January 16, 2013 1 Comment
Activists eager for Hollywood’s first drama centered on hydraulic fracturing may be disappointed by Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land, which is more a portrait of a small town under siege by corporate interests than an exposé of the controversial method of extracting natural gas. The film follows Steve Butler (Matt Damon) and Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) as they attempt to buy subsurface mineral rights in the close-knit farming community of McKinley, Pennsylvania, which sits atop the gas-rich Marcellus Shale. The town is economically depressed, and presumably ripe to be saved by energy companies offering $5,000 an acre with 18 percent royalties.
Butler is good at his job: he grew up in a farming town that shriveled after Caterpiller pulled out, and he exudes blue-collar sympathy for the struggling farmers of McKinley. Natural gas is your only salvation, he tells them; it will raise your tax base and improve the quality of schools so that your children can escape to a better future.
Things appear to be going well for the landmen (and yeah, McDormand gets to repeatedly punch Damon, in a big sisterly way, with no ballistic payback, which I found hilarious) until a frail, elderly high-school teacher (played by Hal Holbrook) raises vague environmental objections to fracking at a town meeting. Unruffled and affable, Butler assures the crowd that government regulations will keep everyone safe. The teacher responds with the energy industry’s worst nightmare: he suggests that McKinley take a vote.
Butler and Thomason shake off the white-haired prophet’s warning only to be confounded by the arrival of an outside agitator: an earnest environmentalist named Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), who pitches his own farming narrative during an open-mic session at a local bar. After letting frackers onto my Nebraska farm, Noble tells the rapt crowd, seventeen cows died, and “the land just turned brown and died.”
What is the link between fracking and dead cows? No one asks, but the momentum has turned. (We know this because the patrons eagerly join Noble as he croaks out “Dancin’ in the Dark.”) The next day, Noble shows up at the local elementary school to explain fracking to a class. But this teachable moment, for moviegoers who might not know what unconventional gas extraction is all about, is blown when Noble dumps a random assortment of household chemicals onto a miniature farm and sets it on fire. Is this the best evidence he can muster against fracking? This laughably misleading demonstration is an insult to environmental educators everywhere. Still, it’s a hit with the schoolchildren and their teacher, whose affections Noble and Butler are soon competing for.
Promised Land is now a race against time. Will Noble win over more people — including the teacher — before the town votes on whether to allow fracking, or will Butler collect enough lease signatures? The story focuses on its charismatic antagonists, but it gives short shrift to the real-life frictions — between family members, neighbors, and community members — generated by the prospect of easy Marcellus money. The people of McKinley seem strangely detached from the matter at hand: why do so many of them reject fracking — which could hold foreclosures at bay — if they don’t understand its potential to harm the air, water, and soil? Is one photo of dead cows really enough to sway them? (Promised Land was filmed in two Pennsylvania counties with several hundred active gas wells, but it doesn’t show a single drilling pad or tanker truck.)
While frustratingly vague about characters’ motivations, Promised Land challenges viewers’ expectations and stereotypes, and its plot takes some surprising twists. The movie is most successful at conveying the lengths to which a corporation will go to subvert democracy and win community approval. In their newly purchased flannel shirts, Butler and Thomason bribe a local politician with $30,000; pay an environmental activist to disappear; ingratiate themselves by playing drinking games at the bar; and even throw a country fair, complete with petting zoo, Ferris wheel, and new uniforms for the baseball team. (There’s more to the company’s depravity, but revealing it here would spoil the fun.)
Ultimately, Promised Land is more about relationships and trust than the consequences of shooting millions of gallons of chemically laced water deep into the earth’s crust. Fractivists will have to be satisfied that moviegoers will depart the cinema knowing the oil and gas industry has something to hide — even if they’re not sure exactly what it is.
