Posts from the ‘environment’ Category
We just returned from spending several days in Pennsylvania, visiting family. I love riding there – quiet empty roads, rolling hills, Amish farms, horse-drawn buggies sharing the road, and cooler temperatures. And at the end of the ride, a slice of my mother in-law’s wonderful pie – usually apple or “Shoo-Fly”.
While I promised certain persons I would not go on some blog-based rant, I can’t help but feeling concerned about the explosion of natural gas wells that are mushrooming up across the landscape – including one that sits in a corner of my in-laws’ property, a beautiful 20-acre wooded and pastured piece of land in NW Pennsylvania where they have lived most of their lives in their circa 1800’s farmhouse.
It feels like a new century Great Gold Rush is taking place. If you own any property, an enticing lease will come in the mail with the offer of thousands of dollars per acre to lease the land and then provide an additional flow of royalty checks for coming years.
In an area that has seen the loss of industry and jobs over the past several decades, where unemployment is high and new industry is scarce, where the tax base has eroded, where municipal services struggle and schools have been closed and consolidated – players in the gas and oil companies are positioned to move in and bring jobs and an alluring cash infusion to struggling townships and boroughs.
Lucrative gas leases are the talk of the town and everyone seems to want to jump on board and cash in. Landowner groups have formed to negotiate for the best possible price. Shell and Chevron, among others, are ready to invest billions in petrochemical facilities. The local papers are full of stories of not only the Marcellus Shale, but the Utica Shale, the Medina Sands … we’re sitting on a gold mine!
If you’ve spent the last twenty years struggling to make ends meet on your old family homestead, finding a check for tens of thousands of dollars in your mailbox can certainly feel like you just won the lottery.
I understand the needs, the draw. And I support the prospect of clean domestically-sourced energy – if we can come by it safely and sustainably. But the issues, as always, are not so black and white. I know that everything comes with a cost … And looking at the construction of the well on my in-law’s land, and wells on nearly every property along their road and beyond, I ask myself: at what cost, this?
The immediate and contentious issue is “fracking”, or hydraulic fracturing – the process of drilling and injecting massive quantities of water combined with a toxic chemical “cocktail” (a proprietary recipe) deep into the ground to fracture the substrate along in order to release the trapped gas. I won’t bother to go into detail here, as the controversial issues – especially in regards to the eastern Marcellus Shale fracking – are all over the news and internet. NPR recently did an excellent multi-part series about the issues at hand, called The Fracking Boom: Missing Anwers. And of course there is the incredible award-winning documentary by Josh Fox called Gasland.
While I didn’t experiment and see if my inlaws’ water could be ignited and burst into flame coming out of their tap, I do know that their experience has not been without issues. Recently, for instance, while they were out of town for several days, it was discovered that one of the pipes or fittings at the well had corroded to the point of failure, and that gas (and methane and probably heavy metals and proprietary chemicals) had been spewing into the air for an unknown amount of time. My father-inlaw complained that “they must have used some really cheap pipe”. I was thinking: you have no idea how corrosive the stuff coming out of that pipe really is – (and you are probably breathing it, and possibly drinking it).
It bothers me – the possible (probable?) risks, borne from contaminated water and or air. Multiply this by thousands – tens of thousands – of virtually unmonitored well sites across huge swaths of land and cracked open beneath public water sources for millions, the unknown cumulative effect of widespread fracturing of the grounds below… what will the cost be to public health and to the environment?
Extensive research on the effects has yet to be completed, the fracking cocktail recipes remain undisclosed to the public, and the big oil and gas players are moving as fast as they can with fists full of cash before time runs out and they face more stringent regulation. Play now, pay later. Only you know who will ultimately have to pay…
On the farms belonging to the Plain People, the Amish, I didn’t see a single gas well. I saw their vegetable gardens, their windmills, their cabinet-making workshops. We rode our bikes, they passed by us in their buggies. I contemplate our progress. And I don’t drink the water from my in-laws’ faucet.
Yesterday I worked; today I played.
Even though it is the first official day of spring, it felt more like summer. Eighty-plus degrees and sunny. The heat makes me want to ride to the river, and I figured I may as well try to do a little paddling. I have a nice set-up to tow my boat with my Xtracycle, and it’s a happy combination to be able to ride and paddle on a beautiful day.
My put-in is just up the road from our house, about 4 miles. Getting there was a breeze, literally. Gently rolling with an overall downhill grade, and I had a nice tailwind. It was definitely the easy part. Arrived and locked the bike along the guardrail by the bridge, and was reminded again of the mess that has been made of this river by Olin and their mercury dumping – which thankfully will be ending soon, with their commitment to converting the plant to mercury-free processing.
