Thursday, February 21, 2013

On Mayor Bloomberg's Push to Ban Polystyrene Food Packaging

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg last week announced that he would push for a ban on polystyrene food packaging. “One product that is virtually impossible to recycle and never biodegrades is Styrofoam—something that we know is environmentally destructive and that may be hazardous to our health, that is costing taxpayers money and that we can easily do without,” he said in his 2013 State of the City address.,0,4423954.story

Congratulations to the mayor for an important environmental crusade and good luck as those with vested interests attempt to block his initiative.

For what Mayor Bloomberg is doing is not new in the New York Metropolitan Area. Suffolk County on Long Island, where I live, enacted the first-in-the-nation ban on the use of polystyrene food containers back in 1988. That was 25 years ago! And what a battle it was.

Mobil and Amoco, oil companies that produce the light, heat-resistant containers, mounted huge advertising campaigns against the Suffolk measure. Polystyrene is made of oil. The Society of the Plastic Industry fought the bill. Lobbying of Suffolk legislators was intense.

McDonald’s was deeply involved. I vividly recall executives of the fast-food chain appearing before the Suffolk County Legislature asserting that without these “clamshell” containers, the Big Mac as we know it would be no more. These containers were necessary, they said, to keep the Big Mac warm.

The measure passed and was signed into law. And people have been able to live quite well in Suffolk without the banned polystyrene food containers. They were never necessary other than to profit vested interests. And the Big Mac remains alive and well in Suffolk, still warm.

To be precise, Styrofoam is the trademark name of the Dow Chemical Company for the polystyrene foam it manufactures. The correct general term for the substance is polystyrene. And Mayor Bloomberg will no doubt soon find out about this for Dow is very up-tight about the use of the word Styrofoam to identify polystyrene foam.

I wrote a book a number of years ago about chemical dangers and was asked to speak at Delta College in Midland, Michigan, the corporate headquarters of Dow. I recall a lecture organizer advising me before I took to the rostrum that there would be Dow representatives in the audience and if I used the word Styrofoam “Dow will freak out” and I and Delta College could expect letters from Dow lawyers.

The Suffolk measure—which stuck to the word polystyrene—stressed how it constitutes “a threat to the environment in the County of Suffolk by causing excessively rapid filling of landfill space or, if incinerated, by the possible introduction of toxic byproducts into the atmosphere.”

The case against polystyrene is very strong. It takes centuries to biodegrade. Poisons are emitted if it’s incinerated. It’s a major component of plastic waste—including debris in the ocean. Polystyrene is lethal to any bird or sea creature that swallows a significant quantity. Also, chemicals in polystyrene migrate from packaging into food and there are health concerns for people. Moreover, as the Suffolk law stresses—there are “available substitutes.”

The current program in the TV series I have hosted for 22 years, Enviro Close-Up, is “Plastic Free with Beth Terry.” Enviro Close-Up is syndicated by Free Speech TV on 200 cable systems across the U.S., on the satellite TV networks, DirecTV and Dish, and on the Internet. Ms. Terry is the author of “Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too.”

She tells on the program of the “epiphany” which caused her to become a crusader against plastics—learning about the death of “huge numbers” of birds caused by the North Pacific Gyre, also known as "Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” This is a gigantic deposit of plastic debris—a lot of it polystyrene—floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. “Some people say it’s the size of the United States,” says Ms. Terry.

The Enviro Close-Up features graphic video of this toxic situation. And it provides Ms. Terry’s advice about how we can live with a minimum of plastic. You can view the program on youtube at

Since the Suffolk ban was enacted, cities and other counties and municipalities all over the United States—as well as Toronto, Canada and several cities overseas including Paris, France—have followed up with similar bans on polystyrene food packaging.

It would be great if New York City joins in—but that will require Mayor Bloomberg surviving the gauntlet which now will be laid down by polystyrene promoters.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Will Good Science and Good Sense Come Together When It Comes to the Shoreline?

Soon after Sandy struck, an OpEd piece titled “We Need to Retreat from the Beach” by Dr. Orrin Pilkey, a pioneer in what’s now become the science of shoreline dynamics, appeared in the New York Times.

Dr. Pilkey wrote, “As ocean waters warm, the Northeast is likely to face more Sandy-like storms” with “surges…higher and ever more deadly….Yet there is already a push to rebuild homes close to the beach and bring back shorelines to where they were.” This “is the wrong approach to the increasing hazard of living close to the rising sea.”

