Monday, October 22, 2012

Texas Style State of the World

I've seen the future and it's called Texas! That's the gist of how a liberal environmental activist, a conservative Congressman and many other folks described the Lone Star State at the 22nd annual Society of Environmental Journalists conference that ended Sunday in Lubbock, Texas.

Here's what the future looks like, according to an astounding variety of people who spoke with the assembled writers, television and radio personalities, journalism professors, environmental activists and industry representatives at the event, hosted by Texas Tech University. Besides panel discussions at the Overton Hotel and Conference Center, where I was a moderator of a lunch discussion, busloads of conference attendees fanned out from Lubbock across the Texas plains to see various places and issues first-hand. Here're some highlights of what they heard and saw:

  • There's plenty of water in drought-parched west Texas for oil and gas drilling and fracking operations, which use substantial amounts of water mixed with sand and chemicals to crack open shale formations deep underground, said an owner of an oil drilling operation near Midland, Texas.
  • With hundreds of cedar trees dead from drought, the water supply from the Texas hill country is in deep trouble, if the hottest and driest weather pattern on record continues, said a watershed researcher.

  • There's plenty of beef in Texas, to judge by the heaping platters of meat set out for the hungry hordes of scribes.
  • Food suppliers predict that "meat is going to become a luxury item within a year," said the manager of food services for scores of schools.

  • West Texas is "one of nature’s biggest working laboratories for agriculture, energy and water research," said the region's Congressman, Rep. Randy Neugebauer. “I think that West Texas can serve as an example to the rest of the country on how we can meet the challenges we face today.”
  • "We're going to struggle in Texas if we have a decade like 2011"--the driest on record for the state, said a former EPA regional administrator, Alfredo Armendariz.

  • Oil and gas fracking operations provide good jobs and don't harm the environment, said industry operators.
  • Oil and gas fracking operations are destroying the quality of life in a rural community near Midland, Texas, where many oil and gas workers live, said several angry residents.

  • "The climate is changing," but who's to say it's not a natural cycle, said the West Texas Congressman.
  • "The vast majority of scientists are telling us it's not a natural cycle," said the former EPA administrator.
  • In any case, Texas and much of the US just experienced two summers of record heat waves, which cost "billions of dollars in health costs" as well as increased deaths, said a public health scientist.

  • Texas is booming with oil, gas, cotton farming, cattle ranching and many other businesses, said several speakers.
  • The future may look like the past unless major modifications are made to the intensive farming practices amid drought conditions that led to the "dust bowl" disaster across the Great Plains in the 1930s, suggested a new Ken Burns documentary, "The Dust Bowl," shown at the conference. The film is scheduled to air on PBS next month.

Here’re some of the news reports that this eco-journalism spotlight on Texas generated:

“President of the Odessa Chamber of Commerce Mike George introduced Odessa to a group of environmental reporters in a unique way — calling the city the Clean Energy Capital of the World,” the Odessa American newspaper reported of the visit by a busload of Society of Environmental Journalists attendees.

“George then went on to talk about Duke Energy’s 95-turbine wind farm in Notrees and how it is the home to a 36-megawatt battery storage facility, the biggest battery storage unit for any wind farm in the world,” added Odessa American reporter Nathaniel Miller Then he listed plans for a 500-acre solar farm. And then there’s the 400-megawatt “clean coal” electricity generating plant planned for next year with funding from the federal government and the Export-Import Bank of China that is “designed to capture 90 percent of the carbon dioxide it produces and sell the CO2 as enhanced oil-recovery, which will help companies bring more oil out of the ground.”

“Shane Leverett and his neighbors in Gardendale, Texas, are livid that their properties are now graced with tall white stakes, some less than 150 feet from their homes,” noted a reporter from, Bobby Magill. “Those stakes are signs that an oil company plans to come soon to drill their yards and ranch land in Gardendale, a ranching community on the broad mesquite flats between Midland and Odessa in the heart of the oil-rich Permian Basin.”
In contrast, Magill added, “Unlike Colorado, where the state regulations currently being amended determine oil and gas well setbacks, Texas allows cities to regulate setbacks and other oil and gas issues themselves. In dense urban areas, Colorado’s current setback is 350 feet from homes.”

“Brooks Hodges took over as general manager of Pitchfork Land & Cattle Co. last year in the midst of a drought and then had to deal with wildfire devouring 90,000 acres of native pasture,” noted an editor at, Chris Clayton.

“A group of journalists participating in the Society of Environmental Journalists annual meeting in Lubbock, Texas, toured the Pitchfork Ranch near Guthrie on Thursday as well as the Hale Center Feedyard outside Hale Center, Texas,” Clayton wrote. Here’s what they found:

“Drought recovery remains slow for cow-calf operators. There won’t be any official USDA numbers on whether ranchers are starting to rebuild their herds until January, but numbers earlier this year showed the Texas cow herd had 650,000 fewer head than a year earlier. Overall, the entire cattle herd in Texas declined from 13 million head to 11.9 million.”

