Category Archives: Policy

So, how do I comment on the SGEIS?

Courtesy: New York Department of Environmental Protection

Some simple tips on how to have your voice heard during the hydrofracking debate

While the comment period on the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) and draft fracking regulations, ends on Dec. 12, there is still time to comment and have your voice heard.

In order to become informed about the issues, download the following two documents provided by Riverkeeper:

Fact Sheet on DEC Fracking Proposal

New York’s Rush to Frack Presentation

If you feel that you cannot make a comment on the SGEIS or the draft fracking regulations, there is still the opportunity to attend a public hearing on fracking. While there are only two more hearings left, these hearings are a great way to learn more about the issues and voice your opinion.

Here is a list of the upcoming hearings:

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is required to read all of the comments they receive, you’re allowed to comment more than once but most comment before Dec. 12. While these two documents are extremely lengthy, environmental organizations that have read over both documents, such as Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club, have filed detailed comments. For guidelines on what to comment on, here is a document that details the top ten problems with fracking: ‘Top 10’ flaws with the fracking environmental impact statement.

According to Riverkeeper’s website this is how to submit comments:

How to submit comments:
Type out your comments. Whether you submit your comments online or send them in the mail, it will be easier if you type them ahead of time. (The DEC does not accept comments by phone, fax or email.)

Mail your comments to Attn: dSGEIS Comments, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, 625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233-6510. Include your name, address, and affiliation (if any).

Submit your comments online: If you prefer to comment online, visithttp://www.dec.ny.gov/energy/76838.html.

Looking at the DEC’s comment page, you’ll see that there are three proposals to comment on. The most important proposal to comment on is the revised draft environmental impact statement (called “2001 rdSGEIS”). You can also comment on the proposed regulations which are called, “Proposed HVHF Regulations.”

Organizational Organization: Approaches to Addressing Conflict Minerals

While there are many organizations that take on environmental and human rights causes, it is important to understand their unique approaches and how they can translate into action in the field of conflict minerals.

There is a wide array of rights organizations that take on the topic of conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). However, each one has its own unique history and raison d’être. It is important to take a step back in order to truly understand the different approaches and structures of such organizations active in the field.

A previous blog post titled, “Campaigning for Conflict-Free Campuses” highlights the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative (CFCI) developed by the organization Enough Project. CFCI encourages college students “to build the consumer voice for conflict-free electronics, such as cell phones, laptops, and other devices that will not finance war in eastern Congo.” Though this approach appears to be quite effective, it is important to note that not every organization seeks to work with students. Others focus their efforts solely on government lobbying and ground research.

As defined in an e-mail by David Spett, Enough Project Administrative & Operations Manager, the organization was founded in 2007 “on the belief that policy ideas are only as good as policymakers’ willingness to adopt them,” thereby emphasizing the governmental lobbying component of Enough. Enough Project focuses on such American policy advancement—for it is a division of the Center for American Progress; however, it also focuses on mobilizing American citizens. Spett continued, “We aim to combine the policy expertise of a think tank with the public mobilization of an advocacy organization. Our work with college students is very much in line with these core goals, as young people are some of the smartest and most effective activists around.”

Enough Project consciously views college students as an extension of their efforts. By motivating students to act on campuses across the country, they are tapping into already established communities; the organization enables these students to project their voices to a large audience of peers on campus. Whether through social media outlets, campus newspapers, or school-based e-mail lists, hundreds of students can read about conflict minerals in a short period of time. Enough Project utilizes such resources, thereby rapidly expanding its networks.

"After a screening of the documentary, 'The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo,' Gayle Smith, Enough's Co-founder John Prendergast, actress Robin Wright Penn, and others, discuss the film's issues." Photo and Caption Courtesy of ENOUGH Project / Flickr Creative Commons

Enough Project addresses the Congolese conflict mineral campaign specifically through its Raise Hope for Congo campaign. This campaign seeks to “fundamentally change the equation for Congo by using The Enough Project’s robust field research, advocacy, and communications to bolster a broad grassroots movement that promotes lasting solutions. [Their] initiatives work to educate and empower individuals to be a part of these solutions to the conflict.” The latter component is an important one to note. While other organizations focus on ground research and advocacy as well, some specifically steer clear of the student empowerment approach.

Jewish World Watch (JWW) is an organization based in Los Angeles that has a very different founding than Enough Project. It was co-founded in 2004 by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis and Janice Kamenir-Reznik as the “Jewish response to genocide in Darfur.” After the holocaust, many Jews wondered why more people had not stepped forward to try to end that genocide. With this history in mind, the evident question remains: how could the Jewish people now stand idly by while other genocides take place? In reaction to this question, Rabbi Schulweis and Kamenir-Reznick decided they must act, which sparked their decision to create JWW. The organization’s model was to rally synagogues to act as members of the organization. Each synagogue would help educate their communities and encourage their congregants to take action. Since its founding, JWW has expanded a great deal. It “has grown from a collection of Southern California synagogues into a global coalition that includes schools, churches, individuals, communities and partner organizations that share a vision of a world without genocide.”