“We should not simply replace all lost property and infrastructure. Instead, we need to take account of rising sea levels, intensifying storms and continuing shoreline erosion,” he said.

Dr. Pilkey, co-author of the landmark work The Beaches Are Moving, wrote that “we should strongly discourage the reconstruction of destroyed or badly damaged beachfront homes…This is tough medicine, to be sure, and taxpayers may be forced to compensate homeowners. But it should save taxpayers money in the long run by ending this cyclc of repairing or rebuilding properties in the path of future storms.”

Now, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, in an extraordinary move for a politician considering the intense lobbying through the years by beachfront homeowners, is proposing to purchase structures wrecked by Sandy—at their pre-Sandy value—have them demolished and then preserve the flood-prone land permanently, as undeveloped coastline.

“The land would never be built on again. Some properties could be turned into dunes, wetlands or other natural buffers that would help protect coastal communities from ferocious storms; other parcels could be combined and turned into public parkland,” reported the Times in breaking the story as a Page One lead article.

In a follow-up editorial, the Times called the Cuomo concept “splendid” and stated that “buying damaged properties and returning them to their natural state, as Mr. Cuomo proposes, is one of the best ideas to come along.”

But will good science and good sense come together when it comes to the shoreline?

It will be mighty difficult—but it very much needs to happen.

The problem: vested interest. Many if not most of the folks who own beach houses—even ones left in shambles by Sandy and in highly vulnerable locations—don’t want to give them up. I appreciate this. Visiting an old friend with a beach house a while back, gazing out a window and seeing the majestic Atlantic Ocean outside, I thought of the thrill of having a house on the sea. Sitting on his deck, the waves breaking below, was exciting.

Dr. Pilkey realizes this. “I understand the temptation to rebuild,” he wrote in his OpEd. “My parents’ retirement home, built at 13 feet above sea level, five blocks from the shoreline in Waveland, Miss., was flooded to the ceiling during Hurricane Camille in 1969. They rebuilt it, but the house was completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.”

An inquiry by the Long Island newspaper Newsday to gauge sentiment towards the Cuomo plan, found the “overwhelming number of Island residents would rather rebuild than relocate.”

The Army Corps of Engineers is another factor in what’s been a constant—after a big storm the dumping of sand (given the appealing term “beach nourishment”) on the coast, sand often washed away in the next big storm, and otherwise taking on Mother Nature. The Corps is run by a combination of military officers and engineers who believe they can win any war including against nature. Also, coastal work keeps the Corps’ budget hefty.

Then there’s the National Flood Insurance Program. After seeing a TV commercial promoting it recently, I requested a brochure. The government pamphlet began: “Since flooding typically isn’t covered under your homeowners insurance policy, the best way to protect your home is through the National Flood Insurance Program.” The reluctance of private insurance companies to cover homes built in the teeth of the ocean says a lot. The lobbying of beachfront homeowners was instrumental in getting Congress to provide this taxpayer-supported program.

Key to the situation is Dr. Pilkey’s observation way back: The Beaches Are Moving. They are in flux and need to be flexible to protect the mainland. Add to this today’s rising sea levels and extreme weather caused by climate change.

Retreat might not be a good word to use for what needs to be done. It infers losing. Adjustment is a better word. We must adjust to the reality of our shifting shores.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Steven Chu, Nuclear Power Advocate, Resigns as U.S. Energy Secretary

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced his resignation last week after four years of pushing nuclear power, although he promoted energy efficiency and safe, renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind, too.

But nuclear power remained a major focus of Dr. Chu, a physicist out of the U.S. national nuclear laboratory system. In his letter to Department of Energy employees announcing his departure, Chu listed as among “tangible signs of success” during his tenure the go-ahead for the building of “the first nuclear power plants in the last three decades” in the U.S.

His position on energy as energy secretary was similar to the stand he took in his previous role as director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. There he also promoted energy efficiency and renewables, but nuclear power was a main thrust of his energy stance.

“Nuclear has to be a necessary part of the portfolio,” declared Chu, as laboratory director, at an “economic summit” in California in 2008 sponsored by Stanford University. He said in his speech: “The fear of radiation shouldn’t even enter into this. Coal is very, very bad.”