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Environmental Writing 2012

Ramapo College, May 2012                                             (photo/Jan Barry)

Are electric cars the wave of the future? Why are bomb squads frequent visitors to a New Jersey business park? What’s up with both solar panels and natural gas pipelines spreading across the Garden State landscape? These are just some of the timely and essential ecological issues that 15 student-reporters at Ramapo College of New Jersey explored in the Spring 2012 Environmental Writing class.

Here’s a sampling of insightful passages on topics the students researched and reported in magazine-style final writing projects, which are posted on our class website,, along with a wide array of other eco-themed assignments.

“In April it was predicted that as the election pressures become more intense and gas prices rise, the president and administration may accelerate the review process and allow the northern leg of the pipeline to move forward more quickly. However, gas prices are currently in decline and have been for the past five weeks, as reported on Friday by the Huffington Post.

“According to the Los Angeles Times, ‘that day when hundreds of thousands of barrels arrive from Canada is at least a decade away, however, and much of the gasoline refined from Canadian oil would probably be exported, industry analysts say.’ ”
--from “New Keystone Pipeline Plan: What’s It Mean for the 2012 Elections?” by Lauren Haag

“Fort Detrick, a military base located in Fredrick, Md, was the main testing and research center for herbicides used in Agent Orange.  In recent years, area residents have raised concerns about what they see as a cancer cluster in the nearby neighborhoods surrounding Fort Detrick. Government officials deny there is a cancer cluster, although the state health department and a National Academy of Science panel are now taking a look at it.
“There is much skepticism as to whether the military will take any responsibility or admit to any wrong-doing. Randy White, the founder of the Kristen Renee Foundation, named after his daughter who died of brain cancer, has raised concerns about a possible cancer cluster based on surveys of residents of the area. White said that he had no confidence in the Department of Defense or a National Academy of Science review getting to the bottom of the issue in Fredrick.”
--from “The Lingering Legacy of Agent Orange” by Deshaun Mitchell

“You’re a devoted recycler. You’ve installed solar panels in your house. You drive a hybrid car. You have a homemade compost pile in your backyard. You live an eco-friendly life, and you wouldn’t have it any other way. But what happens when you leave your personal green kingdom for a summer vacation trip with the kids or a weekend getaway with your spouse? Do you abandon your green morals for a few days, or do you stick to your roots?

“Staying green while traveling can be a challenge, but in recent years more and more eco-friendly hotels have been popping up, and classic hotel chains like the Marriott and Hilton have been adapting practices that cut back on water use and air pollution.”
--from “Go Green: Eco-Friendly Hotels” by Diana Stanczak

“The students also found that vapor intrusion from the VOCs in the groundwater is a real threat to nearby buildings.  The area where the contaminants are found is right where a movie theater and parking lot are proposed.  This means careful investigation is needed to determine if vapor intrusion is a threat to indoor air quality.  Mitigation measures include a vapor barrier and venting systems.
“More suggestions include solar panels on buildings or in parking lots to reduce heat and produce clean energy.   Additionally, using LED parking lot lamps with special covers to reduce light pollution and in the long run, save on electricity and maintenance costs.  The use of native plants for landscaping was suggested, and not just for the bio-retention basins.  Native plant usage reduces water, fertilizer and maintenance needs, but also eliminates the threat of invasive species infiltrating the valuable wetland and riparian river habitat nearby.  They also stressed the importance of an efficient waste cycling program with the goal being zero-waste, which seemed to intrigue the members of the Environmental Commission and residents at the public hearing presentation.”
--from “Ramapo College Students Assess Proposed Mall’s Environmental Impact” by Barbara Bodden

“There obviously are serious concerns with the mega-million project, including damage to the pristine land--tearing through the Ramapo Reservation--and also the problems that come with fracking for natural gas for the pipeline. I wonder what is the point of reserving land if you’re going to destroy it anyway. Reservations are turning into layaways for companies. The same way department stores used to let customers put products on reserve to buy them at a later date, is what going on here. People and other businesses can’t build on this land. How strange that a gas-related project gets precedent over everything else.”
--from Tennessee Gas Pipeline Project: Why Is It Allowed in Preserved Parkland?” by Thomas Babcock

“The installation of solar panels in New Jersey ranks among the highest in the country and is set to continue to grow. Over the past couple of years, solar panels have exploded onto the New Jersey landscape. They were most commonly seen in multiple-acre solar farms, on rooftops, and car ports. But now they quite likely line the streets of your local neighborhood.
“Behind a majority of New Jersey’s solar energy projects is its largest utility provider, Public Service Gas and Electric (PSE&G). It is recognized by the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) as the nation’s third most solar connected utility, ranking behind only Pacific Gas and Electric in California and Florida Power and Light Company.”
--from “Solar Panels Spreading Across New Jersey” by Joseph Pianese

“In a time where IPhones and fast cars are celebrated more than natural things, it is safe to say that humans have drastically affected this planet. It is hard for people to remember that we were not always the superior species to walk this vast realm, but that before us Earth belonged to the animals.