Meanwhile, I still cannot comprehend how people are still willing to fish – and keep their catch – despite the clearly posted warnings of high levels of carcinogens in the fish. Completely baffles me. I’ve discussed it with several fishermen before, but I have learned to just keep my mouth shut. There is no changing their minds; they perceive the risk as negligible. (And I secretly shudder and shake my head).
I paddled away most of the afternoon, exploring and trying to navigate the very shallow water. In places, I was paddling in only inches. The Hiwassee River levels are regulated and controlled by TVA, and at this time of year they don’t typically release water upstream for recreational use in this inlet. Hence, the lake that is filled and sparkling blue in late spring through summer, is filled with stumps and shoals and islands over the winter and into early spring. The locals call this inlet Stump Lake. A fitting name.
Dozens of Great Blue Herons were my company; I love to just sit and watch them fishing in the shallows. Turtles were out sunning on stumps and logs, but would quietly slip into the water as I raised my camera lens. One of the fishermen said he had seen a Bald Eagle near the bridge. Sadly I missed it. It was peaceful, quiet, and a beautiful afternoon to be on the water … and “pedaling” my arms rather than my legs for a change.
Having had enough sun and with fatigue setting in on my shoulders, I headed for home in the late afternoon – this time against a headwind, with a more uphill grade, requiring a bit more muscle to tow the boat. I will confess my wimpy-ness by saying it felt good to get home. Dinner was salad and veggie pizza. Not fish. Definitely not fish.
The heat followed us. The only escape, once again, was in the water. And so it was we spent some beautiful days along the North Carolina coast – at the southern tip of Cape Hatteras on the Outer Banks. It’s a place we’ve visited many times before, but this year I was especially delighted that we had the opportunity to stay in an artist’s house – they call her “Sea Rider”, as she had just barely ridden out Hurricane Isabel in 2003.
The house’s owner is a painter and artist, and her beautiful house along an open stretch of Cape oceanfront is definitely a muse – filled with a number of pieces of her modern abstract art, seascapes, and beautiful views of the Atlantic ocean. Ms. W, the artist, had apparently done lettering design for 12 of the well-known Dr. Seuss books, before going on to become an administrator/director at the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati. For me, it was just inspiring to be in the house – the light, the views, the solitude on the quiet stretch of beach… and my camera at hand, of course.
We did some biking on most of the mornings – mostly to our favorite little coffee house, The Dancing Turtle – but the heat was just too oppressive past about 10 am to be doing much cycling. So it was to the beach and into the water and reading under the beach umbrellas for the remainder of the day. We didn’t even bring our road bikes or the Xtracycles, as past experience here with the amount of sand, salt and sea spray in the air proved to be horribly corrosive to chains and other bits of bicycle hardware.
We paddled Pamlico Sound at sunset … which was absolutely breathtaking – but not to be outdone by sunrise on the Atlantic side.
While the southern end of the Cape is typically not packed with vacationing tourists, it did seem a bit quieter and less populated than in years past. While I personally feel the dismal economy may be to blame, there is also local war being waged against the National Park Service and several environmental groups, all surrounding habitat preservation and nesting shore birds vs. off road vehicle use (and restrictions) and shoreline closures. Sigh.
In a nutshell, large stretches of coastline along the Hatteras National Seashore have traditionally been open to 4WD vehicle access – which brings large numbers of surf fishermen and vacationers who are water sport enthusiasts (surfers, kiteboarders, etc.). Over recent years, in an attempt to preserve shorebird nesting habitats and sea turtle nesting grounds, legislation was enacted to limit off-road vehicle use as well as pedestrian access in certain areas. The last time (2008) we wanted to walk out to Cape Point, I remember it was closed due to Piping Plover nesting season. Personally, I had no problem with the closure – I was glad to see that the area was being protected, even though it meant I couldn’t get out to the Point.
These closures, however, have infuriated the small local business owners, who are up in arms against continuing ORV legislation. Groups like the Outer Banks Protection Association (OBPA) have sprung up, claiming that the local small business economy is being destroyed by the legislation. Several small businesses have posted signs against the “evil misguided environmentalists”, and some are even selling stickers that “flip the bird” at the Audubon Society. In a rather harsh video on the OBPA website, the narrator states:
… An agenda-driven group of opportunists have drawn a target on this community’s back in the name of the environment.
Can you guess my point of view on this one? Yeah, I suspect that anyone who knows me, will know that I am not in line with OBPA – even if it were to mean that I was never again able to step foot on the beautiful coastline of Cape Hatteras for the sake of some beautiful shorebirds and endangered turtles (and may end up with a bunch of nasty comments from Cape folks telling me to never come back). Sorry, I stand firm in what I believe.
