Friday, September 17, 2010

How clean is the water near you?

New York Times has an interactive map to show you those polluters near your zip code. From there you can dig around a bit more and find out just exactly how many violations the facilities have had in the past few years.

Thank You NYT

Friday, September 10, 2010

Silly kids, CEs are for BP

- Why are BP's deep-sea oil drillings in the Gulf of Mexico Categorically Exempted (CE) from Environmental Impact Statements (EIS)?

A few days ago BP began their finger pointing to mount a defense to their oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. It was entertaining to hear BP’s coy and tenacious claims, yet I feel responsible to at least dig around a bit to understand the situation a little better. Aside from all of the BP bashings from Hulk Hogan:

I found this Washington Post article from May of this year: U.S. exempted BP’s Gulf of Mexico drilling from environmental impact study

To save you time from reading the Washington Post article, just know that the Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS)
made the decision to give BP’s lease at Deepwater Horizon a “categorical exclusion” from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) on April 6, 2009 -- and BP’s lobbying efforts just 11 days before the explosion to expand those exemptions – show that neither federal regulators nor the company anticipated an accident of the scale of the one unfolding in the gulf.

From what I understand, the NEPA Act requires government agencies to evaluate the environmental impacts of any “major federal actions” and file an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) for the public. In a previous blog post (Silly rabbit, NEPA's EISs are for kids), I briefly noted that EIS does nothing if we, as environmentally aware citizens, do not pick up the reading material and ask tough questions. But if there are no reading material, then we can't really ask questions. Can we?

The EIS is strictly a procedural tool in the sense that NEPA does not mandate any government agencies to implement environmentally friendly process and procedures. Rather, the EIS is in place to provide transparency to these projects that could potentially impact our environment and allow citizen actions by providing accurate data and scientific research on the potential impacts of any given project. See Robertson v. Methow Valley.

I was recently shown an EIS statement for a stretch of highway no more than a few hours of driving. It was consisted of two volumes of analysis and supplemental material, each totaling more than thousands of pages, including angry letters from the people who lived in the area. From what I can tell, the detailed information helps us make informed decision to either pressure the agency responsible for the project or brush it aside and let the project proceed.

Back to BP, if a stretch of highway requires such large volume of material for the public, then why has BP’s deep-sea oil drilling operations received a Categorical Exclusion for EIS from the MMS?

Could it be that BP offered MMS cocaine and sex? Yes, you would be shocked too if you had read this article: Report Says Oil Agency Ran Amok Interior Dept. Inquiry Finds Sex, Corruption

investigators said they "discovered a culture of substance abuse and promiscuity" in which [MMS] employees accepted gratuities "with prodigious frequency."

The social outings detailed in the report included alcohol-, cocaine- and marijuana-filled parties where certain employees of the Minerals Management Service were nicknamed the "MMS Chicks" by the energy employees. The companies paid for federal workers to attend football and baseball games, PGA Tour events, Colorado ski trips, paintball outings and "treasure hunts,"

I’ll admit, it’s a kind of fun speculation imagining MMS chick in a bubble bath with cocaine, kind of kinky...

Silliness aside, I had to ask myself why isn’t BP required to do a worst-case analysis and anticipate the kind of accident that had occurred? Then I remembered that the NEPA EIS regulations had a “worse case” requirement in the 1970s, but in 1986 the requirement was removed by the Regan administration.

During the Bush administration, BP was getting a FONSI (Findings Of No Significant Impact) after FONSI for their drilling operations. Because of the consistent administration’s blind eye, and a brief 13 page (remember the thousand pages volume earlier for just a highway) environmental impact analysis declaring minimum prospect of any serious damages that would associate with a spill and only

“sub-lethal” effects on fish and marine mammals . . . it is unlikely that an accidental oil spill would occur from the proposed activities.

BP’s senior federal affairs director (their lobbying b!tch) wrote the Obama administration and requested a Categorical Exclusion because

Such exemptions should be used in situations where environmental damage is likely to be “minimal or non-existent.” [And] expansion in these waivers would help “avoid unnecessary paperwork and time delays.”

Needless to say, BP got its Categorical Exclusion for its deep-sea drilling and now we have a disaster... But does it make sense to give BP CEs? I don’t think so. CEs are used for eliminating cost associated with environmental impact studies for mundane things government agencies must do such as installing energy saver light bulbs in its offices. I certainly don’t think deep-sea oil drilling is mundane. From my diving days, I know that the deep ocean’s immense pressure makes every predicable and mundane situation into unpredictable and dangerous times. So if I had to check my equipments and keep records of my safety evaluations on each dive, why is BP exempted from doing the same for its oilrigs?

Then I remember the elimination of “worst-case analysis” in the 1980s, and I had to ask: why can we bring that back again Mr. Obama?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Out of sight, out of mind

Out of sight, out of mind is a statement that I have heard many times from many different people throughout my life. In most instances whoever was making this statement was using it in a jovial manner. It wasn’t like anything serious was put out of sight, at least not in the context of which I remember; but none the less, when hearing this statement come from some person’s mouth, one typically just chuckles along and nothing serious is further discussed. I mean who would really just shove something from their sight in order to forget about it? Especially if was an act or an instant that was serious enough to burn an unforgettable memory into the mind; it would then be mentally impossible to “actually” forget a situation, an action, or an instance…right? I can see if one were to put an unimportant inanimate object out of sight and eventually forget where it was or that it was even in existence, that would be out of mind; but out of sight, out of mind surely cannot work for memories of an event and/or actions, especially if the event/actions were ones involving immoral decision making.

