Saturday, December 29, 2012

Lake Whatcom -- Nevermore

Nothing more to say.
Nothing happens.
Nothing will happen.
Let’s all forget it.
About two weeks ago, I opened a conversation with some folks who have significant responsibility for our drinking water source, Lake Whatcom, by stating an obvious fact.  I said: 
“Lake Whatcom is the graveyard of activists. From Sherilynn Wells to the various Lake Whatcom groups to Dan Pike, everyone learns the same lesson. Worrying about Lake Whatcom is like pounding your head against a tree. The only thing that it accomplishes is to teach you how good it feels when you stop.”
They nodded and smiled.  And why not?  What else can you say?
My clients and I, and Futurewise, have sued Whatcom County to try to implement the parts of Washington state law that require Whatcom County to protect surface water quality.  Wendy Harris, bless her heart, continues to attend meetings on Lake Whatcom, and continues to point out the many threats that our drinking water source faces.  Other individuals – Virginia Watson, Marian Bedill, and April Markiewicz come to mind, and I know that I’m missing others – continue to devote their energy and considerable intellects to the fact that we’re fouling our own nest and that it’s entirely avoidable.  
There was a time when everybody was up in arms about the fact that we’re knowingly, intentionally, systematically, and avoidably, polluting the water that we drink.  
Not any  more.   
The folks who have a vested interest in knowingly, intentionally, systematically, and avoidably polluting the water that we drink have won.  Because there’s nobody with the stature to stand up to them.  Not at the state level, not at the local level. A few scattered citizens can’t take on the burden.  Especially when the folks who are paid to do this work are not willing to hit their heads against the wall, either. 
A two-year anniversary is coming up.  What is an appropriate way to celebrate a great big nothing? 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Agenda 21 Redux

Well, at least the Bellingham Herald’s front page article on the Tea Party didn’t overtly plug “Glenn Beck’s” novel Agenda 21.*

Of course, you will always find the real scoop on the major issues of the day on Get Whatcom Planning.  Did the Herald article warn you that the words “outcome,” local,” and “fair” are harbingers of the Agenda 21 apocalypse?  Heck no. 
To see the entire list of words that proves that One World Government is about to take over your life, follow this link to what one author described as “Glen Beck’s Agenda 21 Word Cloud.”

You’ll never view the term "parking policy” in quite the same way. 

If you haven't had quite enough Agenda 21 fun, try typing "Agenda 21" into Google Images.  Amongst the trojan horses and scary recycling logos, you'll come across my favorite picture, which floats a smirking, photoshopped  "Barack Hussein Obama" in an ocean where he's about to be attacked by an octopus, with the U.N. logo looming on the horizon.  Will the UN arrive in time to save our President from the giant cephalopod?  The author clearly hopes not.
For those who harbor the notion that Canada provides a safe harbor, a final refuge from American loopiness, I would say -- don't follow the link.  It will destroy your illusions.

On the other hand, for a more reality-based view of Agenda 21, here are a couple of blogs that I wrote earlier this year: Agenda 21: A Straw Enemy and Agenda 21: Talking to“Steve.”
*According to a book review, one Harriet Parke actually wrote the book, but Glenn Beck gets the large print on the cover – and the book tour – and the New York Times bestseller author credit (it’s listed at number 20.  A little scary, but is it any less scary than seeing Shades of Grey in the top 10?).

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Coal Terminal News: In Which I Try Out "Greenwashing" By Explaining Why Coal Freighter Accidents Are Good

photo submitted by Rick Swan.
Businessweek reminds us that it's a darn good thing that a coal freighter "crashed into a trestle leading to one of the berths" at the Westshore coal export terminal, just north of here, on December 7th.  An analyst at Barclays in New York pointed out:

“'Obviously accidents are never a positive for those directly involved,' Gagliano said. 'However, strictly from a supply/demand and pricing perspective, issues that constrain supplies have the potential to have a positive impact on underlying prices.'”

So those directly involved -- fish, for example -- will pay the ultimate price, but the coal industry will make more money. 

How can we make sure that the Gateway Pacific Terminal will create a similar economic benefit?  Just build the thing!  According to Westshore spokesman Ray Dykes,

"'We've had over 8,300 ships and never had an incident like this in 42 years. You just couldn't predict it,' he said. 'It's rather ironic, we've just finished the equipment upgrade in five years, $100 million and were just starting to really steam along.'"

Well, maybe they couldn't predict it, but now we can, because it happened in our back yards.  Literally. 

