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Archive for December, 2008

Aww, Shucks!

The Dallas Morning News wrote a sweet editorial last week lauding Public Citizen’s efforts to require that Luminant abide by stricter mercury emissions standards at the new Oak Grove coal-fired power plant under construction near Waco:

When authorities failed to require Luminant, formerly TXU, to abide by stricter federal emissions standards at a coal-fired power plant under construction near Waco, the Sierra Club and another watchdog group, Public Citizen, had to step in.

The groups threatened to sue Luminant when it got a pass from state environmental regulators to use more relaxed, older pollution standards at its two-unit Oak Grove power plant near Waco instead of following tighter new restrictions for mercury emissions…

Clearly, the Sierra Club and Public Citizen meant business with their lawsuit, bolstered by a federal appeals court ruling in February that said the Environmental Protection Agency had to enforce mandatory cuts for mercury emissions at power plants, as the Clean Air Act requires. Mandatory means companies like Luminant can’t regard compliance as optional or arguable.

The lawsuit would have proved costly and could have delayed next year’s scheduled opening of Oak Grove, so Luminant worked out a deal to ensure that its emissions stay within Clean Air Act limits. Luminant promises to control mercury emissions using “maximum achievable control technology,” but if it still exceeds limits, the Oak Grove plant could be forced to curtail operations.

If this is what it takes to make Luminant and other polluting power companies abide by the law, at least Texans can breathe easier knowing they’re in compliance. We still look forward to the day when coercion is replaced by cooperation in the effort to clean up the air we breathe. Until then, watchdog groups deserve praise and support for making sure pollution standards are respected – and enforced.

Oh, stop it, Dallas Morning News!  You’re making us blush! Many thanks to the editorial board for giving credit where credit is due.  It sure is nice to feel appreciated :)

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santaTexas cities are working extra hard this holiday season on efficiency measures of all shapes and sizes. Do you think they’re looking for energy and resource savings, or could this just be a last minute push to make Santa’s “nice” list? In keeping with the holiday spirit, I’ll applaud these cities for good behavior, motives aside.

HOUSTON

The Houston City Council approved a $16.4 million contract last week to replace city traffic signals with energy efficient LED lights. The new lights will save the city more than $4 million a year on electricity bills.

Said city mayor Bill White,

“We want to use energy-efficient lighting and make energy-efficient improvements for the same reason that Wal-Mart does, and that is to reduce costs and save money over the long run and to give Houston a competitive advantage.”

The city has several other green initiatives in the works, such as stepping up recycling programs, installing solar panels, buying renewable energy and hybrid vehicles, and establishing new building energy codes.

tree

Houston decided to festoon its official holiday tree with LED lights as well, meaning that this year’s tree will use one-tenth the energy of last year’s spruce.

And last but not least, city officials announced the winners of Houston’s “Recycle Ike!” contest to determine the best way to recycle tree debris from September’s disastrous hurricane. A team of Rice students and scientists won first place for their plan to turn the waste into biomass charcoal (“biochar”) in a pilot bioreactor to be built on campus.

AUSTIN

Austinites need not turn green with envy, because our city has recently rolled out some great new initiatives as well.

My favorite is the Pecan Street Project, a new smart-grid project. Says Brewster McCracken, the mayor pro-tem,

“The goal of the Pecan Street Project is to provide one power plant’s worth of clean, renewable energy, and to produce it within the city of Austin.”

A smart grid would allow utilities to deliver energy more efficiently and provide customers with the information to make more efficient energy choices.

For more information on smart grids, check out Kate Galbraith’s post on Green, Inc., the New York Times’ energy and environment blog.

The Austin City Council has also been discussing a new “zero-waste” plan to keep 90% of the city’s waste out of landfills by2040. The Council is slated to vote on the plan this Thursday. I hope they remember that Santa’s watching!

irrigation

ROUND ROCK

The city of Round Rock is also looking into an ordinance to get customers to consume less water. The ordinance would jack up the cost of water for excessive users during dry summer months, educate people on the need for conservation, and step up conservation efforts citywide.

I’d say all that deserves a holiday “Huzzah”!

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The fossil fuel industry should get a lump of coal this holiday but I’m sure they’d be happy with that. Scientists at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco this week are giving us some alarming news about polar ice cap melt, glacier loss, and other threats from climate change.

Global warming is causing massive ice melting at the poles of over 2 trillion tons of ice this year. This creates even more warming as less of the sun’s rays are reflected off the white ice cap and are absorbed by the dark ocean. Scientists are incredibly alarmed at this rate. This amount of arctic warming and ice loss was predicted to occur decades from now, meaning we are warming much faster than scientists had expected. One article in the UK Times this morning even asked Has Arctic Melt Passed the Point of No Return?

