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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Tar Sands Update

| Fri Feb. 13, 2009 6:03 PM EST
A year ago we were putting the final touches on Tar Wars, the story of a small-town physician who'd been threatened with sanctions from Canadian health authorities after announcing that pollution from Alberta's massive tar sands mines might be killing his patients in tiny Fort Chipewyan. A lot has happened since then. Just after the story appeared, the Alberta government opened an investigation into the town's health problems. Around the same time, Los Angeles-based filmmaker Leslie Iwerks read our story and was inspired to make "Downstream," a controversial documentary about the doctor, John O'Connor, which came out in December and was promptly short-listed for an Oscar.

This past week, Alberta health officials finally concluded their investigation and announced that Fort Chip suffered from a higher than expected cancer rate. They'd found 51 cancers in 47 people, compared to the 39 that were expected in the town of 1,200. They also reported two cases of cholangiocarcinoma, a rare-bile duct cancer that is normally found in one person out of 100,000. That's the same number of cases that the nurse at Fort Chip's health clinic had told me she could document, but more than the one case that the Alberta government had reported at the time and fewer than the five that O'Connor said he'd seen. Presumably, O'Connor's inability to document all five cholangiocarcinomas has been the root of the government's ongoing investigation into whether he raised "undue alarm" in the community. It now seems that the government's under-reporting of the cases should equally require it to investigate itself for undue complacency.

Despite the new findings, Fort Chip's small size and isolation--it's only accessible by plane or boat for much of the year--prevents biostaticians from easily saying that cancers are caused by more than chance. Still, our piece detailed many other reasons to finger tar sands pollution, and even the government's scientists are starting to sound worried: "We did find some soft signals (for concern)," investigator Tony Fields told the Edmonton Journal, adding that scientists would need to keep tabs on the town to see if the cancers were part of a trend. That's small comfort to the many Fort Chip locals who are convinced the tar sands are killing them.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama makes his first official visit to Canada, the U.S.' top supplier of foreign oil. Canadian officials want to propose a U.S.-Canada climate pact that would exempt the tar sands' greenhouse gas emissions (the sands is a big reason why Canada flunked its Kyoto targets). Obama will probably hear how the U.S. oil companies that are knee-deep in the capital-intensive sands stand to lose big bucks in the era of cheap gas and pricey carbon. Let's hope that's not all he hears. Tiny Fort Chip is the oldest settlement in Alberta, sits on the tar sands' doorstep, and is eager to put the brakes on development. Presumably, that should count for something.


UPDATE: Just in time for Obama's visit, the environmental group Forest Ethics has placed a full-page ad in USA Today tarring the tar sands. Meanwhile, the Canadian American Business Council, which includes ExxonMobil and Shell, is running full-page ads in the New York Times, Washington Post, and National Journal stressing that "Canada is poised to securely supply even more oil and natural gas to the U.S."

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A Dispatch from Darwin Day

| Thu Feb. 12, 2009 7:24 AM EST

Christians have Christmas. Atheists have Charles Darwin's birthday--a date that has inspired months of zealous non-worship in the lead-up to today’s fete of his 200th. Before midnight the world will have witnessed some 600 Darwin Day events, from the Darwin Day Barbecue in Melbourne, Australia, to the Darwin Day Rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to the Darwin Day Evolutionpalooza, a gathering last Sunday in the basement conference room of the San Francisco Public Library, where 100 guests of the local atheist club ate birthday cake and heard the Charles Darwin Backup Singers belt out “The Twelve Ages of Evolution,” a Christmas-inspired ditty that ended with the Pleistocene era’s shopping list of "bisons and humans, hawks and higher primates, horses and whales, conifers and mammals, bipedal dinosaurs, reptiles, trees, and insects, spiders, mites and sharks, land plants and fish!" And the list went on.

Other than taking place in America's most Godless major city, San Francisco’s D-Day was notable for the presence of the mutton-chopped Darwin himself, who took to a podium in a chiffon scarf tied like a cravat and thanked the crowd for "all your great efforts in channeling me into the 21st Century." Forthwith began the kind of autobiography that could only come from a scientist--a mostly dry, rambling affair occasionally enlivened by Far Side jokes. "I have a friend who was Unitarian," Darwin said at one point, without mentioning that he was raised as one, "and the Klu Klux Klan burned a question mark in front of his house."

Evolutionpalooza, which was advertised on Facebook with a drawing of hominids evolving into a man carrying a birthday cake, is the brainchild of atheist author David Fitzgerald, who’d shown up wearing the classic walking fish shirt. "I hesitate to venerate Darwin too highly, to make him sound like he's our prophet," he told me. "There's already so much baggage attached to that kind of thing." But, he added, Darwin was a convenient rallying point in the effort of group’s 1,000 members to counteract the Religious Right. And they certainly had cause to party: President Barack Obama had proclaimed during his inauguration speech that “we are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers.” This followed by Darwin’s bicentennial hinted at sunrise over a decade of darkness: “I have never been more optimistic about seeing Atheism being accepted in America,” Fitzgerald said. “The more we learn, the less plausible any one of those religions out there seems.” 

