Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A Land So Fair

Boy, were they quiet about it! Consider that I’m a news junkie, that I’m from Wisconsin, and that I care I-suppose-you-could-say passionately about environmental issues. So why didn’t I know about line 61, about which the company that operates it says this:

As part of our ongoing efforts to meet North America’s needs for reliable and secure transportation of petroleum energy supplies, Enbridge is expanding the average annual capacity of Line 61 from 560,000 barrels per day (bpd) to 1.2 million bpd.

And where is that expansion? Check it out:

OK—Enbridge wants to transport over a million barrels of tar sand oil through Wisconsin every day: Is that a problem?

Regular crude oil is plenty toxic, but the tar sand oils are an environmental disaster at every level.

Let’s start with the sand that you need to fracture the oil wells: That sand has to be very fine, and Wisconsin has the fortune or misfortune to have the largest source of the rock that produces the sand in the nation. So there was a boom in production of the sand in the last decade or so, a boom four which the state’s environmental protection agency was completely unprepared.

Hmmm…or was it? According to my lights, it had been very carefully prepared indeed, and from many angles, and it was prepared to do absolutely nothing.  Why? Well, consider this quote from the Scientific American, tellingly and heart-breakingly titled “How Scott Walker Dismantled Wisconsin’s Environmental Legacy.”

Since taking office in 2011 Walker has moved to reduce the role of science in environmental policymaking and to silence discussion of controversial subjects, including climate change, by state employees. And he has presided over a series of controversial rollbacks in environmental protection, including relaxing laws governing iron mining and building on wetlands, in both cases to help specific companies avoid regulatory roadblocks. Among other policy changes, he has also loosened restrictions on phosphorus pollution in state waterways, tried to restrict wind energy development and proposed ending funding for a major renewable energy research program housed at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

So now we have an explosion of sand mines, and that sand is extremely fine, making it easy for it to become airborne, and also causing silicosis, which can lead to lung cancer. And according to one source, 79 percent of air samples in frac sand sites exceed the levels of silicone established by OSHA. Right—the miners wear masks, but what do you do about little Billy, five years old and living downwind from a mine?

So the sand is bad enough, but the fracturing? Well, first of all, it requires a huge amount of water, and then produces a correspondingly huge amount of very contaminated sludge, about which nobody knows what to do, so people have been digging ponds, most of which are leaking. And as you can see in the video below, wildlife is severely affected, both by drinking it and by—in the case of birds—being coated in it.

And so what gets produced? Well, it's tar sand oil, the bulk of which is drilled in Alberta, Canada, and it's particularly nasty stuff: It can lead to things as minor as a headache to diseases as lethal as leukemia. So from a public health point of view, wouldn’t it be logical not to expose as many people as possible to the oil? Of course, but what have we done? Chosen to ship—either by rail or by pipeline—the stuff all the way across the country.

Which is precisely what Enbridge, the largest distributer of natural gas in Canada, and the operator of—in their words—“the longest crude oil and liquid hydrocarbons transportation system in the world” does.

How long is that system? Well, it goes from Superior, Wisconsin, to a refinery near Chicago, but that’s only the system in the USA (on different lines of the system, the pipelines cover 1900 miles); in Canada, the figure falls to a little over 1400 miles. So that’s 3300 miles of pipeline for both countries; that’s not bad if you’re piping water, it’s potentially disastrous if you’re piping oil.

And in fact, it was either very nearly disastrous or absolutely disastrous, depending on your point of view, when the pipeline broke on 25 July 2010 near Marshall, Michigan, and began flowing into a creek that fed into the Kalamazoo river that would later flow into Lake Michigan.

Back up five years—that’s when, according to an investigation by the National Traffic and Safety Board, Enbridge first knew that they had problems on that part of the line, but chose not to, or at least didn’t, act. Why would they do that? According to one critic-turned-whistleblower, John Bolenbaugh, it was financially a better deal to let a spill happen, and then have the insurance company pick up the tab, than it was to do routine maintenance. (As an aside, the tar sand oil is apparently especially toxic and corrosive on pipes.)

Nor was that all: Enbridge decided that the alarms were false, due to a bubble in the pipeline, so the solution? Instead of shutting down, they increased the pressure on the line, so that when finally, after 17 hours, they realized they had a leak, 81 percent of the amount spilled occurred in those 17 hours.

 That was because the boys in the monitoring station were in Edmonton, Canada, and not smelling what the boys fishing down by the river were smelling, which was very strong indeed. Oh, and they were also getting headaches….

How bad was it? The worst inland spill in the country, nor was that all, because it turns out that tar sand oil reacts differently in water than crude oil. Crude oil stays on the surface and is relatively easy to collect: We were in uncharted seas with tar sand oil. So we had to learn that tar sand oil initially stays on the surface, releases hydrocarbons such as benzene, and then sinks to the sea or river floor, and what to do with that?