There isn’t much good news to be had, but at least melting arctic sea ice doesn’t add significantly to sea level rise. Melting ice from Greenland’s glaciers, however, does– and they lost a piece of ice last year more than twice the size of Manhattan. Scientists are concerned because Greenland lost three times more ice this year than only a few years ago, showing the speed at which warming is accelerating.

NOAA has shown just how bad this ice melt has been in the last few years:

And why is this bad news for Mr. Claus? Continued ice melt like this, will, most likely, put Santa’s workshop underwater, which I guess will look something like this:

So what do we do? The most recent climate conference in Posnan left a lot of people hoping for more. We need to plot a course that will keep climate change from under 2 degrees worldwide, which probably means stabilizing CO2 at 350 parts per million or less. That would require strong federal legislation in this next year which will cut our emissions by at least 80% by mid century and 25% by 2020.

~~Citizen Andy

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An investigative report by USAToday brought me to tears this morning.

Granted, I am a particularly emotional person at a period of transition in my life. I just started a new job (here, with Public Citizen!) in a new town (loving Austin already), and am living out of a suitcase. Things are rather in flux, and my emotional state may have followed suit. But I think that even beyond all that, USA Today’s recent report finally made air toxics issues hit home.

Cesar Chavez High School In Houston, TX

USAToday’s report, entitled “The Smokestack Effect: Toxic Air and America’s Schools”, ranks 127,800 schools nationwide based upon the concentrations and health hazards of the chemicals likely to be in the surrounding air.

The report was initiated after Meredith Hitchens Elementary School in Addyston, Ohio was closed due to the danger posed by the surrounding air. Air monitors placed near the school recorded extremely high levels of toxics coming from the plastics plant across the street. When the Ohio EPA determined that students were being exposed to cancer at levels 50 times higher than what the state deems an acceptable risk, the school was shut down.

Following this story, USAToday spent 8 months examining the extent and danger of schools located in toxic hot spots. Using the EPA’s own models for tracking toxic industrial chemicals, USAToday found 435 schools across the country with air quality worse than that which caused the closure of Hitchens Elementary School. Though the Environmental Protection Agency has a special office dedicated to protecting children’s health, the agency has never used their own data or models to look at potential problems surrounding schools. Nor does the office set health and safety standards for children in schools, as they do for adults in the workplace.

Philip Landrigan, a physician who heads Mount Sinai School of Medicine’s children’s health and the environment unit, comments on this problem in the article:

“The mere fact that kids are being exposed ought to be enough to force people to pay attention. The problem here is, by and large, there’s no cop on the beat. Nobody’s paying attention.”

Children are particularly susceptible to the health risks associated with toxic chemical exposure. Because or their small size, children breathe in more air in relation to their weight than adults. Their bodies are also still in a formative state, making early exposure all the more dangerous. And since kids are required to spend so many childhood hours in school, toxins are likely to accumulate in their bodies and not cause problems until years later.

Unfortunately, the names of several Texas schools peppered this national article. The first was San Jacinto Elementary School in Deer Park:

“At San Jacinto Elementary School in Deer Park, Texas, data indicated carcinogens at levels even higher than the readings that prompted the shutdown of Hitchens. A recent University of Texas study showed an “association” between an increased risk of childhood cancer and proximity to the Houston Ship Channel, about 2 miles from the school.”

The USAToday report’s findings were based upon EPA data and industry estimates. That means, unfortunately, that even what they’ve reported “may be a gross underestimate”, because industries only estimate their emissions. For the most part, dangerous chemical carcinogens such as benzene and butadiene are not monitored because they are not regulated by the EPA. USAToday’s report suggested that Deer Park might be a hot spot particularly worthy of such monitoring because students are exposed to very high levels of carcinogens at area elementary, middle, and high schools – that is, throughout every level of their education and development.

Port Neches-Groves High School in Port Neches, Texas, was featured as a major part of the report. That’s because 27 graduates of Port Neches schools have sued the chemical plants there or there former owners after being diagnosed with cancer… (more…)

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Got a few seconds? Austin Energy has a survey tool on the Austin Smart Energy website to solicit feedback on their current energy mix and where to get new energy.

Public Citizen is a stakeholder in the process.  We will do our best to advocate for lots of renewables and more efficiency.

And coming soon, for the extra nerdy, the site will have a sim game where you can play the role of GM Roger Duncan and simulate different future energy scenarios. I can’t wait! I might make pewter figurines of utility planners and stay up all night drinking Dr. Pepper.

-Matt

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