The fact that the Cape Hatteras National Seashore remains one of the few stretches of coastline on the eastern seaboard that remains largely undeveloped and untouched has always been – and will always be – the draw for me. It is why I love the place. The legislation being proposed still allows ample opportunity for recreation and access, albeit perhaps without using your 4WD vehicle to get out there. If you want to surf fish Cape Point – carry your gear and take a walk when the stretch is of shoreline is open for access and leave your ORV at home.
While I am not meaning to entangle myself with another environmental feud (Olin’s mercury dumping has been more than enough for me, thanks), I have send my note to Congress on this one. Whatever is decided, I sincerely hope that the Cape can remain largely in its beautiful and natural state. It is a place for footprints in the sand and artist’s images … not a parking lot for 4WD vehicles.
I may not be the artist the Sea Rider’s owner is, but I was enchanted to stay in this amazing house and take away a few of my own images – by camera. Sea Rider, I hope you will be my muse again next summer.
I am still here …
The temperatures have just been unseasonably (and unreasonably) hot, and I have been like some seminocturnal creature – out on my bike in the early morning or into the evening, in search of water to slide into, and avoiding the blinding heat of mid-day. Some of you may love to see the mercury rise into the upper 90’s (F) each day. Not me. I’ll take riding in a snowstorm any day.
I’ve been drawn to the water. A little paddling, early morning swimming at the Y, riding to the river. It’s all a necessary alternative to riding through the rippling, shimmering heat rising from the pavement. Simply looking at water cools me off.
Ironically, Mark and I are about to set off on another bike touring adventure – nothing as exciting as Italy, but we are really looking forward to it, just the same. Except for the heat forecasted heat, of course. Along with possible flooding along the route (that may be a story for another post). Our timing is obviously not the greatest. If nothing else, it will be some fresh scenery for my camera lens, as well as a chance to really put some mileage on the Xtracycles. So stay tuned.
Meanwhile, summer is here in full bloom – and full heat. Remember to drink plenty of water. (Or swim in it, or bike alongside it 😉 )
Yesterday, something compelled me to ride along the river – the Hiwassee River, up the road from our house. I can’t begin to count how many times I have crossed this bridge and have been reminded by the TDEC warning sign of the mercury contamination in this beautiful body of water. Or how many times I have watched (with disbelief) the people fishing, despite the warnings. Yesterday was no different. It always bothers me … and I’m sure you might be tired of me posting about it by now.
Last week, I attended a public hearing at our local Chamber of Commerce regarding a $41 million bond proposal for Olin Corporation through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. My friend Suzanne Wisdom from Oceana, along with several concerned residents (including myself) made comment for the record – if Olin was to receive this funding, it should be imperative that they commit to converting their plant to mercury-free technology.
The Chamber’s Industrial Development Board kindly told us that environmental issues did not factor into the issuance (or non-issuance) of this type of bond. Of course. But, as always, all we could continue to do was to speak out for the record.
Earlier today I received a phone-call from Suzanne … and it left me speechless. As of mid-day today, here is an excerpt from the official Press Release from Oceana:
Olin Corporation’s Two Dinosaur Mercury Plants Will End Mercury Use and Releases
in Tennessee and Georgia
Oceana Celebrates Olin’s Response to Community and Customer Demands
The Olin Corporation announced today it will convert its mercury-based chlor-alkali manufacturing plant in Charleston, TN to modern, mercury free technology and eliminate mercury from its plant operation in Augusta, GA. Oceana has been pushing for these actions since 2005. Olin’s plant in Tennessee is the largest remaining mercury-based chlorine plant of the four plants in the U.S. that had refused to make the switch to safer, more efficient technology.
In response, Oceana offers the following statement from Senior Campaign Director Jacqueline Savitz:
“This toxic, unnecessary practice was putting communities’ health at risk, and contaminating fish that could end up on dinner plates far from the plants themselves. Olin’s Tennessee plant was the largest and released the most pollutants of the remaining mercury-based chlorine plants. This shift will mean less mercury in the Hiwassee River, as well as in Charleston and the state of Tennessee,” added Savitz.
Olin’s announcement shows that even a large facility can shift to mercury-free technology in the time frame described in pending Senate legislation, which would require plants to shift to mercury-free production by 2015. Olin will easily meet that timeframe, committing to shift to cleaner production technology by 2012 in Charleston, TN. For that decision, we applaud them.
Finally, we are grateful that the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) will help to make the Tennessee conversion possible.
