Tag Archives: environmental issues

Can Portland’s River Cleanup Correct Environmental Injustice?

AP Photo/Don Ryan

Fishing isn’t sport for everyone. Many urban residents rely on rivers and lakes to supplement their diets. In Oregon Humanities magazine, journalist Julia Rosen looks at the people of color who once relied on the Willamette River for food, pleasure, and work. The Willamette runs right through downtown Portland, Oregon. After industry and urbanization polluted it, the Environmental Protection Agency declared Portland Harbor a superfund site, and many locals quit fishing it. A new 13-year, billion-dollar plan has the potential to clean this beautiful river, which could reconnect certain communities with what Rosen calls the city’s lifeblood. But gentrification has already displaced many black families, physically separating them from the river. The question now is whether the cleanup can create jobs for impacted communities and right the city’s many racial injustices.

Historian Ellen Stroud has written that the pollution of the slough reveals a story of environmental racism. North Portland has been associated with African Americans since Henry Kaiser built Vanport, a housing development for his shipyard workers, along the Columbia’s southern bank. From 1942 until 1948, when it was destroyed in a catastrophic flood, Vanport housed the majority of Portland’s Black population.

That association, Stroud writes, seems to have contributed to the decision to sacrifice North Portland—and the slough—to industry. North Portland also housed the city’s primary garbage dump from 1940 to 1991, and has long suffered from poor air quality.

“Whenever you look at where those toxic substances and hazardous substances lodge,” says Robin Collin, “it inevitably follows color.” Collin is an environmental justice expert and law professor at Willamette University in Salem. She says this pattern has been documented repeatedly, and often emerges from the perception that fear and disenfranchisement will keep communities of color from protesting the pollution.

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Nestlé Is Sucking the World’s Aquifers Dry

Nestle takes about 25 million gallons of water a year from the San Bernardino National Forest under a permit that expired decades ago. (Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun via AP)

At Bloomberg Businesweek, Caroline Winter visits Nestlé’s bottling plant in Mecosta County, Michigan to analyze how the multinational corporations targets small communities with promises of jobs, and buys up public land to gain control of water resources. Nestle sold $7.7 billion dollars worth of bottled water last year, making it the world’s largest bottled water company. It made that money partly by paying a pittance for its product. Nestlé pays the U.S. Forest Service only $524 a year to draw 30 million gallons of public water in San Bernardino, California, and Nestlé pays the city of Evart, Michigan just $250,000 a year for its water. Consumers drink bottled water because they assume it’s safer than tap, but that makes us complicit in what many analysts and activists warn is the gradual privatization of water. These multinational corporations don’t have the public’s best interests in mind, activists warn. If anybody should own water, it’s the public.

Nestlé has been preparing for shortages for decades. The company’s former chief executive officer, Helmut Maucher, said in a 1994 interview with the New York Times: “Springs are like petroleum. You can always build a chocolate factory. But springs you have or you don’t have.” His successor, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, who retired recently after 21 years in charge, drew criticism for encouraging the commodification of water in a 2005 documentary, saying: “One perspective held by various NGOs—which I would call extreme—is that water should be declared a human right. … The other view is that water is a grocery product. And just as every other product, it should have a market value.” Public outrage ensued. Brabeck-Letmathe says his comments were taken out of context and that water is a human right. He later proposed that people should have free access to 30 liters per day, paying only for additional use.

Compared with the water needs of agriculture and energy production, the bottled water business is barely responsible for a trickle; in Michigan, it accounts for less than 1 percent of total water usage, according to Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). But it rankles many because the natural resource gets hauled out of local watersheds for private profit, not used in the service of feeding people or keeping their lights on. There’s also, of course, the issue of plastic pollution.

In the U.S., Nestlé tends to set up shop in areas with weak water regulations or lobbies to enfeeble laws. States such as Maine and Texas operate under a remarkably lax rule from the 1800s called “absolute capture,” which lets landowners take all the groundwater they want. Michigan, New York, and other states have stricter laws, allowing “reasonable use,” which means property owners can extract water as long as it doesn’t unreasonably affect other wells or the aquifer system. Laws vary even within states. New Hampshire is a reasonable-use state, but in 2006, the municipality of Barnstead became the first nationwide to ban the pumping of its water for sale elsewhere.

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The Lawn is a Lie

Man on a lawnmower on a large swath of grass
Lawnmower Man by dumbonyc via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It broke my heart when I left the heart of the city for the edge of the burbs. I’m a terrible gardener, so I never wanted a house with a yard. Yet that’s where I ended up when city living became too expensive.

