PORT ARTHUR, TEXAS: AMERICAN SACRIFICE ZONE
A Survival Guide for the Planet • published by the natural resources defense council
From Grass to Gas BRUCE BARCOTT SEARCHES FOR THE HOLY GRAIL OF green FUEL
fall 2013 w w w.one arth.org
The fresh Atlantic air. The gorgeous views. The natural, mountainous landscape. Itâ€™s easy to get lost in all the beauty that is Maine. But for those who may actually get lost, there are Mainers like registered guide Steven Vose, who says there are a hundred places he could go to in Maine and be happy. Those fantastic places that are truly Maine include climbing majestic Mt. Katahdin, hiking beautiful Baxter State Park and fishing on picturesque Rangeley Lake. No matter where you go, a life-changing experience awaits. Be inspired. Be adventurous. Be yourself. Discover your Maine Thing. To learn more, go to VisitMaine.com.
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volume 35 number 3 fall 2013
FEA TU RE S
28 End of the Line by Ted Genoways
d epar t me nts cover story
If you’re the adventurous type, try Patagonia. (And remember: our winter is their summer!)
If the Keystone XL pipeline is approved, Port Arthur, Texas, will be its terminus. This
threat to an already poisoned
The secret facial-cleanser ingredient that leaves your skin so soft? Could be ocean-polluting plastic. Plus the Dead Bird Lady, and more.
city portends an inescapable new reality for us all.
Q&A Ted Genoways asks performance artist Cynthia Hopkins about our addictions to oil and other dangerous stimulants.
by Ginger Strand
Often scorned as kooks and
24 the synthesist
warmongers, the advocates
by Kim Tingley The light emitted by bioluminescent creatures has always been cool-looking. Now it’s proving to be scientifically illuminating, too.
of cloud seeding see themselves as soldiers in the fight against drought.
26 think again
50 Something In the Air
by Michael Behar
Wait a minute: didn’t we ban leaded gasoline years ago? Unfortunately, not all of it. If
Imagine a future in which airliners run on cornstalks and Navy ships ply the oceans on tanks of switchgrass. After years of hype and countless false starts, that day may at last be inching closer.
you live near a small airport, you and your kids may be living inside a lead cloud.
in side nrd c
10 view from nrdc by Frances Beinecke
12 the deans list by Bob Deans dan winters
8 From the Editor 14 WHERE ONEARTH
Beating the heat in India, cleaning up the Penobscot; and more.
Turning Grass Into Gas by Bruce Barcott
Scientists discovered long ago how to make ethanol from cellulose, the basic building block of all plant life. But figuring out how to produce it on a commercial scale has taken years of R&D and billions of dollars. Money down a rathole, say the skeptics. Not so, say the true believers—and now they’re ready to prove it.
Cover: Photograph by Tia Magallon
by Elizabeth Royte You make it, you pay. Why should taxpayers foot the bill for the recycling of all that wasteful plastic?
Out of sight and out of mind, huge container ships glide from port to port, bringing us the goodies we crave—but what’s their real cost?
64 open space
by BK Loren A month alone in a lighthouse, battered by epic storms and 100-foot waves: sounds like heaven.
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onearth is a quarterly magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. It is open to diverse points of view; the opinions expressed by contributors and the editors are their own and not necessarily those of NRDC. NRDC does not endorse the products or services that are advertised in the pages of onearth.
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SHARKS AND PEOPLE
Exploring Our Relationship with the Most Feared Fish in the Sea THOMAS P. PESCHAK
Wildlife photographer Thomas Peschak presents stunning photographs that capture the relationship between people and sharks around the globe. The need to understand the significant part sharks play in the oceanic ecosystem has never been so urgent, and Peschak’s photographs—bearing witness to the thrilling strength and unique attraction of sharks—can play a dramatic part. Cloth $45.00
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4mee t the edi tor 4W E B E X C L U S I V E S Mystery of the Moose
The majestic icon of Minnesota’s North Woods is dying at an alarming rate. Is climate change to blame? A brain-piercing parasite? Something else? JESSICA BENKO investigates a troubling mystery. onearth.org/13fal/moose
Digging Deeper in Bangladesh
Who were the women of Rana Plaza, where 1,100 garment workers died in April? And where did they come from? GEORGE BLACK explores climate-driven migration to the slums of Dhaka and comes to a surprising conclusion. onearth.org/13fal/bangladesh
Top left: Steve Wall/Flickr; RIGHT: Stijn Nieuwendijk/Flickr; far right: jeff weiner
Forests Need Fire
Facing bigger and badder blazes because of climate change, the “fire-industrial complex” is pushing for a return to the snuff-’em-out policies of the past. Ecologists say that approach will come back to burn us, and MICHAEL KODAS explains why. onearth.org/13fal/wildfires
4mos t po p ular Teething Pains: the Fluoride Issue
The Real Bears of New Jersey
Time to Put Another $1 Billion in the Meter
The Rock That Changed My Life
Save the Eel, Save Your Liver? More online-only stories: onearth.org/webexclusives
He FACES BEARS ON HIS commute and is always looking for a peanut butter fix. But OnEarth.org editor SCOTT DODD also runs our growing digital operations, overseeing a raft of opinionated columnists and feature writers who uphold our tradition of in-depth reporting. And, man, can he write, including what Columbia Journalism Review called “bang-up investigative journalism.” Follow him at onearth.org/sdodd or on Twitter: @scottdodd
4COLUMNS AND BLOGS THE FUTURE OF FOOD
UPSTREAM AND DOWN
Americans drive SUVs, watch wall-size TVs, and eat big fish. But to protect the oceans, JOCELYN C. ZUCKERMAN says, we should cast a smaller net. Don’t hold the anchovies. onearth.org/13fal/fish
Just across the Michigan border, a strange lowfrequency noise is driving Canadians crazy. KIM TINGLEY seeks the source of the mysterious “Windsor hum.” onearth.org/13fal/hum
Energy independence sounds great—until, like ELIZABETH ROYTE, you spend the night in a North Dakota Amtrak station and experience firsthand fracking’s dark side. onearth.org/13fal/williston
contributors SHARON LEVY (“A Model of Scientific Rigor (Mortis),” p. 21) is a contributing editor to OnEarth and the author of the book Once and Future Giants: What Ice Age Extinctions Tell Us About the Fate of Earth’s Largest Animals (Oxford University Press). Her science writing has also appeared in Natural History, Nature, and Audubon. EUGENE RICHARDS (“The End of the Line,” p. 28) is a photographer, writer, and documentary filmmaker. The most recent of his 16 books are The Blue Room, a collection of photographs of discarded and abandoned houses in rural America, and War Is Personal, a documentation in words and pictures of the human consequences of the Iraq War.
lori nix (“Something in the Air,” p. 50) sees herself as a landscape photographer at heart. She has been constructing and photographing complex dioramas in her Brooklyn apartment for over a decade. A frequent flier, after working on this story she has even more to be concerned about each time she takes to the air. our paper and printing onearth is committed to environmentally sound publishing practices. Our text stock contains a minimum of 30 percent postconsumer waste and is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring that the world’s forests are sustainably managed. Our cover stock contains a minimum of 10 percent postconsumer waste.
eugene richards: janine altongy
BK LOREN (“To the Lighthouse,” p. 64) is the author of the novel Theft and the essay collection Animal, Mineral, Radical. One former editor told her that “I wrote like I was raised by wolves. I try to live up to that daily.” She lives in Colorado with her partner of 25 years and is currently at work on a new novel and a new nonfiction collection.
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Browsing nature’s aisles
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editor’s letter Inside America’s sacrifice zones
ere’s A glimmer of good news: the dream of creating clean biofuels
D oug l as S . barasch
from plants like switchgrass, after many false starts, may at last be shifting into higher gear (see our cover story by BRUCE BARCOTT). One particular reason for the optimism: huge demand for clean fuels from a military eager to break its dependency on foreign oil. However, we continue to lessen that dependency by drilling for more of the stuff here at home. And that means an increasing number (and diversity) of Americans live in what are lately referred to as “sacrifice zones.” I first heard the phrase in regard to the Louisiana Gulf Coast, where communities have had to endure the toxic impact of the fossil fuel and chemical industries for decades. Many of us are fortunate enough not to live at the epicenter of these industrial landscapes, not forced to inhale or ingest their toxic effluents. But none of us can escape entirely Beyond merely describing that one their effects, if only by virtue of sharing place, Ted Genoways explores how the a climatically challenged planet. Port Arthur, Texas, is one of those rest of us are also getting pulled into an sacrifice zones: a long-suffering comexpanding carbon-industrial vortex munity that has lived for 100 years in the shadow of an increasingly vast, churning complex of refineries and flaring smokestacks. Our editor-at-large, TED GENOWAYS, visited and listened to the stories of those trapped there by poverty and limited options. But beyond merely describing that one place, Genoways explores how the rest of us are also getting pulled into the carbon-industrial vortex. As Genoways writes, “The endangered Alaskan coast is Port Arthur now. So is the benzene-laced Kalamazoo River.... The river valleys and open plains overlying the Marcellus and Bakken shale formations where fracking rigs have appeared by the thousands: they’re Port Arthur, too. And soon, I fear, the Nebraska Sandhills near my home will be Port Arthur as well.” On an entirely different subject, I want to pay heartfelt tribute to a man who made invaluable contributions to the aesthetic and editorial character of OnEarth. J.-C. Suares, who died too soon this past July, was a visionary designer who helped make and remake some of the best-known publications in the country, including the New York Times, New York, Variety, and Discover. During the past 10 years, he visited us as we produced every issue, scrutinizing our layouts, guiding the redesigns of our publication, working closely with our extraordinary art director, Gail Ghezzi. Most important, he conveyed his love of the visual as a way to enhance the strength of words—to heighten the impact of a story and uphold the highest journalistic standards. He was an alchemist: after his visits, our magazine’s pages sparkled in ways they hadn’t quite before. He was delightfully feisty and a paragon of elegance, not out of vanity, but out of a deep appreciation of how beautiful life can be, not only on the page but in the weave of a fabric or the pattern of a tie. All of us at OnEarth will miss him terribly.
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view from NRDC why Climate Change is hazardous to our health
that climate change doesn’t just intensify droughts and floods. It endangers our health. This year’s soaring temperatures sickened people across the country. In July, officials from California to Illinois to New Jersey hustled to open cooling centers as two-thirds of the country was gripped by above-normal heat, breaking or matching more than 600 daily records. Senior citizens are especially vulnerable to heat, and when air conditioners broke down in an Indianapolis retirement community, firefighters had to evacuate 300 people. Medical experts have long warned of the hazards of such high temperatures: extreme heat kills more Americans than hurricanes, tornadoes, lightning, floods, and earthquakes combined. But climate change is putting more of us at risk. The odds of experiencing an intensely hot summer have risen from 1 in 100 (1951 through 1980) to 1 in 10 (1981 through 2010), according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That trend is expected to continue. A study conducted by Columbia University researchers and other scientists Experts have long warned of the hazpredicted that heat-related deaths in New York City could rise 20 percent ards of extreme heat, which kills more by the 2020s. Climate change poses Americans than hurricanes, tornadoes, other health threats as well, including floods, and earthquakes combined smog from hotter temperatures, air pollution from larger fires, and contaminated water from more severe flooding. To protect the health of our families, we must address the pollution causing these hazards. In June, President Obama announced a climate plan that will attack these problems. “For the sake of our children and the health and safety of all Americans,” he said, “I’m directing the Environmental Protection Agency to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants.” Reducing these emissions—which account for 40 percent of all U.S. carbon emissions—would make a major dent in our global-warming pollution. NRDC pushed hard for a national climate plan and has outlined for the EPA how to reduce carbon in the most cost-effective way. By investing heavily in efficiency and renewables, for instance, the benefits of cutting carbon could outweigh the costs by a factor of 15. Now the tough work begins. We have exactly three and a half years to put the president’s plan into action before the end of his term and to move the nation on a path toward reducing our emissions and protecting our long-term health. It will take a huge investment of time and resources in advocacy, policy blueprints, public outreach, and political pressure to ensure that the president’s climate plan is fully implemented. Fossil fuel industry opposition will be fierce. But we will labor tirelessly to make sure this job gets done. I urge you to join with us by raising your voices and demanding climate action. Truly, it’s what the doctor ordered.
francEs beinecke, President
1 0 onearth
nother summer of record-breaking weather confirms once more
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For information on how to include NRDC in your estate plans or to let us know youâ€™ve already done so, please contact Michelle Quinones, Lead Specialist, Gift Planning, at 212-727-4552 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org See the back cover to learn about the Legacy Challenge! www.nrdc.org/legacygift
the deans list
b y b o b d eans
Last year alone, Americans conducted by Chesapeake Beach Consulting, a firm that laid out more than $140 billion to often works with Republicans, and Hart Research, which cover crop losses, flood damage, typically works with Democrats. While we’re cleaning up our power plants, the president wildfires, and other consequences of extreme weather made worse by also made the case (once again) for investing in the innovation and research needed to reduce energy waste. By using climate change. The federal government picked energy-saving appliances in our homes; designing more up the lion’s share of the tab—to efficient commercial, industrial, and residential buildings; the tune of $1,100, on average, per and increasing the fuel efficiency of our cars and trucks, taxpayer. With more carbon pollu- we can save money on our energy bills while helping to tion in our atmosphere than at any other time in human cut our carbon footprint. We can also help create about history, we’re beginning to feel the effects of, and pay the 200,000 American jobs for carpenters, electricians, and others who can help improve energy efficiency in our price for, global climate change. Fortunately, we have a president who’s ready to do homes and workplaces. The message is pretty straightforward: climate change something about it. In late June, he proposed an innovative plan that could significantly cut the carbon pollution is the central environmental threat of our times; it’s imposing large and growing that’s driving climate costs on us all; and we chaos. It starts by setGovernment picked up most of the can do something ting limits—for the tab: $1,100 on average, per taxpayer. about it. first time ever—on With more atmospheric carbon than any To no one’s surthe dangerous carprise, the fossil fuel bon pollution from time in human history, we’re industry and its Capiour single largest beginning to pay the price. tol Hill allies jumped source: the power out with the usual plants that account overblown rhetoric to try to thwart needed change. for 40 percent of the national carbon footprint. “A war on jobs” is how Senate Minority Leader Mitch In fact, roughly 1,500 of these facilities emit some 2.4 billion tons of carbon pollution into our air each year. McConnell described the president’s plan. Brook Astonishingly, there are no federal limits on the amount Hougesen, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, labeled it a “war on modernity.” of such pollution these plants may release. Small wonder President Obama made clear that advoThat just doesn’t make sense. We limit the amount of mercury, soot, and other pol- cating for action on climate change is “not just a job for lutants these plants cough up—saving thousands of lives politicians.” To help advance the president’s vision, we’ll and billions of dollars in lost productivity each year in the all need to do our part. Talk to neighbors and friends. process. It’s time we set limits on the dangerous carbon Speak up in town hall meetings. And use our voices and influence to let elected officials and others know that we pollution that is driving climate change. The Clean Air Act gives the president the authority, and care about the future. Let them know we won’t kick this challenge down the road, and that we’ll support leaders the responsibility, to do just that. Public opinion is moving in this same direction: a nation- who are ready to take action against climate change. wide poll commissioned by NRDC found that 65 percent of the country agrees with the president. In fact, 49 percent Bob Deans, NRDC’s director of federal communications, is a of Republicans want to cut carbon pollution from power veteran newspaper reporter and a former president of the White plants, along with 56 percent of independents and 84 per- House Correspondents’ Association. His most recent book is Reckless: cent of Democrats, according to the July poll, which was The Political Assault on the American Environment.
1 2 onearth
illustration by bruce morser
CLIMATE CHANGE IS too expensive
where onearth tempestuous beauty Patagonia’s Río Futaleufú attracts rafters and anglers seeking sublime intensity.
A Chilean river welcomes all comers—but on its own terms By george black
here are a handful of places in the world that can redefine your standards of beauty. Anyone who has visited the valley of the
Río Futaleufú in Chilean Patagonia might well put it on the list. What makes this powerful glacier-fed river so special isn’t just the otherworldly turquoise of its waters, or the jagged snow peaks that engirdle its valley, or the dense surrounding forests of native species like the lenga and the ñirre. To me, what’s unique is the way the river can suddenly shift from the purest expression of serenity to the most naked form of terror: long, sinuous sheets of blue (ideal for a dreamy bankside picnic) alternating with thunderous Class V rapids with names like The Terminator. Many regard the “Fú” as the premier whitewater rafting destination in the world, meaning that the visitor will never be entirely alone here—at least not at the height of the season (December through March). You’ll see plenty of lurid neoprene in the town of Futaleufú, as well as the boots and waders of fly fishermen who’ve come in pursuit of brown and rainbow trout. When rafters’ talk of curlers and cartwheels and anglers’ chatter about elkhair caddis and woolly buggers get to be too much, drive across the border into Argentina to see the other face of Patagonia: a dry land defined by the rain shadow of the Andes. Near the town of Esquel you can sniff out traces of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who came here in 1901 when things got too hot for them in the American West. Or hurtle along dirt roads for hours without seeing another soul, through flat, baked scrubland that looks like Wyoming, but without the people.
Turbulent Waters Sadly, there are those who look at a rampaging river like the Futaleufú and see only wasted energy. The river, which rises in Argentina, is already dammed on that country’s side of the border. The ItalianSpanish utility Endesa would now love to do the same thing on the Chilean side. Under a law enacted during the Pinochet dictatorship, corporations like Endesa have acquired almost unlimited rights to develop Patagonia’s rivers. Environmentalists are already battling a $10 billion hydropower project on the Baker and Pascua rivers, far to the south; now they are gearing up to oppose Endesa’s plans for the Futaleufú. Organizing local opposition to new dam projects—as well as to the exploitation of nearby mining concessions —is the mission of the Futaleufú Riverkeeper (futaleufuriverkeeper.org), the first such organization in Patagonia.
race downriver in a kayak (preferably after taking lessons from an experienced instructor at Expediciones Chile). exchile.com relax at the Espacio y Tiempo lodge (90 miles of bad road south of Futaleufú), whose owners are passionate anti-dam activists. espacioytiempo.cl read Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, especially if you cross over into Argentina; it’s the finest piece of travel writing ever published. 1 4 onearth
Londie G. Padelsky
Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation
IM ED T E OF IT
Taught by Professor Mark W. Muesse
BY O C TO
Discover the Essence of Mindful Meditation In recent decades, science has confirmed that meditation, when correctly practiced, offers lasting benefits for your physical, mental, and emotional health. Now, in Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation, experienced meditator and Professor Mark W. Muesse gives you a clear understanding of the essence of meditation—and how best to practice it. In 24 detailed lectures filled with guided exercises, he teaches you the principles and techniques of sitting meditation, the related practice of walking meditation, the use of meditative awareness in activities such as eating and driving, and more. Emphasizing clarity and practical understanding, his course will leave you with a solid basis for your own practice and for bringing meditation’s empowering benefits into every area of your life.
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lecture titles 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15.
