A couple of thousand miles worth of rivers and 375,000 acres of lake water in Florida are considered “impaired,” that is, dirty. The Indian River ecosystem has collapsed, fish kills are increasing, and between floods and profligate pumping, we risk contaminating our aquifer. We keep destroying wetlands and marshes, which act as water recharge areas. This isn’t abstract; it’s not some “green” trifle you can simply ignore. Nature isn’t a place outside your air-conditioned house, beyond your nice subdivision. It’s in your drinking water. When you look at a Florida spring, you’re looking at our aquifer.

—Diane Roberts, Florida State University professor and Florida Wildlife Federation board member.

Roberts was scheduled to give a public talk on Florida’s waters through a Department of State speaker series, but the event was abruptly cancelled by Governor Rick Scott’s administration. Read her Tampa Bay Times editorial, “Perspective: What I would have said about water.”

Notes on “Pipelines, Pulitzers and Independent Online Journalism”

Last week, Dot Earth blogger Andrew Revkin hosted a Google hangout with the Inside Climate News team, who won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. ICN’s winning project is titled The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of, and it chronicles a 2010 spill into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, along with the broader issues of pipeline regulation in the United States.

I watched the hangout during a lunch break and (embarrassingly) forgot about it, until I just now uncovered a piece of paper with my notes. These are the moments that stood out to me from the discussion:

Susan White, ICN Executive Editor:

We operate with the same journalistic standards I learned in college…You do not have an agenda, you stick to the facts…There is no difference, except we are online.

There is technology available to make pipelines much safer - why not do it?

David Sassoon, ICN Founder & Publisher:

It’s a question of what impact journalism can have on serving the public interest.

Lisa Song, ICN Reporter:

When I talked to some environmental groups about [the Dilbit spill], they didn’t seem interested. They are focused on getting Obama to reject the Keystone XL. 

Obviously a lot of ground was covered. If you’ve got 40 minutes, watching the whole discussion is well worth it.

Updates on the BP Oil Spill Trial

The trial for the BP oil spill began in late February, and has continued due to the lack of an out-of-court settlement. U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier is presiding; there is no jury.

This week, Barbier dismissed all claims against Cameron International, the Houston-based company that built the blowout preventer on the Deepwater Horizon rig. BP designed and selected the components of the blowout preventer, and Cameron built it to exact specifications.

The remaining defendants at the trial are BP, Transocean (owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig) and Halliburton (the cement contractor). Barbier previously dismissed all claims against M-I, the drilling fluids contractor for BP. [source]

—-

Meanwhile, Judge Barbier will also hear a request from BP for an order to block potentially billions of dollars in settlement payouts to businesses that claimed losses caused by the oil spill. Settlement terms for the payouts are interpreted by court-appointed claims administrator Patrick Juneau. BP is arguing that Juneau has made unfair decisions. [source]

—-

Research at the University of South Florida has discovered a massive die-off of foraminifera, the tiny organisms that are the base of marine food chains in the Gulf of Mexico. Researchers analyzed core samples from the bottom of the Gulf:

They found a large, dark clump of sediment from the time of the 2010 disaster. The amount registered as 300 times the normal amount of oil-based particles found on the bottom.

The die-off impacts the health of food chains, and there is a possibility the oil traces could cause genetic changes in fish populations such as red snapper. [source]

The Changing Face of Environmental Coverage at The New York Times

Over the past several months, there have been several shifts in the way the NY Times covers climate issues. This is a result of restructuring due to budget constraints, and according to editors, a response to the “shifting interdisciplinary landscape of news reporting”.

2009: NYT creates a 9-person “environment pod”, made up of 2 editors and 7 reporters dedicated to reporting solely on environmental issues.

Fall 2012: Throughout the presidential election there was much discussion of the climate silence problem, as Obama and Romney carefully avoided any substantial discussion of climate change during the campaign.

December 2012: Executive editor Jill Abramson announces the need to cut 30 positions from the news division due to decreased ad revenues. Employees were offered buyouts, but Abramson would go to layoffs if there weren’t enough takers for the buyout packages.

January 11, 2013: Inside Climate News broke the story that NYT would be dismantling its environment desk. The environmental reporters and editors would be reassigned to other departments.

  • "It wasn’t a decision we made lightly…coverage of the environment is what separates the New York Times from other papers. We devote a lot of resources to it, now more than ever. We have not lost any desire for environmental coverage. This is purely a structural matter," said Dean Baquet, managing editor for news operations.

Reactions: Journalists and environmentalists reacted with varying degrees of surprise, dismay and stoicism.

