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  Sierra Magazine
  May/June 2004
Table of Contents
The Cost of Doing Business
Strategic Ignorance
Interview: Hilda Solis
Tidal Attraction
Why Race Matters
Food for Thought
Ways & Means
Let's Talk
One Small Step
Lay of the Land
Good Going
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Grassroots Update
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Lay of the Land

Elemental Dreaming | WWatch | Climate Reality Check | Peace Along a Polluted Waterway | Bold Strokes | Hybrids Rev Up | Posterior Protection Agency | Equal Opportunity Poison | Ideological Alamo | Updates | Biotech Fails the Test

Elemental Dreaming

Why do the coal and nuclear industries love hydrogen?

All of a sudden, hydrogen is the hottest atom on the periodic table. When compressed into fuel cells, the element works like a battery that can power everything from cars to spaceships, while producing no waste—just drinkable water. Alternative-energy guru Amory Lovins is a fan, as is National Mining Association president Jack Gerard. Other enthusiasts are politicians looking to establish green credentials without irritating the automotive and energy lobbies.

First on the bandwagon was President George W. Bush, who announced last year that his administration is investing $1.7 billion over five years to develop hydrogen fuel-cell technology for automobiles. Then California’s newly elected governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, vowed to sign an executive order requiring hydrogen fueling stations every 20 miles on the state’s highways. Schwarzenegger, who popularized the gas-guzzling military Humvee as a trophy car for civilians, has said he will convert one of his five Hummers to run on hydrogen, a $35,000 upgrade.

Schwarzenegger’s hydrogen fueling stations would cost up to half a million dollars each, which seems a bit pricey when you consider that his converted Hummer will be about the only vehicle using them. There are no hydrogen-powered cars in the showrooms now, and Bush’s fuel-cell program doesn’t give auto manufacturers any deadlines for producing one. The few prototypes on the road cost several million dollars, and a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences said that fuel-cell cars are still decades away.

There’s also the small matter of producing the hydrogen, which doesn’t occur in its pure form on Earth. One option is to split hydrogen from water using electricity, but unless the electricity comes from a renewable source like wind or solar, this method could end up increasing greenhouse-gas emissions. The Bush administration, ever eager to prop up the coal, oil, and nuclear industries, advocates extracting hydrogen from fossil fuels and splitting it from water using nuclear power. Daniel Becker, director of the Sierra Club’s Global Warming and Energy Program, characterizes this approach as "a nicotine patch that causes cancer."

The Department of Energy estimates that Bush’s hydrogen fuel-cell initiatives could reduce demand for petroleum by 11 million barrels per day by 2040. But making gas-powered cars even slightly more efficient would achieve huge savings a whole lot sooner. If U.S. cars averaged a very achievable 40 miles a gallon, we could cut oil consumption by 4 million barrels per day right now—nearly as much as the United States imports from OPEC. —Dashka Slater

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Climate Reality Check

While the Bush administration stays in its bubble of denial with regard to climate change, a British think tank has proposed a pinprick of reality: trade sanctions.

The European Union ratified the Kyoto Protocol on global warming in 2002, and estimates are that it will have to raise energy prices by as much as 60 to 70 percent in order to comply. The London-based New Economics Foundation argues that because the United States won’t be faced with similar costs, U.S. businesses enjoy an unfair competitive advantage. To level the economic playing field, the foundation suggests slapping a duty on imports from nations that refuse to ratify the protocol. Such "remedial trade restrictions" have been allowed by the World Trade Organization before, and might just make willful disregard for our warming world too hot to handle.
Marilyn Berlin Snell

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Peace Along a Polluted Waterway

John Petersen (with wife Nancy) Oberlin, Ohio
Despite barriers and bombings, neighborly cooperation is restoring a river in the Middle East.
Photo: Jewish National Fund.

Rivers commonly serve as political divides, but in the Middle East, where armed conflict is a fact of life, environmental concerns over a beleaguered stream have brought people together. Since the mid-1990s, Israeli and Palestinian scientists have been working together to clean up the Alexander River, which carries sewage from two Palestinian towns into Israel’s coastal plain north of Tel Aviv and on to the Mediterranean. They constructed a sewage-treatment facility, created parks, and prepared "basking areas" for the river’s Nile soft-shell turtles, which can weigh more than 150 pounds.

