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Category — Climate

This Is Your Town on Fracking

Williston train station

Not long ago I found myself stranded in Williston, North Dakota. You might have heard of it. Despite being the eighth-largest city in the 48th most-populous state, Williston has won some infamy in recent years. It’s at the center of an oil boom that’s likely to make the United States a net exporter of fossil fuels in just a few short years, something that was unthinkable as recently as half a decade ago. North Dakota now produces more oil than any state except Texas, thanks to technical advances that let drillers hydraulically fracture (or frack) the Bakken shale formation two miles beneath the region’s surface.

The boom has introduced tens of thousands of newcomers to the area around Williston, jammed the dirt and gravel roads with heavy trucks, littered those byways with windshield-shattering debris, and clouded the air with dust. (Which also chokes livestock, smothers crops, and complicates dinner preparation. “I have to wash my dishes after taking them from the cupboard, they’re so coated in dust,” a local rancher told me.)

I was stuck in Williston because a small rock had punched a hole in the gas tank of my rental car. My plane was leaving Minot  — two hours to the east — early the next morning. Every repair shop in town was booked solid for a week, and there wasn’t a single car, truck, or minivan available for hire. Fortunately, there was Amtrak. The Empire Builder, bound for Chicago from Seattle, was due into Williston at 7:09 p.m. and would deliver me to Minot in a little more than two hours — for just $28. Delightful, I thought, and settled down in the small brick train station to wait.

The first bad news came at 6:30. The train would be delayed. For how long? “I have no information,” the stationmaster said as she decamped for the sidewalk, where she would kibitz with the locals and chain smoke for the next several hours. I tried to read but was distracted by the steady stream of young ladies moving in and out of the station bathroom, dressed in low-cut tops, high heels, and slinky leggings. Prostitutes returning to Minneapolis, a fellow traveler informed me sotto voce.

An hour passed, and I went outside to pace. The sidewalk was smoky, of course, and music wafted from the two strip clubs uphill from the train station, which sat on a rotary at the dead end of Main Street. In this merry atmosphere I chatted with itinerant oilfield workers and locals, visiting grandmothers, and the loquacious stationmaster, who told me the Empire Builder’s on-time rate, the previous month, was 0 percent. There was track work, of course, and conflicts with freight trains, but also collisions with trucks carrying oil, gravel, sand, water, and chemicals. The trucks were driven by exhausted young men servicing drill sites and fracking operations. (Developing a single fracking well involves forcing millions of gallons of water, laced with chemicals and sand, down boreholes that stretch for miles. The pressure cracks the shale, releasing oil and chemically polluted water. The liquids and other equipment are hauled in and out in trucks — thousands a day for every well under development.)

A racket up the street drew my attention. The stationmaster and I watched, slightly amused, as a drunk staggered from one of the strip clubs to his jacked-up truck. Screaming obscenities at an invisible enemy, he flopped backward out his pick-up door onto the pavement, and tried again to mount his own cab. After three attempts, he achieved the driver’s seat and began furiously revving his V-8 engine.

“Watch out if he gets it in gear,” the stationmaster said. “Sometimes the drunks don’t make it around this turn” — meaning the rotary in front of her station.

Almost as if on cue, the truck lurched, its tires squealed, and the sidewalk loiterers, including me, scattered like chickens. The pickup hurtled down Main Street, gathered speed, jumped the curb, and smashed head-on into the Amtrak building. “What did I tell you?” the stationmaster said, flinging her cigarette to the street in disgust. “Now I’ve gotta fill out a police report.”

* * *

The oil and gas industry employs more than 40,000 people in North Dakota, and in 2011 it generated $2.24 billion in state and local taxes. In Williston, where the population has more than doubled in the last decade, unemployment is less than 1 percent, and even fast-food employees can make $15 an hour. But every boom has an underbelly, and in the Bakken it’s no different. (See “Growing Pains: Scenes from the North Dakota Drilling Boom” and “In North Dakota and Nationwide, A Boom in Health Problems Accompanies Fracking” for previous OnEarth reporting on the subject.) If you can get a hotel room in Williston, it will set you back $200 a night; apartments that used to rent for $300 a month now command $2,000. Traffic has increased, along with air pollution, job-site accidents, highway accidents, sexual assaults, bar fights, prostitution, and drunken driving. Municipalities have more litter and garbage to haul away, and more sewage to treat. Police and other emergency workers are burning out; the new hires — who get promoted quickly — have almost zero experience on the job.