  • Beth Parke, executive director of the Society of Environmental Journalists, said that while solid environmental coverage doesn’t always require a dedicated team, the Times’ decision is “worrying.” (via)
  • Award-winning journalist Peter Dykstra, publisher of Daily Climate: “When you abolish a standalone beat, it sends a strong message to every career-conscious reporter and editor that chasing environment stories is not a path to advancement.” (via)
  • Andy Revkin, NYT Dot Earth blogger: “The Times excelled at environmental coverage before there was an environment pod, continued during that phase, and, I predict, will do so going forward, within the financial constraints facing all journalism.”
  • Bora Zivkovic, blog editor at Scientific American: “There is potential for this to be a good thing. It all depends on the implementation. (…) All the environmental expertise is still at the Times, but now outside of its own ghetto, able to cross-fertilize with other beats, and to collaborate with reporters with other domains of expertise.” Interestingly, Zivkovic goes on to discuss the increased importance of the Green Blog, as a hub where all the NYT’s environmental reporting can be gathered and shared. His blog post is even titled Why the NYTimes “Green Blog” Is Now Essential.

March 1, 2013: The New York Times shuts down the Green Blog. It was announced in a brief post on the blog, stating “This change will allow us to direct production resources to other online projects. But we’ll forge ahead with our aggressive reporting on environmental and energy topics.”

Andy Revkin of Dot Earth created a Green Blog Voices list on Twitter, and NYT enviro coverage can now be followed on the Environment page.

Revkin goes on to point out that NYT has “nine sports blogs; nine spanning fashion, lifestyles, health, dining and the like; four business blogs; four technology blogs (five if you include automobiles as a technology); and a potpourri of other great efforts…” Somehow, all of those managed to stay and the Green Blog had to go.

Unlike the decision to dissolve the environment pod, the termination of the Green Blog was met with very negative reactions across the board. Curtis Brainard of the Columbia Journalism Review wrote “This is terrible news, to say the least.”

In my own opinion, NYT has been a leader on environmental coverage. NYT is my primary news source on a daily basis. Despite their broad coverage, I am reluctant to rely on blogs such as ThinkProgress and 350.org. The loss of the Green Blog is a step in the wrong direction.

Tiny Tree Stolen from Tiny Park!

Mills End Park in Portland, Oregon is the smallest city park in the world. It measures two feet in diameter. The park’s only tree, pictured above, was stolen several days ago.

Via OPB’s Ecotrope blog:

Indeed, said Mark Ross of Portland Department of Parks and Recreation, “someone yanked it out.”

But park technician Scott Gibson was there this afternoon with a small Douglas fir sapling – with a price tag of $3.25 – to replace it.

Mixed messages on China and the environment

It seems that news coverage of environmental issues in China fluctuates between two extremes: “Look at all the sustainable innovation!” versus “Look at the total environmental destruction!”  I read two articles yesterday that perfectly encompass the spectrum.

Article 1: A Fresh Look at China’s Long March on Energy and Emissionsvia Andy Revkin’s NYT Dot Earth blog

A consulting firm, The Rhodium Group, recently released a “report card” assessing China’s efforts to increase the proportion of renewable sources in its nationwide energy portfolio, and to boost the efficiency of coal usage.

Thanks to intense government controls and an economic slowdown, China is (surprisingly) on track to achieve several energy targets in its current 5-Year Plan for 2011-2015:

  • Target 1: Reduce the energy-intensity of the economy by 16%
  • Target 2: Increase Non-Fossil Energy to 11.4% of Total Supply
  • Target 3: Cut the Carbon-Intensity of GDP by 17%

Article 2: Spill in China Underlines Environmental Concerns - by Edward Wong, New York Times

On December 31, a chemical spill occurred at a fertilizer factory in Changzhi. Nine tons of aniline, a possible carcinogen, leaked into the Zhuozhang River, affected the drinking water of at least 28 villages and the large city of Handan downstream. Worst of all, city officials in Handan were not notified of the chemical spill until January 4.

In typical Chinese fashion, the provincial government has said little and the Tianji Coal Chemical Industry Group, which owns the polluting factory, has not been held accountable. Two citizen groups have filed lawsuits, but they have made no progress and provincial officials have asked them to drop the suits.

(Photo: a woman carries clothes near the river in Handan, China.)

And so, China marches onward. Environmentally, it’s hard to say if conditions are getting better or worse.

Florida needs a vocal environmental champion -Tampa Bay Times Editorial

From the Times’ editorial:

Herschel Vinyard should take another look at his business cards to remind himself that he serves as Florida’s secretary of environmental protection. As Citrus County’s once-pristine Kings Bay struggles to overcome a severe algae bloom that threatens the area’s economy and its native manatee habitat, Vinyard praises local efforts to clean up the mess but virtually ignores its primary cause: manmade pollution.

The Times is right, of course - Florida urgently needs someone to stand up for the environment in our state government, and ideally the head of the Department of Environmental Protection would fill that role.

But let’s be realistic - Vinyard was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott. Scott and the Republican-controlled legislature have dismantled our growth management structure, cut funding for state parks, and mismanaged our water supply over the last several years.

Vinyard has also been accused of violating the Clean Water Act, which bars “the appointment of any state decision-maker on pollution discharge permits in federal quality water programs who has during the previous two years received a significant portion of his income directly or indirectly from permits holders or applicants of a permit.” In the resume he submitted to Gov. Scott’s office, Vinyard lists his previous employer as Bae Systems Southeast Shipyards, a company that holds government wastewater permits.

