Blogging for a Healthy Gulf

 

I just came across this study released last November by the University of Illinois on corn-based ethanol in Illinois and the United States. Some of the components of the report are quite wonky, but the section on ethanol politics and policy was very interesting.

As the author of the report, David Bullock, writes:

“This irreversibility of bringing factors into ethanol production causes the subsidy policy to act like a political ratchet. It is easy enough politically to cause the subsidy to go up: corn farmers and ethanol producers influence their congressional representatives, and everyone refers to energy self-sufficiency and rural job creation. But once in place, it may well become politically infeasible to bring the subsidy back down. For, after the economy is finished building new ethanol factories, in response to the subsidy, what then? We’ve already argued that when the building process is through, many ethanol factories will not be making large profits.”


He later states:

“By supporting the ethanol industry, are federal and state governments promoting a policy—indeed creating an entitlement—that will be later politically impossible to rescind?”

If Bullock is correct, we may be creating an entire new political entitlement that has very negative implications for our nation's rivers and oceans.

I am very concerned with corn-ethanol subsidies due to the water impacts of ethanol. The Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico is caused largely by nitrogen runoff from farm fields. Increased corn production to feed the ethanol boom will require the application of large quantities of fertilizer - some of which ends up in the Mississppi River and causes the Dead Zone when the nitrogen pollution reaches the Gulf.

While there are many legitimate questions about whether corn ethanol is even a wise alternative fuel, any solution should solve a problem, not simply shift a problem elsewhere. It seems that corn ethanol subsidies may be shifting a problem onto the people of the Gulf of Mexico in the form of the Dead Zone.

Jeff Grimes is Assistant Director of Water Resources

 

Our members who took action on the recent Yazoo Pumps alert have all received a surprise in the mail. It seems that the Army Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg is sending a response letter to everyone who took action, stating that "project opponents" have been publishing misleading information about the project, and that the Yazoo Pumps project will actually improve the environment and lead to increased wetlands.

Unfortunately, the true impact of the Yazoo Pumps is anything but positive and the Corps has been trying to put an upbeat spin on one of the greatest boondoggles ever conceived. Independent government agencies that have reviewed the Yazoo Pumps project have concurred with our assessment that the project would destroy a staggering amount of wetlands and important wildlife habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently stated very diplomatically, "We're concerned that the negative impacts of this project on fish and wildlife is larger than the Corps acknowledges."

Over 540 independent wetland and aquatic scientists from throughout the country have also determined that the Yazoo Pumps would lead to tremendous wetland loss and that the Corps will be unable to mitigate for that loss. In a recent letter in The New York Times, the former Director of the EPA Wetlands Division wrote, "Over the course of my 24 years at the Environmental Protection Agency, I never reviewed a proposal that would do more damage to the environment than the Yazoo Pumps project in the Mississippi Delta."

It is unfortunate that the Army Corps is taking this unusual step of trying to promote this project that would destroy more wetlands than are lost to development in the entire country in one year. It is important that we keep the pressure up to stop this project and fight the misleading spin coming out of the Corps of Engineers public relations office. If you have already taken action, please take a moment to forward the alert on to five friends, family, or colleagues who care about the health of our Gulf as well.

Jeff Grimes is Assistant Director of Water Resources for the Gulf Restoration Network

 

This story comes from the Picayune Item in Mississippi and is just unbelievable.

Apparently, a small wastewater treatment plant that serves a subdivision has been failing at least since Katrina. The sewage is going directly into a popular stream for canoing and swimming called Hobolochitto Creek, also called Boley Creek by locals.

Untreated sewage can cause all sorts of illnesses from viruses to parasites, and I would not recommend anyone swim in the Hobolochitto. What makes this story particularly infuriating is that the state has apparently known of these problems, yet nothing has been done. Discharging untreated sewage is a direct violation of the Clean Water Act and is also a major human health risk. The area in question got hammered by Hurricane Katrina, and I understand that it takes time to fix these problems. However, it is not more than two years since Katrina and the permissive attitude of the local and state governments in this case is quite troubling. At the GRN, we are working to make sure that states enforce the laws we have that exist to protect the public. This example demonstrates that the State of Mississippi has a long way to go yet.

Jeff Grimes is Assistant Director of Water Resources for the Gulf Restoration Network

 

I had the occasion recently to hear Carl Hiaasen speak over on the east coast of Florida. He, as usual, was funny and inspiring and he spoke about the absurdities and beauty that are all things Florida. One thing he said stuck with me and I am reminded of it this week as I consider the plight of manatees in Florida.

A few years ago my wife and I took our niece canoeing on the WeekiWacheeRiver in Florida’s NatureCoast. We spent an incredible day floating along the river, paddling over crystal clear waters. We saw alligators, otters, and all types of birds. My niece was enthralled with the nature and the wildlife, and was full of questions. Her pure and undiluted joy in seeing all things wild was inspiring and contagious. It did our old hearts good to be reminded of the wonder and magic all around us.

