IN AUGUST 1987, the National Park Service tore up the White House's South Lawn and tilled in heaps of a new, locally produced fertilizer. The weedy plot's transformation into a carpet of green caught gardeners' attention, and soon there was a waiting list to buy bags of ComPRO, a compost made from nearby wastewater plants' solid effluent, a.k.a. sewage sludge. Four years later, dumping sewage into the ocean was banned, and sludge went national. The Environmental Protection Agency launched a PR push to rebrand it as an all-purpose soil conditioner and fertilizer it innocuously called "biosolids." If sludge was good enough for the first family, the agency reminded us, then surely it was good enough for the rest of America. "The Clintons are walking around on poo," the EPA's sludge chief quipped in 1998. "But it's very clean poo."
Today, more than half the 15 trillion gallons of sewage Americans flush annually is biologically scrubbed, "dewatered," and processed into products with names like BioEdge, Nitrohumus, and Vital Cycle and spread on farmland, lawns, and home vegetable gardens. (The rest is incinerated or landfilled.) Recycling sewage is big business: In 2007 the Carlyle Group paid $772 million for the sludge-residuals company Synagro, whose products are the most popular on the market. Sludge could be the ultimate growth industry; as one trade publication observes dryly, "There will continue to be more wastewater solids to manage with every passing year."
San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi wants the city to get into the drug dealing business by opening up a city-run medical marijuana dispensary. Though the law's as likely to pass as Cheech Marin is to sponsor a major public art exhibition--or something like that--it has at least been good for a chuckle: "The mayor will have to hash this out with public health officials," a spokesman for Mayor Gavin Newsom told the SF Chronicle. "It's the mayor's job to weed out bad legislation, and to be blunt, that sounds pretty bad."
Shortly before the inauguration of President Barack Obama, the manager of a Whole Foods grocery store in the San Francisco Bay Area gathered his employees in a conference room for a chat about labor organizing. “This is not a union-bashing thing whatsoever,” the manager began, adding, however, that he’d called the meeting because Whole Foods believed Obama would sign the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation intended to ease unionization that was opposed by the company’s lobbyists. According to a tape of the meeting obtained by Mother Jones, the manager went on to imply that joining a union would lead to reprisals: “It’s interesting to note that once you become represented by the union,” he said, “basically everything, every benefit you have, is kind of thrown out the window, and you renegotiate a contract.”
"I think it’s probably fair to construe [that comment] as a threat,” concluded Tim Peck, a representative of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in San Francisco, after Mother Jones read him quotes from the meeting, one of several anti-union trainings held by the company in recent months. Peck pointed out that labor law bars employers from threatening to strip benefits from workers in retaliation for unionizing. “The ‘flying out the window’ [comment] kind of suggests that the benefits are gone,” he noted. Legally, “that wouldn’t pass muster.”
Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico has just introduced a mining reform bill in the Senate, bringing Congress one step closer to updating the nation's most outdated public lands law, the General Mining Law of 1872. A similar bill from House stalled in the Senate last year, where Majority leader Harry Reid, the son of a gold miner, has been a powerful ally of the hard rock minerals industry. Mining companies are still allowed to remove minerals from public lands without paying a cent in federal royalties. As I reported in a recent profile of Reid, Nevada remains an anachronism in a region that is becoming much less tolerant of the America's most polluting industry.
Bingaman's bill is less progressive than a similar House measure, but might win key support from Reid and moderate Republicans. According to Velma Smith, the manager of the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining, the bill proposes reducing the House's proposed 8 percent royalty to something between 2 and 5 percent, to be set at the discretion of the Department of Interior. It would also impose a reclamation fee of .3 to 1 percent.
In what's been a keen interest of Bingaman's, the bill also asks the National Academy of Sciences to perform a study on uranium mining. Smith says uranium, which is the only energy mineral overseen by the mining law, may be moved to a leasing system. Environmentalists have been concerned that mining on any one of 1,200 uranium mining claims along the Colorado River could pollute the water supply for Las Vegas and Southern California.
In other important respects, the Senate and House bills are the same. Both call for stricter environmental permitting of mines, better ways for lands to be set off-limits to mining, and more financial assurances that mining companies will clean up after themselves. The cost of cleaning up abandoned mines in the U.S. is now estimated to be at least $32 billion.
Will Reid support the bill? "I really don’t know," Smith says. "My sense was that Senator Bingaman's office took a long time vetting this with a lot of people. I don’t see this as an extreme bill by any means. So I think there’s a chance for the industry and environmentalists to come together."