For years, western North Dakota counties have complained that not enough of the state’s oil and gas production taxes ($3.4 billion in 2011-2013) were filtering down to the places that have borne the brunt of this activity since the fracking boom began in 2006. But in early May, Governor Jack Dalrymple signed a bill to distribute $1.1 billion over two years — a tripling of the previous allocation — to counties impacted by fracking. The money will pay to fix roads damaged by heavy truck traffic, build infrastructure like schools and affordable housing for tens of thousands of temporary residents, and provide law enforcement to protect and police the population.

The money also will be disbursed to hospitals, which face increasing debt from uninsured, transient patients; to centers for the elderly and disabled, which have trouble retaining employees tempted by better-paying jobs in the oilfields; to fire districts, which need more equipment, training, and manpower to address oil-related calls; and to emergency medical technicians, who, as one might expect, are busier than ever. (North Dakota ranks last on a recent nationwide survey of worker safety, with 12.4 fatalities per 100,000 workers in 2011, versus a national average of 3.5.)

Bakken towns are desperate for relief and say they’re grateful for the millions headed their way. But it isn’t enough, many county officials say. Fixing the 500 miles of gravel roads damaged by heavy truck traffic in McKenzie County will cost $100,000 a mile, according to county commissioner Ron Anderson; other projects will have to be put off to pay the tab, he told the Bismarck Tribune. Watford City will get $10 million from the fund, says county auditor Linda Svihovec, but it “has identified $190 million worth of projects that need to take place,” she told the McKenzie County Farmer. And the situation, as regards infrastructure and manpower, is bound to get worse. In April, the U.S. Geological Survey doubled its estimate of the amount of oil available in the Bakken shale and its underlying Three Forks formation. The North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources expects the total number of wells to increase from the current 8,500 to more than 20,000 in the next decade or two.

Williston is far from the only small town, in North Dakota or nationwide, to face energy-related growing pains. Pennsylvania communities that have been heavily fracked for oil and gas from the Marcellus shale report more crime and traffic, and towns in Michigan (the Antrim shale), Ohio (the Utica shale), eastern Montana, and South Dakota (also the Bakken formation) are bracing for similar impacts. Drilling technology continues to advance, increasing government estimates of recoverable oil and gas reserves, while demand from other nations keeps climbing. California is currently debating whether to expand fracking in the Monterey shale, which lies partly beneath the Central Valley, an area already plagued with air and water (quality and quantity) problems (see my OnEarth report “Not a Drop to Drink”). Illinois recently passed what have been described as some of the toughest environmental regulations in the nation to govern drilling in its shale formations. (Editor’s note: NRDC, which publishes OnEarth, pushed for a moratorium on fracking in Illinois and, when it failed, was involved in negotiating for the safeguards, which it still believes are insufficient for fracking to begin in the state.) Though the rules may help protect Illinois’s water, they’ll do nothing to protect civil society from an influx of transient workers and their attendant consequences. Should Governor Cuomo lift New York State’s current moratorium on high-volume horizontal hydrofracking, forested and agricultural lands in the state could see 50,000 to 100,000 wells, according to some projections.

The Empire Builder eventually pulled into Williston, four hours late. The toilets were by then overflowing with sewage, and the café car had run out of food (perhaps a blessing in disguise). The prostitutes found seats and almost immediately fell asleep, heads resting on candy-colored sweaters. I stared out the window at the landscape to the south, black and empty but for the regular march of methane flares. With little economic incentive to collect this gas — it’s worth a fraction of what the oil is worth – the industry burns more than 100 million cubic feet of methane every day in North Dakota, enough to heat half a million homes. (Flaring converts methane to carbon dioxide — about 2 million tons of it each year in North Dakota, equivalent to what a medium-size coal-fired power plant emits annually.)

As the train rolled across the prairie, I considered the price that North Dakotans were paying to help America achieve “energy independence.” It’s a dream that sounds grand only if you can ignore the global warming pollution created by burning all this fuel, or the fact that we’re tapping a finite resource, or the many remaining technical challenges involved in drilling every possible reserve left on the planet. Based on my evening at the Amtrak station, though, even that dream threatens to leave us waking in a cold sweat.