JWW takes action by partnering with other organizations based locally in the specified region of conflict in order “to develop high-impact projects that improve the lives of survivors and help build the foundation for a safer world,” in addition to “[inspire]…communities to support tangible projects and advocate for political change.” JWW’s local partnerships allow it to specifically meet the needs of those individuals in the conflict area and ensure funding successfully reaches them. While JWW originally just focused on the atrocities in Darfur, Sudan, the organization has since expanded to also address the violence and injustice in the Democratic Republic of Congo surrounding conflict minerals.

Through six partnerships with projects in the Congo, JWW raises funds to address a wide variety issues that impact Congolese men and women as a result of rape and violence. These projects include vocational training for women who have been victims of sexual violence; maternal care and agricultural development for women involved in sustainable agriculture; and burn treatment for Congolese victims of war. JWW also addresses matters in the Congo through their education programs and international advocacy campaigns. JWW runs the Activist Certification and Training program for middle, high, and religious school students in the United States to help involve them in activism at a young age.

Though Enough Project and Jewish World Watch have very different organizational histories and projects, one distinct commonality is that student groups are viewed as holding the potential to bring about immense change. Though these organizations both have effective approaches, there remain several other ways of structuring human rights and environmental organizations. For example, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Global Witness (GW) have developed very different models.

Human Rights Watch’s “rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse.” Through on-the-ground, original research, HRW exposes violations of human rights abuses all around the world. The organization uses this research to create in-depth reports that describe the events, responses, and reactions of these violations and abuses. Such reports are used as evidence with which to publicly expose the perpetrators through targeted media efforts. Through this work, HRW seeks to “tenaciously…lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.”

"Jasmine Herlt, Director, Human Rights Watch Canada speaks prior to the screening of 'Last Train Home', this year's opening night film." Caption Courtesy of humanrightsfilmfestival / Flickr Creative Commons and Photo Courtesy of Jacquie Labatt, Jacquie Labatt Photography / Flickr Creative Commons

Rather than rally individuals or students, HRW focuses on systematic governmental change through exposure of violations, as well as on holding perpetrators responsible through international pressure and the challenging of governments. Because of HRW’s local researchers and country experts, the information they have published regarding the Congo is precise and up-to-date.

Global Witness (GW), a British organization that focuses on environmental exploitation, is another rights organization that has a similar model to that of HRW; however, one of GW’s main focuses is on the exploitation of natural resources, as it relates to corruption, conflict, accountability, and the environment—whereas HRW focuses on human rights abuses whether or not they are caused by such utilization of such resources. GW’s “[i]nternational campaigns operate at the nexus of development, the environment and trade. [They] are motivated by a desire to tackle the underlying causes of conflict and poverty and to end the impunity of individuals, companies and governments that exploit natural resources for their own benefit at the expense of their people and the environment.” Therefore, the topic of conflict minerals fits well into their mission, for such minerals are fueling violence and acute injustices; GW’s documentation of the matter fits well within its described area of involvement.

In terms of GW’s strategy, it appears to focus more on interaction with decision makers than with public pressure campaigns, for their unique selling proposition does not center on rallying up large groups of students. Thus, it is evident that organizations like GW and HRW differ from Jewish World Watch and Enough Project, which utilize students as main agents for advocacy work and to gaining support for a cause. That said, each of these four organizations does incorporate legislative lobbying into its work. Each values the need to communicate with government officials and policy makers—whether within the conflict country or abroad—in order to accomplish their missions and bring about change. Though they all take on the task of trying to diminish violence in Congo as a result of mineral exploitation, they each delve into and address the conflict in a unique way. This serves to diversify efforts and the way in which they address the many different components of the issue. In such a complex matter, it is important to see global, multifaceted endeavors working to address the negative outcome of mineral exploitation.

Hydrofracking in West Virginia

West Virginians upset about fracking on their farms

Image Courtesy: National Geographic, "Looking at Lives Affected by 'Fracking'"

In a Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) video, titled “Battle for Wetzel County,” two West Virginians explain why their believe it is unfair for large gas companies (such as Shell, Exxon, and Chesapeake Energy) to have mineral rights on their land. The only compensation these farm owners have is that gas companies must pay them for “damages.” These farm owners are outraged because not only are they losing valuable land, but they also claim they are exposed to dangerous chemicals that have contaminated their water supply. Furthermore, one farm owner believes that toxic waste was buried on his property. Even though hydrofracking is an impressive technology, it interrupts farmers not only during the extraction process,  but also with the equipment that remain on the “pad” (the site where the natural gas is extracted).