This review originally appeared at OnEarth.org, but I wanted to note here on my water blog another of the movie’s subthemes. The film opens, and closes, with an underwater image of Butler washing his face in the basin of a sink, a cleansing act of quasi-religious significance that speaks, also, to transparency. We see Butler’s distorted, tense features through the water, and we know he’s not being straight with himself or, later, the townsfolk. Throughout the film, Butler and Thomason clutch bottled water–in their jeep, in their hotel rooms. But this isn’t something the locals ever do. Is the landmen’s tap phobia generic distrust of public water supplies, or do they have deep knowledge of something gone wrong with the local water supply? Working in a field to set up the community fair, a hot and sweaty Butler rinses his hands under an old-fashioned pump, but when he cups his hands to sip (it’s easy for us folks over the age of forty to conjure the deep pleasure of that first cold-from-the-earth gulp), Thomason barks “Don’t drink that!” and hands him a single-serve bottle of Dasani, or maybe it’s Deer Park (which would be appropriate, since the Nestle-owned brand is sourced in Pennsylvania and is likely seeing increased sales, as are other private water providers in that state). It’s a small moment, but it highlights a difference between outsiders and insiders and forces us to think about perception and reality. The moment at the fairgrounds is funny, but in a land where industrial activity like oil and gas extraction is suspected of queering thousands of domestic water wells, and where drilling and fracking operations are rapidly expanding, especially in the western part of the state, water filtration and bottling looks like a promising business to get into, and Thomason’s advice may be well heeded.
January 11, 2013 No Comments
That’s the question I explore in the current issue of The Nation, which can be read online here. (And here’s a clip of me talking about the article on the Heritage Radio Network.) Thanks to support from the Food and Environment Reporting Network, I was able to spend a fair amount of time looking into the illnesses and deaths of livestock that live (and eat and breathe) in close proximity to shale-gas wells, which rely on secret combinations of hundreds of different chemicals, many of which are considered toxic, carcinogenic, teratogenic, or mutagenic. I spoke with ranchers whose animals died suddenly of asphyxiation or pulmonary edema, gave birth to deformed or stillborn offspring, lost between 60 and 80 pounds a week, quit producing milk for calves, lost half their tails, developed lesions and infections, and died of massive organ failure. The story raises many questions: are drilling and fracking operations sickening livestock? Can people who eat those animals get sick? Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the answers because:
a) these studies haven’t been funded
b) industry doesn’t reveal all the chemicals it uses to drill and frack
c) complete pre-drilling information on water, air and soil quality is rarely available
d) livestock owners are often reticent, or outright forbidden by nondisclosure agreements, to speak to investigators
My hope for the story is that government will respond to the concerns of ranchers, veterinarians, and scientists; require full disclosure of chemicals and compounds used in oil-and-gas operations; and allocate funds to conduct these much-needed studies.
Photo of cow that lost part of its tail — one of many ailments found in cattle following hydrofracturing of the Bakken Shale in North Dakota — courtesy of Jacki Schilke.
December 6, 2012 4 Comments
Big storms generally don’t faze honeybees. When temperatures drop or rise, when wind wails, or when rain falls in sheets, bees simply hunker down in their hives, huddle up, and self-regulate. And so during Hurricane Sandy, bees in New York City’s inland areas abided. The apiaries of East New York Farm survived (with extra weights set atop their hives), as did those of Crown Heights’ BK Farmyards. (Ed.: The bees atop NRDC’s Manhattan offices also did OK.)
But bees near the shore fared less well. In Red Hook, Brooklyn, the Added Value farm lost two hives when floodwaters swept across the property; coastal Staten Island beekeepers reportedly lost 10 hives, as did beekeepers in the Rockaways. But the biggest known loss so far occurred in the Navy Yard, where a 13-foot storm surge swept away a million bees from the Brooklyn Grange‘s 25 hives, which were stationed just eight feet from the water’s edge. The loss is especially tragic considering that New Yorkers had a week’s warning about the potential surge, which many beekeepers prudently heeded by moving hives to higher ground.
In the short term, Hurricane Sandy will have little impact on metropolitan bees and pollination. Long-term, however, climate change — which scientists agree added fuel to Sandy’s fire — will present some Apidaen challenges. Droughts will wither plants from which bees gather nectar and pollen. Warmer winters will prevent bees from tightly clustering for warmth and force them to continue foraging. But they’ll find scarcer resources, and for a creature that measures its lifespan in wing beats, searching for food that can’t be found is a death sentence. Instead, they’ll consume more of their honey stores.