As energy secretary, speaking at the Vogtle nuclear plant site in Georgia last year, where two of the new plants he cited in his letter are supposed to be built, he said: “The resurgence of America’s nuclear industry starts here in Georgia, where you just got approval for the first time in three decades to build new reactors. The Obama administration is committed to doing our part to help jumpstart America’s nuclear industry. The Energy Department is supporting this project with more than $8 billion in conditional loan guarantees. And we have partnered with industry to support the certification and licensing of the new Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design.”

Describing nuclear power as a “clean” energy technology, Chu said, “What you are doing here at Vogtle will help us compete in the global clean energy race and provide domestic, clean power to U.S. homes.”

And, the year before, in a presentation before the International Atomic Energy Agency, Chu asserted: “Nuclear power will continue to be an important part of our energy mix, both in the United States and around the world.” The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster had occurred just six months before, and he also said: “The tragic events at Fukushima make clear that nuclear energy…also brings significant challenges to our collective safety and security.”

Some news pieces in recent days about Chu’s resignation have mentioned the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project and how—as the Las Vegas Review Journal accurately put it—Chu “carried out the Obama administration’s plan to shut down” the project.

For Chu as a nuclear laboratory director was a supporter of the plan to deposit massive amounts of nuclear waste at the site, as noted by CNN in a 2011 piece. As energy secretary, Chu switched to the stance of President Obama (and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada). The mountain 100 miles from Las Vegas is riddled with earthquake faults.

In his letter to DOE employees, Chu challenged—as he pointed out Obama did in his recent inaugural address—those who deny climate change. “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science…The overwhelming scientific consensus is that human activity has had a significant and likely dominant role in climate change,” Chu wrote.

He went on to promote “clean” energy as an antidote.

The key problem here, however, is that by including nuclear power in the “clean” energy category, Chu refuses to accept that the nuclear “fuel cycle” involved in nuclear power—mining, milling, fuel fabrication, enrichment and so on—is a significant contributor to greenhouse gasses and climate change.

And he refuses to accept that true “clean” energy—safe renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind—can provide all the energy we need and not contribute to climate change at all. “A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables” was a 2009 cover story in Scientific American,, about one major study done in recent years coming to the same conclusion.

But Chu titled his 2010 essay, on his personal Facebook page—“Why We Need More Nuclear Power.” He insisted that “we need nuclear power as part of a comprehensive solution.” He asked for comments. One reader, Matthew Cloner, commented, on March 12, 2011: “I’m afraid that I cannot agree with you in your position, Dr. Chu. As the recent disaster in Japan unfolds before our eyes, it is very obvious that nuclear power is both extremely dangerous and environmentally unsound as an energy source.”

But it’s hard for Chu and many other scientists out of the national nuclear laboratory system to acknowledge the deadliness of the technology which is the basis for most of their work.

These laboratories connect with the early laboratories set up during the World War II Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bombs. Chu’s former laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley, was then called the Radiation Laboratory. It describes itself as the “oldest” of the national laboratories. It and the other national nuclear laboratories were long run by the Atomic Energy Commission, which the Manhattan Project was turned into after the war. Then, because the AEC was such a zealous advocate of nuclear power, while supposedly a regulator of the technology, the AEC was eliminated by Congress in 1974 and a Nuclear Regulatory Commission and then a Department of Energy were created.

The DOE was given the mission of promoting nuclear power—a mission that Chu pursued as energy secretary. It also replaced the AEC in running the national nuclear laboratories.

Chu’s position—“The fear of radiation shouldn’t even enter into this. Coal is very, very bad”—doesn’t acknowledge how radiation-causing nuclear technology as well as coal are both unnecessary, that “100 Percent of the Planet” can he powered by safe, really clean, renewable energy sources.

Who will replace Chu when he leaves the DOE helm at month’s end? Obama’s appointee could be more of the same.

Among the names seen as a possibility is that of Carol Browner. Working out of the White House, she was Obama’s energy “czar” between 2009 and 2011, and administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Clinton administration. She is a nuclear power booster. Browner stressed at a New Millennium Nuclear Energy Summit in Washington in 2010 that the U.S. was “once at the forefront” of the nuclear industry. “We need to recapture that dominant position, and there’s every reason to think we can,” she declared.

By selecting Browner or another nuclear proponent, Obama would be sending the U.S. in the wrong energy direction—a direction not good for public health nor safely powering society and not good, either, to deal with climate change.