There is currently legislation in West Virginia to address the problems associated with hydrofracking, yet according to several sources, the legislation insufficiently addresses the problems associated with drilling. Last Wednesday, Nov. 16, a special House-Senate committee endorsed proposed drilling rules in the Marcellus Shale, but a top aide to West Virginia’s Governor Earl Ray Tomblin’s office says the bill isn’t ready for special session. Chief of Staff Rob Alsop told Business Week that his staff will work over the next few weeks with legislative leaders and stakeholders “to see what they’re comfortable with, and see what we’re comfortable work.” According to Alsop there are some issues that need to be worked out before the bill is presented during a special session.

Some of these issues include, the amount of leeway that is granted to the Department of Environmental Protection, the overseer of gas drilling. Advocating greater flexibility for DEP, industry groups have similar concerns. Surface owner and environmental groups, believe that there needs to be strong and detailed regulatory language in the books.

From Dec. 12-14 there will be a series of study meetings on the subject, during which time Governor Tomblin believes is a good time to convene a special session, if prior meetings can create a bill that could pass.

The draft of the bill includes many subjects which emerged from efforts to develop the natural gas reserve through hydrofracking, a controversial process which can potentially contaminate water supplies. Included in the bill are increased permit fees, which will fund more field inspectors and office staff; agreements between operators and surface property owners of drilling sites; lastly, buffer zones that would separate shale wells  from homes, livestock and drinking water. The bill would also allow the Department of Environmental Protection to hire their own inspectors.

For more information here is a report directly from the West Virginia Legislature.

What goes in to the fracking fluid?

Image Courtesy Halliburton

Halliburton executive becomes the first person to drink fracking fluid.

According to many news sources, in Aug. a Halliburton executive drank fracking fluid at a keynote speech at conference presented by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. Halliburton’s CEO Dave Lesar, raised a glass of fracking fluid, made from materials from the food industry, he then asked a fellow executive to show how safe the fluid was by drinking it. What this executive apparently drank is a fluid called CleanStim, which was created by Halliburton this past year.

According to Halliburton’s website, CleanStim includes an enzyme, exthoxylated sugar-based fatty acid ester, inorganic acid, inorganic salt, maltodextrin, organic acid, organic ester, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, polysaccharide polymer, and sulfonated alochol… yes these are big words. The table below better explains what each of these chemicals are, and puts them in terms we can all understand.

Image Courtesy Halliburton

In keeping with their mission to make fracking fluid more environmentally friendly, Halliburton did in fact choose common household ingredients, which seem fairly harmless. The catch is that this is not in fact the case. As a Scientific American article titled “What’s in This Fracking Water?”, points out “the CleanStim fluid system should not be considered edible.”

While Halliburton has given a general list of what’s included in fracking fluid, a study on the Department of Energy’s (DOE) website has a more comprehensive list of chemicals included in fracking fluid. These chemicals include: a friction reducer (KCl or petroleum distillate), a biocide (glutaraldehyde), an oxygen scavenger (ammonium bisulfide) or stabilizer (N,n-dimethyl formamide), to prevent corrosion of metal pipes, a surfactant, a scale inhibitor (ethylene glycol), HCl acid to remove drilling-mud damage near the borehole, a breaker (sodium chloride, a little salt never hurts), a gel (guar gum or hydroxyethyl cellulose), and an iron controller (2-hydroxy 1, 2, 3-propanetricaboxylic acid). These chemicals are harmful to humans, so it is good that gas companies are trying to make fracking fluid with better chemicals.

The most comprehensive list though, is in a report issue in April by the Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The report describes 750 chemicals that are used by 14 leading oil and gas service companies. According to the committee though, the report is incomplete because: “in many instances, the oil and gas service companies were unable to provide the Committee with a complete chemical makeup of the hydraulic fracturing fluids they used … [in] 279 products that contained at least one chemical or component that the manufacturers deemed proprietary or a trade secret.”

While it has been a practice to keep the contents of the fracking fluid a secret, things are slowly changing. Wyoming, Michigan, Texas, Pennsylvania and Arkansas have fracking-fluid disclosure rule. Other states, as well as Congress have proposed rules that are waiting for legislative action. More companies are also disclosing information about their fracking fluid. This website, created by the industry allows users to search for a particular well in a given country or state. While things are moving in the right direction, until the industry can do away with dangerous chemicals, hydrofracking will continue to present serious environmental problems.

Feeding Constituents Hungry For Change

On Tuesday November 1st, Congresswomen Chellie Pingree, with Senator Sherrod Brown, submitted the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act (LFFJA) S. 1773 and H.R. 3286, as part of the 2012 update to the Farm Bill, a major piece of legislation that dictates America’s agricultural policies and programs, and is renewed every 5 years. Pingree and Brown’s bill integrates support for local food producers and consumers into the upcoming adjustments the Farm Bill will see in 2012.

