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Environment

Wild rice harvesting with an added purpose

by Dan Burns on August 31, 2015 · 0 comments

ricing000694JPGActually, two added purposes, both laudable. One is Native Americans’ efforts to assert their treaty rights, and another is to block land use for inappropriate, to say the least, endeavors like tar sands oil pipelines.
 

When Ojibwe tribal members (last Thursday) harvest rice outside reservation boundaries without a required permit, it will mark the latest chapter in Minnesota’s long history of treaty conflicts.
 
This time, however, the fight may go far beyond fish and wild rice.
 
Tribes believe the 1855 treaty they plan to put to the test today gives them the right to hunt, fish and gather in a large area of northern Minnesota. They argue those rights should also give them a say in any land use decisions that might affect natural resources — on or off reservation land.
 
That would include decisions about proposed oil pipelines in northern Minnesota, which they’re trying to stop.
(MPR)

On Thursday, rice gatherers were handed, pretty much at the last minute, a DNR permit that they didn’t want and don’t believe that they need. On Friday, they pushed it a little harder, and there were reports that could lead to citations.

 
Tar sands production is currently under a lot of downward pressure. Which is good, but there’s no reason to believe that Enbridge will halt its plans. Accomplishing that will take more.
 

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Oil-Fields-19a-Belridge-California-USA-2003Big Oil’s profits are down, because of low crude prices. I’m having trouble even typing this, what with barely being able to see through the copious, bitter tears that I’m weeping about that. But I’m able to note that it’s American consumers in general who could well have reason to cry, if a plan to lift the decades-old ban on exporting American crude gets much further. In addition to other very serious matters.
 

Since 1975, the U.S. has restricted the export of crude oil in the name of energy security, and somehow that dirty protectionism even managed to make it through the Reagan era. But perhaps no longer. Republicans in Congress are pushing to allow oil companies to export crude to overseas refineries, and they could put the issue to a vote as soon as next month.
 
Ending the crude oil export ban would represent one of the largest tweaks in U.S. energy policy in decades, and, from an environmental perspective, not a positive one.
 
On Friday, the Center for American Progress (CAP) released an analysis pleading for congressional consideration of the broader risks at play, especially as they relate to the environment. The authors argue that the policy change would lead to more oil drilling in the U.S., resulting in an increase in annual carbon and methane emissions, the loss of open lands and wildlife habitats, and risks related to production and transportation like increased prevalence of crude oil train derailment and air quality problems for those living near drilling operations. This is to say nothing of the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground if we’re to fight off climate change.
(Grist)

According to Bloomberg, this is still a little short of Senate votes, and they may not be looking to touch it any time soon anyway. I wouldn’t count on that. It’s also unclear, at this time, what President Obama would do with this if it gets that far.
 
Once they learn about it, poll respondents of all ideologies are horrified. (On top of all the taxpayer-funded government giveaways they already wallow in, now they want this?!) Which makes it unsurprising that my online search this morning showed minimal coverage of the issue in major corporate media. So I suppose that it’s up to us to do what we can to get the word out.
 
Comment below fold.
 
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Osama bin Laden 1; Railroads 0

by gregladen on August 25, 2015 · 0 comments

train-derailment-bakken-west-virginia-aerial-view_us-coast-guardThe terrorists have defeated the railroads, and by extension, the people. Well, not totally defeated, but they won a small but important battle.
 
We have a problem with the wholesale removal of petroleum from the Bakken oil fields, and the shipping of that relatively dangerous liquid mainly to the east coast on trains, with hundreds of tanker cars rolling down a small selection of tracks every day. I see them all the time as they go through my neighborhood. These trains derail now and then, and sometimes those derailments are pretty messy, life threatening, and even fatal.
 
There has been some effort in Minnesota to get the train companies to upgrade their disaster plans, which is important because about 300,000 Minnesotans live in the larger (one half mile) disaster zone that flanks these track. A smaller number, but not insignificant, live in the blast zone, the place where if a couple of train cars actually exploded you would be within the blast area. For the last couple of years, my son was at a daycare right in that blast zone. I quickly add that the chance of being blasted by an oil train is very small, because the tracks are in total thousands of miles long, derailments are rare(ish), and the affected areas can be measured in city blocks. So a blast from a Bakken oil train may be thought of as roughly like a large air liner crash, or may be two or three times larger than that, in terms of damage on the ground.
 
But yes, the trains derail at a seemingly large rate.
 