The next time you hear SSA say that there won't be any environmental problems with the Gateway Pacific Terminal because it's going to use the best environmental technology, remind them of irony.  As Ray Dykes might put it, even hundreds of millions of dollars of the best equipment can't stop human error.  You can't predict it.

Of course, it might not be SSA doing the talking about GPT's environmental "benefits."  Lots of good coverage is starting to come out about who's really behind the "Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports," Gateway Pacific's "grassroots" support organization.  No spoilers here -- you have to read for yourself: Sightline and Joel Connelly at the PI.

Oh, all right, I'll give you one clue.  The title of the PI article is "Seattle PR firms are 'doing coal's dirty work':  study."

I'm sure that the good folks in our community who profess to be bitterly opposed to "people from Seattle telling us what to do" will immediately distance themselves from the coal campaign.  Because otherwise, they'd sound hypocritical.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The World We Inherit, The World We Leave Behind

Opened my Bellingham Herald this morning and found an article on our rural element litigation.  The article described the County Council's reasons for its decision to allocate $50,000 for a Seattle law firm to continue to fight for the County's perceived right to plan poorly. 

The Cascadia Weekly also covered this issue.  Although the Herald said that the $50,000 amount was approved "unanimously," the Weekly noted that Carl Weimer was the lone vote against it, presumably during the morning committee meeting.  As the Weekly observed,

"These petitioners agreed to sit down with the county and mediate outstanding issues with (pro bono) legal counsel. Most council members scoffed, declaring mediation was tantamount to surrender.

An exception was Council member Carl Weimer, who voted against the $50,000 appropriation.
'I actually agree with the appellants on many of the issues they are challenging,' Weimer explained, 'particularly many of the water resource issues. I don’t want to waste taxpayer money chasing bad policy.'”

Of course, since the money comes out of our pockets (as the Weekly explains). it's easy for the Council to hang tough.

Life is too short to muck about in the cesspool that is the Herald's online presence to explain our side of the story, but those who read this blog probably know why we are involved in this litigation.  I wrote three blog entries explaining the Growth Management Hearings Board's decision when it came out in January:

The Growth Management Hearings Board’s Decision on Whatcom County’s Rural Planning, In a Nutshell: Part 1, Sprawl

The Growth Management Hearings Board’s Decision on Whatcom County’s Rural Planning, Part 2, The Elements: Earth, Water and Fire

What Next? Growth Management Hearings Board Decision, Part 3
And, in reverse chronological order, here are some additional blog entries that explore some of the relevant issues:
Science and County Government:  The Perfect Storm – development around Lake Whatcom.
 Stuck in Lake Whatcom
If It Ain’t Broke – agricultural land loss
Rural Element:  No Peace In Our Time
The Golden-Brown Rule – problems with septic tanks in Whatcom County
Wet and Wild Whatcom County – water quality issues
Graphic Interlude – growth in Whatcom County
We Won’t Know What We’ve Got “Till It’s Gone – value of wildlife
It’s Only Money – impervious surfaces and flooding
Rural Sprawl:  Blame Bellingham? 
Whatcom County’s Rural Element:  The Sequel
All of these blogs really explore one issue:  what kind of world will we leave our kids?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Coal Terminal Special: How the 1% Scopes

Let’s see.  So far:

The Gateway Pacific Terminal applicant assures us that its coal terminal project will follow the most exacting environmental procedures and criteria –

after the applicant bulldozed roads, cut down trees, and filled wetlands on Cherry Point, all without the necessary permits.

The GPT applicant exhorts us to “work through the process” –

and subverts the process by paying day laborers to take up limited speaker spots as an inducement for pro-coal bigwigs to speak, while at the same time denying the opportunity to citizens who stood in line for hours to make scoping comments.

The GPT applicant says to “wait for the science” –

while making sure that scoping meetings feature its project cheerleaders, who tout one-sided claims about jobs without waiting for the studies that could show that the coal export project's impacts – on jobs, humans, and the environment -- will result in a net loss to our community, state, region, and world.

GPT’s public relations spokesperson admitted that the project applicant paid day laborers to stand in line at yesterday’s scoping session in Spokane (“'A lot of our people have jobs,' said Hennessey”).   As far as I know, so far the applicant is not admitting that the practice originated in Ferndale – although by all accounts, the folks waiting in line at 8 a.m. for the first spots were not the head of on the staff of the Realtors REALTORS(R) (not representing the REALTORS(R)), the head of the Chamber of Commerce, and Joe Wilson, speakers 4, 5 and AFY.

