Sierra Daily: October 2010
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26 posts from October 2010

Oct 06, 2010

"Coal Country" a Terrorist Threat?

Ken Ward Jr.'s invaluable Coal Tattoo blog reveals today that Sierra Club Production's film Coal Country was among the potential terrorist threats recently monitored by Pennsylvania's hyper-paranoid Office of Homeland Security. That office had contracted with a for-profit outfit called the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response, which compiled a list of putative threats including an animal-rights group planning to protest a rodeo, a gay and lesbian festival, and filmmaker Mari-Lynn Evan's dramatic look at the modern coal industry. According to ITRR's report,

Throughout the next two months, Planet Green will air ‘Coal Country,’ a documentary promising to “reveal the truth about modern coal mining” …

… Though Pennsylvania mountains have not been subjected to mountaintop mining as of yet, the waste materials from mountaintop mining in other states has been dumped into streams in Pennsylvania, reportedly causing damage to the environment.

On 15 October, 2009, over 300 people attended a public hearing at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh to discuss the Obama administration’s decision to restrict mountaintop removal-related permits. Security was heavy.

TAM-C [Targeted Actionable Monitoring Center] analysts view this film as a potential catalyst for inspiring ‘direct action’ protests or even sabotage against facilities, machinery, and/or corporate headquarters.

Giles Ashford movin' a mountain

The head of Pennsylvania's Homeland Security office, James F. Powers, Jr., resigned earlier this month over the scandal, and a "deeply embarrassed" Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell apologized "to any of the groups who had this information disseminated on their right to peacefully protest." Still unbowed, however, are the terrorist hunters at the Insitute of Terrorism Research and Response, whose Web site still features articles like "Environmental Extremists Continue to Target the Energy Industry":  

. . . Authorities though said the fact remains that because extremist elements have emerged from legitimate protest groups throughout the United States, federal and state homeland security officials, especially if they’re charged with protecting critical infrastructure, must keep an eye out for such activity.

Intelligence officials who reviewed the POHS [Pennsylvania Office of Homeland Security] report didn’t find anything particularly disturbing about it, and said its content and method of conveying information is similar to many similar intelligent bulletins or alerts that are routinely issued by federal and state homeland security departments.

“You just have to be careful to not cross the line and directly implicate or imply that such and such is actually engaged in terrorism, violence, damage, or whatever,” one of the officials said, adding, “simply listing events where protests are going to be held isn’t a violation of anyone’s right that I can see.”

--Paul Rauber

Oct 05, 2010

A Brief History of Presidential (Solar) Power

Today the Obama administration announced that it will install solar panels and a solar hot water heater at the White House. Obvious comparisons were drawn to the Carter administration, which installed a solar water heating system in 1979, which in turn was removed by the Reagan administration in 1986 when the White House roof was being repaired. 

Here are some fun facts about presidential solar systems:

-- The documentary film A Road Not Taken chronicles the life of Carter’s solar panels.

-- While the official Reagan White House word was that it was “unwise, based on cost” to re-install Carter’s panels, George Szego, head of the company that initially installed the solar collectors, recalled that White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan "felt that the equipment was just a joke."

-- In 1992, Maine’s Unity College acquired the Carter-era panels under the government surplus donations program and installed them on its cafeteria, where they heated water for 12 years until they were retired.   

Whcabana -- With little fanfare, the George W. Bush administration installed three solar energy systems on White House grounds in 2002. Solar panels (167 of them) grace a maintenance building outside the residence, while separate solar thermal systems warm water for workers and the presidential pool and spa.  

-- Bush 43’s  ranch in Crawford, Texas, has a geothermal heating and cooling system so efficient that the Bushes reportedly shelved plans to install solar panels. 

-- In September, Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, showed up in Washington, D.C., with one of Unity College’s Carter-era solar panels. (Earlier, McKibben had appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman to make the case for an all-hands-on-deck response to the increasingly dire state of global climate change. “Well, Bill, thank you for scaring the crap out of me,” Letterman quipped.)

-- Ahead of Obama’s inauguration in 2009, Sierra magazine Editor in Chief Bob Sipchen not only called on the incoming administration to re-install solar panels on the White House roof, but also wanted to see Obama up there with a tool belt and battery-powered drill, showing America how a do-it-yourself approach is the quickest way out of our climate predicament.

For more information, check out the Sierra Club’s own Climate Crossroads.

--Reed McManus

Oct 04, 2010

But I Wanted to Swim With the Fishes!

When I read about “aquamation,” a supposedly green alternative to cremation, I imagined my post-mortal-coil remains cavorting with dolphins and parrot fish, perhaps fertilizing a revitalized coral reef. The truth is a bit starker.

