Thursday, April 28, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (4/28/05)


River, stay 'way from my door. Over a span of forty years, the General Electric Company discharged as much as 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the Hudson from its transformer plants north of Albany. PCBs are persistent organic compounds that do not easily dissolve in water. They prefer to adhere to particles of silt and decaying organic debris. These carcinogenic contaminants remain in the river and in river +sediments, making Hudson River fish inedible by all but the foolhardy or those still unaware of the problem. PCBs also evaporate from exposed sediments. They can become airborne, and have been found as far from the Hudson as the Canadian Arctic.

We might not have learned about the dangerous PCB contamination of the river's fish without the efforts of former Crotonite Robert H. Boyle. At a 1970 scientific meeting he learned of high levels of DDT and PCBs in salmon introduced into the Great Lakes. Boyle, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, convinced the magazine's editors that similar contamination might exist in Hudson River species. The magazine agreed to finance a test. Striped bass caught near Verplanck were iced and shipped to a lab in Wisconsin for analysis. Only after his article detailing the grim findings appeared in Sports Illustrated did the state began to awaken to the severity of the PCB problem.

But not before a major disaster was allowed to happen. In 1973, the Fort Edward Dam, located just south of GE's plant, was removed by the Niagara Mohawk Power Coo., on the recommendation of the Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Environmental Conservation. As a result of this ill-advised action, a huge slug of PCB-containing sediment that had been confined behind the dam moved downstream, settling at various "hot spots" along the upper Hudson.

Splitting the atom--and communities. Generating electricity on our doorstep at Indian Point are two aging nuclear energy plants. In the euphoria accompanying the nuclear age ushered in by the atomic bomb, Consolidated Edison in 1954 purchased a 260-acre site, including the former Indian Point Park, on which to build a power plant to generate electrical energy. Its first plant, Indian Point 1, began producing electricity in 1962 and was permanently shut down in 1974 because it lacks a cooling system for the reactor core. The facility has not been decommissioned, but is maintained and monitored in a condition that allows the radioactivity to decay.

Indian Point 2 commenced operation in 1973 and Indian Point 3 in 1976. Their licenses expire in 2013 and 2015, respectively. No U.S. nuclear energy reactors have come on line since 1996, and no new nuclear plants are anticipated before 2025. Current U.S. commercial nuclear capacity has increased through a combination of license extensions and the upgrading of existing reactors.

The United States generates about 20 percent of its electrical needs in 103 installations like Indian Point, located in 31 states. Yet other nations have no qualms about relying on nuclear fission to generate electricity. France, a country 1/17th the size of the U.S., has 56 nuclear plants that generate almost 80 percent of its electrical requirements. Italy, which that has banned nuclear plants, buys electricity from France.

Ever since the near meltdown at Three Mile Island, on the Susquehanna River outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1979, and the runaway Russian reactor, Chernobyl 4, in Ukraine in 1986, it has been anathema to construct plants like the Indian Point complex near centers of population. To complicate the proximity problem, spent fuel rods are stored in pools of water at Indian Point, making them vulnerable to terrorist attack. The disposition of nuclear waste is an enormously difficult problem that no nation has solved. It may be the Achilles heel of nuclear power.]

The chief advantage cited by the nuclear power industry is that it contributes nothing to the so-called "greenhouse effect" created by the burning of hydrocarbon solids, liquids and gases. Those who pooh-pooh the accumulating cloud cover of carbon dioxide gas insist that any warming the planet may be experiencing is only caused by cyclical changes. The other school of thought insists that we may wait until it is too late. Arctic polar ice has already melted over such a wide area that seasonal marine commerce is now being carried on between Canada and Russia along the fabled Northwest Passage that so many explorers died trying to find.

The view from Hubbert's Peak. The peak in question is not a mountain. And the view is depressing. Hubbert's Peak is the high point on a graph depicting world oil production in the past and predicting future oil production. Hubbert's graph is a bell curve, and the peak is the point at which half of the available oil has been used. It's all downhill from there. The concept is named for Marion King Hubbert, who was born in San Saba, Texas, in 1903. The lost San Saba Mine figures prominently in J. Frank Dobie's delightful exploration of Texas folklore titled Coronado's Children. I heard Hubbert speak once at a geological meeting; he had a lopsided face that he explained by saying that a log had rolled on him when he was a child.

