Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
December 28, 2008

Looking Back With Mixed Feelings
I’m not going to try to review the year in this column. Too much is happening these days to even keep up with the major stories of a week. But I admit I sneaked a peak at what I wrote as a
year end review last year.

While nearly all of my predications regarding the developing economic and environmental crises were right on the money it’s hard to feel satisfaction when these correct calls were accompanied by widespread misery. Still, I’ve always tried to follow the maxim Malcolm X made popular, tell it like it is.

I know many readers are looking forward to the new year with great optimism because of the change in administration in Washington. I’m afraid I can’t share the euphoria so many express.

To me getting a new President is sort of like getting a new boss. They’re not all the same. Some are bullies, others sweet-talkers. Some are bright, others not so much. Given a choice you might prefer one over another. But, at the end of the day, they are all bosses with different interests than you. They never forget that–and neither should we.

The new man in the White House will be less abrasive, more articulate, and perhaps a little smarter than his predecessor. But make no mistake; he’s there to do the same job–use the power of government to advance the interests of the very same Establishment that brought us the present lame duck resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

I predict that during the “honeymoon” ahead the wars, the economic crisis, the environmental crisis will continue along their present paths. There will be no Employee Free Choice Act. We won’t see single-payer healthcare.

We won’t see needed change for our side as long as the working class puts hope in a better boss. I stand by what I wrote last year,

“Do I then conclude this less than cheerful New Year message by advising to abandon all hope? If we rely on the Establishment running America to do the right thing, there is no hope. If we do nothing, there is no hope.

“But we’re the working class–we have the power to do more than hope. Nothing gets done without us–just about anything can be done by us. The greedy, and increasingly incompetent masters in our workplaces and government dominate only because we have not effectively challenged them as a class.”

Last year one of the few bright spots I saw on the horizon was the Labor Notes Rebuilding Labor’s Power conference. That event did exceed expectations. A thousand labor activists turned out to discuss how to keep the struggle going in difficult times.

There’s no Labor Notes national conference this year so we are taking an initiative in Kansas City to gather those interested in pursuing independent struggle of our class during the inevitable honeymoon period of caution, apology, and inaction. While we expect participants will mainly come from the Midwest, all will be welcome at the New Crises, New Agendas conference April 3-4. Look for our official call and schedule to be released within the next ten days.

Taking Secrets To the Grave?
A Los Angeles Times article opens,

“When a Colorado emergency room nurse fell gravely ill after treating a gas field worker, doctors struggled to figure out what was wrong with her. Her liver, heart and lungs were failing, probably a result of inhaling ZetaFlow -- a substance used in natural-gas drilling -- from the patient's boots. But doctors could find little treatment information in the medical texts or on the Internet because the fluid's formulation is a closely guarded trade secret. ‘Nobody knew exactly where to go,’ said nurse Cathy Behr, 56, who since has recovered.”

This near tragic example is one reason why Colorado is taking steps to tighten regulation of the greatly expanding oil and gas drilling in the state. These include: a 300-foot-wide protection zone around streams that provide drinking water; require operators to disclose information about their chemicals to emergency responders and physicians, although the information may not be released publicly; require emission controls on operations within a quarter of a mile of schools and homes in northwestern Colorado; and allow state health and wildlife officials to review and provide input on applications for operations that could affect public health or wildlife habitat.

An irate spokesman for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association warned,

“You're going to see a significant drop in investment in the Rocky Mountains. That equates to a loss of jobs in our state -- good-paying jobs with healthcare and benefits.”

He didn’t mention whether funeral benefits were included in the package.

More On Clean Coal
My wife Mary, in addition to being a freelance Certified Industrial Hygienist, is also an environmental engineer. Much of what she does in this line of her work is using her PE stamp to approve company spill control plans, required by the EPA to prevent harmful substances polluting the surrounding environment in accidents. I remarked to her that apparently the TVA didn’t have such a plan in place for a holding pond that collapsed, spilling over five million cubic yards of wet coal ash not far from Knoxville, Tennessee. She reminded me such a plan was not required because coal ash is not a regulated substance.

