Archive for August, 2015

River Spill was a Signal to End Business as Usual

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

3 kayakers on Animas

Our Animas River received a serious insult recently. Fortunately the river seems to be recovering, but we cannot predict what the long-term effects will be.

Contractors working for the United States Environmental Protection Agency recently released a huge amount of toxic water and tailings from the Gold King Mine. The water spilled into the Animas River, originally named “el rio de las animas perdidas” or the “river of lost souls”.

It wasn’t long before the finger pointing started. The EPA was blamed not only for the spill but also for the long delay in notifying our community. To the EPA’s credit, they are taking responsibility for the accident and for monitoring its environmental effects. There is also talk of compensating the businesses for their loss of revenue.

I am impressed that the EPA’s chief, Gina McCarthy, came to Durango to take command of the event. This is so different from the way the chief executive of BP reacted during the Deepwater Horizon disaster. While his well was polluting the Gulf of Mexico, Tony Hayward went to a sailboat race.

I know little about mining and mine remediation, but I have had plenty of home maintenance projects go awry. I can understand how the contractors working for the EPA could make the mistake that resulted in this tragedy. Fortunately the EPA is accepting responsibility, but I’ll bet that they will be careful in hiring those same contractors again!

The laws that govern hard-rock mining were written over 140 years ago, when the west was wilder and the number of people of European descent was small. Mining claims were inexpensive and easily available. The laws allowed mining with little concern for environmental protection or for remediation. This has lead to hundreds of mines such as Gold King where the value was extracted and the shaft abandoned. Water continues to flow through many of these mines, picking up silt and poisonous metals, as it has for decades. Before the deluge on August 5th up to 250 gallons of contaminated water poured out of the Gold King every minute—that’s 360,000 gallons every day! The flow has increased significantly since the dam was broken.

Folks have been concerned about pollution from the mines in Silverton for years, but insufficient remediation has been done. Being inundated by an estimated 3 million gallons of sickly orange water at one time has finally brought attention to the problem. Unfortunately, it includes international attention that puts southwest Colorado in a bad light.

This is an opportunity for those who believe that the government is too big and has too much power to be critical of the EPA. Many politicians have want to abolish it. We should be wary of their efforts to use this spill as an excuse. That doesn’t make much sense to me, however. If we didn’t have any laws that controlled mining, the Animas would run orange every day!

I think that this catastrophe (to use the word the Herald chose for its headline) will finally motivate cleanup of the Silverton mines. Even more important is to prevent future hard-rock mining problems by changing the ancient mining laws. Furthermore, this spill should motivate legislators to pass “good Samaritan” laws to protect people who work to clean up the mines from liability if things go wrong.

But maybe there is a broader lesson to be learned from the Gold King misfortune. Let me ask a couple of questions: what are we doing now that will result in Gold King-like problems in the future? Are companies charging enough to pay for cleanup that will be required in the future? I think you know what my answers will be.

Let’s look at electricity. Much of our power is generated using coal; indeed, we have two coal-fired power plants just across the border in New Mexico. Testing the mud at the bottom of Narraguinnep Reservoir north of Cortez showed low levels of mercury until about the 1970 stratum, when those plants started up. We are advised against eating fish that are caught there, a consequence of mercury from the power plants. A neurotoxin, mercury is especially bad for the most vulnerable—developing fetuses and the young. Yet the coal companies are trying to reduce the price they pay to the government for coal mined on federal land and they fight public safety regulations.

Climate change is much worse than the mercury problem since it affects all of life. Future generations may never recover from the damage we are causing with anthropogenic climate change.

            © Richard Grossman MD, 2015

Offset Your Carbon Impact with PopOffsets

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

 

 

 

 

Below, underlined, is the preview of the version of the article that I sent out by email in July.

