Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Stories of the Hurricane

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("Flooded I-10/I-610/West End Blvd. interchange and surrounding area of northwest New Orleans and Metairie, Louisiana." Photo source: U.S. Coast Guard, via Wikipedia)

One year later, some NOLA-area residents tell their stories to Grist writer Piper Hanson. Here are a few quotes:
"Words alone could not describe what we saw. The entire area looked as if a bomb had exploded. It was utter devastation."

"There are so many items large and small just sitting out there in the sun that have memories attached to them, even though they are now completely unsalvageable. I hate to see them removed just the same because they represent my past and all the memories I have of growing up."

"I could smell the city before I ever saw the skyline. It was the worst scent I have ever experienced. Nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to encounter visually."

"I had never seen firsthand destruction on this scale. I was overcome with emotions, partly because this is where I grew up. All the connections to my childhood were lying in ruins."

"The inrush of saltwater had chemically burned and killed the trees, grass, and other plants. All the people, plants, insects, and animals were either dead or gone."

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Upon Finally Seeing An Inconvenient Truth

I finally saw An Inconvenient Truth this past Sunday. It took me so long to see it because I felt no urgency to see it, having already accepted the message therein. That message, of course, is that global warming is indeed happening, and that humans are a significant cause of it through the greenhouse gases we release into the atmosphere at alarming rates.

For some Americans, this is obvious, as they have accepted the wealth of evidence being put forth by climatologists and scientific organizations around the world. But another section of Americans has rejected this evidence in favor of the discredited findings (often from studies funded by resource extraction corporations such as Exxon) of a few climate skeptics and their pundit progenitors. This group contains many conservatives, members of the Christian right, and probably a good deal of mainstream Americans who are on the fence, not ready to accept the evidence of global warming because they have been kept skeptical by the aforementioned discredited findings.

These findings have probably given justification for many Americans to decide that it wasn't urgent to do anything to slow down the negative trends of global warming, even when scientific evidence was right in front of them.

So it is unfortunate that a movie such as An Inconvenient Truth had to be made. At this stage of climate change, we shouldn't still be trying to convince people that global warming exists. We're 20 years behind. The first step in dealing with a problem is recognizing that there is a problem. So Al Gore's documentary is valuable in that it helps expedite the recognition stage, but it's too bad we're still at that stage in the first place.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Corrosion of Business-as-Usual

The BP Alaska pipeline corrosion problems were not isolated. They are part of a larger trend that spells more bad news for the global oil situation.
Oil Poised to Climb 20% as BP Shutdown Shows Industry Distress

By Tom Cahill and Sonja Franklin

Aug. 21 (Bloomberg) -- BP Plc's shutdown of the largest U.S. oil field may be the first of many, as decaying pipelines threaten to add 20 percent to energy prices in the next decade.

``We'll look back on this event as the Pearl Harbor Day in energy,'' said Matthew Simmons, chairman of energy investment bank Simmons & Co. International in Houston. The chance that the leaks and corrosion found at Prudhoe Bay by BP, Europe's second- largest oil company, are an isolated occurrence is ``zero,'' said Simmons, who's writing a book on aging oil infrastructure.

A growing minority of analysts, oil executives and government officials say the current system for producing and transporting crude will be unable to deliver the energy needed in the next 10 years. Repairs and replacement of pipes, valves and refineries will help push oil to $93 a barrel by 2015, from around $70 today, says Barclays Capital analyst Kevin Norrish in London, the most accurate price forecaster in a survey by Bloomberg News last year.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Regarding the Oil Spill from Last Month's Israeli Bombing of a Beirut Power Plant

The death toll in Lebanon has reached 900. UN aid convoys are now having trouble getting aid to South Lebanon. And to make this horrible crisis even worse, new information from the BBC News about the massive oil spill that resulted from an Israeli bomb dropped last month on the Jiyyeh Power Plant in Beirut predicts a long cleanup time and extensive damage to the coastal ecosystem and fisheries.

Lebanon's coastline could take up to 10 years to recover from a massive oil spill, the nation's environment minister has said.