Pingree supports local farmers and consumers, photo courtesy of pingree.house.gov

As Pingree says, “This bill breaks down barriers the federal government has put up for local food producers and really just makes it easier for people to do what they’ve already been doing. It creates jobs on local farms and bolsters economic growth in rural communities.”
And the benefits of local food systems goes beyond economic growth. In a study of farm costs and food miles, researchers led by J.N. Pretty found that if Britain’s globalized food system switched to local food sources (within 20 km of home), the environmental costs would fall from £2.3 billion annually to £230 million annually, a reduction of more than half. The Center for a New American Dream calculates that food travels an average of 1,500 to 2,500 miles, in fossil-fuel burning transportation, to reach consumers, and that local farms not only eliminate the pollution associated with transportation, but also, regardless of whether they are certified organic, use less chemicals and protect biodiversity with wider agricultural gene pools, supporting long-term food security.

The Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act works toward these environmental benefits by supporting rural, entrepreneurial, community-based, and independent farmers with financial programs, research initiatives, and business incentives and support.

The bill will make Farm Service Agency credit  more accessible to local and regional farmers and ranchers, allocate $30 million annually to Value-Added Producer Grants, improve the Risk Management Agency’s insurance coverage for specialty crops and mixed operations, facilitate Organic Certification, make room for commodity program participants to grow fruits and vegetables, provide Rural Business Opportunity Grants, Rural Business Enterprise Grants, & Community Facility Grants & Loans to local and regional food systems, put $30 million a year towards farmers’ market promotion, give $90 million annually to the Specialty Block Grant program, and create a special budget for local and regional crop and market development.

Pingree and Brown offered the bill to a wave of food-policy advocacy support. It appears to be strategically released to coincide with the Center For Science in the Public Interest’s Food Day, a nation-wide event advocating food, hunger, and sustainability on a grass-roots level with goals of creating food policy. Pingree’s legislative director, Claire Benjamin, explains, “Congresswoman Pingree worked on developing the ideas in the Local Farms, Food and Jobs act through the course of the last 10 months with input from a broad coalition made up of 18 farm, nutrition and food security organizations. The timing worked out well to use Food Day as a platform for announcing the bill”. Benjamin also expressed support and encouragement of the first annual Food Day, calling it, “a great success and huge organizing opportunity for people who care about these issues”.

Pingree meeting Food Day participants, photo courtesy of Huffington Post

The quick and concrete government response to the Food Day campaign is exciting to both farmers and consumers, and is being awarded huge support and endorsement from groups such as the National Farmers Union, Community Food Security Coalition,American Farmland Trust, and the National Farm to School Network.

Speaking to Western Farm Press, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s Helen Dombalis said, “We applaud Senator Brown and Congresswoman Pingree for introducing this legislation, which is important to farmers and consumers alike”.

However, the actual impact of this bill can be called into question when considering that none of the initiatives are allocated more than $100 million dollars. This seems like generous funding, until we consider that the last Farm Bill, passed in 2008, was a hefty $288 billion dollars.

What’s more, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is planning to reduce the 2012 budget by as much as $23 billion, and indicated that sustainable, community-based initiatives will be cut, saying in an interview, “We’ll have fewer dollars for rural development but we’re looking to partner with non-profit foundations to pick up the slack”. Vilsack expressed a disregard for government responsibility for small and sustainable farmers, even though it that same interview he lauded the merits of organic and small farming, saying, “Four percent of the nation’s farmers are organic but it’s a fast-growing segment. The farms are usually small but provide a great strategy for rebuilding rural America”.

Pingree’s office hopes that the modest monetary requests and soundness of investment will translate to a well-received bill. Benjamin says, “the Local Farms, Food and Jobs act makes up a fraction of the costs of the overall farm bill, and we feel like the spending in the bill makes strategic investments in a growing sector of the economy,” and goes on to point out that several of the proposed initiatives don’t even have price tags attached, saying, “Many of the provisions in the bill are common sense, no cost policy changes that would significantly bolster this growing sector of the economy, and help consumers access healthier, local food”.

Regardless of budget size, the government accountability to constituents’ interest in sustainable food and farming is a promising spark of political action, and with more discussion, awareness, and advocacy, is likely to build momentum. If Food Day championed such legislation in its very first year, Americans interested in food and farm can be optimistic about their potential for further change.

Deciphering Congo’s Government Intentions

The Congolese government acknowledges the violence in the eastern region of the country. However, its response does not necessarily promise long-term commitment.

Groupe l’Avenir, a newspaper based in the capital of the DRC, Kinshasa, published an article on October 25, 2011 called “Présentation du Mémorandum économique pays : L’importance de la gouvernance dans la gestion des ressources naturelles de la Rd Congo,” written by JMNK. This title translates to, “Presentation of the country’s economic Memorandum: The importance of governance in managing natural resources in the DRC.”