Mindlessness—The Default Setting Mindfulness—The Power of Awareness Expectations—Relinquishing Preconceptions Preparation—Taking Moral Inventory Position—Where to Be for Meditation Breathing—Finding a Focus for Attention Problems—Stepping-Stones to Mindfulness Body—Attending to Our Physical Natures Mind—Working with Thoughts Walking—Mindfulness While Moving Consuming—Watching What You Eat Driving—Staying Awake at the Wheel Insight—Clearing the Mind Wisdom—Seeing the World as It Is Compassion—Expressing Fundamental Kindness 16. Imperfection—Embracing Our Flaws 17. Wishing—May All Beings Be Well and Happy 18. Generosity—The Joy of Giving 19. Speech—Training the Tongue 20. Anger—Cooling the Fires of Irritation 21. Pain—Embracing Physical Discomfort 22. Grief—Learning to Accept Loss 23. Finitude—Living in the Face of Death 24. Life—Putting It All in Perspective
Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation
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The Inquisition of Climate Science
JAMES LAWRENCE POWELL â€œA clear antidote to the evolving national viral infection of antiscience. Get it. Read it. Tell others about it.â€? â€”Science Progress
Green Innovation in China
Chinaâ€™s Wind Power Industry and the Global Transition to a Low-Carbon Economy JOANNA I. LEWIS
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The Fall and Rise of Americaâ€™s Rivers
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s c i e n c e b u s i n e s s n a t u r e t e c h n o l o g y c u l t u r e p o l i t i c s
don’t lather, don’t rinse, don’t repeat
illustration by Walter Vasconcelos; STATISTICS: ocean conservancy (1), save our seas (2), 5 gyres (3)
by susan freinkel
Microbeads, found in many cosmetics, are the latest addition to the marine plastics problem. Yes: you may be dirtying our waters every time you clean your face.
form that so many of these microplastics took: multicolored, perfectly spherical balls a fraction of a millimeter in diameter. measure levels of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes, a Further investigation solved the riddle. The tiny balls were team of researchers expected to find lots of bottles, six-pack plastic microbeads, of the kind found in many popular exfoliating rings, and plastic bags. They expected, too, to discover facial scrubs. “It was like someone had taken an entire bottle of plenty of microplastics: those minuscule pieces of freefacial cleanser and poured it into our sample confloating plastic that typically result from tainer,” says Sherri Mason, an environmental the degradation of much larger pieces. Learn more about the many chemist at the State University of New York at But these researchers were unprechallenges facing the Great Lakes Fredonia, who conducted the study with scientists pared for just how much micro-size trash at onearth.org/13fal/erie from the University of Wisconsin–Superior and the they would discover. Some of the samples they col5 Gyres Institute, a nonprofit research and advocacy group. lected from Lakes Huron, Superior, and Erie indicated the presence While microbeads may be less visible than plastic bags, they of as many as 450,000 bits per square kilometer—twice as many as are no less environmentally problematic. For one thing, they “look had ever been recorded. And the scientists were mystified by the n the summer of 2012, when they set out to
% of fish in the english channel with plastic inside their gastrointestinal Tracts
% of floating ocean debris made of plastic
number of microbeads found in one 4.2–Oz. tube of a leading facial cleanser
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just like fish eggs, and thus like food” to a variety of aquatic organisms, says Mason. All marine microplastics are troublesome, given their tendency to absorb and concentrate persistent organic pollutants that can potentially accumulate in the fatty tissues of anything that eats them. Moreover, when plankton, lugworms, mussels, or fish fill up on toxic junk food, they may well lose their appetite for healthier fare. Dutch scientists who fed mussels tiny nanoparticles of polystyrene found that the shellfish subsequently ate less and grew less. It’s bad enough that microbeads are contributing to our ongoing microplastics problem. But unlike most other microplastics, which result from plastic litter that has broken down over time, microbeads are actually designed to go down our drains and through our pipes. Once they do, they’re small enough to
Unlike most other microplastics, microbeads are actually designed to go down our drains and into our oceans
pass through the filters in wastewater-treatment systems—and right into lakes, rivers, and oceans. Microbeads have been detected in more than 200 different consumer products; most fall under the category of facial cleansers, but the beads also make their way into soaps, sunscreens, even toothpaste. Manufacturers like them because they’re smoother than many natural exfoliants like salt, apricot pits, or walnut husks. And American consumers like them enough to buy cosmetics containing more than 573,000 pounds of them each year. Now, however, a campaign is afoot to scrub out the scrubbers. Responding to pressure from groups like 5 Gyres, a number of cosmetics companies—including Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, and the Body Shop—have pledged to remove microbeads from their products. Eventually. Unfortunately, they say, it will take a few years to find safe and effective natural alternatives. “We’re not happy that P&G is taking three and a half years to phase this stuff out,” says 5 Gyres spokesman Stiv Wilson, citing just one of the protracted timelines. While he and others wait, the anti-microbead movement looks toward other consumer markets, including Asia. In the meantime, America: how about just using some soap and a washcloth? Susan Freinkel is a contributing editor to OnEarth.
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bespoke design From old, abandoned bicycles, the Canadian artist and craftsman Gilbert VandenHeuvel makes new furnishings with abandon: coffee tables, desks, chairs, shelving, even clocks and salt shakers. Prices vary at therecycler.ca
As you wish, M’lard
ross but true: when residual fat, oil,
or grease from restaurants and food manufacturers is poured down the drain, it coagulates into globs known as “fatbergs” that can clog sewage systems. Thames Water, which handles much of London’s wastewater, spends up to £12 million a year removing as many as 40,000 fatbergs from the 66,500 miles of sewer pipe it oversees. Now the utility has decided to think of this nuisance as a deep-fried golden opportunity. Starting in 2015, Europe’s biggest sewage treatment plant—at Beckton, in East London—will be powered by a mix of fatbergs and leftover cooking oils collected from restaurants. In this fish-and-chips-loving city, analysts predict that all this grease—once converted into fuel—will provide up to 130 million kilowatt hours of electricity a year. Half will go toward running the Beckton sewer works and a nearby desalination plant; the rest will be sold back to the grid. Not a bad way to use up those leftovers. —fangfei shen
HIPSTER’S GOT A brand new bag Tuck your notebook into the interior pocket of the Mercer iPad shoulder bag, 75 percent of which is composed of upcycled items, including inner tubes and seatbelts. And look! Still plenty of room for your porkpie hat and chunky black glasses! $118 at alchemygoods.com
the other sun microsystems
hile we all wait patiently
for the game-changing app that will harness solar energy to charge our smartphones even as we walk around all day yapping on them, at least we have the Waka Waka Power. This palm-size, seven-ounce device is capable of fully charging a cell phone in two hours with eight hours of stored sunlight. $79 at wakawaka4light.com
illustration by harry campbell; right: photograph for onearth by christopher lane
But over the course of her 15-year career, even as she garnered Obie Awards and a Guggenheim Fellowship, Hopkins began to worry that her art had become too solipsistic. Her latest project, then, represents an attempt to link the notions of destructive personal behavior and destructive societal behavior. The result is a highly idiosyncratic, often funny, and ultimately poignant study of how our
All THE world’s a stage
Cynthia Hopkins rooted her performance-art piece in a 2010 Arctic voyage.
by commentary from fictional characters from the past and the future and from outer space. They offer a wider perspective. What got you thinking about climate change as a potential subject?
I attended a conference at Columbia University’s Earth Institute that was geared toward artists and other creative people. [Earth Institute director and economist]
We spend all this money to get an ever-diminishing supply of fossil fuels out of the ground. To me, that’s the familiar insanity of addiction.
the globe theatER A one-woman show links our shared burden of climate change to our shared obsessive-consumptive disorder This Clement World, a staged
multimedia event written and performed by Cynthia Hopkins, isn’t what most people think of as a typical night at the theater. At one point, the performance artist—in character as an amiable visitor from outer space— Ted Genoways delivers a bellowing narrative of the talks to mass extinctions that marked the end cynthia hopkins of the Cretaceous period, backed by a four-member chorus and a seven-piece rock band. At another point she provides the voices for the amateur documentary film that makes up a sizable chunk of the show, lip-synching over the muted testimonies of the documentary’s subjects. That film, as it happens, chronicles a 22-day expedition that Hopkins made to the Norwegian Arctic in 2010 at the invitation of Cape Farewell. This British organization connects artists and scientists in order to “stimulate the production of art founded in scientific research” and to assist artists in the task of “communicating on a human scale the urgency of the global climate challenge.” This Clement World was born of that trip, and what Hopkins witnessed while on it. Hopkins’s past work has explored her father’s battle with Parkinson’s disease and her own struggles with chronic depression and addiction.
private addictions are mirrored by our larger addiction to fossil fuels, and how our collective denial may prove to be our undoing. I met with Hopkins last spring during rehearsals at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where This Clement World traveled after its debut in New York City. The piece will make its West Coast debut this October at REDCAT, the interdisciplinary arts and performance space nestled within the Walt Disney Concert Hall complex in Los Angeles. What makes theater generally— and performance art specifically—a good vehicle for transmitting the urgency of a complex scientific topic like climate change?
Unlike in film—where special effects can often mean that very little is left to the audience’s imagination—in the theater you have to use your imagination to picture things. And then there’s the fact that climate change may or may not be something that will be experienced by an audience member directly in their lifetime, but will almost certainly be experienced by future generations. That’s why my personal story in This Clement World gets spliced
Jeffrey Sachs was talking about the pervasive degree of miscommunication regarding climate change. After he spoke, someone in the audience asked, “What can an artist possibly contribute to this issue?” And he said, “Well, you can communicate in a way that’s more viscerally and emotionally powerful than a scientist or a journalist can, perhaps.” It made me think of what I do in a new and different way, as a form of translation. And so then you decided to spend three weeks among total strangers on an Arctic icebreaker.
I was terrified to go on that boat trip. I was afraid of getting seasick, of shipwreck, of the cold. Of course, what ended up happening was that I found the experience of being aboard this little floating world—of not having all the stuff that I would normally have around me in my life in New York City— really liberating, even exhilarating. It suggested the equally exhilarating possibility of switching over to a simpler way of life, of not having so much disposable stuff that one thinks one can’t live without.
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Did the expedition succeed in its stated goal of getting you to see the world differently?
Each one of us has agency, and the truth is that fundamental change is possible. Part of that perspective may come from my experience as a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. I had to make this huge psychic shift from thinking that certain substances were somehow necessary for me to survive to realizing that living without those substances actually resulted in a much better life. We may think that we can’t live without fossil fuels or that we can’t survive without all of the stuff we manage to amass, but we can— and we can have a better life for giving them up.
It led to such interesting shifts in perspective and scale. It’s hard to judge distance, for example, out in the Arctic Ocean. There just aren’t that many familiar objects, besides birds, to use as reference points. You see a glacier, and you think you’re right next to it. And then you sail and sail and sail, and it turns out you were really, really far away from it. Since there’s no visible evidence of human civilization out there, it can feel a bit like being on the earth before people Getting just one person to kick an entered the picture. addiction is hard. But when you’re Then, just when you’re start- talking about billions of people. . . ing to feel tiny and insignificant, I know. But again, just to use my you’ll get this jolting reminder of own story as an example: my life the incredible impact we’ve had was being totally destroyed, and I on the environment. One day still wasn’t willing to try any other we visited this particular island, way until things got so bad that Moffen Island. There have never I finally hit bottom, in the lanbeen any humans living there at guage of recovery. We spend all all, but you step onto the shore, this money on fracking and deepand then you sea drilling, on look down, and extreme efforts Find Ted Genoways in conversathere’s garbage. to get an evertion with other newsmakers at Plastic bottles. diminishing onearth.org/tedqas The current carsupply of fossil ries them over from Siberia. So fuels out of the ground. To me, we’re polluting these places that’s the familiar insanity of adwhere we’ve never even lived, diction. We’ll go to any lengths and which only a handful of hu- to get this stuff that we know is mans will ever see. destroying the habitability of our environment, rather than taking That seems like exactly the kind of those same resources and putting image that both an activist and an them toward clean energy. Nothing will change unless and artist might be able to convey powuntil we go through that same erfully, albeit differently. shift in consciousness that I exArt can crack open our consciousness in a way that other means of perienced. There’s a line in a song describing the world can’t. Even from This Clement World—a song if my piece just makes people based on Woody Guthrie’s “This think about what’s happening to Land Is Your Land,” in fact—that the climate for an hour more than goes: “The bottom is when the digthey might have otherwise, for ging ends.” What the song is sayme that feels like a triumph. The ing is that we can’t wait until we’ve more people are made aware, really and truly hit bottom before the more likely they are to make we decide to act. We’re always choices—even tiny ones—to live free to make the choice about when to begin getting better. more sustainably.
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filthy-minded teenager How a 19-year-old’s design for a floating recycling bin could help turn the ocean cleanup tide
hile most other kids his age were thinking
about how to sneak into R-rated movies, Boyan Slat, a Dutch teenager, was contemplating how to overcome some of the most vexing physical hurdles inherent in our ocean cleanup efforts. Specifically, Slat remembers wondering to himself: “What if there were a way to turn oceanic currents—which can make it so difficult to collect marine trash—from an obstacle into a solution?” Now, at the ripe old age of 19, Slat may have come up with a plan for doing just that. His ingenious design for a marine garbage trap, should it ever be realized, has the potential to capture nearly one-third of the 7.25 million metric tons of plastic currently floating atop the surface of our oceans. Slat’s invention is essentially an anchored system of floating barriers and platforms that can be dispatched to some of the most notorious waterborne garbage patches, where plastics tend to accumulate in massive currents known as gyres. After being arranged so that they transect one of these gyres, the floating barriers can then be angled in such a way as to create a funneling effect—gradually directing debris toward the platforms, where it can then be stored before being transported to land-based recycling facilities. Dubbed the Ocean Cleanup Array (and looking somewhat like a spaceship on a leash), the contraption would get all its energy from the sun, ocean currents, and waves. And since we know you’re about to ask: yes, Slat has designed the whole apparatus so that marine life can easily swim below it without getting caught up in any of its machinery. Even though his innovative trash collector is still in the feasibility-study phase, the technology behind it has already garnered Slat a number of prizes. Kids these days, we swear. —KRISTEN FRENCH left: Erwin Zwart/Fabrique Computer Graphics; Right: photograph for onearth by Richard Darbonne
A warm response
The biologist’s birdoriented citizen-science project has attracted 800 volunteers.
a model of scientific rigor (mortis)
Dead men tell no tales. Dead seabirds, however, have plenty to say to researcher Julia Parrish.
By sharon levy
very month I walk the same stretch
of idyllic Northern California beach, searching for dead birds. Using a field guide to avian corpses by the seabird biologist Julia Parrish (she sometimes refers to it as “Dead Birds for Dummies”), I have reached the point where I’m now able to identify a species based on, say, a single remnant foot. I’m one of hundreds of volunteers who log our discoveries of expired, beach-cast birds along the Pacific Northwest coast. After verifying and analyzing the information we give her, Parrish and her research colleagues are able to turn it into vital baseline data that help them better understand the shifting patterns of seabird mortality and the larger threats to their ecosystems. “When I’m gone,” Parrish says cheerfully, “they’ll remember me as the dead-bird lady.” Seabirds live for a long time, feed across the ocean’s complex food web, and use all different kinds of marine habitats; for these reasons they’re considered to be excellent indicators of a marine ecosystem’s overall health. But for all the information living specimens provide, there’s plenty to be taken from studying dead ones too. That’s why Par-
rish, a professor at the University of Washington, made dead seabirds the focus of the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), a citizen-science project that has shocked her with its popularity. At first Parrish expected to recruit only a few intense bird nerds who would be willing to examine and photograph bird corpses. But as many COASST volunteers (myself included) have discovered, handling the dead fosters a new sense of awe for the living. From its origins 14 years ago as a small pilot project—a dozen or so volunteers combing a handful of Washington beaches—the program has grown to include 800 participants covering more than 400 sites, from Northern California to the Alaskan Arctic. The idea for COASST grew out of Parrish’s research into the common murre, a white-bellied, black-backed diving bird that nests in raucous colonies along the Pacific coast. She spent much of the 1990s studying a single colony on Tatoosh Island, off northern Washington. Over time, the murre population there appeared to be declining. Parrish wondered if this was a sign of a broader pattern, but she lacked enough data on the larger population of murres to provide a frame of reference. Those broader patterns, Parrish says, “are really hard for ecolo-
As many volunteers have discovered, handling the dead fosters a new sense of awe for the living
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Free SPOTLIGHT With Zombie Baseball Beatdown (Little, Brown; September 10), sci-fi novelist Paolo Bacigalupi aims his environmentally focused storytelling ray gun at gross-out-loving ’tweens. His tale pits kids against a Big Ag–sponsored meatpacking plant that’s giving toxic feed to its cattle—resulting in flesh-craving cows.
et another strike against ground-level ozone
pollution: it makes previously savvy flower-finding insects utterly hopeless at following a sensory map. In a recent experiment conducted at Penn State, researchers placed striped cucumber beetles in proximity to buffalo gourd flowers and started ratcheting up the ozone. At the lowest levels, the beetles were usually able to find their way to the flowers—but at higher levels their navigational prowess failed them. Researchers believe that pollutants like ozone destroy the plant’s aroma molecules before the insects can catch an enticing whiff. And according to study leader Jose Fuentes, since 70 percent of our food supply relies on insect pollination, human beings have a very pressing reason —F.S. to be steering pollinators in the right direction.
TIME TO DOWNSHIFT 980_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________
If 10% of drivers...
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... increased ... moved ...commuted transit use 25% closer to via carpool 20 days a by 8 trips a where they month month work
We drive our cars, we drive our trucks, we drive our SUVs. As we do, we drive the rise in atmospheric greenhouse gases. Up to 20 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States— 971 million metric tons annually—are attributable to personal vehicle use. A report released in June by NRDC shows that if only 10 percent of driving-age Americans were to adjust their commuting and gettingaround-town habits, we could prevent millions of metric tons of these gases from entering the atmosphere every year. —JON MARK PONDER
statistics: nRDC; above: Visuals Unlimited/Corbis
What it’s called: Avego Compatible with: Android, Apple What it does: Allows commuters to share info on local carpooling in real time. Users can browse ride listings, contact someone to organize a carpool, and even “rate” their rides. How much it costs:
(in millions of metric tons)
gists to track. There’s only so many grad students you can find and write grants for.” In 1998 she began pondering alternate ways to obtain information on murre populations throughout their widespread range. Dead murres, she knew, were a frequent sight on Pacific beaches. If only there were an affordable way to collect data on a large enough set of them, she thought, it might yield valuable insights into why they had died—and how they had lived. Within a year and a half, volunteers had helped her and her graduate students collect enough data to reveal distinct mortality patterns. They found, for instance, that while murres live off the coast year-round, the number of beach-cast corpses rises in late summer and early fall, after the breeding season. At that point in their life cycle, adults are exhausted from the effort of rearing their chicks, and their newly independent offspring—not yet skilled as hunters—are more likely to starve. Fifteen years after its conception, COASST has established baseline data on seabird mortality that can be cited in the event of oil spills, El Niño events, toxic algae blooms, and other disturbances, be they man-made or natural. Earlier this year, Parrish traveled to Washington, D.C., to receive a Champions of Change award at the White House. She was honored by the Obama administration not only for building a valuable database that can help map the influence of oil spills and climate change but also for “connecting people to the natural history and cool science of the beaches they love.” “This is the century of citizen science,” says Parrish. “The old-fashioned paradigm of dreaming up a hypothesis and sending an expert into the field to test it—that’s B.S. The new insights now will come from people immersed in the biology around them.”
Annual greenhouse gas emissions
you’re onearth enter our photography contest
winner: Andrea Westmoreland camera: Nikon D200 with Sigma 120–400mm lens about THE photo: It was close to sunset on a spring day when I caught this shot near Ponce Inlet, on the eastern coast of Florida. I flipped the photo upside down so the pelican’s face is right side up, giving the image a novel perspective.This male brown pelican is in full breeding plumage, appearing radiant for the females. The orange element behind his head is a rusty, jagged piece of metal on the pier.
how to win
Share your best photographs of life on earth with us: images of wildlife habitat, but also human habitat and wherever the two meet (harmoniously or inharmoniously). We’re looking for scenes with a strong visual point of view, attitude, and, of course, beauty. The winning photo will be published in OnEarth magazine, and the runner-up will be featured online at onearth.org. submit your photos and see contest rules at onearth.org/photocontest
Contest winner will receive a FREE trip for two to any Caravan Tours destination: Costa Rica, Guatemala, Canadian Rockies, Grand Canyon, Nova Scotia, New England & Fall Foliage—valued up to $5,000. Second-place winner will receive a pair of Vanguard Endeavor ED binoculars (value: $425). FALL 2013
by kim tingley
compound called a luciferin reacts with oxygen and is then catalyzed by an enzyme called luciferase, the resulting energy appears as light. But scientists don’t believe bioluminescence evolved for the purpose of illumination. Instead, it likely arose soon after oxygen did—some 2.5 billion years ago—as a way of helping early organisms prevent this increasingly ubiquitous (and toxic-in-high-doses) element from damaging their cells. Bioluminescence converts oxygen into light energy hyperefficiently; indeed, says Michael Latz, a marine biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, “it is actually the most potent antioxidant that we know about.” The more researchers learn about what triggers bioluminescence, the more they can use it as a tool to study systems previously invisible to us. Scientists have already genetically engineered harmless bioluminescence into plants and animals, including the cultured cells of humans, in an attempt to observe the regulation of certain genes and the activity of proteins. Because dinoflagellates—plankton that are the most common source of bioluminescence at the ocean’s surface—glow with a brightness directly proportional to their level of agitation, researchers have been able to use them to illuminate the complex forces at work inside a single wave, as well as to highlight the fluid dynamics that allow dolphins to shoot through the water with such remarkable speed. Bioluminescence also offers new ways to observe the health of ecosystems. In the Caribbean, Latz is studying bays that glow year-round, thanks to an abundance of dinoflagellates. “The bioluminescence is a sentinel—we can use it as an indicator of environmental quality,” he n astonishing variety of living things says. Storms can disturb a bay’s dinoflagellates and cause its glow to generate light: bacteria, beetles, flies, fish, krill, millipedes, comb jellies, worms, squid, shrimp. For dim until things settle back down. By tracking shifts in brightness, reasons we don’t fully understand, most of these Latz’s team can measure the bays’ resilience in an era when climate creatures live in the ocean. Below 3,000 feet, where change is increasing the frequency and intensity of coastal storms. The marine biologist Edith Widder, of the Ocean Research and Consunbeams never reach, more than 80 percent of swimmers and floaters flash or glow in some man- servation Association, has used bioluminescent bacteria to map the distribution of heavy metals and fertilizers in the Indian River Lagoon, ner. All fish that make their homes in these rayless one of Florida’s most troubled waterways. ocean zones have eyes, presumably for the sole purpose of viewing More than ever, it seems, scientists are able to see new evidence of such displays, some of which appear as ghostly blue-green beacons, others of which flash like Christmas strands that festoon rippling, ecological upsets like man-made climate change and hazardous waste in the form of glaring, real-time warnings. But are we willing to dim pulsating forms of alien life. some of our own lights in deference to the natural lamps we’re beginHowever they display it, on land or in the sea, all bioluminescent ning to turn to for these environmental alerts? species use their light strategically. In their recently Now that humans have illuminated so much of published primer, Bioluminescence, J. Woodland For more on the intersection of the world, the darkness that makes bioluminescent Hastings and Thérèse Wilson write that fireflies blink science, culture, and the environsignals so visible—and so valuable to the species that to attract a mate. Anglerfish dangle a pouch of glowment, visit onearth.org/scitech generate them—is disappearing. Indeed, says Latz, ing bacteria above their mouths to lure prey. Blind artificial nighttime glare is already interfering with the observability millipedes shine to remind predators that they’re poisonous. Some of the bays he studies, threatening to overpower the radiance that fish, shrimp, and squid illuminate their bellies to match the intensity of whatever moonlight or sunlight is filtering down from above, effec- broadcasts how they are faring. “I consider them ecological wonders tively camouflaging themselves from any creatures swimming below. that need to be preserved,” he says. He’s hoping for a brighter fuUpon encountering the spectacle of oceans shimmering with ture—of deeper darkness and more easily visible bioluminescence. bioluminescent plankton, René Descartes, the seventeenth-century “The darker it is, the better you can see it.” French philosopher, thought he was witnessing combustion, and posited that sea-salt crystals were flammable. In fact, biolumines- Kim Tingley writes the Working Hypothesis column for onearth.org. Her work cence is created not by heat but by a chemical reaction. When a also appears frequently in the New York Times Magazine.
got a light, buddy?