Gail and I will be sailing across the Atlantic to France–in the stratosphere–the day that this essay appears in the Durango (Colorado) Herald. We love to travel and we have a good reason for this trip. I have wondered for years why conservation biologists don’t pay more attention to human population: after all, if human numbers were smaller, biodiversity wouldn’t be so threatened. It’s kind of like a dentist ignoring candy!
Roger Martin (of the British organization Population Matters) and I will be hosting a roundtable to listen to conservation biologists at the International Congress of Conservation Biologists in Montpellier, France. We want to learn what their attitudes are toward human population, and why they don’t pay the issue more attention. Maybe I’ll have more information about this in another essay!
Thanks for reading.
Richard

PopOffsets picture handing BCPs

 

We all benefit from using fossil fuels. As a consequence we all cause carbon emissions, and thus contribute to climate change. Is it possible to compensate for our greenhouse gas emissions?

“Yes and no” is the answer. Once CO2 is in the atmosphere it is almost impossible to take it out. Fortunately there are some actions we can take to decrease our impact.

The most important action is to decrease emissions in the first place. In many cases decreasing emissions has the added benefit of also saving money. Thus there are at least two advantages to walking instead of driving, turning off lights you don’t need and—well, you know the litany.

I’m retired and love to travel. How can I make up for the trip to the south of France (largely for business) this summer? Offsets offer a partial solution.

I am writing about voluntary programs where a person voluntarily pays to compensate for his carbon emissions. The PopOffsets website explains this concept well:

“Offsetting is a way of compensating for our residual “footprint”: the level we won’t or cannot reasonably expect to go below. The idea is to pay for projects – which would not otherwise be implemented – which take emissions out of the system to compensate for what we put into it. In other words if an individual or organisation has done what it reasonably can to reduce its emissions (insulation, green energy, efficiency measures, waste reduction, etc), it can compensate for the remainder by investing in projects designed to reduce the amount released to the atmosphere and/or to capture what is being released. Typical projects have traditionally ranged from hydro-electric, solar and wind energy schemes to more efficient cooking stoves to (re)forestation to biofuels to Carbon Capture & Storage (Sequestration).”

There are many different organizations that will help you calculate your carbon emissions, then figure the amount of money that would offset those emissions. One of them is American Forests. Trees absorb CO2 as they grow as well as providing many other benefits. This organization’s website has a carbon calculator to help estimate your carbon footprint, and thus the number of trees that need to be planted to offset that footprint. It also makes it easy to make a donation to so they can plant those trees for you.

Where does human population fit into this? If there are fewer emitters, then there will be fewer emissions. Family planning programs are a good way to slow emissions and thereby slow climate change. Indeed, sophisticated calculations suggest that voluntary family planning programs can make a significant step toward limiting greenhouse gas emissions. A team headed by Brian O’Neill has shown “…that slowing population growth could provide 16–29% of the emissions reductions suggested to be necessary by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change.”

My column shares its name with an organization in England. The British Population Matters has recognized the advantages of making family planning available to more people. In order to put this noble idea into action they started a unique offset program, PopOffsets. It collects money to support family planning programs. Remember World Vasectomy Day, in which men all over the world get snipped? it received funding from PopOffsets. So has a “backpack nurse” who provides family planning services to people in rural Kenya, and WINGS, a Guatemalan organization that provides reproductive healthcare. PopOffsets has also supported a Population, Health, Environment program in Ethiopia with contraceptive supplies. More surprising is that they also made a grant to an agency close to home—the Utah Population and Environment Coalition.

The goal of PopOffsets is “less carbon, smaller families”. They are apparently unique in the world, and would like to see similar organizations in other countries.

Back to my trip to France. It is roughly 5400 miles from Bayfield to Montpellier, France where my conference will be held. Doubling that for a round trip, we can round up to 11,000 miles, most of which will be flying. The PopOffsets website says that 230 grams of CO2 are emitted for every passenger mile or about 2 ½ tons for this trip. They estimate that $15 spent on family planning will offset one ton of CO2, thus my payment to them should be $37.50. I made a donation for more than that amount knowing that it will support good projects.

For the future of the planet it is important to minimize your carbon footprint. What you cannot get rid of you can offset with PopOffsets!

© Richard Grossman MD, 2015

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States.