Category: environment


Hi all:

I have moved my blog to my new website at www.christianpiatt.com. You can link to the blog directly from the home page, and there is an RSS feed you can pick up if you would like to subscribe.

Thanks for following, and hope to greet you at the new site!

Peace,
Christian Piatt

Energy Independence: From Crop to Tank
NewSpin
By Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)

Energy sources such as wind, solar, geothermal and hydroelectric have a long way to go before they can begin to replace our energy consumption derived from oil. So aside from locking up our cars in the garage, what options are we left with?

One local group believes that biofuels may be at least part of that answer. Hal Holder, Joel Lundquist, and Rick young are all Rocky Ford farmers and co-owners of Big Squeeze, LLC a biofuel production facility here in our own back yard. And although most such projects are either concept projects only or tied to some nameless government or corporate entity, Big Squeeze is actually accessible by anyone with a diesel engine.

The concept is pretty simple. The Big Squeeze facility has presses and centrifuges that yield oil from plant seeds than then can be combined in a four-to-one ratio with diesel and used in everything from cars to tractors and industrial generators. This reduces the use of fossil fuels by eighty percent and attacks some other issues along the way, such as global warming, water shortages and in-state economic development.

I talked with Dr. Perry Cabot, a Water Resources Specialist in the Colorado State University system, about why this seems like a good idea. Biofuels, he explained, include anything that is considered a renewable resource that can yield usable energy.

“Biofuels are considered ‘carbon neutral’ with respect to CO2 emissions (i.e., CO2 produced during combustion is offset by CO2 used during photosynthesis to grow biofuel crops),” says Dr. Cabot. So although CO2 is released in the process, the idea is that the same amount will be re-absorbed by the plants grown for your next use.

But what about water? In a state where we’re already fallowing land so water can be used in growing urban settings, how can we think about expanding our farming?

“In desert climates, we’re always shooting for ‘more crop per drop,’” says Cabot, “Ethanol from corn takes a fair amount of water (24 inches or more) and the energy balance is tough to pin down. Some reports have documented substantial net-positive direct energy balances, while others contend that ethanol production is an ‘energy negative’ situation (takes more energy to produce than is contained in the final product).”

It should also be noted that the byproduct left after the oil is squeezed out is perfect for livestock food at feedlots. Ever seen a cow munching on a petroleum byproduct? Didn’t think so.

But crops like winter canola, which is ideal for diesel-based biofuels, use much less water than corn or other common crops. In fact, using limited irrigation techniques, Cabot suggests that farmers can even use land temporarily fallowed due to the sale of water rights to grow winter canola. This is where water wonks like Dr. Cabot come in, working with the farmers on irrigation plans, and striving for the ideal seeds that yield more canola with less water.

Cabot believes that such ideas can allow farmers in other arid climates grow valuable crops on land they have not been able to farm before due to lack of water storage or transfer. This could include economically struggling economies such as those in sub-Saharan Africa or other arid parts of the United States.

One argument against biofuels is that they impinge on land already being used for edible food, and when the product they yield is more valuable as a fuel, those depending on the crops for sustenance are out of luck (i.e., the poor and those living in developing countries). This is where using a low-water crop is particularly value, says Cabot. Ideally, the process adds arable land available to farmers, increasing their overall production rather than trading one for another.

Dr. Cabot acknowledges that the system isn’t perfect, but that it’s a critical step toward our collective goal of energy independence. “I like quote General George Patton,” he says “who used to say that ‘a good plan implemented today is better than a perfect plan implemented tomorrow.’ So, until electric cars really come on line, or algae biodiesel bears out, we need something that will keep the trains moving, keep interstate commerce going, and keep tractors running so farmers can farm.

“I think oilseeds are the ‘good plan today’ that will bridge us to the newer generation of fuel that we’ll see in the next 20 or 30 years. So, my end goal is to increase the demand and production of oilseeds in Colorado, in tandem as an energy solution coupled with a water solution.”

