Thursday, June 02, 2011

Politics of Coal

Yesterday, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) gave a speech to the Kentucky Coal Association. In it the Senate Minority Leader assailed the EPA for it's "war on coal" claiming it cost America new jobs and access to cheaper energy.

Actually, the EPA is doing exactly what it was created to do: protecting human health and the environment, by writing and enforcing regulations based on laws passed by Congress. They oversee issues that impact land, air, water, endangered species and the nasty business of disposing of hazardous waste in a way that doesn't resemble chucking it in our neighbor's pond or stream.

Recently, the EPA set new standards for mercury and toxic pollutant levels at coal-burning power plants. Most would say this is a good thing. Mercury, cadmium, lead, and other toxins are generally not part of the food pyramid or a "balanced diet." Yet, McConnell and other Republicans continue to put the coal industry ahead of American's health. And why? Well, let's follow the money.

Over the past 20 years, coal mining companies have given over $16 million to politicians and their campaigns. No surprises that Senator McConnell was the top recipient over those two decades, taking in more than a half-million dollars for his re-election campaigns. These contributions bought them face-time and the powerful political allies corporations need to influence the laws (regulations) that Congress writes.

At the same time, the coal industry is lobbying our elected officials with multi-million-dollar ad campaigns designed to keep everyone "coal happy." Coal companies used to spend (at most) between $3 and $4 million per year on lobbying Congress. But in 2005 it jumped to a little over $6 million and then to an astonishing $18.3 million by 2010. In 2011 they're on pace to top the $10 million dollar mark for a fifth straight year.

Combined with their campaign contributions, it's safe to say that the coal industry has a healthy grip on the energy debate going on inside the halls of Congress thanks to hundreds of millions in profits.

But wait, there's more.

Coal companies also receive some sweet government subsidies, in the form of tax breaks, tax credits, royalties, and exploration and development breaks (yes, we pay THEM to explore and then let them keep the profit). In total, the Federal government paid out approximately $17 billion to the coal industry between 2002 and 2008. The industry organization "American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, or ACCCE, is made up of 48 different coal companies. Combined, they profited over $57 billion in 2007 and it's only getting better, thanks to millions spent on advertising and lobbying.

It's not surprising then, to hear that Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell gave a pro-coal speech to the Kentucky Coal Association yesterday. After all, they're the ones paying his campaign bills. It seems to fit with the culture of corruption that lines the bed in which industry and politicians cheat on the American people. What is surprising is the resiliency of a corrupt and dirty industry in the eyes of the American public. Despite coal mining disasters like the deaths of 17 miners in West Virginia and a massive coal sludge spill in Tennessee in 2009, coal still is rated favorably when it's associated with jobs.

Then again, I guess ANYTHING is rated favorably when tied to "saving jobs."

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Power of the Pedal

You might not think that a person could haul over 800 lbs. of produce, pies or party supplies, on a bicycle but you'd be wrong.

In an age dominated by "light trucks" and SUVs you'd be surprised by what we can haul around on a trike (thats bike slang for tricycle). The CS Monitor reports on a growing service in Boston that's taking the pollution out of delivery.
In a city choked with diesel-spewing delivery trucks, the fledgling New Amsterdam Project (NAP), a Cambridge-based cargo-hauling company, is pedaling toward profits aboard an emissions-free fleet of urban “cargo trikes.”

China, India, and other developing nations have long utilized bicycle-based delivery for many goods – but are shifting toward engine-powered vehicles. Across North America, bicycle delivery services exist in several cities. Yet pedal-powered hauling for cargo has been largely a no-show in the United States.

Times are changing. The NAP is at the front lines of a industry spreading across major urban areas in the U.S. Trike delivery services are springing up in New York , Berkeley and here in Burlington, Vermont. UPS, in a experimental holiday season test-run, ran a trike delivery program in certain Vermont townships to deal with the holiday freight rush.

You can trace the beginnings of the trike delivery service to examples like the British Royal Mail service which worked with Britain-based cycle company Cycles Maximus to develop the electric-assist allowing even the most frail person haul over 800 lbs. uphill.

The growth in bikes as a form of transportation continue to be reflected not only in the growth of the bike messenger services in cities like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, and Portland, but also in the sudden interest in bike commuting among America's urban dwellers.

