Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson

Reporter

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

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Prescription Drugs Are in our Drinking Water: What to do Now?

| Mon Mar. 10, 2008 8:26 PM EDT

The biggest sex story of the day, besides the expensive sex life of the New York Governor, is the revelation that prescription drugs (including sex hormones) are in the drinking water of 41 million Americans. Forget Room 871's minibar. Maybe Spitzer got horny on tap water.

That drugs are in our water isn't new news, but the AP's five-month investigation will be sure to prompt a rush on Brittas and bottled snowmelt from the Alps. It will also probably lead to a reexamination of our wastewater treatment systems, including the policy of spreading sewage sludge on farmland--sort of the stealth turd in the swimming pool of water politics. Sludge, the black goop that comes out of sewage plants, contains drug residues that have the potential to be absorbed into plants and animals and run off into streams. So does the "purified" water that comes out of the same plants, but the sludge has gotten less attention as of late. Now almost forgotten is the high-ranking EPA scientist, David Lewis, who raised a stink over sludge a few years ago. The EPA fired him, though not before he exposed shortfalls in the EPA's science on sludge and some shady ties between government and industry.

For now, consumers will have to sort out how to deal with the drug-laced water problem on their own. In case you're wondering, one sure-fire water filtration method for removing pharmaceuticals from your tap is reverse osmosis. In arid Southern California, Orange County began operating a reverse osmosis system late last year that extracts drinking water from sewage (they call it "toilet to tap'). The superior cleanliness of this source relative to drinking water from lakes and rivers might have struck me as ironic--before Spitzer exploded my brain's irony synapse.

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Bank Drops Wikileaks Case

| Wed Mar. 5, 2008 8:22 PM EST

Julius Baer Bank and Trust dropped its case against Wikileaks today, days after a San Francisco judge reversed an injunction against the iconoclastic document-leaking site. Judge Jeffrey White had ordered Wikileaks shut down in response to arguments that it had published stolen bank documents that contained sensitive proprietary information. But Wikileaks argued that the documents exposed fraud, and the injunction prompted a firestorm in the press over concerns that White had abridged constitutionally guaranteed rights to free speech and freedom of the press. "There are serious questions of prior restraint, possible violations of the First Amendment," he said on Friday before reversing the order. Even during the time that Wikileaks went dark, shadow sites hosted in other countries continued to make the same information available, underscoring the futility of censorship in the Internet era. The bank's filing today didn't say why it was withdrawing the suit and reserved the right to refile the case later.

EPA Union Leaders Take on Top Brass Over CA Waiver Decision

| Wed Mar. 5, 2008 3:40 PM EST

On Friday, 19 union local presidents representing more than 10,000 EPA employees submitted a letter to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson accusing him of "abuses of our good nature and trust." The complaint cited the California greenhouse gas waiver decision and several other issues, including the oversight of mercury emissions from power plants. It expanded upon a protest of the waiver decision submitted by a smaller group of EPA staffers in January.

That same Friday I happened to attend a forum at UC Davis on California's greenhouse gas regulation efforts. Ken Davis, the point man on global warming lawsuits for the AG's office, mentioned that the EPA had earlier that day submitted a 40-page declaration expanding upon its reasoning for denying the waiver. The EPA was calling the declaration its "final rule," which, he speculated, was an effort to reset the clock on the AG's appeal of the decision. He considered the move a shameless delaying tactic.

Clearly, we haven't heard the last of the global warming fight between California and the EPA. Johnson is increasingly isolated: public opinion, state legislatures, and, of course, the world at large are moving in the opposite direction. Expect an increasing amount of high profile dissent from within the EPA as the political season unfolds--especially if it looks more likely that a Democrat will retake the White House.

The Alt-Weeklies Rip Into Obama

| Mon Mar. 3, 2008 4:30 PM EST

My former alt-weekly colleague Todd Spivak has published a sharply critical piece on Barack Obama just in time for the Texas primary. The story appears in the Houston Press, where I worked with Spivak until 2006, as well as in its sister paper, the Dallas Observer. Both are circulated by Village Voice Media in cities that happen to be Obama strongholds. The story follows the admirable Houston Press tradition of pissing people off, but it's also getting ripped up in the blogosphere.

Spivak's piece is based on his years as a cub reporter in Illinois, where he covered Obama when he was still a political unknown. In 2004 Spivak published a favorable profile of Obama in the Illinois Times, but then he felt guilty about giving him a free pass (sound familiar?). He made some calls around the state legislature and found several lawmakers who were angry at Obama for taking credit for bills that they saw as their own. After Spivak ran with the 2004 story, Obama called to berate him. Wonkette sums up the whole thing in more detail here.

The problem with Spivak's piece is that it's somewhat short on context. A slice of the lengthy rebuttal in Daily Kos:

Finally when Spivak gathered all those nasty comments about Obama he was the dark horse in a three way race for the US Senate nomination, and most of the Illinois machine was working for his opponents (namely Dan Hynes son of long time Chicago alderman and self funding millionaire Hull). Nearly all of the folks named are now outspoken advocates and supporters (but they're still hacks).

Though Spivak brings up some woefully underreported dirt on Obama, he would have been better served to shore it up and drop the whole "Obama and Me" narrative. As it stands, the story is most revealing as a cautionary tale for a schizophrenic national media. Being taken in by Obama and then coming to one's senses, so to speak, isn't the best model for coverage. Better to be skeptical from the start, and that includes skepticism of Obama's critics.

A Congressional Race That (Almost) Sums Up Northern California

| Thu Feb. 21, 2008 10:04 PM EST

Californians, and especially San Franciscans, have a knack for embracing politicians who are larger than life. We've elected Jerry Brown ("Governor Moonbeam"), veteran state Senator John Burton (the flamboyant foul-mouth), and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown ("Slick Willie"), to name a few. Now we've got the Governator in Sacramento and Gavin the Playboy in City Hall. And there are always mayoral also-rans such as Cindy Sheehan, the peace mom, and Josh Wolf, the jailed vlogger. These politicos are as much policy wonks as cultural figures who embody the fears, dreams and excesses of their times--a reflection of the fact that politics and culture are unusually conjoined in the Golden State.

Even in light of this history, voters should brace themselves for the upcoming election to replace the recently deceased Congressman Tom Lantos. It's a race that simultaneously evokes San Francisco's pre-hippie past, touches upon the rise and decay of the counterculture, and speaks to an uncertain future in which technology, political idealism, and ego form a volatile mix. It could be a wild ride. I'll explain after the jump.

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