The title of the article alone reveals that the Congolese government is cognizant of its wealth of natural resources, as well as the need to actively control its exploitation of such resources. Eustache Ouayoro, Director of Operations of the World Bank and World Bank Country Director of the DRC states in the article, as translated from French,  “The mining sector occupies the news, and increased governance in the sector will help fill top newspapers.” He then goes on to say that the World Bank is planning to support the Congolese Ministry of Tourism, Environment, and Nature Conservation with its website, as well as with the publication of all signed contracts in this sector.

A statement such as this one from Ouayoro portrays Congolese efforts as addressing the protection of natural resources as a public relations matter—rather than as an environmental or human rights concern. In the following paragraph of the article, a Congolese citizen expresses the desire for more meaningful and direct action from within Congo saying, as translated from French, “From the artisanal mining exploitation… alternative activities need to be sought, even if…it is difficult for mining companies like Gécamines…” While some government officials seem to be occupied with public relations perceptions, Congolese citizens remain concerned with the status quo and are demanding change they hope the government can help bring to fruition.

"Congolese government agency for the control of minerals" Photo and Caption Courtesy of Sasha Lezhnev / Enough Project / Flickr Creative Commons

Christopher Bayer, PhD student at Tulane University, cautioned in an interview that consumers must remember: in the midst of this environmental exploitation of minerals, “lives are at stake.” This is not a topic to be taken lightly, but rather, consumers must intently observe the actions of the Congolese government and the extent to which they take action in this matter. Bayer emphasizes that the direction of this issue “depends so much on the Congolese government.” They are a key player in determining the outcome of the conflict mineral humanitarian crisis and have the potential to diminish this violent conflict.

Another article regarding the Congolese government’s involvement in the topic of conflict minerals was published on October 20, 2011 by Global Witness, a United Kingdom-based organization whose “international campaigns operate at the nexus of development, the environment and trade.”  The article is called “Congo government requires domestic minerals sector to source responsibly” and reports that the Congolese government has recently decided “to compel mining and mineral trading companies operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to carry out checks on their supply chains, in line with international standards, to ensure their trade is not financing the warring parties in the east of the country.” Contrary to Ouayoro’s statement in the Groupe l’Avenir article, this statement conveys that the Congolese government is indeed taking initiative to at least monitor the humanitarian implications of the mining sector.

The article contains a footnote to a document published by the Congolese Ministry of Mines on September 6, 2011 that references this governmental initiative. The document is a governmental directive that speaks, as translated from French, about the necessary “Due Diligence to promote responsible supply chains in the Congolese mining sector…”

"Arriving at the ministry of mining" Photo and Caption Courtesy of FairPhone / Flickr Creative Commons

Thus, there appears to be conflicting information regarding Congolese governmental action and its desire to quell the conflict in the Kivu Region—the eastern region of the DRC where the conflict mines are concentrated. Janice Kamenir-Reznik, co-founder and President of Jewish World Watch, a Los Angeles based organization that seeks “to combat genocide and other egregious violations of human rights around the world,” stated in an e-mail that an explanation for this inconsistency “is that in the last few months the incumbent government has pandered to the Kivus for votes, inasmuch as the national elections are happening within the next couple of weeks.” Kamenir-Reznik, who just returned from the Congo in September, continued, “So, if it appears that there has been progress, I suspect it is elusive, temporary and insincere.  It was recently confirmed that still 1100 women a day are raped in Eastern Congo. So, I do not really see that there has been any meaningful, significant governmental intervention of late.”

It is important for the consumer to be aware of Congolese governmental actions, as well as the reality of its motives and whether or not a long-term outcome is possible. As consumers gather more information regarding the conflict minerals trade, it is crucial to understand what is actually taking place on the ground in the DRC versus what selective information is reaching the American public. Thus, it is important to evaluate many different sources, including primary newspaper sources and international organization reports, as well as accounts from experts that have actually visited the Congo and witnessed its injustices firsthand.

Taking a Leaf Out of Europe’s Compost Heap

What can the United States learn from Europe’s treatment of organic waste?

When it comes to sustainability, Europe is generally far more advanced than the United States is.  The situation in the arena of composting is no different; the countries across the Atlantic are clearly winning, with many more extensive composting programs in place, programs that America could use as models to raise itself to a new level in the global fight for sustainability.

The largest compost heap in Europe, Brentford, England. Photo courtesy of ajschu/Flickr Creative Commons

According to the European Compost Network, “source separation of organic residues from households and gardens is a success story of most European countries, thereby helping to meet recycling and climate change targets and market requirements.”  E. Favoino’s report “Composting across Europe” separates European regions into four categories of participation when it comes to composting, with Austria, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands having “strategies and policies [that] are already fully implemented nationwide.”  Next come Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Catalonia (a nationality of Spain), and Norway, where policies are “fully outlined” but the programs themselves are still being developed.  In Finland, France, the United Kingdom, and Wallonia (a region of Belgium), programs are just getting started but may already have written policies.  The remainder has not yet shown any inclination to begin a source separated organic waste disposal program.  While composting has not yet reached its full potential in Europe, when one considers that the same practice is largely a personal one in the United States with only around 90 municipalities currently implementing programs, it becomes clear that Europe’s organics are being treated much more sustainably.

