March 31, 2010

Appalachian Trail threatened by climate change and coal plants

The National Parks Conservation Association and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy released a report today about threats to the Appalachian Trail. You can read the full report here.

They highlight a range of threats and challenges faced by the trail from encroaching development to invasive species. The report reminds me why I first became interested in issues surrounding coal power plants when I lived near the Great Smoky Mountains.

Increased concentrations of ground-level ozone are a concern along the Appalachian Trail. Ground-level ozone is formed by chemical reactions that occur when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds combine in the presence of sunlight. The risks of elevated levels of ozone to humans include lung tissue damage, reduced lung function, and increased lung sensitivity to other irritants. High concentrations of ozone also affect a plant’s ability to produce and store food, which compromises growth, reproduction, and overall plant health. These weakened plants are then more susceptible to disease, pests, and environmental stresses. Air pollution, including ground-level ozone and acidic precipitation, is substantial across much of the Appalachian Trail corridor and is increasingly contributing to the death of sensitive vegetation, including red spruce (Picea rubens) and sugar maple (Acer saccharum).


(Goofy pose at Clingman's Dome along the AT)

Problems associated with invasive species are repeatedly mentioned. That's another impact of climate change as species move into new areas.

It's an excellent report but they could have done a better job of identifying the sources of problems related to air pollution and climate change that are having a major impact on the trail.

March 30, 2010

Local leaders celebrate expansion of passenger rail

It's interesting to see how differently passenger rail issues are covered in other towns in comparison to Springfield. Other cities in Illinois are celebrating high speed rail and the new riders it will bring to revitalize their downtown.

The latest example is the announcement of restored passenger rail service to Rockford and Belvidere in Northern Illinois.
"It's made a psychological boost to people it's nice to see some smiles on people's faces again," said Belvidere mayor Fred Brereton.

He went on to say:
their station would be downtown, near it's former location. Making it easier for locals to get onboard. "There might be some grant money to help construct the station we'll pursue every avenue we can, ironically it's almost in the same position where the train station used to be," Brereton said.

Governor Pat Quinn and IDOT rail chief George Weber emphasized job creation.
"We believe there's a good chance for job creation , its not only the direct jobs that will be created through Amtrak having to hire more people , but also the indirect jobs that will result in terms of economic development that we've seen in other locations where rail service has been established," Weber said.

During his Quad Cities stop, Quinn pledged to also bring back the Rock Island line to Chicago.

The Quad Cities Passenger Rail Coalition estimates the economic impact of restoring passenger rail.
• 550 - 825 jobs
• $11 - $16 million increase in household income
• $52 - $75 million increase in area property values

The Quad City region looks forward to passenger rail benefiting business, leisure, and commuter travel as well as the associated positive impact on the region’s economy, environment, quality of life, workforce attraction/retention, and job growth.

All across the state, cities are excited about the benefits of improving passenger rail service. Everywhere except Springfield, where some people would rather not have high-speed rail at all if it's on the 3rd street corridor (where it would drop off customers in the middle of the downtown business district). Why is that?

March 28, 2010

The Reagan Legacy: Dependence on Oil

Something about General Electric airing tributes to Ronald Reagan irritates me. Playing a President was Reagan's greatest acting role. The conservative mythologizing of the President brought to you by General Electric is the worst kind of revisionist history.

I may write a few blog posts with a different perspective of the Reagan legacy, starting with this one. When Reagan took office the country was ready to free itself from the foreign oil addiction. There were three ways to respond to the 70's gas shortage.

1) Reduce our use of oil by improving mileage standards and promoting transportation alternatives. That's what Jimmy Carter started in the late 70's.

2) Increase our military involvement in the most oil-rich region of the world in order to ensure a steady supply. That's the policy pursued by Reagan and members of his administration like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and George H. W. Bush. You may recall that Reagan's involvement in the region included giving weapons of mass destruction to Saddam Hussein and support to Osama Bin-Laden. What a legacy!

3) Pretend there's an adequate domestic supply while we search for new reserves and squeeze the last drop out of older fields. Along with the military strategy, that was the George W. Bush era approach in places like the Canadian Tar Sands.


When Reagan took office he destroyed fuel economy standards and cut efforts to support realistic alternatives. His legacy is increasing our dependence on oil and allowing the American auto-industry to destroy itself from within by refusing to adapt.

1980 should be remembered as the turning point. It was the year that one President had us on the right track toward dealing with climate change and our dependence on oil. It was also the year Americans elected a President who set us back 30 years and made changing things today that much harder.

Reagan's legacy is one of tragic failure.

March 27, 2010

Are environmentalists using scare tactics?

I almost found it hard to believe when I saw another accusation that environmentalists are using alarmist scare tactics about climate change.

I suppose that a person who runs from a burning building screaming for help could be accused of using scare tactics. Sometimes the truth is scary. Sometimes facts are frightening.

The environmental movement can be overly sensitive to accusations of alarmist extremism and sometimes responds by toning down its message. Yet, there's no longer any doubt that what scientists are telling us about the impacts of global climate destabilization calls for sounding the alarm. The timid language used by environmentalists isn't nearly as scary as the warnings from the scientific community.