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illustration by jesse lefkowitz
“ Tar sands is
Photo: © Lisa Whiteman
the kind of dirty energy we can no longer afford.”
Watch Robert Redford’s new video about the dangers of tar sands oil. Then Tell President Obama that the Keystone XL pipeline fails his climate test. Call on him to keep his promise by rejecting it. Go to: DemandCleanPower.org
paying it forward
by elizabeth royte
ver the past 11 years, Mayor
Michael Bloomberg has helped plant hundreds of thousands of trees in
New York City, reduced indoor air pollution by banning smoking in restaurants and bars, and created more than 350 miles of bike lanes in the five boroughs—all boons to the environment. But he’s never done all that much to reduce the quan-
tity of waste that the city sends to landfills. Until this past spring, that is, when the outgoing mayor 2 6 onearth
(he steps down on January 1) announced a major expansion of the types of plastics New Yorkers can toss into their recycling bins. Yesterday it was only narrow-necked bottles; today it’s any rigid plastics, including clamshell-type containers, clothes hangers, even toys. Hallelujah. Compared with other American metropolises, New York’s recycling rate has been pretty anemic. At last check, the city was recovering only 15 percent of all the potentially recyclable material in its waste stream; the national average is 34.7 percent. That’s why so many of us were pleased by the mayor’s announcement. With a stroke of the pen, Bloomberg assured that an additional 50,000 tons of plastics would be delivered to recycling companies annually. Moreover, the simplicity of the city’s larger recycling message—“Just throw everything into the bin”—seemed likely to foster a greater degree of compliance, netting plastics processors even more of the materials they covet most: those narrow-necked bottles that are typically made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or high-density polyethylene (HDPE). But then my not-so-inner skeptic started to pipe up. Wasn’t it possible, I wondered, that this expansion would encourage even more consumption of single-use throwaway plastics? Would consumers who might once have felt a guilty pang when tipping their takeout containers into the trash now feel that by recycling those containers, they were somehow solving our plastics problem? Plastic, after all, is made out of nonrenewable resources—oil and natural gas—extracted at high cost to human and environmental health. Globally, the plastics packaging industry grew an average of 7.2 percent a year between 2001 and 2010, with most of that growth taking place in developing nations. It all leads to a question that doesn’t get asked enough: who should be responsible for what happens to consumer products and packaging when we’re through with them? For the most part, our current system lets the producers of single-use plastics off the hook, allowing companies to offload costs related to the disposal of ever more waste— from sticky Frappuccino lids to salad bar boxes and single-use water bottles—onto taxpayers, who pay for their collection and transfer to recycling facilities. Or, increasingly, to landfills, in the event that these materials fail to find an end market. (China, which has been buying about 50 percent of our exported recyclables, has begun turning away loads of them because they’re contaminated with food or other garbage, or mixed with non-recyclable plastics.) But things may be changing. Recently, more and more states, cities, and concerned individuals have begun demanding that the producers of consumer goods take greater responsibility for their products at the end of their useful lives. Proponents of the strategy known as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) press governments to shift the costs of collecting and recycling products and packaging onto those who generated them in the first place. Under an EPR framework, manufacturers and brand owners finance the collection and recycling or disposal of packaging materials, hazardous landfill items (such as mercury-containing compact fluorescent bulbs and thermometers), and hard-to-recycle goods like mattresses. Won’t these fees be folded directly into consumer price tags? They might. But that’s actually the beauty of the EPR system: it sends a clear economic signal to both companies and consumers regarding
illustration by mary lynn blasutta
a product’s true price—that is, the price that accuBut governments can’t go it alone. The paradigm Read more about plastics and water in rately reflects end-of-life disposal or recycling costs. won’t shift without the added energies of the comElizabeth Royte’s column, Upstream and By shining a light on so-called disruptive products panies that manufacture these goods, as well as the Down, at onearth.org/13fal/royte or practices, the system encourages brand owners retailers that sell them and the facilities that ultiand manufacturers to come up with safer, more efficient, and more mately sort them for recycling. And then there’s what may be the most cost-effective solutions. When EPR works as it’s supposed to, consum- important link of all: forward-thinking inventors who are designing ers end up with less packaging—or, at the very least, with packaging products and packaging with the environment in mind. that’s easier to reuse, recycle, or compost. Aaron Mickelson is one of them. Mickelson was a graduate stuAs it happens, Ron Gonen, New York City’s deputy commissioner of dent in industrial design at New York City’s Pratt Institute when he sanitation, recycling, and sustainability, is already in discussions with conceived of five consumer products whose packaging would simply major brand owners—including Walmart—about implementing EPR disappear as the product was being used. One of his designs is a bar of in America’s biggest city. “We need to make companies understand soap that comes wrapped in nontoxic, septic-safe, water-soluble paper that it will no longer be acceptable to sell something in our market that could be printed with the soap-maker’s logo and other pertinent if we have to pay to dispose of it at the end of its life cycle,” he told information. Bring the bar into the shower, lather up, and watch the me recently. “Companies should be responsible for ensuring that any packaging dissolve. Packets of laundry soap designed by Mickelson packaging or product they put into the market can be recycled, and would come in tear-off pods made of a similar water-soluble material; that there’s a market for it as well.” once the last pod in a set was used, there would be no packaging left And if companies don’t step up? “Government is going to look to behind. At the individual consumer level, the impact of such innovalegislate,” Gonen said. “It’s not fair for taxpayers to pick up the cost of a tions can seem tiny, but Mickelson has calculated that a single truckproduct that was poorly designed.” New York’s neighbor to the north- load of his soap would eliminate nearly 4,000 pounds of packaging. east, the state of Connecticut, recently passed legislation that requires In upstate New York, a company called Ecovative Design is growing mattress makers to pay for the collection of discarded mattresses and a replacement for expanded polystyrene (known more colloquially by their delivery to recycling facilities. The program is expected to keep its trade name, Styrofoam), a longtime bête noire of recycling systems, 175,000 mattresses a year out of landfills and incinerators, conserve since it crumbles and blows around easily, has little resale value, and resources (the fibers, woods, and metal springs can all be reused), basically lasts forever. Ecovative Design’s substitute is made from boost local industries that build re-use into their business models, and mycelium, a network of fungal cells that grows naturally and rapidly save the state up to $1.3 million a year. in inedible crop waste and can be easily shaped into whatever form is desired. Best of all, it can be composted after use. Right now, this “mushroom packaging” is a bit more expensive than S HORT TA K E conventional polystyrene, but the price will start coming down as the company scales up. There are already signs that increased demand is helping the process along. As co-founder Eben Bayer told an interviewer, many of his clients approached him saying they “had to get out of plasNext year, lawmakers in Rhode Island will have an optic.” There’s a growing sense among consumers, he said, that manu-facturers should “stop sending plastic waste with their products.” portunity to pass a law that would require producers Across the nation, industrial designers grizzled and green—in both to pay for the post-consumer collection and processing the chronological and the ecological senses of that second word—are of any plastics or packaging they introduce into the innovating. They’re driven partly by the looming specter of resource marketplace. Allen Hershkowitz, the NRDC senior scidepletion, but also by smart EPR legislation, by the desire to save money (less packaging means less expense), and by the imperative entist who helped develop the basic framework for this to respond to all those frustrated consumers who are fed up with concept 20 years ago, is leading the initiative to reduce excessive packaging and are willing to say something about it. The the Ocean State’s marine pollution, decrease inflow to shift to a less resource-intensive future will require lots of things to its lone landfill, and save its cash-starved municipalities happen: industry will need to retool, governments will need to enact new laws, and the public—crucially—will need to change its mind-set tens of millions of dollars a year. By bringing together and its behavior. Tossing all our rigid plastics into a single bin might legislators, city managers, environmental groups, and seem fantastic. But it isn’t the answer to our garbage problems—not if concerned citizens, Hershkowitz says, the proposed it obscures the need to consider where all these materials come from legislation has the potential to turn “the smallest state in the first place, and where they’re likely to end up.
Tiny State, Big Idea
in the nation into a model for all the others.”
Elizabeth Royte is a contributing editor to OnEarth. Her most recent article for the magazine was “Frack Attack” (Spring 2013).
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canâ€™t win For residents of Carver Terrace, all aspects of daily life take place in the shadow of industry.
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e n i L e h t f o d n E e h T oways by ted gen
After decades of neglect, residents of the Gulf Coastâ€™s most toxic public housing complex are finally preparing to get out. but in a city given over to oil refineries, is anywhere really safe?
photographs by eugene richards
f you splinter off the interstate from houston
into the inky dark of the sloughs and bayous surrounding Texas State Highway 73, you will eventually emerge on the outskirts of Port Arthur and into the otherworldly light of one of the world’s largest oil refinery complexes. To the north and east is the 3,600-acre Motiva plant, a joint project of Shell Oil and Saudi Aramco; to the west is a 4,000-acre plant owned by Texas-based Valero. Together the two facilities refine more than 900,000 barrels of crude per day. Shrouded in billows of smoke and bathed in the radiance of round-the-clock floodlights and the molten glow of gas flares, their towers seem to rise on clouds of fire, suggesting a floating megalopolis that sprawls in all directions toward more refineries and petrochemical plants, toward the lighted cranes and petroleum coke conveyers that line the shipping channel, and away to hazardous waste incinerators and dump sites in the distance. On one side of Terminal Road, the long, angling track that borders these facilities, is a chain-link fence and a berm made of buried pipelines that occasionally sprout from the hillside into aboveground shutoff valves and standpipes. Overhead, cameras placed atop a straight seam of street lamps provide a constant feed to guards in their nearby trucks, ever alert for signs of vandalism or trespass. On the other side of the road is West Port Arthur: an overwhelmingly African American community of churches, shotgun shacks, and several complexes of low-slung, barracks-like brick row houses—public (or public-assisted) housing meant for those who can’t afford to live anywhere else. The oldest and closest of these complexes is Carver Terrace. In 1952, Port Arthur’s white town fathers took public housing dollars from Washington and erected these apartments directly on the refineries’ fence. They followed up soon thereafter by building two more projects. Within five years, roughly a third of West Port Arthur’s 1,500 households were in public housing, and there were only seven white families in the whole community. To this day, it remains roughly 95 percent African American. And as West Port Arthur’s enormous refineries have spewed forth benzene, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and other pollutants—permitted or unpermitted—for more than six decades, the effects of these emissions, then, have been experienced disproportionately by African Americans. Some local officials excuse the stench given off by those emissions as the smell of money, but the residents of Carver Terrace reap no economic rewards from the refineries. While the oil and gas industry accounted for almost 7 percent of new jobs created nationwide between 2005 and 2011, Port Arthur’s unemployment rate nearly doubled over that same span. Though it sits barely a hundred yards from some of the most profitable oil and gas complexes in the world, Carver Terrace is utterly cut off from any of the benefits they might yield. Residents of West Port Arthur—those who can find work—earn half what the average Texan makes. In the wee hours, when a shift ends at the refineries, taillights race up the highway toward Winnie or Nederland or other predominantly white suburbs, taking with them whatever prosperity these facilities confer locally. But even worse than the economic inequity is the documented health effect on West Port Arthur residents, who have been regularly and repeatedly subjected to major emissions events—what the refining industry euphemistically terms “upsets.” I was drawn to Port Arthur, in part, by a video posted to YouTube by Hilton Kelley, a local environmental and community activist. It shows no fewer than eight enormous
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towers spewing huge flags of orange fire and thick, black smoke into the sky over West Port Arthur, the result of a brief outage at a substation owned by Entergy Texas, a local power provider. Without the benefit of an independent power grid or a sufficient backup system, the coking units at various refineries had powered down and filled with dangerous gas; to restart after a blackout event like that, these refineries had to “flare off” huge quantities of toxic emissions. As the refineries came back online, flaring for more than an hour, the sky turned murky, then dark. It looked like nightfall. But near the end of the video—which otherwise records only the calls of mourning doves and other songbirds—Kelley can be heard stating calmly: “April the 14th, 2013. Time now about 10:30 a.m.” When I contacted him about coming to Port Arthur, Kelley told me that the event wasn’t unusual. Indeed, in the weeks before I visited in late June, a steady stream of incidents made the local news: a reserve oil tank was struck by lightning and the resulting fire spread, causing explosions and dotting the horizon with black plumes; a spill of fuel oil at the Motiva refinery caused an emissions release; a pair of unspecified events at Valero’s incinerators led to what the company called “excess carbon monoxide emissions.” (In mid-July, both Motiva and Valero announced partial shutdowns to address the problems.) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory places Jefferson County among the very worst in the nation for air releases of chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects, and reproductive disorders. In a state that regularly records in excess of 2,500 toxic emissions events per year, Port Arthur is near the top of the
from nrdc communities at risk
Al huang Director of NRDC’s environmental justice program, based in New York
Are there other Carver Terraces in our midst? How many Americans live in similar circumstances? Sadly, it’s not at all unique. Studies demonstrate that lowincome communities and communities of color host, more often than not, our most dangerous industrial sites. According to one study conducted by the United Church of Christ, of the more than 9 million people estimated to live within 1.86 miles of the nation’s 413 commercial hazardous waste facilities, more than 5.1 million of them are people of color—and keep in mind that these people often live in neighborhoods with more than one facility. So more than half of the people living in these host communities are people of color.
illustration by bruce morser
welcome mat Hundreds of warning signs line Carver Terrace’s periphery, constant reminders of a vast pipeline grid just belowground.
list of offending cities. Data collected by the Texas Cancer Registry indicates that cancer rates among African Americans in Jefferson County are roughly 15 percent higher than they are for the average Texan. Shockingly, the mortality rate from cancer is more than 40 percent higher. And cancer is only part of the story. A study by the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston found that residents of Port Arthur were four times more likely than people just 100 miles upwind to report suffering from heart and respiratory conditions; nervous system and skin disorders; headaches and muscle aches; and ear, nose, and throat ailments. The reason is simple: this is where many Americans get their oil and gas. Yet despite Port Arthur’s importance to our fuel-dependent way of life, few people have ever heard of it. Of those who have, many know the city as little more than a name that gets repeated in countless articles about the Keystone XL pipeline. Should the final phase of the project be approved, Port Arthur will be the completed pipeline system’s terminus. The city’s refineries stand at the ready to turn 830,000 barrels per day of diluted, chemically treated bitumen into heavy diesel and petroleum coke—a dirtier alternative to coal. Kelley has become a prominent figure in the anti-pipeline movement. He spoke at last February’s Forward on Climate Rally in Washington, D.C., and addressed the International Forum for a Sustainable Development at UNESCO headquarters in Paris in June. But he has also
But do the people living in these communities derive any benefits from the industries next door to them? Poverty rates in these neighborhoods are typically 1.5 times greater than they are elsewhere. Many promises get made when new industrial sites or hazardous waste facilities are being proposed: jobs, new amenities for the community, sometimes even direct infusions of cash. These promises almost always fall short of a community’s needs or expectations. More significantly, they can never outweigh the shortand long-term health costs imposed on residents in the places they live, work, play, and pray. Then there’s the fact that someone who happens to live near and work in a hazardous facility is essentially being exposed to toxic chemicals 24 hours a day. How does NRDC help ensure that today’s vulnerable communities aren’t turned into tomorrow’s “sacrifice zones”? Litigation can be a powerful tool for obtaining remedies that preserve the health of communities. NRDC works directly with neighborhoods facing unjust environmental threats by representing them in litigation, when appropriate, and by providing technical assistance to help them understand those threats. We utilize existing laws designed to prevent the release of toxic chemicals or to make sure that any released chemicals are properly cleaned up so that these places are made safer for current and future residents. Litigation by itself isn’t a panacea, however; it’s most effective when linked to community organizing and advocacy. In the best case, successful litigation eliminates the immediate environmental threat while galvanizing residents so that they can better deal with future threats.
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passionately urged politicians and activists to visit Port Arthur so they might see for themselves how this sliver of the Gulf Coast is suffering doubly as its legacy of pollution and toxic emissions combines with the effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels and increasingly powerful hurricanes. According to Robert Bullard, a man considered by many to be the father of the environmental justice movement (and currently the dean of the Barbara Jordan–Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, in Houston), the heavy concentration of African Americans in the shadow of the city’s refineries may be especially egregious, but it is hardly unique. In Texas, where 12 percent of the population is African American, people of color make up more than 66 percent of residents near the state’s most hazardous waste sites. When the focus is widened to consider the whole of the EPA’s Region 6—an area that includes Texas and all contiguous states—the numbers remain virtually the same. In March of this year, however, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) finally approved the Port Arthur Housing Authority’s plan to level Carver Terrace and relocate residents to a new complex to be built on the northern side of town, farther from the refineries. But after years of battling city hall for better housing, many of these residents now wonder if moving a mile or two away will be enough to restore their health. When it comes down to it, all of Port Arthur is a “fence-line community,” the term environmental justice advocates use to describe neighborhoods adjacent to hazardous facilities. Pressed up against the Louisiana state line, the city is downwind of nearly every coastal refinery in Texas, the last in a chain of cities making up a Beaumont-Orange-Port Arthur metropolitan area so crowded with industry that, from the air, it appears to burn yellow. How far, the residents of Carver Terrace want to know, would they have to go before they could honestly feel as if they had escaped to something like safety? 3 2 onearth
“I was born out here at 1202 E,” hilton kelley said, pointing
to one building among the rows and rows of identical structures at Carver Terrace. “I was born by a midwife. I mean, literally, born out here.” The sun was blistering, but Kelley guided me around with the patience of a docent. Along the way, he paused to make sure that residents were making their arrangements for moving out, now that Carver Terrace’s demolition appeared imminent. “Yes, yes,” said Erma Lee Smith. She assured Kelley that she was making arrangements, but she also admitted to being worried about a city council meeting scheduled for that evening. City council members would be voting on a tax credit requested by one of the contractors working on the new public housing complex. Kelley ducked into the shade of Smith’s stoop to explain to her that the vote was just a formality, a necessary and near-final step in the lengthy process that would lead to relocation. Port Arthur had already secured $20.5 million from HUD and other sources, he said. There was simply no way the city would ever risk losing that kind of cash infusion. Smith was visibly relieved. The 80-year-old has been at Carver Terrace since 1978, living for much of that time in a building at the northwestern corner of the complex barely 20 yards from the berm on the other side of Terminal Road. She smelled gas emissions on a regular basis, she said, and spoke of one recent explosion that was close enough to rattle her windows. Every time something happened, she told me, she had trouble catching her breath. For all of the years she has lived at Carver Terrace, she has depended day and night on a respirator—what she calls her “breathing machine”—to inhale Albuterol, which eases the coughing and tightness in her chest that comes from her severe bronchitis. One of her daughters uses the same treatment, she said; another daughter and a son both have asthma. “You take a good whiff, you can smell the petroleum,” Kelley told me later. “It smells like tar all the time. When I first started coming around here and met Miss Erma Lee, I was like, ‘Dang, everybody out here has to use respiratory medication.’”
hope and change Local environmental activist Hilton Kelley, far left, watches from the dining room of his shuttered restaurant as President Obama delivers his June 25 speech addressing climate change and the future of the Keystone XL pipeline. At a Port Arthur City Council meeting, 80-year-old Erma Lee Smith (above, in pink) awaits a vote on whether the plan to relocate her and her fellow Carver Terrace residents can proceed as scheduled.