So do we just drive up to the Big Squeeze facility with our diesel car and fill ‘er up? Not just yet, says Cabot. “Oilseed cropping, particularly canola and sunflower, is practiced in numerous regions of the Arkansas Valley,” he says. “There are ongoing variety trials in Rocky Ford (Otero County) and Walsh (down in Baca County). There is also a growing interest and some cropping of canola and sunflowers down in Lamar (Prowers County).”

The reason, Cabot says, that growth of such crops is increasing is specifically because farmers know they have a facility like Big Squeeze where they can have their oilseed processed. “Historically, the lack of crushing facilities in the area has stifled interest in using these crops for fuel, he says. “But now, with (Big Squeeze) in Rocky Ford and the expansion of the Colorado Mills facility in Lamar, the seed can be crushed locally.”

Basically, those interested in using such fuels contract with farmers to lease a certain acreage it is estimated will be needed to fulfill their energy needs for the coming year. This lease converts to credits at a biofuel co-op that can be cashed in at the time of fill-up. Currently, there are no local stations that the average Joe or Jane can access, but Cabot hopes this will change in the near future.

For more information, read a recent article on the Big Squeeze and CSU’s collaborative efforts: http://tinyurl.com/3dkn3mz.

My feet sweat. A lot. I know, gross, but hey, it’s not like I chose it.

Suffice it to say that where there are sweaty feet, there is Athlete’s foot. For those who have never suffered from this, it is one of the most insanely itchy sensations you can imagine. When I get a bad case of it, the itchiness on top of my toes actually WAKES ME UP in the middle of the night.

Such was the case last night, so as I lay awake for two hours, scratching my toes raw, I wondered:

What possible evolutionary purpose can itchiness serve?

After all, any time we scratch an itch, it only seems to aggravate the problem underneath the itching, right? So in a way, the itching just makes everything worse.

So why have itchiness in the first place? Why hasn’t it been culled out of our sensory skill set over the past several million years.

I found what seems to be a reasonable answer HERE. Basically, the idea is that itchiness is a survival system gone haywire. If we have something like a mosquito or spider crawling on our skin, there’s an advantage to being able to feel it and swat it away.

But apparently itchiness is an aggravation of this highly sensitive system. So in a way, there’s no evolutionary purpose to itchiness itself, but it does point to a system that helps protect us from predators.

And if you’ve read this whole post without scratching yourself even once, you’re a better person than I. I’ve stopped half a dozen times to scratch just while typing it up.

Newspin

Pueblo Going Nuclear?

(Originally printed in PULP)

Everyone’s aglow about the prospect of nuclear power coming to southern Colorado. Given the ongoing plant disaster in Japan, it seems the timing for such a proposal could not be worse, though the plans for the 24,000-acre Clean Energy Park southeast of town were moving ahead well before then.

Lawyer and local resident Don Banner is at the helm of the proposal, which would develop in three phases. At present, he’s seeking rezoning for the giant swath of land in eastern Pueblo County for a PUD, or Planned Unit Development.

As Banner himself noted, there are scores of factors that would have to fall into place for his plan to work, only one of which is local support. But he claims, too, that the only way to bring together other green energy components of the park. such as wind, solar, biomass and geothermal, is to go nuclear, to the tune of a 1,000 megawatt plant, give or take a few watts.

There’s plenty of hyperbole around such an explosive issue, so let’s set aside the Simpsons-like images of fish with three eyes long enough to get a little bit more perspective on what’s at stake.

PRO

It’s easy to hedge at plans for a nuclear power plant, reacting with a knee-jerk sense of fear. From Chernobyl to Three Mile Island, the fallout from a nuclear plant failure ain’t pretty. But Banner argues that the fears are generally overblown. Chernobyl’s substandard engineering doomed it from the start, and Three Mile Island – the only nuclear plant to fail on US soil to date – cannot be connected to any actual deaths, according to Banner.

The new plant would be far superior to either of the aforementioned plants, he says, and it would be located in a relatively remote area, buffered on all sides by thousands of acres of the Clean Energy Park. As for security, the storage facilities where the spent fuel rods are kept after use have been tested against the heartiest potential air attacks, standing firm in the face of fire.

