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.

The debate over whether electromagnetic radiation from cell phones and other wireless technology causes cancer rages on. Yesterday, an advocacy group called the National Institute for Science, Law, and Public Policy sent a letter to journalists and lawmakers urging them to "learn about the health consequences of microwave radiation exposure from cell phones, neighborhood antennas, wireless networks, wireless routers, DECT portable phones, and the potential health consequences of further chronic exposures from wireless broadband and new wireless utility technologies."

The folks behind this latest media blitz are some of the same ones who authored the controversial BioInitiative Report in 2007, which linked wireless radiation to cancer and a host of other health problems.* When I investigated the issue of whether cell phones cause brain cancer last spring, I was told by some BioInitiative authors that we'd finally have the answer in a few months, when the conclusive results from the multinational Interphone Study, the holy grail of cell phone health research, would finally be released.

But a year later, the results still haven't been released. Why not?

 

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.

 

 

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

Happy July! Can't wait for the 4th so those darn kids will stop setting of fireworks underneath my window. Grrr. Get off my stoop! Anyway, here are the Blue Marblish stories from our other blogs you might have missed. Enjoy.

Medical Myth: Knuckle-cracking is fine, but sugar makes parents hyper-vigilant.

Coaling Down: Coal-state Dems voted against the climate bill, but not as many as you'd think.

Lobbyist Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan: Kazakh government is paying Hill firm in attempt to repudiate their Borat image as anti-Semitic, prostitute-loving, horse-urine drinkers.

 

 

 

A commentary by two doctors in the current Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that it's time to differentiate between healthcare and health harm. Although the data are imprecise, the authors suggest the benefits delivered by US healthcare may not outweigh the aggregate harm imparted.

In other words, you can never have too much health. Yet your health can be harmed by the overuse of medicine or by the costs of funding healthcare.

How does that work? First there's direct harm from healthcare, including adverse physical and emotional effects from all the usual stuff associated with everything from excessive use to misdiagnoses to conflicting treatments.

Second, the authors suggest, there's indirect harm. This comes from the fact that healthcare costs increasingly divert resources from education, jobs, and environmental quality—all important determinants of your health.

Healthcare's objective should be to improve health, they say. Yet its primary emphasis has been on producing services. And fee-for-service payments tend to encourage the use of more treatments, new technologies, and extra testing. These additional services and their costs can actually harm health.

The fix? To begin with, study health harm to improve healthcare. Specifically, we need to understand the tradeoffs involved in healthcare interventions and expenditures in order to guide healthcare reform efforts. While more people need access to healthcare, that's not enough. Healthcare reform needs to improve how medicine is practiced: centering it on patients, organizing it around primary care, and curbing health harm, including excessive healthcare use and spending.

How about this Rx: Fewer drugs, cleaner water, better air, healthful food, more exercise, education, jobs… 
 

BP appears to be back pedaling on its vaunted commitment to alternative energy, renewing old skepticism about what the company formerly known as British Petroleum really stands for.

BP recently shuttered its alternative energy headquarters in London and plans to slash its $1.4 billion alternative energy budget by as much as 64 percent this year, the Guardian reports. Its clean energy boss, Vivienne Cox, is officially stepping down to spend more time with her family, though some industry insiders tell the paper that she's frustrated over the business being downgraded in importance.

Though BP has long led the oil industry in acknowleging climate change and investing in renewables, alternative energy investments make up only 5 percent of its portfolio. "Even its support of Kyoto is pilloried as disingenuous," Paul Roberts wrote in this magazine in 2006. "BP happens to be overstocked in reserves of natural gas, a fuel that emits less CO2 than coal or oil, and whose price would rise steeply if society was forced to cut carbon emissions."

On this last day of June, a look at health, environment, and science news from our other blogs:

Dough for "no" on cap-and-trade: 3,446,089 very compelling reasons that some legislators voted against Waxman-Markey.

Starry night: In Afghanistan, US troops on a night mission. Green tank, breathtaking skyscape, one cool photo.

Unscientific American: Does McCain really not understand or use the Internet? Well, uh, you see...

 

No, Blue Marblers, "Island Fox" is not the name of a new reality TV series. It's one of many names for a tiny, adorably fuzzy fox that lives on six of the eight California Channel Islands. The Island Fox, also called the Island Gray Fox because of its descent from mainland gray foxes, weighs only 5 lbs as an adult and is just now recovering from near extinction.