Kelley was raised in and around Carver Terrace. He managed to escape its gravity for nearly two decades, after joining the Navy and later moving to Oakland, California, where he started and ran a home maintenance and repair business. But when he returned to Port Arthur in 2000 for a Mardi Gras celebration, he was shocked by the deteriorated state of his hometown. Within a year he had moved back and founded an organization he named the Community In-Power & Development Association (CIDA). He resolved to take the fight directly to the powers that be, training citizens to measure levels of toxicity in the air, filing lawsuits against illegal polluters, and crashing shareholder meetings to protest corporate indifference. Kelley has scored some major victories. In 2003 he succeeded in getting the Texas Commission on Environmental Equality to block a permit for a project at Premcor (the predecessor to Valero), which would have added 525 tons of emissions into the air. He drew national attention to a massive unpermitted release—more than 125 tons of toxic chemicals—from the Motiva plant in that same year, forcing the commission to take action. And in 2008 he persuaded the EPA not to grant the hazardous-waste-management company Veolia a special permit to incinerate 20,000 tons of liquid PCBs imported from its sister company in Monterey, Mexico. In honor of his efforts, Kelley was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2011 and even met with President Obama at the White House. But Kelley has also encountered fierce opposition. At one 2003 meeting between CIDA and Premcor executives in the Beaumont offices of U.S. Representative Nick Lampson, a Democrat, the congressman floated the idea of organizing a town hall gathering so corporate leaders might better hear the concerns of the people living in and around Carver Terrace. According to Kelley, the Premcor plant manager in attendance agreed—but not before saying that he didn’t want “to go into a situation where people are going to be acting like a bunch of monkeys.” In 2007 Kelley led a citizens’ lawsuit claiming that the Veolia plant, which
had incinerated nearly two million gallons of VX hydrolysate (a toxic by-product created when weapons-grade nerve gas is neutralized), had no measures in place to determine if the agent had been emitted into the air. Port Arthur’s then-mayor, Oscar Ortiz, told one local newspaper that Kelley was “full of crap” and told another that Kelley was “a clown and a loser just trying to get attention for himself.” The biggest knock on Kelley may be that bad things have kept happening in Port Arthur, whether he was talking about them or not. In 2007, four years after the major toxic-chemicals release at the Motiva plant, Carver Terrace was overwhelmed by an emissions event at the Valero facility that sent dozens of people to the hospital. Three years later, the Exxon-chartered oil tanker Eagle Otome collided with a barge, spilling 462,000 gallons of crude oil into the nearby Sabine-Neches Canal and forcing the evacuation of 136 Port Arthur residents. But it’s not the highly publicized releases that are the greatest problem; it’s the steady, routine release of toxic chemicals that never makes the papers. An investigation conducted last year by the Environmental Integrity Project found that levels of benzene and other volatile organic compounds released from Port Arthur’s refinery stacks were actually 10 times higher than were being reported. Nonetheless, for thousands of people who grew up in the housing complexes of West Port Arthur, the place still exerts the powerful pull of home. “I can see my greatgrandmother, with her flowered dress on and her parasol, walking down this middle aisle right here,” Kelley said to me as he gestured toward the long sidewalk that runs through Carver Terrace. “In a way, I’m going to really hate to see it go, because a lot of my history is here. But it should have been gone years ago. And my history is all over this town now.” The state of Texas first became an oil powerhouse with
the eruption of the Lucas gusher at the Spindletop oil field in Beaumont in 1901. Two speculators, the Gulf Refining Company and the Guffey Petroleum Company, built their refineries on the coast. (Later the two companies would merge into a single entity known as Gulf Oil.) Around the same time, the Texas Fuel Company—later known as Texaco— built its own refinery next door. Port Arthur, which had been founded a few years before as a shipping port and rail-line terminus, suddenly became the center of the American oil boom, and for decades much of the nation’s crude wound up in Gulf Coast refineries. In the years right after World War II, the town was flooded with African American roustabouts and roughnecks drawn from all over Louisiana and East Texas. Downtown Port Arthur and the neighboring communities of West Port Arthur and Port Acres hummed with barbecue pits and seafood boils, brothels and gambling parlors, nightclubs and juke joints. By day a Louisiana transplant named Clifton Chenier drove a truck at the Gulf refinery, but at night he was the King of Zydeco at the Blue Moon Club. Touring blues acts like Big Joe Turner could sell out Bluchie’s Paradise for a week solid. Black-owned nightclubs stretched along West Gulfway and up and down Houston Avenue, many boasting 24-hour bar service. In late 1953 a labor strike against city merchants was portrayed by anti-labor interests as a joint effort by Communists and African Americans to take over the city. One propaganda pamphlet, distributed statewide, pictured white women together on the picket lines with black men, its caption warning: “They drink from the same bottles and smoke the same cigarets.” The following year the U.S. Supreme Court fall 2013
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ghost town The state of the oncebooming downtown speaks to what happens when profits and people flee.
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handed down its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, forcing the integration of public schools and signaling the end of formal segregation across the South. The result of these back-to-back events was slow but steady white flight from Port Arthur to the neighboring suburbs. Then, in the late 1960s, the oil boom began to wane. The city, already struggling mightily, couldn’t withstand the damage. Everyone who could move out of Port Arthur did—and fast. They left behind a ghost town, abandoned and boarded up, hurricane-lashed and rotting from the inside. The once-grand Sabine Hotel, built in the 1920s and for many years the city’s tallest building, is today a 10-story brick skeleton, most of its windows blown out and its ground floor enclosed by a plywood barricade promising (as it has for years, I’m told) that “Port Arthur’s Redevelopment Begins Here.” The doors to Port Arthur Savings, with its soaring marble columns and brass handrails, are chained. The old Federal Building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but its tall, arched windows are boarded all the way to their keystones. The stucco facade of the World Trade Building is peeling off like old wallpaper—and where slabs of concrete and rebar have crashed onto the street, the police have merely cordoned off the area with yellow tape. The city has looked this way for so long now that few seem to notice. When residents from Port Arthur’s public housing
complexes, including Erma Lee Smith, arrived at the city council chambers on the evening of June 25, along with executives from the Port Arthur Housing Authority, many of them wore yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Vote Yes for Better Housing.” They filled the front rows, expectantly awaiting the vote Hilton Kelley had said would mark one of the last bureaucratic hurdles in the path of their deliverance from Carver Terrace. They were in for a surprise. As soon as the tax-credit issue arose, Councilmember Raymond Scott Jr., representing the district where the new public housing complex is to be erected, voiced his objection. Twenty-six percent of his constituents who lived near the proposed site, he said, had signed a petition in opposition. His own opposition, he suggested, stemmed from the fact that the housing project’s developer had asked the city for a $15,000 tax credit. Never mind that the city of Port Arthur already has at least 23 different industrial tax agreements with local refineries and chemical plants. Never mind that, by almost any accounting, the city has delayed or set aside the collection of tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue from the petroleum industry. Motiva, to cite just one example, began work on a $3.5 billion expansion of its facilities in 2007, but didn’t pay additional taxes on the expansion until 2010. According to Kelley, that abatement cost Port Arthur schools $3.6 million per year. In return, Motiva donated to each school in the district $1,000—a negligible sum, Kelley notes, but enough to buy executives photo ops with local schoolchildren. (“There are always pictures in the news with a little child pointing to a test tube,” Kelley said at the time. “The refinery guy is standing over him with a smile, like he sponsored this whole project.”) Never mind that Councilman Scott’s father was once the head of the local chapter of the NAACP, or that Rev. Raymond Scott Avenue runs near Carver Terrace and the old Lincoln High School—the last high school in West Port Arthur, now shuttered for lack of funds. Never mind any of that. The councilman declared that “this city cannot afford to continue giving tax credits,” and because of his objection, the resolution was—for the moment, at least—tabled. No near-final 3 6 onearth
hurdles would be cleared that night. The people in the yellow T-shirts stormed out of the chambers. Outside, Erma Lee Smith was in no mood to talk. She clung to the handrail at the foot of the steps and climbed into a transport van as soon as it arrived. But Kelley was openly furious. A Port Arthur city councilman (and an African American one, at that), someone whose sympathies with the residents of Carver Terrace should have been beyond doubt, had just publicly made the argument that denying a $15,000 tax credit was more important than ensuring public health. It is one thing to be mistreated by the oil industry and its powerful allies. It’s quite another thing, Kelley said sadly, when “we do it to our own damn selves.” “People look at us as expendable,” he continued. “They say, ‘Statistically speaking, only a small minority of people are going to be impacted.’ But the people they’re talking about are Port Arthurians. My town is not expendable. We’re living, breathing human beings who deserve a better quality of life than what we’re getting.” The next day, and the day after that, and then the day
after that, Erma Lee Smith refused to talk to me. She wouldn’t come to the phone when her granddaughter told her I was on the line, and she either wasn’t home or wouldn’t answer the door when I knocked. I tried for days, but apparently she was done talking. And the embarrassing truth is this: when I stood at Miss Erma Lee’s front door and no one stirred inside, when no one even lifted a slat to peer out from behind the blinds, as much as I felt disappointed and frustrated, I also felt something else. I felt relieved that I wouldn’t have to face her. For the past two years, I have covered the struggles of ordinary Americans as they face off against the well-financed leviathan of the oil industry. I’ve spent days and weeks with people living along Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, people whose homes were filled with benzene fumes after an Enbridge-operated diluted-bitumen pipeline ruptured in 2010. I have gone on fruitless voyages in search of lost populations of whales
unshielded As Carver Terrace residents await word on how long it will be before they can move, they remain vulnerable to health threats, crime, and social isolation. Mayor Deloris “Bobbie” Prince, left, once lived at the complex.
devastated by the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. And I have spent more time than I could ever quantify with people fighting the construction of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline through the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska, the state where I live. But Port Arthur represents an even bigger challenge for a journalist. When you’re used to presenting versions of the classic Davidversus-Goliath tale, what do you do when the Davids have become so dispirited that they’ve all but given up the fight? Today, Carver Terrace specifically—and Port Arthur more generally—are so far gone, so forsaken, that there’s almost no need for industry officials to deceive, or to issue craftily worded denials, or to vow halfheartedly to reduce their refineries’ environmental impact. The industry abides by the letter of the law, dutifully documenting thousands of emissions events, knowing that, in the end, practically no one cares. Refinery spokespeople acknowledge that their facilities are emitting toxic chemicals. But they follow up that acknowledgment with a question: are we, as automobile drivers, willing to help offset the industry costs associated with increasing safety and reducing emissions every time we go to the pump? We—collectively—have admitted that we’re not. So these same spokespeople don’t even bother contesting the findings of this cancer researcher or challenging the EPA’s warnings about that contamination. Their companies factor nominal fines into their operating costs and go about their business. And should any reporters come sniffing around, their hired security guards will be on the scene in minutes to take names and threaten to file reports with the Department of Homeland Security. They know better than anyone that people like me just show up for a few days, take their notes and their photographs, and then go home. Near sundown on the last night of my stay, Kelley accompanied me
out to Carver Terrace one last time. In the days that followed—despite the unfolding of more city council drama—the disputed tax credits would be approved for the new housing complex and the effort to bulldoze Carver Terrace and relocate its residents would be back on track. But on that evening, with the possibility that the order for demolition might be delayed yet again, Kelley was circumspect. He pulled off to the side of Terminal Road, just north of Carver Terrace. He was dressed in a black pinstripe suit and patent leather shoes, but he nevertheless felt compelled to climb the height of the berm that stretches away toward the Motiva plant. He stepped up into the knee-high grass and pointed to the gas flare towering over the Valero plant to the west. “Do you see that?” he asked. “That’s an emissions event right there.” Some kind of contaminant was burning up and drifting over the whole neighborhood. Before I could even respond, we were assaulted by a cloud of noxious air, heavy with the stench of rotten eggs. “That’s sulfur dioxide,” he said. The chemical is toxic, but Kelley laughed at my pinched expression. “My brother and me used to make a joke of it, you know? Driving by the plant with our windows rolled down when there was a sudden release. We’d turn to each other—‘Aw, man, did you do that?’” He laughed again, then gave a half-glance back over his shoulder at Carver Terrace. A crowd of boys, most with no shirts, were dribbling and passing on the basketball court outside the project. And all I wanted was to turn away, to be gone from there. To go home. But now that I’m back in Nebraska, I can’t stop wondering if I’ll ever really be home from Port Arthur—or if, instead, its gravity is somehow pulling all of us in. From the Gulf of Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico, the whole country has been stitched together by pipelines filled with toxic materials extracted from offshore platforms in Prudhoe Bay, from the tar sands of Alberta, from the fracking fields of North Dakota. Drilled, and spilled, and shipped overseas. The endangered Alaskan coast is Port Arthur now. So is the benzenelaced Kalamazoo River. So is Mayflower, Arkansas, where an ExxonMobil pipeline burst earlier this year and dumped as much as 7,000 barrels of heavy crude onto the lanes and front lawns of a quiet suburban community. The Louisiana shoreline, striated with spilled oil and the dispersant chemicals used to dissolve it, and the river valleys and open plains overlying the Marcellus and Bakken shale formations where fracking rigs have appeared by the thousands: they’re Port Arthur, too. And soon, I fear, the Nebraska Sandhills near my home will be Port Arthur as well. I understand why Erma Lee Smith has grown tired of talking. What good does it ever do? But at the same time, how can we turn away from her when Big Oil is closing in on all sides? I honestly don’t know how Read more by Ted Genoways on we even begin to fix a problem as big communities hurt by fossil fuels as Port Arthur. But at night, as I recall at onearth.org/13fal/genoways the burning skies over East Texas, I recall, too, the image of Hilton Kelley as he stepped higher onto the berm along Terminal Road, watching the fire from the Valero flare burn orange, heaving and darkening, watching it until it faded and was once again nothing more than ripples in the invisible air.
Ted Genoways is OnEarth’s editor-at-large. His book on the Hormel Foods Corporation and the American recession is forthcoming from HarperCollins. fall 2013
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Scorned for years as the stuff of science fiction, cloud seeding could
shoot for the sky A cloud-seeding generator station sits atop Ward Peak in the Sierra Nevada range.
ny time he wants, Arlen Huggins can generator from his desk. Its purpose is to build better clouds. Weather modification is one of the least understood environmental find out if he’s making it snow in Colorado. From his desk in a spacious, sunny office in Reno, practices going on today. Mention it at a cocktail party and people will Nevada, Huggins can pull up a screen on his say, “That’s not real, is it?” Others will launch into perfervid specucomputer and look at charts tracking relative lations about “chemtrails” and secret global “weather wars.” They humidity, temperature, wind direction, and may quote shock jock Alex Jones, who expressed surprising faith in government competence by suggesting the feds could wind speed at the Winter Park By have manufactured the recent Oklahoma tornadoes. But ski area, about an hour and a half west of Denver. weather mod, as industry folks call it, is neither myth nor The charts also show him the flow rate and flame ginger conspiracy. It’s a pretty standardized practice that’s been temperature for a silver iodide generator perched near strand used since the 1950s. Huggins’s employer, the Desert the resort’s 12,000-foot summit. He can control the
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Courtesy of justin broglio, desert research institute
d be a surprising new weapon in the fight against Worsening droughts
Research Institute, part of the Nevada system of higher education, has been seeding clouds since the 1960s. DRI now has two programs in Nevada and one in California’s Sierra Nevada. Last winter they had logged more than a thousand hours of seeding by the time I visited in February. The DRI campus is perched on a scrubby hill at the edge of Reno. The main building has a rounded concrete cornice and gleaming windows reflecting the Sierra Nevada. The place looks like HQ for a cabal of scientists intent on starting World War C, but its real aspirations are much more modest. Funded by the state, by irrigation and water districts, and by federal agencies, DRI’s scientists are work-
ing to increase the snowpack that feeds Nevada’s water supply by at least 5 percent and perhaps as much as 15 percent. Those numbers are hardly insignificant when conditions in the West have spawned talk of “mega-drought” and “regional disaster.” There have always been crazy schemes for modifying the weather: rain dances, hail cannons, intentionally set forest fires. Cloud seeding with aerosolized silver iodide was invented in 1946 by the GE scientist Bernard Vonnegut—the novelist Kurt’s older brother. A promising young chemist, Vonnegut was working with the Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir and his associate Vincent Schaefer when the fall 2013
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pair discovered that seeding clouds with dry ice could encourage them to precipitate. Vonnegut figured out that silver iodide would do the same thing—and last longer. When GE announced the discoveries, newspapers and magazines ran stories declaring that the nation was finally going to do something about the weather. GE began working with the military on Project Cirrus, a series of weather-control experiments designed to make rain, divert hurricanes, disperse fog, and quench forest fires. At the same time, the Weather Bureau conducted experiments of its own and began publicly denouncing the Project Cirrus claims. The debate between weather mod believers and skeptics has raged ever since, but the converts have been slowly gaining ground. In the 1960s the Bureau of Reclamation conducted rainmaking experiments over reservoirs under the name Project Skywater. In the 1960s and 1970s, a joint U.S. Navy–Weather Bureau exercise, Project Stormfury, attempted to modify hurricanes with seeding. And during the Vietnam War, the U.S. military flew cloud-seeding missions over Laos in an mission control effort to make the Ho Chi Minh Trail impass- Jeff Tilley’s areas of able to North Vietnamese trucks. It was called expertise range from Operation Popeye. (Science-fictional code names tropical cyclones to are endemic to weather mod.) When news of unmanned aircraft. Popeye broke, an international outcry led to a U.N. treaty banning large-scale weather modification in war. Research spending on weather mod surged throughout the 1970s and then dwindled. Factors blamed for the field’s decline include early overpromising, the lack of rigorous research in the field, environmentalists’ reluctance to alter nature, and Reagan-era reductions in government funding. Another key element: the early 1980s were an exceptionally wet period in the United States. The weather modifiers have a saying for this: “Interest in cloud seeding is soluble in rainwater.” The recent extreme drought has caused a resurgence of interest in anything that might increase water supplies. And now, improved instrumentation means results can be more accurately gauged. But there’s still a dearth of good research, which means a lack of conclusive evidence that cloud seeding works. Skeptics point to a National Academy of Sciences report in 2003 finding “ample evidence” that seeding clouds with a chemical agent like silver iodide caused them to produce more ice crystals, but no actual proof that this produced “credible, repeatable changes in precipitation.” Nevertheless, cloud-seeding operations continue in many western states, funded mostly by water utilities, hydropower producers, agriculture groups, and ski resorts. There were at least 66 programs operating in 2001, spread out across 10 states. Today, in Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, California, Utah, and Nevada, rainmakers are hired to augment the snowpack. In Texas and Kansas, cloud seeders are at work to induce rain. In North Dakota, clouds are seeded to make them precipitate before they can produce crop-damaging hail. California, Nevada, and Arizona contribute funds to cloud-seeding projects over the Colorado River’s upper basin, in hopes of augmenting their water supply. Jeff Tilley, DRI’s director of weather modification, is a compact man with intense brown eyes and a habit of speaking in long, complex, yet perfectly lucid sentences. Rather than saying he saw a beautiful sunset, he’ll describe “the interplay of the setting sun with a couple of distinct cloud layers and mountain topography.” A meteorology PhD, he was recently hired by DRI from the University of North Dakota. 4 0 onearth
most of us think of clouds as reservoirs of water up in the sky. Cloud physicists think of clouds as factories. Those fluffy cotton wads or mackerel scales are visible markers of the process by which the atmosphere recruits water vapor and converts it into droplets. Tilley took me to see the institute’s silver iodide generator on the western shore of Lake Tahoe. As we drove up I-80 into the Sierra Nevada from Reno, we were accompanied for miles by an impressively long wooden flume—one of many pieces of nineteenth-century hydroinfrastructure that dot the Nevada landscape. It was a tangible reminder that settlement of the intermountain West has always depended on one thing: control of water. Capturing water, reserving water, redirecting water, owning rights to water. While in Reno I bought a postcard that showed two farmers whacking each other with shovels. “Discussing water rights,” it read. “A western pastime.” “Cloud seeding is probably going to be an increasingly important
photograph for onearth by toby burditt; illustration by bruce morser
tool for water resource managers in a changing global climate scenario,” Tilley said. “As drought areas increase and populations increase in areas subject to drought, or arid in the first place, cloud seeding provides a very cost-effective alternative for getting water resources.” DRI’s cloud-seeding generator is near the top of Ward Peak, a mountain 8,643 feet high that hulks between Lake Tahoe and the Pacific Crest trail. To get there, we went to the Alpine Meadows ski resort and rode the lift to the top. A short hike in a brutal February wind and we were standing at the base of what looked like a restaurant exhaust fan. A green metal cube with a jerry-built black smokestack on top, it had a residential-size propane tank next to it, a photovoltaic panel mounted on its side, and what looked like a salvaged swimming pool ladder welded to the front. Tom Swafford, the project’s field technician, got out a key and opened a small door on the contraption’s front. “C’mon inside,” he said. We ducked into a room the size of a pickup bed. Swafford pointed out the control panel, the radio link, the pressurized solution nozzle, the electronic flow meter. Tilley took out his cell phone and called Arlen Huggins back at DRI headquarters. “We are at the generator,” he said. “We’re ready.” There was silence as we huddled in anticipation. Then came a few clicks and a deep thunk as the generator flame lit. After a few moments, when it was hot enough, a whirring sounded as the silver iodide solution began flowing into the box, where it’s ignited and sprayed toward the sky. We went outside, but the day was dry and clear, so the plume was not visible. Even when it was humid, Swafford said, you could barely see the aerosolized silver iodide streaming into the clouds. A skier in a jacket emblazoned with a red cross and a badge that read Avalanche Forecaster shooshed up. “Ever since you guys put this thing in, we get more avalanches right here than we get on the rest of the mountain,” he said. Everybody laughed. Weather mod folks love jokes like that. But Gary Murphy, the forecaster, wanted to be sure I got it. “Not really,” he said, glancing at my tape recorder. “That’s not really true.” DRI sometimes gets phone calls from irate ranchers in eastern Nevada who insist the Tahoe cloud seeding is “stealing” their rain. Jeff Tilley told me it’s a misconception that cloud seeding robs Peter to pay Paul. “What cloud seeding actually does is enhance the ability of any given cloud system to precipitate,” he said. “It not only helps the water that’s originally within the cloud to be utilized better, but it also helps that cloud utilize the surrounding water vapor much better. You’re really getting more efficiencies from the water in the atmosphere and in the clouds. That water resource can actually be transported downstream and used later on by other cloud systems.” That is why rainmakers say “rainmaking” is a misnomer. They can’t make rain. But they can increase the efficiency of the precipitation process. Most of us think of clouds as reservoirs of water up in the sky. Cloud physicists think of clouds as factories. Those fluffy cotton wads or mackerel scales are visible markers of the process by which the atmosphere recruits water vapor from the air, from bodies of water, even from the pores of plants, and converts that vapor into droplets.
from nrdc fighting drought
Robert moore Senior policy analyst in NRDC’s Midwest office and head of the water and climate team Advocates of cloud seeding have always confronted a lot of skepticism because of the dearth of hard data about its effectiveness. As cloud-seeding experts themselves recognize, you can’t create rain or snow out of thin air. When you successfully seed a cloud, you’ve essentially stimulated the creation of lots of little ice crystals, which grow quickly and fall as either rain or snow, depending on the temperature closer to the ground. The technique basically tips the odds a bit in favor of precipitation in a particular place at a particular time, when favorable conditions already exist. Scientists in a number of western states are now claiming evidence of more encouraging results from cloud seeding. If those claims are true, would that be enough to satisfy the skeptics? To answer that question, you’d have to look at when and where the precipitation is falling and ask whether it might have fallen somewhere else if the cloud seeding hadn’t happened. Those are difficult questions to answer, but as cloud seeding is more widely deployed, they will certainly be asked by people living in areas downwind or downstream that are in the middle of a drought. It’s hard to say that the same cloud system wouldn’t have dropped snow or rain an hour later, or a day later, or 200 miles away if it hadn’t been seeded. Even if the results of cloud seeding are modest, in a drought as severe as the one we’ve experienced for the past decade, shouldn’t we be using every weapon at our disposal? Yes, there’s no doubt that as the climate warms and water supplies get tighter, we need to get innovative about how we manage them. If cloud seeding increases local precipitation, that is going to seem useful in particular circumstances. That’s why you see it being done in ski areas, for example, or around specific water-supply reservoirs. But cloud seeding won’t solve our bigger drought problems. As it gets hotter and drier, efficient use of water is the cheapest and most reliable way of making more of it available for future use. In the energy world, the cheapest kilowatt of electricity is the one you never have to generate. The same goes for water. The cheapest gallon of water is the one you never take from the tap. And there’s only a finite amount of water on the planet. We’re not making more of it.