New York has reported a 26% jump in bike commuting after safer bike lanes and streets were created. That effort alone has removed over 15,000 commuters from NYC. San Francisco saw a 43% jump in city-wide ridership between 2006 and 2008 (PDF of survey performed by the SF Metro Transportation Authority). Chicago saw a 30% jump in peddle pushers between 2005 and 2008 again thanks to new bike lanes, high gas prices and general interest. And nationwide, bike commuters grew by more than 43% since 2000. Heck, in the American Northwest, bike commuters outnumber farmers. Even in Afghanistan, citizens created a bike messenger service to avoid complete poverty.

I think its safe to call that a trend.

So, is Boston's New Amsterdam Project ahead of the curve? Perhaps, but there's still much to be done, including re-educating the American public on the perception of peddling in our culture. New Amsterdam Project's co-founder Andrew Brown understands that:

Whether delivering pies, chocolates, organic produce, or green building products, NAP’s ultimate motive is to show people bicycles are a great way to stay fit, as well as break the internal-combustion stranglehold.

“It’s almost like cars are the sea within which we live and we’re so attached to them, it’s so habitual,” he says. “We are trying to lead the way, to set an example about how to get away from cars altogether..." Brown admits there is “a huge cultural hurdle” to overcome in the land of the pickup truck.

“People do laugh,” he says. “They can’t understand how a bicycle can possibly function in a way commensurate with an automobile, much less a light truck.”

And business, while certainly not booming, does have incentives that clients are willing to endorse. More and more consumers are concerned with their carbon footprint, and that includes analyzing the products they purchase on a daily basis.

So, whether you rely on four wheels or three, the future is ripe for the urban cyclist.

Keep pedaling.

Saturday, August 01, 2009


Recently, I joined the ranks of the unemployed. It's nice to know that I'm not alone. Its a first for me, and the experience has forced me to look beyond the fragile facade that screams to settle for any job anyplace to make sure the spending habits of my lifestyle go unchanged. Instead, I'm looking at my spending habits and forcing them to adapt in this new situation.

"Employment" as defined by the folks at American Heritage is:
"(1) The act of employing. The state of being employed. (2) The work in which one is engaged; occupation. (3) An activity to which one devotes time."

Its odd to think of employment as anything but your job or what you do to pay the bills. Going the definition above, one is always employed save for those of us who lie on the couch all day watching daytime soaps. Your employment could be whatever you are currently engaged in at the moment.

So the next few weeks, while I am looking for ways to make a little money and pay the bills, I'll also be doing things I haven't had a chance to do in a long time: finding my green thumb, cleaning out my material possession locker and seeing close friends and family I've missed in the past. And you can bet I'll be fully employed in those endeavors.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Rev. Lowery's Inaugural benediction

One of the best benedictions I've ever heard.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has brought us thus far along the way, thou who has by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray, lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee, lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee. Shadowed beneath thy hand may we forever stand -- true to thee, O God, and true to our native land.

We truly give thanks for the glorious experience we've shared this day. We pray now, O Lord, for your blessing upon thy servant, Barack Obama, the 44th president of these United States, his family and his administration. He has come to this high office at a low moment in the national and, indeed, the global fiscal climate. But because we know you got the whole world in your hand, we pray for not only our nation, but for the community of nations. Our faith does not shrink, though pressed by the flood of mortal ills.

For we know that, Lord, you're able and you're willing to work through faithful leadership to restore stability, mend our brokenness, heal our wounds and deliver us from the exploitation of the poor or the least of these and from favoritism toward the rich, the elite of these.

We thank you for the empowering of thy servant, our 44th president, to inspire our nation to believe that, yes, we can work together to achieve a more perfect union. And while we have sown the seeds of greed -- the wind of greed and corruption, and even as we reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption, we seek forgiveness and we come in a spirit of unity and solidarity to commit our support to our president by our willingness to make sacrifices, to respect your creation, to turn to each other and not on each other.

And now, Lord, in the complex arena of human relations, help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.

And as we leave this mountaintop, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques, or wherever we seek your will.

Bless President Barack, First Lady Michelle. Look over our little, angelic Sasha and Malia.
We go now to walk together, children, pledging that we won't get weary in the difficult days ahead. We know you will not leave us alone, with your hands of power and your heart of love.
Help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid; when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.

Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around -- (laughter) -- when yellow will be mellow -- (laughter) -- when the red man can get ahead, man -- (laughter) -- and when white will embrace what is right.
Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen.

REV. LOWERY: Say amen --
REV. LOWERY: -- and amen.
AUDIENCE: Amen! (Cheers, applause.)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Coal comes home to roost

Just when we were all beginning to warm to the idea of "clean coal" and a modern energy future that even the Jetsons would marvel at, King Coal goes and ruins it.