My house came with a large swatch of (once) immaculately maintained front lawn — lawn which I ceased watering after the first bill. Now, late summer, it’s a dead brown with patches of dirt where eternal vigilance is not enough to ensure the absence of dandelions. For five months out of the year, I hate my lawn; the rest of the time I’m merely annoyed by it. Some day, when household economics allow, I will hire a landscaper to tear the whole thing out and replace it with xeriscaping — a no-water garden, low maintenance with all native plants, something that allows me mostly to forget about it.

Riddle: considered acre-for-acre, what is the most pesticide-, herbicide-, water-, labor-, and cash-intensive crop grown in the U.S.? Right. Your lawn. In America, turf grasses, which are mostly non-native, cover 21 million acres (think the state of Maine), cost $40 billion per year (more than U.S. foreign aid), consume around 90 million pounds of fertilizer and 80 million pounds of pesticides per year (which sometimes contaminate our groundwater and surface water), and slurp up an inconceivable nine billion gallons of water per day (at least half of all residential water use in the arid West is associated with lawns and landscaping).

All this is before we reckon the colossal time suck that lawns represent. Each year, Americans spend an average of three billion hours pushing or (even worse) riding mowers, most of which pollute at a rate ten times that of our cars. In fact, if a lawn were a car, it would be a Hummer: a resource-intensive, plainly unsustainable luxury item that looks cool but is environmentally destructive. As for biodiversity, forget it. Lawns are exotic, barren monocultures. While they are sometimes referred to as “ecological deserts,” this characterization is an insult to deserts, which are remarkably biodiverse ecosystems. Consider also the unfortunate symbolic connotations of the lawn. As food writer Michael Pollan points out, the American lawn is the ultimate manifestation of our culture’s perverse fantasy of the total control of nature. As Pollan put it so memorably, “A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule.”

On Terrain, Michael P. Branch calculates the time, money, and emotional angst (if you’re me) we invest on tending to our lawns. He mentions Thoreau’s disdain for this bulwark of American landscaping, even while confessing his own emotional attachment to the manicured green spaces of his youth. He rationalizes his own landscaping choices and admits his guilt in its pleasure.

I have a small back lawn too. I kind of love it. Mr. Branch, I feel you.

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Why Oil-Loving Louisiana Should Embrace America’s Coming Offshore Wind Boom

Sculptures and wind turbines on a Liverpool beach. (Photo by: Loop Images/UIG via Getty Images)

Justin Nobel | Longreads | August 2017 | 8 minutes (2,051 words)

The United States is on the verge of an energy transformation. This spring the nation’s first offshore wind farm officially began powering homes and businesses on Block Island, in Rhode Island. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management maps show 12 areas that have been leased for potential offshore wind development along the East Coast, from the Outer Banks of North Carolina to Cape Cod, and a thirteenth will be leased later this year. In December 2016, Statoil Wind US, part of the Norwegian oil and gas giant, bid $42.5 million to lease, for offshore wind development, a tract of ocean that begins about 15 nautical miles southeast of New York City.

“Since Block Island came online interest in offshore wind along the East Coast has gone through the roof,” says Lorry Wagner, an engineer whose company, Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation is pushing for a wind farm off Cleveland, in Lake Erie. “Every major developer in the world wants to get into the United States and get a project.”

In my first column we journeyed across toxic Louisiana, learning that many of the state’s most terrifying environmental problems are connected to the petrochemical industry. But is there another way to provide jobs for people in south Louisiana oil country? The answer appears to be yes. Read more…

America’s Plastic Legacy

AK Rockefeller via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I type this on a plastic keyboard, my lunch leftovers stored in a plastic container, as my infant daughter sleeps nearby next to her plastic pacifier in a rocking sleeper made of plastic. Plastics are one of humanity’s most wide-reaching, versatile and practical inventions, an influential creation arguably on par with the smelting of metal, but these unnatural materials have levied high ecological costs. Plastic bits pollute the world’s oceans, beaches, and rivers. Plastics’ parent chemicals move through the food chain, from plankton to people, into our cells.

Is there a patch of planet earth untouched by plastics? At Aeon, Rebecca Altman visits New Jersey’s old Union Carbide plant, where her father used to work, and where modern petrochemical plastic was first manufactured. Through this father-daughter tour, she assess the worldwide legacy of petrochemistry, its origins, etymology and toxic ubiquity, and her dad talks about what he saw at the factory and how, for him, recycling is a form of redemption.

In the fall of 2012, before my father and I went to New Jersey, I visited the MIT archives. I had arranged for the librarians to find my grandfather’s theses. They were well-preserved, their black bindings so taut that they creaked when I opened them. As I read his work, I remembered his basement laboratory and how, when I was young, he had made me a set of test tubes. I’d watched as he blew bulbous ends onto slender glass tubing. I don’t remember what experiments we ran afterwards, but there were powders and liquids, scales and bottles, and shifting states and colors that seemed magical and otherworldly.