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Those droplets might fall to earth as rain or snow. But the vast majority don’t. They just hang there, going to waste. This is partly because most water droplets need something to cling to—a nucleus—to make them heavy enough to fall. Over the warm ocean, salt from evaporated water serves as a nucleus; that’s why places near the ocean often get plenty of rain. Over land, cloud droplets nucleate on dust, soot from forest fires, or microscopic particles shed by the earth. But not all particles are equally good at producing precipitation. Pollution particles, for instance, cause clouds, but are usually too tiny to precipitate. The drops don’t get heavy enough. Off the polluted Indian subcontinent, huge clouds form, but rarely produce rain. A particle of silver iodide is an ideal nucleus, probably because its crystalline structure is similar to that of ice. Other substances work too—lead iodide and certain salts—but silver iodide is considered the most efficient. Not everyone believes this. Some people fear that silver iodide will pollute the groundwater when it falls to earth in precipitation. A widely quoted claim on the Internet is that the Environmental Protection Agency classifies silver iodide under the Clean Water Act as a hazardous material and a pollutant. But the EPA says this is untrue. I contacted the agency and was told that silver iodide is not regulated under either the Clean Water Act or the Safe Drinking Water Act. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes it as “a non-soluble compound not likely to produce toxic effects from either silver or iodine.” The Occupational Safety and Health Administration sets no limits for occupational exposure to silver iodide. As for non-humans, DRI’s Huggins told me that in laboratory studies, silver ions added to aquariums proved capable of bonding to the gills of nymphs or trout fingerlings, inhibiting breathing. But this, he said, would never occur through seeding, since the amounts of silver iodide used are so tiny. The background concentration of silver in snow is about 2 to 4 parts per trillion. After seeding, you might find 20 to 30 parts per trillion. “If you average it throughout the snowpack,” he said, “it’s barely above background.” Even if silver iodide is proved to be completely benign, and if new studies prove that it really works, the idea of modifying the weather still makes some people cringe. Gary Walker, president of the Weather Modification Association, dismissed this response as naive. “We’re messing with nature advertently—or inadvertently—every day,” he told me. “Every time you turn on your car, you’re changing nature. You heat your house, you’re changing nature. We think God gave us a brain so we could use it. But we do have our detractors.” Lately, detractors are increasingly outnumbered by people who feel we should try almost anything to avert the looming water crisis. As a Denver Post editorial put it, “When it comes to water in the West, is any idea too crazy?” I met Walker at the WMA’s annual meeting, held in April in San Antonio. On day one, the program had to be rearranged because some presenters were delayed by a huge storm system in the Great Plains. The rainmakers were obstructed by rain. The conventioneers—mostly male, mostly pushing past middle age—came from utilities and universities, but also from private companies with such names as North American Weather Consultants and Weather Modification Incorporated. In the Marriott conference room, they took turns giving PowerPoint presentations with titles like 4 2 onearth
“Winter ‘Cloud Seeding Windows’ and Potential Influences of Targeted Mountain Barriers.” Most papers seemed to reach a similar conclusion: cloud seeding is tricky. You can’t seed just any clouds. They have to be the right temperature, at the right altitude, and near winds of the right speed and direction. You have to use the right seeding material and seed the bottom or the top, depending on the cloud. And knowing the characteristics of your cloud? That’s not easy either. The weather mod world is eagerly awaiting the results of a randomized study being conducted in Wyoming. It is rigorous in its design, and the feeling is that it will bring new credibility to the field. Although the study won’t be released until summer 2014, a scientist on the project gave an update at the WMA meeting. He reported that he and his colleagues were expecting to announce, with 95 percent confidence, precipitation increases of 10 percent in seeded clouds.
cloud seeding is tricky. You can’t seed just any clouds. They have to be the right temperature, at the right altitude, and near winds of the right speed and direction. You have to use the right seeding material and seed the bottom or the top, depending on the cloud. And knowing the characteristics of your cloud? That’s not easy either. “We’re getting better,” said one private weather mod consultant whose clients include Pacific Gas & Electric. “I look at it like fishing. You go out there 10 times and how many times do you get a big fish? You have to have all your elements lined up.” When he showed charts from his operations indicating precipitation increases of up to 26 percent, there was an audible murmur in the crowd. An attendee from PG&E sitting next to me nodded eagerly. PG&E generates electricity. An extra inch of snowpack in the Sierra Nevada might not be a bonanza for the water supply of Los Angeles. But running an extra inch of water through your turbines—that’s real money. The last presenter at the meeting was Roelof Bruintjes, head of weather modification at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. He delivered a half-hour tsunami of data drawn from seeding efforts in water-insecure places as far-flung as Mexico, Australia, Indonesia, and the United Arab Emirates. “Oftentimes if you do one experiment you get one kind of result, but if you do it again you get a different result,” he began. “This could be because of natural variability, or it could be because it’s a different kind of cloud.” He whipped through slides showing how clouds differ—not just worldwide, but even, say, in north Texas versus south Texas. Clouds in dry years are different from clouds in wet years. He put up charts showing that the seeding effect is greater on days with high “aerosol burden,” meaning when lots of fine particles, liquid or solid, are suspended in the air. When the air is clean, clouds are more efficient already and the seeding effect is smaller.
“Unless we know what nature is producing, it’s very difficult to know what seeding will produce,” he concluded. At the end of his presentation, there was thunderous applause. He had spent half an hour telling them their jobs were well-nigh impossible. They loved it.
Bernard Vonnegut Papers, M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives, University at Albany Libraries
weather is perhaps the most discussed yet least understood phenomenon of daily life. These two things are related. We talk about the weather so much because we can’t do anything about it. That’s not about to change. “This idea of controlling the weather is a misnomer,” Don Griffith told me. “We can do minor modifications on a local basis.”
Griffith was introduced at the WMA meeting as “the godfather” of weather mod. President and part-owner of North American Weather Consultants, one of the oldest private companies in the field, he is an imposing man with a shock of photo-white hair. A handful of younger attendees always buzzed around him. He wore a suit with a bolo tie to the meeting; he said the clasp depicted the Zuni god of thunder. Like many in his field, Griffith was always fascinated by weather. Growing up in Denver, he was so excited that he used to run outside in his skivvies to measure the snowfall. An ROTC candidate in the Air Force, he became a weather officer during the Vietnam War. He remembers pointing out to his supervisor the frequent thunderstorms over North Vietnam. At the time he didn’t know the military was cloud seeding it. Griffith only sees his business increasing as the population expands and water gets more scarce. But weather mod is not a panacea. “It’s one arrow,” he told me, “in a quiver of possibilities you can consider. But it’s typically one of the cheapest.” Building and operating a desalination plant—as Orange County, California, is currently doing—costs between $1,000 and $2,000 for every acre-foot of water it yields. Griffith told me that the typical cloud-seeding contract can yield that same acre-foot of water for five to fifteen dollars. Many of Griffith’s clients come to him when they are already in a drought. He calls this “hydrologic illogic.” By that time, they may not
have clouds to seed, or they may have clouds but not the right kind. He recommends seeding yearly—in wet years and dry—to build up supplies. It’s like putting money in your IRA: you do it when you have a job, not when you don’t. In spite of his obvious enthusiasm, Griffith was careful not to overstate his claims. He told me that historically overselling had set the field back. No one should underestimate the difficulty of altering nature, whether through weather mod or flood control or damming rivers. But weather is especially tricky. “The atmosphere is so variable and complex,” he said. “There’s still a lot we don’t know about it.” This is why, though it may seem surprising, weather modifiers have little enthusiasm for geoengineering. No one I talked to at the WMA considered himself a geoengineer. After two days of papers on the complexities of weather mod, I understood why. When dozens of scientists are using radiometry, ground generators, and aircraft in an attempt to produce 10 percent more snow in Wyoming’s Wind science fiction? River Mountains, when Bernard Vonnegut Pacific Gas & Electric has worked on cloud seedspent half a century toiling ing with the military to get an inch more water in the late 1940s. into its turbines, claims that you can reverse global climate change with iron filaments, reflective aerosols, or oily stuff on the ocean look downright ignorant. I asked Jeff Tilley of the Desert Research Institute about geoengineering. He told me that he feared more than just the risk of unintended consequences. “Some of the B-movies on the SyFy Channel exaggerate to extremes,” he said, “but they point out the potential that [geoengineering] can be used as a weapon. And that scares the crap out of people. It scares the crap out of us, as the people who do weather modification, because we don’t want to do that application, and we don’t want to see anybody else do that type of application.” Tilley grew up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He was a child during the town’s third historic flood, in 1977. It was caused by a series of thunderstorms that meteorologists call a train because they roar down Read sci-fi author Kim Stanley the same track. His parents woke Robinson on geoengineering him up at 2:30 in the morning to help at onearth.org/robinson them bail water out of the basement. The family’s neighbors were trapped on the second floor of their newspaper offices downtown for a couple of days. They ate food out of vending machines and watched their station wagon float by. They were lucky. Six dams failed in that flood, and 85 people died. Tilley had already been thinking about becoming a meteorologist, but the Johnstown flood clinched it. “I got into weather and applications of weather modification,” he said, “because I want to do something to help.”
Ginger Strand’s most recent book is Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate. She is at work on a book about the early days of weather control. fall 2013
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The story of cellulosic biofuels is one b r u c e
b a r c o t t
he promise of cellulosic biofuels sounds like a fable out of the Brothers Grimm: turning straw into liquid gold. Or rather, switchgrass into gasoline. It’s not magic. The process has been around since the early 1800s, when the chemist Henri Braconnot figured out how to strip sugars from cellulose—the basic building block of all plant life—and refine them into a crude form of ethanol. For almost 200 years cellulosic ethanol has had the potential to be one of the world’s greenest fuels. Unlike corn ethanol, cellulosic doesn’t rely on food crops. It can be made from corn stover (leaves and stalks), switchgrass, miscanthus, bagasse (sugar cane refuse), wood, even municipal waste. But each of these feedstocks presents its own technical and environmental challenges. The trick is to make the ethanol sustainably, in bulk, and at a price that competes with crude oil. Cellulosic refineries enjoyed a brief heyday in the early 1900s—Henry Ford’s first models could run on pure ethanol—but were driven out of business by cheap petroleum. Years ago, I spoke with a cellulosic researcher during a visit to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. “The science works,” he told me. “The problem is economics.” Nobody could figure out how to produce it cheaply enough to turn a profit. So for nearly a century, cellulosic sat on the shelf. The landscape changed in the mid-2000s. Faced with two wars and a spike in fuel prices, Congress and the Bush administration called for a radical increase in American biofuel production. The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), adopted in 2005, mandated a near doubling of the amount of biofuel blended into the nation’s fuel supply by 2012. It didn’t promise to break our addiction to foreign oil, but it was a first step. That mandate led to an explosion of corn ethanol production. In early 2005, 81 ethanol refineries were producing 3.6 billion gallons per year. By 2007 an RFS-driven boom had contractors building 76 new plants capable of putting out an additional 5.6 billion gallons. So much corn was diverted into ethanol that a food-versus-fuel scare began rocking commodities markets. From 2005 to the middle of 2008 the world price for corn and
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of big dreams and meager results. that may be about to change.
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soybeans more than doubled, causing food shortages and riots in many parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Speculators fleeing the failing mortgage-backed securities market started putting huge bets on crop futures, further driving up commodities prices. Enter cellulosic biofuels. Long championed by environmentalists, they suddenly found support even among America’s most strident oilmen. Republican James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the Senate’s leading climate change denier, hailed cellulosic as “a promising technology that could significantly increase fuel supplies” without hurting food prices. With that kind of bipartisan support, Congress revised the renewable fuel standard in 2007 to include cellulosic biofuels. The target numbers—100 million gallons of cellulosic by 2010, 500 million by 2012—were ambitious, especially considering that not a single commercial-scale cellulosic refinery had ever been built in the United States. Not to worry, said cellulosic industry officials. They assured the Environmental Protection Agency, which administers the RFS, that refineries under construction would start producing millions of gallons within a couple of years. Five years later, cellulosic refineries had produced just 20,069 gallons of fuel. Faced with high construction costs and interminable technical delays, many start-ups failed before producing a single drop. There were also some notorious frauds, such as Cello Energy. The EPA anticipated that Cello would produce 70 million gallons a year by 2010. Agency officials seemed to believe in the company. (And why not? CEO Jack Boykin was the former head of the Alabama Ethics Commission.) But after a judge found him guilty in 2009 of “oppression, fraud, wantonness, or malice” in his business dealings, Cello folded and took 70 percent of the nation’s hoped-for 2010 cellulosic fuel production with it. It looked like a classic case of overpromise and underdeliver. “Congress set those RFS targets without actually discussing with the technical community what would be possible,” says Robert Brown, director of Iowa State University’s Bioeconomy Institute. “The growth curves set for cellulosic fuels were impossible.” No other clean-energy technology faced such a steep scale-up curve. Wind and solar power, geothermal, and corn ethanol required decades to reach the production levels we see today. Cellulosic companies were asked to do it in four years. When they failed to hit their mark, vultures circled the industry. In late 2011 a Wall Street Journal editorial branded it “The Cellulosic Ethanol Debacle.” Two early cellulosic companies, Calysta and Coskata, switched to making gasoline from natural gas. BP and Shell abandoned their cellulosic projects. Congress began reconsidering the value of the RFS, using the unmet cellulosic targets as Exhibit A. Stock prices of cellulosic companies tanked. Investment capital fled. But then a funny thing happened: in early 2013, cellulosic ethanol refineries finally began producing biofuel. Texas-based KiOR, the nation’s leading independent cellulosic company, began shipping cellulosic diesel and gasoline from its refinery in Columbus, Mississippi. INEOS Bio’s Florida refinery began producing cellulosic ethanol from yard and wood waste in early summer. By 2014 the Spanish energy
giant Abengoa, the chemical conglomerate DuPont, the ethanol maker Poet, and five other cellulosic refiners are expected to begin producing next-generation biofuel. That production comes none too soon. Cellulosic refineries are expensive to build. A commercial-scale plant (producing about 20 million gallons a year) can cost $100 million to $200 million. Months of testing and tweaking are required before full production starts. The burn rate at cellulosic start-ups can be astronomical. Prior to its first fuel shipments this year, KiOR went through roughly $10 million a month on R&D; revenues were about $1,000 a day. After six years of struggle, the cellulosic biofuel industry is finally taking its first steps toward self-sufficiency. “The good news,” Advanced Ethanol Council executive director Brooke Coleman told me, “is that in 2013 we’re expecting our production number for the first time to not be zero.” If Coleman’s quote seems a little cockeyed, then you haven’t spent much time in the cellulosic biofuel space. When it comes to hope, mystery, controversy, and drama, no green energy sector can match it. Over the past six years, the industry has seen IPO jackpots and shocking failures, breakthrough discoveries and maddening delays. Some early believers have lost the faith in cellulosic. Others have found hope in the ability of cellulosic refineries to produce not just ethanol but also gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, and bio-based industrial chemicals, opening up new markets that might include the U.S. military, the global airline industry, and chemical manufacturers. “Is cellulosic still worth it?” asks Mackinnon Lawrence, a renewable energy analyst and consultant for Navigant Research, in Colorado. “How much money do you throw at cellulosic to commercialize it? What’s its purpose now?” These are fair questions. In a world of limited resources, it doesn’t make sense to pour money into failed technologies. It’s tough to know how the cellulosic story will end, or whether the grand ambitions of 2007 will ever be realized. Yet it’s clear that predictions of cellulosic’s demise have proved to be premature.
Over the past six years, the cellulosic biofuels industry has seen IPO jackpots and shocking failures, breakthrough discoveries and maddening delays. Some early believers have lost faith. Others have found hope in opening up new markets.
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o get a sense of where things stand, I waded
into the Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference earlier this year in Washington, D.C. The biannual meeting of scientists, entrepreneurs, CEOs, chemists, fuel buyers, and feedstock sellers offers a candid look at the state of the industry. In 2013, the most accurate description of that state would be roiling. By the second day of the conference, the ballroom of the Gaylord Hotel and Convention Center had taken on the atmosphere of speed dating. Dozens of engineers and entrepreneurs were looking to hook up. Lufthansa jet fuel buyers sized up cellulosic biofuel refiners. A Georgia-Pacific salesman sought customers for his company’s vast holdings of southern pine. Venture capitalists heard wooing pitches from biofuel makers who were long on patents and short on cash. At the microphone, conference host Jim Lane played matchmaker. “If
illustration by Bruce morser
you aren’t meeting the people you need to meet,” said the Biofuels Digest editor and publisher, “check with me and I’ll make the connection.” The corporate mating dance was occasioned by a fact of life in the advanced biofuel world: money is still tight. Having sunk a big chunk of their capital into refinery construction, a number of companies are now trying to meet payroll by hook or by crook until they can start producing fuel and bringing in revenue. Finding new investors has become a survival skill. Between sessions, Lane hustled to the mike to announce the latest matches. “Brazil’s GranBio just took a 25 percent equity stake in American Process!” he cried, raising a smattering of applause. The conference swung between celebratory toasts and sobering reassessments. “When I started 20 years ago, this was just an idea,” Valerie Sarisky-Reed, acting director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office, told the conference. “Now we’re seeing it actually happen.” Later that day, Bob Walsh, chief commercial officer for the small cellulosic start-up ZeaChem, cheerfully described his company’s money troubles as “a speed bump,” but it was hard not to see him as a dead man walking. In March, ZeaChem’s wood-to-ethanol refinery in Boardman, Oregon, produced its first batch of fuel. CEO Jim Imbler hailed this milestone and looked forward to more success “as we ramp up to full capacity.” But ZeaChem’s production came too late. Just as its spigot opened, the company ran out of cash. Imbler and his team scrambled to find a bridge loan to keep it alive. When no loan came through, ZeaChem scaled back operations and laid off workers. The Boardman refinery has been mothballed since March. What’s going on? The short answer is this: turning wood or grass into fuel on a commercial scale is really hard to do. “Getting to scale” is industry-speak for the process of moving from a small research lab putting out fuel in 100-gallon batches to an industrial-size refinery producing 10 million to 40 million gallons. When chemical or pharmaceutical manufacturers scale up, they commonly do so by orders of 10 or 100, expressed as 10x or 100x. With the RFS, Congress asked the cellulosic industry to scale up on the order of 10,000x in five years. “In a lab, you’re working with perfectly clean wood chips,” explains Renata Bura of the University of Washington’s biofuels and bioproducts laboratory. “It’s almost never that pristine in a real-world refinery. At a commercial-scale facility, you’ll have needles, bark, and branches” polluting the mix. At the biofuels conference, I asked Peter Williams, CEO of INEOS Bio, why it was taking so long to produce fuel at his company’s refinery in Vero Beach, Florida. “It took us four years to build it,” Williams told me. “Now we’re figuring out how to drive the machine.” A number of problems typically come up in cellulosic facilities. Mixing enzymes evenly through the feedstock can be easy in a one-gallon container. It’s a different thing entirely in an industrial-size tank. Acids used in the process can corrode pipes. No matter how diverse the solids that go into the system—and with municipal waste, it’s a grab bag, containing everything from rotten food to plastic bags—the fuel produced has to be uniform in quality. For INEOS, attention to detail paid off: in late July the company announced that it was about to start shipping fuel. “Getting those feedstock handling issues dead right— you can’t underestimate how much time that takes,” said Williams. The companies that survive long enough to produce fuel may be the ones wealthy enough to give their chemists and engineers the time they need to work the bugs out of a technically demanding
from nrdc try everything
Director of NRDC’s renewable energy policy, based in the New York office
How much do we really need biofuels? Biofuels are probably the most complicated form of energy that NRDC works on. Done right, with proper environmental safeguards, they can be an important way of reducing oil dependency and combating climate change. Done wrong, they can add to our climate problems, increase food prices, destroy wildlife habitat, and cause freshwater shortages and pollution. It’s especially challenging to find alternative fuels that will help us reduce harmful emissions from aviation, off-road vehicles, and heavy-duty transportation. To stop global warming, we have to try all possible solutions, and one of those is biofuels. People were excited when the federal government added cellulosic biofuels to the Renewable Fuels Standard in 2007. Is the RFS the best way to support sustainable biofuels? No. The California Low Carbon Fuel Standard is the best policy model we have. It gives the greatest rewards to the cleanest fuels, including the electricity used for electric vehicles. It also helps cut demand for dirty fuels like tar sands oil from Canada. Currently, the RFS mostly supports corn ethanol, which increases global warming and exacerbates all the problems with growing corn at the unsustainable scale we do these days. That said, the federal standard has provided important support for advanced biofuels investors and developers, and it has by far the strongest safeguards of any federal biofuels policy. I worry that if this Congress starts monkeying with the RFS, it will make it worse and/or not replace it with something better. Instead, we think the Environmental Protection Agency can improve the implementation of the standard by waiving some of the corn ethanol requirements to make space for better biofuels and limiting the scale of production for each biofuel it approves so that it can address unanticipated impacts. What else can we do to advance sustainable biofuels? The departments of defense, agriculture, and energy are working together to purchase advanced biofuels for the military. This is probably the best hope we have at the federal level right now. NRDC is working directly with both the military and the aviation industry, and many airlines have committed to buy only biofuels that are certified as sustainable. If the military and airlines can come up with purchasing programs, we believe that a lot of cities, states, and other companies will think hard about emulating them.