Within the last month two significant highly toxic waste spills have wrecked parts of the southern Appalachia and Tennessee Valley. The waste is what the coal industry calls "coal ash" and "slurry." Coal ash is a toxic sludge that contains high levels of mercury, lead, and arsenic -- all of which are known carcinogens. A slurry, in the case of the second spill in Alabama, is less toxic than coal ash, but does contain high levels of boron, cadmium, molybdenum and selenium that are way above safety standards.

The spills are yet another result of Bush-era deregulation. While the coal industry is far from the scandals of Wall $treet, both lack the watchdogs necessary to keep the rest of us from paying the brunt of the cleanup -- be it a government bailout or an emergency cleanup crew funded by our tax dollars. To date, there exists no federal regulation on how coal companies store this highly toxic waste.

The first spill occurred at the Kingston Fossil Fuel plant that sits on the Tennessee River forty miles west of Knoxville. The earthen dam holding the toxic pond dumped over a billion gallons of coal ash across 300 acres of Tennessee and causing yet-unknown damage to the water supply and ecology of the region. From the NYT:
The inventory, disclosed by the Tennessee Valley Authority on Monday at the request of The New York Times, showed that in just one year, the plant’s byproducts included 45,000 pounds of arsenic, 49,000 pounds of lead, 1.4 million pounds of barium, 91,000 pounds of chromium and 140,000 pounds of manganese. Those metals can cause cancer, liver damage and neurological complications, among other health problems.

Obviously, not your average concentration of toxic substances. Its no wonder that cancer rates are higher among people living nearby coal and oil power plants. In 2007 the EPA put together a study showing the damage coal and oil ash waste sites have on our water supply.

The second spill occurred just downstream on the same river, a few miles over the Tennessee-Alabama border. The Widows Creek Fossil plant dumped over 10,000 gallons of its own slurry into the Tennessee River.

There is something revealing about these eco-disasters occurring so closely together, both in time and geography. That is, that "clean coal" no longer is on the table. Clean coal was about being able to burn coal while releasing less global-warming gases into the air. Yet here the underbelly of the coal industry, one of its many dirty secrets, blows up in our faces. Its not just the air we breathe that the burning of coal contaminates. These two spills could contaminate the drinking water of the region, not to mention the untold impacts they will have on the surrounding environment.

Meanwhile, hundreds of other slurry ponds sit waiting to be dealt with. True, some of these ponds, like the one in Alabama, can eventually be used as an additive to industrial processes like manufacturing sheetrock. But to pretend that these pools of toxicity are not dangerous to our children, communities and local wildlife is akin to arguing that cigarettes couldn't be related to lung cancer.

The worst part of all of this is the blatant cover-up by the Tennessee Valley Authority. This from the NYT:

For days, authority officials have maintained that the sludge released in the spill is not toxic, though coal ash has long been known to contain dangerous concentrations of heavy metals. On Monday, a week after the spill, the authority issued a joint statement with the E.P.A. and other agencies recommending that direct contact with the ash be avoided and that pets and children should be kept away from affected areas.

Residents complained that the authority had been slow to issue information about the contents of the ash and the water, soil and sediment samples taken in and around the spill.

“They think that the public is stupid, that they can’t put two and two together,” said Sandy Gupton, a registered nurse who hired an independent firm to test the spring water on her family’s 300-acre farm, now sullied by sludge from the spill. “It took five days for the T.V.A. to respond to us.”

It seems we heard the same thing after Katrina. Simply insert FEMA for T.V.A. in the quotes above and there seems to a lot in common.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

My Morey

I wrote this yesterday evening. I decided to paste it here as well. I wanted to share it not just to tell the world about Morey, but also to allow others who have lost a much-loved pet to share their own thoughts. I hope you will.

When I arrived home for Christmas yesterday, I knew my family's yellow lab was getting into her later years but I wasn't at all prepared for today.

This morning, Morey passed away.

She was fighting lymphoma and instead of going the basic treatment route of repeated chemotherapy and drugs, we decided to go the more holistic route. Morey lived more than two years beyond what other vets had anticipated. She had a lot of fight in her, after all, she was the runt.

