Archive for the 'Environment' Category

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

Acknowledge the True Cost of Electricity

Monday, April 27th, 2015

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Courtesy of Dr. Drew Shindell

Did you know that the federal government is shortchanging us citizens by a billion dollars a year? Cozy deals with the feds are allowing private enterprise to underpay for natural resources.

Last month I wrote about pressuring educational institutions to divest from fossil fuel investments. Our future health and that of the planet depend on using as little carbon-based fuel as possible.

Now there is more evidence that divestment is the proper path to follow. A New York Times article examines the most common energy source for generating electricity (coal) and suggests that the public is being cheated. Another article in a scholarly journal looks at atmospheric externalities from five different methods of electrical generation and comes up with estimates of the true cost of each. Any way you look at it, short-term gains by big business are robbing citizens of money and health.

Coal on our federal lands belongs to us citizens. Congress set the royalty rate for private companies at about 12% of the sale price for coal strip-mined on federal land. Almost all of that coal is used for generating electricity.

Often a small fraction of the price is actually collected, however. The General Accounting Office found that the effective royalty rate was only 5.6% in Colorado in 2012—less than half of what it should have been! Headwaters Economics, a nonpartisan research group, estimates that the loss each year to US citizens is between 1 and 5 billion dollars. Somehow we are being cheated out of this money. But that isn’t the only bad deal that is robbing us of money and health.

“Externalities” are hidden costs of a product. In La Plata County 2/3 of our electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. There are many externalities that don’t appear on our La Plata Electric Association bills, including greenhouse gases, mercury and health-robbing particulates.

One third of CO2 greenhouse gas emissions in the USA result from electrical generation, but we don’t pay directly for emissions that are causing disasters. Instead, our taxes pay for damage caused by storms and other symptoms of the climate-havoc that CO2 causes. Pregnant women are forbidden from eating many fish because they are contaminated with mercury from burning coal. Some of us pay both with money and with shortened lives for the asthma and other respiratory diseases caused by smokestack particulate emissions. The list of hidden costs goes on and on.

What is the true cost of electricity? LPEA charges domestic customers 11.9 cents per kWh—but that is far from the whole cost. (A kilowatt-hour is a measure of electricity.) Professor Shindell at Duke University has attempted to determine the true cost of energy. His paper “The social cost of atmospheric release” looks at two categories of cost—the core cost and externalities. Interestingly, the core costs of wind, solar and nuclear are all about 10 cents/kWh. None of these sources has significant externalities, according to Shindell. This obviously ignores the possible disasters associated with nuclear, however, as demonstrated by the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Furthermore, these costs do not include power distribution.

According to Shindell, the cost of generation with natural gas is the least expensive at about 6 cents/kWh, but the externalities add another dime of hidden expense. Coal is a loser: its core cost is a dime, but the externalities add another 27 cents to the true cost! That means that the true cost of electricity generated by coal-fired power plants is 37 cents/kWh.

Shindell’s study just looked at air pollution externalities. Water, in this year of drought, is another externality. While renewable energy uses little or no water, generation with coal requires a huge amount for cooling.

We are lucky to live where forward-thinking LPEA provides our power. Regrettably, more than 2/3 of its power is currently generated by coal. Fortunately it makes renewably generated “Green Power” available for tiny increment in cost. It has programs to encourage energy efficiency, such as paying half the cost of LED light bulbs. It promotes local renewable power generation with wind, hydro and photovoltaic systems, and has encouraged “planting” solar gardens.

What can the electrical consumer do? The first step is to use electricity frugally. Turn off lights when you don’t need them, unplug electrical “parasites” that draw current even when they’re “off” and replace your old refrigerator with an Energy Star one. Next, spend a few dollars a year to get “green” power. Always keep in mind that electrical generation with coal is robbing us of both money and health.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2015

Integrate Population, Health and Environment

Sunday, September 7th, 2014

            If we had unlimited resources we wouldn’t need to be concerned about human population. We live in a wonderful, rich world, but we need to share with such a large number of people and other living beings.

Some of the richest places on Earth have been called “biodiversity hotspots”. These 35 special areas are home to many endemic species—species that are unique to that one area. Although the hotspots make up only a small fraction of the Earth’s surface (about a 40th), they are home to such a variety of life that isn’t found anywhere else. The sad thing is that much of this wonderful diversity is already lost, and what is left is threatened with extinction.

Hotspots are also fertile spots. People are attracted to settle in them to exploit this productivity. Indeed, it is this humanity that threatens to destroy the fecundity. Fortunately a relatively new constellation of services offers help in a very humane way.

Population-Health-Environment (PHE) programs are the new way to slow damage to hotspots. Starting with the “E”, the first step is to help the local people be more aware of the value of the wonderful place where they live. The locals learn how they depend on ecosystem services, such as mangrove trees that serve as nurseries for fish. A clinic provides simple health care and health education, which are unusual in hotspots. Voluntary family planning is made available along with other health services. Often local women learn to be advocates for family planning and can administer certain modern contraceptive methods.

Many years ago we visited a PHE in Peru. It is the brainchild of an eccentric research scientist turned humanitarian, Eleanor Smithwick. Peru Amazon Conservation is based the small town of Atún Cocha. As Eleanor points out, the mestizo people there have lost their indigenous respect for nature. In the past they felled trees to sell for lumber, but didn’t replant; Eleanor taught them the value of raising saplings.

Eleanor recruited a local bilingual man, Clever Hoyos, to be the health educator. He taught about conservation as well as sanitation and nutrition. Together they set up a clinic that serves 14 villages and about 2500 people.

Their innovation was their family planning program. Most of the people live far from Atún Cocha along the river where the only means of transportation is a slow dugout canoe. On a certain Thursday every 3 months Clever would travel by boat to give DMPA (DepoProveraâ) injections. The women knew when to expect the boat and would be waiting at the dock. This was a very popular program, but unfortunately the cost of the medication rose so high that the program wasn’t sustainable.

A more recent and elaborate PHE program is half a world away in Madagascar. A British physician who loves to SCUBA dive became distressed by the destruction of the ocean life. Blue Ventures has an interesting combination of a nonprofit funded by a for-profit business. The for-profit arm features ecotourism and especially diving, but the nonprofit is more difficult to outline.

Blue Ventures not only conserves endangered species such as sea turtles and sharks, but engages the local children in conservation. They provide school scholarships to be certain that future generations are well educated. Because of the risk of overharvesting crops of fish, octopi and sea cucumbers, they have successfully instituted temporary fisheries closures, which have increased total yields—and the fishers’ incomes.

Health services focus on the basics—water and sanitation—as well as clinical services. They use many modalities to reach the people about health and conservation, including radio, interactive village presentations and school workshops using sports and theater.

Blue Ventures have trained 40 local women to provide voluntary reproductive health services to over 20,000 people in 50 communities. The contraceptive prevalence rate has gone from 10% to 55% in just 6 years. They calculate that voluntary family planning has averted more than 750 unintended pregnancies during this period. Most important, perhaps, is that the vast majority of people recognize the links between reproductive health, family size and food security. I wish that were true for more people in the USA!

To quote from the Blue Ventures’ website, “PHE programmes address the interconnected challenges of poor health, unmet family planning needs, environmental degradation, food insecurity, gender inequality and vulnerability to climate change in a holistic way.” They have great potential to keep biodiversity hotspots from being overrun by people. Just as important are the benefits to the people who live in these rich and beautiful areas.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2014

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