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When British Petroleum (BP) applied for a permit to build the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico and begin drilling, it claimed to have the technology and know-how to handle any oil spill.

But in the face of an actual spill, BP is much less confident. “This scares everybody: the fact that we can’t make this well stop flowing, the fact that we haven’t succeeded so far,” BP CEO Doug Suttles said. “Many of the things we’re ­trying have been done on the surface before, but have never been tried at 5,000 ft.”

They’ve never been tried at 5,000 feet. Drilling for oil this deeply under the ocean is a relatively new enterprise for our species. Oil has been drilled offshore in shallow water for more than a century. But deepwater drilling is much more expensive than shallow-water drilling. For a long time drilling in deep water wasn’t tried, because it would have cost more to extract a barrel of oil than a barrel of oil was worth on world markets. It took the spikes in oil prices in recent years to make deepwater drilling profitable.

Politicians and oil executives assured us that offshore oil drilling was safe. Those tree huggers who worry about environmental disasters are nuts, they said. Yes, there have been oil rig disasters in the past, but (big wink) we know what we’re doing now. Trust us.

The laws of physics work differently nearly a mile underwater than they do on land, or shallow water, however. By now, it is obvious BP is still trying to invent a procedure that might stop the oil leak, maybe, if we’re lucky. No one appears to have been ready for the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Really, this “trust us” business is getting old. How many times have we been told to “trust” some new thing, and then when the dangers surface we find out the “trusted” ones hadn’t told us the whole truth?

In the mid-20th century we humans went into overdrive digging asbestos out of the earth to use in countless structures and products. There is asbestos in navy ships, in shipyards such as Bath Iron Works, asbestos in our homes and schools, asbestos in old car parts, and asbestos in landfills. And eventually, years after medical science had determined asbestos exposure causes terrible disease, industry executives and politicians reluctantly agreed to shut down asbestos production, or at least most of it. And now the cost of asbestos abatement and mesothelioma treatment is an ongoing problem for individuals, taxpayers, and businesses.

And do we want to talk about Vioxx? Tanning beds? And now there are questions being asked about Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in just about every plastic bottle you’ve ever touched. It may be dangerous, it may not. Opinions vary. Just note that the same political and business leaders who deny BPA could be dangerous are the same ones who like to yell “drill, baby, drill.”

 Barbara O’ Brien is the author of this guest post.   She represents maacenter.org, a leading web resource for asbestos exposure and cancer information.

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This is a guest post written by Elizabeth Krause

Slowly but surely the term, “organic” is becoming more mainstream. The National Organic Standards Board says that if an item is to be labeled organic, it must be produced under the authority of the Organic Food Production Act. It must follow the guidelines that no materials or practices are used that would create an imbalance of ecological and natural systems.

The term organic can be used on a variety of products from the shirt on our back to the food on our plate. Most people like organic food because it means it is free of chemicals or artificial/manufactured ingredients such as MSG, high fructose corn syrup, hormones, artificial food colorings and the like.

In regards to clothing or other manufactured products, organic often goes alongside the term Fair Trade. Fair Trade means that companies are paid a fair price for their products (meaning no price-gouging), and in exchange for this guarantee, are required to pay their employees fair wages and provide safe working conditions. This in turn helps the local communities by improving the health of the workers and their families, and also reduces crime and benefits the local economy overall.

Take a Stand – With Your Wallet
Buying organic products not only helps your own health but also helps encourage business suppliers to pursue the organic market. This can occur when we, the consumers, get involved and buy organic products. We can make our voices heard loud and clear at the cash register.

Why would companies invest millions of dollars into consumer research? Because they know ultimately the power lies with the consumer, and that’s you and me. Over the last few years, the consumer has begun to find his/her own voice. For example, if a company discovers that the consumer market is not buying a particular product – it will want to find out why. If it discovers that the sale of organic cereals is increasing while the sale of generic sugar-ridden ones is declining, it will respond to the trend and act accordingly – if it plans on staying in business.

Many large box stores have seen the wave coming and have acted on this. They have sought out suppliers that grow food according to organic guidelines and are therefore meeting the demands of their customers. This keeps both the company and the customers happy – and healthier.

You Don’t Have to be Rich to Buy Organic Food
If you are not able to buy all organic products, look for organic products that are on sale or discounted. You will find great savings. You can also just buy a few organic food items to start with – whatever your budget allows.