If Florida is going to see a true environmental champion, he/she will not come from Governor Scott’s administration. I think we have better hope with someone like former Sen. Bob Graham, who recently founded the Florida Conservation Coalition.

Note to Self: Books I want to read

I want to learn more about the environmental justice movement, so this lengthy collection is going on my must-read list. 
  • Diamond: A Struggle for Environmental Justice in Louisiana’s Chemical Corridor by Steve Lerner
  • Highway Robbery: Transportation Racism and New Routes to Equity by Robert D. Bullard, Glenn Johnson and Angel O. Torres
  • Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality by Robert D. Bullard
  • Noxious New York: The Racial Politics of Urban Health and Environmental Justice by Julie Sze
  • Confronting Environmental Racism by Robert D. Bullard

A Land Conservation Conundrum

Loblolly Park, photo via Run Gainesville

Nathan Collier is the founder and chairman of the Collier Companies and The Paradigm Group, making him the largest multifamily housing owner in Gainesville, Florida. 

Collier is active in the Gainesville community, providing financial support to the local theatre, art museum, natural history museum, and more. He also puts money into politics, donating to candidates on both sides of the aisle. 

This week, Nathan Collier made an offer to the Gainesville City Commission: he wants to purchase 5.7 acres of land, which is currently part of Loblolly Woods North Nature Park, for $1 million. A property appraiser (hired by Collier) has estimated the value of the acreage at $75,000, making his million-dollar offer a generous one.

Former Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan, a Democrat who is involved in environmental activism, spoke on Collier’s behalf at a meeting of the City Commission’s Recreation, Cultural Affairs and Public Works Committee on Monday. Hanrahan attended the meeting to represent Collier, and described the offer as a windfall that could allow the city to purchase additional conservation lands.

Loblolly Park is about 63 acres in total, and the 5.7 acres Collier has offered to purchase backs up on his own yard, which is currently fenced. If the city sells Collier the acreage, it is unclear whether he would extend his fence to surround the newly acquired land. 

This situation poses some interesting ethical questions related to land conservation. 

  1. Is it wrong for the city to sell off part of Loblolly Park, despite the opportunity to acquire additional conservation land with the funds received?
  2. Would this transaction set a dangerous precedent, that conservation land can be claimed by the highest bidder?
  3. Will Collier’s political contributions have any impact on the City Commission’s final decision? (Collier donated to most, if not all of the Commissioners during their campaigns)

1 and 2 are fascinating questions to ponder; there is no way to ever know the answer to 3, though it will be interesting to follow the Commission’s decision process with those donations in mind.

I haven’t made up my own mind on the issue. One thought I have is if Collier would agree to put a conservation easement on the land, allowing him to own the property but ensuring that it will continue to be preserved as natural habitat. 

[Source: Gainesville Sun]

The Tampa Bay Times published a great in-depth investigation into Florida’s springs. The whole article is worth a read, but the main issues are:
The water in many Florida springs has slowed, stopped, or even started flowing backwards. This is a sign of decreasing water levels in our aquifer, caused by human overpumping.
For those springs that still survive, much of the water is polluted with nitrates. The nitrates come from agricultural and phosphate-mining runoff, and can cause algal blooms. An algal bloom kills fish and plants in the water and is harmful to humans.
Spring water across Florida has been found to have increasing levels of salinity, which could be dangerous for the future of our drinking water supply.
Fun fact: Shortly after being elected in 1999, Governor Jeb Bush launched the Florida Springs Initiative to research and implement protections for our springs. Starting in 2000, Bush provided $2.5 million annually in funding for the Initiative. A total of over $25 million went into the program - funds were used for research and land acquisition to protect springsheds (the area around springs where water flows into the aquifer).
I’m pleasantly surprised to learn that super-Republican Jeb Bush was behind this conservation program. Tragically, the Florida Springs Initiative was discontinued in 2010 when Governor Rick Scott was elected. 

The Tampa Bay Times published a great in-depth investigation into Florida’s springs. The whole article is worth a read, but the main issues are:

  • The water in many Florida springs has slowed, stopped, or even started flowing backwards. This is a sign of decreasing water levels in our aquifer, caused by human overpumping.
  • For those springs that still survive, much of the water is polluted with nitrates. The nitrates come from agricultural and phosphate-mining runoff, and can cause algal blooms. An algal bloom kills fish and plants in the water and is harmful to humans.
  • Spring water across Florida has been found to have increasing levels of salinity, which could be dangerous for the future of our drinking water supply.

Fun fact: Shortly after being elected in 1999, Governor Jeb Bush launched the Florida Springs Initiative to research and implement protections for our springs. Starting in 2000, Bush provided $2.5 million annually in funding for the Initiative. A total of over $25 million went into the program - funds were used for research and land acquisition to protect springsheds (the area around springs where water flows into the aquifer).

I’m pleasantly surprised to learn that super-Republican Jeb Bush was behind this conservation program. Tragically, the Florida Springs Initiative was discontinued in 2010 when Governor Rick Scott was elected.