April 13, 2006
Toxic (Press) Releases
Good news about pollution? The US EPA says so. This Washington Post story makes it seem like the US made great strides in reducing toxic emissions in 2004.
The Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday that chemical pollution released into the environment fell more than 4 percent from 2003 to 2004...The agency said releases of dioxin and dioxin compounds fell 58 percent; mercury and mercury compounds were cut 16 percent; and PCBs went down 92 percent. [Emphasis added.]
Now, the fall in dioxins in particular seemed like pretty big news. But it also struck me as a bit suspicious. So I looked into the numbers a bit.
The EPA's Toxics Release Inventory Explorer is pretty simple to use, so it didn't take long to zero in on why, exactly, dioxin emissions fell so much. The basic scoop -- it's not so much that dioxin emissions fell in 2004, as that they spiked in 2003. The nation's dioxin emissions (at least, those captured by the TRI) in 2004 were comparable to levels from 2000 through 2002. The 58 percent "decline" was just relative to 2003, which was abnormally high.
Then the question becomes -- what happened in 2003? Apparently, there was a single wood-preserving facility in Lousiana that was responsible for the 2003 spike. (I don't know for sure, but I'd guess they landfilled a bunch of contaminated waste.)
So the national "good news" story about dioxins in 2004--a 58 percent decline in releases--turns out to be, if anything, a bad news story about 2003. Or, more properly, it's an artifact of the way the data are reported: the dioxin "released" in 2003 was likely just transferred from one place to another, in a way that triggered EPA's reporting requirements.
The thing is, it took just a few minutes to figure out that the EPA's press release was, at least in part, full of hot air. Obviously, reporters are under tremendous pressure to churn out stories. But I do wish that basic fact-checking was a higher priority for them. Bum facts passed off as "good news" should be recognized for what they are: a form of toxic information pollution.
Closer to home, the news seems a little bit better for dioxin trends. In Washington, Oregon, and Idaho combined, releases to air, water, and land have fallen from 163 grams in 2000 to 46 grams in 2004. "Off-site disposal" -- transfers for storage or treatment -- has climbed a bit, though. On net, 2004's total dioxin releases were a bit higher than 2002 and 2003, but have fallen by about a quarter since 2000. And the three states combined now account for about 2 tenths of one percent of national dioxin emissions, as measured by TRI data.
That said, there are some facilities that escape TRI reporting requirements, and much of the dioxin releases from the region are now from activities such as backyard trash burning. But the numbers, for the northwest at least, do seem modestly promising.
April 10, 2006
Sturgeon's General Warning
Sounds as though salmon aren't the only Columbia River fish in trouble:
A team of researchers that examined 174 sturgeon caught by commercial and tribal fishermen found male and immature females tricked by chemicals into thinking they are full of estrogen, a female hormone with feminizing effects. Male fish tainted with a cocktail of compounds including mercury and a byproduct of the banned pesticide DDT showed depressed testosterone levels, which could keep them from maturing enough to spawn.
A few sturgeon even had bizarre combinations of male and female sexual organs. [Emphasis added.]
All I have to say to that is: eewww. If that doesn't serve as a wakeup call about gender-bending pollutants, I'm not sure what will.
April 07, 2006
Say It Ain't So, Joe
I picked up a copy of the March issue of Seattle Magazine the other day, and happened across an article (print only, I'm afraid) by the estimable Joe Follansbee. The article claims that Seattle suffers from an inferiority complex: whenever Seattle residents compare their home town with Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, BC, they always decide that Seattle comes up short. Follansbee argues that Seattle should just learn to love itself just as it is, rather than falling victim to sibling rivalry.
Interesting enough idea. But there's one thing that sticks in my craw: in trying to puncture the reputation of neighboring cities, Follansbee claims that Portland has an unusally low number of children, compared with its neighboring metropolises:
Portland's downtown Pearl District, hailed as the embodiment of "smart growth"...had only three more children living there in 2000 than in 1990, according to demographers. What's "smart" about a city without children?
Do we [i.e., Seattle] want to be like Portland, childless and..."proper"?