Don’t forget the economic principles of supply and demand. As more people express demand for a product, the more that product will be supplied (assuming there is not a limit on materials available). The greater the supply, the lower the price.

Elizabeth Krause publisher of an Italian food website featuring simple Italian recipes.

A Chemical Reaction is a fabulous documentary film about a dermatologist in Canada who successfully campaigned to ban the use of pesticides in her small town. Against all odds, she spent years documenting the ill effects of pesticide exposure on her patients and lobbying her local town council to ban pesticides. This story is proof that a grassroots effort fueled by one passionate woman can change the course of a nation.

The movie points out that a green lawn represents the American Dream; a beautiful lawn is a powerful status symbol. Following a 4- step chemical program for lawn beautification is a tradition passed down from father to son. But our lawns are also where the environment meets peoples’ lives. Our children and pets spend hours in intimate contact with our grass and dirt, and then they track it into our homes. It needs to be healthy and safe.

Needless to say, the battle that ensued when the ban was enacted reached historic proportions. The cased ended up in the Supreme Court of Canada. The lawn chemical companies could not let it stand. But they lost!  The court wisely decided that chemicals should not be assumed to be safe until proven dangerous, but rather, the government has an obligation to err on the side of caution in order to protect the public good.  Thus, the Precautionary Principle became law in Canada.

This landmark approach is gathering steam in the United States. The US EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has directed her agency to take a more precautionary approach regarding chemical regulations. Just yesterday, the National Cancer Institute Cancer Panel, a mainstream panel made up of George Bush appointees, issued a report saying that the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated. They recommend that the United States take a precautionary approach rather than the reactionary approach currently employed.

In spite of this progress, the film informs us that the lawn chemical industry lobbyists have already gotten pre-emption laws passed in 41 states in order to ensure that no towns can pass laws stricter than state laws. This prohibits towns from passing a ban like the one in Canada that sparked the national backlash against lawn chemicals. A Chemical Reaction is inspiring and informative, but likley to leave you uneasy when you consider what we are up against in the United States when it comes to chemical regulation.
If you have any thoughts about this issue please share them with us in the comment section of this blog. We love to hear from you!

Earth Day turns 40Earth Day is more than just a day for our kids to plant trees and learn about recycling at school.  In 1970, the first Earth Day was a day of grassroots political protest against rampant uncontrolled pollution of our air and water.  It was perfectly legal to dump hazardous waste into streams and spew dark plumes of toxic smoke into the air.  And this is exactly what companies were doing.

The environment was not yet part of the national political discourse.  US Senator Gaylord Nelson had been working in vain for years to change that.   Finally, his idea for a day of environmental teach-ins galvanized people all across the country who were concerned about the environmental degradation they were seeing locally.   As interest grew, Nelson resisted trying to organize the event from Washington, preferring to let people celebrate Earth Day any way they wanted.  He wanted Earth Day to be a celebration of grassroots action.

Twenty million people from all walks of life self-organized to protest on behalf of our planet on that day.  Amazingly, they did this without the benefit of cell phones, twitter, or facebook.  If you want to get a sense for the historical context and the truly revolutionary nature of the ideas, listen to Nelson’s Earth Day speech in Milwaukee on April 21, 1970.

It worked.  By the end of 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was established and the Clean Air Act was law.   The Clean Water Act followed in 1972.  The air and water in the United States began to recover.

How are you going to celebrate this milestone on April 22?  How about trying to go without disposable plastic for a day?  Pack Litter-less Lunches and  use your reusable bags and bottles.  If there’s an environmental issue that needs attention, find others who are also concerned and get together to do something about it.  In the spirit of Gaylord Nelson, go ahead and celebrate locally, any way you want.  Let us know how it goes!

I don’t know about you, but I am feeling humbled by the recent spate of natural disasters.   They show that we humans are not masters of the universe.  In the past three months, we’ve seen major earthquakes on three continents, a seriously disruptive volcanic eruption on another, and debilitating floods on yet another.  It feels like Armageddon!    

We understand the concepts behind forces like plate tectonics, volcanoes, and weather, yet we still can’t predict them precisely.   People joke derisively about weathermen being wrong day in and day out and still keeping their jobs.  But, I think most of us appreciate that it’s difficult to make precise predictions about a natural phenomenon. 