Image: Karen Desuyo

This story originally appeared at

June 17, 2013   1 Comment

Fracking the Amish

Activist Carrie Hahn explains the potential risks of the natural gas drilling technique known as fracking to one of her Amish neighbors. Some 400 Amish families around New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, face the prospect of hundreds of tall driling rigs near their fields and farmhouses, though they use no electricity from the grid themselves. Lynn Johnson

[Activist Carrie Hahn explains the potential risks of the natural gas drilling technique known as fracking to one of her Amish neighbors. Some 400 Amish families around New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, face the prospect of hundreds of tall drilling rigs near their fields and farmhouses, though they use no electricity from the grid themselves. Photo by Lynn Johnson]

OnEarth recently published my article on the Amish in western Pennsylvania, some of whom have leased their subsurface mineral rights to companies that will drill and hydraulically fracture their farms. Are they happy about this? Yes and no. The money, of course, makes things easier (many Amish families live below the poverty level), but drilling is a loud and ugly process, and the new wealth, some say, is corrupting a community that’s historically separated itself from worldly matters.

January 16, 2013   1 Comment

Hurricane Sandy Swats at NYC Bees, but Climate Change Will Sting Deeper

honey jars in the sun

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

November 13, 2012   1 Comment

When Disaster Strikes, Local Food Alone Won’t Cut It

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

November 10, 2012   No Comments

How I Got Arrested While Reporting on How to Improve NYC’s Food Supply

Hunts Point food market

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

November 10, 2012   No Comments

Federally funded, people–powered pollution solution

Last Friday was National Bike to Work Day, which may help explain why you saw more bicycles on the road that morning than you normally do. It’s a good opportunity for evangelization by urban cycling advocates, who often make the case that the addition of more bicycle lanes and other bike-friendly infrastructure cuts air pollution by getting commuters and other residents out of their cars.

I’ve often wondered how this could be accurately measured. I’m a long-time New York City bike rider, and I would certainly love to see more bike-friendly infrastructure, but not one of my bike trips has ever replaced a car trip. (I’m guilty of owning a car, but I almost never use it in the city: it’s just too frustrating to drive and park here.) For me, and I suspect most New York City dwellers, bike trips replace subway or bus trips or walking, so there’s no real change in our emissions. (Quibblers will say bikers end up consuming more carbon-backed calories to replenish their energy, but … whatever.)

Now, the final results of a three-year federal study called the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program are in. And those results show that the roughly $25 million spent on bike and pedestrian infrastructure in and around Minneapolis has paid off — big time.

The program funded 75 miles of new bike lanes and trails, a bike sharing program, and a “bike library” that lends cycles to low-income people for six months at a stretch. Sheboygan County, Wisconsin; Marin County, California; and Columbia, Missouri, also received $25 million, each, for similar projects. In Minneapolis, the number of bikers increased 33 percent, and the number of pedestrians increased by 17 percent. And here’s the really good part: over the study period, there were 7,700 fewer tons of carbon dioxide emitted, 1.2 million fewer gallons of gas burned, and $6.9 million in health-care savings. All that, and downtown shopping districts were invigorated, too. (One more good thing, if you can stand it: while bicycling in each of the four communities went up dramatically, the number of fatal bicycle and pedestrian crashes held steady or decreased.)

By conducting surveys, project administrators were able to surmise that by biking or walking, people in the four pilot communities avoided driving at least 32 million miles over the three-year study period. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, an NRDC clean transportation ally that lent management support to the pilot, is beside itself with joy at the study results. Multiply the data from these four communities on a national scale, the group says, “and the results are simply astounding.”

Image: Claudio Olivares Medina/Flickr

This post originally appeared at

May 21, 2012   No Comments

Whose Water Is It, Anyway?


Recently, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission announced that it was temporarily suspending 19 separate water withdrawal permits due to reduced stream flow levels throughout the Susquehanna basin (which covers land in New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland). Most of these withdrawals were linked with natural gas extraction: drilling and fracking can consume up to 7 million gallons of water per well, and wells can be fracked multiple times.