A biogas purification plant in Lund, Sweden. Photo courtesy of P1r/Flickr Creative Commons

In addition to your average composting, Europe is also a forerunner when it comes to anaerobic digestion, the breakdown of organic materials in an oxygen-free setting that allows for the production of carbon dioxide and methane, the main component of natural gas.  These byproducts of the decomposition process are known as biogas, a form of renewable energy that can be used to replace global climate change-causing fossil fuels.  Anaerobic digestion is also a means of capturing greenhouse gases that if produced in a non-controlled anaerobic environment like a landfill would be released to the atmosphere, where they would contribute to global warming.  A plant in Amiens, France claims to be the first in the world to subject organic waste to anaerobic digestion.  It deals with the waste stream of two cities and has been selling the biogas to Gaz de France since 1987.  Many other European areas have since begun similar programs, such as Salzburg, Austria, Zurich, Switzerland, and Elsinore, Denmark.  According to Albert Morales of Renewable Energy World, “higher energy prices and government incentives have spurred widespread adoption of this technology [in Europe].”  Biogas in the United States, on the other hand, “has never had the sort of political support or constituent base to mobilize action in Washington.”  American biogas receives only $1 of subsidy per unit of energy (mmbtu) generated, compared with $2 for solar and wind and $8.55 for biodiesel from agri-fuels.

Global sustainability is not a competition; ultimately there is one Earth that both “winners” and “losers” will have to share.  At present Europe is far ahead of the United States, but it is not in the lead because it’s an Olympian – it’s in front because we’re standing in our own way.  Achieving a more sustainable country – partially through an increase in composting and anaerobic digestion – will not be easy and may very well require a restructuring of our government’s priorities, but Europe is proof that all the pieces exist and are perfectly capable of fitting together to form a fully functioning, ecologically sound system.

Powerful Poisons Interact to Attack the Industrious Honey Bee

In and of themselves pesticides may not be the sole culprits of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  Could understanding the synergisms between these chemicals help solve the mystery of CCD?

Beeswax Candles--Courtesy of Roberrific/Flickr Creative Commons

The snowstorm is looming. Tom Theobald, Boulder Colorado bee keeper, will retire to his honey house to watch the early winter flakes dance in the cold air.  There, he will be “doing a run of hand-dipped beeswax candles.”  After all, when the power goes out he always reverts to the work of small and industrious insects, the honey bees, whose burning wax will shed light in his cabin.  Theobald can enjoy the process of making beeswax candles and can survive the exit of the bees from his life were his colonies to continue to wane because of CCD. Commercial bee keepers, as he says, cannot–as they are the most affected economically by the decline of the bees.   While one may be able to pinpoint the role of one specific pesticide in CCD,  the mystery of CCD is intensified as the interactions between the many chemical ingredients used in 21st century American agriculture become apparent.

Theobald takes my call on November 1, 2011, just before the storm.   This time we don’t focus merely on the systemic pesticide chlothianidin, but rather discuss the complexity of synergisms, the interactions of various pesticides on the health of the hive and the bee.  Theobald confides that fungicides “only entered his consciousness just recently,”  as part of a larger investigation into neonicotinoids, nicotine-derived pesticides.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, fungi are crucial to the health of the hive.  They break down the pollen inside the hive.  As Theobald points out, fungicides disrupt the bee’s intestinal flora.  Bee bread is only a partly digested product that needs intestinal flora to be metabolized.  Fungicides, instead, “decrease the microbial diversity of the bee’s food source” according to David Doll, Farm Advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension.  However, since fungicides, like pesticides, are required for a profitable crop, they become an integral element of the pollination process and therefore pose health risks to honey bees.

According to David Doll, fungicides are generally applied around or at bloom when they will adhere to the pollen. Their application during bloom should, therefore, be regulated.    Unlike Europe that errs on the side of caution, banning pesticides until they are proven not to be harmful, in the US there is, as reporter for the GMO journal Deniza Gertzberg points out, “no accurate and complete picture of what pesticides are used, where and in what amounts, or the accurate measures of just what the maximum exposure is in agricultural or urban settings on blooming plants.”

Jan Knodel, Extension Entomologist for North Dakota State University presents guidelines for reducing pesticide poisoning to bees:

As bees work the hardest during bloom, they will thus inevitably bring back the fungicide-laced pollen to the hive where they will store it to be eaten later or where it is eaten immediately, its nutritional value having been altered by the fungicides.

Theobald focuses on the fungicide boscalid in particular.  Introduced in the USA in 2003, boscalid, the active ingredient in the fungicide emerald, is a respiration inhibitor within the fungal cell.  It is highly successful in fighting fungal diseases in fruits, vegetables and grapes that are used for wine.