On the upside, we would enjoy hundreds of Davis Bacon-wage jobs over the several years it would take to build the plant, followed by up to a hundred permanent jobs that pay well above average for power plant work. In addition, more than a dozen interest groups organized by Banner, from local schools to nonprofits, would share in hundreds of thousands of dollars donated back to the community.

The average Joe Consumer would stand to benefit from Banner’s proposal to contractually require the utility company that builds the plant to sell power generated to Pueblo residents, the price of which would be equal to the cheapest rate offered to any other community. Pueblo would benefit from the taxes the plant would push back into the local economy, and Banner suggests that the number of secondary jobs due to the new plant could grow into the hundreds.

Another big question is water.  We’re more or less in the middle of the desert here, and nuclear plants require water to keep the fission process under control. Though Mr. Banner points out that the volume of water needed will depend largely on what kind of plant a developer can place on the land, he projects that consumptive water use (the amount that can’t be returned directly to the water system) could be as low as 125 acre-feet per year.

CON

It’s well and good to claim no lives lost during the Three Mile Island catastrophe, but some studies have projected that upwards of 5,000 will eventually die because of complications related to radiation exposure from the site. This is not to mention the risks to the livestock, land and other natural resources which could be affected for hundreds of years or more, should an accident happen.

So the silos where the radioactive spent fuel rods are stored (on-site, by law, for at least sixty years) may be sturdy, but are we inviting terrorist attacks by having such materials lying around? And, current US law requires that the uranium be removed from reactors and stored before it reaches weapons-grade level. This means it still has the potential to be converted to weapons-grade uranium, which seems to invite trouble.

Most of the construction work would be temporary, and yet we’d be left to contend with nuclear waste for generations. And who is responsible for decommissioning the plant after its projected 60- to 80-year life? If history is an indicator, the plant operators will walk away and leave local taxpayers with the bill.

Pueblo is developing a reputation for being the dumping ground for power plants other folks need but don’t want in their own back yards. How much of the power created will actually stay in Pueblo? And doesn’t having the plant in our county warrant a little bit more of a homeboy discount?

Jobs are fine, but if folks don’t have water to drink, what good is economic development? How many hundreds or thousands of acres of farmland will dry up as a result of water purchased for the power plant, and how many agricultural jobs will dry up as a result? Will the water that passes through the plant damage the streams into which it is released? Is nuclear power our last, best hope to stem the effects of global warming, or are we just passing on the problem in another, possibly more dangerous, form to future generations? Can we afford the water? Are we even sure the net to Pueblo is positive when all is told?

And the debate rages on.

My Take

Comparing the proposed plant to the one in Japan impacted by a 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami really isn’t fair. Neither is in the cards for Pueblo. And yes, modern plants have many more safeguards than those from decades past. But aside from moral, safety and security arguments, there’s the question of what we want Pueblo to be.

Will we continue to produce for wealthier communities what they need, yet refuse to provide for themselves? And will we use our limited water resources to do so, for the promise of a fleeting handful of jobs and some negligibly cheaper power? Or are we something more?

Our bountiful sun and wind position us to be industry leaders in renewable energy, setting a standard that others around the world will long to follow.  Do we want to invest in decades-old technology that may be at its apex, or should we focus on developing energy technologies that have more potential without the negative environmental impact?

We’ve gotten a start with the likes of Vestas and the proposed solar arrays here and in the San Luis Valley. But we have to believe that we’re more than a repository for the rest of the state’s undesirable industries.

Finally, we’ve created this beat of need for power with our own unbridled consumption habits. If we’re really worried about what the risks of such power sources will be for any community – not just ours, the only real solution is to reduce consumption.

It’s been said that the two-fold path to happiness includes both making more and needing less. Only one is a path that leads anywhere. We have to choose our own path.

NewSpin@ PuebloPULP.com

NewSpin: House of the Rising Stench
Written by Christian Piatt
December 2010

There’s a home down the street from us that’s affectionately known by neighbors – particularly those within smelling distance – as “The Toilet.” On warm days, the distinct smells of decaying garbage and slow-rotting feces waft through the air.

Gross, right? Try living by it.