Enough already! This factoid--that Portland is devoid of tykes--is simply false. It doesn't even pass the 5 minute Google test; that is, it takes less than five minutes of web searching to see that it doesn't hold water. And yet, it's a theme I hear again and again in discussions of Portland and smart growth generally.
It's high time to roast this chestnut.
As it turns out, what's true for Portland's Pearl District -- that there aren't many children -- doesn't hold true for the rest of Portland. Take a look at the Census Bureau's Portland "quick facts." As of the last Census count, 21.1 percent of the city's residents were children under the age of 18, compared with 24.7 for Oregon as a whole.
So the city does have fewer children than the state as a whole, by 3.6 percentage points. But take a look at the Seattle "quick facts." Minors account for just 15.6 percent of the city's population. In comparison, Portland is teeming with kids -- 40 percent more, measured per capita, than in Seattle. And the gap between Seattle and the whole of Washington is 10 percentage points -- nearly 3 times wider than the gap between Portland and Oregon.
So it makes absolutely no sense -- none -- to ask whether Seattle wants to be "childless" like Portland.
Admittedly, Portland has fewer kids than many US cities. But it's pretty much on par with Denver and Minneapolis, has a few more kids per capita than Pittsburgh, and far more than San Francisco (where under-18-year-olds are just 14.5 percent of the population). In Vancouver, BC -- often held up as an exemplar of family-friendly urbanity -- children under 18 made up only
15.5 16.6 percent of the population in 2001.
Diving into the Vancouver numbers a bit deeper, it seems that there's no major part of Vancouver -- not downtown, not the west side, not even the semi-suburban south end -- that has a kids-to-population ratio that's as high as in Portland. And the kid-to-population gap between Vancouver and the whole of BC is wider than for Portland and the whole of Oregon. Vancouver's denser neighborhoods have a reputation for having lots of kids, and in large part they do -- but only because they have lots of people, period. As a share of the population, though, Portland has far more kids than "kid-friendly" Vancouver.
I'm sure this post won't put an end to the urban legend of Portland's childlessness (although it may perpetuate the impression that there aren't many kids in the Northwest's other major cities). But I hope it helps.
On a deeper level, I'm puzzled by all the hand-wringing about childless cities. As of the last census, families with children comprised less than one in three Northwest households. And the number of childless households is growing for good reasons. We're having kids later in life, and fewer of them -- largely because of better educational and job opportunities for women. Plus we're living longer, so seniors are making up a far larger share of the population than they used to. For the large and growing number of childless households, urban living has a strong appeal -- they're the ones who appear to be flocking to housing in dense urban centers. So to the extent that the trends towards "childless cities" is real, it's largely driven by demographic changes that we'd be foolish to want to reverse.
What do the angst-ridden commentators lamenting the lack of children downtown want people to do? Have kids even if they'd prefer not to? Die before they get a chance to down-nest? Move their families to urban condos in order to save some single-family detached houses for hipsters? Help me out here, folks.
April 05, 2006
What to make of this news from the Eugene, OR Register-Guard?
In a report that's sure to be controversial, CNW Marketing Research of Bandon concludes... that, even though hybrid cars use less fuel, they require more energy - and are therefore worse for the environment - than conventional cars because their design and manufacture are more complex and the costs of disposal or recycling are higher for their batteries, electric motors and other specialized components. [Emphasis added.]
Hybrids use more energy than regular cars? Is this real, or just pro-SUV propaganda?
Now, just to be clear, I haven't reviewed the study myself. But the online materials that's CNW's made publicly available seem serious & fair-minded -- not like a cheap hit-job on hybrids, but rather a sober analysis that reaches some unexpected and counterintuitive conclusions.
That said, I think there's very good reason not to take the study too seriously. Not yet -- and not until the authors can answer some tough questions about what their study implies.
CNW does deserve credit for looking at energy costs over a vehicle's entire life cycle--not just what it consumes on the road, but also what it costs to manufacture, distribute, repair, and dispose of a car. But some of their numbers seem, to put it mildly, a little hard to believe.