Yacoub Sarraf said it was impossible to tackle the problem while the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel continued.

Marine experts have warned the spill could pose a cancer risk to people living in the affected areas.

The oil slick caused by Israeli bombing of a power station now covers 120km (75 miles) of the region's coasts.
The fishing community could take two to three years to recover. The current conflict in Lebanon is making cleanup efforts much more difficult.

The spill has increased in area. At the end of July, it had covered 80 km of coastline. Frighteningly, the spill may be comparable in volume to the Exxon Valdez disaster.

Initial reports indicated that 10,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil had escaped from damaged tanks, but the eventual total could be 35,000 tonnes.

By comparison, spillage from the Exxon Valdez accident totalled just under 40,000 tonnes of crude oil. [Ibid]
Prince William Sound's fisheries in Alaska are still feeling the impact of the Exxon Valdez spill, 17 years later, which suggests that predictions that the Lebanese fishing economy will recover in only 2 to 3 years, given the comparable volume between the two spills, may be overly optimistic.

Monday, August 07, 2006

What Condition our (Air) Conditioning's In

An eye-opening piece by William Saletan of Slate on another one of society's comfort drugs: air conditioning. Strongly recommended.

More Bad News for Oil Prices

I'm writing this on Sunday night (really early Monday morning), wondering what will happen to oil prices once the US markets open later this morning, based on this disquieting news (via the Oil Drum).

Because of severe corrosion in one of the pipelines, BP is temporarily closing the production from the Prudhoe Bay oilfield, and, in the process, cutting off some 400,000 barrels of oil a day, some 8% of US production.
Several news articles are already reporting jumps to $76/barrel in Asian markets.

Pipeline problems are nothing new this year for BP. Recall that there was a huge spill back in March on Alaska's north slope.

The temporary shutdown of Prudhoe Bay, the tensions in the Middle East, reports of Gulf States' inability to significantly boost output. Get out your bikes and walking shoes, folks.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Bush Administration's Questionable New Interpretation of Clean Water Act Upheld

There was bad news - and potentially very bad news - for the environment and water quality on Friday. A federal court decision (PDF) is allowing a gold mine to dump millions of tons of mine tailings into a freshwater lake just north of Juneau, Alaska.

A federal district judge rejected a legal challenge by three environmental groups (Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Sierra Club, and Lynn Canal Conservation) of a permit granted by the US Army Corps of Engineers to Coeur Alaska, a subsidiary of the international mining corporation Coeur d'Alene Mines, to dispose approximately 4.5 million tons of tailings into Lower Slate Lake, a freshwater lake that empties through a creek into Berners Bay, a wildlife-rich and ecologically sensitive area about 45 miles north of Juneau.

A legitimate question is how, over 30 years after the Clean Water Act was passed, does a mining corporation get to dump tailings directly into a freshwater lake? Wasn't the Act passed to prevent this sort of thing from happening? The answer to the first question is that the Bush administration, through the Corps of Engineers, has redefined mine tailings as "fill" in its regulations. Under the Clean Water Act it is permissible under certain conditions to dump "fill" into bodies of fresh water.

In general, permitting for the discharge of effluents is vested in the EPA, the granting of which must meet strict standards. Congress has, however, carved out an exception, vesting primary permitting authority in the Corps for the disposal of "dredged or fill material" into navigable waters at specified disposal sites. [Court decision, page 8]
To be fair, the processing method for the ore is not cyanide leaching, one of the worst kinds of mining. Therefore the central issue of this case - the toxicity of the tailings - was not obvious. However, it is a common anticipation (admitted even by Coeur Alaska) that

most aquatic life in Lower Slate Lake will be lost during mining operations, primarily due to being covered with the discharged material. [Court decision, page 4]
It is also true that the tailings will be toxic at the time of discharge.

Tests on the tailings show that they will not generate an acid discharge or metals leachate. While the pH around the discharge pipe is expected to be toxic to the aquatic environment, it is anticipated this will dissipate very rapidly. [Court decision, page 4]
Interesting to note is that the mine has not applied for a mixing zone permit, which usually is needed when effluent is toxic, turbid, or otherwise harmful, but is expected to dilute once discharged into the water.