The Toilet, which some might call a rental property, sits at 1724 N. Grand and is the bane of the block. In a neighborhood that has been designated “historic,” The Toilet stands alone as a monument to squalor. From the couch on the front porch to waist-high weeds and crumbling façade, the place looks like it should be condemned.

How can anyone live in such conditions? For most of the past decade no one has lived there, which is part of the problem.

The house, title to which is under the name of Robert P. Mourning, was consistently rented until mid-2003. After the last tenants moved out, the utilities were disconnected and the house sat vacant for the next six years. In the meantime, homeless people regularly broke in and made camp – bathroom included – inside the house, alongside wild animals that found shelter within the decaying walls.

For years, neighbors would occasionally mow the lawn and pick up trash left by homeless visitors in an effort to keep the place from looking even worse. The owner was nowhere to be found, and would not return messages.

When some renters finally moved in, the carpet, which by now was drenched in sewage from a backup in the lines, was tossed into the backyard along with animal excrement, garbage and other goodies. What wasn’t thrown into the yard or the garage was burned in the fireplace, creating a noxious stench that caused several neighbors to call everyone from the sheriff to the health department in an effort to get the place cleaned up.

Oh, and although the new family moved into the place, they did so without reconnecting any utilities, including water. So they used candles to light the space despite the many clear code violations. When regional building staff finally deemed the home uninhabitable until utilities were turned back on, the family simply tore down all warnings and camped inside until the sheriff’s department threatened them with serious consequences if they were found on the grounds except to clean it during the day.

More than a month later, the utilities were reinstated and the young family moved back in, along with at least eight cats and a dog. There seemed to be a revolving door on the house, with various newcomers crashing there from one night to the next. Meanwhile, the animal excrement was tossed into the backyard to mingle with the carpet and other garbage.

You get the picture.

A number of complaints were filed with the health department, and a few times Mr. Mourning was ticketed. But there were a couple of problems with the system. First, the fines cost significantly less than any of the repairs would have been to remedy the issue. Second, no one with any authority followed up to enforce the violations.

Instead, Mourning’s paid a few hundred dollars to satisfy citations over the past decade, and the festering heap of a house continues to decay before the community’s eyes and noses.

When challenged by neighbors of such properties about the relatively impotent code enforcement power the city and county seem to have in such cases, officials balked, saying that their hands are tied by state regulations. This, however, is false, since local communities can establish their own codes and consequences, so long as they are at least as strict as the state’s.

It would be bad enough if this was an isolated incident, but Mourning himself owns more than a dozen properties around town, many of which are in similar shape – or worse. If he were the only culprit, a handful of run-down homes wouldn’t be enough to create a larger negative perception of our city. But he’s not.

So, if slumlords have little incentive to change their ways, and our local officials hedge at giving more teeth or funding to the anemic code enforcement we currently have, what’s a resident to do? For one local citizen, the answer is to take the cause online.

Lori Winner started a Facebook page called Pueblo Houseofshame, inviting people to post photos of decrepit properties with the hope that community pressure would push owners and residents to clean up their act. One can also email photos taken from the street (please, no trespassing) to pueblohouseofshame@yahoo.com This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , along with the address and details about the condition of the site, and Lori will post it for all to see. [See sidebar.]

We all know that Pueblo struggles with an image problem with many tourists and residents from the north. But until we become more proactive about making the change ourselves, and unless regional building officials and other code-enforcement bodies get serious about making it painful for owners to let blight continue, whom can we really blame for the bad rap we have, other than ourselves?

An Update

Over the weekend prior to publication, Lori Winner, moderator of the Pueblo Houseofshame page on Facebook, posted that she had received a “proverbial shot over the bough” and was considering shutting the page down.

In response to P.U.L.P.’s inquiry, Ms. Winner said she had received word from her husband – Jay Winner, Executive Director of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District – that Pueblo police captain Troy Davenport wanted to speak to her. Though her husband gave Davenport her number, Ms. Winner claims he didn’t call her.