Three weeks ago the U.S. Geological Survey pronounced 61 percent of the lower 48 “abnormally dry.” In the East, where I live, we had a nearly snowless winter, and rainfall levels this spring are, so far, well below normal. I’m sorry it’s so dry, but I’m glad the SRBC has the power to quickly halt large withdrawals. In recent years in the southeast, during abnormally dry or even drought conditions, major water users like Coke and Pepsi were not asked (nor did they volunteer) to cut back on water pumping, even while residents were mandated to restrict their use.

The energy companies affected by the SRBC will scale back operations or they will find water elsewhere, as thirsty people and populations with enough money always do. Already, natural gas companies are buying water from utilities and from private landowners, hauling it away from its home watershed, polluting it with chemicals and compounds, including radioactive material that used to be underground, and then hauling it away to be “recycled” or injected back into the earth. In other words, it’s lost to the hydrological cycle forever.

Individually, these withdrawals for fracking may be small, but they could have a cumulative impact on ecosystems and local hydrology. Nationwide, oil and gas companies are fracking 25,000 wells a year. People who live in shale areas need water for residential and commercial use, of course — but that water is also needed to grow crops, and to support wildlife, wetlands and streams that feed larger rivers.

Communities with abundant fresh water — in watersheds that have been protected using millions of taxpayer and private dollars — are feeling the pressure from both oil and gas companies and, perversely, from bottling companies, who recognize that demand for their product will only rise as industrial activity contaminates drinking water. In upstate New York (where there’s currently a moratorium on high-volume, horizontal hydraulic fracturing), the villages of Painted Post and Bath are considering selling municipal water to a Pennsylvania fracking company, while the town of Ephratah is weighing whether to sell land to the California-based Crystal Geyser water company, which would build a bottling plant and tap into the local aquifer.

In Wyoming, some ranchers are making more money selling their water to fracking companies than they can make raising cattle. In Colorado, ranchers are competing with frackers to buy rights to surface water, and the price per acre-foot is rising substantially. In Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, the public water company Aqua America recently evicted 32 families from a mobile-home court in order to build a water withdrawal facility that will provide 3 million gallons a day to the fracking industry.

These water transfers — moving water away from local residents to corporate interests — have me thinking about issues of local control, private property rights, the public trust, local economies, and the future of agriculture. (Where will we get our food if this land continues to move out of agricultural production? In Pennsylvania, it’s estimated that 25 percent of dairy farmers with gas wells have abandoned farming.) I hate to prognosticate, but it’s fairly obvious: frictions in these areas will only grow more acute as the population, and its energy and water demand, grows.

Image: Nicholas_T/Flickr

May 1, 2012   1 Comment

Vended water or soda? How about neither?

In honor of World Water Day, let’s celebrate an action recently taken by a national park that should properly be interpreted as a boon to environmentally friendly water consumption.

Proponents of the right to buy whatever single-serve packaged beverage they damn well please have long argued that eliminating bottled water from vending machines will force the public to instead buy high-calorie drinks, which have a bigger environmental footprint than does bottled water. (This shift in buying behavior hasn’t yet been proven; but yes, for the record, bottled water does have a lower carbon footprint than bottled sodas, juices, or teas.)

But Saguaro National Park, just east of Tucson, has thrown the baby out with the bathwater: officials there have announced that the park will quit selling not only bottled water, but sodas as well – a decision that should eliminate up to 40 percent of the park’s recyclable waste stream. (Remember: recycling, good; reducing consumption, even better.)

Take that, Grand Canyon National Park (which recently banned the sale of bottled water — but not sodas — after a huge kerfuffle with Coca-Cola, maker of Dasani water and a $13-million donor to the National Park Foundation). Like that park and Zion National Park, in Utah, Saguaro will be installing hydration stations — those contraptions formerly known as “water fountains” — for filling reusable bottles.

If parks in some of the hottest, driest areas of the nation can take this step without fear of losing visitors to either disenchantment or dehydration, what’s stopping all the others?


Image via Wikimedia Commons.

March 26, 2012   3 Comments

The Third R: An Answer to All Our Problems?

Just before the holidays, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson went on the Dr. Oz show to talk about drinking-water safety. She concluded with her one wish for a cleaner, greener earth. To my surprise, she wished for more recycling.

Not that again, I groaned. Does anyone really listen to pro-recycling arguments these days? The subject is so 20th century, so fraught with disappointment and misunderstanding.