Climate change is another global phenomenon that has the potential to seriously impact our lives, our economies, and our eco-systems.   Like a storm or volcanic eruption, we can confidently predict its occurrence and we understand its cause.  The difficulty lies in predicting the timing and magnitude of the impending climate change.

A March 20th article in The Economist summed it up well: “Action on climate change is justified, not because the science is certain, but precisely because it is not.”   Unlike natural disasters, climate change is a catastrophe that will unfold gradually over decades.  This is one global disaster waiting to happen that we humbled humans do have the power to prevent, but only if we can join together in the effort.

It was amusing to watch two “good ole boys” bantering back and forth on national TV about a subject I know better than they do: bottled water.  Thankfully, O’Reilly and Stosser got most of it right – bottled water is a scam, and we should all be drinking tap water.   Unfortunately, Stosser couldn’t resist tossing in a few choice sound bites that over-simplified and polarized the bottled water issue.    

The interview concerned the new movie “Tapped: A call to Action” which is embarking on a 30 city tour starting on March 22, World Water Day, and concluding on April 22, Earth Day.  O’Reilly said he feels like he’s being scammed when he buys bottled water, and Stosser readily agreed that he is.  Stosser pointed out that the money could be spent for better purposes, especially since people prefer tap water in blind taste tests and since a large percentage of bottled water is tap water anyway.

Stossel disagreed with the movie’s claims about the hazards of the plastic bottles.  He’s right that the disposable bottles (#1 plastic or PET) that bottled water comes in isn’t likely to cause any health hazards.  But, bottled water can contain unhealthy levels of bacteria and other contaminants because it is not as well regulated as tap water; antimony can leach from the plastic if bottles are left in a hot car.  Experts believe that reusable aluminum bottles with BPA liners and bottles made out of polycarbonate may pose some of the health hazards mentioned in the movie.

Stossel claims bottled water is simply a waste of money, but not an environmental threat.  I would agree if there were only a few people were drinking it.  But when we are sending 140 million disposable plastic bottles to the dump every single day in the USA, it’s ridiculous to say that’s not a threat to the environment.  He claims we have enough landfill space.   Does that justify wasting our precious resources: 4 oz of oil and  51 oz of water for every 17 oz bottle of water and $12 billion in total each year?

In response to facts about plastic not decomposing in landfills, Stosser counters that paper doesn’t degrade well in landfills either.  Yes, and that is why you should get a BPA-free reusable container and fill it with tap water!   You’ll save money and reduce waste.

Stosser goes on to claim that drinking water supplies are not under threat and that more and more people will continue to get clean water as we prosper.  Actually, as we prosper, we put more pressure on our limited resources.   The prosperity in the 50s and 60s caused serious pollution of our surface waters – they had to be rescued by the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act of the 70s.   With population and industrial pollution increasing and enforcement of these laws becoming more lax, our drinking water quality is starting to go in the other direction.  This movie is not a rant by “silly lefties”, it is a call to arms for reasonable people.

Everybody agrees that the 3-D special effects of Avatar are ground breaking.  Avatar is ground breaking in another way as well.  It has defined a new genre: green action movies.  I’ve seen my share of environmental films and even though I get thoroughly wrapped up in them, action is not usually part of the equation.  As much as I liked Wall-E, Food Inc., and A Chemical Reaction, for example, they weren’t exactly nail-biters. 

When I first heard about Avatar and its sensational 3-D effects, I made a mental note to avoid it – what is an “avatar” anyway?  It sounded worse than watching someone play a nightmarish video game.   I quickly changed my mind when I read that the explorers were in search of a precious element called “unobtainium”.  Being an economic geologist, this was way too hokey to pass up.  It reminded me of the names we made up when faced with mineral or rock specimens we couldn’t identify in Mineralogy or Petrology labs in college: notaclueite.

In spite of it’s caricature treatment of just about everyone – mining industry, military, indigenous people, scientists, and the great white savior, I loved the film.  The visuals were amazing and the message was green: we are all connected to nature in ways beyond our comprehension so we ought to respect and care for our environment.   Too bad we can’t connect with nature like the Na’vi people, who were magically able to “plug in” to plants and animals.  If we could, we’d probably stand a much better chance of figuring out how to live sustainably on planet earth.

