Posts Tagged ‘environment’

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.

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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.

‘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.

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.

Parents’ ridicule of Halloween costume teaches intolerance

November 5, 2010

A friend of mine posted this blog on Facebook, which is a mom describing how her five-year-old son wanted to be Daphne from Scooby Doo for Halloween and was ridiculed not by his peers, but by those peers’ parents:

[A mom] continued on and on about how mean children could be and how he would be ridiculed.

My response to that: The only people that seem to have a problem with it is their mothers.

This was the best lesson of the entire narrative, which detailed how her son was excited about his costume, but grew nervous about wearing it to school because his peers might tease him — which wasn’t even a problem considering that the moms were the ones so outraged and shocked by the costume. It’s a classic example of how intolerance is not inherent or natural, but it’s something that is learned from parents, family, and society in general.

The older the kids get, the more ingrained the ideas of intolerance are — the mom who said it’s a good thing he didn’t wear that to kindergarten had a point (not the one she was probably trying to make), which was that kids become less tolerant as they get older. Though encouraging your own children to be more tolerant of difference is an efficient way to combat that intolerance, while expecting your own children to be intolerant is … ridiculous.

It is obviously the parents who are painting a picture of gender roles and how subverting them is extremely problematic, while the kids are simply a blank canvas with no inclination that whatever the boy is wearing is somehow wrong or inappropriate. And it also shows that the parents are promoting a fear-driven lifestyle — don’t let your kids be different, because their developing their own sense of individuality isn’t worth people pointing out their being different, and they need to learn that fitting in to avoid criticism are valuable qualities. Plus, the lesson of sameness as good and difference as bad is a great one for kids to keep with them.

That her son was five years old and already afraid of ridicule for being different speaks to the fact that his classmates probably were already showing signs of intolerance, which is also disheartening because people at that young age are likely having their creativity and personality stifled because veering away from typical gender roles or the status quo is seen as wrong — and these parents are acting like they are trying to protect children from these “facts of life” while simultaneously promoting them.

If only those moms had seen this boy’s costume and greeted it with bright smiles and compliments — even if the kids were going to ridicule him, they’d take their parents’ accepting of the costume to heart and likely follow suit because they mimick behavior at this early age. Parents need to take opportunities like this and turn them into learning opportunities and lessons for their children — and I hope those shocked and outraged parents read this mom’s blog reaction and take it as a lesson for themselves.

Smart phones: an innovative resource for recyclers

September 23, 2010

I love the My Recycle List (free) app for the iPhone (also available on the Droid). As I’ve discussed many times before, recycling is not as easy as simply cans/glass/plastic anymore — you can recycle anything from unused paint to light bulbs to car batteries, which is great for the environment but confusing and/or discouraging to people who can’t figure out where to take these items to keep them out of the landfill. This app does just that.

It organizes items by general category (the typical glass/plastic/paper plus other categories such as electronics, hazardous waste, and household items), with subcategories that follow and then nearby options for recycling. The app’s creator, 1-800-Recycling, already provides this service online for people without iPhones or smart phones, but as people become more reliant on their phones for Internet use and information gathering, apps like this can really make a difference.

The difference between the app and the website is that people constantly have their phones with them — there’s no excuse for forgetting to check where the dropoff points are because the second you think about it, the second you can grab your phone and look it up. And, on the phone, you can keep a list of the locations you frequent for easy access. It also  integrates GPS in a really useful way so you can find recycling centers based on your exact location. It blends everything into an easy to navigate, easy to store place that never leaves your side.

Getting people motivated to be eco-friendly can be difficult — developing user-friendly, convenient, free tools like this not only removes the confusion, discouragement, and apathy factors, but it also creates great educational resources. Interacting with the app or the website introduces the person to a host of things s/he might not have known were recyclable, and that person likely will absorb that knowledge and also spread the word.

Cities: Take note of San Francisco’s waste reduction program

September 16, 2010

San Francisco recently achieved a 77 percent landfill diversion rate, meaning that of the material it collects for disposal, only 23 percent was sent to the landfill. This rate is a national record and is extremely impressive compared to the national average of 32.1 percent; or, for instance, Ohio’s diversion rate of about 40 percent (though its next goal is 50 percent) or Utah’s diversion rate of 19 percent (though its goal for 2015 is also 50 percent).

There are a lot of factors that make San Francisco’s program so successful — first of all, it brands itself not as a waste management service, but as an overall environmental program that works to promote waste reduction, reuse, recycling, energy efficiency, and countless others. “Waste management” really does connote that they only deal with waste, so changing the name and the brand changes how residents participate — they aren’t just working to “manage” their waste, but to reduce it.

