Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson

Reporter

Born in Texas and based in San Francisco, Josh covers tech, labor, drug policy, and the environment. PGP public key.

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Did Sewage Sludge Lace the White House Veggie Garden With Lead?

| Thu Jun. 18, 2009 12:25 AM EDT

In March, Michelle Obama delighted locavores when she planted an "organic" vegetable garden on the White House's South Lawn. For years, Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, and other sustainable food activists had been pushing the idea as a way to reseed interest in do-it-yourself agriculture. Less than two months later, the National Park Service disclosed that the garden's soil was contaminated with toxic lead, and the plot's educational value took on a new flavor as the New York Times and other papers discussed how to make urban backyards that are laced with old lead-based paint safe for growing kale and cauliflower. But those stories might have fingered the wrong culprit. 

Starting in the late 1980s and continuing for at least a decade, the South Lawn was fertilized by ComPRO, a compost made from a nearby wastewater plant's solid effluent, a.ka. sewage sludge. Sludge is controversial because it can contain traces of almost anything that gets poured down the drain, from Prozac flushed down toilets to lead hosed off factory floors. Spreading sludge at the White House was a way for the EPA to reassure the public that using it as a fertilizer for crops and yards (instead of dumping it in the ocean, as had been common practice) would be safe. "The Clintons are walking around on poo," the EPA's sludge chief quipped in 1998, "but it's very clean poo."

 

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Obama's "Groundbreaking" Climate Report. Meh.

| Tue Jun. 16, 2009 6:19 PM EDT

The release today of the first climate report from Barack Obama's presidency prompted a dizzy reaction in the press. The AP called it "the strongest language on climate change ever to come out of the White House" and the Washington Post pointed out that it called evidence of climate change "unequivocal." Unveiled by Obama's scientific advisor and packaged by a San Francisco-based environmental PR firm, the report, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, helped convey the idea that Obama was breaking from the Bush years to tackle climate change head-on. Nevermind that almost nothing of substance in the report is different from a draft that the Bush administration had released last summer.

Take this line from the executive summary, which so impressed the Post: "Global warming is unequivocal and primarily human-induced." Here's what the the Bush administration's draft said: "Global warming is unequivocal and is due primarily to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases and other pollutants." Not much difference there.

Aside from the natural gap in polish between a rough and final draft, very little seperates the two documents. The Bush version prominently states that the impacts of human-induced climate change "are apparent now throughout the United States," that "climate changes are occurring faster that projected," and that reducing climate change will entail "reducing emissions to limit future warming." It's as if the report had been written by Al Gore.

Of course, Bush didn't want to release this report. The first draft, made public last summer, was published four years late and only after an environmental group successfully sued for its release. Yet that doesn't make Obama's decision to hype the final version any more impressive. It comes at no political cost to him but could be seen as a way to placate environmentalists. Many green groups are on the verge of mutiny or have declared it over the Waxman/Markey climate bill, an unconscionable giveaway to big polluters, in their view, that Obama has called "a historic leap." Those groups won't be impressed by today's news, but some of their supporters will.

Obama Sides With Bush on White House Records

| Tue Jun. 16, 2009 12:29 PM EDT

Remember the flap over the White House visitor log? After George W. Bush was elected, the White House instructed the Secret Service to delete its daily record of visitors so that it couldn't be released to the press under the Freedom of Information Act. The deletions were exposed and halted in 2004, before the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington requested records for White House visits made by nine conservative religious leaders, prompting a drawn-out court battle. 
 
Give that Obama has promised to create "an unprecedented level of openness in Government," you might expect his administration to reverse Bush's position. But in January and May, his White House filed court briefs supporting Bush, who'd argued that the logs were protected by the a presidential communication privilege. Though the Obama administration has repeatedly said the Bush policy is under review, today it denied a request filed by CREW for records of White House visits made by coal company executives.
 