This practice does suggest a mitigation measure that the 1% can get behind.  Has SSA Marine already committed to hiring folks to sit in line at rail crossings on behalf of our local VIPs, so they won’t have to waste their time waiting for 18 additional mile and a half long trains?  After all, they have jobs! 

For some reason, I found it particularly depressing that the GPT applicant apparently hired the Ferndale Event Center – the location of the Ferndale Scoping Session – for its own equivalent of an airport VIP lounge.  While the wretched masses huddled outdoors in the cold wind, SSA Marine is said to have provided its boosters with a nice buffet.

Scoping agencies, please!  Of all of the entities that you could emulate, could you not choose the airlines? 

Or maybe it’s too late to bypass the omnipresent trappings of our hardening national caste system, even in so-called “public process.”  The justice of the free market demands that the SSA Elite get the first class seating at scoping sessions.  And, as the airlines have taught us, those who haven’t paid extra for the best seats deserve to be treated like cattle.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, I say.  So the next time that somebody starts to talk about how much everybody in Whatcom County is going to benefit from coal terminal money, I’m going to ask for my own personal day laborer, too.  After all, I have a job.  I'm far too busy and important to do anything else.

I think that I’ll request an unemployed English major.  If Get Whatcom Planning’s literary content suddenly exhibits a dramatic improvement, you’ll know that I’ve been bought out.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Gateway Pacific Terminal and Ocean Acidity

World Bank, Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must Be Avoided,
November 2012, at 11.

Surely I was not alone in being walloped in the face with a great big dose of irony when I unfolded this morning’s Bellingham Herald. 

Above the fold:  “Support for coal exports.”   The article features a big picture of some determined-looking men carrying boxes of petitions in support of the Gateway Pacific coal export terminal. 

(At least they aren't pretending that it isn't a coal export terminal any more.)

Below the fold:  “State panel presses for action on threat from ocean acidity.” 

As the article states, "[r]ising acidity levels in the oceans pose a serious threat to shellfish and other marine life, and tackling that problem in Washington state will require reducing carbon dioxide emissions. . ."

Read more here:

The “action” to be taken will involve the overstretched Department of Ecology and a little bit of funding for projects.

You know what?  I’m getting sick of being the chump – the dutiful taxpayer who pays to clean the house, only to find that the Very Important Men of Business (maybe I was thinking about the Herald picture when that phrase came to mind) are throwing a giant frat party at the same time. 

In accordance with Get Whatcom Planning’s time-honored role as a bastion of fiscal conservatism, let me save the state some money.  Here’s the bottom line for ocean acidification, in three logical steps:

1.      Ocean acidification is caused by increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 

That’s what the picture above demonstrates.  It’s from a November 2012 World Bank report, Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must Be Avoided, which you can read here.
It’s not happy reading.  It isn’t intended to be.  As the President of the World Bank Group, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, stated in his introduction, “It is my hope that this report shocks us into action. Even for those of us already committed to fighting climate change, I hope it causes us to work with much more urgency.”

Here’s what the report says about the significance of ocean acidification (at page xv):
Apart from a warming of the climate system, one of the most serious consequences of rising carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere occurs when it dissolves in the ocean and results in acidification. A substantial increase in ocean acidity has been observed since preindustrial times. A warming of 4°C or more by 2100 would correspond to . . . an increase of about 150 percent in acidity of the ocean. The observed and projected rates of change in ocean acidity over the next century appear to be unparalleled in Earth’s history. Evidence is already emerging of the adverse consequences of acidification for marine organisms and ecosystems, combined with the effects of warming, overfishing, and habitat destruction.

2.      To stop, much less reverse, ocean acidification, we have to stop increasing the sources of carbon dioxide emissions.  Soon.  Not in the year 2020, or 2050, or 2100.

The World Bank report emphasized that we do not have time to putter about when it comes to ocean acidification.  Here’s why:
Based on an estimate of the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and surface ocean acidity, only very low emission scenarios are able to halt and ultimately reverse ocean acidification.  If mitigation measures are not implemented soon to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, then ocean acidification can be expected to extend into the deep ocean. . . .[S]lowing and reversing this will be much more difficult. This would further add significant stress to marine ecosystems already under pressure from human influences, such as overfishing and pollution.  (World Bank report at 25, citations omitted.)