The neighbors continue to cooperate, but the key is keeping the issues local. When Israelis and Palestinians meet to discuss river rehabilitation, they agree to discuss "only sewage," says Amos Brandeis, manager of the Alexander River Project. "No politics and no journalists are allowed."
—Eric Pallant

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Bold Strokes

Wall Street’s Good Investment
When the Washington-based timber company Trillium ran up a $30 million bill it couldn’t repay with the investment firm Goldman Sachs, it settled the debt by forking over landholdings in Tierra del Fuego, Chile. But what’s a Wall Street firm gonna do with 680,000 acres containing rare, old-growth forest? Instead of making a buck, the company opted to work with U.S. and Chilean environmental organizations to create a nature preserve. This good news follows another victory for Chilean conservationists: Last December, the government agreed to create a 740,000-acre nature sanctuary from land donated by Doug Tompkins, the founder of clothing-maker Esprit.

You’re Busted
In the popular television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, beautiful police people collect bloody evidence, peer knowingly through microscopes, and solve murders in less than an hour. Based on the real-world work of medical forensics, the show has been credited with an uptick in science-course enrollments at colleges across the country. But at the University of Wales, Bangor, one professor is bringing that science even more down to earth, offering the world’s first degree in environmental forensics.

As with humans, chemicals have unique "fingerprints" that can be used for identification purposes. ("You say this groundwater contamination isn’t from your oil refinery? Let’s just check the fingerprint.") The Bangor students learn how to trace the sources and effects of oil, sewage, and toxics contamination, while also learning the fine art of expert-witness court testimony.

The field of environmental forensics began in the United States in the late 1990s, but to date there are no degree-offerings, though schools like Oregon State University have a Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology that teaches similar skills. —Marilyn Berlin Snell.

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Hybrids Rev Up

Motor Trend magazine’s 2004 Car of the Year is so much in demand that you may have to wait up to four months if you want to own one. But this coveted vehicle isn’t a hot new roadster. It’s the Toyota Prius, a gas-electric hybrid whose raciest spec is that it gets 60 miles per gallon in city driving. Interest is so high that Toyota is increasing Prius production by 25 percent, and is scurrying to introduce additional hybrid models, including a luxury Lexus.

Toyota’s competitors have taken notice. Honda will introduce a hybrid version of its top-selling midsize Accord this fall, complementing its gas-electric Civic sedan and two-seater Insight models. Next year, Ford will offer a gas-electric version of its compact Escape sport-utility vehicle, which is expected to get up to 40 mpg. "Fuel-efficient hybrid gasoline-electric cars and trucks are pulling out of the Sierra Club parking lot and into a driveway near you," writes the Detroit Free Press.

While the hybrid race heats up, heavyweight General Motors pokes along in the slow lane. It recently shelved plans to introduce two hybrid compact SUVs. Instead, GM will put its efforts into a "mild" hybrid system that only increases fuel economy by 10 to 13 percent. And Subaru is one automaker that seems to be driving the wrong way. Long a preferred choice of outdoorsy auto buyers who want all-wheel drive but not inefficient SUVs, Subaru recently announced that its popular Outback models would gain an inch or so in height, thereby qualifying as "light trucks." The switch allows the company to take advantage of a loophole in federal fuel-economy standards that lets trucks enjoy a lower mpg standard than cars. But if Subaru’s customers stay away, the company may rue the day it threw its Outbacks into reverse.—Reed McManus

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Posterior Protection Agency

More than three years into the administration of George W. Bush, the Environmental Protection Agency has been thoroughly politicized. Budgets are being slashed, scientific findings are being suppressed, enforcement actions are down by 40 percent, and employees fear that doing their jobs will put them at odds with the agency’s political leadership. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an organization that "protects the government employees who protect our environment," recently polled EPA staffers. (Details are available at under "Employee Surveys.") Here are some of its findings:

  • More than three out of four say that politics shape EPA actions "more than they did five years ago."
  • More than half agree that "promoting the president’s energy plan and other administration initiatives has become more important" than protecting the environment.
  • Nearly one-third say they are "hesitant to perform controversial aspects of [their] job for fear of retaliation." (Among managers and supervisors, the figure jumps to 42 percent.)
  • A separate PEER survey of EPA criminal-enforcement staff found similar disillusionment:

  • More than two of three believe "the emphasis that the EPA places on investigating serious environmental crime has declined."
  • Nearly three of four note a "decrease in resources available to investigate environmental crime during the past two years."
  • More than half "fear job retaliation for reporting improper activity."

