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.
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.
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."
On the same rainy morning that Reed and I tracked my recyclables, we followed Eric Pike to his final destination, "the Pit," where he'd deposit my trash before it was shipped off to the landfill. The Pit was hidden inside a San Francisco warehouse at the edge of town. Caterwauling seagulls were chased off by workers shooting blanks from a handgun called a "whistler," as well as by a trained falcon, a hawk, and two dogs. Still, the rain running off the Pit's roof was frothy white with seagull poop.
Inside, a miasma of chemicals, street-sweeper bile, and rotting burrito stung my eyes and nose. The Pit, a cement trough the size of a college gym, had been filled halfway—about nine feet deep—with compacted trash. The Big Pig opened a hatch and expelled a plasticky load coated in brown syrup. Peering down at the reeking pile, I spotted a "Have a Nice Day" sack that possibly contained my cat's poop.
Despite San Francisco's impressive recycling stats, a 2006 study found that more than two-thirds of the Pit's contents could still be recycled or composted. In an effort to shame residents into achieving zero waste by 2020, this January Sunset Scavenger plastered the sides of its garbage trucks with giant photos of trash heaps. "The idea is that when you actually look at garbage," Reed explained, "you realize that it isn't garbage at all."
Yesterday Operation Rescue, the national anti-abortion group based in Wichita, announced that it wants to buy murdered abortion doctor George Tiller's clinic and convert it into a "memorial to the unborn." The national media dismissed the announcement as a stunt, but it most certainly isn't.
In 2007 I reported a piece for this magazine about how anti-abortion groups have created similar memorials around the country. The story focused on Operation Rescue's efforts to convert a different abortion clinic in Wichita into what is now its national headquarters. When I visited, Operation Rescue director Troy Newman explained that he'd purchased the building through a front group. That approach makes yesterday's announcement a credible threat. If Tiller's family puts the building on the market, they might have to sell to someone they know or closely investigate the buyer to keep the building out of Newman's hands.
"What better way to show that we are winning and demoralize the enemy," Newman told me in 2007, "than by shutting down an abortion mill, throwing out the tenants on their face, and taking it over as our headquarters? You lose, we win."
Beyond the chest thumping, these kind of takeovers--which have also happened in Tennessee and Louisiana--are part of a long-term strategy of the anti-abortion movement. The approach ultimately enables a softer appeal to the millions of women who've already had an abortion. At the Wichita memorial, Newman told me in 2007, they'd be able to reflect, mourn, memorialize—even name their "babies"—and take action: "Not only can I see a plaque here with my baby's name on it, and cry here because I killed my baby here," he imagined visitors saying, "but these people in this building are dedicated to ending the holocaust, and I can join with them hand in hand."
Some pro-choice advocates admit their movement has been slow to tackle the question of healing. Only in the past several years have hot lines such as Exhale and Backline begun providing women with postabortion counseling services. Owning Tiller's clinic--and thus the right to tell its story--would be a powerful way for Operation Rescue to redefine what healing means in this case. If his past clinic takeover is any indication, it will probably involve grisly "tours" in which he will point out supposed blood stains.