Ah, for the days of American ingenuity! Because I would love to have read, as I now will love to write, “Enbridge’s expert team of haz-mat professions instantly realized and conceived a special vacuuming process (since patented) that scoured each millimeter of the river bed, collected any trace of oil or other chemicals, transferred it to custom-made tanks, which were then taken to a disaster response center, which had rockets ready in order to shoot the hazardous material into space, to incinerate the material as well as the rocket itself outside of the fragile tissue of our precious atmosphere. At Enbridge, we care!”

No, that wasn’t the sentence (run-on intended, all the better to obfuscate and lull you into passivity) that got written.  Instead, Enbridge pretty much told the EPA what they were going to do, which is why I could view in one video the fascinating spectacle of the side of the boat, the oil-drenched river, and the hand reaching down to clean up this toxic mess with…

…a paper towel!

Guys? That’s something I’d do!

Well, they got more clever as time went on. According to whistle-blower Bolenbaugh, they scooped up whatever was visible, took it to a field, dumped in out, pulled layers of burlap or canvas or whatever, put a topping of soil on that, and then seeded it. Viola! Instant meadow—just don’t dig to deep.

Or stir the riverbed too much, since, as the videos make clear, you’ll get a plume of oily who-knows-what floating down the river. So they poured in rocks, then sand, and…

This was too much for even the EPA, which ordered further dredging. It was all bad enough for the director of the NTSB, Deborah Hersman, to say that Enbridge officials acted, “like the Keystone cops.”

Unless, of course, you were the whistle-blower, who got the ax the very morning after he blew the whistle, and then started getting death threats. All of which were freaking him out enough to start putting videos of his motorcycle with two screws missing on the front tire, and his neighbor opining that those screws were designed never to come out.

Full disclosure—yes, he looks nuts. But remember that old adage that even paranoiacs have enemies? It’s all on his website: you judge.

Nor was the public unaffected, and Bolenbaugh got all of that on camera, too, and pretty compelling it is, especially if you have never seen a person having a seizure. I have, and if the video’s is an act, I hope it wins the Oscar.

Nor was it the case that you had to be sick to get Enbridge’s attention, you had to be sick in the right location, which meant that unless you had the river passing through your living room—right, I know I should edit that out, but watch the videos, and you’ll get steamed, too—well, you were probably a malingerer or hoping for a handout.

Apparently, it was all so bad that Enbridge had to buy 134 houses. The catch? Well, they got them at fire sale prices, cleaned up their mess (maybe) and then sold at a higher price. So says—of course—the whistleblower.

The videos are wrenching in part because of the constant complaint, which I find utterly true, that “they don’t care”—with the “they” being Enbridge. To which I would reply that of course they don’t care, and perhaps they shouldn’t. Why? Because corporations don’t care until it’s too expensive not to care, which is why we have regulatory bodies like the EPA and the NTSB that have enough teeth to gnash the corporation into shreds and fed it to their cubs, and then loll in the sun, looking at the bones and the carnage. Then—trust me—the corporations will care.

So it was a disaster, a disaster of over one million US gallons of extremely toxic muck spilled that got into the creek and then into the river, and almost—though who knows, maybe it did—got into Lake Michigan. Which is connected, you do remember from 5th grade geography, to all of the other Great Lakes, and which are scenic, yes, but also provide a lot of water for however-many-millions to drink.  

One final irony: Everybody is reporting seriously that they “closed” the river, which I found curious, because I have seen rivers, including the mighty Mississippi, and it was very much my impression that a river flowed, so had someone found the faucet handle that could turn off a river? If so, not doing so was criminal negligence when we had all that flooding five or ten years ago. But no, closing a river simply meant that humans could not swim or boat or even go near it. But what about fish and wildlife? You know the answer.

A long piece, I know. But Enbridge, this Enbridge, this fair country—sorry, company—is the very company that wants to “upgrade” the pipeline so that one million barrels will pass through…. OK—I think I did the math, which was to figure out that a barrel contains 31.5 US gallons, multiply that by 1,000,000 (barrels per day), divide by 24 (hours per day) and then get the figure of 1,312, 500 (gallons per hour). And that means? That we could have a spill as bad as Michigan’s in under an hour. A spill in Wisconsin, my home state.

Remember Wisconsin?

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

A Crisis on Ideological Grounds

“I never read the newspaper, it’s too depressing,” would say my students.

And my reaction?

“An informed citizenry is necessary to maintain a democracy, so you don’t have a choice. Your responsibility is to keep yourself informed.”

My students, by and large, loved me: They rarely, however, took me seriously. There was the time that I argued for ride sharing and car pools, but this, of course, was impossible, since what would happen if their child took sick, and needed to be taken from school?

“It’s precisely for you children, and their future, that you should give up your car!”

So the students continued driving to work, and listening to local radio, most of which were addressing the vital issues of what local star Maripily was currently up to, or speculating on what person infected local model La Taína with HIV.

But there were two or three subjects guaranteed to stir discussion: There was the fact that virtually everyone was scrambling to send their kids to private schools, since what happens when the teacher is sick? Well, they’re sent home, if there’s a home to be sent to, since most of the parents were working. So that means that the kids were on the street, and that was where you didn’t want them.

