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Wild Green
Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.

Toxic Trash Pits Take Toll on U.S. Soldiers

Balad burn pit smoke plume

Did the United States poison tens of thousands of its own soldiers in Iraq with fumes from burning toxic trash? Before you consider it an outlandish suggestion, I suggest you read J. Malcolm Garcia’s moving account in the Oxford American of two American soldiers who made it back from their tours of duty having escaped insurgents’ shells, bullets, and improvised explosive devices—only to die slow, torturous deaths from the effects of garbage torched in open pits by the U.S. military.

Personal stories like those of Billy McKenna and Kevin Wilkins may only become more common in coming years, according to Garcia, since the U.S. military operated at least 23 burn pits in Iraq before combat operations ended this year, including a notoriously noxious one that often literally cast a pall over Balad Air Base.

“The burn pit at Balad consumed about 250 tons of waste a day,” he writes, “exposing 25,000 U.S. military personnel and thousands of contractors to toxic fumes.”

Garcia’s immersive narrative is a humanizing look into a slowly unfolding story that has been reported in bits and pieces for a few years, but hasn’t entirely sunken into the national consciousness, perhaps in part because it runs so counter to a reflexively patriotic, military-booster mindset: We wouldn’t have harmed our own soldiers, would we?

It just so turns out that we probably did. Writes Garcia:

The Veterans Administration states on its own webpage that chemicals, paint, medical and human waste, metals, aluminum, unexploded ordnance, munitions, and petroleum products among other toxic waste are destroyed in burn pits. Possible side effects, the department notes, “may affect the skin, eyes, respiration, kidneys, liver, nervous system, cardiovascular system, reproductive system, peripheral nervous system, and gastrointestinal tract.”

The issue first came to public light in 2008 when the Military Times reported on the use of burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, spurring Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) to request a probe by the General Accounting Office.

The GAO looked into it and warned in 2010 that the burn pits violated laws designed to keep service members safe. Pressure mounted on legislators to take up the cause, and despite a general lack of public outrage, the campaign has finally had an effect: Both Missouri Republican Sen. Tom Akin and a bipartisan group of eight senators last month introduced identical bills that would create a registry for service members affected by health problems from burn pit exposure.

The whole sorry saga stands as a stark contrast to the image of an environmentally friendly U.S. armed forces as portrayed by Edward Humes in the new Utne Reader feature “Lean, Green Fighting Machine,” an excerpt from Sierra magazine. Humes describes how the military has greened up its act with energy-efficient innovations such as solar power for remote outposts, hybrid amphibious assault ships, and biofuel-powered aircraft carriers. But he also notes that most military officials are quick to wave away suggestions that environmental concerns drive their actions, instead citing security, efficiency, and monetary savings.

All of those motivations, ironically, hold true in this case. Burn pits in a sense kept troops safe by avoiding garbage convoys; they disposed of trash with relative speed and ease; and they were much cheaper than more sophisticated waste management alternatives. But ultimately, the leaders who instituted and maintained them displayed an aggressive ignorance of basic modern health and environmental principles—a grave lapse for which thousands of soldiers are now paying.

Sources: Oxford American, Military Times 

Image by octal, licensed under Creative Commons. 

Turning Construction Waste Into a Commodity

Dumpster treat

Go ahead and recycle your cans and bottles, your papers and boxes: It’s all good. But personal recycling efforts are relatively small in volume compared to the mountains of material thrown away every day at construction sites. Liz Pacheco reports in Philadelphia’s Grid magazine on Revolution Recovery, a green business that’s pioneering ways to keep this daily deluge of construction and demolition waste out of landfills.

“They looked in a Dumpster and said ‘How can I find a use for this?’ not ‘How can I get rid of this,’” one business colleague tells Grid, referring to company co-owners Avi Golen and Jon Wybar.

Golen and Wybar treat their enterprise as a mining operation of sorts, extracting materials and finding markets for them. Wood, their most popular material, is either reused by nonprofits and arts groups or turned into mulch or fuel chips. Rubble such as brick, concrete, and asphalt is crushed and repurposed in paving and drainage applications. And they’re always hunting for new ways to extract treasure from what some people might call waste:

“You classify waste as commingled material, mixed material,” says Golen. “So, anytime you mix wood, drywall and cardboard into a Dumpster, people look at it and see waste, where we see commodities just mixed together.”

Their cavernous sorting facility is an impressive operation where huge overhead conveyors carry bins past crews of workers that extract materials, then send them tumbling down into garage-sized enclosures. It’s a resource-intensive operation compared to a traditional waste facility, but, writes Pacheco, “Recycling construction waste is becoming mainstream and more waste companies are adapting their ways.”

Source: Grid  

Image by Tesla Aldrich, licensed under Creative Commons. 