  • Fewer than one in seven believes that the "EPA’s criminal program is stronger today than it was during the Clinton administration."
  • When asked how the agency’s criminal-enforcement program might be improved, one respondent answered simply: "Concentrate on the ‘E’ in EPA."
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    Equal-Opportunity Poison

    Lax mercury rules threaten rich as well as poor

    Many environmental hazards seem perversely aimed at the poor. People in older houses with peeling paint are susceptible to lead poisoning; subsistence fishers pull PCB-laden fish out of industrial waterways. But a recent study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives shows that middle- and upper-income women who eat large amounts of tuna and swordfish steaks are contaminated with mercury at rates up to ten times that of the population at large.

    It’s not only ahi-eating Atkins dieters who are at risk, though. Another new study, this one by the EPA, shows that one in every six women of childbearing age—twice as many as previously thought—now has potentially harmful amounts of mercury in her bloodstream, and that 630,000 children are born each year with blood mercury above the EPA’s safe level. A potent neurotoxin that is especially hazardous to developing fetuses and young children, mercury can impair intelligence and learning ability, and even lead to permanent brain damage.

    How is such widespread poisoning taking place? No one knows for sure, but a likely culprit is canned tuna, the most widely eaten fish in the United States. (Children consume twice as much canned tuna as any other fish.) The U.S. Food and Drug Administration rarely tests canned tuna at all, but nongovernmental groups have found shockingly high mercury levels, particularly in albacore, aka "white" tuna. A 44-pound child eating one six-ounce can of albacore per week would exceed the EPA’s safety standard by four times; a 132-pound woman by one and a half times. This March, the EPA and the FDA issued a strict new advisory, warning pregnant women, nursing mothers, women who may become pregnant, and young children not to eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish at all; to limit albacore to one meal per week; and closely watch local advisories about wild-caught fish.

    Simultaneously, however, the EPA was facilitating the continued dumping of large amounts of mercury into the atmosphere from coal-fired power plants. Until recently, these plants were expected to reduce their emissions by 90 percent within three years. But last December, at the power industry’s urging, the EPA proposed instead establishing a system of pollution permits that could be bought and sold between companies, but would take six years to achieve a 30 percent reduction. EPA staffers complained that they were told not to perform the usual scientific and economic analysis of the new proposal, portions of which were identical to recommendations from a utility-industry lobbying firm. According to the Washington Post, "At least a dozen paragraphs were lifted, sometimes verbatim, from . . . industry suggestions." —Paul Rauber

    Fish Eater’s Guide

    Choosing what to fix for a fish fry is more complicated than it used to be, but there are plenty of resources to help you make a responsible, safe choice. First the big picture: Is the fish overharvested and endangered? To find out, see "Food for Thought" (January/February), or download the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Card at

    Next, is the fish safe to eat? Mercury is by far the most widespread seafood contaminant. Tilefish, swordfish, shark, albacore, and king mackerel all tend to be high in mercury. Lower-risk species include tilapia, wild Pacific salmon, sole, catfish, and clams. The Sea Turtle Restoration Project’s Web site allows you to calculate, based on serving size and your weight, the safety of any of 50 fish varieties that have been tested by the FDA:

    Fish can also be contaminated by pesticides and other pollutants (see "Updates," above right). Environmental Defense has combined information from various consumption advisories into its "Seafood Selector": see

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    Ideological Alamo

    A censored textbook sparks a free-speech lawsuit

    Dr. Daniel Chiras never thought that writing textbooks would get him branded a traitor. But that’s what happened when the Republican-controlled Texas State Board of Education decided that the latest version of his popular environmental-science text was inappropriate for the state’s public schools. Objecting to passages that noted the United States’ disproportionate production of greenhouse gases and raised questions about the biblical mandate to have dominion over nature, the board rejected Chiras’s book in 2001, labeling it "anti-American" and "anti-Christian." Chiras sued last fall, calling the decision unconstitutional.

    With more than 4 million children in public schools and a purchasing budget topping $500 million, Texas buys more textbooks than any state except California—so the board’s decision could affect authors, publishers, and students nationwide. "The First Amendment protects school textbooks from being rejected on the basis of points of view, but that’s just what the board has done," says attorney Adele Kimmel, who represents Chiras and two Texas students in their lawsuit. "This is blatant censorship."