If we need more evidence about what needs to be done, the United Nations Environment Program came out with its own report, which looks at the “gap” between our current plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and the emissions reductions that we need in order to keep the global temperature increase below 2° Celsius.  That’s the standard benchmark for maintaining a planet that more or less resembles our current planet.  We might call that the livable planet scenario – well, aside from sacrificing some island countries, which won't be livable because they'll be under water. 

It is not an optimistic report.  If we don’t assume that we can reach “negative” carbon dioxide emissions in the not-too-distant future, the odds of a livable planet go way down.  "Negative carbon dioxide emissions" means that we need to take more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than we add -- through massive planting efforts, or some technical means that isn't at hand yet.  Of course, the more CO2 we put into the air now, the more we'll have to take out in the future.  If we want a livable planet, that is.

3.      If Washington State provides for coal export, to feed more coal-burning power plants, it is ensuring continued ocean acidification. No need for a panel or for projects or for further studies – we can put a fork in it right now.

The Gateway Pacific terminal proposes to export “thermal coal.” That’s coal that is burned in power plants.  

Fossil fuel use is the most significant source of carbon dioxide.     To be more specific, coal- fired power plants are the largest source of carbon dioxide.   

In a study released on November 20, the World Resources Institute estimated that more than a thousand coal-fired power plants have been proposed around the world.  Three quarters of these plants are proposed in China and India.   

More power plants.  What would that do to the oceans?  Acidify them beyond anything that Taylor Shellfish has seen to date.  All of our messing around the edges won’t change that.   


“But all the other kids are doing it!” you may say.  Look at Australia!  On the one hand, Australia knows that climate change is the greatest long-term threat to the Great Barrier Reef.     On the other hand, Australia is one of the biggest coal exporters in the world – with proposals to double, triple, quadruple its output in the next few years.

And sure, there’s no question that Australia needs to get its house in order.  As an Australian author recently observed about that country’s irreconcilable policies towards coal,

"It’s really not that dissimilar to the son-in-law who everyone pretends is not that bad to keep up appearances, despite the alcoholic outbursts and odd bout of domestic violence.  So long as when Christmas rolls round presents are a-plenty."

Sophie Trevitt, “Coal, It’s a Love Story,” Nov. 25th, 2012.

As  much as I enjoy this metaphor, it occurs to me that drunken sons-in-law rarely threaten the survival of the entire Earth.  The family story that the Bellingham Herald brought to my mind was Cain and Abel.

The one where one brother kills the other.

Let’s say that coal export is Cain and the oceans are Abel.  Washington wants to love both of them, and is digging around the medicine chest to come up with an aspirin for Abel.  But Cain is Cain, and adding a feel-good moment wouldn't change the end of the story.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Science and County Government: The Perfect Storm

When I talk to students about our country’s environmental laws, I tell them that most of these laws were adopted under “our environmental president, Richard Nixon.”  This line always gets a laugh –even though it’s a fact, not a joke. Pollution control and the protection of nature used to be bipartisan, but college students are too young to remember those bygone days.
I recently read an article called Why Conservatives Turned Against Science.”   The article notes that, while support for Richard Nixon was robust among scientists back in the 1970s, a very small percentage of scientists currently self-identify as conservative or Republican.

Rather than concluding that scientists are all socialists who hate freedom, as some Whatcom County readers of this blog will undoubtedly claim, the article traces the reasons that science became the enemy of political conservatism.

In a nutshell,

“Climate scientists came under attack not just because their research threatened the oil industry (although it certainly did that), but also because they had exposed significant market failures.

Pollution is a market failure because, in general, polluters do not pay a price for environmental damage (and this includes not just polluting industries, like electrical utilities, but also anyone who uses a product—like gasoline—that takes up a portion of the planetary sink without paying for it). Nicholas Stern, a former chief economist at the World Bank, has declared climate change "the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen."

Accepting the need to correct market failures required one to concede the need to reform capitalism—in short, to concede the reality of market failure and limits. This became increasingly difficult for Republicans during the 1990s and 2000s. . .

And so it was that during the decades that scientists began documenting how humans affect the natural world, the Republican Party committed itself to denying that impact, or at least denying that it required governmental response. . .

It's hardly surprising, then, that natural scientists have fled the GOP. Scientific research, with its basis in observation and experience of the natural world, is rooted in the fundamental premise that when the results of our investigations tell us something, we pay heed.”

We pay heed.

Or we don’t. 