The week of November 20th, Ms. Winner wrote to me, stating, “[My husband] Jay’s board member told Jay on Tuesday that Davenport said that ‘police were laughing because they are going to drive by her houses.’ On Friday I [received] 3 citations on 3 different rental properties,” though she claims her properties all are “nice” and that, “The violations are ridiculous, and easily fixed at no cost.” She added, “however I am seeing this as a warning shot.”

Following her husband’s call to one of the board members who had heard the conversation noted above, Ms. Winner received a call from Capt. Davenport, who denied that her properties were being targeted in retaliation for her publicity against run-down properties and the lack of enforcement by local officials.

Davenport told P.U.L.P. that the reason he originally intended to call Ms. Winner was to invite her and her husband to observe how the code-enforcement process works in person. However, when seeking permission for this, other officials from the city told him the Winners already had been offered such an opportunity, so Davenport saw no point in calling her.

Davenport also said that he has no recollection of any such comments being made at any meeting where he was present. He also clarified that the three items issued to Ms Winner’s properties were notices of violation, and not citations, which means the property owner has ten days to remedy the violation without further action.

Davenport said that it is the policy of the code enforcement department to respond to any citizen complaint, including the cases involving Ms. Winner. He also noted that, since all complaints are allowed to remain anonymous, he had no way of knowing who had lodged the complains against Ms. Winner’s properties.

NewSpin
Noise Pollution, Tax Solutions and a New Infusion

By Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)

In a knee-jerk decision, Pueblo City Council established a new sound ordinance based on a woman’s complaint about a neighbor’s garage band practicing nearby. The gist of the ordinance is that, if your neighbors can hear you, it’s too loud.

Though the reaction was particular to bands, some folks are hoping that this will create a blanket under which barking dogs and raucous parties will be included too. But why stop there? Consider some other potential noise pollution we could stanch while we’re at it.

More or less every morning, I’m awakened by a muscled-up diesel truck from down the street that leaves for a construction site not long after the sun creeps up. Guess he’ll be walking from now on, as will all the “crotch rocket” offenders who rev their imported motorcycles to eleventy-seven million RPMs. Oh, and of course there are the choppers and hot rods; I don’t want to leave them out.

And talk about noise – the playground right across the street fills the air with squeaks and squeals I can hear in my living room with the doors and windows closed. Sorry kids, but looks like we’ll be shutting you down too.

Apologies in advance to both the Pride City band, which practices down the street in Mineral Palace Park every summer, and to the church across the street whose bells chime three times a day, seeping insidiously into nearby residences. Things just won’t be the same without you, but hey, at least they’ll be quiet.

My point isn’t necessarily that all homeowners just need to buck up and live with any level of noise, but here’s a mind-blower: Consider going over and talking to your neighbor face-to-face instead of complaining to the government to fix your personal problems.

And as for city council, such a narrow-minded and impulsive reaction certainly will have more negative consequences than anyone took the time to consider. What, do they assume, these young people will do with their free time instead of pouring their energy into music? Should they spend more time on the streets, looking for something quiet to do? And how about the impact on the local culture? Sure, the lady next door may not like Sonic Vomit or whatever band the local musicians are into, but without such freedom to explore, a community’s artistic voice becomes homogenized at best, and at worst, it dries up and moves on.

Further, did anyone consider the economic impact of this ordinance? It’s easy enough to look at young musicians as penniless moochers, siphoning off their parents (I was one of them too), but eventually, we fine-tune our skills to the point that some of us start picking up gigs, maybe drop an album or hit the road for a tour. If nothing else, we buy plenty of new musical equipment and recordings when we have those few precious pennies to rub together. If we are allowed to actually use them, that is.

Time and again, communities that have made a concerted effort to create space for art and music to flourish are rewarded by the fruits of such cultural roots. Consider Santa Fe Street in Denver, Deep Ellum in Dallas, and on and on goes the list in hundreds of forward-thinking cities that understand that original art is the heartbeat of a community’s culture.

As for Pueblo, we pour money into maintaining decaying buildings in every part of town, while telling local bands we have no use for them. But hey, at least the woman who complained can watch “Jeopardy” and do her Sudoku in peace.