When forage is inadequate, “beekeepers have to feed their bees and leave more honey in the hive,” says James Fischer, director of education for the nonprofit NYC Beekeeping. (Malnourished bees are, of course, more vulnerable to invasive pests and diseases.) Anticipating milder winters, Fischer is gleaning information from mid-Atlantic beekeepers, seeking advice he can apply in the Northeast. Climate change is also spurring plants across the country to flower earlier in the spring. “But bees that emerge early from winter clustering may not like the plants that are blooming then,” Fischer says. “They’ll hold back on colony production,” which will sting beekeepers’ wallets.
The good news in this bleak scenario is that Apis mellifera is a superb generalist: the same species survives from the equator to Alberta with only minor changes in its behavior. The bees of the future could very well adapt to phenological changes wrought by a climate in flux. For example, they could become more energetic foragers or work a patch of flowers in short, intense bursts. But strap them down in a flood zone while the waters swirl and rise, and all the evolutionary chops in the world — short of gills — won’t save them.
Image: Scott Barlow
This post first appeared at OnEarth.org/theroytestuff
November 13, 2012 1 Comment
Five days after Hurricane Sandy, my local greenmarket in Brooklyn was in nearly full flower. Everywhere I went, citizens were asking food producers, or their hired hands, “Is your farm OK?” Largely, they were. (The fishmonger was absent, dealing with storm-related damage to his boats.) Kira Kinney of Evolutionary Organics, a small farm 90 miles north of the city, told me how strange it felt “to be here as if nothing happened when, to the south, there’s devastation. Last year it was me.” In the wake of Irene, the only thing Kinney was selling were pastel drawings of the vegetables that were underwater in her fields.
For years, locavores have maintained that food travels, on average, 1,500 miles from farm to plate — a compelling reason, they say, to encourage eating foods grown and raised closer to home. (The data to support this claim aren’t abundant or recent, however; and the original supposition measured U.S. food that was traveling to Chicago. Your own results may vary.) But certain climate events — Hurricane Sandy, which slammed into the metro New York area last week; Hurricane Irene, which hit the Northeast in 2011; and the intense floods, droughts, and heat waves that have been occurring in the rest of the country over the last few years — raise some questions about the wisdom of clipping our supply lines too short.
Hurricane Sandy did wipe out many farms to the city’s southwest and east, but New York’s hyper-local upland farms — in the backyards of brownstones and on rooftops — fared slightly better (though some beekeepers lost their bees). Farms near the water’s edge, unsurprisingly, did worse. At Manhattan’s southern tip, the Battery Urban Farm was inundated with saltwater from upper New York Harbor, while Brooklyn’s Red Hook Community Farm was flooded with up to four feet of water from Erie Basin and the Gowanus Canal, a Superfund site that also overwhelmed a fuel-oil depot down the street. Along with 30 other volunteers, I spent several hours on Saturday raking fouled wood chips and hay from the 2.5-acre garden and carting tons of sodden, polluted debris to the street corner, where sanitation workers would later collect it for landfill disposal. Rural farmers, I imagined, would kill to have all this free labor — a huge advantage, one supposes, of putting down roots in the social-media heartland.
Walking among the bounty of the farmer’s market, which doesn’t sell hyperlocal produce, and thinking about the storm’s winner and losers, I reviewed the benefits of a regional food network. It provides economic sustenance to nearby farmers who, in turn, preserve open space for ecosystem services and wildlife habitat. It increases the traceability of food. And it brings us produce that’s fresher, and might very well taste better, than food that has been hauled long distance. (At the very least, local food is grown to be eaten, not shipped.)
While I was speaking with farmers, Corbin Laedlein, the youth empowerment program coordinator for the Red Hook Community Farm, was giving voice to these ideas on the radio program Democracy Now. “[M]any people argue that local farms are the solution,” he said. “You know, our industrial agriculture system is based on using fossil fuels for pesticides, and natural gas. We ship food all across the country. And it just doesn’t make sense. We need to localize production to reduce our carbon footprint.”