Now, here is where the terrorists come in. And by terrorists I specifically mean Osama bin (no relation) Laden, or his ghost, and that gang of crazies that took down the world trade center in New York. When that happened, we became afraid of terrorism, and everyone who could use that fear for personal gain has since exploited it. I’m pretty sure that the rise of the police state in America has been because of, facilitated by, and hastened due to this event. For years the American people let the security forces and related government agencies do pretty much whatever they wanted. The Patriot Act, you may or may not know, is a version of a law that conservatives have been pushing in the US for decades, a draconian law that gives great power to investigative and police agencies. That law never got very far in Congress until 9/11. Then, thanks to Osama bin Laden, it seemed like everyone wanted it. Only now, years later, are we seriously considering rolling it back (and to some extent acting on that consideration).
 
So now, the railroads have been forced to come up with a disaster plan related to the oil shipments. And they did. But for the most part they won’t let anyone see it. Why? Because, according to one railroad official, “… to put it out in the public domain is like giving terrorists a road map on how to do something bad.”
 
What does he mean exactly? As far as I can tell, the disaster plan pinpoints specific scenarios that would be especially bad. These scenarios, if they fell into the hands of terrorists, would allow said terrorists to terrorize more effectively.
 
I’m sure this is true. But I’m also sure this is not a reason to keep the plans secret. There are three reasons, in my view, that the plans should be totally available for public review.
 
1) If you want to know what the worst case scenarios for a rail tanker disaster are, don’t read this report. It is easier to get out a map, maybe use some GIS software if you have it, and correlate localities where the train tracks cross over bridges, cross major water sources, and go through dense population areas. A high bridge through an urban area over an important river, for instance. This is not hard. Indeed, I call on all social studies teachers with an attitude (and most of the good ones have an attitude) to make this a regular project in one of your classes. Have the students try to think like terrorists and identify the best way to terrorize using oil trains. The reason to do this is to point out how dumb the railroads are being.
 
2) Secret plans are plans that can be exploited or misused by those who make them. We will see security measures taken that, for example, limit public access to information unrelated to oil trains, with the terroristic threat used as an excuse. I’m sure this has already happened. It will continue to happen. It is how the police state works.
 
3) The plans can be better. How do I know this? Because all plans can be better. That’s how plans work. How can you make the plans better? Scrutiny. How do you get scrutiny? Don’t make the plans secret.
 
MPR news has a pretty good writeup on this situation here. MPR is fairly annoyed at the secrecy, as they should be, but frankly I’d like to see this and other news agencies, as well as the state legislators involved, and everyone else, more fired up. We should all be working harder against the police state.
 
I want to end with this: I like trains, and you should too. Trains are among the most efficient ways to move stuff across the landscape. Those of us concerned with things like climate change should be all for trains. Ultimately, I think we can increase the use of trains to move goods and people, and at the same time take the trains off fossil carbon. They are already mostly electric, using liquid fuel to run generators. That liquid fuel could be made, largely, from renewable biodiesel and a bit of grown biodiesel, and more of the trains can probably go all electric. But this secrecy thing is not OK.

 

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miningI’ve actually got several recent items, here, related one way or another to plans for sulfide mining in Minnesota. And the latter two are very important in their own right.
 

For more than a decade, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have informed the public that potential contaminants from PolyMet’s proposed NorthMet mine, near Hoyt Lakes, would flow south into the St. Louis River watershed.
 
It was a key issue for many environmentalists, who have been primarily focused on protecting water quality within the popular Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, located to the north of the proposed mine.
 
But documents obtained by the Timberjay through a Minnesota Government Data Practices Act request reveal that the lead agencies that have overseen the preparation of the environmental impact statement may well be wrong.
 
According to a June 18, 2015, letter from the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), one of the cooperating agencies on the decades-long study, Barr Engineering, the PolyMet contractor that actually ran the water flow model used in the study, made fundamental miscalculations, rendering the results of this key element of the environmental study invalid. Barr works as a consultant for PolyMet, yet the lead agencies have relied heavily on its technical work throughout the environmental review process.
(Timberjay)

A couple of Range legislators talked tough, about upcoming contract negotiations involving iron mineworkers. There’s no reason to believe sulfide mining operations will be geared toward fairly compensating the people who do the actual work, any more than the big taconite/steel companies appear prepared to be.
 