For example, I get mailings on a monthly basis about saving the polar bear from climate change. The cute and cuddly polar bear has become a sort of mascot for the movement.

I've never gotten a mailing about the disruption of our food supply and damage to Midwestern crops. I don't read daily newspaper columnists linking climate change to pandemic disease, more wildfires, or millions of people being displaced by catastrophic natural disasters. In contrast, editorial pages with no standards for accuracy repeat the latest talking points from syndicated flat-earthers.


The fossil fuel industry would have us continue our suicidal energy policies while we ignore the frightening facts about rising temperatures. I don't think sounding the alarm a little louder is such a bad idea.

March 23, 2010

Is sprawl an economic development policy?

I didn't realize Gail Simpson has an editorial in the current Illinois Times (Springfield's top offline source for environmental news and issues) when I wrote my last post about her speaking at tonight's Sierra Club meeting. It's good so check it out.

Simpson refers to some of the local policies that direct resources away from the city center.
The effort to move the city further west has resulted in increased traffic congestion, public transportation access, the deterioration of core central neighborhoods, longer commutes and divisions among those desiring to live within the city and those who prefer the outskirts. Entities whose primary mission revolves around the city’s core residents are opting to move as far away as possible, with the blessing of the mayor and city council. District 186 desires to build a new multimillion-dollar high school that is so far from the center of the city that it comes precariously close to Pleasant Plains boundaries. While economic development is absolutely essential for the continued growth and prosperity of a city, that growth should be balanced, well-planned, beneficial to the great majority of its residents, not contribute to urban decay and should not result in urban sprawl.

She finishes by writing, "We must, without condemnation, deal with these issues to ensure that this city reflects both its history and its future as a stellar place to live, work and visit."

I would guess she means that we need to move forward without demonizing people who have driven sprawl in the past. That's fine, but it's also important for people to understand that things don't happen at random. One reason sprawl continues against the wishes of most residents is that the planning process is a mystery. When the average person learns the details of a major project it's already described as a "done deal."

It's important to understand that many citizen planning committees are stacked with people who have a financial interest in promoting sprawl. It's important to understand the implications when a Chamber of Commerce representative says they support a new Walmart, despite the damage it does to local businesses, because they support any project at any location it's zoned for.

It's especially important to recognize the implications of handing our economic development policy to a private partnership, which, once again, includes people who have an interest in promoting sprawl. It's disappointing to visit the Q5 website (Springfield's project to attract jobs) and see them focus on selling empty fields on the edge of town to developers. Depending on sprawl to drive economic development is short-sighted at any time, but especially in the current economic slump. Since this isn't an official governmental body, where's their accountability to the public?

I don't know if Simpson will address these specific issues in her presentation to the Sierra Club. But, the first step in changing the way Springfield grows is to bring the discussion out into the open. I applaud Gail Simpson for making that effort.

March 18, 2010

Breaking the University of Illinois' coal addiction

Most public universities in Illinois operate small coal power plants, similar to the State Capitol plant in Springfield. Last week, a campaign kicked off to switch the coal burner at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus to a cleaner alternative.
The coal systems at Abbott power plant date back to the 1930s, and require extremely high levels of investment to keep operating reliably―The University of Illinois Energy Task Force commissioned a report that anticipated a need of approximately $205 million over the next 15 years, mostly needed for the coal system. Abandoning coal use would allow this money to be used to retire the campus energy debt, fund aggressive energy conservation, and install renewable energy.

Students for Environmental Concerns' lead coal organizer Parker Laubach said, "It makes no sense for the University to shovel money into the coal boilers when it has made a commitment to climate neutrality. Schools across the country, like UW-Madison, Cornell and Stanford have committed to stop burning coal―it is past time for us to show leadership here."

They even got a little TV coverage.


UIUC is already behind the Eastern Illinois University campus. EIU is building a renewable energy center, which will allow them to abandon coal in favor of a biomass steam plant. If March Madness were a clean energy competition, EIU would beat the Illini in round one.

In case you're wondering, the U of I-Springfield campus doesn't have a coal boiler.

March 8, 2010

Job-killing coal-mining robots

There's a lot of nostalgia about the coal industry in Illinois but the coal companies don't hesitate to embrace change. One change they enjoy is that reopened mines are no longer union, despite all the blood spilled to organize the industry.

But more than that, the industry is quick to reduce the size of their workforce by mechanizing operations. The amount of coal mined in the United States steadily increased over the past twenty years, even while the number of coal mining jobs dropped dramatically.

This story reveals the next step.
Rio Tinto is connecting its Australian mines to satellite links so workers more than 800 miles away can remotely drive drilling rigs, load cargo and even use robots to place explosives to blast away rock and earth.

The company's Perth operations center, which relies on banks of high-tech equipment to manage one of the oldest and dirtiest jobs around, is a harbinger of new techniques that are allowing miners to go to more remote places, dig deeper and get ore to the market more quickly. It also aims to save Rio Tinto money by using fewer workers and keeping them out of harm's way.