Oceana Tennessee Field Organizer Suzanne Wisdom, who has worked long and hard to exert community pressure on Olin to switch, offers the following reaction:
“I am excited to hear that Olin’s plant will ‘Go Mercury Free,’ just as Oceana and thousands of Tennessee residents have urged them to do. I’m especially happy for the wonderful community of people who live near the plant. They have been the heart of this campaign and I know they are celebrating today,” said Wisdom.
And from the AP/Bloomberg this afternoon: “Olin plant will eliminate mercury in $160M upgrade”.
What can I possibly say???? Cause for celebration? Are you kidding?! ABSOLUTELY!
Most of all, I cannot begin to express my heartfelt gratitude to Suzanne Wisdom from Oceana – who has worked tirelessly for so many years on this issue … who has been an inspiration and provided much-needed encouragement and support to the concerned citizens throughout our community … and who I feel most privileged to consider my friend. Suzanne, you are my heroine! It’s definitely time to celebrate!!! 😀
The last day of cycling – l’ultimo giorno. We had seen so much, yet at the same time, we had barely scratched the surface of the beauty and the adventures of cycling through Tuscany. Today, we would have an easy (50 km) ride down to the coastal town of Castiglione della Pescaia – a charming fishing village dating back to medieval times. As a defense against pirate attacks, the oldest parts of the village were built within a stone fortress, high upon the coastal hillside. Yeah, it was amazing.
The skies were clouding over, and we would have a bit of rain later in the day, but the riding weather was comfortably cool and the scenery was beautiful – as always, rain or shine.
We arrived at Castiglione della Pescaia and had been advised to park the bikes and walk the village by foot. Which proved to be very good advice, as the streets were very narrow and very steep.
After lunch, we (reluctantly) left the village and headed back toward Caldana and agrihotel Montebelli. We got rained on (a little bit), but had much fun – and a few laughs – along the way, riding with our friend Paolo.
Arriving back at the agrihotel with a little extra time, Mark and I decided to take a hike up into the Montbelli olive groves and up to their family oak tree that sits high on a hilltop and offers a beautiful view of the surrounding valleys, their organic orchards and gardens, and the nearby village of Caldana.
The oak tree has a very special meaning to the Montebelli family. Allesandro Montebelli and his family shared with us some of the stories about their decisions to care for and develop their land in a sustainable manner, their commitment to organics and solar, and the spiritual connection they feel with their homeplace and the great old oak tree at the top of the hill. As Giulio Montebelli told me, “The oak tree is a sacred place for us, we all go there for the great views and, more importantly, to find an intimate space for connection with the world and the ones we care for.”
Montebelli became a very special place to us as well, a beautiful and inspiring part of Tuscany that we will never forget and hope to return to someday.
After visiting the oak tree, we walked up to the village of Caldana – in the rain. I think that somehow, with the low clouds and wet cobbles, it may have been more beautiful in the rain than in the sunshine? We made our way through the labyrinth of streets, trying to absorb our last moments in this small and beautiful village – the atmosphere that we had come to love throughout our time in Tuscany.
As we left Caldana to walk back to Montebelli in a light rain, the most amazing thing happened. The sun very briefly appeared, creating a rainbow – a rainbow that just happened to “land” upon the sacred oak tree on the Montebelli hilltop. I think that both Mark and I were speechless for that moment. Could it be a sign? I can’t say.
We began our days of cycling in Tuscany by riding under a rainbow, and ended our trip with the rainbow at Montebelli. We didn’t really need a sign to know that our experience in Tuscany – from the places we visited to the people met – was a gift to be cherished.
We would spend a day in Rome before returning home, but at this point I think I will spare everyone any more photo essays since there wasn’t any biking involved. If you are at all interested, the “final cut” of Italy photos can be viewed on FlickrRiver – which is the easiest way to scroll through them, and on a beautiful black background. The Rome photos should be up within the next few days. (Personally, I recommend viewing them on FlickrRiver in the large size for the best resolution and detail.) Whatever.
Coming soon … an overdue update on #330daysofbiking and some other local bicycling stuff. Meanwhile, thanks to friends and family who have been patient with me through all of the Italy adventures; I am grateful for your comments and putting up with the “vacation photos”! 😀
Today is Earth Day. Forgive me if I don’t feel like celebrating. I might sound a little snarky, but I find too much of the current Earth Day celebrating to be nothing but a bunch of marketing hype, Earth Day-branded discounts, and various corporate greenwashing tactics – all aimed at wasteful consumerism. “Go GREEN – buy this (useless-crap-you-don’t-need-that-will-end-up-in-the-landfill) and enter EARTH at checkout to receive your 15% Earth Day discount!” Throw in a few token speeches, a ceremonial planting of a tree, an elementary school poster contest, and you’ve got Earth Day 2010.