Well … yes and no.
A hundred years ago, a superstorm could easily have wiped out regional agriculture and left residents eating storage crops until merchants could import other food. Today, storm-wracked metro-area residents can shop at supermarkets, which mostly buy their produce at the Hunts Point Produce Market in the South Bronx. (I recently visited the market — the largest distributor of fruits and vegetables in the world — while reporting for the OnEarth cover story, “Fresh Food for All.”) Hunts Point buys from 55 countries and 49 states; but only four percent of its produce is grown in New York State, with another 14 percent coming from New Jersey. Thank goodness, I say, for a geographical diversity of producers, for long-haul refrigerated trucks, and for the fuel to keep them running. (Yes, the system depends on fossil fuel for now — but in the future, it could very well run on electric or other low-emissions vehicles.)
As global warming strengthens the intensity of storms and brings more unpredictable and extreme weather, diversifying our food sources and creating some redundancy will increase our stability. “We need to optimize the local and the regional, but integrate it with national and global trade,” says Michael Hamm, director of the Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University. “First, we’ll need that food in times of crisis; second, cities as big as New York can’t grow enough locally to feed themselves; and third, if regional farms, which could be producing a lot more, optimize their capacity, they’ll be able to supply other areas in time of need — a sort of quid pro quo.”
Hamm lives in Michigan, where an early spring and a late frost wiped out 95 percent of this year’s cherry and apple harvest. “If we depended only on local supplies, local processing companies that make jams and pies would have gone out of business. Instead, those companies immediately contracted with Poland for fruit.” It takes a global village, indeed.
And here’s another reason local connections matter: last year, in the weeks following Hurricane Irene, visitors to New York City greenmarkets donated more than $100,000 to 25 upstate farmers in distress. This year, farmers and their customers at the market were donating apples, kale, Brussels sprouts, and potatoes for delivery to hard-hit coastal areas on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in Brooklyn’s Red Hook, and in Queens’ Rockaways.
“A regional food network is all about relationships with people,” Cheryl Huber, an assistant director at GrowNYC, the nonprofit that operates the city’s green markets, told me. “This storm hit the city, and now upstate farmers are asking how they can help by donating food through City Harvest,” a hunger charity. Some upstate farmers even brought fuel into the city, Huber said, so that GrowNYC vans, which had trouble finding gasoline, could service the greenmarkets. “There are relationships here, between rural and urban, that do not exist in other parts of the nation. And these relationships help keep money in the community” instead of sending it off to a supermarket’s corporate headquarters in some distant state.
Clearly, the nation needs to increase its resilience to big storms — by shoring up infrastructure, for example, and by softening shorelines. Farmers can build buffers around fields and adopt such practices as conservation tillage, mixed cropping, and nitrogen-fixing cover crops, which tend to increase, rather than decrease, their soil’s ability to withstand weather extremes. Optimizing our regional farms will help provide more food security to more people in a less certain future. But we’re still going to need those connections to farms that lie farther afield.
Image: Alec Perkins/Flickr
This post originally appeared at OnEarth.org/theroytestuff
November 10, 2012 No Comments
OnEarth’s camera had a tough time getting into the Hunts Point food market. So do local farmers, who have to sell their produce at the nearby Wholesale Green-market instead. PHOTO: ROB HOWARD
By the time the sun had risen over the Bronx River, the crush of delivery trucks at the Hunts Point market — the largest wholesale produce market in the world (which you can read about in my latest OnEarth cover story) — had slowed to a tolerable roar. Walking the length of a loading dock a third of a mile long, I no longer had to duck and weave among the laborers hauling fruits and vegetables into the awaiting trucks of New York City metropolitan-area restaurants, supermarkets, bodegas, and pushcarts. I was just about to rendezvous with two Natural Resources Defense Council staffers who had accompanied me, plus a photographer, at the platform’s opposite end, when one of them texted me: Don’t come. We are being cited.