A sort of Stockholm Syndrome had overtaken them, those good students of mine, since how could they simply shrug, pay five or six thousand a year to a private school, all the while driving past a “free” public school? “Free” in quotes since they were paying for it via taxes. Shouldn’t they be pounding on the principal’s desk, demanding that he or she get a substitute teacher?

“I’d be shouting that if anything happened to my kids while they were out on the streets, I’d sue the pants off him or her,” I used to say. But no, there was no system of substitutes in Puerto Rico? Why? Well, there just wasn’t.

Nor was it the case that the principals were shouting, since for years I took the bus to Rio Piedras, home of the University of Puerto Rico, and went to the center of the city to take a bus to Caguas. Fine, but I had to leap over a drain that was spewing sewage, and had been doing so for months. The drain was immediately in front Hawthorne School, but where was the good New England outrage? Where were the parents, and where was the principal?

There can be no outrage without an implied belief in the system, and it has been that cynicism that has brought us to this default of more than 70 billion in municipal bonds.

Son todos pillos,” they’re all thieves, said my students of the politicians.

“Then it’s our responsibility to elect politicians who are honest,” I would say.

More shrugs!

We all accepted it—the government was never meant to provide services, it was meant to provide jobs to all of our relatives when the party they supported was in power. Right—if we were part of the ruling / technocrat class, the government was meant to be a siphon for kickbacks and corruption schemes. So everybody had a story about their father or mother, laboring fiercely in whatever government agency it happened to be, but the three or four people around them? Hah, just sitting on their….

So the government got huge, and that meant unwieldy, and nobody objected when there were three or four agencies doing or more like not doing the same thing. So in my infant years in Puerto Rico, I would ask Mr. Fernández stupid questions, like…

“So why does Puerto Rico have twice as many people as Wisconsin on the government payroll, even though Wisconsin has—roughly—twice as many people? Oh, and it’s a lot larger….”

Mr. Fernández would sigh….

So the government borrowed for years, and then the winds of the coming crisis began to be felt, and what was our response to that? ¡Qué paguen los ricos! Or Let the rich pay, but tell me, somebody, who are the rich? I had breakfast with a Cuban guy who came here at age 8, started his company, which now employs 200 people, and so is he “un rico?” You bet, but why should he pay? If a Cuban is providing jobs to 200 Puerto Ricans, well, shouldn’t we be thanking him and not sticking it to him?

So the last time we went to the bond market, didn’t we know perfectly well what we were doing? Bonds usually yield a 3 percent interest, ours were going for nine to ten. Why was that? Because they were high-risk, and that was the only was to sell them. And who buys high risk? Hedge funds, and their nastier cousins, the vulture funds.

If capitalism courses through your veins, you would point out that the vulture funds do what vultures do in the woods: clear out the dead and rotting flesh. Those of a more liberal bent would say that, well, usury is usury.

So hedge funds make up about half of our holders of debt, but the other half? Retirees, 401K contributors, and in the fight between the hedge funds and the ordinary investor, guess who comes into the ring fifty pounds heavier, and fifty fights more experienced? Which is why, of course, they forced us to promise various things—like any litigation be done in New York, not San Juan, and …oh, wasn’t there something about paying them first?

So it’s going to be long and messy, because the only sure thing is that the lawyers will have a merry day ahead, since there’s no orderly was to get out of this situation, which means that everything will get into the courts, and then have to be appealed.

Yes, long and messy, but who ultimately bears the responsibility? Isn’t blaming the vulture funds like blaming the pusher for your cocaine addiction? Yes, the cabotage laws that require us to use on US flagged cargo ships are unfair…but wait, are they? Caribbean Business doesn’t think so, and here’s the link. And yes, The Walmarts and Walgreen’s are the dandelions on our economic lawn, but do you do your shopping at Colmado Morales?

And certainly the United States hasn’t bothered to do anything about our political status, and so for 115 years or so, we’ve been a colony. But we’re here in the Caribbean, and we’re surrounded by former colonies from Trinidad / Tobago up to Cuba. So why has Puerto Rico not done through peaceful or violent means what all the other islands have done? Is it really up to the US to figure out what to do with us? Trust me, if the answer is yes, and statehood were imposed, well, as a gringo, I think I’d stay home that day. OK—month.

And now, we have only 40% of the population working, the rest being subsidized with food stamps and housing and the government health card. Most of it coming from the feds, and isn’t it time to say that the colonial relationship between the Congo and Belgium is hardly the same as ours with the US? Or is that pitiyankee?

V. S. Naipaul once wrote, if I remember correctly, that the tragedy of the Caribbean islands is that they never developed a national idea of what they represented, of their purpose or mission in the world. We are, most of us, descended from slaves or pirates, and how far have we travelled?    

I have questions, I have no answers, but what do I know?

The answers are coming and…

…I don’t want to see them.