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process. Of the four companies at or near commercial-scale production, three are sustained by deep-pocketed parents with revenue streams in other industries. What that money buys is time. Abengoa’s cellulosic plant in Hugoton, Kansas, a small town just north of the Oklahoma panhandle, is the company’s first commercial-scale biorefinery. “Frankly, we’ve been working on this process for 10 years,” said Chris Standlee, executive vice president of Abengoa Bioenergy, the company’s renewable fuel subsidiary. Abengoa started with “lab and pilot scale” facilities in Spain in 2003, he said, and the company has been working steadily on scaling up to larger plants ever since.
he curious thing about cellulosic biofuel is
that even when production was zero, demand for the stuff continued to climb. It wasn’t all driven by the RFS mandate. Over the past few years, a number of companies and industries have set carbon reduction goals. It’s easy to become cynical about these announcements. But when they’re taken seriously they move markets—and provide critical demand for emerging green-fuel industries. The American military is a huge future buyer. The U.S. Navy has announced that it wants to source half its non-nuclear fuel from renewables by 2020. That’s an ambitious goal, and the Navy is aggressively encouraging American biorefiners to build the plants necessary to produce upward of three billion gallons per year. Because the military is leery of the food-versus-fuel controversy, Navy fuel buyers are especially interested in advanced biofuels. Pleasanton, California–based Fulcrum BioEnergy, which converts municipal solid waste into biofuel, has already signed development deals with both the Air Force and the Navy. Like most refiners, though, Fulcrum has yet to produce fuel: its Reno, Nevada, wasteto-fuel facility is still under construction. Commercial airlines want cellulosic too. When officials from United, British Air, Lufthansa, and Qantas appeared before the advanced biofuels conference in Washington, the ballroom positively buzzed. The airline industry has a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2020, and major carriers want cellulosic to be a big part of the fuel mix. That market is massive. Worldwide, commercial airlines spend more than $200 billion a year on jet fuel, $50 billion in the United States alone. Airlines see carbon reduction as a key to their growth, because conventional fuels are expected to rise in cost as they become subject to carbon taxes and regulatory systems outside the United States. “We expect to buy 100 million tons of biofuel by the year 2050,” Jonathan Counsell, head of environment for British Airways, told the conference. No company is seeking biofuels more urgently than Qantas. Australia’s carbon tax has the airline paying more than $20 per emitted ton of carbon, so bringing more biofuel into their fuel mix isn’t merely a future concern. It’s a bottom line issue right now. And Australian companies are especially keen to find nonfood biofuels in light of the decade-long drought the continent suffered in the 2000s. Another emerging market might prove nearly as valuable as marine diesel and aviation gas: renewable chemicals. The same process that turns switchgrass into ethanol can be tweaked to produce industrial chemicals such as BDO (1,4-butanediol) and butadiene, used in running shoes, cosmetics, tires, and other products. Earlier this year
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the German company BASF, the world’s looks good to me largest chemical maker, signed a deal with DuPont chemical engineer San Diego–based Genomatica to produce Armando Byrne shows renewable BDO using cellulosic technol- President George W. Bush ogy. For BASF cellulosic chemicals could a sample of switchgrass. provide value at both ends of the factory: relief from the fluctuations of global petroleum prices and extra benefit to buyers. In competitive markets such as cosmetics and running shoes, bio-based ingredients could be the next wave of “organic” products.
ttending an advanced biofuels conference
can feel like wandering into a religious conclave. Everyone there shares a belief in the moral righteousness of biofuels. Most of them believe there’s a financial payoff down the road too. But under that umbrella of agreement there are debates about the correct path to enlightenment—or rather, financial sustainability. The cellulosic companies that continue to survive seem to have a couple of things in common. In addition to giving their engineers plenty of time, they’ve capitalized on small advantages in areas like refinery siting, feedstock storage, and customer development. Some are working a piggyback strategy. Kansas-based ICM has developed bolt-on cellulosic refineries that work with existing ethanol plants to create a kind of whole-corn production line. The kernels go in the ethanol side; the rest of the plant goes to the cellulosic side. KiOR, which produces gasoline and diesel from southern yellow pine, is trying a different approach. Wood, corn, grass, and wheat are so heavy and costly to transport that a cellulosic operation must source its feedstock within a 30- to 50-mile radius of the refinery. KiOR sees former pulp and paper mill towns as great refinery hosts. “The wood is there, the harvest infrastructure is there, and so are people familiar with handling the feedstock,” chief executive Fred Cannon said. But the use of wood raises an uneasy question: If cellulosic really took off, would natural forests be chipped into ethanol? That’s a real concern for environmental groups like the Dogwood Alliance, which works on forest issues in the Southeast and is partnering with NRDC on its Forests Aren’t Fuels campaign (see “Forest Alert,”
Producers have gone from labs to commercial-scale refineries in six years. That’s fast for a complicated process like fuel refining, but it’s an eternity in political time.
p. 61). “The cellulosic ethanol market could provide an incentive for landowners to clear-cut their forests,” said the alliance’s Thomas Llewellyn. Finding a buyer for single-species tree plantations could exacerbate the conversion of natural forests into row crops. “A thousand acres of plantation pine isn’t the same as a biodiverse forest,” Llewellyn said. Abengoa Bioenergy’s small-scale cellulosic refinery in Kansas has been operating for the past four years. “There’s a lot of corn, wheat, milo, and prairie grasses grown in this region,” said Chris Standlee. “With multiple feedstocks, we’ve got different harvests at different times of the year,” which gives Abengoa a kind of manufacturing-ondemand model that cuts down on storage costs. Abengoa’s next-generation refinery, a 25-million-gallon facility, is expected to produce fuel by early 2014. For Abengoa, the luxuries of time and patience have been critical. Many competitors tried the 10,000x scale-up and failed. Abengoa’s scale-up is only 16x. Because the fate of the company wasn’t riding on their shoulders, the engineers in Hugoton could spend years tinkering with the technology at the 1.5-million-gallon plant. “We’ve been operating for thousands of hours for the past four years,” Standlee said. That experience has proved invaluable in designing a larger plant that they believe will actually work. In Southern California, meanwhile, the cellulosic start-up Cool Planet has attracted a stable of high-profile funding partners (including Google Ventures, GE, and ConocoPhillips) by turning the scale-up problem on its head. “We’re going small,” Cool Planet CEO Howard Janzen told the biofuels conference. “Instead of one large $350 million facility, we’re building a large number of small $20- to $50-million facilities.” Cool Planet’s refining process converts wood, miscanthus grass, and other feedstocks into biofuels and a charcoal-like substance called biochar, which captures carbon and can be returned to the soil. According to Janzen, by removing carbon (through the growth of biomass) and sequestering it as biochar, the company’s process isn’t just carbon neutral—it’s carbon negative. “Here’s a picture of our prototype refinery in Southern California,” he said. On the screen appeared a photo of a refinery the size of four shipping containers. I know that’s the size of it because the entire refinery was built inside four actual shipping containers. A few weeks after the conference, I had a chance to drop by the
Cool Planet refinery, which sits in the middle of a strawberry field in Camarillo, about 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles. “Our first commercial plant doesn’t have to be perfect,” Janzen told me. “It won’t cost that much. We’ll build it and then keep improving as we build more. When you have a new technology and you try to scale it up too quickly, people have problems executing.” Mike Bukowski, Cool Planet’s operations chief, took me to the control room, where four systems operators monitored a dozen computer screens. “We’re doing test runs this week to confirm capacities,” he said. “We have the fractionator—which breaks the miscanthus grass feedstock into its component parts—in the first container, then we convert it into gasoline and biochar in the second container.” “Where does the fuel come out?” I asked. Bukowski led me to the back of the refinery. “That’s it,” he said, pointing to a metal container the size of a household propane tank. If the commercial-scale refineries coming online from KiOR and Abengoa represent the next generation of biofuel, Howard Janzen believes Cool Planet’s radically small concept could be the next-next. But to survive, Cool Planet will need to find special advantages and give its engineers time to work the bugs out. If it can do that, it has a shot—although it’s still a long shot. As he showed me around the four-container refinery, Bukowski struck me as one of the cellulosic industry’s lesser-known but most valuable commodities: the old-school refinery engineer with environmental motivations and a thirst for innovation. A few years ago Bukowski was running a 9.5-million-gallon-a-day petroleum refinery for Sunoco near Philadelphia. “Cool Planet’s technology was maybe 50 percent of what attracted me” enough to move across the country, he told me. “We’re making gasoline that’s identical to the fuel going into automobiles right now. You’re going to have a lot more success if you offer a renewable fuel to consumers in a way that doesn’t ask them to switch to something they’re unfamiliar with. If you can do that, you can really make a difference environmentally.” Bukowski and other cellulosic producers will need to start making that difference quickly. They’ve gone from labs to commercial-scale refineries in six years. That’s fast for a complicated process like fuel refining, but an eternity in political time. The U.S. shale oil boom, driven by the hugely controversial practice of fracking, has dramatically increased local fossil fuel production. American wells are producing 28 percent more crude oil and 21 percent more natural gas than they did in 2007. That, along with the recession, changed the political landscape. Senator James Inhofe isn’t praising the promise of cellulosic anymore; now he’s leading the congressional charge to repeal the entire RFS. But if cellulosic refineries can keep increasing the flow of biofuel Read about other biofuels that into the nation’s fuel supply, they may be the U.S. military is using at onearth.org/algae able to stave off the attacks long enough to stand on their own two feet. On my way out the door of Cool Planet’s Camarillo refinery, Mike Bukowski acknowledged the hard truth his industry is facing. Green fuel is wonderful, he said, “but it doesn’t do anybody any good if the company producing it can’t stay in business.” It’s a simple formula: make fuel, make money, change the world.
Contributing editor Bruce Barcott’s cover story on seafood bycatch (“What’s the Catch?,” Summer 2010) was a finalist for a 2011 National Magazine Award. fall 2013
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The Health Risks of Leaded Gasoline are a Thing of the Past, Right? Wrong.
ing in the Air
by Michael Behar
t’s impossible to
have an uninterrupted conversation with Kelly Kittleson in her home. Kittleson, who lives in Hillsboro, Oregon, is a single mom with four kids. But her children are not the distraction. The two youngest—a boy, age 2, and a girl, age 4—sat quietly with us at the kitchen table. They hardly made a peep while we chatted. Instead, about every five minutes, a low-flying plane screamed above the rooftop. “They are constantly going over all the time,” Kittleson complained. “It’s crazy. When I first moved here, it felt like they were going to crash into our house.” Kittleson’s house is directly beneath the final approach for the primary runway at Hillsboro Airport. The perimeter fence is visible from her backyard, where her kids spend countless hours. But the noise, it turns out, is just a nuisance. What really scares Kittleson is the lead. Like most Americans, she had no idea it was still in use in airplanes—the last remaining mode of transportation in the United States to use leaded fuel. (It was banned from automobile gasoline in 1996 after a phase-out that commenced with the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970.) When the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality surveyed the airport in 2005, it found a lead cloud hovering above Hillsboro, a circular plume spanning 25 square miles. At its center—right about where the Kittlesons live—lead levels were twice as fall 2013
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high as the National Ambient Air Quality Standard threshold set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In children, lead can damage the central nervous system, resulting in learning disabilities, stunted growth, and hearing loss, as well as cause anemia. Recent findings indicate that children who are repeatedly exposed exhibit violent behavior in later life. Adults may be at risk of kidney failure, cardiovascular disease, cancer, stroke, miscarriages, and premature births. Even at infinitesimal levels in the blood, lead has been linked to ADHD. Kittleson’s 8-year-old son has been diagnosed with the disorder; she now suspects her 4-year-old daughter might be showing symptoms too. Valorie Snider, who lives nearby, also has a son with ADHD. “Airplanes circle over the top of our house,” she told me over coffee at a Starbucks across the road from the airport. “The windows rattle. Sometimes it feels like an earthquake.” Both families have the same pediatrician, James Lubischer. “I never knew how much [lead] would impact us until Dr. Lubischer told me,” Snider said. She herself has been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, Hashimoto’s disease (a thyroid disorder), and adrenal fatigue. She wonders if the lead has anything to do with these ailments. Lubischer told me later that he lives right under the flight-training path, and that his daughter, too, has ADHD. He acknowledges that it’s challenging to prove a direct connection to lead in a specific instance—much like a case of lung cancer in an individual smoker. While an inordinate number of residents I met in Hillsboro have health problems, the evidence is anecdotal, and there have been no longitudinal studies tracking illness in populations close to these “general aviation” airports (a term that covers nearly all types of flight activity except scheduled commercial passenger service). Even so, Lubischer believes the scientific evidence is clear. He cited the work of Joel Nigg, a professor of psychiatry, pediatrics, and behavioral neuroscience at Oregon Health & Science University, who has published two influential papers showing a propensity to ADHD in children with only slightly elevated lead levels. Todd Jusko, now a professor in the University of Rochester’s department of public health sciences, conducted an earlier study, published in 2008 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. Jusko found that children’s cognitive abilities declined with blood lead levels of 2.1 micrograms per deciliter—less than half the level currently deemed toxic by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It was a sunny
weekday morning in mid-April when I stopped on the way to the Kittlesons to take a look at the Hillsboro Airport. Single-engine prop planes soared overhead in near-constant succession, dispersing lead into surrounding neighborhoods. Since 1990 the population of Hillsboro, a bedroom community 15 miles west of Portland, has nearly tripled, to more than 91,000, largely because semiconductor and biotech firms have moved into the area. The boom has transformed the town’s airport. Once home to weekend aviators, it has become a hub for corporate jets, a pilot training school, and a spillover facility for Portland International Airport. Training flights, in particular, are problematic. Student pilots perform touch-and-go’s—repeated landings that require gunning the engine at each go-around. They also do laps above the airfield. Takeoffs and landings at Hillsboro now total more than 200,000 annually, making 5 2 onearth
it one of the busiest general aviation airports in the United States. While jets and turboprops run on kerosene-based fuels, the majority of general aviation aircraft are piston-powered and consume aviation gasoline, or avgas, which is produced in several grades. The most common is 100-octane low lead, or 100LL, used by 167,000 aircraft, about 75 percent of the nation’s general aviation fleet. (People in the industry use the terms 100LL and avgas interchangeably.) No other country in the world has a fleet that still relies predominantly on leaded gasoline. By the 1940s lead had become the go-to additive to avgas because it produced a fuel with low anti-knock properties, increasing horsepower while adding only a smidgen of extra weight. Lead’s toxicity had been well documented in innumerable studies. But most scientists (and pilots) assumed small doses were benign. By the 1960s advances in detecting trace amounts in the blood told a different story. The lead added to avgas is a clear liquid known technically as tetraethyllead. Only one company in the world makes it: Innospec, a Colorado-based chemical corporation, which produces it at a
plant near Liverpool, England. In addition to its anti-knock qualities, tetraethyllead performs several functions in piston-powered airplane engines. It boosts performance and reduces wear and tear. It also prevents something called “early detonation,” which can melt pistons and trigger an explosion. At the moment, there is no widely available substitute. Unleaded blends are in development but still experimental. The upshot: piston-engine planes consume about 248 million gallons of avgas a year, spewing out 551 tons of lead. These planes operate primarily from general aviation airports, of which there are about 3,000 in the United States (though most are podunk airstrips that see little activity). In 2010 the EPA compiled data on avgas emissions at the busiest of these airports—those with emissions of more than 1,000 pounds of lead a year. Hillsboro, with 1,360 pounds annually, ranked 21st on the EPA’s list of 58. Many of these airports are situated in heavily populated neighborhoods. In Los Angeles, for instance, some 14,000 people live within a mile of Van Nuys Airport, which sees annual lead emission totals above 1,500 pounds. At least 3,200 students who attend schools near the Hillsboro Airport are at risk. A Montessori preschool is located across the street from the airport’s entrance, and a day care center is situated just 800 yards from the end of the main runway. According to statistics gathered by the Natural Resources Defense Council, nationwide more than three
illustration by bruce morser
million children attend schools in close proximity to airports where avgas is burned. In 2011 Marie Lynn Miranda, a professor of pediatrics and dean of the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan, published a groundbreaking study in Environmental Health Perspectives on the effects of aviation gasoline on children. Miranda sampled 66 airports in North Carolina where air-quality sensors had recorded at least 448 pounds of lead emissions per year and found that blood lead levels in children living nearby were alarmingly high. She explained to me that lead accumulates in human tissue—every exposure adds more of the toxin to your body. “Children are more vulnerable because of their higher metabolic rate,” Miranda said. “So if you and your child were exposed to the same amount of lead, your child would uptake five times as much.” Miranda’s study has galvanized efforts to ban avgas by local grassroots organizations such as Oregon Aviation Watch, an environmental advocacy group in Hillsboro founded by Miki Barnes, a social worker.
In battles with city, state, and federal policy makers, citizens like Barnes are trying—so far largely without success—to stop airport expansions, reroute flight paths, and curb air traffic. During my visit to Hillsboro, representatives from the Port of Portland and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) held a meeting at the town’s civic center to hear public comments on the port’s proposal to add a third runway to the airport. Port officials brought copies of their 246-page environmental assessment, which projects a nearly 40 percent increase in lead emissions by 2021, to 1,840 pounds annually, as a result of increased flight traffic (though not necessarily of the proposed runway.) The hearing was standing room only. More than 60 residents turned out, and nearly two dozen of them took to the lectern to make impassioned pleas not to approve the project. “Do you know what lead does?” Barnes asked when she testified. “It reduces IQ. It’s linked with ADHD. It’s linked with miscarriages. It’s linked with birth defects. It’s absolutely toxic. [The runway project] is shameful.” Residents could each speak for five minutes, but it took Barnes only two before she got teary-eyed. During a break in the proceedings, I spoke to Renee Dowlin, the Port of Portland’s manager for the project. Lead, she told me, “is not the Port of Portland’s issue. It is a federal issue, which the EPA and FAA will deal with. Nor do we have control over the number of planes
from nrdc a 40-year battle
Senior scientist with NRDC’s health and environment program, based in San Francisco
The fight to eliminate the health risks from lead began 40 years ago. What has NRDC’s role been during that time? NRDC began to fight for the elimination of lead almost as soon as the organization was founded in 1970. The Clean Air Act, which was passed in the same year, said that regulating lead was a federal issue. But when New York City passed a stringent law banning lead in gasoline, we went to court to argue that it would be absurd for Washington to preempt the right of states and cities to pass tougher pollution controls than the federal government. We won. Then, when successive administrations dragged their feet on a ban on leaded gasoline in automobiles, NRDC continued the fight for more than two decades until the ban took full effect in 1996. It was a huge victory. What has the impact of the ban been on public health? For our kids especially, the progress has been tremendous. The concentration of lead in a child’s blood is measured in micrograms per deciliter, or µg/dL. In the late 1970s the median level was 15 µg/dL. By 2009–2010 it was down to 1.2, although there are significant disparities that reflect ethnicity and household income. The economic impact of lead contamination remains staggering. Researchers estimate that the annual cost of childhood lead poisoning, in terms of health care and lost productivity resulting from cognitive impairment, could be as much as $60.2 billion. The consensus today among child health experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is that there is no safe level of exposure for children, so we need to continue to get the lead out so that they can learn and flourish. Is lead in aviation fuel the only challenge that remains? Unfortunately not. There are still many hot spots of lead pollution in this country. In 2008, as a result of continuous efforts by NRDC and our allies, the Environmental Protection Agency tightened the standard for airborne lead for the first time in more than 30 years. In 2010 our work resulted in an expanded monitoring network to help identify locations with elevated lead levels. Industrial facilities, such as primary and secondary lead smelters (mainly battery recyclers), continue each year to belch out tons of lead, which contaminates the air and builds up in the soil. We’re working hard to curb these emissions and support the communities that are most affected. The fight has also gone international. As U.S. industrial activity has moved across the Pacific, so has lead pollution, and we’re engaged in a major effort to improve China’s standards for prevention and cleanup.