As the great Walter Cronkite reported on his CBS news special “Earth Day 1970’’, on April 22, 1970, “The hoopla of (the first) Earth Day is over. The problems remain.’’
And so they do.
Today’s ride was to points along “our river” – the Hiwassee River that runs near our house. The river that now, thanks to the wonderful folks at Olin Chlor-Alkali corporation, is so contaminated with their mercury discharge that the few remaining fish that survive outside of the “dead zones”, namely bass, have been found to contain mercury levels 25% above EPA limits. The last documented EPA Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) indicated mercury discharge rates in tons – both airborne and “discharge to receiving streams and/or water bodies”. The warning signs are posted at nearly every put-in and boat dock, yet I am continually stunned to see people fishing here – and keeping their catch. Today was no exception.
I stopped at the put-in closest to our house when I saw some people down fishing. Decided to be brave and talk with them, to see if they would let me photograph them. After their initial wariness, they were very friendly and obliging. I asked them if they kept their catch – and they said they did. I also asked if they were concerned at all about the posted warnings, or knew about the mercury issue. I got an answer I had heard before, “Oh, we’ve been fishing here for a long time … ain’t never had any problems with it.”
I stopped again near the boat ramp/marina – a location closer to the Olin plant and their discharge sites. I’d been on the water just upstream from here near the plant (by boat) and you can visually see – in the water – a line of demarcation where there are “dead zones” from the pollutants. Two gentlemen were out on the small dock fishing. And catching a few bass. I stopped and talked to them too. They told me they kept what they caught, as well – “They’s some good eatin’!” When I asked if they were concerned at all about the mercury discharge from Olin, one of them told me that he knew someone who worked there, and he knew it was “real bad” – but figured if the fish were out swimming, they were probably ok.
In both cases, I just didn’t know what to say? “Are you out of your minds?!” I couldn’t say anything, but just thanked them for letting me photograph.
On my way back was probably the most disturbing encounter I had today. It’s were I spotted the little boy, Brady (5 yrs old), out fishing with his dad near the bridge. Again, I stopped, talked to them and asked if they would mind if I took a few pictures. Sure, no problem. This time, I only asked if they kept their catch. They said yes. It honestly nearly broke my heart. How could they ignore the warnings? With no concern for possible cancer, reproductive, or brain development issues that can be caused by mercury consumption? I had to leave.
I’ve had my rants about Olin in the past, and I will try not to repeat myself, but these are the facts:
- Olin is on record, and has known of the impending need to convert their plant to mercury-free technology – yet has repeated chosen to ignore their responsibility, and they are now crying foul. With the threat of pending legislation which would require them to convert their plant within 2 years, they are now attempting everything possible to stop passage of the bill. And they are being facilitated by indulgent (and well-lobbied) politicians – namely Senator Bob Corker (R) and Representative Zach Wamp (R).
- Olin has successfully converted other plants – including McIntosh, AL, Niagra Falls, NY, and St. Gabriel, LA – and yet continue their exuse-making when it comes to the Charleston, TN, plant. Because they have been allowed to get away with it. Because they know the political will to protect the health and well-being of the river and local citizenry doesn’t exist – it is the hallmark of every environmental disaster brought about by abusive corporations and the political power they purchase. Coupled with the recent decision by the US Supreme Court to overturn restrictions on corporate spending in elections, it can only get worse.
Olin bases their refusal to convert the Charleston plant on expense and jobs “lost” – which they know is complete fiction. Over 100 other plants have demonstrated that the conversion to mercury-free technology can be completed within 18-24 months, with minimal production downtime. The converted plants not only provide safer working environments for their employees and surrounding residents/neighborhoods, but also save energy and increase production capacity. A similar conversion by PPG provided jobs for over 250 additional workers. Olin, your excuses just don’t fly!
Olin continues to claim that conversion of the plant is “economically unfeasible” … So can they please explain to me how they can justify their recent disclosure of obscene executive pay increases? Joseph Rupp, Chairman/President/CEO of Olin Corp. received 14% pay raise, awarding him annual salary of 5.7 million dollars. John McIntosh, President of the Chlor Alkalai received 12% pay raise, bringing his annual salary to $1.4 million. Please explain to me how a plant conversion is “economically unfeasible” when contrasted with your executive compensation?
So, it’s Earth Day. And Walter Cronkite was quite the visionary. The problems remain. The Mercury Pollution Reduction Act appears to be stalled in the federal bureaucratic black hole. The mercury dumping continues. A little boy is eating toxic fish. The problems remain.