Until I read his research, I didn’t know he had experimented with corn as a feedstock. This is how I discovered that there was a time before oil, and that some industrialists of the 1930s and ’40s envisioned a radically different society, with plastics, paints and fuel for cars made from carbohydrates. But in the US by the close of the 1940s, oil had replaced both biomass and coal as the substrate for making the stuff of everyday life. Union Carbide had helped lead the conversion.

In the years since my grandfather walked these paths, all living organisms have absorbed the products of 20th century petrochemistry. We now embody its genius, its intellectual property, its mistakes, and its hubris. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed the presence of at least 200 (from a possible 80,000-100,000) industrial chemicals in Americans. And though we already have clear reason for concern about their role in human health, development and reproduction, not even the scientists know exactly what their combined presence means for our future.

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How Patagonia Continues to Operate As a Model of Responsible Capitalism

How serious are you about saving the planet? Many marketing types say that activism is the new hot advertising strategy, but some businesses actually believe in the philosophies they espouse, like Patagonia. Founded in 1973, the California-based company has always aimed to balance responsible production with environmental activism, by funding environmental causes, refining its business model and manufacturing practices, and empowering like-minds. With the Trump administration’s move to dismantle environmental protections on public land and climate change, Patagonia’s staff believes that too many companies in the outdoor industry have been too passive for too long, and the time has come to spend more company profits fighting the political forces that not only threaten America, but humanity’s future. At OutsideAbe Streep examines the ways Patagonia reaches consumers, manages its factories, thinks of its role in a revolution, and urges other businesses to step up. With power and influence comes great responsibility, which puts brands in the position to influence social good. Interestingly, this socially responsible model has quadrupled Patagonia’s profits during the last ­seven years. The question is: are those other companies committed to long-term political activism?

For decades, Patagonia sought to demonstrate that profitability and environmentalism can go hand in hand—to show a better way by, for example, encouraging fair-trade practices in foreign factories. The company advised Walmart, helping the retail behemoth clean up its supply chain, and worked with Nike to create the Textile Exchange, a nonprofit that encourages more sustainable practices in the apparel industry. Chouinard now believes that he was mistaken in trying to influence publicly traded companies. “I was pretty naive thinking you could do that,” he told me.

Marcario presented an alternative: grow Patagonia into a much bigger brand so that everything it did would have greater impact. She was uniquely qualified to make this argument. In her youth, she was an outspoken progressive activist, arrested during protests on issues like LGBT rights, AIDS, and women’s health. “She understands the need for revolution,” Chouinard has said. But she also understands business. Upon taking the CFO job, she streamlined distribution and shipping, installed industry-standard software, and focused on improving e-commerce. “Doing things that, you know, like, retailers do,” she laughs. During her first year, in 2008, the global economy crashed, but Patagonia—and much of the outdoor industry—didn’t: the company experienced growth in the high single digits. Casey Sheahan, Patagonia’s CEO at the time, told me that this was due to people “aligning themselves tribally” at a time of strife. It was a hint of the opportunity that would come with the rise of Trump.

Sheahan also told me that, at the time he left Patagonia, more than 50 percent of the revenue came from direct-to-­consumer business via Patagonia’s stores and e-­commerce. He suspects that the percentage is bigger today. (The company wouldn’t confirm or deny this.) Selling directly to a consumer, rather than through a third-party retailer like Backcountry.com or REI, ­increases both revenue and influence. According to Joe Flannery, a veteran outdoor-industry marketer and senior VP of technical apparel for Newell Brands, which owns Marmot and Coleman, Patagonia’s direct-to-consumer sales “represents one of the most powerful mechanisms of any brand. When you have that direct interaction, that means the consumer is digesting what you’re saying.”

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How the Congo Is Working to Protect Both Its Coastline and Its People

Joseph King, Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“If you forbid people from doing stuff but don’t replace it, if you don’t provide jobs instead,” Makiese says, “then it’s clear that people will turn to trafficking and crime.”

The trade in goods from Angola such as cement and petroleum products is substantial, and provides a livelihood for many local people. But the legal status of these shipments is hazy. Most operators don’t have a license to import, but the authorities have embraced the commerce.

“You can’t separate the official from the unofficial,” Collet says. “In the law it’s all illegal but they pay all the taxes to the government agencies when it comes into the port.” Collet is especially aggravated by kibubu, a method of smuggling the gasoline hawked by the likes of Makiese. On the Angolan bank, fuel is poured into the bottom of specially adapted boats and driven across the mouth of the river into the mangrove forest at night.

At Roads & KingdomsWilliam Clowes takes us deep into the mangrove swamps and tidal woods at the mouth of the Congo River to see how a small group of park employees labors to protect the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Mangrove Marine Park from poaching and illegal activity without making local people’s lives even harder economically.