Now, I know that people can forget traumatic events that they have experienced-Regression- would be the psychological explanation of such; but regression, by definition, occurs when a negative event/action is experienced, not one of joy or extreme happiness; regression also happens unconsciously, that is that the person in question does not “will” the negative experience away consciously, or by choice, but that the unconscious mind takes over because the event was so emotionally/mentally traumatic, it tricks the brain into forgetting it ever happened. This got me thinking then that someone cannot, by conscious effort, put a conscious immoral decision, out of sight…or out of mind.

Now, all of this thinking about out of sight, out of mind was stimulated by something I learned in my Environmental Geology class. We learned earlier this week the great “Love Canal” tragedy. In late 1800’s The U.S. government began building a canal between Canada and New York; we know this area currently as Niagara Falls. In the 1890’s the canal was finished and was intended to be used as a generator for hydroelectricity, but unfortunately it went unused, why I do not know. For the better part of 30 years this area of land was “out of sight, out of mind.” But in the 1940’s and the early 1950’s, companies in the area were in need of a toxic dumping site, and seeing as how this area hadn’t been in use for some time, decided to make it their dumping ground. During this time, 20,000 tons of toxic waste was dumped there. In 1953, the company that was then managing the site donated it the city of Niagara Falls. With the wonderful donation made by the company a wonderful little community popped up. You know, one of those 1950’s residential communities, with churches and schools. Everything was swell. Then in the mid 1970’s this area had record rain fall and caused the grounds to become extremely saturated, this in turn caused toxic and chemical wastes to begin oozing…literally oozing out of the ground. Can you imagine, sliding down the slide at the elementary school and landing in a puddle of toxic waste?

With this new discovery of toxic waste, the community’s health as a whole began plummeting. Cancer spread like wildfire. Now, I know that other instances have happened in different places, we’ve all seen Erin Brockovich, but it was with this lecture in my class that really got me thinking about out of sight, out of mind. Now, I know that back in the early 20th century, the knowledge of toxic waste and it’s affects on human life weren’t what they are now, but with the knowledge that we now know, why is this still occurring? What is it about our environment that most people think is out of sight? It’s amazing that incidences like this one can happen, over and over again, and lessons are not learned. This was just one instance in one country, in one state, in one town. Now, multiply that on a global scale. It’s stories like this one that really make me wonder how our earth has even sustained itself for this long with us bombarding it with waste, trash, and carbon; especially when companies, who aren’t suffering from regression issues, dump toxins into a lake, stream, or the ground itself. I do what I can to help the environment. We recycle, we try to be as carbon conscious as possible, and we attempt to spread the word; but unless this starts becoming a way of life for millions of individuals, we will always have the mentality of “Out of site, out of mind.”

Silly rabbit, NEPA’s EISs are for kids:

Richard Nixon, among other things, is known for the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969. The act focuses on the overall environmental degradations affecting our health and welfare and possible preventive measures our government can take to minimize those degradations.

In general, section 101(b) of NEPA empowers federal agencies to consider environmental impacts and alter their actions accordingly. (Using energy saver light bulbs for all federal agencies; building new offices with only minimum impact to the endangered forest in the area; etc...) The effect of this act, in light of our Administrative Law, is that federal agencies are required to be transparent at the helms in keeping our country moving in the right direction with the environment in mind. Information is power. Given the information are public and are accessible, agencies would/should be more willing to adopt environmentally friendly procedures and actions?

It must be noted that the NEPA does not have the authority to force anyone into environmental compliance or action. It’s no rubber stamp, but its teeth are no jagged Great White’s. In a 1971 D.C. Circuit decision, the court held that the NEPA merely requires Federal agencies to consider the impact of their actions on the environment. Calvert Cliffs’ Coordinating Committee, Inc. v. United States Atomic Energy Commission. Later the US Supreme Court affirmed the circuit court’s holding. See Robertson v. Methow Valley. 

Although it does not force federal agencies to select the most environmentally friendly options in their actions, it is subject to the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), 5 U.S.C. § 551. Our fellow tree-hugger watch-dogs may descend upon the Feds and demand justice if we should have rational basis and standing in court. See Greater Yellow Stone Coalition v. Kempthorne. The courts have been willing to declare NEPA “are entitled to substantial deference” in the presence of justice. Marsh v. Oregon Natural Res. Council. Section 102 of the NEPA requires agencies to list environmental impacts, in a Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), of any federal actions that significantly affect the quality of the human environment. This creates administrative records for the purpose of citizen and judicial review. Even though there are categorical exclusions to the EIS, but citizens are also entitled to citizens suits under the APA mentioned before.

Some have hailed the NEPA as giving a voice to the environmental values that were not prevalent in our society before. Aside from the point of enforceability in light of mere consideration standard, some have raise the concern that the NEPA is a mere tool for the ‘no in my back yard” types to slow down progress by inhibiting important projects that may be utilitarian to the whole human race.

For whatever it is worth, the NEPA is just tricks for the rabbit only if we do not want the sweets. The Act’s full force to propel our society towards sustainability resides in a public accountability mindset. We have to want our environment to be better and want to hold our federal agencies accountable for their reporting and decisions to build a progressive green future. We have to be kids and tell the rabbit: silly rabbit, NEPA and EISs are for us!!!