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minerunoffIt’s not hypothetical. The disaster at a gold mine that was abandoned nearly a century ago near Silverton, CO, is exactly what opponents of sulfide mining in Minnesota have been warning about. Water mixes with crushed rock and leaches out sulfides that make for a nice acid bath — formerly known as Cement Creek and the Animas River.
 

On a scorcher of an August afternoon, a crowd gathered on a bridge over the deep-green waters of the Animas River on the north end of Durango, Colorado. A passerby might have thought they were watching a sporting event, perhaps a kayak race or a flotilla of inebriated, scantily clad inner tubers. Yet the river that afternoon was eerily empty of rowers, paddlers or floaters — unheard of on a day like this — and the mood among the onlookers was sombre. One mingling in the crowd heard certain words repeated: sad, tragic, angry, toxic.
 
They were here not to cheer anyone on, but to mourn, gathered to watch a catastrophe unfold in slow motion. Soon, the waters below would become milky green, then a Gatorade yellow, before finally settling into a thick and cloudy orangish hue — some compared it to mustard, others Tang. Whatever you called it, it was clearly not right.

 
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Tailings Pond Breach 20140805From yesterday:
 

On the anniversary of the Mount Polley mine disaster, ten Minnesota conservation groups called on Governor Mark Dayton to prevent a similar disaster from happening in Minnesota…
 
The letter to Governor Dayton states, “the Mount Polley Independent Review Panel’s recommendations should have been a wake up call for Minnesota. Instead, it seems that Minnesota hit the snooze button.” One year after the tragedy, the PolyMet sulfide mine proposal in Minnesota has not implemented the recommendations of the Mount Polley Independent Review Panel. Instead, PolyMet continues to propose storing their mine waste mixed with water behind a forty year-old dam, on top of the tailings and slimes from the shuttered LTV taconite mine. A simulation of a PolyMet tailings dam failure conducted in 2013 showed over 25 structures downstream could be inundated within hours of a dam failure.
(Mining Truth)

The “Preliminary Final Environmental Impact Statement” is not a public document, and I’m not sure whether it’s cool for me to blockquote from it, here, so I won’t. Basically, the issue of a possible massive tailings dam breach is included in an appendix, which says a) they’ve thought about it; b) there are things they could do to lessen the risk; c) they really don’t see the need. Surprise.

 
Governor Mark Dayton acknowledged earlier this week that whether to let the mining proceed will be a tough call. (He’s welcome to just turn the whole issue over to me. I’ll be glad to lay it out, in full, for Glencore and its political allies: “F*ck, NO!!!” But I suppose that he’s not about to do that.) My guess is that he’ll finesse it, giving a sort of conditional approval with strict environmental controls and a big (well into nine figures, at least) damage deposit. We probably won’t know until next year.

 

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BACKPACKING5-251006-162122The next scheduled major action for Polymet is release of the final EIS in November. I thought that in the meantime I’d note a couple of book suggestions, about the natural glories of Northern Minnesota. They are The Singing Wilderness, by Sigurd F. Olson, and Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild, by Paul Gruchow. Though I like a walk through a meadow or forest now and then, roughing it for days, much less weeks, in the wilderness is well beyond my scope. I nonetheless found both books pretty amazing.
 
The Singing Wilderness was first published in 1956, and has become quite well known. Many of its essays had been drafted a decade or more before then, which puts it with the also celebrated A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold, from 1949, as one of the first successful popular books extolling American wilderness.
 

(p. 23) I chose the Kawashaway, now known as Kawishiwi, for the most important expedition of the year, the time when the snow was gone from the ice and the waters from its melting had drained through fissures into the depths below. It was the time when the wilderness of the forbidden land was as alone as it used to be. I wanted to have it to myself so that when I was deep within it I might discover some of the secret of the Chippewas, sense some of the ancient mystery surrounding it. If I did not find what I sought, I still would know the beauty of the country at the time of awakening, when there was a softness in the wind and the long-frozen land was breathing again, expanding and stirring with life after months of rigid immobility.

(If that rings a bell, yes, Twin Metals, in reality just fronting for mining mega-corporation Antofagasta, eventually wants to put a sulfide mine right about where the Kawishiwi enters the BWCA.)
 
Most of Olson’s book isn’t like the above. Rather, it’s straightforward narrative and description. But it’s so compelling…I’m one of those people that every year around October or so, I wonder whether I don’t actually belong someplace like Panama or Thailand, where I can just blissfully bake all year. Yet Olson’s description of being in an old cabin in the north woods in the middle of January actually had me thinking that that might be a cool thing to do.
 