It also makes information extremely accessible — for instance, the front page of the program’s website has an “ecofindeRRR” tool that looks … amazing. Constantly people are confused about where they can properly recycle/dispose of specific items — e.g. cell phones, Christmas trees, medicine, etc. This website has a fantastic search tool that lets you choose the main category, the sub category, and then your zip code, and BOOM — an address where you can take that item.

This tool is just an example of how important access to information is — people need to easily be able to navigate and find when recycling is taken, where it can be taken, what can and can’t be recycled, what is or is not hazardous waste, and where to dispose of things that aren’t the typical aluminum/glass/plastic. San Francisco anticipates these questions and provides the answers in an easy-to-find, easy-to-read way.

Recycling and composting are also mandated by the city, but the bins are clearly branded both for residents (blue = recycling; green = composting; black = trash) and at events (where recycling/composting is mandated) around the city so that people are consistently getting the same message and its being reinforced. It’s important to note composting in the landfill diversion, as lots of organic, biodegradable food scraps get tossed into the garbage and then into landfills, where they actually won’t fully decompose.

The fact that San Francisco could divert 77 percent of the stuff it collects for disposal away from the landfill is great not only for that city specifically but also for the rest of the country. It proves that waste reduction is very possible, and people just need the proper resources, education, and policy in order to make it a reality.

Cities are jumping the gun by remotely monitoring recycling

August 25, 2010

Cleveland plans to implement curbside monitored recycling, which is lauded by many cities — such as Arlington, Va. — as a great success. But is the success solely because of the surveillance, or is it also because of the bigger recycling bins that come along with the surveillance? I’m thinking it’s the latter; people don’t need to be monitored in order to recycle — they need bigger recycling bins.

With monitored curbside recycling, the city remotely checks how often the recycling bins are used, use that data to determine who isn’t recycling a lot, and then check their garbage cans and fine them if the trash has more than 10 percent of material that could have been recycled. If you have too many recyclables in your trash, then you get a $100 fine.

But as The Washington Examiner points out, the problem with city recycling wasn’t just that people weren’t recycling enough — it was that their ability to recycle was limited with curbside recycling because the bins were smaller. The recycling rate increased by 24 percent after the new recycling bins were implemented, raising the question of whether residents needed to be under surveillance to recycle more or just needed bigger recycling bins in the first place.

The short, rectangular bins that we associate with recycling hold 18 gallons — Alexandria, Va.’s new monitored curbside program offers recycling carts that hold up to 65 gallons, which is the same size as typical residential trash cans and illustrates the psychological aspect of recycling. When people are provided a bin that is roughly one-quarter the size of a trash can, it tells them they are expected to throw away a lot and recycle a little. If that size discrepancy was changed, then perhaps people wouldn’t be so freewheeling about how much they throw away or so apathetic about separating recyclables from trash.

In fact, some cities offer pay-as-you-throw programs so that residents are only charged based on how much they waste, either by bag, weight, or the size of trash can the resident chooses, with smaller sizes meaning smaller rates for trash service. These programs utilize an economic incentive that encourages waste reduction without using penalties.

And beyond bigger bins, some people generally need better access to recycling — for instance, in Cleveland, two-thirds of residents had curbside recycling until the program was cut in 2003, and a smaller pilot program that included more like 10 percent of residents wasn’t implemented until 2007.

People want options aside from the typical huge trash can and tiny corresponding recycing bin (or no bin at all), so cities should try spending their money on expanding curbside recycling and altering recycling bin size before jumping to surveillance. Successful recycling programs also feature community outreach, education, advertising, and communication — not just microchips and $100 fines.

Can you spot the problem with this gulf oil spill article?

August 13, 2010

Can you see the problem with the following sentence from this Associated Press article about the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?

The decision to proceed with the so-called “bottom kill” operation means a key milestone in the crisis that wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast’s economy and ecosystem remains days off.

If you guessed that the verb used — wreaked havoc — is in the past tense, then you are correct! It might seem nit-picky to point out a verb tense problem, but these small choices in language reflect how we perceive things on a larger scale.

This one, for instance, is indicative of a larger mentality that the oil spill only “wreaked havoc” on the economy and ecosystems in the gulf while the oil was gushing, despite the fact that this environmental disaster is currently having and will have lasting effects on the gulf’s economy and ecosystems — for years to come.

Word choice matters, especially in the news.

Vegetarians don’t need to cater to meat-eaters at weddings

August 9, 2010

This summer has been a wedding bonanza, which naturally leaves me with mild wedding fever (in general I can’t get enough Say Yes to the Dress, My Fair Wedding, or Bridezillas, so actually being at a wedding enhances the fever). In discussing the fever with my mom, she posed the question of whether I would serve meat at my wedding reception.

