Review: Poisoned Waters

More than 35 years ago, Congress enacted the legislation now known as the Clean Water Act. The law had been around since its first incarnation—the Federal Water Pollution Control Act—in the Truman era, but the bill Congress passed in 1972 was a sweeping overhaul of the original act. The Clean Water Act set limits on the amount of pollutants industries and cities could discharge and gave the Environmental Protection Agency the power to sue and penalize polluters that exceeded those limits.

But after Ronald Reagan came to Washington, his administration established a program of voluntary compliance with Clean Water Act standards. That program is the launching point for Frontline’s documentary Poisoned Waters (airing Tuesday at 9 pm on PBS), which examines widespread pollution in two US waterways—Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound—caused by 25 years of unregulated toxic industrial, agricultural and municipal runoff.

Narrator Hendrick Smith shows us the first striking snapshot of aquatic pollution when he joins one environmental activist on a flyover of a Purdue chicken farm in Maryland: Behind each shed of 40,000 chickens, we see huge brown splotches of phosphorus- and nitrogen-heavy chicken manure. Rainwater eventually causes the chicken waste to leach in to one of the streams that make up the Chesapeake’s massive aquatic footprint. As Smith shows, chicken waste dumped into a tributary in Richmond could eventually end up in your drinking water in Baltimore.

Poisoned Waters is filled with those types of images: Frogs with six legs, once-male bass in West Virginia rivers that have morphed into females, and an underwater waste pipe spewing a constant noxious cloud of brown goop into Puget Sound. Smith and his crew use those images as segues to the documentary’s crucial point: Any pollution that kills aquatic life can harm humans. Finding dead fish floating belly-up on the surface of a river is a bad omen for humans drinking its water.

While deregulation emerges as the main culprit for the nation's polluted waterways, Smith implicates another group of culpable offenders—us. We’ve spent years creating new chemicals for everything from pesticides to household cleaners, all without pushing for up-to-date technology to purify our water of these toxins. Smith talks to one team of scientists who test for toxins in the Potomac River, both before and after its water is run through a treatment plant just north of Washington, DC. The plant’s outdated filters only remove a third of the pollutants in the Potomac.

So what can we do about it? Poisoned Waters concludes the impetus to clean up aquatic pollution—and halt it in the future—carries the most force when it comes from the electorate. But a pure environmental argument doesn’t always resonate with the voters. As Chris Miller, an activist with the Virginia-based Piedmont Environmental Council, says, “Getting up in front of a crowd and saying, ‘The bay’s in tough shape, and the pollution’s getting worse, and we’ve gotta change our lifestyles to save it,’ really doesn’t get you anywhere.” And with three-quarters of the US population living near waterways, hundreds of millions of Americans are affected by unregulated pollution. The trick is getting us all to care.

Note: I wasn't aware PBS would be advertising this program on our site until after I watched and reviewed Poisoned Waters. —S.A.

 

Not Enough Fine Print in the Food Safety Bill

Recently Kiera Butler wrote that the Food Safety Modernization Act 2009, or HR 875, will not mean the end of organic farming if it passes. Well, the bill may not send the feds tromping through your backyard basil patch, but it's certainly worth questioning—along with the Food and Drug Administration Globalization Act, or HR 759, also currently in the House. For local farmers whose produce doesn't reach the conventional food industry, how legislators construe 875 could have dire consequences.

Sure, Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), 875's sponsor, likely doesn't intend to sap the livelihoods of small farmers. But as far as I can tell, neither 875 nor 759 take into account the need for separate regulations according to farm size and financial capacity. If we really do intend to bolster small farmers, rather than letting them struggle to keep up with legislation that, by default, favors corporate farms, the bills need to be more discerning. One example?

The Vlogger MoJo and Maddow Love

If you watched The Rachel Maddow Show last Friday, you may have caught vlogger Jonathan Mann performing his cheeky tune "Hey Paul Krugman." Mann's Rock Cookie Bottom website, where he posts an original music video every day, has more than just Maddow buzzing. Want to know more? Check out MoJo's podcast interview with Mann (excerpt after the jump).

Chart of the Day - 4.20.2009

A few days ago, when I read that bank lending had dropped 2.2% in February, I didn't think too much of it.  In fact, it didn't really sound all that bad.  Given that we're in the middle of a serious recession, a decrease of 2.2% seemed like it might be reasonable even if there were no bank crisis at all.

But I wasn't reading closely enough.  First: this is not a year-on-year decline.  It's a one-month decline, which annualizes to about 30%.  Second: that number is a median.  Total lending decreased 4.7%.  Third, it's an average, and some banks cut back a lot more than others.  The Wall Street Journal reports:

According to a Wall Street Journal analysis of Treasury Department data, the biggest recipients of taxpayer aid made or refinanced 23% less in new loans in February, the latest available data, than in October, the month the Treasury kicked off the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

....In February, nearly half of lending by the 21 banks was to consumers, up from about one-quarter in October. But excluding mortgage refinancings, consumer lending dropped by about one-third between October and February. Commercial lending slumped by about 40% over that period, the data indicates.