As we paddled back towards the boat launch we came upon a manatee with a calf that was feeding in the shallows. My niece had never seen such a creature, and it was almost as large as our canoe! She was awed by the gentle giant and her calf as they swam, ate, and floated near us. Eventually she noticed the crisscrossed and deep scars along the back of the mother manatee. They were an ugly and violent reminder that manatees in Florida face ever present danger from boat propellers. Eventually my irrepressible niece grew quiet and pensive.

I would have given anything that day to have had the lobbyists for the marine industry, the dock builders, the coastal developers, and their apologists and hired hacks out there on the water with us to answer my niece’s questions about why that manatee was so horribly scarred and disfigured. All those who argue that manatees are not imperiled in Florida, all those who argue that a human’s right to go faster in their boat or to build yet another water front condo with yet another dock is more important than the very survival of manatees as a species should have had to explain to my niece what those scars meant.

When I heard Carl Hiaasen speak recently he talked about the intrinsic ability of children to understand the difference between right and wrong. It was part of his inspiration for the book and movie Hoot. Kids, when presented with a fair summary of the facts, understand that it is wrong to destroy burrowing owls for more strip malls, and wrong to bury gopher tortoises alive for more subdivisions. Somewhere along the way adults learn to rationalize and justify. As I get older I more strongly believe that kids have this right.

This week the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FFWCC) is voting on whether or not to downlist the manatee from “endangered” to “threatened.” I think that decisions need to be made with the best available science, and that wildlife management is a complicated and challenging endeavor. I hope that the FFWCC Commissioners have listened to the thousands of Floridians who have contacted them urging them to not weaken protections for manatees.

With all that said at the end of the day each of those Commissioners will have to look into their own hearts and ask themselves whether a species’ survival is more or less important than the recreational pursuits of humans. I know how my niece would answer that question.

Joe Murphy is the Florida Program Coordinator for the Gulf Restoration Network

 

As Hanukkah hits, it's time to gear up for holiday gift-giving. I know your local newspaper and favorite magazine have all suggested that you support their advertisers, but what's an environmentally aware, Gulf-minded shopper to do?

Well, your friends at the GRN thought we should go ahead and cash in, I mean weigh in with a few thoughts of our own.

Maybe it's elitist, as a recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts found the average amount of time Americans spend reading is now at an all time low, but we love books here at the GRN. If you remember back over the summer, we threw some book reviews your way recommending some Gulf-centric reading. Here's a recap:

The Most Important Fish in the Sea - H. Bruce Franklin treats us to a treatise on menhadan, a deceptively fascinating book about a small, oily fish most people have never heard of, yet our ecological future in the Gulf may rely on.

Fateful Harvest by Duff Wilson is the true story of Patty Martin, mayor of a small Washington farming town, and how she and a small group worked with the author (and Pulitzer Prize finalist) to let the public know about the hidden toxins found in some common commercial fertilizers.

Pinhook by Janise Ray
wonderfully mixes ecology, history and culture into the exploration of the beautiful wilds of Florida.

The Swamp by Michael Grunwald follows the story of a paradise lost and how the Everglades ecosystem, once a river of grass that stretched across south Florida, was slowly overrun by developers, politicians, and the Army Corps of Engineers – the same agency that is now attempting to restore the ecosystem.

The Wilderness Coast and The Sea Brings Forth by Jack Rudloe both document Jack's adventures with his wife as they explore the Gulf Coast of Florida while they operate the Gulf Specimens lab in Panacea, Florida.


And to this list, I'll add a couple recent releases:

For the culinary enthusiast in your network, famed New Orleans chef/restaurateur (and GRN board member) Susan Spicer has put out Crescent City Cooking, a great first cookbook that props open the kitchen door and lets you slowly figure out the secrets to some of her best-loved dishes.

Like the environment but turned off by the 'eat your vegetables they're good for you' approach of many environmentalists (save the GRN, of course)? Ken Wells serves up lots of laughs, ludicrous political shenanigans and colorful characters along the 'Cajun Coast,' as he subtly educates you and inspires you to action for Louisiana's coastal crisis in Crawfish Mountain. Listen to an NPR interview with Ken here.

Oh, and if you don't like books - here's two more suggestions:

  • The fine folks at Alternative Apparel are donating a percentage of their sales from their sustainable, Alternative Earth clothing line to the GRN - softest shirts you've ever worn!
  • Give gift memberships to the GRN! Who really needs another knick-knack to dust, or something that requires extensive wrapping? 4 quarterly newsletters and a healthier Gulf? Who wouldn't want that?

So, there's our $.02 on holiday gift giving - good luck this season and enjoy the family, friends and food!

Aaron Viles is the GRN's Campaign Director

 

Saturday was awesome... it was my first protest! We got about a dozen people together, held one really big banner and a bunch of posters.