San Francisco Rejects American Apparel: Has the Fight Against Chain Stores Gone Too Far?

| Wed Feb. 11, 2009 1:51 PM EST

Last week, activists from the hippest street in San Francisco's uber-hip Mission neighborhood—where skinny pants and a shrunken American Apparel sweatshirt are like Polos and Dockers in Nantucket—successfully defeated American Apparel's application to open a store there. The backlash has been swift. Not less than three San Francisco Chronicle columnists weighed in, noting that American Apparel would have filled one of Valencia Street's 27 vacant storefronts with 15 employees earning $12 to $14 and hour plus healthcare—and during a recession! "American Apparel is lucky," sneered columnist Caille Millner. "What a burden it would be to have a store in a magical place with such nasty elves."

The elf in question is Chicken John Rinaldi, a performance artist, boat-maker, and 2007 San Francisco mayoral candidate (he got 2,500 votes) whose recent blog post inspired some 200 people to flood a planning commission meeting and buzz-saw the store's permit application like high school disciplinarians tackling an overgrown handlebar mustache. I spoke with Chicken John this morning as he was driving home from his art studio in Winters, California, (he can no longer afford to work in San Francisco) with his equally vocal best friend, Dammit the Amazing Wonder Dog.

 

Mother Jones:What happened?

Chicken John: We explained to American Apparel in no uncertian terms [that the store would never get approved], and I called their guy on the phone, and the guy was like this indignant fucker, like, "Yeah, we'll see. What you got?" And I was like, "Are you fucking kidding me? I eat guys like you for breakfast." [See American Apparel's response at bottom]

MJ: Clearly, a lot of people in the Mission oppose American Apparel coming in.

CJ: Let's not use the term "American Apparel" anymore. Let's use "Formula Retail." There's a lot of people in the Mission who oppose formula retail on Valencia Street. No one's saying that we oppose formula retail in the Mission. We just oppose it on eight blocks on Valencia Street. You want to put America Apparel [one block over] on Mission Street? I think that's a great idea.

MJ: What's wrong with Valencia Street in particular?

CJ: You want to put a chain store on the only eight blocks in America that don't have a chain store? If you can't see why that's wrong and bathed in vileness, then we're just going to have to agree to disagree. Like if you can't see that it's the last place that doesn't have a fucking Starbucks on it. Have you been to the rest of the country? It's out of control. There is no coffeeshop anymore. There is no diner.

MJ: There are other places in the city that don't have any chains.

CJ: Name one.

MJ: Hayes Valley has a rule against chains as well. But if you look at Hayes Valley, it's also full of stores selling $10,000 coats. Isn't that the issue, as opposed to whether the hipsters in the Mission, who already shop at American Apparel, are gonna have an America Apparel next to them or not?

Does the EPA Know Which Industry is America's Dirtiest?

| Fri Feb. 6, 2009 12:57 PM EST | Scheduled to publish Fri Feb. 6, 2009 12:57 PM EST

Today the EPA filed a laudable lawsuit against Kansas-based Westar Energy for violating the New Source Review provision of the Clean Air Act. Laxly enforced by the Bush Administration, the rule requires power plants to install more advanced pollution-control technologies when they perform upgrades. The EPA action is part of what it bills "a national initiative to stop illegal pollution from coal-fired power plants." Sounds good to me, but unfortunately the EPA gets a bit carried away in its press release, which says: "Coal-fired power plants collectively produce more pollution than any other industry in the United States."

Weighing the Climate Impact of the Stimulus Bill

| Thu Feb. 5, 2009 1:16 PM EST | Scheduled to publish Thu Feb. 5, 2009 1:16 PM EST

Today Greenpeace released a report indicating that the House's $819 billion stimulus bill is a net environmental gain by a longshot. The bill's energy efficiency and conservation provisions alone could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 61 million metric tons annually, the equivalent of electricity use in 7.9 million American homes. Meanwhile, the worst-case-scenario for the bill's transportation provisions would reduce the overall carbon benefits by only 5 million tons annually. The report, which was written by the respected energy consulting firm ICF International, apparently didn't examine other provisions in the bill, but given that transportation is by far the biggest environmental white elephant, the overall package looks surprisingly eco-friendly. Ironically, the real downside won't kick in unless the stimulus succeeds in reviving the economy, causing consumption to rise. Yet if the bill starts rebuilding the economic system into something sustainable, we'll be better off than where we started.

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