In the non-committal language of the EPA boscalid is “practically nontoxic to terrestrial animals and is moderately toxic to aquatic animals on an acute exposure basis.”  However, according to the PAN pesticides database,  “population-level effects on honeybees may occur even if a pesticide has low acute toxicity. […] certain pesticides interfere with honeybee reproduction, ability to navigate, or temperature regulation, any of which can have an effect on long-term survival of honey bee colonies.”

A recent study by James Frazier, professor of entomology at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences highlights the magnitude of the problem of pesticides like boscalid making their way into the bee’s hives and lacing their food with poison: “on average six different pesticides, and in some cases, as many as 39 pesticides were found in hives across the United States.”   This  study focuses not on one specific pesticide but rather on the presence of multiple pesticides, in fact “98 pesticides and metabolites detected in […] bee pollen alone,” suggesting  the need for research on the synergisms between pesticides that might underlie the demise of the bees.

Theobald echoes the need for research on the potentially lethal synergisms of various pesticides on bees, as he refers to a 2010 report by the Cornell University Cooperative Extension stating the need for such studies, as “some fungicides may affect a bee’s ability to tolerate other pesticides.”

It is not only about chlothianidin.  It is not merely about boscalid.  According to Gertzberg, over 1,200 active ingredients are distributed among 18,000 products nationwide and are now integral to the honey bees’ landscape.  The complexity of the demise of the bees lies in the synergisms between these chemicals.

Finding a Middle Ground: the UN and Dodd-Frank

The UN Group of Experts on the DRC proposes a middle ground approach to both address the side effects of the Dodd-Frank Act and to allow its enforcement. Consumers can still take action, even as large and systematic change is necessary.

Though the Dodd-Frank Act has already been passed, the debate regarding its impact on the Congo continues. Thus, it is necessary to revisit the differing views to determine the appropriate path forward. Two weeks ago I delved into these varying perspectives, but I would like to return to them with a specific letter in mind dated October 21, 2011. It is written by Fred Robarts, Coordinator of the United Nations Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) addressed to Chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Mary L. Schapiro.

Mary Schapiro, Chairwoman of the SEC, Photo Courtesy of Sarah Mamula / Flickr Creative Commons

The letter predates an upcoming report from the Group of Experts that will be translated into the official United Nations (UN) languages, discussed by the Security Council, and then released by the end of November. The UN contacts listed on the letter declined to comment on it before the report was published. The timing of the letter—purposely preceding the full report—is of particular importance given the fact that the SEC will soon finalize regulations coming from Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act. The Group of Experts seeks to influence these regulations; they want to ensure the SEC has as positive an impact on the Congo as possible.

The group’s conclusions come from a year’s worth of observations and investigations regarding “the activities of armed groups in the DRC and their sources of funding. The group has also evaluated the impact of due diligence guidelines for individuals and entities purchasing, processing and consuming minerals from the DRC…” Such due diligence guidelines refer to the investigation of a company’s involvement in a particular area of human rights concern.

The content of the letter represents a union of various views. It includes ideas aligning with both those who support the Dodd-Frank Act—demanding businesses stop purchasing minerals from conflict mines—and those who claim a diversification of approaches, especially politically, is necessary. The letter fully acknowledges the “important challenges regarding Dodd Frank” and the perspectives of those who oppose the act. Such “challenges” include the de facto boycott of Congolese minerals that the act has caused. Such an outcome occurred because smelters and electronics companies have, for now, stopped purchasing minerals from Congo—where the conflict mines are concentrated—since formal mine evaluation systems do yet not exist. Companies are compelled to end business with these conflict mines because Dodd-Frank demands they no longer conduct business with these mines. Thus, they have decided to pull out of the Congo altogether until these systems are in place and they know for certain where their minerals come from. As a result of this boycott, the letter speaks of the “increased economic hardship” faced in the Congo as a result of the Dodd-Frank legislation and the sudden lack of funds flowing into the conflict mines.

With this acknowledgment of Congolese adversity, however, the letter goes on to state that terminating or abating Section 1502 it is not the correct path. It advises the SEC to adopt the approach of mitigation, as well as to continue enforcing 1502. Rather than abandon conflict mines altogether, the smelters would reduce the degree to which they buy from such mines, and in the mean time, legitimate mine tagging and tracing processes would be established. The Group of Experts believes this mitigation tactic will reduce the impact of the de facto embargo. The letter sites the success of supply chain tagging already taking place in Katanga, Congo and Rwanda as evidence for possible success of tagging in the Kivu Region—the eastern region of the DRC where conflict mines are concentrated.

"Human Right Council - Special Session on DR Congo Sébastien Mutomb Mujing Representative Permanent of Democratic Republic of Congo ( Concerned country ) addresses during the Special Session on the "Situation of human rights in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo." Photo and Caption Courtesy of UN / Jean-Marc Ferre / Flickr Creative Commons

This approach seeks to find a middle ground. However, it ought not be viewed as a cop-out. Such a strategy tries to establish a delicate balance between maintaining economic stability in the Kivu Region, while also trying to terminate human rights abuses by militiamen.