You can read the detailed argument given by the district judge in the rest of the decision, but I will elaborate as follows. The Clean Water Act did not expressly define "fill material," which leaves it up to the EPA to do so in its regulations. A pro-mining EPA such as the current one would obviously be inclined to establish regulations that define fill material as broadly as possible, and a broad definition is exactly what came about. "Discharge of fill material" under 33 C.F.R. § 323.2(f) (Corps) or 40 C.F.R. § 232.2 (EPA) includes "placement of overburden, slurry, or tailings or similar mining-related materials." One of the plaintiffs' arguments was that including mine tailings in the definition of fill material violated the CWA, but the judge rejected it by arguing that the specific sections cited by the plaintiffs in the CWA were "inapplicable" if the permit nonetheless accorded with Section 404 of the Act. As I understand it, it is kind of like the regulations turning the power of definition granted them by the CWA back on the Act itself to trump other sections that seek to prohibit this kind of definitional chicanery on the part of federal regulators in charge of interpreting the statutes.

Disturbing is the fact that the mine tailings are toxic, and were admitted to being toxic in the court decision. So the assertion that they are simply "fill material" is dubious at best and a clear transgression on the progress the U.S. has made in safeguarding clean water since the Industrial Revolution. The scary thing about this decision is that it could have a foot-in-the-door effect for future mining operations to use fresh water as dumping sites in order to make more profit. (It's worth keeping in mind, for this case, that Coeur Alaska originally had a permit for a dry-stack tailings disposal facility in the 1990s, but found that dumping the mine's waste directly into a freshwater lake was much cheaper - and suddenly potentially permissible once the Bush administration took office.) As the press release from the plaintiffs reminds us,

The Kensington Mine will be the first mine in a generation allowed to dispose of its waste in a lake or stream.

[snip]

If the decision allowing the use of Lower Slate Lake as a waste dump at the proposed Kensington Mine stands, it will set a major precedent, state-wide and nation-wide, for future mines. Allowing a mining company to dump tailings in a lake at Kensington could have a strong effect on approval for the massive, controversial Pebble mine near Bristol Bay, which [even] Senator Ted Stevens [!] and many Alaskans oppose because of the harm it could do to the $100-million-dollar fisheries there.
This unfortunate decision could have a ripple effect when combined with the current ramping up of mining activity across the US, such that the future of our clean water, the many victories for water quality that have been won through tireless organizing by many evironmental groups and concerned citizens, could be despoiled.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Pat Robertson Now Believes in Global Warming

It took the nation's blistering heat wave to convince Pat Robertson of global warming.

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Conservative Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson said on Thursday the wave of scorching temperatures across the United States has converted him into a believer in global warming.

"We really need to address the burning of fossil fuels," Robertson said on his "700 Club" broadcast. "It is getting hotter, and the icecaps are melting and there is a buildup of carbon dioxide in the air."

This week the heat index, the perceived temperature based on both air temperatures and humidity, reached 115 Fahrenheit in some regions of the U.S. East Coast. The 76-year-old Robertson told viewers that was "the most convincing evidence I've seen on global warming in a long time."
Word has it he was on the road to Damascus (actually New York) when the incredible heat struck him down and a voice called out to him from the heavens (actually the atmosphere): "Pat, Pat, why hast thou denyeth me?" Overwhelmed with this epiphany, he vowed to preach the gospel of global warming to his enraptured television audience.

Seriously though, you could cut the irony with a knife. A man builds a gigantic fortune from belief in something for which there is no evidence, while simultaneously denying something (at least in public, up until now) for which there is plenty of evidence. The reason for belief in the former is supposedly word of mouth (or "tradition") passed down from generation to generation over 2000 years, yet Robertson rejected similar "word of mouth" messages from his contemporaries (aka scientists conducting peer-reviewed studies) on global warming, and only believed it when it smacked him - personally - in the face.