Obama's position in nothing unique. Presidential administrations have rarely released their visitor logs. Among the few recent exceptions were releases in connection with the Jack Abramoff investigation in the Bush years and Filegate during the Clinton era. The Obama administration argues that it should be allowed to hold secret meetings in the White House, "such as an elected official interviewing for an administration position or an ambassador coming for a discussion on issues that would affect international negotiations," an Obama spokesman told MSNBC, which has also requested recent visitor logs. Still, it's too bad that those secret meetings can also include coal companies.

PEER Lambastes Obama's Fish & Wildlife Nominee

| Mon Jun. 15, 2009 1:23 PM EDT

Today, Public Employees for Environmental Responsiblity, the eco watchdog group, came out swinging against President Obama's pick to lead the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. For the past dozen years, Sam Hamilton has overseen the 10-state FWS Southeastern Region, where numerous endangered species battles are being fought between environentalists and developers in fast growing states such as Florida. PEER is unimpressed with how Hamilton handled those fights, noting that he "did not protect science from political interference or scientists from retaliation."

As a case in point, PEER notes the decision of Hamilton's team to green-light suburban sprawl in shrinking Florida panther habitat. The decision falsely inflated the size and viability of the panther population, to the point that Hamilton's region was rebuked by none other than Steve Williams, the FWS director under George W. Bush. Even so, Hamilton took no disciplinary action against any of the managers involved and "several of the scientific deficiencies persist today," PEER says.

Apparently, this was not an isolated incident. In a 2005 survey of FWS scientists working in Hamilton's region, 49 percent cited cases where "commercial interests have inappropriately induced the reversal or withdraw of scientific conclusions," 46 percent said they'd been "directed for non-scientific reasons . . .to refrain from making findings that are protective of species," and 36 percent feared retailiation for raising concerns about species and habitats. Most damming, less than a quarter of respondents felt Hamilton would "stand up for scientific staff or supervisors who take controversial stands."

In short, Hamilton seems at best a pliable bureaucrat. Maybe that makes him a convienent pick for the Obama administration, but he doesn't seem likely to reverse Bush's environmental legacy any more than he's asked to.

Composting vs Methane Capture: A Climate Smackdown

| Fri Jun. 12, 2009 1:56 PM EDT

Across the pungent world of waste, a climate debate has been raging. Which is better: turning yard clippings and food scraps into compost, or landfilling them and capturing the methane that they release to produce energy?

Last month, I happened across this question while riding in a muddy pickup across the top of Altamont Landfill, a 30-story hill of garbage run by Waste Management, the nation's largest trash collection outfit. "To me, I think it's good to have more organics in the garbage," operations manager Neil Wise told me. Organic matter in landfills generates methane, a potent and flamable greenhouse gas; Altamont currently captures enough methane to power 8,500 homes.

On the other side of this debate is the City of San Francisco, which this week voted to make composting lawn clippings and food scraps mandatory for every city resident. The nutrient-rich product fertilizes more than 200 Bay Area vineyards. Composting advocates worry that outfitting more landfills with "methane wells," possibly with the aid of carbon offsets created through a climate bill, will detract from those efforts. 

Here's my take: While capturing methane from landfills is certainly worthwhile, evidence suggests that composting is far better. A nine-year study by the Rodale Institute, to be published in the next issue of Compost Science and Utilization, a peer-reviewed journal, found that applying compost to cropland sequestered a staggering 10,802 pounds more carbon dioxide per hectare each year than farming with conventional manure fertilizer. That's more than the yearly emissions of a Chevy Impala. "That's a pretty big deal," says Rodale research director Paul Hepperly, the author of the study. "When you are composting, you are stablizing the carbon" in organic matter.

And though capturing methane at a landfill also reduces greenhouse gasses, it can't match composting's associated benefits. Compared to raw manure, Rodale also found that compost applied to farmland led to a 600 percent reduction in nitrate leaching, which can pollute steams and groundwater, and improved the soil's retention of water by a factor of three. "This relates to looking at things wholistically," Hepperly said, adding that the ultimate goal should be an "agricultural system that invests more in our environment and takes less out of our resources."

 

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