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Where Were You the First Time You Realized the Government Wasn’t Always On the Ball?

Crews of convicts clean up oil-soaked straw on the beach in Santa Barbara, Calif. (AP Photo/Wally Fong, FILE)

Pacific Standard writer Kate Wheeling and editor Max Ufberg wrangled a comprehensive, meticulous, and fascinating oral history of the 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara, California, that galvanized environmental activism, ultimately leading to the creation of a slew of federal environmental regulations and agencies. The whole read is great—Wheeling and Ufberg pulled in everyone from local activists to oil company lawyers to journalists—but one section on cleanup tactics stands out as both interesting and quaint.

Bottoms: The way they cleaned it up was they brought in straw. Bales and bales of straw.

Hazard: They didn’t have the oil response teams that they have now. We were totally unprepared for it. You know, what were we going to do?

Relis: I thought these oil companies and the federal government had sort of a game plan, but this was a joke. They were throwing straw down on the beach to lap up the oil with pitchforks and hiring people off the street! I mean, this was funky.

Bottoms: And they’d throw the straw out into the harbor too, and they’d take pitchforks and get convicts down there in little barges and lift the straw out of the ocean and drive the straw up the coast to a dump.

Relis: That was kind of eye-opening — that big companies and big government can be so incompetent.

It’s true, kids! Barely more than 40 years ago, government and corporations were assumed to be generally competent and responsible. The times, how they change.

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The Conservative Movement to Get the GOP on Board With Global Warming

That’s not how all hunters approach climate change. Randy Newberg, a hunter and advocate for hunting on public lands, has no qualms about acknowledging the problem. “If you spend as much time in the hills as I do, I don’t know how you could deny that climate is changing,” he says. Deniers exist, “but honestly, I call them the flat-Earth society,” he adds. Many hunters see climate change as a serious threat to the wildlife and public lands they want to protect for future generations. That’s what’s been driving the conservation movement for decades in the US, and it should not be a liberal or a conservative issues, says Newberg, who identifies as an Independent. “Maybe I’m naive and too idealistic for today’s political world,” he says, “but I struggle to understand how is it that clean air and clean water and productive lands are a partisan issue. To me, they’re an American issue.”

For now, the White House hasn’t been very responsive, but it might be just too early to tell, says Bozmoski. Some proposals coming out of Washington — like the carbon tax and the climate change resolution — seem to bode well. “It really stokes our optimism on the Eco Right, that our family has gotten bigger and more powerful,” Bozmoski says. At the same time, he says, it will take time for Republicans to come together and put forward a climate change policy — they will need to get over the divisions within their own party and develop an actual policy. That’s what groups like republicEn are there for, Bozmoski says. And he has high hopes. “The prospects for a coalition of lawmakers moving forward with a solution is better now than it has been in any point since 2010,” Bozmoski says. “There’s no more pussyfooting around climate change out of fear.”

At The Verge, Alessandra Potenza describes conservatives, young and old, who are working to rally Republican voters around the issue of global warming in a way that gets GOP policy makers to finally listen. They’re doing this on multiple fronts, addressing fellow conservatives’ concern for national security, economics, hunting and fishing, and trying to get them on the right side of history.

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Loving the Difficult Places

The Kalmiopsis will probably never provide the kind of blissful recreational experiences portrayed in outdoor-equipment catalogs. Zach Collier, a river guide who occasionally runs trips on the Illinois and the Chetco, told me that he grills his prospective clients. “When people call me to book it, I actively try to talk them out of it,” he says. “It’s physically demanding and not much fun.”

But Peter Landres, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service and an expert in wilderness studies, says the very difficulty of visiting the Kalmiopsis helps it fulfill the more abstract needs that Zahniser described. “It’s exactly what we need in the age of the Anthropocene,” Landres says. “We can feel we’re a small part of this larger universe. That reinforces the feelings of humility and restraint,” feelings, he says, we need now more than ever.

The Kalmiopsis is also a superlative example of wilderness’ role as an ecological safe harbor. “Wilderness is the best place and maybe the only place that evolution can go on its merry way,” Landres says. As the climate changes, disrupting ecosystems along with it, those pockets of intact landscape where non-human life can adapt are increasingly precious. The Kalmiopsis, he says, is a perfect example of such a place. It’s rare to find a swath of low-lying hills as intact and protected as these among the alpine and desert areas that make up most legally designated wilderness areas. And the region’s plant diversity is off the charts.

In High Country News, editor Kate Schimel narrates her grueling trek into Oregon’s Kalmiopsis Wilderness with the people who voluntarily clear its impenetrable trails and swim its clear creeks, showing why America needs road-free, undeveloped areas just like it. Schimel’s piece is a love letter to the demanding places that don’t easily share themselves with us, and that many of us find ourselves inexplicably drawn to anyway.

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