“Is it a scary statistic to learn that almost 99% of living organisms that were here when the Earth was created are no longer in existence. Every day, more and more of our beloved creatures are forced out of their homes and into extinction. Although oftentimes not a primary concern to most humans, there are plenty of reasons and statistics proving why they should be concerned.”
--from “Animals: Pertinent to Our Survival” by Alexis Lopez

“Last summer, Tennessee Gas expanded the existing pipeline from 30 feet in width to almost 200 feet.  In these areas where the pipeline already exists, specifically in the region off of Clinton Road, waterways were flooded with excessive runoff, motor oil and other fluids from bulldozers and construction vehicles used in the projects, and wetlands along its route have been contaminated, say residents who were directly affected.
“The Monksville Reservoir, which is the starting point for the extension, holds up to a billion gallons of water, and serves as the backup water supply during droughts for the Wanaque Reservoir. Approximately 3 million people are served by this water system. The plan is to drill under the reservoir, minimizing its impact to the water body, which extends 505 acres, and is a popular fishing spot.”
--from “Gas Pipeline to Mahwah Set Off Alarms” by Victoria Ahlers

“Over thirty years ago, it all started with just 12 farmers in a parking lot on 59th Street and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan. Now it has grown to become the biggest and most diverse outdoor urban farmer’s market system in the country. There are now 53 markets, over 230 family farms and fishermen participants, and over 30,000 acres of farmland protected from development.
“Since the creation of the greenmarket, the relationship between farmers and city residents has changed rural communities and urban spaces. There is an improvement in consumer health and people who are in need of fresh and nutritious food can get it through the organizations EBT/Food Stamp and Youth-market program. The market has also helped support immigrant farmers, educate school children and city residents about regional agriculture importance, provide an opportunity for medium sized farms, and influenced chefs and local eaters in one of the most popular and famous cities in the world.”
--from “Bringing Farm Life Back to New York City” by Vanessa Camargo

“Since the concept of environmental justice was recognized over three decades ago, the issue has been growing in size and importance.  However, it is still far from where it needs to be.  Environmental Justice issues are largely under-reported, and hardly ever show up in local, state, or national political debate.  This is because residents of poor and minority communities have little to no representation in government, and therefore have little to no voice.  
“As it stands now, environmental justice issues are all too often left to be discovered and advocated for by the residents of the affected communities and environmental groups.  In these cases, the residents and environmental organizations are usually up against large corporations whose financial status and sheer size give them the upper hand.  The fact is, the task of discovering toxic waste and other harmful pollutants in communities should not be left to the residents.  It is the responsibility of government, specifically on the local level, to protect the interests and well-being of its people; therefore, it is they who should be held responsible.”
--from “Environmental Justice: A Growing Issue” by Bliss Sando

“In most towns, the discovery of a misplaced military explosive would have been big news, but this incident in Edison went by without a peep from the media or government officials.  This was not the first time a shell was found in the ground below bustling Raritan Center. 

“They only found one this time,” said Lieut. Salvatore Filannino, the public information officer at the Edison police department.  

“Raritan Center is one of the largest business parks on the East Coast of the United States, and the biggest in Middlesex County, NJ.  It contains approximately 100 buildings and a daytime population of 45,000 workers.  Raritan Center includes several hotels, banks, a day care center, and the main studio and newsroom of News 12 New Jersey. So this issue of old munitions may affect all different types of people in Edison, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

“In years past, it was home to the Raritan Arsenal, a sprawling military base…”
--from “Bomb Squads at a Business Park: Another Day at the Office” by Richard Fetzer

“The odors have become more noticeable to Middlesex residents for the past three years. Some residents describe the odors as unpleasant, and some say the odors are not that bad. The overall issue that the Board of Health is concerned about is if these odors are safe.

“There has been no confirmation that the odors produced are dangerous to the residents, officials said. In fact, all of the products that Spray Tek converts are consumable products by manufacturers that are highly regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency.”
--from “Fragrance Company and Town at Odds over Odors” by Molly Rothberg

“I remember driving into Pennsylvania for a weekend away some months ago and seeing signs on every lawn in the neighborhood I was driving through. Each sign read “FRACK” circled and crossed.

“I had thought “FRACK” was someone running for office that no one seemed to like; my friend told me otherwise. He informed me what hydraulic fracturing was, but I didn’t believe him that these people were lighting their sinks on fire and so I had to Youtube it.”
--from “Hydraulic Fracturing: A Brute Enemy to Water” by Samuel Arnowitz

“Electric cars are beginning to become more popular and are said to be better for the environment. With the rise of this, it is important to understand what an electric car is, the difference between electric and gasoline powered cars, and if they really are better for the environment.”
--from “Are Electric Cars the Way to Go for the Environment?” by Amanda Daley

“The Ramapo River is a popular destination for trout and fly fishermen and a retreat for families in the summer. Part of the Passaic River Basin, it is the most populated river in Northern New Jersey.
“On the surface, the river looks to be in great condition and a safe haven for wildlife. However, looked at more closely, the river is heavily polluted due to commercial development over the last few decades. Also, according to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, industrial companies used the river as a hazardous waste disposal site.”
--from “State of the Ramapo River” by Luan Madani