environment

EPA allows experts to comment on oil spill; this looks like progress

We believe in giving credit where credit is due. And so after our recent outrage about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's news conferences where reporters were forbidden to identify government officials who briefed journalists, we today were pleasantly surprised by an EPA news conference that's back in the real world.

Specifically, when EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson did a phone-in presser on the use of dispersants at BP's Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the notice specifically listed the names and titles of lower-ranking EPA staffers who would appear and provide information to the public: Paul Anasta, assistant administrator of EPA's Office of Research and Development; and Dana Tulis, acting director of EPA's Office of Emergency Management. Jane Lubchenco, the Department of Commerce undersecretary in charge of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also was on the call, along with Dave Westerholm, director of NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration.

Thank you, EPA! This is as it should be: Public officials appear at a news conference tell the journalists what they know (and who they are). Then, that information gets transmitted to the public.

Public officials who make statements to the public need to be held accountable for what they say, which can't happen when they journalists don't even know their names, as happened at the press conference last week on EPA's new rules for handling toxic coal ash. This was highlighted in an excellent story about the whole flap by Curtis Brainerd of the Columbia Journalism Review.

Let's hope today's news conference is the start of a trend.

-- Robert McClure

Obama's supposed transparency again belied by hush-hush press conference rules at EPA

Osha Gray Davidson's post on the Society of Environmental Journalists' listserv was at least one funny thing that could be written about the very unfunny way U.S. Environmental Protection Agency squelched open and honest communication with the public today:

“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of  openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”
 

-- Senior administration official.

The quote, of course, is from President Obama, who issued the seemingly sweeping statement of support for government transparency shortly after taking office. As we've pointed out before, though, at least one agency is clearly failing to live up to this mandate: The U.S. EPA.

Today the agency, for the second time in three months, held a news conference on a major announcement and ordered reporters not to reveal the names of EPA officials addressing the public through the news media.

What is the meaning of this? Who are they afraid of?

The first incident happened when U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson held a news conference upon the release of the Obama administration's proposed annual budget in early February. Reporters who phoned in, their phones on mute so they could not object, were told that any EPA assistant administrators or others who spoke were "on background," meaning reporters were free to quote these officials, but not to identify them.Journalists were told if they stayed on the call or at the news conference they were agreeing to these rules. Is this what democracy looks like?

Hanford Nuclear Reservation: Big problems at nation's #1 dump, but stimulus funds speed cleanup

Maybe it was the post-Earth Day glow, or perhaps the prospect of a long-delayed vacation. But today when I and colleagues from the Society of Environmental Journalists visited the most contaminated site in North America, Hanford Nuclear Reservation, I was surprised by the amount of progress that has been made on cleanup.

Now, there's no doubt that Hanford is still a mess. The project is starting to look like it will cost roughly twice as much and take roughly twice as long as originally estimated, as Karen Dorn Steele established on our tour. There's been no shortage of screwups and missteps in the cleanup process. Radioactive waste is leaking into the only part of the Columbia River that still flows naturally, onto the spawning grounds for that so-very-rare commodity on the Columbia, a healthy salmon run.

And, of course, there’s the seemingly never-ending quest to build what has begun to sound like a figment of someone’s imagination: A plant that encases the worst of the wastes in a glass-like substance for longterm storage. Now it’s supposed to be done in 2019. I’ll believe it when I see it.

Despite big environmental challenges, Earth Day signifies hope for humanity

A climate catastrophe roars ahead unchecked. The oceans are turning so acidic they threaten to wipe out sea creatures at the base of the food chain. Bulldozers routinely mangle wetlands. The list goes on. And on. And on.

When Earth Day rolls around, the adage recurs that reporters coming onto the environment beat ought to get a standard-issue Prozac prescription. Because we have to chronicle all this. These examples can only be viewed as colossal failures of our species' effort to live on this planet God gave us without ruining it for future generations.

And yet, in watching the excellent PBS documentary "Earth Days" reviewing the environmental movement on the eve of this 40th anniversary of Earth Day, I had to say that I'm encouraged by the progress homo sapiens has made in my lifetime.

In this country, at least, the air and water are demonstrably cleaner than when millions took took to the streets in 1970 to demand that the government crack down on pollution. We understand that we can't pave over the entire countryside.

And there is an understanding -- increasingly more pervasive -- that we must balance what we need here today with what future generations require if this civlization is to endure.

Even businesses -- at least the forward-thinking ones -- are getting it: If your world is so out of whack that civilization as we know it is destroyed... well, you aren't going to have many customers.