I arrived home on Monday morning to my pup struggling to even stand up. With shaky legs and confused eyes she rose to greet me. Little did I know that this was the last time she would do so. The lack of any tail wagging was the only thing I noticed. Over the course of the day it became clear she was unable to move. We took her into see Nate, our holistic vet a few minutes away. The care and love with which he handled her comforted all of us as we sat in the room watching him examine Morey.

The diagnosis was not a shock. The lymphoma was giving her a lot of discomfort and the arthritis in three of her legs was making it difficult to move. He gave her some anti-biotics for the fever she was running and then acupuncture to open up her bodily energy flow.

We returned home hopeful for healing. I carried her in and placed her on the living room carpet where she liked to lie during the night. On the window ledge in the living room my mother had spelled out, "Unyielding Hope" in the giant Scrabble letters she had bought. Without a doubt, that is what we held in our thoughts. I kept saying to myself that all Morey needed was a good night's rest. I checked in on her from time to time before dinner and saw that she wasn't sleeping, just lying still her eyes staring into space. I tried to offer her food and water but both were turned down. I was worried. I felt she was giving up.

I was awakened by my dad this morning. He expressed concern that she hadn't moved all night. I went down to lie next to Morey and found her all four legs splayed out in different directions. She was trying to get more comfortable. It seemed to take all of her remaining energy to adjust her head to a more comfortable angle every few minutes. Still, she wouldn't take any water or food.

My mom spoke to Nate and tearfully described the scene. They agreed that it was probably time to let her go. Nate offered to come by the house and take care of everything. We gratefully accepted. Noon was the agreed upon time. I suddenly only had two and half hours left with the dog I had known since i was fifteen.

Morey came to us from a small family in Isle La Motte a tiny island in Lake Champlain just off the Vermont "coast." She was bred for hunting and always seemed to be in her element deep in the woods zipping over undergrowth and hurdling fallen tree limbs. She was our first family dog and the runt in a litter of five. When we brought her home, we realized she had fleas. So, unfortunately, the first memory she had is of a pretty nasty flea-bath. Not exactly the welcome home anyone wanted. My mother slept in the guest bedroom with her hand in the little box holding our new puppy all night. She whimpered and yelped for her family, trying to understand what this new place was.

We all fell in love with her. Over the course of the three years I was home before college we took her everywhere. Daily hikes and jaunts to the local woods, on errands to our local bread bakery, hikes up Mount Philo, football games, and just about anywhere in the car. I can still see her in the rearview mirror, mouth open, ears flapping, with a giant doggy-grin as she absorbed every possible scent driving by at 40 miles an hour. Or see her streak across the backyard after a bouncing tennis ball snapping it up in her mouth.

Though I left home for college I always relished coming back to take her out for a walk and toss the ball for her in the backyard. It was energizing for her as much as it was therapeutic for me. I used to try and tire her out but she was rarely ever the one to call it quits. She led a charmed and spoiled life and we were all more than happy to oblige.

She loved the winter. I'm now certain that she hated being in the house between December and April because it was just too hot for her Labrador coat. Meanwhile, outside snow was falling. Every hour she would yelp to go out, saunter out to her post, checkin on her territory, and flop down in the snow. It was her hourly air-conditioning bath. Then, she'd come back in, if only for the promise of a treat and a rub-down. As frustrating as it was to getup and open the door every half hour, I chuckle at what she must have thought as we gathered around a raging fire to warm up.

While I was away from home after college, carving out my own niche in the world, Morey remained a staple in our family. She was a comfort to my parents when their only child headed off to college and continued to be as I my transience brought be back on holidays and short vacations. She was the one thing we could all count on to come bounding down the hallway when we opened the front door. She ate a charcoal briquette once, requiring surgery and two days of rest to recover. She was hit by a car on a busy road above our house surviving an emergency-surgery from a late-night veterinarian. But most importantly, through all of it, she never whined, never turned ornery or bitter. She remained as happy, loyal and innocent as she'd always been. And if you believe dogs can smile, she smiled a whole lot.

Over a year ago, my father took a job in Denver. An all-out move from our home of 17 years in Burlington was not possible. This meant that my mother would be spending a lot of time by herself. Obviously, during this time Morey has become more than just a pet. She was her partner, her co-pilot. As my mother said with quivering lip last night, "She was my best friend."

This was clear to Nate. When I handed Morey's limp body to him, he had tears in his eyes. I knew that to this man, Morey was more than just a patient and we were more than just clients. It made my eyes well up to see him carefully and lovingly place her in the backseat of his car. He looked at me. I shook his hand, my voice cracking, "Thanks so much for doing this. It means a lot." He nodded, and said, "Take care of your mother."