Imagine that? Illinois could keep spending millions of dollars subsidizing the coal industry and there's no guarantee that one day most mining jobs won't be inside Peabody headquarters in St. Louis. Or, Murray Co could do it from Ohio. There are already less than 4,000 people employed in Illinois coal mining and even new mines won't hire many workers.

The change is being driven by the same forces behind mountaintop removal, longwall mining, "enhanced oil recover" and the Canada tar sands. Resources are running out so the coal and oil industries are scraping the bottom of the barrel in old mines and hard to reach places.

(Modern coal miners at work)

The innovation is born from necessity. Easy and accessible mineral reserves have been largely tapped, pushing miners to search more remote locations for iron ore, copper, coal and other metals and minerals. The shift could help Rio and other miners recruit employees who don't want to work in remote locations that might be more politically and environmentally hostile.

"The mining industry has been very innovative," said Andrew Keen, mining analyst for HSBC Global Research, "using technology to take costs out of its business, to compensate for the decline in quality of reserves."

Illinois' own Caterpillar is one of the companies developing driverless trucks, "which would avoid having human drivers involved in moving truckloads of dirt and explosives from one part of the mine to another." Was anyone wondering why Caterpillar invested in FutureGen? The industry may not hire many new miners but they'll need new Caterpillar machines.

There are politicians like John Shimkus and Brandon Phelps who still foolishly believe that coal can provide enough jobs to revive the regional economy. It's time to stop living in the past. They're only keeping Southern Illinois poor.

March 7, 2010

Jeff Biggers in the Southern Illinoisan

If someone asked me which Illinois newspaper is most hopelessly in the tank for the coal industry I'd think of the Southern Illinoisan or the Belleville News-Democrat. So I have to give the Southern Illinoisan credit for covering Jeff Biggers' book reading in Carbondale.
Biggers spoke about his family, including his coal miner grandfather who he remembers having coal permanently in his face from an explosion. He said his grandfather died from black lung disease. He said it is the coal miners who have paid with their health, land and lives for the coal industry to prosper.

"It's coal miners in Southern Illinois who have paid the price for the rest of Americans," Biggers said.

And I'm impressed that they printed this line that contradicts so much industry propaganda normally found in downstate newspapers.
He said the job issue is a myth because coal mining is a "boom and bust" industry and that it reached its peak in 1918. Biggers said instead of more coal mines, there could be jobs in other forms of energy such as wind. He said even if the wind turbines do not go up in Southern Illinois, they can be made here.

I know I've written about Biggers several times around his stop in Springfield, but I think it's important to highlight him since there are so few informed, articulate voices who publicly counter the constant coal industry drumbeat. I'm glad he's around Illinois.

March 6, 2010

Big River gets big crowd

The Sierra Club Sangamon Valley Group had a packed house at the February program meeting for a showing of Big River and a talk by Stacy James from the Prairie Rivers Network. Big River is a follow up to King Corn with a focus on how chemicals used in farming impact water quality and public health.


One new thing I learned is how much Illinois and Iowa are responsible for the Gulf Coast Dead Zone. Chemicals find their way down the Mississippi and form a 5,000 square mile area in the Gulf of Mexico that can't support tasty ocean creatures like shrimp and crab.

The after-movie discussion was a highlight too. One retired farmer in the audience spoke about how the industry has changed over the years and said that five farmers in his family have had cancer.

Also that same week, the Illinois General Assembly held a hearing on atrazine, a farm chemical linked to cancer and other health issues. Even the Illinois Farm Bureau is fighting to let chemical companies give more farmers cancer.

Of course, you won't read anything about the Sierra Club meeting or the atrazine hearing in our daily newspaper. With the exception of the non-controversial stone soup hike, I don't believe the State Journal-Register has covered a Sierra Club event in the past two years. That must be the liberal media bias I keep hearing about.

The People Speak at Liberty Brew & View

For the first time, there will be a live performance with this month's Liberty Brew & View movie! The movie is "The People Speak" based on the book "Voices of A People's History" by historian Howard Zinn. You'll see the extended version with portions that weren't included in the recent History Channel airing.

The film features the actual words (in letters, songs, poems, speeches, and manifestoes) of rebels, dissenters, and visionaries from our past--and present--including Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Bob Dylan, Langston Hughes, Chief Joseph, Muhammad Ali, and unknown veterans, union workers, abolitionists, and many others never featured in high school textbooks. These dramatic moments from our history are brought to life by a group of remarkable musicians and actors.

Before and after the movie we're honoring Illinois' own history of dissent and activism. Some of Springfield's leading activists and actors will perform readings from people and events in state history, including Jane Addams, Chief Black Hawk, Mother Jones, Abraham Lincoln, Clarence Darrow and more. Illinois has a strong, often overlooked tradition of standing for peace, justice and equal rights that will be honored through these performances.

We're starting a little early at 6:40 to make time for performances before AND after the movie. This is a unique event for Springfield so I hope you'll decide to come early or stay late. It happens...

Tuesday, March 16, 6:40
City Nights Theater at Capital City Bar & Grill
3149 S. Dirksen Pkwy, Springfield