A tractor spreads compost from Recology on a vineyard.
Last month, at a vast composting yard owned by a Northern California waste and recycling company, Recology, I watched a load of lawn and food scraps from San Francisco residents get fed into a sorting machine. A spinning cylinder resembling a supersized cheese grater sifted out tidbits like lime wedges and grass clippings and spit the chunkier items onto a platform, where a worker in a neon vest plucked out plastic bags and an aerosol can of glass cleaner—just a few of the hundreds of pieces of contraband that he'd cull that day. I asked if he ever let anything slip by. "Sometimes," he said with a sheepish smile. I later ran my hand through a ripened compost pile and felt little pieces of glass and plastic mixed in with the fertile humus.
As thousands of cities have begun composting yard waste and hundreds more begin collecting food scraps on a large scale, new questions are emerging about what kinds of things make their way into compost and whether any of them pose a threat to humans and the environment. Federal laws do not require compost to be screened for contaminants, of which plastic and glass are only the most visible. Random tests of compost used in organic agriculture have occasionally turned up elevated levels of lead and traces of pesticides. Last month, the US Composting Council, the industry's trade group, warned its members to watch out for grass clippings laced with Imprelis, a new weed killer from DuPont that does not easily break down in compost piles.
In recent years, the term "nanny state" has become a favorite putdown on the Right. Conservatives routinely trot it out to defend their freedom to eat trans fats, inhale tobacco, or blaze incandescent light bulbs. Even the administration of Arnold Schwarzenegger fell prey to the label in more waysthanone. But can the meme last? Dissing big government is one thing, but why bring nannies into it? Somebody's bound to get spanked. And that's pretty much what happened on the floor of the Texas House yesterday when a Democratic state Representative discovered that one of her bills was being opposed by a flyer depicting a baby nursing a bare breast beneath the words: "Don't expand the nanny state."
"I don't appreciate this attack on women," said Rep. Senfronia Thompson of Houston as she held a copy of the flier, which was made by members of the conservative Texas Civil Justice League, a tort reform group. "And I'm going to have to tell you something: I don't perpetrate violence against somebody, but if they were here I would probably bloody their nose."
A bipartisan collection of female lawmakers backed Thompson up at the podium. Republican Rep. Debbie Riddle questioned a misogynist climate created by "the way some of the men have treated some of the women--with pornography on the floor of this House."
The flyer's offensiveness seems to come less from the intimate photo it shows than the way it frames it: Portraying the breast as belonging to a nanny flatters neither mothers nor nannies (wet nursing stopped being popular decades ago). Add the negative political message, and the flyer comes off as a mockery of the bond between mother and child.
Female legislators were clearly exasperated. Houston Democrat Carol Alvarado alluded to the House's recent passage of a bill that requires women to view a sonogram of their unborn fetus before getting an abortion. "We have had almost 50-plus bills or amendments this session that I think have demeaned women," she said, "but this one takes us to an all-time low."
In an apology email, the president of the Texas Civil Justice League said the flyer was only a "draft" that had been given to somebody outside the group and then reproduced. But as of Thursday evening, that explanation seemed to have done little to quell a brewing gender war in the Texas legislature. The most forceful part of Thompson's speech, which received a standing ovation, starts around 4:45:
"Something bad is going to happen," Gary Quarles, a worker inside Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, told at least three people on Easter weekend last year. Large parts of the mine had filled with water, impeding the flow of air that would normally remove dangerous accumulations of methane. And there wasn't enough crew and functioning equipment to tamp down clouds of explosive coal dust. As workers returned to the mine on April 5th, some of them commented that it was stuffy and miserably hot inside. At around 3 p.m. that afternoon, a massive explosion ripped through the shaft and killed 29 men—the worst mining accident in 40 years.
The recollections of Quarles and other surviving miners feature prominently in a damning report on the UBB disaster released today. Put together by an independent team of investigators appointed by West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, it reads less like a government tome at times than a nonfiction novella. Quarles, who is described as a big man and "a good guy" preoccupied by a divorce and the welfare of his two children, is the narrative's Cassandra. "When I get up in the mornings, I don't want to put my shoes on," he tells a friend. "I'm just scared to death to go to work."
The investigation firmly pins blame for the accident on Massey. "The story of Upper Big Branch is a cautionary tale of hubris," it concludes. "A company that was a towering presence in the Appalachian coalfields operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk-taking."
The report's blunt tone reflects the clearer picture that has emerged since investigators began probing the causes of the accident more than a year ago. But it also underscores Massey's faded political clout. In January, Massey was acquired by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources in a deal that made Alpha the nation's second-largest coal company while retiring Massey's tarnished name.
An initiative that would ban male circumcision in San Francisco officially made the ballot today. It was written by a San Diego-based nonprofit group,MGMbill.org(MGM=Male Genital Mutilation), and promoted by a flamboyant group of "intactivists" who've marched in the city's gay pride parades (left). Though circumcision is less common today than it was ten years ago, leaders of the city's Jewish community oppose the ban as a violation of religious freedom. Here's a piece that I wrote a few months ago about why people on both sides of the issue are getting snippy.
Texas Governor Rick Perry always insists that he's not running for president, but who believes him? Ever since his January inauguration speech, which sounded like a national political ad, the tea party's favorite rainmaker has been hinting at larger ambitions. There were the broadsides of Barack Obama. The lighthearted talk-show appearances. The advisors who packed off to work for Newt Gingrich (leading to speculation of a Gingrich/Perry ticket). And, as revealed yesterday, there were Perry associates talking up Goodhair's designs on the White House and poking around Iowa.
As strange as it may sound, Perry's strengths and his party's weaknesses might actually make him a serious primary contender. Four short years after George W. Bush seemingly poisoned the Texas political well, Perry has emerged as a tea party hero by practicing a form of small-government fundamentalism that makes Bush look like a moderate. Facing a $27 billion budget shortfall, Perry pushed to eviscerate funding for the state's overburdened schools and social services instead of raising taxes or even tapping the state's $9.4 billion Rainy Day Fund. He has redefined fiscal conservatism to mean not spending crisis money at a time of crisis.