Canadian health authorities announced today that they would launch a "comprehensive" review of cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan, a small town 70 miles downstream of Canada's massive tar sands mines. In 2006, local doctor John O'Connor reported unusually high rates of cancer and other diseases in the town, where many locals subsist on fish and wild game. A few months later, when authorities filed a complaint against O'Connor for "raising undue alarm," they kicked off an epic dispute between the government and industry on one side and O'Connor, locals, and environmentalists on the other.
At the heart of the debate is whether Canada can continue to mine the tar sands, which now serve as the single largest source of U.S. foreign oil, without destroying its environment and poisoning its citizens. The impact of the tar sands on global warming is clear, but the health concerns of Native American groups may ultimately do more to curtail the sands--the world's largest strip mines. In the weeks since Mother Jonespublished a comprehensive story on O'Connor's fight, environmental pressure on the government has mounted. In late April hundreds of ducks were poisoned in a tar sands tailings pond, prompting renewed protests and a government pledge to investigate. The latest move by health authorities shows that the environmental health threats of the Canadian tar sands remain, to say the least, a sticky issue.
The 540 Club, in an old bank building at 540 Clement Street in San Francisco, is the only bar in town to call an elephant its mascot. A 300-pound stuffed pachyderm blobs on a ledge above the front door, a cast-off inherited after the San Francisco zoo shuttered its elephant exhibit. The bar's logo, a pink elephant found on its tables, its business cards and the forearm of its soda jerk, is described by the staff as "the universal symbol of alcoholism and sloth etc," and not as any sort of inducement to Republicans. In fact, the threat, in liberal San Francisco, of being labeled a GOP sympathizer never really occurred to the owner of the bar, Jamie Brownuntil this week, that is, when he found himself debating whether to supplement the elephant with a stuffed donkey. The bar was set to hold a fundraiser for none other than the Great Spoiler, Ralph Nader. "What the hell?" Brown said Sunday morning, apropos of nothing, as he dragged on a Camel and waited for Nader's entourage to arrive. "Just in general, what the hell?"
Brown had sent two emails announcing the event. One said Nader would be coming. The other said this wasn't a joke. The local media had called to ask if the fundraiser was a ploy to sell drinks. Patrons hadn't known what to think. A few days after the email went out, during the bar's "Uptown 20s Jazz and Big Band" night, one drinker had supposed Nader would read from Don Quixote; another wondered of the man: "What did he do? Was it a car dealership?"
"I still think people think it's a joke," Brown said that morning before the Pabst Blue Ribbon clock struck noon. Nader was running late. A small crowd at the bar nursed pint-sized bloody marys. Brown, who sported several days stubble and a severe bed head, excused himself for a moment. "I need a shot, sunglasses, and a pack of cigarettes," he said.
The California Supreme Court overturned a voter-approved ban on gay marriage today in a ruling that will make California the second and largest state to allow gay and lesbian couples join together in matrimony.
On the steps of the courthouse in Sacramento, Stuart Gaffney and his partner John Lewis, among 19 plaintiffs in the case, were ecstatic. "I'm feeling just complete joy," Gaffney said. "Rarely is a legal decision so romantic, but this one means John and I can now be newlyweds after 21 years together."
Gaffney and Lewis were among thousands of couples married by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2004 in a move that was immensely popular in San Francisco but inspired a conservative voter backlash across the country that many people blamed for hurting the electoral prospects of Sen. John Kerry. That August a California court annulled the marriages and appeals have been winding though state courts ever since.
Gaffney and Lewis, star plaintiffs in the case, have compared their fight for legal status to that faced by Gaffney's parents, whose marriage in the 1950s was not recognized in Missouri under the state's strict anti-miscegenation law. Gaffney's father was Irish and his mother was Chinese. California's landmark 1948 Perez v. Sharp ruling was nation's first to overturn such laws and had become a key precedent in the gay marriage case. More broadly, the case rested upon the California constitution's promise of individual liberty, due process, and equal protection under the law.
Although the ruling doesn't validate the 2004 marriages performed by Newsom, and conservative groups have vowed to push for another ballot measure to change the California constitution to specifically ban gay marriage, for now, gay and lesbian couples are in the clear to tie the knot. When Gaffney's mother called him today, she immediately asked, "When is your wedding day?"
"We are going to get married as soon as we can because we have waited long enough," Gaffney said. "But we are going to get married with our friends and families." He paused, fighting back tears. "I'm still just sort of floating from it," he said.
The mood was jubilant that afternoon in San Francisco, where city hall had joined the case as a plaintiff. After a triumphant press conference outside the Mayor's office, same-sex couples milled about and embraced beneath the rotunda as the PA system piped in love songs. "We were on complete pins and needles, very pointy pins and needles," said Jennifer Pizer a plaintiffs lawyer on the case. "And then we got the decision and started tearing up.
"For many of us this isn't just an exercise of the law, it's about our lives--whether we're good enough and our love is good enough." Pizer could not immediately say whether she'd now be getting married. "My partner of nearly 24 years has said yes," she added, "but I should probably talk to her first before I talk to anyone else."
The marriage party could be short lived, however. Conservative church groups have already collected 1.1 million signatures in favor of the anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment. If the state determines that 694,354 of those signatures are valid, the proposed amendment will qualify for the November ballot. Unlike Proposition 22, the gay marriage ban that was overturned today, the new ballot measure would be immune to court challenge. The question is how many among the 63 percent of Californians who'd supported Prop. 22 have changed their views toward gay marriage since the measure passed in 2000. "I think California has come a long, long way since then," Pizer said. "I think it changed a lot of people's minds to see how much it meant to couples to be able to marry in San Francisco."
As coincidence would have it, Robert and Amy McHale, a white and Asian couple from New York, had shown up in the city hall rotunda today in wedding dress and tuxedo, completely unaware that the Supreme Court had just passed down its landmark ruling. They'd come instead to snap wedding photos. As they stood on the granite steps bathed in the strobe of flash bulbs, a lesbian activist approached to congratulate them. "Understand that you are getting married on such a blessed and auspicious day," she said.
Robert McHale's thoughts on gay marriage? "Sure, why not?" he said. "That's fine if that makes people happy. We are all about happiness."
At the rate we're going, the Department of Energy expects conventional oil production to peak in 2050. But the end of oil won't necessarily usher in a greener future. Locked in sand, rock, natural gas, and coal are enough hydrocarbons to supply the world's oil refineries with so-called unconventional crude through most of the 21st century.
conventional oil How it's produced: Drilling in the ground Where it's found: Middle East, Russia, United States, elsewhere Average production cost per barrel: $9 Greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions from production: 5 grams of carbon equivalent per megajoule Potential output: 2,162 billion barrels Dirty secret: 77% is controlled by state-run companies, so Big Oil is turning to unconventional sources to survive.
At a small airport in the northern Alberta town of Fort McMurray, a rickety, single-engine Cessna hurtles off the ground with a roar. Dr. John O'Connor ignores the shuddering fuselage, the tail wiggle, the steep climb above the spruce trees at the end of the runway. For O'Connor, a bush doctor who has tended to some of Canada's most remote Native American communities for more than a decade, this October morning is the start of a routine commute. In his fleece vest and green fedora, the small, middle-aged Irishman looks simultaneously rugged and elfin. A plastic tray of fruit salad vibrates beneath his seat, a gift for locals who are used to subsisting on moose, pickerel, and muskrat.