focusing on which is the cleaner energy source are missing the point. It shouldn’t be about which new type of power plant we build, but about how we can harness energy so that we don’t have to build new power plants. Energy efficiency breakthroughs are definitely still happening, but it’s disheartening that they aren’t more salient in the clean energy discussion. So yeah, nuclear power currently might be the lesser of two evils, but that isn’t where we should be setting the bar, and “coal or nuclear?” isn’t the question we should be asking.

Nuclear reactor crisis in Japan: FAQs, diagrams

March 15, 2011

Are you confused about the nuclear reactor crisis in Japan? Looking for some background info? Here’s a list of links that provide information about nuclear reactors generally, the nuclear reactors specifically having problems in Japan, what exactly a meltdown is, and other common questions:

1. How a Reactor Shuts Down and What Happens in a Meltdown, via The New York Times

This is an interactive, multimedia slideshow that helps explain what happens when a nuclear reactor shuts down, what happened in Japan regarding the shutting down of the nuclear reactors, and what would happen in an actual meltdown. The image is very helpful, since the main association most people have with nuclear power plants are the large cooling towers, but the reactor itself.

2. Japan’s nuclear emergency, via The Washington Post

This is a slideshow that is a little different from the Times — the illustration isn’t as crisp, but it provides more information on how the cooling system works, what caused the explosions, and what the worse-case scenario would be in the event of a meltdown. It also has a map comparing where nuclear power plants are located with geographic seismic activity.

3. What exactly is happening with the Japanese nuclear reactors?, via Grist

This is a great overview, in very simple terms, of how a reactor works, how the earthquake and subsequent tsunami affected the nuclear reactors at this Japanese plant, what the worst-case scenario would be, and what is currently being done to prevent a meltdown. No graphics, but very straightforward and informative explanations.

4. Mini-FAQ About Japan’s Nuclear Power Plant Crisis, via TreeHugger

What I like about this post is that it addresses the question, “Can Japan’s nuclear power plants explode like a nuclear bomb?” There are other general FAQs as well, but I think the confusion about what a meltdown is just leads people to assume it would be a mushroom cloud — here’s the answer (full of jargon but the first sentence is key):

Thankfully, it is physically impossible for a nuclear power plant to explode like a nuclear bomb. It simply doesn’t have the right kinds of materials: A fission bomb uses highly enriched uranium or plutonium (90%+ of U-235 or Pu-239), while a nuclear power station generally uses Uranium that is only enriched to around 5% (sometimes up to 20% in smaller research reactors). A nuclear power station also lacks all the other mechanisms that are necessary to create a nuclear explosion (like for example the implosion or gun-type assembly configurations that allow supercritical mass to be reached).

I considered adding some links to news stories regarding the nuclear reactors, but the situation in Japan is evolving so rapidly that articles become outdated within hours. I hope these links provide some helpful foundation though, as many news articles I read initially discussed nuclear reactors, cooling systems, and meltdowns as if their workings were common knowledge.

Coal miners shouldn’t have to sacrifice safety for paycheck

January 21, 2011

This story from NPR is tragic — it is an interview with the sister of Dean Jones, a coal miner who was killed in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29 people on April 5, 2010, and it outlines not only the importance of safety precautions in coal mining, but the exploitative nature of the job because of the poverty and lack of jobs in Appalachia.

Dean’s sister Judy said he was obsessive about safety for his workers (Dean was a section boss) but Massey Energy — the company that ran the mine — wasn’t as concerned. In fact, Dean’s mother-in-law testified before Congress that, after stopping a mining operation because of safety concerns, the higher-ups threatened to fire him:

Jones stayed on the job, his sister says, because his son has cystic fibrosis, and might be difficult to insure if his dad switched jobs.

Dean wasn’t alone in worrying about the safety of the mines — many of Massey’s coal miners made similar complaints to family and friends about the poor ventilation and other safety concerns, but said they were afraid to speak up because it could mean losing their jobs. Some were even afraid of violent retribution for bringing up safety concerns — the wife of Michael Elswick, who was killed in the April explosion, said that her husband “always told me, ‘I know too much. If I get killed, it will not be my fault. If I get killed, hire a lawyer.'”

Steve Morgan’s 21-year-old son Adam was killed in the explosion, and Adam often confided in his dad about the terrible conditions. When he finally did tell his boss, his boss “told him if he was that scared, he needed to rethink his career.” And that attitude — the attitude that this is just the way things work, and if you can’t take it then get out — keeps Massey rich and workers quiet. They keep quiet because they need the jobs — the highest poverty and unemployment levels in Appalachia are in the areas with the most coal mining.

It is absolutely terrible and unjust that a company can exploit workers this way, and make them risk their lives to make a living every single day when those safety precautions exist and can be implemented. This is why the environmental justice movement exists — people are forced to work or live in toxic conditions, and their opposition often goes unheard or unsaid because they are poor and can’t afford to lose their jobs. Again, with the lack of jobs in Appalachia, for every person who wants to speak out about the safety conditions, Massey knows there are plenty of unemployed workers who would gladly replace that person.

The average number of coal-mining-related deaths per year seems to hover around 30, and no doubt, Massey sees such deaths as chump change — and I mean that literally, as I’m sure whatever profit it gains by working instead of stopping production to fix safety problems makes up for the settlements it doles out to families of the coal miners who are injured or killed because of those safety problems. It’s unfortunate for a company to view its workers this way, but the demand for cheap, coal energy is so high that it knows it can get away with view its workers that way.