I had come to the Hunt’s Point market well before dawn to collect some color for my OnEarth story about ways to connect upstate farmers with downstate consumers; now, it seemed, my reporting trip was about to come to an abrupt end. I snapped my phone shut and slunk toward my car, darting behind parked trucks in an effort to elude security cameras. I didn’t understand why our group was being cited: after all, we had paid our $3 entrance fee at the security gate, and we weren’t doing anything illegal. Or so I thought.
Within moments of hiding my notebook under the driver’s seat of my car, a Hunts Point police officer pulled up: despite my best attempts to slink away, I had been found out. The officer herded all four of us around the market and upstairs into a dispiriting employee break room, where we would remain for the next two hours, very much unfree to leave.
The time passed slowly. “What would you do if I just walked out?” I asked the armed guard, after 90 minutes had gone by. No one had charged us with any type of crime.
“I would physically restrain you,” he said.
I knew from prior contact with the market’s media wrangler that Hunts Point was touchy about visitors, despite a video on its website that calls the market “New York’s Best Kept Secret,” as if it were a tourist attraction. The video’s ebullient host, TV and radio food reporter Tony Tantillo, even invites viewers to “Come! Join me! Visit!”
I tried, Tony, I really did. I wanted to witness first-hand this spectacle of abundance, wrapped up in a map of the world: blueberries from California, cucumbers from Georgia, apples from Chile, melons from the Dominican Republic, mangoes from Haiti. And for a short while, I did. I saw laborers stack boxed and bagged produce eight feet high; I watched as they trundled pallets and cardboard boxes from truck to platform, from platform to truck, in a steady stream of in and out. The scale of operations certainly impressed me — but I couldn’t help thinking that the ultimate end-consumers of this produce were unlikely to connect it with any particular grower. In fact, only 4 percent (by dollar value) of the food sold at Hunts Point is grown in New York State, with another 12 percent coming from neighboring New Jersey. Those percentages make it somewhat harder to “know your farmer, know your food,” as one USDA campaign exhorts us to do.
NRDC (which publishes OnEarth), along with many other organizations, is working to change this dynamic. But it’s been an uphill slog. The sellers inside Hunts Point don’t want competition from local growers selling food that’s far fresher than what’s currently on offer, who aren’t required to use union labor, and who may receive city subsidies to boot. Meanwhile, local farmers aren’t inclined to pay the 12 to 15 percent overhead that’s demanded by the Hunts Point cooperative, which leases this land from the city.
Nevertheless, there’s reason for hope. For more than a year now, the Hunts Point cooperative has been renegotiating its lease with the city. It recently received a $10 million federal grant to redevelop and modernize the space, so long as it agrees to stay in the Bronx. Local food advocates are trying to persuade the cooperative, as one part of its imminent restructuring, to allow regional farmers to sell their goods at the market — just inside the Hunts Point gate, but not on their high-rent loading docks.
“If we could create a permanent wholesale market for regional farmers, we could get that food into supermarket chains and bodegas that already shop at Hunts Point, and to health-care facilities and the Food Bank of New York,” Mark Izeman, the director of NRDC’s New York Urban Program, told me. “To move the needle of locally sourced food, you’ve got to sell it wholesale.”
With a convenient, centralized wholesale outlet for their produce, New York farmers would, in theory, lease and plant more upstate acres. (Not every upstate farmer wants to spend the time commuting to, and staffing a booth at, a retail farmers’ market in the city.) They would aggregate food with their fellow farmers, package it for transport, contract with shipping companies to deliver it to the Bronx, drop their prices, and turn a profit on the volume.
But before any of these things can ever take place, the farmers need the city to craft policies mandating that institutional buyers — schools, shelters, hospitals, prisons — preferentially purchase regionally grown food, whenever the prices between the locally-sourced and distantly-sourced versions are more or less the same. Currently, city agencies are merely encouraged to buy local. (Of course, New York State produce is seasonal, and many crops will never grow here — which means that brokers, who visit farms and cut deals for buyers, will need to be flexible and creative in their sourcing.) Will it happen? A lot of people hope so. But a lot of political and bureaucratic hurdles still stand in the way.