The Island Fox has lived on the Channel Islands for thousands of years, with each island evolving its own subspecies. All the Island Foxes were thriving until the 1990s, when changes in the local ecosystem had a disasterous chain effect on the species. DDT poisoned fish, which in turn poisoned the Islands' native bald eagles. The bald eagles' population decline opened up turf for non-native golden eagles who were attracted by the Islands' feral pigs. Once on the Islands, the golden eagles found Island Foxes easy prey since the foxes never had a predator, much less one that struck from above. In addition, sheep and other livestock had eaten much of the protective scrub and grasses foxes might have used for cover. Golden eagles quickly decimated the foxes. On one island, the fox population plummeted from 450 animals to 15 in just a few years.

To bring back the species, the National Park Service instituted a number of measures. Firstly, they removed golden eagles and re-introduced native bald eagles. Secondly, the Service created an ambitious captive breeding program, which you can learn more about here. And thirdly, the department is working on totally eradicating feral pigs so that golden eagles do not come back. Through this multimillion-dollar, multi-pronged approach, the National Park Service has been successful in bringing the Island Fox back from the brink of extinction in record time.

Now that Island Fox populations are recovering, the diurnal animals can be seen on the Islands living naturally. The foxes eat mostly fruit, insects, and deer mice and are devoted parents. They mate for life, having two to three pups per litter. Foxes communicate not only with body language, but with growls and short, high-pitched barks. Although they are now the subjects of active conservation, the foxes remain federally endangered. To learn more about the Foxes, and learn more about their history, you can visit the National Park Service's page here or visit a conservancy organization here.

 

Follow Jen Phillips on Twitter.

 

It's partly the florid language that makes me and some other Westerners uneasy.

"Arizona, the New Frontier! Armed with an abundance of sunlight, Arizona is the land of sunshine and opportunity."

That palaver could have been lifted from a 19th Century swindler's sheet, written to separate greenhorns from their golden coins. But, in fact, I just cut-and-pasted it from the Bureau of Land Management's current website. The BLM controls vast areas of the West, (68% of Nevada, 40% of Utah, 17% of Arizona) and is pitching the opportunities for "solar development companies, or 'prospectors'" in the old New Frontier of the American Southwest.

Yesterday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar (who oversees the BLM) designated 670,000 acres in six Western states as Solar Energy Study Areas. The Las Vegas Sun described these tracts of BLM desert lands as being "on a fast track for development" as giant solar power farms. To ensure that permits are issued quickly, Salazar announced that the BLM will open four new offices in California, Arizona, Nevada and Wyoming.

Now, I know we need to kick our addiction to fossil-fuel. And I also believe that using renewable energy sources like solar and getting serious about energy conservation are keys to a livable future. But I'm also aware of our history of "development" -- the Western spin-cycle of boom and bust, hope and despair, professed love of the land and simultaneous destruction of it.

Sandy Bahr knows all of this, too. But, she says, "Maybe this time we can get it right."

Bahr is the director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon chapter, an organization which was working on land use issues before Arizona was a state. "We don't need to get into those old conflicts this time," she says.

There's plenty of "disturbed" land in the West, she points out. Why not build renewable energy power plants on the scars left by the old polluting ones? Why not recycle abandoned agricultural land that should never have been cultivated and let solar power companies buy water-depleting farms and use that land (some forms of solar power plants are water intensive, but still need less than agriculture)?

Transmission lines, which can interfere with migrating wildlife, don't have to be a problem either, Bahr says. Route them alongside freeways, which already prevent animals from crossing.

There are cultural and human rights issues to consider, as well.

During a BLM sponsored public hearing on solar development in California in 2008, Carmen Lucas, a member of the Kumeyaay Nation, told the Bureau that before anything was built in his area, someone from the Kumeyaay community would need to examine the area to make sure it wasn't an ancient burial site. The "need for speed," he told the BLM, must not be allowed to trump Native people's rights.

Over the next several months, the BLM will be making siting decisions for these new solar mega-plants. That, says Bahr, is when we'll see how committed to meaningful change the nation really is.

Osha Gray Davidson covers solar energy for The Phoenix Sun, and is a contributing blogger for Mother Jones. For more of his stories, click here.