In that moment I realized what Morey truly was: our family's keeper. She is the bond that keeps us together. When one of us is away, she remains. When two of us go out, she stays, keeping all company, watching and waiting. When you come home angry or frustrated, how could you not smile when an ecstatic puppy leaps from her bed to greet you, begging you to kneel down to accept her wet kisses? How could we not be comforted when she snuck up onto the couch next to us leaning in, letting you know she's there? And how could we not find joy in watching her chase down a tennis ball or track a scent in the woods, snout glued to the ground? We depended on that love and in turn gave it back to her. Now, it felt as if our love wasn't strong enough -- it wasn't healing her.

I sat on our front stoop and cried. Morey had been a part of my life for nearly half of it. Her absence felt like half of me had disappeared with her. It's the little things you notice that suddenly seem estranged from this new reality. The paw prints on the snow-covered walkway from only the day prior. The hair covering my jackets and clothes which annoyed me but was something I had become accustom to, and now treasured. The yelp at six in the morning, telling everyone to get up and start the day. Her face appearing at the backdoor, eyes wide and ears propped up, waiting to be let in. Or the food and water bowls, still full, waiting to be consumed. I opened the front door realizing there was no Morey on the other side, leaping from her bed to greet me. For the first time in thirteen years, it was a quiet entrance.

My mother read aloud Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar" as the three of us sat there on our floor holding Morey. It was difficult to finish the poem in that moment, knowing what was about to happen. Some say that being with a soul as they move on to whatever is next is a beautiful thing. I'm not sure I'm quite able to agree. Maybe in time I will. For now, its still hard to think about. After Nate gave her the injection it took only twenty seconds. There was no convulsing, no shaking, no yelps. Just silence and a quiet fading of life. She was gone.

In the end, I know that I'll be able to see Morey again. Through the memories, mental snapshots, and maybe in the final moments of my own life, I'll be able to reach out to loved ones who have since departed. I certainly hope so. But for now, its hard not to tear-up at the profound sense of loss one feels. At the same time, there is a danger in letting Morey's death intimidate my life. David Sarnoff, head of RCA in the early part of the last century, said, "We cannot banish dangers, but we can banish fears. We must not demean life by standing in awe of death." I refuse to demean any part of her life. So, I guess it's time to stop standing in awe of her death.

Certainly there was something right about how everything unfolded. It was almost as if Morey was unable to let go of life until all of us were home, present to see her off. Just the previous day she had made her usual neighborhood rounds, ambling around the block checking in on everyone: The folks across the street who gave her food at their back door, the yellow lab down a few houses and others who have seen her drop by over the last few years. Younger dogs didn't jump all over her like they normally did. Instead, they approached with care and gently licked her face as if to wish her well on some journey we were yet aware of. And of course, having the family here to support my mother, the hardest hit by Morey's passing, couldn't have been more well-timed.

It all seemed to be....right.

My grandmother always said, "No one gets to stay here forever." If Morey was going to pass on, now was the time. I don't think she planned it. But I think she knew her time was coming to an end. As sad as it was to hold her and watch life leave the body I was so familiar to seeing full of spirit, I wouldn't have done it any other way. It may have been painful, but it was honest.

The poem my mother couldn't read because there were too many tears in her eyes, I've pasted below.

"I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid, more accessible
to loosen my heart until it becomes
a wing, a torch, a promise.

I choose to risk my significance,
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes on to the next as blossom,
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit."

- Dawna Markova, "I Shall Not Die an Unlived Life"

Morey, we'll love you always. See you soon.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Anchorage Daily News endorses Obama

I'm sure Governor Palin isn't happy about this. But perhaps we should be taking the advice of those that know her the most -- her own capital newspaper. While they avoid Palin and frame the argument (correctly) around Senator McCain's weaknesses, the final paragraph reveals their real concerns about the McCain/Palin ticket.
Yet despite her formidable gifts, few who have worked closely with the governor would argue she is truly ready to assume command of the most important, powerful nation on earth. To step in and juggle the demands of an economic meltdown, two deadly wars and a deteriorating climate crisis would stretch the governor beyond her range. Like picking Sen. McCain for president, putting her one 72-year-old heartbeat from the leadership of the free world is just too risky at this time.
So, even her own "liberal media" won't support her candidacy. Seems the mavricky-ness of choosing a completely unvetted and untested running mate is coming back to bite John McCain in the backside.