Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Greening Vacation Travel

I'm not one for extremes, like suggesting people should never fly or go on cruise ships because they generate so much pollution. But there's no excuse any more for not at least considering the environmental impact of your vacation travel and possible alternatives.

The Sierra Club has come up with a neat little quiz that highlights the climate impact of various choices. Take the quiz yourself for a fix on your travel/climate IQ, but here are a few of the conclusions I drew from it:

Jet fuel and gasoline both add about 20 pounds of CO2 to the atmosphere/gallon burned. But jets are 6 to 8 miles up in the air where the CO2 plus the water vapor and nitrogen oxides they emit create heat-trapping clouds. Non-stop flights pollute less than those that make stops.

The most environmentally-friendly way to travel is by train. Not such a great option in the U.S., but if you're going on a European tour, that's a viable choice.

Cruise ships are environmental villains. Not only do they emit three times as much CO2 as airliners, they pollute the oceans with sewage and garbage and--this is my opinion, not the Sierra Club's--exploit poor countries. The passengers get to frolic on unspoiled beaches for which the cruise lines pay the host countries little or nothing. What little money passengers do spend in their hours-long swarming of port cities goes mostly to luxury chain stores, not to the citizens of these very poor countries.

So, if you've got a fuel efficient car, pack in the family and head off on a road trip this summer. Allow a little time for serendipity, and this could be your most memorable vacation ever.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Bottle Makers Turn Away from BPA

The New York Times continues to follow the unfolding BPA story, but in the business pages, not the regular news columns. So for them this isn't so much a health story as it is one about how manufacturers of bottles are coping with growing public alarm about bisphenol-a.

That's a disservice to readers who don't bother with the business section. But the good news is that manufacturers are acting swiftly to find other materials for their bottles. Since February, Aladdin food containers and water bottles have been made with a new plastic (Tritan copolyester) free of BPA. Israeli-based Born Free is making baby bottles of another sort of plastic. Both alternatives are reportedly more expensive right now than BPA-containing polycarbonate.

Let's hope that these new plastics are safer, but bear in mind that people thought polycarbonate was safe also. If I had a baby, I'd breast feed as long as I could to avoid BPA-tained formula, and then shift to glass bottles. (Owens-Illinois has started making glass baby bottles again, after a 20-year hiatus).

Personally, I've been tucking a Sigg aluminum water bottle into my tennis bag for years now. It's not beautiful but it's light-weight and does the job. Another good choice would be steel.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Canada Calls BPA Toxic

It's official: the Canadian government has declared bisphenol-a (BPA) toxic, and has moved to ban sales of baby bottles, cups, etc. made from polycarbonate plastic, which leaches the chemical in normal use.

In addition, California, New York and Maryland are considering laws to ban sales of toys, child care and feeding products made with BPA. To no one's surprise, of course, the industry has filed suit against California arguing that federal law preempts California's action.

This is one of those times when caution should dictate our actions. With easily available alternatives, ditch those BPA bottles and cups and replace them.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Baby, Water Bottles Dangerous to Health

As I've been telling my friends ever since I wrote an article for Sierra Magazine on the subject, those attractive, hard-plastic water bottles that come in vivid, see-through colors, just aren't safe.

And that goes in spades for the baby bottles made from the same substance, polycarbonate plastic. You can usually identify bottles made of this plastic from the "#7 Other" recycling code on the bottom. One of the most popular manufactuers is Nalgene, but just yesterday, the company announced that it will stop production because of public concern.

The problem is a chemical called bisphenol-A, now recognized as a hormone disrupter that mimics estrogen. Ten years ago, as I reported in Sierra, a geneticist at Case Western University found that mice accidentally exposed to it from their plastic cages developed a high rate of chromosomal abnormalities.

Here's an excerpt from the just-released draft report on it from the National Toxicology Program (click on "draft report" in the right column to read it):

"The NTP concurs with the conclusion of the CERHR Expert Panel on Bisphenol A that there is some concern for neural and behavioral effects in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures. The NTP also has some concern for bisphenol A exposure in these populations based on effects in the prostate gland, mammary gland, and an earlier age for puberty in females." (italics from the report)

Bear in mind that this alarming report is coming from a most cautious federal agency. The list of possible other health effects is much longer. Scientists who've reviewed all the studies not funded by industry are very alarmed, and believe the chemical may be a cause of breast cancer. Something in our environment (my italics) is pumping up the breast cancer rate, as women have long suspected, and something is lowering the age of puberty for girls. The frustration has been not knowing which of the myriad chemicals to which we are exposed are causing these effects.

Here's the bottom line: this chemical may very well be particuarly dangerous for fetuses. Tell any pregnant women you know not to use these water bottles. And new parents should use other kinds of plastic baby bottles (soft or cloudy-colored plastic bottles don't contain it) or old-fashioned, but sanitary and safe, glass. Ditto for sippy cups or dishes.