* * *
The big cop watched me pace the small room. Finally, a senior officer appeared, bearing citations for trespass: we had an official date scheduled for an appearance before the Bronx Criminal Court. Asked why, our armed babysitter said it was a matter of food security. “We supply millions of people with produce; we can’t let just anyone in.” It didn’t seem like they were doing such a great job of that, if anyone with three dollars could waltz through the gate. Either security should be tighter, I thought, or media access should be loosened.
Two months later, the “Hunts Point 4” appeared in court — represented by none other than NRDC’s director of litigation, Mitch Bernard. Sending Bernard to help us fight our trespassing charge in the Bronx was a little like sending in the Navy SEALs to rescue a cat up a tree; indeed, our attorney admitted that he had to bone up on criminal-trespassing law and make some calls to a few friends who knew about the borough’s courtrooms, in order to learn what he could expect. He was far more familiar with the folkways of the federal court system, where he has successfully litigated some of the biggest environmental cases of the last 20 years.
In less than an hour, we were free to leave, though we were all warned to stay out of trouble for the next six months. Next time we decide to take up Tony Tantillo’s offer to check out the wonders of New York’s food-distribution system (and, in the process, explore some of the structural barriers confronted by local farmers), I’ll make sure to dress down, hide my notebook and camera, and pretend that I’m anyone other than a journalist doing her job.
This post originally appeared at OnEarth.org/theroytestuff
November 10, 2012 No Comments
My story, “Fresh Food for All: Local farmers could revolutionize how millions of New Yorkers eat,” appears in the fall issue of OnEarth magazine. Emphasis: could — there are a lot of good reasons city folk don’t eat more regionally grown fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and meat. Locally brewed beer, on the other hand, is plentiful, and I count myself lucky to live in the Sixpoint Brewery beershed.
Reporting the story brought me to several farms in the Catskills, as well as to the Hunts Point market in the South Bronx. You can read all about it, and see Rob Howard’s wonderful photos, here.
August 27, 2012 No Comments
I recently ordered a grilled cheese in an airport restaurant, but along with the sandwich came a napkin, wrapped and taped around a plastic fork and knife that I didn’t want or need. The sandwich was deliciously greasy, so I ended up using the napkin, but I felt bad about the accompanying utensils that are now headed for a landfill. (Sure, I could have kept them for later use, but that would merely delay their trip to the dump.)
It was a tiny moment of garbage guilt, out of many, but I remembered it when I read about the efforts of ten-year-old Milo Cress of Burlington, Vermont, who last year persuaded a local restaurant to hand out straws only upon request. Milo’s Be Straw Free campaign has since spread the practice to scores of other restaurants nationwide, including some chains. Establishments that quit giving straws as the default have found their straw use (and straw spending) cut by up to 90 percent. (Americans go through more than 500 million plastic straws a day, according to Simply Straws, which makes — you guessed it — narrow glass cylinders designed for sucking liquids from containers.)
Thanks to Milo’s efforts, the National Restaurant Association now recognizes “offer-first” as a best practice. Just goes to show: if you don’t ask, you don’t receive. And if you don’t offer single-use disposable plastics in the first place, some people might not even miss them.
Q: What did we use for straws before the days of cheap plastic, paper, or glass?
A: Actual straw: a single stalk of grain.
Image: Duane Romanell
This post originally appeared at www.onearth.org/theroytestuff
August 1, 2012 2 Comments
Environmentalists in the United States have long pushed to keep compostable organics — yard waste, food scraps, paper and the like — out of landfills. Diverting this material conserves landfill space; it avoids the generation of methane, which occurs when organic material breaks down in the absence of oxygen; and it allows these compostables to be put to beneficial use. (Learn more about these efforts at www.cool2012.com, a project of the Grassroots Recycling Network.)