    Noting that previous editions of his book Environmental Science: Creating a Sustainable Future have been a teaching staple for years, Chiras maintains he was targeted by right-wing critics. The suit’s defendants, including former board chair Grace Shore, the co-owner of a small gas and oil company, declined to be interviewed, although David Bradley, a Galveston-area board member, did tell his hometown Daily News the free-speech suit was "silly and frivolous."

    Textbooks that the board did approve went through extensive, last-minute revisions to soften language out of step with conservative ideals. In a section about climate change, one publisher even added the line, "Does it really matter if the world gets warmer?" —Dan Oko

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    WHEN FISH ARE FOUL A new study showing that fish raised on farms contain far more carcinogens and other contaminants than the wild kind may spur you to change your diet. According to the study, published in the journal Science in January, we should eat no more than one serving of farmed salmon per month to avoid exposure to more than a dozen pollutants, including dioxins and PCBs. This fall, seafood sold in U.S. markets will carry labels stating where it was caught, where it was processed, and whether it is wild or farmed. (See "Food for Thought," January/February.)

    RIVERS ADRIFT Last spring, a federal judge gave the Bush administration a year to revise its blueprint for restoring endangered Columbia and Snake River salmon. But federal policies continue to permit the region’s dams to violate the Clean Water Act, allowing the rivers to get lethally warm—and harming wild salmon runs. Environmentalists, tribes, fishermen, and biologists advocate removing four Snake River dams to recover Northwest salmon. (See "Lay of the Land," September/October 2003.) To demand effective salmon-recovery efforts, send a letter to the Bush administration at

    CLEARING THE SMOKE In December, a federal appeals court forced the Bush administration to delay by at least a year its industry-friendly changes to "new source review" rules for emissions from aging power plants. Existing law prevents utilities and other industries from making plant upgrades without also installing new pollution-control equipment. (See "Lay of the Land," November/December 2003.)

    MOST BANG FOR THE BUCK U.S. Forest Service studies have concluded that taxpayers save money when government jobs are not farmed out to private firms. Of 167 reviews completed by mid-October 2003, only 12 found jobs that could be done more efficiently by outside contractors. (See "Pink Slips in the Parks," September/October 2003.)

    For more news every weekday, visit

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    Biotech Fails the Test

    New studies show increased pesticide use, harm to biodiversity

    In March, residents of rural Mendocino County, California, voted to ban genetically modified plants and animals from being grown or raised within county lines. The law is the first of its kind in the United States, but likely not the last, as recent studies confirm some of environmentalists’ worst fears about tinkering with nature.

    Last November, agricultural economist Dr. Charles Benbrook published the first long-term study of pesticide use on corn, soybeans, and cotton genetically engineered to tolerate herbicides or to produce their own insecticides. Relying on data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he found that pesticide application indeed declined during the first three years of commercial use—just as industry claimed it would. But in the last three years of the eight-year study period, pesticide use on genetically modified soybeans, the most common bioengineered crop, skyrocketed. Biotech cotton and corn registered small increases as well. Overall, pesticide use rose by 50 million pounds.

    The change, Benbrook says, is no surprise. "Scientists have warned that heavy reliance on [herbicide-tolerant] crops might lead to changes in weed communities and resistance, in turn triggering the need to apply additional herbicides and/or increase rates of application," he writes in the study. "These predictable ecological adaptations have now been documented."

    Perhaps equally predictable is the toll that increased herbicide use takes on ecosystems. Also last fall, scientists in Great Britain reported their findings from a government-funded study comparing biodiversity in fields growing conventional sugar beet, oilseed rape, and maize with those growing plants genetically modified for resistance to herbicides. With the beet and rape plants, the researchers found fewer seeds, flowering weeds, and insects—all important food sources for birds and other wildlife—in the bioengineered fields.

    No genetically modified crops are currently commercially grown in the UK; the research was commissioned to help the government decide whether or not to introduce them. In the United States, the biotech genie is already out of the bottle. But these studies might inspire more counties to stuff him back in. —Jennifer Hattam

    To read the British study on genetically modified crops, see Dr. Charles Benbrook’s research about pesticide use on bioengineered crops is available at

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