On a more positive note, kudos to Pueblo City School’s board for its recent selection of a new interim superintendent, Dr. Margarita Lopez, as Kathy West moves over to manage the growing and successful magnet program at Fountain, Corwin, East High and other schools.

Lopez served most recently as assistant superintendent for learning services in Academy School District 20 just to the north.

“For most of us, this was our third search in five years,” says board president Stephanie Garcia. “This search was for an interim and it is our hope that we can take some time to get to know one another and later make a decision about making the position permanent.”

Given our bi-cultural community, it’s a hopeful sign in itself that we now have someone who is bilingual at the helm of the district. “Dr. Lopez … is a native Spanish-speaker and grew up in a bilingual and bicultural world,” says Garcia. “When she arrived in this country there were no English as a Second Language programs. She credits great teachers for helping her to learn English and learn about the American culture. Her educational experiences were the impetus for her success. Her passion for education is inspirational for all.”

To have someone who not only understands the nuances of bicultural education, but who also has the opportunity to serve as a role model for one of our most at-risk groups of kids – Hispanic girls – speaks more to the board’s current vision for the district than even her training and educational experience.

It’s also a relief that we’re looking locally for talent, with significant cost savings at that, rather than assuming our qualified leadership must come from somewhere else. Here’s hoping the “permanent relationship” Garcia and her colleagues seek becomes a reality.

Finally, there’s the matter of some logic-challenged tax cut proposals being put to a public vote during the forthcoming election cycle. Though on the surface, everyone loves the idea of a tax break, Amendments 60, 60 and Proposition 101 would effectively dismantle – I would argue intentionally and with malice of forethought – many services most of us consider essential.

Amendment 60 proposes to halve our already relatively low property tax . The biggest loser in this case would be our public schools. “Pueblo City Schools may be considering school closures if K-12 funding continues to decline,” says Garcia. “Amendment 60 would make this inevitable.”

The more benign-sounding Amendment 61 champions the Tea Party ethos of eliminating government borrowing. But what many don’t consider is that this removes the ability even to issue government bonds. Because public revenue streams don’t make room for things like capital construction and improvements in most cases, we’d be left with the schools and other buildings we have, hoping nothing happens that would precipitate a facility closure.

Finally, Proposition 101 proposes reducing vehicle registration taxes to their lowest level in 90 years, amounting to around $2.5 million more in cuts to Pueblo City Schools.

So, if the goal is to cut taxes to the point that services like public education, transportation, health care, prevention programs and perhaps even law enforcement cave in upon themselves, I suppose these proposals offer one efficient way to do that. Personally, I find the effort to dismantle state and local governments from the inside out by putting forward obtuse, yet seemingly harmless, cost savings for taxpayers to be disingenuous, bordering on insane.

If you value the basic services our communities depend on for a decent quality of life, you’ll do what you can to ensure these initiatives go nowhere.

Very pleased to find a strong review in Publisher’s weekly for our new book, SPLIT TICKET, coming out next month. Publisher’s Weekly is one of the – if not the – most influential trades in the publishing biz. So a positive nod from them can go a long way.

To see the review on the PW site itself, click on this link.

To order SPLIT TICKET, click here.

Split Ticket: Independent Faith in a Time of Partisan Politics
Edited by Amy Gopp, Christian Piatt, Brandon Gilvin, Chalice (Ingram, dist.), $16.99 paper (224p) ISBN 978-0-8272-3474-1

At a time when partisan politics involves backbiting and cynicism, here is a collection of essays about politics aimed at unity and hope. In the spirit of a friendly roundtable, the essay writers, mostly 20- and 30-something pastors, each discuss the importance of Christians’ involvement in political activism. The writers represent areas from Los Angeles to Bosnia and take up a variety of causes both systemic and personal, including genocide and affordable housing. Their diversity proves that Christians “are not a monolith” and must wade through what are characterized as competing truths in discerning whether to advocate. Some urge Christians to fight the power of empire, citing the way Jesus challenged the status quo to effect change. Others retreat from activism, citing Jesus’s pacifism. Yet the authors all agree that Christians should work against injustice in some way and should employ peaceful debate to work toward unity. Using their own tales of injustice in a post-9/11 world, they force Christians to wake up and take a stand–even if they themselves cannot agree on exactly what that should be. (Aug.)