The government has been right to conduct surprise and seemingly more thorough inspections, as with previous safety inspections at Massey mines, the second an inspector came, word went out and workers were instructed to make unsafe conditions momentarily look passable. According to Gary Quarles, who has 34 years experience in the coal mines and lost his son in the April explosion, workers also often felt out of place reporting safety violations after inspections:

In fact, for a miner working for Massey, the feeling is, “If an MSHA inspector fails to say anything about all these safety problems, what right do I have to say anything about them?” he said. “And I definitely would be terminated or retaliated against if I said anything.”

These surprise inspections are definitely necessary, as is some kind of protection for whistleblowers. The Mine Safety and Health Administration now has a hot line (877-827-3966) that people can call and leave anonymous tips concerning Massey safety problems. A safe working environment should be the rule, not the exception, and coal miners don’t deserve to be blackmailed and put in danger simply because Massey knows they can’t afford otherwise.

For a list of news articles concerning the Upper Big Branch mine explosion, visit or

Rising SUV sales could be cause for concern

December 30, 2010

News articles like this one — which explains how SUV sales are on the rise while smaller, more fuel-efficient car sales are on the decline — make me nervous. They make me nervous because they hint at the true reason that environmentalism has managed to gain mainstream attention from consumers in the past few years — consumers couldn’t afford not to listen. Now that the economy is showing signs of an upswing, I’m afraid people’s green inclinations will go out the window.

When it comes to cars, green is always a money-saver for the consumer — you get more bang for your buck with a fuel-efficient car, but the increase in SUV sales proves that, if gas prices are low enough, consumers don’t mind filling their gas tanks more often, as long as the price per refill is within their budget. It’s an interesting example of how people disassociate the specific trips to the pump with the bigger picture, e.g. more frequent trips to the gas station costing more money overall.

Though I’m thinking this trend will be momentary, as gas prices are expected to keep rising to nearly $5 within the next few years, so I’m thinking fuel efficiency will be on the forefront of consumers’ mind again relatively soon. I hope that money-saving green initiatives (e.g. energy-saving appliances, better home insulation) don’t get the boot from consumers as the economy recovers, simply because people can afford not to think about them anymore.

Bike lanes, not sidewalk banishment, will solve traffic woes

December 2, 2010

A letter to the editor this week in The Washington Post was both spot-on and completely off the mark in how it framed both the problems with an increase in bicycling in D.C. and the solutions for those problems. When it comes to enforcement, resident Charles Yulish is right that bicyclists need to follow traffic laws and should be cited by police if seen violating them. But when it comes to where they ride, Yulish’s solution that they “should be banned from all pedestrian sidewalks” is far too simplistic and misses the point of why so many people ride on the sidewalks — because they feel safer there.

This really highlights a lack of biking infrastructure in the city, which is often bustling with traffic and people who drive erraticly — bicyclists are caught in quite a bind because the city is just as driver-heavy as it is pedestrian-heavy. Drivers get frustrated with bicyclists who can’t match the speed of traffic, and pedestrians get frustrated with bicyclists who speed by and weave through them (I’ve even seen people riding their motor scooters on the sidewalks).

What bicyclists need is their own domain on the roads — bike lanes. Until there is space made for bicyclists on the road, they will forever have to choose between possibly getting run over or navigating pedestrian-filled sidewalks. Many people want to bike, but riding with traffic is daunting in a city where stories about pedestrians and bicyclists being hit by cars are common. (This isn’t saying that drivers are responsible for all these accidents — but an SUV packs a much bigger punch than a bicycle or a pedestrian.)

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 43 percent of people don’t have access to bike lanes or bike paths (which often run parallel to but are set off from the road) — add the 24.1 percent of people who only have access to bike paths — not bike lanes — and that means about two-thirds of people don’t have access to bike lanes. Bike paths are great, but they often are set back from the road and are so limited in where they reach that many people don’t find them to be efficient — bike lanes are much more convenient in this sense.

And for cities that do sport bike lanes, their placement is often sporadic and not especially cohesive. In D.C. they are routinely adding bike lanes to streets (I understand this is a time-consuming project if it means expanding the width of the street), but their placement is scattered. And for bicyclists who don’t feel comfortable in the road, it likely leads to them weaving on-and-off the sidewalks, which makes them less predictable and more likely to get into an accident.

Personally, my hometown’s bike lanes are pitiful. A few streets have them, and I think the ones that do run parallel to each other, and the bike lane itself doesn’t go very far distance-wise. So while some cities can claim to have bike lanes and on paper look good, the quality of those bike lanes also might have a lot of room for improvement. As bicycling increases, the infrastructure must increase with it — slapping a bike lane down a main street isn’t going to cut it anymore.

It sounds like Yulish is a pedestrian, so simply banishing the bicyclists from the sidewalk works for him as a pedestrian, but it doesn’t address the problem as it relates to all travelers. Quality bike lane infrastructure positively benefits all these travelers — it would draw more attention to bicyclists’ right to be on the road, leave sidewalks as a space for pedestrians, and overall leave drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists with a better attitude about their own safety when traveling.