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that can come to the airport. We are preempted by the FAA because we accept federal money.” Barnes is unconvinced. “There are legal precedents for airport operators to limit these flights,” she insists. “The Port of Portland simply chooses not to do so because it values the revenue generated from the sale of leaded avgas over the well-being of the community.”
So why has
the federal government done nothing to halt the use of avgas? By law, the EPA is required to make an “endangerment finding” when it deems that a pollutant or toxin presents an imminent threat to public health—and the health risks of lead are well established. Under the Clean Air Act, the agency must promptly set rules to regulate or ban harmful emissions from any source once it makes such a finding. But it hasn’t done so with avgas, despite having published dozens of studies on lead’s toxicity, including a 2000 report warning that “there currently is no demonstrated safe concentration of lead in blood, and adverse health effects can occur at lower concentrations.” In March 2012, Friends of the Earth filed a lawsuit against the EPA, accusing the agency of having “unreasonably delayed” its duty to make an endangerment finding. Between the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970 and 2007, piston-powered planes burned 14.6 billion gallons of avgas, expelling 34,000 tons of lead into the environment. Each year avgas accounts for nearly 60 percent of total lead emissions in the United States. (The remainder derives mostly from the metals industry.) “We got rid of lead in cars,” says John Froines, a professor of environmental health sciences at UCLA, “and there is no argument that says we should allow it in aircraft.” Froines directed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Office of Toxic Substances in the 1970s, where he wrote the first lead standards. Meanwhile, the EPA has commenced yet another study, which it expects to complete in May 2014. Justin Cohen, communications director for the agency’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality, would not speak about the new study or allow me to interview anyone at the EPA about it (or anything else avgas-related) on the record. Instead, he pointed me to the agency’s website, where I learned how scientists will use computer models to calculate lead emissions at various airports. But if computers can already determine lead pollution at any airport, why does the EPA need another investigation to conclude that avgas is endangering public health? Cohen wouldn’t comment, and Kim Hoang, air toxics risk coordinator for the EPA’s air division, whose staff created the computer models in 2011, declined requests for an interview. Marianne Engelman Lado, an attorney with Earthjustice who is leading the legal team for Friends of the Earth, told me, “[The EPA] has argued that they need to do more monitoring. And after they study the results, they can think about doing an endangerment finding. So we could be looking many, many years down the road before there’s even any set of deadlines for getting lead out of avgas. But when you think about the harm that lead causes, there’s grounds to be calling for major change at a very fast pace.” “We know what the answer to the question about the problem of lead is,” Froines says. “It’s not something that needs further study. That’s ridiculous.” Instead of dealing directly with lead in aviation fuel, the Clean Air Act left it to the EPA administrator to decide whether to tackle avgas emissions; if that happened, any new regulations could not “adversely 5 4 onearth
affect safety.” Remember that part about lead preventing engines from exploding? That’s why industry groups, including the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the National Air Transportation Association, and the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, have been reluctant to support a ban on avgas until a “drop-in” replacement fuel is available. They insist that such a fuel must match the performance of avgas across all parameters, cost the same or less (now about $6 per gallon), and require no changes to aircraft or the fuel distribution infrastructure, such as pumping stations, tanker trucks, and pipelines. Peter White, who manages the FAA’s new Fuel Programs Office—created specifically to focus on avgas—doubts that many petroleum companies would invest the cash and assets needed to develop a spec-for-spec substitute until the EPA is compelled to make a move. In February 2012 the FAA announced a set of formal recommendations, known as the Fuel Development Roadmap, to “support [the] transition to an unleaded aviation gasoline.” EPA officials have indicated they won’t ban avgas (unless forced to by a judge) until a suitable substitute is available. Doing so, they say, would wreak economic havoc, grounding most of the general aviation fleet. The Fuel Programs Office is bringing the EPA and FAA together in an unprecedented partnership to resolve the stalemate. “We’re trying to incentivize fuel producers to help develop new [unleaded] candidates,” White told me. Nonetheless, he reckons a free-market solution is going to need some legislative prodding. So does Representative Henry Waxman of California. Last October Waxman, a Democrat, wrote to FAA administrator Michael Huerta, pleading with him to fast-track the availability of unleaded avgas. “There is a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the future of 100LL and it’s stymieing growth,” White said. “Without some sort of regulatory change, some sort of requirement, there’s really no other force that’s going to drive 100LL off the market and bring in a replacement.”
at the moment
only two small firms are exploring replacements for 100LL. Swift Fuels, based in West Lafayette, Indiana, has developed an unleaded avgas by blending isopentane, a chemical found in mouthwash, with mesitylene, an industrial solvent. According to project co-founder Jon Ziulkowski, the fuel, called 100SF, can be manufactured from renewable biomass sources, such as switchgrass and sorghum, and burns cleaner than 100LL, with 30 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions. In Ada, Oklahoma, engineers at General Aviation Modifications Inc. (GAMI) have developed a rival fuel to the Swift blend called G100UL. GAMI co-founder George Braly hopes to license the formula, for which a patent is pending, to a major refiner, such as Phillips 66, the nation’s largest producer of avgas. “But avgas is a specialty fuel,” Braly said. “It’s a pain for [Phillips and other companies] to make because the volume is so small. So they want status quo until there’s no other alternative.” Phillips declined to comment. Could either fuel emerge as a drop-in replacement? Brian Watt,
odds against us—and with no help from the FAA, EPA, avgas suppliers, or our own aviation lobbies—we have been able to slowly increase the number of airports now offering mogas.” In the United States, all gasoline is produced initially without ethanol. Petroleum refiners add just enough to fulfill their RFS quota. Once that has been met, the untainted surplus is sold to consumers who prefer it for engines more susceptible to ethanol damage, including those in boats, snowmobiles, farm equipment, power tools, lawnmowers, and vintage automobiles. Misegades’s group taps into this supply. Of the 3,600 airports that carry avgas, at least 118 have an adjacent pump supplying ethanol-free mogas. As for 100LL, Misegades, who is an aerospace engineer and recreational pilot, admits, “Our continued use of a substance that was banned decades ago in cars makes us look like cavemen.”
Innospec’s vice president of strategic planning and regulatory affairs, is doubtful. “People have been looking at 100LL replacements for 40 years, and there is still not a credible alternative,” he told me. “Legislation would help.” Peter White sees things differently. “I don’t want to say yes or no until we really have the chance to evaluate all the data,” he said. It’s up to the FAA to certify specific engine models permitted to burn any new fuel, but that will take years. “It’s a huge effort,” White observed. “You need to collect data, there are material compatibility issues, there are operability issues, there’s performance, there’s weight—a whole bunch of things you need to address and a very large number of models.” FAA officials have said they’re committed to certifying a drop-in avgas replacement by 2018. But as Waxman pointed out in his letter to Huerta, certification is only the initial step. After 2018, he wrote, “it may be 11 years or more before the new fuel will be phased in. This extended time frame is simply too long, given the certain and serious harms to human health from lead exposure.” Ordinary unleaded gasoline—mogas—might, in fact, offer the simplest and quickest interim solution. While its octane is lower than that of 100LL, “it has been conclusively shown that over 80 percent of all current piston-engine aircraft can operate on mogas,” notes Kent Misegades, director of the Aviation Fuel Club, a nonprofit group formed to champion unleaded alternatives to 100LL. The hurdle with mogas is finding it without ethanol. Because of the EPA’s 2005 Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) requirement, automotive fuel in the United States must be blended with ethanol. This works fine for cars but can be catastrophic in airplanes. The reason is that ethanol is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs water—for example, water that forms from condensation in a fuel tank. In cars, ethanol can damage engines but (usually) isn’t life-threatening. In airplanes, however, ethanol not only is corrosive but can retain moisture that may freeze in the frigid air at higher altitudes. “It’s like throwing ice cubes through your fuel system,” Ziulkowski explains. “It will cause the engine to stop in midair.” For his part, Misegades is making headway. He says, “Despite all the
U.S. District Court judge Amy Berman Jackson dismissed the Friends of the Earth lawsuit against the EPA. She didn’t address the obvious hazards of avgas or dispute that mitigating lead emissions was one of the principal objectives of the Clean Air Act. Instead, her written opinion hinged on the language of the act, which she found ambiguous. She ruled that the EPA’s responsibility to make an endangerment finding was discretionary, not mandatory. So what comes next? “We’re weighing our options,” says Lado of Earthjustice. “I think legal action is still needed to put the pressure on.” One possibility is to petition the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. But there is also a wild card: the entity with the greatest power to eliminate lead in avgas may be Innospec, its sole producer. In 2012 tetraethyllead generated one-tenth of Innospec’s $776 million in revenue, down from 90 percent in 2000. Today, sales of tetraethyllead to avgas producers account for just 3 percent of Innospec’s business. The remainder comes from their customers in Algeria, Iraq, and Yemen, which still blend the additive into gasoline for older cars. But with phase-outs under way in those countries, demand is waning fast. “As soon as they get their refineries and motor fleet sorted out, [tetraethyllead] there will be gone,” Innospec’s Watt predicts. For the time being, Watt says that the company is committed to keeping its Liverpool plant running until there is a suitable 100LL replacement. And yet, he admits, “If we weren’t making money on it, we’d obviously do something different.” Annually, Innospec sells about 450,000 gallons of tetraethyllead to avgas producers. “But we’ve already been stepping down [production] every year,” Watt says. Outside the United States, there are about 60,000 aircraft that require avgas, but most can operate on the mogas that’s readily available in the rest of the world, which doesn’t blend ethanol with fuel. “Our position with the aviation market is that we don’t want to be in this business long term,” he says. Read about the health and environ“There is no future for tetraethyllead.” mental challenges facing families at onearth.org/homelab All the more reason, urges Lado, “to get the phase-out process under way now. [The EPA] is wasting time. The handwriting is on the wall that lead is bad, that lead is being spewed from these airplanes, and that lead has to go.”
Michael Behar is a contributing editor to OnEarth. His most recent article for the magazine was our Summer 2012 cover story, “Dreamboat.” fall 2013
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ninety percent of everything Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry by Rose george Metropolitan, 304 pp., $28
coming to a store near you
W clive varlack/AGPIX
Love that iPhone, love those sneakers. But how do they get here, and what’s the cost? b y BRUCE STUT Z
hen I first moved to Brooklyn in the early 1970s I lived not
far from the waterfront and often walked along the piers to watch the longshoremen drive forklift loads of cargo back and forth, in and out of the dockside warehouses. By then these were trucking warehouses; cargo ships no longer tied up. But the dockworkers’ hustle, the forklifts and hand trucks being maneuvered among the maze of stacked crates, were enough to evoke the gritty, labor-intensive, old-time Brooklyn waterfront that I knew from reading Arthur Miller and Budd Schulberg. Those piers and warehouses are gone, replaced by a gentrified waterfront park. What remains of the shipping industry in New York lies across the harbor along the New Jersey waterfront, where, from Brooklyn on a clear day, one can see the port’s imposing gauntlet of 30-story-high steel cranes. This is a different kind of port, Rose George points out in her book Ninety Percent of Everything. There’s hardly a soul to be seen. The modern port is “a place where humans are hidden in crane or truck cabs, where everything is clamorous machines.” Even more disconcerting, at these “Terminator terminals,” as she calls them, there’s no cargo to be seen: no bundles, sacks, bags, drums, crates, or vehicles, only anonymous containers known as TEUs—“twenty-foot-equivalent units”—lifted into the air and then stacked by the thousands into the
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hulls and onto the decks of ships nearly as long as the Empire State Building is tall. This undifferentiated cargo crosses the world’s oceans to distant ports where identical cranes transfer these “intermodal” containers onto trucks or rail cars in exchange for containers that have just arrived. These containers and the huge ships that can carry 13,000 of them have, over the past 20 years, reduced labor and in-port costs and created a nearly giddying economy of scale. Where it used to take days to load and unload a ship, it now takes hours. “Before containers,” writes George, “transport costs ate up 25 percent of the value of whatever was being shipped. A sweater can now travel three thousand miles for 2.5 cents; it costs one cent to send a can of beer.” Since 1970 the amount of goods shipped by sea has grown fourfold. Asian-made clothing, cars, sneakers, computers, and cell phones account for much of that increase. Still, “shipping is so cheap,” George reports, “that it makes more financial sense for Scottish cod to be sent ten thousand miles to China to be filleted [and] then sent back to Scottish shops and restaurants than to pay Scottish filleters.” To the good, George can report that this economy of scale translates into fewer greenhouse gases emitted per ton shipped per mile: 11 grams of CO2 emissions by ship compared with 40 by rail, about 110 by truck, and 1,193 by air. She cites a
report by the Natural Resources Defense Council showing similar savings in emissions of nitrous oxide and particulate matter. “Sending a container from Shanghai to Le Havre,” George writes, “emits fewer greenhouse gases than the truck that takes the container on to Lyon.” Following a hypothetical shipment of cotton apparel from China’s cotton-growing province of Xinjiang to its manufacturing and shipping hub in Shanghai, from Shanghai to Los Angeles, from Los Angeles to Denver, the NRDC study concluded that “a retailer could send 101 full containers by ship and still emit fewer GHGs than one container sent by plane.” And yet, as George points out, the size and number of these ships make their “greenness” a relative concept: “Shipping is not benign because there is so much of it. It emits a billion tons of carbon a year and nearly four percent of [all] greenhouse gases . . . more than all aviation and road transport.” The container ship on which George travels from England to Thailand, courtesy of Maersk, has an 80,000-horsepower engine that each day consumes 260 tons of heavy fuel oil. That oil, known as bunker fuel, is just “one step up from asphalt,” as someone tells George. “Only forest fires produce more black carbon than bunker fuel,” she says. “Bunker fuel can have a sulfur content of up to 45,000 parts per million (ppm). Low-sulfur diesel for cars is supposed to contain 10 ppm.” The near-shore emissions from these ships, one study demonstrated, are responsible for some 60,000 cardiopulmonary and lung cancer deaths annually. “In Los Angeles,” George writes, “half of all smog from sulfur dioxide comes in from ships.” Large cargo ships (and tanker ships) are also noisy. As George learns, this “pernicious, wide-
spread, damaging and preventable” acoustic pollution means that the chances of marine mammals “finding a mate, food, and probably surviving have all been decimated.” The shipping industry recognizes that it can mitigate some of its worst environmental depredations by, for instance, switching to auxiliary engines that run on cleaner low-sulfur fuel when near port or by simply going a few knots slower at sea to reduce fuel consumption and emissions and, it’s hoped, avoid unhappy contact with marine mammals. George finds, however, that despite United Nations conventions and international maritime organiza-
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“But,” he says, “it’s boring.” He does have a point. While truckers may produce more greenhouse gases, they do at least get the chance to talk while they drive and hang out at interesting truck stops along the way. Container ship crews of 20 or so work long shifts and have little leisure. Like airplanes that make quick terminal turn-arounds, ships spend little time in the modern mechanized port, so crews rarely get to venture far from the ship. Everyone on this floating warehouse seems to spend his time fighting boredom. George’s laconic captain, near retirement, has spent a lifetime at sea but has little to say about the indus-
Thailand. It’s not for lack of ability: she writes compelling chapterlong digressions on piracy and shipwrecks, the human toll of which challenges the industry’s efforts to remain invisible. (Ship ownership can be an international corporate shell game. When, for instance, in 1999 the oil tanker Erika broke up off the coast of Brittany and polluted 250 miles of French coastline, it was impossible to find out who actually owned the ship and whom to charge for the cleanup.) The container ship is a major link in the great intermodalized, globalized, and internationalized supply chain. Yet unless a ship sinks or is captured by pirates,
c o n t r i b u t o r s
It Runs in the Family By Richard Manning, St. Martin’s Press, 320 pp., $25.99 richard manning, a regular contributor to onearth, is one of the preeminent chroniclers of the American West. In fact, Rick Bass (who might contend for the title himself) calls him the greatest of all western journalists. For decades Manning has written with passion, deep knowledge, and not infrequent anger about agriculture, fire, and our western lands. Now, in this outspoken and often painful memoir, he describes the roots of his fierce attachment to the West and his education as a writer. His account of a troubled childhood in Michigan and a family crippled by bigotry culminates in a life-changing search for his estranged father in the wilds of Panama. Along the way, the story of Manning’s life becomes the story of what ails our country, above all the religious absolutism that treats the Bible “as if God hammered out all of it on his iPad in a single draft.”
tions, “in practice, the ocean is the try other than that it’s changed. world’s wildest place,” where it’s “The sea?” he asks inscrutably. easy “to slip from the boundaries “It’s cold and wet.” Even George seems at times of law and civilization.” Boarding a container vessel on afflicted with a kind of sensory its voyage to Asia, George intends deprivation. She tells us little of to break through this anonymity. the changing skies, waters, and But it’s an uphill battle. When a weather as she travels a route crew member asks why she most of us would be eager to folwould want to write about a con- low, along the coast of Europe, tainer ship voyage, she tells him into the Mediterranean, through it’s because “shipping is so fun- the Suez Canal, across the Gulf of Aden, to Oman, damental and Sri Lanka, Macrucial and Read about bunker-fuel pollution laysia, Singano one knows in the cruise ship industry at onearth.org/13fal/behar pore, and finally about it.”
we don’t ask, as George does, how it is that all the things we buy find their way to us. In the same way, until a factory fire kills hundreds in Pakistan, or more than 1,000 die in a building collapse in Bangladesh, we don’t ask where our clothes, sneakers, cell phones, or computers come from, who makes them, or how they live. Yet, as George reminds us, these things that we don’t know or don’t want to know are “fundamental and crucial.” They will only become more so as rising consumerism world-
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reviews wide means more of “everything” traveling by sea. Shipping is now growing by 2 percent to 6 percent each year, George reports. To accommodate larger vessels the Panama Canal is undergoing a massive expansion. Vying for the new business, ports along
the U.S. Gulf and East coasts are spending billions to deepen their channels, enlarge their facilities, and upgrade rail and highway connections. And yet when the canal expansion is complete in 2015, it will already be nearly two generations of container ship behind, able to handle vessels carrying 13,000 containers when, as unlikely as it may seem,
the industry is building ships capable of carrying 20,000 or more. Such ships will be able to dock at only a few specialized ports, ever more remote and sequestered, even farther out of sight and out of mind. Bruce Stutz is a freelance writer and OnEarth contributing editor who lives in Brooklyn.
telling our way to the sea A Voyage of Discovery in the Sea of Cortez BY Aaron Hirsh Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 432 pp., $30
Two years ago, while on
Man and Sea By Yann Arthus-Bertrand and Brian Skerry, Abrams, $50 When the French photographer and conservationist Yann Arthus-Bertrand comes out with a new book, you never know quite what to expect. His first and most famous volume, Earth From Above, was a collection of jaw-dropping aerial photographs of some of the world’s most spectacular places. The book sold three million copies, and a companion exhibit attracted 60 million visitors worldwide. 6 Billion Others, published in 2009, went to the opposite extreme, with close-up portraits of 500 men and women from all over the world. Now ArthusBertrand switches gears again, teaming up with the distinguished underwater photographer Brian Skerry to bring us a luminous tapestry of images of the oceans from above and from below, such as this photograph of a whale shark, a species that is threatened by overfishing.
