Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Case Against Fracking

Recent Op-Ed pieces in prominent newspapers have suggested that with proper regulatory oversight, hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" can be accomplished safely in New York, reducing our dependence on foreign oil and bringing much needed economic benefits to hard-hit areas of the state. If the issue was that simple, and if the statements were true, surely everyone would be in favor.

But the facts don't support these statements, and the issue is not as simple as the TV ads would have citizens believe. Fracking is an inherently dangerous and destructive extreme form of energy extraction that brings with it a myriad of serious environmental and economic problems. Now that we have the opportunity to see how fracking has actually impacted citizens in Pennsylvania and other states, we can more easily distinguish fact from fantasy and make smarter choices for New York.

It's an undisputed fact - although seldom acknowledged by those who make their fortunes by selling energy - that we have the ability to reduce our dependence on foreign oil anytime we want. Dollar for dollar, watt for watt, when it comes to looking for new sources of energy, nothing comes even remotely close to the energy reserves available to us through conservation. No cost, no pollution, no need for government oversight or environmental concern. All that is required is better planning and smarter thinking.

But what about the economic benefits of fracking? Scholarly studies have come down on both sides. Those not sponsored by the gas industry tend to highlight the temporary nature and low-skill level of jobs associated with fracking, and the fleeting economic benefits communities may experience. After all, this highly technical and dangerous work requires highly trained workers who generally come from out of state to work on the rigs, then move on. Local folks may be needed to pour the coffee or flip the burgers, but once the frackers are done, so are those jobs.

What few politicians will admit is that the real economic benefits of fracking accrue to them personally, in the form of large campaign contributions from oil and gas interests. A recent study by Common Cause revealed that gas industry has spent $20 million on the campaigns of current members of Congress. New York politicians have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, according to public sources.

And let's not overlook the real and measurable impacts fracking wreaks on the environment. Contaminated air, for example, is an absolute certainty with fracking, not the potential result of some future accident. The exhaust from thousands of diesel trucks, added to that of generators, pumps and support equipment significantly pollutes the air quality not only in the immediate surrounding area but for hundreds of miles downwind. Exposure to diesel exhaust is a proven cause of both asthma and lung cancer. In areas of Wyoming near fracking operations, air pollution has been measured at levels higher than in downtown Los Angeles.

Environmental concerns also include potential contamination of public water supplies (as has already happened in Dimock, Pennsylvania), the dumping of toxic fracking sludge in remote wooded areas (as happened last week in Pennsylvania) and the transportation of radioactive wastewater to Long Island for processing in local water treatment plants, as contemplated by New York's Department of Environmental Conservation.

Despite the calm assurances of the oil and gas industry and their supporters, we've seen what can happen when industry promises that inherently dangerous activities will be made safe by rigorous oversight.

Exxon promised to carefully transport oil through Prudhoe Bay. BP promised that they would drill safely in the Gulf of Mexico. The engineers at Fukushima promised their safety systems would protect the public. In each case, government regulations were in place to protect us. In each case, they failed.

So here we go again. Money is flowing to politicians, and the airwaves are filled with happy talk about our newfound energy wealth. Will we learn this time, or will we repeat the mistakes of the past? Will New York become a center for green energy and a source of true economic growth, or will we mortgage our children's future so that a few people can make a killing in a dying industry?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

How Green Is My Town?

We're really excited to re-introduce How Green Is My Town?, a simple checklist for towns across America to measure their progress on issues related to climate change, sustainability and environmental health.

It's much more than just a checklist of course. How Green Is My Town? is a blueprint for action and a gateway to hundreds of good ideas from all over the country.

For instance, does your town have a comprehensive environmental policy, or is it a patchwork of initiatives divided among various departments? If it's the latter, chances are good that your town is missing an opportunity (or is it responsibility?) to be part of the solution.

But not to worry. How Green Is My Town? has a simple policy any town can adopt right now, plus links to governmental agencies and non-profit organizations that are ready to help your town get started.

Sixty four questions. Sixty four solutions. All in one place.

So, how is your town doing in it's effort to be green? Now you can find out. Visit How Green Is My Town?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

It's A Wireless World, But Is It Safe?

The mad rush to integrate wireless technology into every aspect of our lives is racing ahead, fueled by a powerful and relentless telecommunications industry. Speculators hoping to cash in on the boom, and political leaders (and consumers) are woefully unaware of emerging science linking wireless exposure to negative health effects. But the voices of caution are beginning to make themselves heard, and it may be just in time.

Our guest a few weeks ago on our Green Street radio show, Deborah Kopald, was eloquent in her description of the problems inherent in wireless technology, and what may be in store for us in the future unless we act quickly. Among other things, she alerted us to the actions of the FCC, which is supporting the dismantling of the current national wired infrastructure. This action will result in the eventual but unavoidable adoption of wireless technology for virtually all communications.