The bad news, however, is that while we can choose to avoid those products, babies drinking infant formula will still be exposed to it. Most canned food sold in America is coate with the stuff. Last year, the Environmental Working Group found it in 55 of 97 cans they tested. And, even worse, they found the highest levels of the chemical in infant formula, at levels that had caused serious adverse harm to animals.

And by the way, don't be persuaded by industry people saying animal studies don't prove anything about how something will affect people. They use animal studies all the time to prove the safety of drugs they want to sell before they test them in people.

It may be years before the U.S. Food & Drug Administration acts to stop use of this chemical, but other countries, as usual these days, are already acting. The New York Times reported Wednesday that Canada is apparently close to declaring it a toxic chemical. And Wal-Mart Canada just announced it will stop selling products containing it.

As I've said before on this blog, we should stop walking for the cure but for real prevention. (Early detection is not prevention, despite the bill of goods sold to so many cancer survivors.) Bisphenol-A may cause cancer as well as birth defects and harm to reproductive organs. It's not filling some essential need. So why should we be exposed to it ?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Why Did Broadwater Lose?

In the Bush era when citizen protests go unheard in Washington, it is truly remarkable that the Broadwater LNG project failed. Federal regulators had, as usual, ignored citizen protests and ruled in favor of mega-business interests. But Broadwater lost locally and regionally. You only had to be at Sunken Meadow last week when Governor Patterson nixed the project to see that just about every state, county and local politician was there to support what they clearly saw as a popular decision.

News stories gave short shrift to the reasoning behind the decision, which was a finding by the New York Secretary of State that Broadwater was inconsistent with the state's coastal zone management plan. That finding said the project violated 6 state policies, including "sustainable use of living marine resources" and fostering a pattern of development in the Sound that "enhances community character" and "preserves open space," among other things.

Nevertheless, the decision was political, and proponents see the loss as another case of NIMBY-ism. John Hritcko, Jr., Broadwater VP, told me just before the decision last week that "with any energy infrastructure project--whether LNG, a pipeline or a windmill--you're going to have trouble siting it." And it's true that some of the local politicos as well as Adrienne Esposito, director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, spoke favorably about another LNG project that would involve construction of an artificial island in the Atlantic Ocean off the New Jersey/New York coasts. But environmental groups in New Jersey have serious concerns about that project as well.

So what was the political calculus behind the Governor's decision? Why was the opposition successful in the face of Broadwater's intensive, professionally managed campaign for approval? I'd like to invite everyone who cared about Broadwater to offer their own ideas about why it failed. If not NIMBY, then what? How was the opposition able to kill Broadwater?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Will Broadwater Walk Away?

With Govenor Patterson expected to reject Broadwater this afternoon, the question is whether the company will walk away or continue fighting to build the project.

Yesterday, I posed that question to Broadwater Energy's Regional Project Director, John Hritcko. We were sitting around a polished wood conference table at the company's Riverhead offices just off Old Country Road behind the Taco Bell.

"Until we see the decision and the basis for it, we can't decide," said Hritcko, noting that the company had just filed a new response to 17 environmental shortcomings pointed out by the state's Department of Environmental Conservation. The company may appeal if it believes "we can work with it," but would withdraw "if you don't think you'll ever reach agreement."

The appeal would be made to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, who would determine whether New York's decision is consistent with the requirements of the Coastal Zone Management Act. New York has never had such a decision overruled, and Adrienne Esposito of Citizen's Campaign for the Environment believes the state would defend itself vigorously if challenged.

If the leadership does decide to withdraw, it will be a testimonial to the strength of public concern about Long Island's environment and the gut-deep understanding of the value of Long Island Sound to all of us. Broadwater pulled out all the stops to gain approval, as Karl Grossman points out in his latest column in East End newspapers. Former elected officials including even Rudy Giuliani couldn't throw enough political weight to override the opposition, even with skilled PR help.

The good news is that, unlike LILCO, Broadwater can't walk away and leave Long Islanders holding the bag. I'll never forgive the former LILCO execs for ordering a low-power test at Shoreham just before they were forced to give up on the project. With that low-power test, they were able to move more of the cost of the plant into the rate base for computing what we all pay for electricity, thus driving up our rates. And, at the same time, they contaminated the facility at Shoreham with radiation so that it became a hazard, unusable for other purposes, and requiring security measures for generations to come.

This time, at least, Broadwater's parent companies, Shell and TransCanada, will have to eat what they spent while underestimating the passion of Long Islanders for our environment.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Cordaro: Broadwater opponents "emotional & hysterical"

Former LILCO engineering veep Matthew Cordaro didn't like it when I challenged him to prove that the Northeast needs not only the Broadwater Liquid Natural Gas project proposed for Long Island Sound but also 2 others that could be put in the Atlantic Ocean south of Long Island.