My wife, Amy and I were watching TV the other night, and a series of commercials came on that told me a lot about who the sponsors of the show thought I was. First, there was a Pepsi ad for this program they have where they give “grants” to people with good, community-changing ideas. Second was a Sun Chips commercial touting their new compostable packaging.

I remarked to Amy about how prevalent this kind of social marketing had become, and did so with no small amount of disdain in my voice, I expect, based on the way she looked at me.

Basically, it’s popular these days for companies to tout their social responsibility to help persuade you to buy their product. From Sun Chips (owned by junk food giant Frito Lay) to Pepsi, and even Coke with their “every time you drink our sugary, caffeine-laced soda, you’re participating in worldwide recycling” promotion, everyone wants to get in on the action. Of course, food and beverage manufacturers aren’t the only one’s getting in on the action. Car manufacturers, clothing designers and all manner of retail chains try hard to give you wamr fuzzies about their products.

On the surface, I know it seems cynical to grumble about companies trying to be socially responsible, even if it only is to better their bottom line. After all, if the result is the same, who cares what their motivation really is, right? But the concern I have hearkens back to my time-tested theory about capitalism at the consumer-level, which is that companies try hard to make us feel good about buying their stuff, and we agree not to ask too many questions, because we’d rather feel good (even if falsely or superficially) about getting what we want rather than doing the hard work of digging deeper for truth and – God forbid – maybe having to sacrifice some wants for our ethics.

First, we should never take a company at their word that what they’re doing is good for us or the planet. As an example, here’s a recent mention about Sun Chips’ installation of a ten-acre field of solar panels to help operate one of their factories, for which they won an “Effie.” This award, it turns out, is not an environmental award, but rather an “effectiveness in marketing” recognition. This from Effie’s website:

On Earth Day 2008, Sun Chips’ factory in Modesto, Calif., opened a 10-acre solar grid so that Sun Chips would be made with solar energy. However, the brand’s users were not hard-core green consumers, and they didn’t care to hear about the details. They just wanted to know they were doing something a little better.

I’m not saying this move to solar is a bad thing, but there are a few questions I’m left wondering about (though evidently, the marketing folks are clear that the general population doesn’t really care):

What percentage of the factory’s total consumption is generated by solar?
Was this part of a government mandate for communities/companies to get certain percentages of their energy from renewable sources, or was it voluntary?
Does the company have any standards for their suppliers and the way they grow, harvest and transport their products?

In short, the idea is to find out if this company seriously is committed to the values they’re promoting, or if it’s simply a photo-op. Before we give ourselves pats on the back for being responsible consumers, we should try to find out.

Second, and perhaps more important, I have concerns that we allow companies who engage in this kind of social marketing to assuage our guilt for our way of life, allowing us to feel like we’ve done our good deed simply buy buying a soft drink or eating chips. Yes, guiding our dollars to more responsible outlets is an important thing to consider, but this doesn’t let us off the hook as human beings, responsible for the care of ourselves, our fellow human beings and the planet. It’s not unlike how some folks figure they don’t have to work hard at making the world a better place all week long, just because they go to church on Sunday.

If the companies we support truly are walking the talk, and if we can verify this, more power to them, and more power to us to support their efforts with our money. And if guiding our purchases in such a way is simply a reflection of a greater effort in all parts of our lives to do right by ourselves and our world, that’s great.

But let’s not fool ourselves; just because we drink Fat Tire instead of Miller Lite or buy our gifts from 10,000 Villages doesn’t mean we don’t have a hell of a lot of work left to do.

NewSpin
By Christian Piatt

(Originally printed in PULP)

Love or hate it, we have a new cement plant in Pueblo. Yes, it will bring jobs, and yes, it will add pollution to our local environment. Spin it however you want, but no one can argue in good conscience that cement manufacturing has a positive – or even neutral – impact on the planet.

What we’re left with, then, is the challenge of at least mitigating those negative effects on our community. Already, we see growing numbers of respiratory-related problems in Pueblo. So what to do?