That's a big drop, even for the middle of a recession.  What's more, as the Journal's chart shows, some of the biggest drops came from Citigroup and JPMorgan, both recipients of big TARP bailouts.  Even with all that TARP money, they're apparently not capitalized well enough to keep lending at a healthy level — which means that far from being able to pay back their TARP dough, they might very well need even more.  Pat Garofalo at the Wonk Room:

If a bank is truly healthy and can pay back TARP money while maintaining lending, more power to it. If, however, a bank is paying back TARP because it wants to get out from under the program’s restrictions — while not lending and clinging to other government funded rescue programs — that’s problematic.

For instance, Wells Fargo (which received TARP money) has posted a profit and maintained lending. If it announces a desire to exit TARP, the administration should seriously consider the offer. However, this is going to make it transparently obvious which banks are in the best shape. The administration will then have to decide whether the others will ever be anything more than zombies — limping along thanks to government support without actually doing any good — and be honest about the need to take them over and wind them down.

Adventureland

Reihan Salam on Adventureland:

I saw it the first time with an old friend, a new friend, and two pre-friends at a beautiful movie theater that serves milk shakes, burgers, and nachos, which is one version of heavenly bliss. Our shared verdict was positive, though the movie is definitely a little shambolic....I suppose there’s more to say about Adventureland, and about nostalgia for the late Reagan-era, etc., but this post is prompted by the fact that the movie opens with one of my favorite songs of all time, “Bastards of Young” by The Replacements [etc.] .....

I'm constantly struck by how strongly reaction to movies depends on whether you, personally, can identify with the characters.  I guess I shouldn't be, but I am.  I saw Adventureland last week, for example, and for only the second or third time in a decade I almost walked out halfway through because I was so thoroughly bored.  Did anybody do anything in that movie that was even remotely engaging or compelling or unexpected or anything?  It sure didn't seem like it to me.  I didn't hate it with a passion or anything, it just seemed like a total snoozefest filled with uninteresting, cardboard characters.

But de gustibus and all that.  I kinda liked the generally ridiculous Seven Pounds a little bit, for example.  I do have one question, though: why did the movie take place in 1987?  With a couple of very tiny and unnecessary exceptions, there was really nothing in Adventureland aside from the fashions that placed it in that era.  It could have taken place in 2009 just as easily.  So why was it made into a period piece?

Reviews Are Stellar for America's New CTO

Over the weekend, President Obama announced that Aneesh Chopra, Virginia's Secretary of Technology, will move to the White House to become America's Chief Technology Officer. With federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra, Chopra will form Obama's all-Indian transparency team -- among other assignments (like fixing our broadband problem), the two are tasked with using technology to boost citizen oversight of and engagement with their government. (Their parents are probably so proud of their new jobs, but less proud than if they had been doctors.) Here's Obama on Chopra's new gig:

In this role, Aneesh will promote technological innovation to help achieve our most urgent priorities – from creating jobs and reducing health care costs to keeping our nation secure.

Aneesh... will work closely with our Chief Information Officer, Vivek Kundra, who is responsible for setting technology policy across the government, and using technology to improve security, ensure transparency, and lower costs. The goal is to give all Americans a voice in their government and ensure that they know exactly how we’re spending their money – and can hold us accountable for the results.

There is a whole community of people who work in the tech/transparency space, and most of them seem to really like Chopra. Here's Micah Sifry at techPresident:

First, it looks like very good news for the transparency movement, as well as those of us looking for an open-minded leader willing to experiment with new forms of collaborative governance. For example, back in early 2007, under Chopra's leadership, Virginia was one of the first states to move, with Google's help, to make its state websites more searchable and thus more accessible to ordinary citizens. The state has also been in the forefront of efforts to create robust web services tracking the giant government stimulus spending package enacted by Obama, and as fed-watcher Christopher Dorobek points out, Chopra is well aware of and supportive of citizen-led watchdog efforts like Jerry Brito's StimulusWatch.org.

Here's Nancy Scola, rounding up comment from the big shots:

Paging Karl Marx

On my initial scan through the news the morning I read that the Treasury is planning to convert some of its preferred shares (purchased under the original TARP bailout for distressed banks) into common stock.  It's supposed to be a way for the feds to stretch their bailout dollars because, according the New York Times, "The change to common stock would not require the government to contribute any additional cash, but it could increase the capital of big banks by more than $100 billion."

That didn't seem to make any sense, but hey, what do I know about high finance?  And then I got annoyed by California's latest ballot initiative, and then intrigued by the Jane Harman wiretap, and forgot all about it.

But I guess I'm not crazy after all.  (Not totally crazy, anyway.)  James Kwak, who knows a thing or two about this, says the whole thing sounds ridiculous.  Here's Kwak highly condensed:

If you don’t give a bank any more money, it doesn’t have any more money. By converting preferred into common, you haven’t changed the chances of the bank going bankrupt....If you accept the idea that converting preferred into common creates new capital, then you are implying that those preferred shares weren’t capital in the first place....Tangible common equity and Tier 1 capital are just two ways of measuring the health of a bank. Taking money that wasn’t TCE and calling it TCE doesn’t serve any economic purpose.

