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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The Real Stink Behind Sewage Sludge & the White House Garden

| Sat Jul. 4, 2009 12:44 PM EDT

 Since I raised the possibility two weeks ago that sewage sludge fertilizer could have contaminated the Obamas' White House vegetable garden with lead, there has been a flurry of press on the subject. Various food and gardening blogs and dueling Huffington Posters weighed in, followed by the AP, Reuters, and the New York Times after a White House spokeswoman publicly addressed the lead issue on Thursday. Much of the coverage has sought to quell misperceptions that produce from the White House garden is unsafe to eat. Indeed, as I pointed out in my original post, the levels of lead in the garden are still well below those that the EPA says can cause health impacts. But in obsessing over whether the Obamas are poisoning themselves and their guests--and there's no proof that they are--most of the media missed the more interesting question: Is it really a good idea to grow vegetables on land that has been fertilized with sewage sludge?

The EPA thinks so, and has promoted the practice for decades as an alternative to landfilling sludge or dumping it in the ocean. In what was probably the single most effective component of a vast marketing campaign for sludge fertilizer, the National Park Service tilled it into the White House's South Lawn through much of the 1990s. Interest in the President's preferred brand of sludge spiked to the point that its makers had a hard time meeting the demand. Today, more than half the poop flushed in America ends up as fertilizer.

The safety of sludge might not be such a concern when it's spread your lawn and covered in a layer of grass, but chew on this: Food companies such as H.J. Heinz and Del Monte won't accept produce grown on sludge-treated land. The Netherlands and Switzerland effectively ban the use of sludge on farmland, and the practice is expressly prohibited by the USDA's organics standards. If sludge has been spread on the South Lawn anytime since about 2006, the Obamas' pesticide-free garden could not be certified as organic.

The human poop in sludge isn't necessarily the problem. Sludge can contain traces of anything that gets poured down the drain, from Prozac flushed down toilets to lead hosed off factory floors. The EPA sets concentration limits for several heavy metals found in sludge, including lead, but the limits are higher than what is deemed safe in some European countries. For example, the EPA permits sludge to contain up to 300 parts per million of lead, but the Netherlands raises concerns about soil with more than 40 ppm of lead.

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A Problem-Plagued Watchdog, Recovery.gov Emblematic of Stimulus

| Thu Jul. 2, 2009 3:17 PM EDT

Although President Barack Obama pledged that taxpayers would be able to monitor "every dime" of the $787 billion dollar stimulus bill, a government website that is supposed to track the expenditures is off to a rocky start. Months after going live, Recovery.gov provides only sketchy information about government purchasing and is undergoing a rushed bidding process to be revamped. The problems that Recovery.gov faces are the central problems of the stimulus: The need to roll out projects quickly while meeting long-term goals and preventing taxpayer money from being wasted.

From the start, Recovery.gov was an ambitious project. Never before has the government sought to provide so much data about contracting in a single, user-friendly format. Moreover, the Obama administration is requiring that stimulus money be tracked not only to recipients like state agencies--which is normal practice for federal spending--but also to sub-recipients that could include individual contractors. Yet so far, Recovery.gov hasn't delivered on that promise. It's little more than a collection of press releases and general breakdowns of spending.

After taking considerable flak over the site, the Federal Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board issued a request for bids to revamp Recovery.gov on June 15th, requiring proposals to be submitted a mere 11 days later. Bypassing the typical "full and open competition" bidding process, the board limited bids to 59 pre-approved contractors "because of the speed with which we have to handle this particular procurement," a spokesman told Federal News Radio. Whoever won the contract would have to roll out the new site in less than a month. On Tuesday, Federal News Radio reported that only two contractors actually submitted bids--far from an ideal level of competition.

"They are required to have open competition, but everyone pretty much knew that the incumbent vendor was going to get the contract," says Tom Lee, a technology director at the Sunlight Foundation, an open government advocacy group that had considered submitting a bid of its own. "There's just no way another organization could get up to speed quickly enough to get the work done."

 

Report: States Wasting Stimulus Funds on New Roads

| Wed Jul. 1, 2009 7:45 PM EDT

A report released this week by two public interest groups found that states are on average using nearly a third of their stimulus transportation funds to build new roads while often ignoring a huge backlog of necessary street repairs and public transportation investments.

Produced by a transportation consulting firm for CalPIRG and Smart Growth America, the report paints a particularly ugly picture in California, which has spent more than 80 percent of its $2.6 billion in transportation stimulus money. Forty three percent of that money went to build new road projects, even as about $310 million in ready-to-go road and bridge repairs went unfunded.

Of course, California looks downright sane compared to Kentucky, where more than 38 percent of lane miles are in "poor" condition, a whopping 573 bridges are structurally deficient, and yet 88 percent of the state's $421 million in stimulus transportation money will go to build new roads. "If the state can't afford to maintain what it has now," the report asks, "how does it plan to maintain the new roads?"

Similarly, it's anyone's guess how states will maintain their ailing public transportation systems. A recent Department of Transportation report found that the nation's seven largest rail transportation agencies have a combined investment backlog of $50 billion.  Yet the stimulus earmarks only $8.4 billion to public transportation, leaving other stimulus funds to fill the gap. Even then, few states with those rail systems are dedicating much of this money towards sustaining them. New Jersey, Pennnsylvania, California, New York, and Illinois each allocate less than 5 percent of their discretionary transportation stimulus funds to public transit.

Ironically, prioritizing new roads over public transit projects undermines the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's goals to generate jobs, promote long-term economic growth, and create greener cities--all areas where transit is unbeatable.

It's not too late to change course. June 29th marked the deadline for states to commit at least 50 percent of the Act's $26.6 billion in transportation funds; here's hoping the next 50 percent will be spent more intelligently.

Despite Pledge, ExxonMobil Still Funding Climate Change Deniers

| Wed Jul. 1, 2009 5:26 PM EDT

ExxonMobil isn't just in denial about climage change, it's in denial about its own denial. Despite a pledge in 2008 to discontinue contributions to groups "whose position on climate change could divert attention" from the need for clean energy, the company went right on funding them, the Guardian reports.

Recently released company records reveal that ExxonMobil handed over $75,000 that year to the National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas, Texas and $50,000 to the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. Both NPCA and Heritage oppose siginficant action on climate change and question whether global warming is a threat.

Given ExxonMobil's past behavior, it's easy to see how the company might have a tough time going cold turkey. In 2005, Mother Jones broke the story that ExxonMobil gives millions of dollars to think tanks, researchers, and media figures to produce and promote phony science purporting to debunk global warming (check out the handy charticle). A few months later, ExxonMobil vowed to "soften" its public image, earning headlines such as "Exxon cuts ties to global warming skeptics" and "ExxonMobil Softens its Climate Change Stance."

That was all just wishful thinking. (For a taste of the propaganda Exxon has wrought, see the first comment in this recent post). Maybe the company needs to enroll in some sort of 12-step program. Perhaps Carbonoholics Annonymous, or better yet, Cap and Trade.

 

 

LooWatt: A Loo That Turns Poo Into Fuel

| Wed Jul. 1, 2009 2:38 PM EDT

The taboo of writing about the environmental impacts of poop is officially on the wane. None other than Dwell, the glossy architecture and design magazine, has posted a snazzy video on the subject--an ode to the LooWatt, a slick-looking toilet constructed from dried poop that collects your #2 and turns it into cooking fuel. Here at the Blue Marble, we've been fascinated by all the new ways to convert poop into power instead of sewage sludge. With the LooWatt, you can do it yourself:

  

 H/T Grist

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