According to the study's methods, a Honda Civic (not a hybrid, but a regular model) uses only about 30 percent of its life-cycle energy as gasoline. (See here for the chart.) About 10 percent each go to parts, manufacturing, repair, dissassembly, and replacement; and 20 percent go to other energy costs.
Let's say that's reasonably representative of other models -- that is, gasoline accounts for only about 30 percent or thereabouts of the life-cycle energy costs of owning and operating the average car or light truck. But according to the US Energy Information Administration, gasoline consumption accounts for 17 percent of total energy consumption in the US (see here for total consumption, and here for total gasoline). So that would imply that car manufacture, repair, recycling and other energy costs account about 40 percent of the total US energy supply.
Forty percent? That's just plain wrong. The entire US industrial sector only consumes 33 percent of the nation's energy. So the subset devoted to cars has to consume only a fraction of that.
Just so, it seems downright implausible that cars are responsible for some 57 percent of the nation's total energy use (17 percent for gasoline, 40 percent for manufacture, repair, recycling, etc.). Cars use a lot of energy, to be sure -- but I simply can't believe it's that much.
So that means either: the Honda Civic is a vastly atypical car, and uses substantially more manufacturing energy than most other cars; that I've misread the (limited) available data from CNW; or that the study's authors have some explaining to do if they're going to convince me that I should pay much attention to their results.
A Frank Look at Chinook
For those of you following the lamentable state of the Klamath River fisheries, there's a first-rate op-ed in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer by Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. He writes:
We expect the PFMC to take the only action it can to protect the salmon: reduce harvest. After all, cutting harvest has been the major response to declining salmon runs for the past 20 years. We accept that burden year after year with the hope that some day habitat -- the Big H -- will be addressed with the same conviction that we have shown in reducing harvests.
We are not in this mess because of harvest. Our harvest management process works.
The upshot, as you can probably guess, is that the only way to ensure the salmon will persist in the Northwest is to address the thorny and issues that degrade salmon habitat. Without suitable habitat the salmon runs dry up and fishermen bear the economic brunt of decisions that were made literally and figuratively upstream from them. A fair approach would take a hard look at irrigation, dams, development, and all the other contentious problems that affect salmon habitat--"the big H." Or as Frank puts it:
Salmon recovery begins and ends with the Big H.
April 04, 2006
Tidepool Editor's Pick: Comeback for the Klamath?
Three strong and informative pieces on Oregon’s battered
Both the Oregonian and the San Francisco Chronicle frame their stories around the economic impacts of the Klamath situation: How the depleted and polluted river -- which the Chronicle says may be the West Coast’s sickest -- has offered up a record low of chinook this year, which could lead to a ban on fishing.
Last week, hundreds of fishermen from Santa Rosa, California to
The Washington Post approaches the story from a hopeful angle. "For the first time in the nearly eight decades since the river was dammed, Indians and commercial fishermen, environmentalists and federal fish scientists agree that there are sound reasons to believe in the comeback of a river that once supported the third largest salmon runs on the West Coast."
Amidst the fishing commotion, as the Post explains, two decisions came down from the federal government last week that bode well for the future of the Klamath and all who depend on it. In crisis lies opportunity, as it’s said.
Finally, an interesting bit of trivia about the Klamath:
In 2002, the Post reports, Karl Rove was instrumental in making sure the river irrigated drought-stricken crops, which led to low flows, which led to massive fish kills, disease and low spawning, which means less chinook for everyone now.
March 08, 2006
Shocker: Global Warming Bad For Skiing
A new study from researchers at Oregon State University, showing that warming trends are likely to have significant effects on snowpack. (Good articles in the Seattle Times and the Oregonian.) The Northwest's coastal mountains are especially sensitive to climate change because temperatures frequently hover near freezing--so even slight warming can drastically reduce the amount of snow that accumulates. (For localized details, click on the image at right, from the Seattle Times.)
By 2040, if warming trends continue as predicted:
- About 3,600 square miles of low-elevation terrain usually covered by snow during the winter would be dominated by rainfall.