Right.  Back when the original TARP bailout money was handed out, the preferred shares were very deliberately and very conspicuously called Tier 1 capital.  That's the bestest capital there is, and converting it into common stock doesn't make it into super-duper Tier 1.  It does get the banks off the hook for paying dividends on the stock, but since most of these banks are (or claim to be) extremely cash flow positive, that shouldn't be their biggest worry at the moment.

So....I dunno.  This is weird.  Might there be text hidden in the conversion contracts that releases banks from those horrible restraints on executive pay that they hate so much?  Or is there more to this than meets the eye?  Stay tuned.

Come Talk Trash With Us

After last week's organic food online forum, we're ready for the next course. This week's topic: recycling and waste. The modern recycling movement got its start alongside the first Earth Day, nearly 40 years ago this week. Since then, recycling's gone mainstream: Americans now recycle and compost a third of their trash, up from just 6 percent in 1970. Yet, as detailed in the current issue of Mother Jones, we're generating more waste than ever before. In just 5 minutes, we use another 1,060,000 aluminum cans, 2 million plastic bottles, and 15 million sheets of paper. We're still drowning in plastic, New York recycles only a fifth of its garbage, and trash haulers still find landfill more profitable than recycling. Then consider that municipal solid waste—that's the stuff that fills our home garbage cans and office paper bins—is just 2.5 percent of our total "Gross National Trash" output. While we've been agonizing over whether our plastic yogurt lids can be recycled, have we been missing the big picture? Is recycling giving us a false sense that we're solving our waste problem?

We put that question to four experts: Elizabeth Royte, Eric Lombardi, Annie Leonard, and Susan Strasser. Check out some highlights from their answers below the jump. Or head on over to our recycling online forum, which kicks off today. For the rest of this week, our panelists will be checking in to respond to readers, discuss and debate the future of recycling and waste, and perhaps even solve the mystery of the yogurt lid.

Quote of the Day #2 - 4.20.09

I spoke too soon.  Sorry Atrios!  The real quote of the day comes from Jane Harman (D–Calif.), caught on tape during an NSA wiretap:

“This conversation doesn’t exist.”

You just know that any conversation that ends this way can't be good.  Here's the backstory from CQ:

Rep. Jane Harman , the California Democrat with a longtime involvement in intelligence issues, was overheard on an NSA wiretap telling a suspected Israeli agent that she would lobby the Justice Department to reduce espionage-related charges against two officials of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful pro-Israel organization in Washington.

Harman was recorded saying she would “waddle into” the AIPAC case “if you think it’ll make a difference,” according to two former senior national security officials familiar with the NSA transcript.

In exchange for Harman’s help, the sources said, the suspected Israeli agent pledged to help lobby Nancy Pelosi , D-Calif., then-House minority leader, to appoint Harman chair of the Intelligence Committee after the 2006 elections, which the Democrats were heavily favored to win.

Harman vigorously denies that anything of the sort happened.  Conversely, CQ reports that not only does the conversation exist, but that then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales stopped the probe of Harman because he wanted her support for the NSA wiretapping program, which was under fire at the time.

Juicy!  So I wonder who leaked this?

Ths Scourge of the Ballot Initiative

Life in the Golden State:

California voters routinely use the ballot box to approve big spending on big things — canals and superhighways, light-rail systems, levees and social programs.

Now, with the state struggling financially, they're being asked to do some ballot box demolition.

State lawmakers fighting to escape a riptide of budgetary red ink have two propositions on the May 19 special election ballot that would yank more than $2 billion from a pair of popular programs that help some of the state's most vulnerable: young children and the mentally ill.

This is one of the reasons I loathe the initiative process these days.  Take Proposition 1E.  It asks me if I'd like to temporarily transfer some funds earmarked for mental health services to the general fund.  The amount at stake is a little over $200 million per year.

This is ridiculous.  I have no idea if this is a good idea or not, and for a trivial sum like this I'm not about to spend hours poring over ballot arguments.  It's like having a municipal initiative here in Irvine to decide if we want to plant a new tree in front of city hall.  But year after year, we keep passing these absurd initiatives because, after all, they're all for a good cause.  Education!  Mental health!  Children's hospitals!  Bullet trains!

Bah.  This is why we elect a legislature.  Unfortunately, thanks to some even earlier initiative nonsense, the California legislature is unable to actually pass a budget during a recession.  Our current pile of six initiatives (1A through 1F, for some reason or another) is on the ballot solely because one (!) member of the state senate extorted them as the price for his vote on a compromise bill to raise some taxes and cut some spending a couple of months ago.  So now we have a special election, at a cost of God knows what, so that the good people of California can decide, among other things, whether to move 0.2% of the state budget from one account to another.

Idiocy.