Getting Over the Growth-Is-Good Myth

Occupy Wall Street protesterSome fallacies die long, slow, hard deaths, and it appears that’s what’s happening with the happy, comforting, brainless mantra “Growth is good.” The ongoing global economic recession and looming environmental catastrophe have finally caused a significant number of people to question just how we think we’re going to economically grow forever on a crowded planet with finite resources.

British economist Tim Jackson, author of the 2009 book Prosperity Without Growth, explains in a Q&A with OnEarth executive editor George Black that this previously unmentionable notion is gaining currency even among some forward-thinking business leaders:

You say in your book that “questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists, and revolutionaries.” Is that more true or less true now than when you wrote it in 2009? 

Both. It’s more true in the sense that there’s a ferocious backlash against those who question the quasi-religious fervor about getting growth back. But at another level there’s this really interesting thing going on, with a whole spectrum of people beginning to question the assumption that it’s desirable, from ordinary people who have always been uncertain about why things must expand indefinitely to groups that have previously been obsessed with the idea of growth, like the World Economic Forum in Davos. It continues to surprise me that my book has had such resonance among business leaders. I was trying to say that it’s a real dilemma to structurally reorganize your economy. This isn’t an easy thing, and there are no off-the-shelf solutions. But we have to go into that place, no matter how dark and counterintuitive it seems. And I think that’s something the more visionary CEOs respond to, actually enjoy to some extent.

Source: OnEarth 

Image by Sunset Parkerpix, licensed under Creative Commons. 

Detroit Crop City

Kids gardening in Detroit 

The decay of present-day Detroit has been well chronicled, and the new documentary film Urban Roots in its first minutes treads familiar ground as it unspools a now-familiar montage of crumbling warehouses and gutted bungalows in the ailing Motor City. But before you can hurl charges of “ruin porn,” the film shifts to its real focus: The gardeners who are turning the vacant lots of Detroit into fields of abundance. Let others focus on what’s dead and dying; this movie is about what’s growing here.

“Resilient” only begins to describe the determined, resourceful Detroiters who have seen jobs and neighbors disappear as the city depopulates. Instead of fleeing, they’ve stayed and begun growing vegetables. Lots of them. You may have heard or read about Detroit’s urban farmers, but Urban Roots really brings the movement alive by getting right down in the furrows with them.

Mowing hay in DetroitThe film, whose production team includes the producer of the Leonardo DiCaprio-hosted green doc The 11th Hour, introduces us to the guys at Brother Nature Produce, who have carved out a small farm that supplies farmers’ markets and a community-supported agriculture (CSA) operation. It shows us the Field of Dreams Mobile Market, which delivers fresh, local produce to sick or elderly people. A rap artist turned pepper picker finds “something positive” in his community garden work, and proud kids mug for the camera not with bling but with vegetables.

Yeah, Urban Roots is a feel-good movie, but in the best kind of way: The positive vibe is, to use the appropriate metaphors, organic instead of artificial, homegrown instead of Hollywood.

The only discordant note for me—and it’s a small one—is a futuristic illustrated montage at the film’s end showing skyscraping “vertical farms” and some ridiculous high-tech floating monstrosity called a “boat farm.” I understand the filmmakers are trying to think big here, but the basic economics of vertical farming are highly questionable at best, and anyway, this sort of large-infrastructure techno-fix is the very antithesis of the do-it-yourself spirit exemplified by the citizen-farmers we’ve just met. They didn’t sit around hoping for some eco-designer to build them a 10-story steel-and-glass farm. They just went to the vacant lot next door and started digging. As one of the farmers says, “It’s an act of self-determination.”

Source: Urban Roots 

Images courtesy of Urban Roots Film. 

What Is Water Worth?

Liquid gold?

It’s time to confront our long-held, deeply ingrained belief that water should be forever free, Cynthia Barnett contends in her new book Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis, which recently came out on Beacon Press.

“The tradition of free water has been fundamental since ancient times—as absolute as free air, or the right to take in mountain vistas,” she writes. But this notion has finally run up against finite supplies and a hard reality: free water encourages waste, in part because, well, it’s free. Agriculture, businesses, governments, and individuals alike have little incentive to cut down on their use. Barnett suggests that “it’s time to at least listen to what the economists have to say,” but don’t expect politicians to lead the charge:

Politicians steer clear of economists … because their answer to water woes is usually “Raise prices,” which voters don’t want to hear. … There is another group of people who don’t like what economists have to say. The idea of putting a price on water is anathema to many environmentalists and human rights activists who feel strongly that water should be free.

Barnett suggests that international water advocates who bring water access to the poor are doing important work, but that U.S. water activists could stand to branch out in their targets in helping to create a new “water ethic”:

American water activists, for the past several years, have locked their sights on bottled water. They decry bottlemania for commercializing our freshwater resources at the rate of some 9 billion gallons a year in the United States. But federal and state governments have handed public water to private interests since the Swamp Land Act of 1850. Challenging America’s water giveaways in twelve-ounce servings is like confronting climate change on the basis of lightbulbs alone. … A water ethic would take stock of all use, including that of the beverage brokers and their unique water trade. Thermoelectric power pulls in 201 billion gallons of water a day. Agricultural irrigation diverts 128 billion gallons daily. U.S. industries tap 18 billion; mining, 4 billion. We also must look in the mirror, at water for public supply—44 billion gallons a day. Free and cheap water in America has cost our freshwater ecosystems—and us—too much.