Some local media have celebrated the proposal to burn used tires for fuel in the plant, indicating that this is an excellent example of “real recycling” for our state to celebrate. Apparently, the other recycling efforts currently underway in Southern Colorado don’t qualify as “real.”

Granted, we have millions of tires that have to be disposed of every year, one way or another, and burning them for fuel does decrease the need for fossil fuels. But to tout tire burning as an alternative energy source is, at best, disingenuous.

As the Montana Environmental Information Center points out, “Tires contain chlorine. When chlorine is burned, it can form dioxin. DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality) admits that the dioxin emissions pose the greatest risk to health and the environment from tire burning.”

But dioxin is only one concern. The Energy Justice Network lists lots of other dangerous byproducts on tire burning:

“The fumes emitted are packed with the many toxic chemicals that tires contain (including volatile organic compounds such as benzene, metals such as lead, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons such as benzo(a)pyrene, and synthetic rubber components such as butadiene and styrene). Additionally, the chlorine content in tires leads to the creation of dioxins and furans (which are extremely toxic chemicals) when tires are burned.”

One argument that proponents of this energy strategy make is that, although these compounds created in the fires are highly toxic, the systems used to burn the tires can clean such chemicals from the gases emitted into the atmosphere.

They’re right that such systems exist. The problem is that cement plants that burn tires aren’t required to have them.
Said environmental researcher Dr. Neil Carman: “Cement kilns are not designed or required to have major fail-safe combustion devices such as large afterburners that all state-of-the-art incinerators must have by federal law today…”

Research for this piece yielded no federal or state standards to which polluters are held to determine if their tire-burnings are in compliance or not, and emissions from such plants generally are tested only 2 1/2 years, at most.

There is a fee that the state collects every time a new tire is sold. Approximately $1.50 of each sale goes to the state, supposedly for the purpose of subsidizing proper disposal of the tires once they’re out of commission. The problem is that this fund has regularly been raided, allocated instead for general fund expenses rather than being set aside to aid the purpose for which the tax was initially levied.

There are lots of other more Earth-friendly uses for old tires, especially once they are ground into “crumb rubber.” The byproduct is used for playground surfaces, running tracks and even in asphalt for roads. But these uses don’t fetch the same premium that they do as fuel. Meanwhile the shell game of environmental risk factors continues, and our community’s health suffers the inevitable consequences.

On a somewhat related topic, state manufacturers are incensed about proposed legislation that would lift the tax exemption for two years they’ve enjoyed on all money spent on energy to run their factories. The impact would indeed be close to home, with companies like Evraz Steel and Summit Brick realizing a significant tax increase.

The companies are fair in arguing such expenses may result in layoffs down the road. Pro-business advocates argue that the absence of such exemptions make us appear less business-friendly as a state. All of this aside, I have more of a philosophical issue with this complaint.

Personally, I get no tax break for the money I spend on electricity and gas in my home, and a big percentage of every dollar I spend on gasoline goes to the government coffers. Corporations don’t want to be treated like individuals because, theoretically, they bring more economic value to the table. They deserve special treatment.

Then the federal Supreme Court ruled recently that corporations indeed should have the same First Amendment rights to free speech that individual citizens have, which means they have free rein to donate to the political campaigns of their choosing.

It seems that businesses want to be treated as individual citizens when it benefits them, but not when it comes to taxation. This double standard not only serves to erode the confidence of a public already suspect of the impartiality of government; it also makes a mockery of the Constitution upon which our system of governance is based.

If you’re in Southern Colorado, do not miss the fundraiser going on at the State Fairgrounds (Creative Arts Center) Sunday, Feb. 28th from noon to 7pm.

There’s no fee for admission, but all donations go to Week of Compassion for Haiti relief. Seven bands will play, and there will be great food and a silent auction. We’re expecting upwards of 700 to 1000 people, so get there early for a good spot.

Seven bands & tons of food Sunday, Feb 28, noon to 7pm

No admission to enter. Donations all go to Haiti relief through Week of Compassion.

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