Hubbert worked as a geophysicist for the Shell Oil Company for many years. In 1956, he made calculations of U.S. oil reserves and issued a prediction that shook the American oil industry. Many scoffed at Hubbert's forecast that U.S. oil production would peak in the early 1970s. He could hardly have been more accurate. The turnaround came in in 1970, when U.S. oil production reached about nine million barrels per day.

Geologists who are concerned about the exhaustibility of the world's oil supply today have made similar calculations. All predict that another Hubbert's Peak, this time in world oil production, will occur in this decade. And it will come regardless of whether the amount of ultimately discoverable oil is the low estimate of 1.8 trillion barrels or the high estimate of 2.1 trillion barrels.

And if the oil runs out? Optimists point to alternate fuel sources: oil shale, tar sands, natural gas and even coal. But these will only add to the greenhouse effect. If the oil supply will only last for decades, the world's supply of coal is good for hundreds of years, and we may one day see the return of the Stanley Steamer automobile.

Nevertheless, future generations will undoubtedly despise us for what we have been doing with oil. We have been burning it wastefully. But petroleum is an unusual commodity. It can provide raw materials for an infinite variety of products: plastics, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, colorants, fertilizers, pesticides, detergents, artificial fibers. Ever since Edwin L. Drake, a former conductor on the New York & New Haven Railroad, drilled the first American oil well near Titusville, Pennsylvania, our principal use of oil has been to burn it wastefully--first in lamps, then in the engines of automobiles and airplanes, and in the early 1920s, to heat homes.

Our profligate society has greedily plundered the planet of its oil--and other valuable raw materials--as if supplies were endless--without exhibiting an iota of concern for future generations who will populate it.


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Thursday, April 14, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (4/14/05)


A modest proposal. Many Westchester communities are facing a double-digit leap in taxes, but Croton may be sitting on a veritable gold mine. The village has an untapped natural resource: its sweet-tasting water. Drawn from deep wells in aquifers within the bed of the glacial river that carved the Croton Gorge, Croton's water is naturally filtered in these ancient sands and gravels. A former Croton resident visiting from California recently dismissed the village's charms with the statement, "The only thing I miss is Croton's water."

More than half of all Americans drink bottled water today. Sales have exploded and profit margins are astronomical. Bottled water now ranks second among beverages, surpassing milk, coffee and beer. Thanks to heavy advertising, the conventional wisdom is that it's cleaner, safer and better regulated than tap water. It isn't. After testing more than a hundred brands of bottled water, the Natural Resources Defense Council found that a third contained "bacterial contaminants." Several brands contained synthetic organic chemicals or inorganic contaminants.

Deceptive labeling is common, often featuring stylized drawings of mountains, springs and lakes. One bottled water labeled "spring water" actually came from an industrial parking lot next to a hazardous waste site. Other empty terms commonly used on labels include pure, pristine, glacial, natural, purified, premium and mountain water. Three companies account for more than half of bottled water sales in the United States: Pepsico (Aquafina), Coca-Cola (Dasani) and Nestlé (Arrowhead). Surprisingly, many bottled waters are drawn from the municipal system serving the bottler's area. They are then filtered or disinfected before being bottled. In Memphis, Tenn., Pepsico's bottler of Aquafina uses municipal water; in Little Rock, Ark., Coca-Cola's bottler of Dasani uses municipal water. But no municipal water system can equal the quality of Croton water.

Croton should consider the potential of its valuable liquid resource to lighten the tax burden on residents. In Briarcliff in the early days of the last century, Walter Law's Briarcliff Farms bottled and sold its Briarcliff Table Water Company water in New York City. This could never happen today. Many Briarcliff residents assert that the village's water is not even fit to shower in.

First should come a study of the feasibility of a village-owned plant to bottle, label and sell Croton Water. Such a facility could be set up anywhere in the village zoned for such use. Alternatively, Croton could invite one of the major beverage giants to construct and operate such a plant to bottle and sell Croton Water under a licensing arrangement.

Croton water's reputation for purity is widely known, largely spread by Crotonites who have settled in other parts of the country. Anyone who now drinks bottled water could become a customer. Sales might be even larger than anticipated. Just ask residents of neighboring communities about the taste and quality of their water.