Look for a review of Blue Revolution in the Jan.-Feb. 2012 Utne Reader.

Source: Blue Revolution 

Image by koshyk, licensed under Creative Commons. 

Boulder Moves Toward Clean, Independent Energy

Coal-fired power plant, Boulder 

Boulder, Colorado, took a landmark step toward energy independence when its voters chose to allow the city to consider dumping Xcel Energy as its power provider and creating its own municipal power utility. Triple Pundit calls the news “the start of a transition in American power” because the driving force behind the measure was concern about climate change. Supporters of the measure want their power provider to include more renewable energy sources and fewer fossil fuels than Xcel was willing to consider.

Reports Triple Pundit:

Going beyond standard renewable portfolio standards of 20 or 30 percent is increasingly difficult for big centralized power providers who need to recoup costs for their investments in power plants and return profits to investors. As a result, as more renewable options enter the market, it makes sense for communities to seek smaller, more decentralized power options.

As Ann Butterfield explained in her article for the Huffington Post, this ballot measure reflects the community’s desire for renewable energy and the sentiment that big companies—or utilities—can no longer externalize risks they are taking to maximize profits.

Xcel-funded opponents spent money mightily in a campaign to defeat the measure, sensing a bad precedent for Big Power, but Boulder residents went for it by a slim majority. John Farrell of Energy Self-Reliant States wrote in a post republished by Grist:

The victory margin was small, but the clean energy and economic opportunity is enormous. According to a citizen-led and peer-reviewed study, the city could increase renewable energy production by 40 percent from multiple local sources without increasing rates.

If the city uses its new authority to become a utility, future generations may look back at Nov. 1, 2011, as the shot heard round the world—a shot fired for clean, local energy—and ask why more Americans didn’t “go Boulder” sooner.

(In related indie-media news, Triple Pundit has announced it has teamed up with another of Utne Reader’s favorite green-biz news sources, Sustainable Industries. We’re looking forward to seeing their talents and energies combined in a multimedia green mashup.)

Sources: Triple Pundit, Energy Self-Reliant States, Huffington Post, Grist 

Image by andersbknudsen, licensed under Creative Commons.  

Keystone XL Delay Is a Gift for Greens

Keystone XL White House protest

It’s been an uplifting several days for anyone who’s opposed to the massive Keystone XL oil pipeline, which had seemed to be rapidly steamrolling toward presidential approval.

First, on Sunday, an impressively large crowd of 10,000 to 12,000 protesters showed up to encircle the White House and pressure President Obama to give the pipeline a thumbs down. On the same day, the Los Angeles Times reported that the administration may now put off the Keystone XL decision until after the election. On Monday, Think Progress reported that the State Department’s office of the Inspector General would conduct a review the pipeline approval process, which has been dogged by accusations of inadequate environmental review and potential conflicts of interest.

All in all, it’s a remarkable turnaround of Keystone XL’s prospects, offering some hope—remember that word?—to environmentally conscious Americans who might have started to think that green activism is no more effective than video-game playing in changing the world.

There may be more than a little political calculus in Obama’s move to delay a pipeline decision until after the election. Last week, Reuters foreshadowed the delay when it reported that some of the president’s advisers were uneasy about the support that a Keystone XL approval could cost the campaign—especially among young, enthusiastic, door-knocking volunteers.

The situation may be a sign that times are changing. Conventional pundit wisdom holds that the environment is a minor player at presidential election time, writes Keith Kloor at the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, taking a back seat to “kitchen table concerns like the economy, health care, and war.” But the current political environment, with Keystone raising a ruckus and virtually all the Republican candidates rejecting climate-change concerns, writes Kloor, has

Juliet Eilperin, a Washington Post reporter, thinking that global warming may yet be a big issue in the 2012 election. Just yesterday, in a talk at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, Eilperin said:

“I actually think this is a really interesting moment. It is a moment that is challenging a position I’ve held for a long time, which is that the environment doesn’t play a role in elections.”

She added that climate change “has the potential to become a wedge issue. What is so interesting is whether it will be a wedge issue for the left or a wedge issue for the right.”

Still, for pipeline backers, hope—unlike oil—springs eternal. Reuters now reports that the State Department is considering rerouting the pipeline to avoid ecologically sensitive areas of Nebraska and improve its chances of success. This is despite the fact that “TransCanada said last month that it was too late in the federal approval process to move the proposed path for the line.”

Sources: Inside Climate, Los Angeles Times, Think Progress, Reuters, Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media 

Image by Emma Cassidy and tarsandsaction, licensed under Creative Commons.