We started at Lowe's where my roomie (Ian) and Leslie went inside and tried to purchase mulch as suggested in some of the literature you guys sent us. Leslie then presented the manager with an info packet containing the letter and stuff. Natalie's boyfriend filmed this, and they were not well received. While they were inside doing that we all handed out flyers, did some postcarding, and just tried to create awareness about the issue by talking to people. We were asked to leave, but about that time a woman from the news showed up and got some footage of us as we walked beside a major road with our banners.

Leslie did an interview with her and I guess we were on the news (NBC 15). We walked through the busiest intersection in Mobile to get to the next stop, Wal-Mart. The reply there was that cypress mulch has already been bought for this year, but supposedly will not be purchased from nonsustainable sources as of next year. The manager said we could quote him on it, but we didn't get his name. I'm sure I could find out his name, because I remember his face. Anyway we were asked to leave Wal-Mart and kept walking to Home Depot. There the manager was super nice and from Cali and liked that we were doing something. He said he would definately tell the people above him that locals were concerned with this issue. I think overall we got out there made some noise and just basically got asked to leave places a lot. Ha-Ha!! We know it had an impact!


Christin is a student at University of South Alabama and a GRN volunteer in Mobile.

 

Casey, a GRN intern, was already home in New Jersey for Thanksgiving on the Save Our Cypress Day of Action. We missed her at the New Orleans event that she had done so much to help organize, but she managed to make a splash in New Jersey.

Ew, cypress mulch.

After lamenting the presence of cypress mulch all the way up in Northern New Jersey, Casey and her friends pretended to do some shopping. When they arrived at the counter with bags of cypress mulch, they began asking the clerk some uncomfortable questions about the sustainability of cypress mulch.

Is this mulch sustainable?

When she couldn't answer, Casey got on the phone with the manager to let him know that cypress mulch is destroying the Gulf Coast. She actually convinced him to come talk to her in person about it, and she was able to hand off the letter explaining our position and have a educational conversation with him. By that time the photographer had been asked to stop taking pictures, but not before they'd gotten some good ones.

Talking with the manager.

Dan Favre is the Campaign Organizer for the Gulf Restoration Network.
 

Ashley in Charlotte sent along these photos from the event they held in Charlotte, NC. She told me that the day went well. The management of Lowe's let the activists educate customers for an hour and a half before finally asking them to leave. The women left behind a lingering memory of their visit on the brochure rack. Nicely placed!


Update posted by Dan Favre, GRN Campaign Organizer.

 

Our favorite testimony to the need for NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act) and Army Corps reform, the Mississippi River - Gulf Outlet, is back in the news today, with an editorial in the Times-Picayune urging quick implementation of the 170 day closure plan. We wholey concur, though we think the plan needs to do more to address what the Corps won't acknowledge - the role MRGO plays in delivering storm surge into NOLA's back door.

Keep your eyes open for opportunities from the MRGO Must Go coalition to urge that action.

Aaron Viles is the GRN's Campaign Director

 

The New York Times editorial staff put it best when they wrote “like an indestructible ghoul in a low-grade horror flick, the Yazoo Pumps are rising again from the bureaucratic crypt.”

First proposed in 1941, the Yazoo Pumps are nothing short of a reoccurring nightmare. This World War II era project would, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, drain 200,000 acres of wetlands. A former EPA Wetland official called the pumps the most environmentally destructive project he ever reviewed in his 24 years at the agency.

If constructed the Yazoo Pumps would be the world’s largest pumping system, and the $220 million cost would be borne solely by federal taxpayers. In the 1996 Water Resources Development Act, Senator Thad Cochran successfully inserted language to get rid of the requirement that the local government share in the cost.

The pumps would damage two wildlife refuges and parts of a national forest, squandering investments the public has already made by damaging existing public resources. The project will make more land available for agribusiness. With wetlands shifting into farmlands, fertilizer application will increase and natural filtering systems will be diminished. By destroying wetlands, which filter out nitrogen and phosphorus, the project would also increase pollution loads in the lower Mississippi, adding to the degradation of water health in the Gulf of Mexico.

These wetlands also support critical floodplain fisheries; serve as a haven for ducks and other migratory birds; improve water quality; and help reduce flood damages by acting as natural sponges that store and slowly release floodwaters.

Mississippi Senators Trent Lott and Thad Cochran are championing the project, citing the pumps as necessary for local economic development and flood protection. But their view of economic development is extremely narrow. The 200,000 acres of wetland that the project would destroy provide many benefits to the Mississippi economy in the way of wildlife habitat, flood water storage, water purification, and recreation. As the Environmental Protection Agency has pointed out, the money spent on this project could be put to better use locally by updating ailing sewage treatment plants, obtaining conservation easements, and promoting nature tourism in the region. The line needs to be drawn somewhere. Economic development does not and should not require environmental destruction.

The final Environmental Impact Statement was published last Friday, now is the time to kill this project once and for all. Please take action to stop the Yazoo Pumps Project. Let the Corps, EPA, and the Department of the Interior know you oppose the project.

Stephanie Powell is the Outreach Associate for the GRN's Healthy Waters Program

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