The Clean Air Act has long required that coal-fired power plants use scrubbers to prevent the release of heavy metals and other nasty things that used to go up the stack in to the air. Most of this now winds up in the ash left over after the coal has fully burned. But the EPA takes no more interest in fly ash than it does in what’s left over from your charcoal briquettes after a backyard barbeque.

Some ash is sold off to be mixed in to cinder or breeze building blocks, which is probably safe enough, but this absorbs only a small percentage. Power plants are mainly on their own to figure out what to do with the rest. Many, like the TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant, just pile it up. The TVA did this in a holding pond to prevent the dust that can flake off dry piles from blowing away. But apparently the pond became overloaded–twice the capacity of what they thought they had--and gave way. The rush of water and ash demolished at least three homes, spread out over hundreds of acres, and poured in to the Emory River.

So far, the TVA is saying not to worry. They claim the water in the polluted river is safe to drink. But Greenpeace is suspicious. Their legislative director said, “Having TVA do all the testing is kind of like having the criminal suspects on 'CSI' do the fingerprinting for themselves.” Environmentalists want testing by an independent agency.

This spill again raises the need to classify fly ash as a regulated hazardous material. It should also serve as another reminder that, as a spokesman for the Union of Concerned Scientists reiterated,

“This disaster shows that the term ‘clean coal’ is an oxymoron. It’s akin to saying ‘safe cigarette.’ Clean coal doesn’t exist.”

Out of Sight
At least the Tennessee disaster captured the attention of the media. A long overdue report on climate change by the U.S. Geological Survey was mentioned in only one mainstream newspaper as far as I can tell–the
Washington Post. The report offered a little “good news”–disastrous release of huge quantities of methane from seabeds and melting permafrost may not be as imminent as previously feared, though still likely farther down the line.

But the salient points of the report--increasing sea levels and prolonged droughts in the Southwest--indicate the need for greater urgency. The 2007 UN report had projected sea levels to rise 1.5 feet by the end of the century. This new report ups that to four feet.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is a candid remark by Tom Armstrong, senior adviser for global change programs at USGS, “...there are really no policies in place to deal with abrupt climate change.”

A Stimulating Discussion
President-elect Obama’s centerpiece program–the stimulus–is beginning to take shape through trial balloons. In the time honored approach of trickle-down economics, it is largely based on tax cuts, and especially tax credits. The “middle class” would get a small, temporary reduction in income tax rate and tax credits to help with out of control college tuition costs. Whatever might ultimately be done for promoting renewable energy will also come through tax credits. The pledge to roll back the temporary tax cuts for the rich approved by the Democrat controlled congress in 2007 will be deferred.

Substantial sums are being assigned to shore up nearly exhausted Medicaid and food stamps and the creation of an “extensive technological health database.”

But much of up to 850 billion, and where most job creation could be expected (more than eighty percent in the private sector), would be allocated to reinforcing, even expanding urban sprawl. Vice-President-elect Biden said, “We've let our infrastructure crumble for a long, long time from water to roads to bridges.” He should know because he’s been on Capitol Hill a long, long time as “fiscal responsibility” politicians of both parties deferred proper maintenance.

Of course, we don’t want our bridges to collapse. The disaster of the 35-W bridge in Minneapolis is all too fresh in our memory. Both emergency repair and prudent maintenance are absolute musts.

My online dictionary defines infrastructure as “the basic physical and organizational structures needed for the operation of a society.” Our present infrastructure was built to support sprawl and the dominance of the car. Sprawl not only fueled the two main engines of the postwar economy, construction and auto; it has also contributed mightily to greenhouse gas emissions, destruction of forests and wetlands, the loss of productive farm land as well as the collapse of the racially segregated urban cores. Far from needed for the operation of society, sprawl is at the heart of the climate change crisis that threatens the very future existence of human society.

In addition to patching up the crumbling failure of the past we need to build a whole new sustainable infrastructure. It must be one that uses solar, wind, and geothermal power to eliminate carbon based emissions. It must be one that provides new transportation alternatives to car and plane dependency. It must be one that promotes conservation of resources and restoration of what sprawl wrecked.

This new infrastructure would also be the greatest job stimulus in history. It is a practical objective today–but won’t be available much longer if the destruction of our biosphere and our accumulated social wealth is allowed to continue.

On that note let me wish you a happy new year!

That’s all for this week.

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