If you haven’t seen it, disregard what you may have read about its subversive political messages and immerse yourself in the shear glory of its green-ness (or should I say blue-ness?).

The latest article in the Toxic Waters Series, “Rulings Restrict Clean Water Act, Foiling E.P. A.”, was published in the New York Times today.  This is stuff you really don’t want to know.  We all want to believe that current regulations protecting our water are adequate and that corporations wouldn’t dump pollutants that could harm our drinking water quality.  Unfortunately, neither is true.

There are an increasing number of Clean Water Act violations and at the same time fewer and fewer enforcement actions by the E.P.A.  The Clean Water Act has jurisdiction over all “navigable waters”, but the term was not clearly defined and it’s scope has been shrinking over the decades.  What we do know, is that pollution dumped into waterways does find its way into people’s drinking water via ground water migration and surface water movement.   Pollutants do not simply “stay put” nor do they just “disappear”. 

Congress needs to put aside its “Toxic Politics” and act to protect our drinking water from worsening levels of pollution.  Do we want to become solely reliant on ridiculously inefficient bottled water?  Tell your Senators and Representatives to support the Clean Water Restoration Act or you’ll vote them out in November!

Bottled water has become so deeply entrenched in our society that some people can’t even imagine how to provide water at an event without it.  Say what?  Maybe I’m going to show my age here, but I actually remember living a good hydrated life, attending events, and even hosting events before anyone had thought of putting tap water in a disposable plastic bottle and charging 1000 times more for it!    Based on my experience BBW (before bottled water), I have come up with some ABCs for getting by without bottled water at your school with ease:  

water cooler

Access to tap water 

Provide access to drinking water throughout the school by maintaining water fountains and cleaning them daily.  Better yet, upgrade to bottle-less water coolers in the cafeteria and in hallways and install a water filter on the tap in the teachers’ lounge.  Offering chilled filtered tap water will allay concerns about the spreading of germs at the water fountains, taste of tap water, and water quality. 

Custom water bottles

Bottles that are reusable 

Request that students, teachers, parents, and other visitors to the school bring their own reusable bottles or mugs to school each day and to all special events. Consider having a reusable bottle fundraiser or simply issuing school water bottles to every student.  Custom water bottles with the school logo are a big hit with students.  Monies raised can be used to fund water coolers! 

Containers for serving 

Pitchers filled from the faucet or from water coolers can be used to serve tap water to students in their class rooms.  Large portable coolers filled with the help of a pitcher can be used to dispense tap water at large gatherings.  For those who forget their reusable bottles, it is important to have some biodegradable disposable cups on hand and a recycling bin to collect them. 

Pitcher

Portable cooler

Bottle free bliss

All in all, becoming a bottle free school is not as daunting as it sounds.  Life was good BBW!  Putting the ABCs in place is easier and cheaper than you’d expect.  The key to getting cooperation from the entire community will be establishing and communicating a school-wide bottled water policy and letting everyone know you’ve got the ABCs covered.

You’ll be glad you did because eliminating bottled water at your school will simplify planning and clean up for events, reduce the volume of waste, save parents money, model a sustainable lifestyle for students, as well as reap significant environmental benefits for everyone. 

This morning I found a bottled water cost calculator on the New American Dream website. It enables you to calculate how much money you waste buying bottled water in a year. It’s very simple to use. First, you input the number of 16oz bottles of water you drink in a year, then the price of your tap water per gallon, and finally your average bottled water cost.  If you don’t know your tap water cost, it’s safe to assume it’s around $0.002/gallon.

The results are startling!  If you drink one bottle of water per day and pay $1.50 for it each time, you are spending an extra $550 on water!  Even if you buy your bottled water very cheaply most of the time, you will still be wasting over $150 each year. The $10-15 investment in a high quality reusable bottle seems like a bargain by comparison! 

On top of the cost savings you will achieve by using a refillable bottle, there are obvious environmental benefits as well.  The calculator also estimates the impact of your bottled water habit on the planet.  For the one-bottle-a-day person, an extra 114 gallons of water, 37 megajoules of energy, and 9 gallons of oil will be wasted as well as 68 pounds of CO2 generated.

If you’d like to reduce your impact and fatten your wallet, check out Back2Tap for your best value in high quality refillable water bottles.

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