Here in Whatcom County, we have a very conservative County Council.  And it includes some folks who are not prone to pay heed to observations and experience of the natural world.   

At a time when we are facing three extraordinarily significant and difficult environmental issues in Whatcom County, each demanding a scientific approach, this means that our local government may be at an all-time low in its ability (or desire) to address these problems.  

With a big storm poised to pour rain – well, OK, even more rain than usual -- on the Pacific Northwest, I can’t resist saying that this situation creates the perfect storm. 

Issue 1:  Continued development around Lake Whatcom, the drinking water source for half of Whatcom County.

Our drinking water reservoir.  Yum yum.

Lake Whatcom, the drinking water source for half of the County, was listed as an “impaired” (polluted) water body 14 years ago.  What’s happening now?  Whatcom County is mired down in months, maybe years, of study.  These studies are intended to provide justification to allow the owners of some 700 small properties to build on those properties without following the stricter regulations that the County has not yet adopted.

Where is the science of the Lake in all this?   By exposing market failure – the external impacts of development on the Lake – science has made itself an unwelcome presence at the table.

Issue 2:  The Gateway Pacific Terminal application, which proposes to build North America’s largest coal export terminal on the shore of a marine aquatic reserve.
Coal pile at the Westshore terminal.  Photograph by Paul K. Anderson.

The proposed Gateway Pacific coal export terminal would be enormous -- the largest coal terminal in North America.  It is globally significant.  And it will plow new scientific ground.  Nowhere else on earth, for example, has there ever been such a large quantity of extraordinarily combustible Powder River Basin coal piled in one export terminal.  We’re the guinea pigs, here in our obscure corner of the world.

In addition to spontaneously-combusting coal, a huge range of science-based issues will have to be examined:  the effects of locating 48 million metric tonnes of coal, in uncovered piles, on the adjacent marine protected area; the effects of destroying more than 140 acres of wetlands; the air pollution, noise, and potential spill effects of the largest, dirtiest marine vessels in the world; climate change, of course; and on, and on, and on. 

It is difficult to imagine a project that has to externalize more of its impacts than a coal export terminal.  Its feasibility depends on subsidized coal, subsidized transport, and the externalization of pollution costs.   

And the question is whether local decision-makers have the desire and ability to understand these issues, or whether the mantra of “economic freedom” will trump science’s exposure of the many market failures that must stay in place in order to keep this project afloat.

Issue 3:  The Swift Creek  naturally occurring asbestos problem.

The sign says that the asbestos is natural, so it must be all right!  Right?  Photograph by Doug Naftz.

Finally, Whatcom County has Swift Creek. 

Many areas of the world have naturally-occurring asbestos in their soils.  For example, I’ve been told that there’s a wide swath running across San Francisco, which may be the only thing that rural Whatcom County has in common with San Francisco. 

But Whatcom County appears to be unique in the world for its asbestos delivery system.  For the next 400 to 600 years, or even longer – who knows – a landslide on Sumas Mountain will deposit asbestos-containing soils into Swift Creek, which runs into the Sumas River, which runs north to the Canadian border. 

The asbestos in this soil is “real” asbestos, contrary to what a lot of folks want to believe.  When Swift Creek and the Sumas River flood, the flood waters carry asbestos.  During the last flood, in 2009, sampling near the Canadian border – as far away from Sumas Mountain as you can get and still stay on the U.S. – showed overs 20% asbestos in some of the samples of soils that were left behind when the flood water receded.  Some people's yards and basements contained these soils.

This is an issue where government inaction – disbelief, inability to conceive of the nature of the problem – will lead to a market result, and it won’t be pretty for some of our neighbors in Whatcom County.  Washington law requires the disclosure of asbestos on your property, and it doesn’t distinguish between Swift Creek asbestos and the asbestos in old attic insulation.  The market of homebuyers for affected properties will ultimately be limited to those who don't mind asbestos.

Whatcom County has the ability to decrease exposure to these asbestos-bearing soils.  Land use planning and the Critical Areas Ordinance both provide tools that can be used to help. 

Or, County Council members can continue to be “comfortable” in their denial of the significance of this issue, based on their “opinions” that asbestos isn’t really a problem.  Unfortunately, the scope of the problem depends in part on their action (or inaction).  The health effects of asbestos depend on exposure.  Planning could help to reduce exposure.

Everybody likes happy endings.  If only we could throw some rainbow-dust (preferably asbestos-free) over all of these problems.