While the opponents of wireless don't yet have enough research to conclusively prove the link between chronic low-level exposure to non-ionizing radiation and cancer and other health effects, there is mounting evidence pointing in that direction. As a result, other countries (where governments may be less prone to industry pressure) are acting to protect their citizens by limiting the use of wireless technologies, and in some cases, removing existing wireless installations.

At the very least, we need to protect our most vulnerable populations - children and pregnant women - from needless exposure to wireless radiation. Schools should be "wireless-free" zones, and women who are expecting should learn to un-plug wireless tranmitters at home when not in use, especially wireless baby monitors.

It's frustrating that the burden of protecting the health of the citizens in this country is being borne increasingly by individuals and non-profits, instead of the government which has both the resources and the responsibility.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The "Kill" Switch

For a few years after college, our daughter Maggie, a trained architect and green designer, had a small business helping clients make their homes and apartments healthy and energy-efficient places to live. Many of her clients had small children, and one of the things Maggie always recommended was a "kill switch" in the child's bedroom that would shut off all the power in the room to eliminate electro-magnetic fields, as well as save energy.

The political uproar over fracking in New York reminds me once again how companies with money and political connections can force us to have the wrong conversations about energy - conversations which are divisive, unnecessary, and which successfully divert our attention from the obvious truths right under our collective noses.

Hands down, the cleanest, cheapest and most abundant energy resource in America today - and one we can utilize tomorrow without building infrastructure or power plants - is conservation. The potential of conservation dwarfs the alleged potential of fracking, or even nuclear energy. According to a study from the German Aersoapce Centre, a 47% reduction in worldwide energy demand is possible in the future if we get serious about it.

Which brings me back to Maggie and the Kill Switch. Shouldn't every home, apartment and business be required to have an "Energy Kill Switch" just inside the front door that would automatically adjust the thermostats and shut off power to every non-essential outlet? Keep power to the refrigerator, the freezer and the alarm system, but kill the lights, the computer, the cable box and all our other appliances that are plugged in and draining small - but measurable - amounts of energy every minute?

We could generate tens of thousands of jobs, reduce greenhouse gases and save billions of dollars while we reduce our energy requirements and finally achieve true energy independence. As a side benefit, we could tell the fracking companies to go home.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Health Risks of Fracking

"Fracking." It even sounds like something you're not supposed to do. No wonder the industry was hoping that it's own phrase "hydraulic fracturing" would take root in the public vernacular. But alas, no. The word fracking seems to be here to stay, spit out like an expletive by its opponents as the battle over this particular form of extreme energy extraction rages across New York State.

A few weeks ago Patti was in Albany to attend the New York State Assembly hearing on health affects associated with fracking. Scientist and author Sandra Steingraber was there, explaining to legislators how fracking works, what it does, and why it opens up so many possibilities for environmental havoc.

From the irreversible contamination of drinking water to the pollution of the air from the tens of thousands of diesel trucks lumbering across the state transporting toxic chemicals, few other endeavors offer as much in the way of potential disaster as fracking.

Of course, it's the future generations of New Yorkers - the ones who are very young, or not yet born - who will bear the brunt of this assault on our environment. Not only are children more heavily impacted by environmental insults than adults, but over their lifetimes they will be exposed to much more of the toxins associated with fracking than the grownups who will be making the decision to allow, or prohibit, this extreme form of energy extraction in New York State.

BTW There are two more videos on our fracking page.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Thank You, New York!

Today is a historic and fantastic day for the kids of New York, although chances are few of them know it. Today, the Child Safe Playing Fields Act goes into effect in the state, prohibiting the use of pesticides on school grounds at all schools, public and private, up to grade 12, and including daycare centers.

To celebrate the occasion, Patti and I visited legislators in Albany yesterday to thank them for their hard work on this issue, and congratulate them for doing such a great job. The New York legislation is a model for all states. As the song says, "If we can do it here, we can do it anywhere."

Here's Patti talking with the two prime sponsors of the bill, Assemblymen Steve Englebright and Robert Sweeney. The poster in Sweeney's hand is the "Thank You, New York" poster we created, which was signed by almost every environmental and health organization in the state. You can see the full-resolution poster here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Organic Lawn Mindset

Several years ago we started our award-winning “Grassroots Healthy Lawn Program,” designed to increase both the demand for organic lawn services and the supply of trained professionals who can deliver those services. Over the past few years, hundreds of landscapers and turf managers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts have gone through our two-day intensive course.

So naturally, we’re delighted that the demand for organic lawn care has skyrocketed as the public has become increasingly aware of the dangers posed by typical lawn chemicals, especially for children, pets and pregnant women.

But there’s also bad news: some of the landscapers offering organic lawn care services don’t really “get it.” Worse, some of them don’t even believe it!

Organic lawn care is based on the principle that if we create the best possible environment for grass to grow, nature’s own systems will take care of most of the problems that plague chemically-maintained lawns. What’s the best defense against weeds? A thick, healthy lawn. How do you discourage crabgrass? Adjust your soil pH to 6.8. Got a yard full of broadleaf plantain? You need to aerate your soil.