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assignment for this magazine, I had the good fortune to explore a small part of the Sea of Cortez. My guides, two Mexican biologists, shared their deep knowledge of the sea’s histor y and ecology, the status of Mexico’s fisheries, and much local lore; we camped on a desert island and snorkeled above reefs rife with fish. On the last afternoon, a large olive ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) materialized barely an arm’s length away from me. For a few seconds we swam side by side in the warm water. Then the turtle pulled away, its reptilian curiosity apparently satisfied, and outdistanced me with ease. The experience felt at once numinous and melancholy, signifying the precarious state of everything wild. That memory resurfaced as I read Aaron Hirsh’s remarkable and profound Telling Our Way to the Sea. All 10 chapters are titled with the Linnaean genus and species designations of various organisms found in the Sea of Cortez or in the desert around it. Chapter 9, Chelonia mydas, is devoted to the green turtle, which, Hirsh informs us, is not green at all. Its shell, head, and flippers are “a gorgeous dark chestnut with brush swipes
of yellowish gold.” So why green? The turtle, it turns out, is named for the color of the soup made from the rich and evidently delicious fat beneath the animal’s shell. Besides the curse of being tasty, the turtle can survive for weeks without eating or drinking. Those two traits made it irresistible to generations of sailors, who would stack hundreds of live turtles on their backs in ships’ holds, cracking them open as needed for fresh meat. Now the greens and nearly all the world’s sea turtles are endangered, and this ancient lineage—“an entire bough of the tree of life,” as Hirsh puts it—may vanish in our lifetimes, after more than 100 million years of swimming the oceans. For Hirsh, the fate of the sea turtles represents a crucial test for humanity. If we can’t halt the extinction of these iconic animals, what chance have we of successfully tackling even greater ecological crises? Since 1998, Hirsh, a biologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, has been taking groups of students for two weeks of seminars and fieldwork at a small marine biology station on the eastern coast of the Baja peninsula. He structures the book around one such journey, although he says the students and adventures he describes are to some extent composites drawn from many different summers spent exploring that desert-fronted sea. Hirsh’s narrative of daily excursions blends seamlessly with wide-ranging and penetrating forays into biology, evolution, and the history of science. He is adept at describing the most intricate and subtle aspects of biology, from the evolution of sea cucumbers to the wonders of otoliths—pearly pebbles of calcium carbonate in the heads of fish, from which biologists can determine not just how many years a fish has lived, but how many days. Hirsh writes with an illusion of effortlessness, in prose that is lyri-
cal but never sentimental. Some of the most memorable parts of Telling Our Way to the Sea describe haunting, almost dreamlike, encounters with creatures most of us will never see in the flesh: a school of swirling rays surrounds a young man suspended upside down underwater; a false killer whale plows through the water toward a boat and stops at the last moment, raising its head to sing to the astonished humans on board. At one point Hirsh muses on the sheer exuberant variety on display as he gazes at the desert. “Landscape exceeds the mind,” he writes. “It is bristling with wild precision.” The same could be said of his unforgettable book.
foreclosing the future The World Bank and the Politics of Environmental Destruction BY Bruce Rich Island Press, 344 pp., $35
One of the MOST IMPORTANT
passages in President Obama’s landmark June 25 speech on climate change got almost no attention at the time: his endorsement of “an end of public financing for new coal plants overseas.” If implemented, that pledge would amount to a reversal of decades of U.S. policy and strike a significant blow in the fight to prevent runaway climate change. Without scores of billions of dollars in loans from U.S. taxpayers, most of the coalfired power plants now poisoning
the people of China, India, and other developing countries would never have been built. Much of this money came from the U.S. Expor t-Impor t Bank and the U.S.-dominated World Bank, particularly its private-sector lending arm, the International Finance Corporation. Within a month of Obama’s
in 2000 he published a searing critique of its privatization of health care and environmental services in Peru, where he worked in the 1990s. Kim charged that bank policies had “led to significant ecological degradation from deforestation, oil spills, and poisoned waterways.” During Kim’s short tenure as
Without loans from U.S. taxpayers, most of the coal-fired power plants poisoning the people of China and India would never have been built
speech, his statement appeared to have become actual policy. The Export-Import Bank announced it would not underwrite a proposed coal plant in Vietnam. The World Bank declared that henceforth it would finance new coal plants only in “rare circumstances.” Bruce Rich’s new book had been printed by the time Obama made his climate speech, so Rich can’t be faulted for not mentioning it or the bank’s disavowal of new coal loans. More problematic, however, is that nothing in the book prepares the reader for the possibility of such a consequential about-face. Rich, who has worked for 30 years for various environmental groups, including Friends of the Earth, has long criticized the bank and other lending agencies for pursuing environmentally destructive policies that have done more to fatten the profit margins of multinational corporations than enable the world’s poor to ascend from poverty. In Foreclosing the Future, Rich reiterates his past critiques while adding fresh material on the bank’s actions under Jim Yong Kim, who, with Obama’s endorsement, became its new president in July 2012. The question now is whether Kim will actually enforce the bank’s ban on new coal loans. Rich points out that Kim was a surprise choice to lead the bank, because
president, Rich argues, he has retreated from his previous truthtelling, perhaps most discouragingly when he visited South Africa two months after taking office and endorsed a $3 billion loan to construct what would be the fourthlargest new coal plant on earth, at Medupi. On the other hand, last year Kim did have the bank release a report, Turn Down the Heat, that warned the earth was heading for a catastrophic warming of 4 degrees Celsius. Rich’s most valuable insights concern how often the World Bank has been informed—by its own internal review boards, no less— that its policies have not reduced poverty so much as hastened environmental destruction and enabled corruption by public officials in developing nations. Nevertheless, the bank has gone on “pushing money out the door”—giving large loans that make it appear to be moving heaven and earth on behalf of the poor but in practice often do the opposite. This is the mind-set that needs changing if the World Bank is to live up to its potential as an enabler of genuine development. It’s heartening to see Kim echoing Obama’s rejection of coal, but as Rich says, previous bank presidents have made similarly encouraging promises that later were abandoned. Continued vigilance is advised. —Mark Hertsgaard
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Dispatches news and views from the natural resources defense council
OVERHEATED New health safeguards are needed to respond to a warming climate.
Saving lives in a hotter world Ahmedabad, India, has created a model plan to protect residents from heat-related illness and death
n may 2010 mANY hundreds of people
died during a heat wave in Ahmedabad, one of India’s fastest-growing cities, located in the western state of Gujarat. With temperatures peaking at 116 degrees Fahrenheit, the death count reached 300 one day that month. Three years later, the city has transformed itself. Multicolored heat advisories decorate Ahmedabad’s ubiquitous auto rickshaws and the sides and backs of buses as well as billboards in busy commercial areas, and pamphlets with heat-related health tips have been distributed to schoolchildren. In May, generally the hottest month in Ahmedabad, local newspapers published frequent stories and ads urging residents to stay indoors, drink water, and avoid exerting themselves. Residents also received heat alerts via radio and text message.
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The makeover is part of Ahmedabad’s Heat Action Plan, which aims to put an end to heat-related fatalities in the city. The first of its kind in South Asia, the plan is the result of a collaboration that began in early 2011 among NRDC and the Public Health Foundation of India, Ramachandra University, the Indian Institute of Public Health– Gandhinagar, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, Emory University, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and the Georgia Institute of Technology. “No one needs to die from heat waves,” says Anjali Jaiswal, an NRDC senior attorney who directs the organization’s India initiative and was one of the principal architects of Ahmedabad’s action plan. With dangerous heat waves projected to become more frequent, heat-related illness and death threaten cities around the world. Already, heat preparedness plans are in place in North American cities such
opposite: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty; right: Patti McConville/Alamy; top right: Prisma Bildagentur AG/Alamy
as Philadelphia, Chicago, and Toronto, as well as in Shanghai, Tokyo, Rome, Paris, and Victoria, Australia, says Kim Knowlton, a senior scientist in NRDC’s health and environmental program and another of the Ahmedabad plan’s creators. “We had a model of what we wanted to do,” she says. To tailor the plan to Ahmedabad, researchers surveyed the city’s most vulnerable residents: people living in slum communities, workers who toil outdoors in the heat, the elderly, and children. They also analyzed temperature and mortality data and examined ambulance call records. Ahmedabad’s plan includes an early warning system, which will alert municipal authorities of extreme temperatures seven days in advance. A coordinated plan of action has been devised for hospitals and health centers as well as social workers who attend to the city’s slums. Shaded parks, night shelters, temples, pools, and libraries have been designated as makeshift cooling centers. And health care workers have been coached to recognize and respond to heat-related symptoms, such as cramps, confusion, and fainting, and to watch out for increased cardiovascular, respiratory, and neurological complaints. Already, attitudes toward heat in the city are starting to change. “Initially, the perception was that heat has always been there in India, so life went on as usual,” says Gulrez Shah Azhar, an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Public Health and one of the developers of the action plan. “Now we have prominent agreement that, yes, there is excess mortality due to heat in summers and that it can be prevented.” Other Indian cities are coming to the same conclusion: inquiries about creating similar plans have rolled in to NRDC and IIPH from Jaipur, Chandigarh, and Hyderabad. “The plan is ready to scale,” says Jaiswal. —kristen french
Penobscot Rescue A lawsuit could help restore a treasured river after years of mercury contamination.
towering 70-year-old tupelos
in forests flanking North Carolina’s Roanoke River have received some new visitors recently: swamp loggers in yellow Tigercats. They’re part of a logging boom in the southeastern United States spurred by rising European demand for wood pellets, which are used as fuel for power plants. Loggers have been clearcutting the region’s forests, which harbor some of the greatest biological diversity in North America, protect drinking water for millions, prevent flooding, and act as
carbon sinks. Moreover, although burning woody biomass as fuel has long been considered cleaner than burning fossil fuels, recent research indicates that it actually results in more carbon emissions per unit of energy produced. And that’s before you factor in the loss of carbon sequestration. In response, NRDC and the forest conservation group Dogwood Alliance have launched a campaign called Our Forests Aren’t Fuel. The two groups are pressuring companies such as wood pellet manufacturer Enviva, U.K. utility Drax, and U.S. utility Dominion Resources to stop producing or buying pellets made from whole trees (rather than, say, branches left over after logging). “It doesn’t make sense from a climate or an ecological standpoint,” says Debbie Hammel, a senior resource specialist with NRDC’s land and —K.F. wildlife program.
A Maine River needs rehab
aine’s Penobscot River estuary, where New
England’s second-longest river meets the ocean tides, teems with eel and shellfish. Eagles nest along its banks, and its waters support tourism, recreation, and fishing from Bangor to Bucksport. But the estuary also contains some of the worst mercury contamination in the country. From 1967 to 1982, Mallinckrodt, a subsidiary of the healthcare products giant, Covidien, produced chlorine at its Orrington plant, in southern Penobscot County, feeding the demand for bleach from the state’s paper mills. Mallinckrodt used mercury in its chloalkali process, discharging the persistent toxin directly into the river. A civil suit led by NRDC, however, may force the company, which sold the Orrington plant in 1982, to clean up the mess it left behind. In 2000, NRDC and the Maine People’s Alliance sued the company under a federal law governing hazardous waste disposal. An initial ruling held Mallinckrodt responsible for dumping mercury and ordered an independent assessment of the contamination downstream from the plant to determine whether restoration measures were necessary. If so, the court ruled, Mallinckrodt would bear the costs. In April, the court-appointed scientific panel released its report on mercury’s persistence in the estuary. The scientists found that through 1999, Mallinckrodt had dumped up to 12 metric tons of mercury into the river and that more than 9 tons remain. In the 23 miles of river investigated, sediments contained as much as 20 times more mercury than found in other regional estuaries, posing risks to wildlife and human health. The scientists concluded that if nothing were done, the river’s rehabilitation could take decades. Instead, they recommend that Mallinckrodt remove the mercury from the affected areas, which could cost anywhere from $40 million to $170 million but could reduce the recovery time to about five years. In spring 2014, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine will evaluate the panel’s findings, and NRDC will argue that Mallinckrodt must undertake an effective cleanup. NRDC senior attorney Nancy Marks, who is leading the suit with litigation director Mitch Bernard, anticipates a long road ahead but notes, “This time we have a report that ratifies our own findings.”
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Alaska Mine: Anatomy of a Bad Idea
ebble Partnership, an international consortium of mining giants, is pushing
to construct a gold and copper mine near Alaska’s Bristol Bay, threatening not only a majestic and stunning landscape but also the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon fishery. The Pebble Partnership puts a positive spin on the project in a document on its website titled “Why Mine?” Taryn Kiekow, a staff attorney with NRDC’s marine mammal protection project, responds— and explains why not to mine.
For the Wolves nrdc’s legacy leaders
Job creation alone isn’t a good reason to mine. It’s about helping America affordably meet its future demand for copper and other minerals. fo r
T h at ’s su re
And yes, it’s also about doing it profitably, because that’s the role of private enterprise. A ver y happy side effect of that demand is that Peb ble will need about 1,000 full time emp loyees for the first 20–25 years to realiz e the Deposit’s potential. Pebble is a world-class Dep osit with the potential to employ gen erations. Additionally, many jobs wil l continue for years after closure, through the final reclamation phase of site operation.
m is le ad in g
* Pebble Mine would
risk more jobs than it would ever create. The Bristol Bay salmon fishery is worth $1.5 billion per year and supports more than 12,000 jobs. Salmon are the economic backbone of the entire region, supporting commercial and sports fishing as well as a subsistence-based native culture.
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* For the foreign mining consortium seeking to exploit the Pebble deposit, it is all about profit. Yet more than 100 jewelers, including Tiffany & Co., Zale, and Helzberg Diamonds, have pledged to protect Bristol Bay by not using gold from Pebble Mine in their jewelry.
* Pebble CEO John
Shively has said “the government or somebody else”may have to handle the environmental aftermath of the mine if “we’re not available to work on closure.” If so, cleanup and remediation would indeed create jobs—at the expense of American taxpayers.
*The mine, and its
10 billion tons of contaminated waste, would have to be maintained forever. While mines exist in perpetuity, mining companies do not. The EPA has found that mine closure would require “hundreds to thousands of years of monitoring, maintenance, and treatment.”
to take the legacy challenge, or to let us know NRDC already has a place in your plans, please contact Michelle Mulia-Howell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 212-727-4421.
N o ki dd in g!
Challenge has raised more than $820,000 in matching funds for the protection of wildlife. Right now, when members include NRDC in their estate plans, a member of our board of trustees will contribute a matching gift of up to $10,000 to help save wildlife and wildlands. Nearly 200 members have already taken the challenge. The challenge comes at a particularly critical moment for our endangered wilderness heritage. In the weeks and months ahead, NRDC will increase pressure on the Obama administration to maintain essential federal protections for wolves and help their populations recover across the Lower 48, and will fight in federal court to block oil and gas drilling off the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the polar bear’s favorite onshore birthing ground. “It’s inspiring to speak to members who are so passionate about saving wilderness and wildlife and who want to help ensure that NRDC will be able to protect our environment for generations to come,” says Michelle MuliaHowell, NRDC’s director of gift planning. “The Legacy Leaders Challenge gives them that opportunity to have an even greater impact on saving those national treasures.”
An economist by training, Ashok Gupta must balance the macro with the micro.
central intelligence The director of NRDC programs is in the middle of it all, making connections others might not see
by Emily cousins
shok Gupta knows how to make the
most of new beginnings. When NRDC’s director of programs was still in elementary school, his family moved from India to America. His father had just taken a job at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, and as a 9-year-old Gupta was struck by the signs of abundance marking his new city. When his family lived in Delhi and Bombay, there were regular power outages, and practically everything was reused or recycled; people even brought their own containers to the pharmacy to collect medicine, he recalls. Gupta, now 59, embraced the conveniences of the United States, but never forgot the scarcity he left behind. “When you grow up in India with little access to water and electricity, it forms you,” he says. Shaping Gupta just as strongly was his front-row seat to the perpetual spectacle of Washington’s political culture. He closely tracked the tectonic shifts taking place all around him while living
who we are
what we do
and attending school in the na- There were hurdles along the way, tion’s capital, from the flowering but as Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the civil rights movement to of NRDC’s energy program, puts the first Earth Day to the en- it, Gupta “overwhelmed his adverergy crisis of the mid-1970s. Af- saries with an irresistible combinater studying math and physics tion of sincerity and substance.” As the organization pondered at Georgetown, he got a master’s degree in development econom- how to tackle climate change, ics from American University ocean decline, and other global so he could focus on improving problems, Gupta urged it to people’s lives through big-picture broaden its reach. “If we wanted to be effective,” he says, “we had policy solutions. In 1978, Gupta and his wife, to do more work in China, create a the painter Jan Schoonover, stronger presence in the American moved to New York, where he Midwest, and change how marspent several years teaching kets work.” Thanks in no small high school math, physics, and part to Gupta’s advocacy, NRDC environmental science—a job he soon opened offices in Beijing and found both rewarding and useful. Chicago and launched the Center “Teachers learn how to talk about for Market Innovation, which adcomplicated stuff in a clear way, vances environmental solutions which is a lot of what advocacy is by combining good policies with about,” he says. Later, a job at the market forces. Gupta was named director of Public Utility Law Project helped him see energy issues from the NRDC programs in 2011. A year point of view of low-income fami- later he and his wife moved to lies. After that, his time at New her hometown of Kansas City, York City’s energy office taught Kansas, where—from the very him how government agencies house she grew up in—he coordinates all of the worked. These For more on the core work being done on positions, Gupta priorities of NRDC programs, NRDC’s main priorisays, were cruvisit nrdc.org/issues ties. Much of that cial in preparing him for the opportunity he had work is now cross-programmatic; sought since moving to New fracking, for instance, involves at least seven programs working York: working at NRDC. That opportunity came in 1991, together. Gupta helps to make when NRDC hired Gupta to de- that collaboration as smooth, sign clean energy policies for New nimble, and strategically fruitful York State that could eventually as possible. Such a balancing act requires be replicated across the country. Working with Governor George the ability to focus on tiny details Pataki and, later, with New York and the big picture simultaneCity’s mayor, Michael Bloom- ously. Fortunately, “Ashok is berg, he assembled a team that based in the absolute center of achieved a public policy trifecta: the United States, which gives significantly scaling up energy effi- him a unique ability to see the ciency investments, crafting a new whole of it,” says NRDC president renewable-energy standard, and Frances Beinecke. “Because he’s spearheading a regional effort to not lodged in any one perspective, reduce global warming pollution. he can share all of them.”
onearth 6 3
open space to the lighthouse storm to drive into town, and found the only surf shop that had reParkinson’s, climbed 145 narrow steps to the lantern of gained electricity. When I walked in, asking for a wetsuit, the surfer behind the counter the Point Arena lighthouse in Northern California, her feet trembling to find one spiral stair step after another. buried his tanned fingers in his hay bale hair and scratched his head. Two years after Mom’s death, the lighthouse keeper “You surfing this storm?” he asked. “No,” I said. “I want something to sleep in.” read an essay I’d published about my mother’s climb. He squinted as if I’d suddenly become blurry. She e-mailed me and said the mystery was solved. The ghost she’d “I’m living at the lighthouse,” I exbeen seeing in the lantern room, pickplained. “If I get swept out to sea at ing wildflowers and hanging out on the night, my only chance of survival will rugged cliffs, was my mom. be a wetsuit. I’ll be warm.” I’m not a believer in ghosts. But I’ve He stood with his chin propped in always wanted to live in a lighthouse. his palm, his eyes blinking rapidly. So when the keeper needed a vacaIt felt so logical when I first thought tion and asked me if I’d like to take of it. But, like the earth on the northover lighthouse responsibilities for a ernmost landfall of the San Andreas month, I said yes. Fault, my reasoning had become a little When I arrived on Point Arena, a shaky. Seconds later, the surfer and I quarter-mile out to sea on a spit of land were buckled over at the waist, splitso skinny you can toss a Frisbee across ting a gut—and like any good laugh, it it, I was elated. The gift shop had closed cleared my head. In that lucid moment for the season. The keeper handed me I felt, viscerally, that this earth is alive. the keys, took off for Mexico, and I was It’s a work in progress. The solid mounalone on a sliver of ground stretching tains of my Colorado home sometimes closer to Hawaii than any other place allowed me almost to forget this. But in the continental 48. Since the Point here, where the tectonic plates shift Arena peninsula is close to the northernand the ocean becomes a mountain that most landfall of the San Andreas Fault, crashes as soon as it peaks, I knew this the earth literally rocked me to sleep earth is alive. I could hear it breathing at night, the in-and-out breath of ocean (the crash and hush of waves), could waves rushing through my dreams. feel the creak of its bones as the fault That was day one. I watched 100-foot waves crash shifted, and my body shuddered right Day four: the most devastating into the lighthouse, watery fingers along with it because, yes, we were unstorms in more than a decade slammed crawling up and tapping its lens questionably connected. the northern coast. Highway 1 closed I didn’t see my mother at the lightbecause of overturned vehicles. No before they curled back to the ocean house. But in that moment, I knew that one could get in or out of Point Arena. The town had no electricity. The lighthouse relied on its backup bea- this is what breathes life into us all, this earth heaving and falling, shaking con. Nights, when I walked outside, my own body disappeared in the and settling beneath our feet in the graceful protraction of geologic time. darkness. When I looked down, I couldn’t see my arms or legs. When The surfer knew it too. He embraced and grappled with the ocean daily the pulse of the lighthouse lit where I stood, my body reappeared. but knew this storm was too powerful for him to tangle with. Together, As the light slipped to the far side of the column, night swallowed we sat back in awe. We felt the pulse of the ocean, the growing pains everything. After weeks of this, I began to fear my own disappearance. of the earth as it stretched and shimmied into a shape we wouldn’t be During daylight, I watched 100-foot waves crash into the lighthouse, alive to witness. And so we laughed at the absurdity of it all, the curious watery fingers crawling up and tapping its lens before they curled back solace of our own impermanence quivering through the soles of our feet to the ocean. Mist fell around my shoulders, even though my windows as the living earth shaped and reshaped everything that was possible, were sealed. Three weeks in, I surrendered my solitude, braved the everything that would eventually fall away. t was no small feat. My mother, with stage 4
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illustration by richard downs
by bk loren
Photo: Green Mountain near Aspen, CO. © Tim Fitzharris
Take the NRDC Legacy Challenge
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Turning Grass Into Gas, by Bruce Barcott