Even with such an approach, the Dodd-Frank Act still faces extensive blame for causing economic ruin for Congolese in the Kivu Region. David Aronson, whose New York Times article I discussed two weeks ago, as well as Joseph Paul Martin, Director of Human Rights Studies at Barnard College of Columbia University, constitute part of a group of scholars and journalists who have presented such blame. Martin stated in an e-mail, “The [Dodd-Frank Act] will have little impact on the current mineral and human exploitation in the DRC, a system which was established 140 years ago and has been reinforced and expanded over the years since.” Laura E. Seay, assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College, also looks down upon the effects of the Dodd-Frank Act: “In the mines, you can actually pay for things with coltan, so the economy is not entirely a cash economy, but that is all shut down now.”

Contrary to such points of view, the letter from the UN Group of Experts on the DRC goes on to applaud the Dodd-Frank Act for the awareness campaign it has started and that it has forced electronics companies to take responsibility for their impact on human lives. Before the Dodd-Frank Act, there was no legal obligation for companies to respond to the outcome of their Congolese mineral purchases.

The letter concludes by addressing the political changes that, along with these international business efforts, would lessen the occurrence of human rights abuses. It states, “We must keep up the pressure on the DRC authorities to prosecute and punish [the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo] criminal networks involved in the minerals trade.”

The letter acknowledges the complexity of the conflict and that the solution will not be a simple process. Thus, it suggests a multipart approach to address the issue: both political and economic efforts must be simultaneously present to end violations of human rights—that occurred as a result of environmental exploitation—while also maintaining economic livelihoods.

This multi-solution system is directly relevant to consumer involvement. In addition to pressuring electronics companies to establish mine evaluation systems and to decrease purchases from conflict mines, consumers must also encourage U.S. legislative leaders to support Congolese government involvement.

Polls on Hydrofracking in New York Released

New York State residents express their opinions on this controversial issue

Image courtesy: http://freethegreenmonster.com/environment/sign-stop-fracking-karoo-petition

New York State residents are divided on whether they approve of hydrofracking in the Catskills region.  According to a Sept. 21, Quinnipiac University Poll, “New York State voters support by a thin 45 – 41 percent margin drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale because they think economic benefits outweigh the environmental concerns.” Voters in upstate New York City, however, are divided on the issue with 47 percent opposed because they are more worried about the environment and 43 percent support hydrofracking.

While this poll was conducted by an independent organization, some polls are more biased.  In areas where hydrofracking is most likely to occur, there is an opposition of about two-thirds or more to horizontal hydraulic fracturing, due to the injection of chemicals and massive amounts of water into shale to extract natural gas. An Oct. 20, Pulse Opinion Research poll, shows that 72% of Delaware County residents and 69% of Sullivan County residents are against hydrofracking in their town.

In a New York Times blog post, “The Fracking Divide: Who Will Prevail in N.Y.?,” Ken Jaffe of Slope Farms Beef of Meredith, NY, commented on the Pulse Opinion Research poll saying, “The story is the overwhelming local opposition, and the plan of the governor to ally with the gas companies to act against local voters and their governments, and attempt to eviscerate local land use regulation that is guaranteed by the N.Y. State Constitution.”

By looking at more Pulse Opinion Research Data, Jaffe’s comment certainly holds true. When asked “Would you support your town enacting zoning ordinances to restrict natural gas extraction by means of hydraulic fracturing,” 69% of both Delaware and Sullivan counties said yes.

Some New Yorkers are so fed up with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s stance on fracking that they’ve signed petitions which state, “I pledge that I will never vote for Andrew Cuomo for any public office, ever, if he tries to force us to exist with hydrofracking in New York.” While this may seem harsh, many New Yorkers fully support this point of view. One Change.org petition, titled “Cuomo Pledge” takes on this position with 473 out of their goal of 10,000 signatures. On this website, those who sign the petition can explain their reasoning. One particularly troubled New Yorker, Mary Sweeney, stated her very strong opinion:

Gov. Cuomo says he wants to base the fracking decision on science, not emotion or politics. But there has been no study of the cumulative environmental and economic effects of drilling and fracking the tens of thousands of shale gas wells that are projected to be constructed in NY. Even more shocking, despite reports of numerous health problems at drilling and fracking sites around the country, there has been no comprehensive study of the health effects of shale gas extraction. So if Gov. Cuomo allows hydrofracking in NY, he will be making guinea pigs of everyone who lives in a fracking area or downwind of a fracking area or who drinks water from a fracking area. Is this the sort of leadership we want? Please, Gov. Cuomo–stay true to your word and base this decision on science, not politics.

With these opinions in mind, it is no wonder that this is hotly debated issue in New York State.