So if you’re a landscaper who has spent his entire career believing that lawn care is a battle between you and pests, and that your primary job is to kill them, then you’ll probably never succeed in organic lawn care. Unfortunately, most university turf and agricultural research programs are heavily funded by chemical companies whose products are primarily designed to kill pests.

If you’re looking for an organic landscaper, find one who has been through the Grassroots Healthy Lawn program, the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) 5-day Course, or the course offered by the Nature Lyceum. At least you can be sure they’ve studied with people who get it.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Unwelcome Signs of Spring

As the crocuses and daffodils bravely make their way out of the ground to signal the start of a new season, we know that other, less welcome signs of spring are probably not far behind. Those bright yellow pesticide application flags that spring up on neighborhood lawns and playing fields this time of year are sober reminders that emerging science linking pesticides with serious health problems for humans and pets (not to mention water contamination and environmental destruction) has not yet fully reached the public consciousness

There’s no longer much dispute among environmental toxicologists or medical experts about the potential impact of pesticides on human development. Asthma, certain types of cancers, birth defects, reproductive and neuro-developmental problems (all of which are on the rise) have all been associated with exposure to these chemicals. Children and women who are pregnant are particularly vulnerable.

Pesticides are also potentially harmful to pets, who roll in the grass and groom themselves by licking their paws and fur. A National Cancer Institute study showed that dogs whose owners treated their lawns with 2,4-D herbicide (usually the “weed” part of those popular “weed-and-feed” products) were twice as likely to contract canine lymphoma.

"Natural" or "organic" lawn care is the fastest growing segment of the green industry, and we're proud of the role Grassroots has played in helping to make that happen through our professional education seminars, our informational videos, our consumer flyers and our ever-popular "green lawn cards." But obviously we've got a long way to go.

Happy Spring to all our Grassroots friends!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Magical Thinking on Fluoride

The world is a strange place. Take fluoride, for example. In this country, the handling and disposal of hydrofluorosilicic acid - an industrial by-product from the phosphate fertilizer industry - is closely monitored and regulated by the EPA. That is, until it is sold as a product. Then, as if by magic, this highly toxic substance no longer requires oversight by the EPA. It is transported freely across the country and is added to public drinking water supplies, so that everyone who drinks the water also drinks some of the toxic chemical.

Unlike the fluoride used in toothpaste, hydrofluorosilicic acid is not pharmaceutical-grade quality. It is a corrosive acid, usually unpurified. Exposure to fluoride has been associated with developmental problems in infants and increased levels of lead in children’s blood.

Now, anyone who grew up watching television knows that fluoride helps prevent tooth decay (or so we've been told), so you might think that adding the chemical to drinking water might help reduce tooth decay, but there is actually no scientific evidence to support this theory. The only measurable benefit scientists can document comes from the topical application of fluoride, not from systemic ingestion.

The practice of adding fluoride to drinking water has been banned in most European countries, but here in the United States it is still widely accepted, with government agencies and industrial producers stubbornly clinging to the notion that exposing the entire population to this chemical, without their consent, is wise and just. We strongly disagree.

If you live in an area where fluoride isn't added to your water supply, consider yourself lucky. If not, you might want to think about getting your family a good quality
water filter.

- Doug

P. S. We had Dr. Paul Connett on our Green Street radio show last year. To hear the show, click here.

Friday, January 7, 2011

New York State: Guardians of the Public Health

A few years ago a title like this would have seemed highly unlikely. And given last year's political spectacle in Albany, you might think nothing much could possibly have been accomplished. Nevertheless, we think 2010 is going to go down in history as the year New York got serious about the public's environmental health. Consider the evidence:

• In May, the State passed truly historic legislation prohibiting the use of pesticides on playing fields at all public and private schools in the state, grades K-12, as well as day care centers. This is the most comprehensive law of its kind anywhere in the country.

• In October, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation announced "Be Green Organic Yards, NY" - a groundbreaking program to train and certify private landscapers in natural (non-pesticide) turf management. No other state offers such a program.

• Just last month, the Interagency Committee on Sustainability and Green Procurement announced a list of "Chemicals for Consideration," containing scores of known or suspected carcinogens, endocrine disruptors and other bio-accumulative toxins. The list will be used by all State agencies making purchasing decisions.

As a member of the Governor's Advisory Council on Sustainability and Green Procurement, I can tell you it was exciting and gratifying to see all our hard work and persistence pay off. For once, I felt we had really moved the ball forward in a significant way.

All three of these initiatives embrace the Precautionary Principle - the idea that the government can and should take action to protect the public's health even when absolute proof of cause and effect has not yet been established.

Now the fight to protect the public's health moves to other states across the country, but with New York leading by example, we hope other state governments will find it easier to move forward on these extremely important issues. We are proud to have been able to play a role in New York's actions this year.

- Patti