Out in front of the U.S. on this particular issue is the European Union, which has issued a directive obliging its member states to reduce the organic content of waste in their landfills — although it doesn’t specify just how these organics should be composted: in the traditional manner, through anaerobic digestion (a process by which microorganisms break down waste in an enclosed vessel), or in some other way. Earlier this month, the British think tank CentreForum recommended banning food waste from U.K. landfills by the end of the decade, ahead of the EU directive, in order to boost the stream of organics that can be converted through anaerobic digestion into heat and energy. (The study, it should be noted, was funded by the anaerobic digestion industry.)
Anaerobic digestion is popular in Europe, and several large A.D. plants are in the planning stages or already in construction in North America. But these systems are expensive to build and have had problems with feedstock purity, maintaining proper pH, odors, and the quality of the digestate — the material that comes out on the back end, which can be used as a soil amendment but lacks the nutrients of traditional compost.
Composting aerobically (outdoors, in windrows) is cheaper and technically simpler: it doesn’t generate methane, and it produces higher-quality material that can boost soil health and increase drought resistance. But composting this way has run into its own problems with quality control and odors. (Not to mention the fact that it doesn’t produce energy.)
The quality issues aren’t just limited to the occasional twisty tie, fruit sticker, or bread-bag clip that ends up in your potting soil. A few weeks back, the Chittendon (Vermont) Solid Waste District discovered that its bagged and bulk compost contained traces of banned pesticides, most likely “carry-over” from illegal lawn applications. The levels weren’t harmful to human health, but the chemicals did burn many gardeners’ vegetables and flowers. In another case, in Maine, Picloram, an herbicide used by horse farms to control thistles and milkweed in their pastures, poisoned tomato seedlings fertilized with manure from horses who grazed those fields. (Happily, the seedlings recovered in less than three weeks after being transplanted into clean garden soil by an astute gardener who happens to run a compost test lab.)
In an era in which more people are growing their own food, and in which more people — with the best of intentions — are composting organic material, these episodes are an important reminder of two tenets of ecology: everything has to go somewhere and everything is connected. Fertilize your lawn, and your community-composted lawn clippings can nuke your neighbor’s Napa cabbage. The same stuff happens in a landfill, of course, but there the input (persistent organic pollutants) and the output (contaminated soil and water) can be separated by decades and many miles. It’s yet another argument for both localism and transparency. When inputs and outputs are local, what goes around — whether it’s good or bad — is bound to come around more quickly.
Image: Phil Shaw/flickr
This post originally appeared at OnEarth.org/theroytestuff
July 25, 2012 No Comments
After nearly eight years of litigation, Syngenta, the maker of atrazine, the most widely used weed killer in the world, has settled a lawsuit filed by water utilities in a half-dozen Midwestern states.
The utilities’ beef? They were paying tens of thousands of dollars a year to remove the chemical from drinking water. Regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, atrazine has been linked with low birth weight, birth defects, and other reproductive problems when consumed at levels below the federal standard. The EPA is currently reviewing atrazine’s safety: read NRDC’s take on the contaminant here and Andrew Wetzler’s (of the Land and Wildlife Program) take on the legal decision here.
If approved by a federal judge in southern Illinois, the settlement will disburse $105 million — minus attorneys’ fees — to nearly 1,900 utilities: the exact amount for each utility will be based on its past atrazine levels, the frequency of contamination, and the population served with drinking water. Syngenta admits no liability in the case and will continue to sell its product in the U.S. (The European Union has banned its use.)
The settlement, which generated 10 million pages of documents, will help utilities cover their past expenses — a significant portion of the budgets of small utilities in agricultural areas where atrazine is in heavy use. (Utilities remove atrazine by adding to their water either powdered carbon or granulated activated carbon, which absorbs the chemical and is then removed through filtration or sedimentation.)
But if farmers continue to use the herbicide, which runs off fields and contaminates both groundwater and surface water, utilities will be stuck paying to remove it long into the future. Sure, the utilities won a rhetorical point — polluter pays — but the biggest winners here are the attorneys representing the utilities. Their cut of the deal: $34.9 million.
Image: Atrazine concentration in the U.S. water supply, via U.S. Geological Survey
This post first appeared at OnEarth.org
June 15, 2012 1 Comment