If you ask me, Gruchow is one of the best writers that Minnesota has produced. That being said, his writing is generally more painstaking and allusive than, for example, Olson’s, and reading him can be more of an effort. (Gruchow was undoubtedly heavily influenced by Olson. Among other things, Boundary Waters, like The Singing Wilderness – and, for that matter, Gruchow’s Journal of a Prairie Year – is split into four parts named after the seasons.) But it’s well worth it. A couple of excerpts:
 

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Dayton sticks it to the polluters

by Dan Burns on August 5, 2015 · 2 comments

daytonOK, not precisely. It will take much more than this to undo the damage from the last legislative session. But when I saw this at the top of the front page of Wednesday’s Star Tribune, I took pleasure in the thought of corporate-owned legislators choking on their breakfast croissants when they saw it, too.
 

Gov. Mark Dayton showed a surprisingly fierce environmental side on Tuesday when he defied Republicans by creating a citizens’ board to advise the state on pollution issues, challenged citizens to demand cleaner water from farmers and acknowledged the wrenching decisions he’ll have to make on Minnesota’s first copper-nickel mine.
 
Dayton’s remarks came at the Minnesota Environmental Partnership’s annual meeting, which usually is closed to reporters. But he asked that his talk to the umbrella lobbying group for the state’s leading environmental organizations be open to reporters, and he used the opportunity to announce the creation of a citizens panel to advise the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), replacing a similar one that the Legislature abolished this year after lobbying from agricultural and other industries.
 
The new board will not have authority over the agency, as the last one did. But MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine said that as chairman of the new board, he would consider the board’s views before making final decisions on such key issues as permits, environmental reviews and exemptions to pollution limits.
(Star Tribune)

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atomI got an email from the Union of Concerned Scientists, and checked some things out. There’s a link in this article to the full UCS report.
 

The electronic age of communication is making it easier for activists, companies, and lobbying groups to use state open records laws—designed to promote transparency—to harass academic researchers they disagree with, a scientific integrity group warns in a new report. The findings underscore the need for states to revisit how the laws are implemented and for universities to clarify how they balance privacy, transparency, and academic freedom in responding to requests for e-mails, letters, and other documents, the report argues.
 
“[I]ndividuals and well-heeled special interests across the political spectrum are increasingly using broad open records requests to attack and harass scientists and other researchers and shut down conversation at public universities,” warns the report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which was unveiled today at a session of the annual meeting of AAAS (which publishes Science) in San Jose, California. It documents numerous examples of university researchers becoming engaged in often lengthy and complex battles with outside groups requesting internal records…
 
“These companies, organizations, and activists may disagree with researchers’ findings or even dislike an entire field of study,” it states. “They request all materials on a topic in a university’s possession, including researchers’ draft papers, emails, and even handwritten notes. This strategy can curb the ability of researchers to pursue their work, chill their speech, and discourage them from tackling contentious topics.”
(Science)

The psychology of all of this is not difficult to discern. The plutocrats see science – knowledge and rational thinking – as a threat to their unearned privilege. So motivated reasoning kicks in, and they tell themselves that scientists are a) wrong and only in it for themselves, and b) guilty of the ultimate sin, being “anti-market.” (In fact, if it was really all up to “the markets,” and the big corporations had all of their government goodies withdrawn, most would go belly-up in no time. More, from the always excellent David Cay Johnston, here.) Therefore, this targeted harassment is justified, even good and righteous. It’s all pretty vile.
 

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Environment continues to take a beating

by Dan Burns on July 13, 2015 · 0 comments

scienceThese are all bummers. If you’re not in the mood for that right now, and I don’t blame you if you’re not, maybe move on and come back later.
 
In the entirely justified positive reaction to some recent Supreme Court decisions, it’s not getting all that much press that there was also a really bad one.
 

Power plants may continue to be able to emit unlimited mercury, arsenic, and other pollutants thanks to the Supreme Court, which on (June 29) took steps toward invalidating the first-ever U.S. regulations to limit toxic heavy metal pollution from coal and oil-fired plants.
 
In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court found fault with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxic Standards, commonly referred to as MATS.
 
The EPA had been trying to implement a rule that cut down on toxic mercury pollution for more than two decades. But the Supreme Court majority opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, said the EPA acted unlawfully when it failed to consider how much the regulation would cost the power industry before deciding to craft the rule.
(Think Progress)

Another disconcerting study about groundwater supplies:
 
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