I’m not a total vegetarian, but I consider myself 95 percent vegetarian, and I certainly would have qualms about paying for a gigantic feast of meat for hundreds of people. But several questions remain, which my mom also outlined for me: What if the groom isn’t a vegetarian? What about the guests who want to eat meat? What on earth will I serve to guests if I can’t serve them chicken or prime rib?

This dilemma was recently profiled in The New York Times, as Chelsea Clinton recently got married and served meat at her reception despite being a vegetarian herself. The Times article goes into detail between the debate of whether it matters if both or only one of the married couple are vegetarian, and whether one’s wedding day is about the couple wants, or what the guests they are inviting want.

1. The question of animal cruelty

A lot of people are vegetarian either for ethical reasons, health reasons, environmental reasons, or a combination of a few or all of those. If you truly believe that eating meat, regardless of how it was raised or where it came from, is unethical, then I don’t blame you for not serving meat at your wedding. A wedding is a celebration, and it’s not going to be a happy celebration if you’ve had to serve dead animals at your reception despite your moral opposition.

But if your holdup is health-related or environmental, there are ways to still serve meat at the wedding — you could either find a catering company that specializes in organic/free range/local food, or talk to a catering company about using those types of meats instead of whatever they traditionally use. Yes, it will likely cost more money, but weddings are all about allocating money and prioritizing — e.g. spend extra on catering, spend less on invitations.

This is where a bride and groom could compromise — serve equally delicious vegetarian and meat dishes, but make sure the meat is local and was raised humanely. Chances are, if you are a carnivore and a herbivore, you’ve had to make food-related concessions and compromises like this before deciding on a wedding menu.

2. “Whose Wedding Is It, Anyway?”

Aside from being another wedding show I love to watch, this slogan rings true when it comes to deciding whose dietary choices should be valued more — the wedding couple or the wedding guests. Should the couple force everyone to share in their dietary choices, or should they suck it up and give the guests what they want?

First, one has to assume that what the guests want actually is meat. As a wedding guest, I typically don’t want just meat options. Of the four weddings I’ve been to in the past three years, only one (my step-sister’s, the one in which I was actually part of the wedding party) hasn’t had any vegetarian main course. Every vegetarian attending a wedding (unless maybe it’s a vegetarian wedding) has anxiety about the meals and whether they’ll be anything aside from a side dish to eat.

But if I do end up in that predicament, I’m not surprised or insulted — it’s the bride and groom’s wedding day, not mine, and I don’t expect them to cater to my dietary and meal preferences. Meat-eaters shouldn’t take offense when a couple decides to serve only vegetarian food if that’s the food they eat and enjoy.

I wouldn’t expect a recovering alcoholic bride and/or groom to have an open bar, as the alcohol is something that person won’t drink and isn’t comfortable having around — that is a personal preference, and when you’re getting married (and footing the bill), you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable at your own reception. Or, assume some of your guests aren’t religious and you are — you aren’t going to move the venue out of the church just to make them more comfortable; you’ll get married in the church because it’s your wedding and it’s your preference.

3. “Tree Bark and Lettuce”

The Times article noted that many vegetarians see weddings as a chance to show guests that vegetarian food isn’t just “tree bark and lettuce,” which is an important point to get across — like I said earlier, I’ve been able to eat at weddings typically without fail because some of the dishes are already veg-friendly — pasta, potatoes, green beans, salad, rice, desserts. It’s not like the meals would be dandelions and dirt.

What also bothers me about the Time article is part of its headline: “Beef or Tofu?” It feeds into the fact that many people are grossed out by tofu, and it makes it about either serving meat or tofu — how about just having really good food that isn’t about whether tofu tastes as good as meat, or perhaps where there isn’t any tofu at all? Vegetable lasagna, black bean burgers, stuffed zucchini …

Also, it’s important to note that not every wedding is going to be serving full meals anyway — one of my friends had a dessert wedding, and guests ate dinner before they came and enjoyed lots of different desserts at the evening reception. If the catering is that much of a struggle between meat and veggies, perhaps reimagine the theme of the reception and consider a dessert theme (I can’t imagine anyone complaining about the lack of chocolate-covered chicken).

Your family and friends should come to your wedding to support you, not to complain about the free meal they’re getting. Although one person interviewed from the article quipped, “I know it’s your day, but it’s not all about you. Why have a wedding if you’re going to be like that? Just print a bumper sticker,” that attitude is largely the problem. If you’re vegetarian, not serving meat isn’t necessarily meant to be some revolutionary political statement or preaching moment. It’s simply a reflection of your preferences and how you want to celebrate your wedding — like any other aspect of the wedding is.