Blood bath on the ice. It's the time of terror once again. As you read this, hundreds of heartless men with clubs and skinning knives are fanning out over the ice off eastern Canada. There they beat to death and skin terrified newborn seal cubs only weeks old. They also kill mothers who try to protect their unweaned pups. By the time the killing spree is over in May, more than 300,000 baby seals will have been clubbed to death. The skins go to the inexcusable women's fur trade, which has coined the term "fun furs."]

Some fun! An international team of veterinarians found that over 40 percent of the seal pups are skinned while still alive and conscious. Yet the Canadian government does nothing to suppress this annual atrocity. You can send a message of your disgust over Canadian indifference by boycotting Canada's fish products, widely sold in the U.S. And let them know you are canceling planned tourism in Canada. The Humane Society of the United States ( is spearheading the fight against such brutal slaughter.

Our neighbor to the north justifies the devastating baby seal massacre with the unctuous lie that seals eat too many cod, a species long in decline. Studies show that the overfishing is the reason for cod depletion. Nevertheless, the rest of the so-called civilized world has no reason to be smug. Roadside zoos are little more than shabby animal slums. Rodeos are animal cruelty packaged and sold as Americana. Callous bullfights are not a sport but a branch of the butcher business conducted in stadiums. And the needless animal experimentation of the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries is inhumanity blessed by science. As the Bible warns, "O ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?"

Animals have been largely at the disposal of humans ever since Homo sapiens evolved into a cunning, predatory overlord of the creatures of the earth. The only vertebrate able to torture and kill all forms of sentient life, mankind freely chooses to do so. Over the millennia we have looked at animals as gods, servants, subjects for art, moral examples, a source of food and clothing, and sometimes as companion and friend. These attitudes have evolved without our ever really understanding the wonderful, mysterious creatures who are, as entomologist William Morton Wheeler once put it, "our only companions in an infinite and unsympathetic waste of electrons, planets, nebulae and stars," and a source, therefore, of "perennial joy and consolation."
Self-interest should add its decisive weight to the ethical obligation of stewardship that calls on us to treat other creatures mercifully. We have yet to appreciate animals for what they are--instinctive creatures of marvelous complexity, beauty and mystery. And insofar as rights are concerned, they have as good a title to this planet as we have, if not a better one. After all, they were here first.

A fan's notes. Average salaries for baseball players this season reached $2.63 million. Among the top earners are three New York Yankees: Alex Rodriguez, in the No. 1 spot for the fifth straight year, at $25.7 million. Derek Jeter is fourth at 19.6 million and Mike Mussina fifth at $19 million. San Francisco's Barry Bonds, still on the disabled list after knee surgery, is second at $22 million, and Boston's Manny Ramirez at $19.8 million.

Awesome is the only word to describe the Yankee's payroll. At $199 million, it is well over the combined payrolls of five other major league teams: Cleveland ($41.8 million), Milwaukee ($40.2 million), Pittsburgh ($38.1 million), Kansas City ($36.9 million), Kansas City ($36.9 million) and Tampa Bay ($29.9 million).

Old soldiers. Faced with shortfalls in recruiting volunteers and retaining current enlistees in the Army National Guard and Reserve, the Pentagon has quietly raised the maximum age for new enlistments from 35 to 39 years. Described as a "three-year test," the move comes as recruiters are finding it increasingly difficult to convince prospects to join. And unit commanders find it equally hard to convince troops to remain in uniform beyond their initial contracts.

The Pentagon can only blame itself for the mess. Hundreds of thousands of part-time soldiers have found themselves faced with multiple tours of duty in combat zones, under two-year mobilization orders. Of the 412,000 Guard and Reserve troops activated since Sept. 11, 2001, more than 63,000 have been mobilized twice, increasing the hardships and discontent. Nearly half the forces now serving in the Middle East and Central Asia are from the two reserve components.

Tooting my horn. Having taught nonfiction writing by mail for the past 17 years, my pro bono lessons have been gradually displaced by the Internet. Students are no loner willing to suffer the wait for what has come to be called “snail mail”--and I have found no way to make old-fashioned proofreaders' marks on a computer. One of the blessings of the drop-off in students is that I can now devote more time to my own writing. My first emancipated effort appears in the May issue of Writer's Digest now on newsstands and in bookstores--a playful article entitled, "The Work Habits of Highly Successful Writers."


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