The Bank of North Dakota is the only state-owned bank in America—what Republicans might call an idiosyncratic bastion of socialism. It also earned a record profit last year even as its private-sector corollaries lost billions. To be sure, it owes some of its unusual success to North Dakota’s well-insulated economy, which is heavy on agricultural staples and light on housing speculation. But that hasn’t stopped out-of-state politicos from beating a path to chilly Bismarck in search of advice. Could opening state-owned banks across America get us out of the financial crisis? It certainly might help, says Ellen Brown, author of the book, Web of Debt, who writes that the Bank of North Dakota, with its $4 billion under management, has avoided the credit freeze by “creating its own credit, leading the nation in establishing state economic sovereignty.” Mother Jones spoke with the Bank of North Dakota’s president, Eric Hardmeyer.
Mother Jones: How was the bank formed?
Eric Hardmeyer: It was created 90 years ago, in 1919, as a populist movement swept the northern plains. Basically it was a very angry movement by a large group of the agrarian sector that was upset by decisions that were being made in the eastern markets, the money markets maybe in Minneapolis, New York, deciding who got credit and how to market their goods. So it swept the northern plains. In North Dakota the movement was called the Nonpartisan League, and they actually took control of the legislature and created what was called an industrial program, which created both the Bank of North Dakota as a financing arm and a state-owned mill and elevator to market and buy the grain from the farmer. And we’re both in existence today doing exactly what we were created for 90 years ago. Only we’ve morphed a little bit and found other niches and ways to promote the state of North Dakota.
MJ: What makes your bank unique today?
EH: Our funding model, our deposit model is really what is unique as the engine that drives that bank. And that is we are the depository for all state tax collections and fees. And so we have a captive deposit base, we pay a competitive rate to the state treasurer. And I would bet that that would be one of the most difficult things to wrestle away from the private sector—those opportunities to bid on public funds. But that’s only one portion of it. We take those funds and then, really what separates us is that we plow those deposits back into the state of North Dakota in the form of loans. We invest back into the state in economic development type of activities. We grow our state through that mechanism.
MJ: Clearly other banks also invest their deposits. Is the difference that you are investing a larger portion of that money into the state’s own economy?
EH: Yeah, absolutely. But we have specifically designed programs to spur certain elements of the economy. Whether it’s agriculture or economic development programs that are deemed necessary in the state or energy, which now seems to be a huge play in the state. And education—we do a lot of student loan financing. So that’s our model. We have a specific mission that was given to us when we were created 90 years ago and it guides us throughout our history.
MJ: Are there areas that you invest in that other banks avoid?
EH: We made the first federally-insured student loan in the country back in 1967. So that’s been a big part of what we do. It’s become almost a mission-critical thing. I don’t know if you have been following the student loan industry lately, but it’s been very, very interesting as many have decided to leave. We will not though.
MJ: So you are able to invest in certain areas because they provide a public good.
EH: Yeah, or a direction, whether it’s energy or primary sector type of businesses. We have specific loan programs that are designed at very low interest rates to encourage activity along certain lines. Here’s another thing: We’re gearing up for a significant flood in one of the communities here in North Dakota called Fargo. We’ve experienced one of those in another community about 12 years ago which prior to Katrina was the largest single evacuation of any community in the United States. And so the Bank of North Dakota, once the flood had receded and there were business needs, we developed a disaster loan program to assist businesses. So we can move quite quickly to aid with different types of scenarios. Whether it’s encouraging different economies to grow or dealing with a disaster.
MJ: What do private banks think of you?
EH: The interesting thing about the bank is we understand that we walk a fine line between competing and partnering with the private sector. We were designed and set up to partner with them and not compete with them. So most of the lending that we do is participatory in nature. It’s originated by a local bank and we come in and participate in the loan and use some of our programs to share risk, buy down the interest rate. We even provide guarantees similar to SBA to encourage certain activity for entrepreneurial startups. Aside from that, we also act as a bankers’ bank or a wholesale bank. So we provide services to banks, whether it’s check clearing, liquidity, or bond accounting safekeeping. There’s probably 20 other bankers' banks across the country. So we act in that capacity as kind of a little mini-fed actually. And so we service 104 banks and provide liquidity to them and clear their checks and also we buy loans from them when they have a need to overline, whether it’s beyond their legal lending limit or they just want to share risk, we’ll do that. We’re a secondary market for residential loans, so we have a portfolio of $500 to $600 million of residential loans that we buy. MJ: So what’s the advantage of a publicly owned “bankers’ bank” instead of a privately owned one? EH: Our model is we use our deposit base to help [other banks] with funding their loans, even providing fed funds lines with our excess liquidity—we buy and sell fed funds and act as a clearinghouse for check clearing activity. That would be the benefit or different model. We’re a depository bank and can bring that to bear. MJ: If other states had a bank like yours, do you think they would have been more insulated from the credit crisis?