But what Jackson said was actually quite bold, and it certainly needed saying:

If we could increase our recycling rate from about 39 percent to 80 or 90 percent, Jackson said, “we would do a bunch of things. Certainly, we would have a cleaner environment. We would save a tremendous amount of water and energy. We would create millions of jobs, because recycling, in and of itself, would become a supply chain in our country—a very domestic one. . . . Think of [recycling] as a homegrown jobs program and an environmental program and an energy program and a water program all in one.”

It sounds like magical thinking, but groups like the Institute for Local Self Reliance have been talking about the jobs angle for decades, and groups such as NRDC have harped on the energy and water benefits for even longer. (See “More Jobs, Less Pollution” — a report released last November by NRDC along with the BlueGreen Alliance, the Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union, Recycling Works! and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives — for data that support Jackson’s claims.)

All we need to do is expand access to recycling programs for residents and businesses, to increase the number of recycling bins in public places, to broaden the range of materials accepted by processors (think textiles, electronics, construction and demolition debris, and agricultural and industrial waste), to limit the use of packaging and other materials that can’t be recycled or composted, to shorten the supply lines between generators of scrap materials and their end users, to develop composting programs that handle food as well as yard and garden waste, and to educate everyone about all these changes. (Oh yeah, and end subsidies that encourage burying and burning waste.)

Jackson’s comment reminded me of a Simpsons episode called “Lisa the Vegetarian.”

Homer: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. Lisa, honey, are you saying you’re never going to eat any animal again? What about bacon?
Lisa:        No.
Homer:  Ham?
Lisa:        No.
Homer:  Pork chops?
Lisa:        Dad! Those all come from the same animal!
Homer:  [Chuckles] Yeah, right Lisa. A wonderful, magical animal.

Could recycling be that wonderful, magical animal (and pay for itself, too)? One can always dream.

Image: Simpsons Wiki

January 27, 2012   3 Comments

Some things don’t go better with Coke

Last month we learned that, in an attempt to cut down on litter, the supervisor of Grand Canyon National Park was set to ban sales of bottled water within the park, starting in January of 2011. (Dasani is the brand sold by concessionaires.) But two weeks before the ban was due to go into effect, the head of the national park system balked. Dasani water would stay, out of “concern for public safety in a desert park.” (Never mind that Utah’s Zion National Park had enacted a similar ban, to great acclaim, in 2008.) Soon the relationship between Coca-Cola, which produces Dasani from tap water, and our national parks was revealed: over a period of years, the corporation has given $13 million to the National Park Foundation, a nonprofit that generates private donations for the park system.

Environmentalists are up in arms — about the continued (and continuously promoted) use of disposable plastic water bottles, of course, but more importantly about the heavy influence of corporations in public spaces and debate. There are some angry comments on blogs about the issue, and many people erroneously seem to believe that park visitors would be stripped of any water bottles they carried into the park. Not true. Nor was it likely that the death toll from dehydration would rise. The parks and concessionaries had spent $300,000 developing “filling stations” in preparation for the ban; it’s hard to escape pro-hydration messages in the park (they’re everywhere), and it’s easy to buy reusable bottles on park grounds if you don’t already have them.

For readers who can’t remember what personal hydrological conditions were like 30 years ago, suffice it to say that single-serve plastic bottles of water were not ubiquitous. And yet millions still hiked and camped, carried water, filtered water where they found it, and sometimes waited until they reached their destination (!) to slake their thirst from a fountain or sink.

I hiked and camped in the Grand Canyon in the Pre-Perrier Period. I learned, on a day that I hauled my heavy backpack more than twenty miles across the Tonto Platform and up the South Canyon rim, that thirst can be a great motivator. Our multiple water bottles had long run dry, and we were reduced to eating dry oatmeal in our desperation for calories, with five miles yet to go. All I could focus on was the ice-cold elixir that flowed at trail’s end from a fountain in the dimly lit lobby of the Bright Angel Hotel. (Reader: I survived. I hope this water fountain has, too.)

The Coca-Cola-National Parks fracas seems to be taking on a life of its own, to both groups’ detriment. Dozens of media outlets have picked up on the story, and already more than 94,000 people have signed a pro-ban petition at Here’s hoping that the will of the environmentally minded, rather than a corporation representing the interests of its shareholders, will prevail.

Image: Sebastian Toncu/Wikimedia Commons

December 7, 2011   No Comments