These days, Cordaro inhabits the world of academia as the head of Long Island University's Center for Management Analysis, and Newsday and other news media quote him as an objective expert on Broadwater.

When I told him that his projections for strong demand growth are contradicted by relatively low estimates made by federal agencies, NY State and Keyspan, he complained that I was debating him. But he finally explained his demand prediction of strong demand this way: "It's just knowing. My information goes beyond what's being projected." The Northport and Port Jeff electric plants would need lots more gas to switch from oil, he said, a desirable change because it is less polluting. I said a spokesperson for Keyspan had just told me they were already using gas at these plants because it's currently cheaper than oil, so where's the need for dramatically more supply? (They are capable of using either fuel, and make the decision based on price.)

He then talked about the fact that 2/3 of the homes on LI (and much of the Northeast) are heated by oil, and that when we all switch, we'll need lots more natural gas. I reminded him that this would require homeowners to invest in expensive new heating equipment, not something most folks will do unless it's cost-justified. Well, he said, he is talking about a long-term change. Indeed.

I asked him what he thought about U.S. Rep. Tim Bishop's idea that a national commission should decide which of the 40 new LNG terminals proposed nationwide should be built, rather than letting the "market" decide. Not necessary, he said, because private companies "wouldn't build these facilities if they weren't sure they needed them," and, anyway, "if they want to overbuild it's to the advantage of the consumer." But what of the downside, to the enviornment of the Sound, to the fishing industry, etc.?

"The downside is minimal," he contended.

I asked him if he is a paid consultant for Broadwater, and he insisted that he receives no money from them.

"My whole motivation is to prevent another Shoreham, and for Long Island not to shoot itself in the foot again. Everyone had the same kind of objections based on emotion and hysteria that caused Shoreham to be shut down."

Obviously, Cordaro is unrepentent about the Shoreham fiasco that has cost, and still is costing Long Islander's billions of dollars. It seems we simple folks just worry too darn much about fish and the people who catch them for us, and about our right to have a say over public property and what is done there. We should just leave our energy decisions to experts like him.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

News12 Town Meeting Bashes Broadwater

News12, Long Island's Cablevision news operation, made the Broadwater proposal look bad from every angle last week during a well-researched 90-minute town meeting. An excellent panel including East End Congressional Rep Tim Bishop, Suffolk County Exec Steve Levy and Adrienne Esposito of Long Island Neighborhood Network exposed fundamental flaws, while former LILCO exec Mathhew Cordaro and Bill Cooper, from the LNG trade association, made feeble arguments that at one point drew jeers from the audience.

Cordaro, of course, as LILCO's vice president for engineering, is one of the utility leaders who foisted the Shoreham nuclear plant on Long Island, stubbornly refusing to change direction even when it was clear that residents would never allow it to operate. In his book, Power Crazy, Karl Grossman quotes a Dec. 13, 1979 letter that Cordaro wrote to a local newspaper minimizing the danger from Shoreham even if an accident forced an evacuation from the area.

"Any emissions to the atmosphere following" a loss of coolant accident, he wrote, "would form a plume, similar to smoke from a chimney...Once the plume passed, it would be safe to come back to the area." Chernobyl anyone? It's amazing how such failed leaders manage to hang on to their "expert" credentials instead of being shunned because of their past mistakes. (Karl Grossman, meanwhile, continues to hammer away at the real dangers of nuclear power.)

Regarding Broadwater, Cordaro, now ensconced in academia, insisted that an LNG spill resulting in a vapor cloud posed no risk at all because it probably would never reach land.

Esposito pointed out that such a cloud could travel more than 4 miles. While it might not touch land, it could incinerate boaters and fishers who happend to be there at the time. Apparently this doesn't trouble Cordaro.

Scaredy-cat Broadwater declined to even send a representative.

Significant parts of the discussion included:
  • "The choice is not Broadwater or nothing," said Bishop, who added that he has introduced legislation that would "start a national conversation" about the 40 LNG terminals proposed nationally to decide which ones provide needed energy at the least cost to the environment and with the fewest risks of terrorism, fire, etc. "There's no way we need all of them," said Bishop.
  • Cooper of the LNG trade group, responded that we might as well extend this idea of giving the public a say in which projects to build to other industries, like supermarkets. The public could tell the stores what food to sell. The crowd listening in Brookhaven town hall hooted at this off-the-wall comparison.
  • The U.S. Coast Guard, noted Levy, said last fall that it doesn't have the resources to protect the Broadwater terminal and the LNG delivery ships as they transit through the Sound. If Broadwater expects the county to come up with money for that effort, they should read Levy's lips: it will never happen.
  • Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal called the recent Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval of Broadwater "deeply deficient" and promised to fight Broadwater all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Maybe Broadwater should take a hint from Shoreham's fate and withdraw its proposals. If taking the case to the Supreme Court doesn't stop this proposal, then I'd place my bets on the people of Long Island finding some other way. ##