According to its sole purveyor, Australia-based Aquamation Industries, aquamation relies on alkaline hydrolysis. It's how a human or animal returns to nature when it's buried without a coffin in the soil. The company simply “accelerates the processes that occur in nature.”

To give nature a helping hand, Aquamation adds caustic potassium hydroxide and water. That has led some observers to liken the process to oven cleaning as well as Hannibal Lecter. Once the body is placed inside its stainless-steel vat, reports the Sydney Morning Herald, “the water is heated to 93 degrees [200 degrees Fahrenheit] and swirled around for four hours. This breaks the body down to its constituent chemicals, leaving only 'chalky white' bones and bone fragments.” The remains are then pulverized and given to relatives, just like a cremation, while “the water is a fantastic fertilizer, and can be spread on the flowers to help them grow,” according to Aquamation.

Okay, so no dolphins. But the process does have a smaller environmental impact than cremation, a high-temperature affair that produces 110 pounds of carbon dioxide per corpse, and up to 350 pounds when you include the remains of the coffin.

--Reed McManus

Money doesn't talk, it swears

Remember those giant alien snakes Sierra warned you about? They are nothing compared to the giant secret megadonors now flooding the 2010 midterm elections with anonymous corporate cash. Sierra warned you about them too, in May/June's "A Bigger Boom Box." The Supreme Court's 5-to-4 decision in Citizens United, we noted, "freed corporations to spend as much as they want advocating for and against candidates in the crucial closing days of federal elections." GR_01

Today's Washington Post reports that interest groups have seized their newfound freedom and run with it. In this election cycle, the paper reports, interest groups are spending five times as much as they did on the 2006 midterms--and more than half of them are doing so without disclosing their identities.

When Oregon Representative Pete DeFazio (D) found himself on the receiving end of attack ads funded by the "Concerned Taxpayers of America," he marched over to the Washington, D.C. townhouse where they are registered, rang the doorbell, knocked, and finally shouted through the mail slot. The door was eventually answered by one Mike Omegna, who said that he had never heard of Concerned Taxpayers. (The Huffington Post subsequently found that his was the voice on the Concerned Taxpayers' answering machine.) You can watch the show here:

 --Paul Rauber

Oct 01, 2010

High-Mileage Move

Nissan leaf On Friday, the Obama administration announced the details of its proposed corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) regulations, which could result in the auto industry having to reach a fleetwide fuel-economy average as high as 62 miles per gallon.

The government's goal is to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from cars and trucks by 3 percent to 6 percent per year starting in 2017. The lower figure would translate to an industry average of 47 mpg in 2025; the higher figure, 62 mpg. (A final rule will be unveiled as soon as 2012.) The new standards will follow those that recently went into effect for 2012 through 2016 model-year vehicles, mandating an increase from today's 27.5 mpg average for cars and 23.5 mpg for trucks to 37.8 mpg for cars and 28.8 mpg for trucks.

Meeting the upper goal may sound daunting, but it’s within reach. In August, the Consumer Federation of America issued a report spelling out how a 60 mpg target is “both feasible and beneficial.” And since CAFE standards are an average of all vehicles that a manufacturer sells, zero-mpg electric cars will give automakers (and us!) breathing room. Fortunately, electric vehicles are hitting a chord with the public. Nissan recently announced that it suspended taking “pre-orders” of its all-electric Leaf, having received 20,000 reservations for the vehicle well in advance of its December arrival. (For the cutest electric-car advertisement ever, go here.)

The Sierra Club, part of a coalition called go60mpg.com, issued a press release applauding the Obama administration’s high-mileage move.

--Reed McManus

Alligator/Python Smackdown

Don't say that no one warned you about the giant alien snakes. In January, Sierra's "Woe Is Us" department informed you that

Reticulated pythons, which can exceed 26 feet in length and are "the snake most associated with unprovoked human fatalities in the wild," have been sighted or captured in south Florida, as have various species of anaconda.

The giant snakes either escaped or were released into the wild, and have found the warming climate of south Florida (and soon, perhaps, much of the Southeast) to suit them nicely. And now it's come to this:


In case you can't make out the action here, that is a 13-foot Burmese python having burst after swallowing a 6-foot American alligator. In addition, the snake is headless. Our colleagues at National Geographic News speculate that perhaps a second alligator appeared on the scene and decapitated the snake while it was digesting the first gator, which reappeared amid the general carnage. "There had been some hope that alligators can control Burmese pythons," University of Florida wildlife expert Frank Mazzotti told National Geo. "This [event] indicates to me it's going to be an even draw."

--Paul Rauber

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