AOL brings us a groundbreaking series on the dangers of nanotechnology

Folks, do yourself a favor and walk, don't run -- OK, just click through -- to see the important new investigative project on the dangers of nanotechnology, and what a pitiful job our government is doing monitoring this technology we now find in our medicine, beauty aids, soaps, sunscreens, clothes and food -- the very stuff we put on and in our bodies.

Nano, it's turning out, often appears to have serious health consequences when scientists look into it -- even causing harmful changes in DNA. Serious stuff, my friends. But it's proliferating at a rate that far eclipses researchers' ability to gauge the technology's danger. And it's being unleashed on America's consumers with almost no regulation.

Here's a pretty good summary of the danger:

"Nanoparticles can heal, but they can also kill. Thanks to their size, researchers have found, they can enter the body by almost every pathway. They can be inhaled, ingested, absorbed through skin and eyes. They can invade the brain through the olfactory nerves in the nose.

"After penetrating the body, nanoparticles can enter cells, move from organ to organ and even cross the protective blood-brain barrier. They can also get into the bloodstream, bone marrow, nerves, ovaries, muscles and lymph nodes.
 

The series is by my former reporting partner, Andy Schneider, who has won two Pulitzer Prizes in the past and could be on his way to another. Andy's a remarkable reporter -- a godsend, really. I'm so glad to see that after getting laid off with a bunch of us from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer a  year ago, he's landed where he can keep doing important journalism.

Obama administration tries to sell itself as more open and transparent; don't believe it

Friends, it's Sunshine Week, the annual push by those who would democratize our government by opening up our government to make our case. So Dateline Earth is taking a one-week hiatus while I populate InvestigateWest's From The Field blog with tales of how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is failing to engage with me and other journalists; how the EPA routinely drags out simple requests for public records; how the Obama administration is going to court to fight numerous requests for public records; and how the Obama administration is no better than George W. Bush's when it comes to squelching government scientists. Finally, courtesy of the Society of Environmental Journalists, we'll provide a list of important information sources for citizens, citizen journalists and yes even full-time journalists to use in prying information out of the government. It's all over at our From The Field blog.

-- Robert McClure  

Help prevent stormwater pollution -- how to capture those April showers with rain gardens, etc.

Former Dateline Earth denizen Lisa Stiffler, now digging up all kinds of interesting material on stormwater and other topics for Sightline.org, came out this week with a helpful hands-on guide to how homeowners can do their part to cut down on stormwater pollution.

The basics: Keep as much rain as you can on your own property. Stiffler outlines how to use a variety of techniques to get the water to soak into the earth right around your castle.

She gives us the rundown on rain gardens (aka bioswales), rain barrels, and even has a link to a Sunset magazine feature on an easy do-it-yourself "green" roof -- meaning vegetated with moss. Like Stiffler, color me skeptical on that one. The example is on a home in the Pacific Northwest, like mine, but one that has a flat, rubberized roof. Mine has asphalt shingles (probably with some zinc washing off -- yech!) and is steeply pitched. So I'm pretty sure that's not going to work at my house.

Anyway, I hope you'll check out Stiffler's post and if that piques your interest, go on to her  report about stormwater, how it's affecting Puget Sound, and what we can do about it. Also, don't miss Stiffler's really interesting look at how a business in south Seatle not only found a way to keep stormwater at bay -- but also saved a bundle of cash.

-- Robert McClure

Lone wolf and lone wolverine -- sad stories, but with ultimately encouraging underlying messages

A thin, scraggly-coated wolf struggles for life, the lone lone survivor of the most-watched of the wolf packs that have grown up in Yellowstone National Park since the reintroduction of wolves there 15 years ago. About 750 miles away in California, a young bachelor wolverine wanders around hunting for a female wolverine to  mate with -- but it's a fruitless search, because the nearest ones are hundreds of miles away. And back in the direction from which he came. 

These two stories that cropped up in the last few days can't help but tug at your heartstrings if you're even a little bit human. I mean, come on -- poor, lonely and doomed animals. How much sadder does it get?

And yet, if you look behind the obvious, these are actually encouraging signs. Here's why:

 

  • As outlined in Brett French's story for the Billings Gazette, there is only one wolf left in the famous Yellowstone wolf pack known as the Druids (near Druid Peak), and she's unlikely to make it through the winter. This is the pack that is probably the most-watched in the world because it frolicked within site of a major road. Mange, attacks by other packs and various other factors combined to kill off all but one of the wolves. But here's the thing -- along the way several other wolf packs spun off this one. And they and other wolves are moving into the Druids' territory. In fact, the demise of this pack shows the success of the reintroduction effort, which I covered in the mid-90s.