- Nearly 22 percent of the snow-covered areas of the Oregon Cascades and 12.5 percent of the snow areas of the Washington Cascades would shift to a rain-dominated winter climate.
- More than 60 percent of the Olympic Range's snow-covered area would have rain-dominated winters.
The OSU findings aren't exactly revolutionary, but they are more evidence that the Northwest has particular reason to be concerned about the impacts of climate change. And the snowpack affects a lot more important aspects of life in the region than just skiing: salmon run, irrigated farms, residential water supplies, and so on.
(During last year's lousy winter, when my skis stayed closet-bound, I blogged about this subject a bit.)
March 06, 2006
Searching for Salmon in the Wrong Places
OK, let’s consider just how absurd this predicament is. People are terrestrial creatures. We like to eat salmon, which spend most of their lives in the ocean. Fortunately, salmon have a habit -- nay, an instinct -- of returning to fresh water to spawn. They do this every year. Used to be, people would wait for them in rivers and estuaries, and catch them there, close to home.
But then -- perhaps to jump the queue and get ahead of the crowd unfurling its nets in rivers and bays -- some fishermen started to troll for salmon in the offshore waters. The salmon still had every intention of swimming into our rivers where they are easier to catch. But instead, trollers began baiting their gear and enticing salmon to take their hooks at sea.
As long as salmon runs are abundant, this impatient practice can be written off as one of those idiosyncrasies of our species, yet another method we have devised to needlessly burn diesel fuel. "Technology is needed not to beat the fish, but to beat other fishermen," wrote Richard Manning in Salmon Nation. "The fish would still come back... if we would wait."
But when certain stocks of salmon start to weaken, this reliance on ocean trolling shows its weakness as well. This week, the Pacific Fishery Management Council is weighing its options in the face of a predicted low run of Klamath River chinook. Biologists estimate that 29,000 salmon would make it to the mouth of the Klamath in the absence of any fishing -- already well below the 35,000 minimum that fisheries managers have set as an annual goal to reach the spawning grounds.
At sea, those scarce Klamath-bound fish mingle with other chinook headed for rivers with more abundant runs -- such as the Sacramento, where runs have rebuilt over the last decade. Regulators fear that trollers would hook Klamath fish among their catch, a chinook that would be indistinguishable on deck from a fish headed for the Sacramento, Eel, or Rogue river.
So the council is entertaining a proposal to nix this year’s salmon fishing season along 700 miles of coastline, from Point Sur, near Monterey, California, north into Oregon. Their dilemma has set off a round of finger-pointing, with trollers blaming water diversions from the Klamath for the salmon’s woes on that river, and hence for the possible closure of the fishery. No doubt, in the long term, the water regime on the Klamath needs to change.
But in the meantime, maybe we should change how we fish. Ocean trolling is inherently indiscriminate. As long as some salmon populations are less robust than others, either some stocks will be overfished or many will go under-caught. Instead, if fishing boats sought salmon at the mouths of the rivers they’re returning to, there’d be a much smaller risk of catching a fish from any other run. In California, commercial fishing inside the Golden Gate, at the mouth of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River, has been illegal since 1957. The present situation might offer a reason to move forward by turning back the clock half a century.
March 03, 2006
Here's an interesting solution to a problem I blogged about a few weeks ago: states like Oregon are losing money to fund wildlife biology and habitat management. Traditionally, these activities have been funded by various hunting and fishing fees; and as the rod and gun sports have waned in popularity their revenue has dried up too. That leaves states less able to pursue wildlife and biological research--not to mention basic land and water conservation--which are hugely important for protecting natural resources.
The solution, in Oregon at least, is to allow tax payers to check a box on their state income tax forms and then make a tax-deductible contribution to non-game wildlife conservation. As far as I can tell from the Oregonian article, the contribution is above and beyond whatever taxes an individual owes. Still, it seems like a good way to encourage wildlife aficionados to make a voluntary contribution to Oregon's natural heritage. This sort of revenue-generation must certainly be more popular than access fees like parking at USFS trailheads and state parks--fees that have proved less than popular in the Northwest.
I'm intrigued by this idea, partly because the revenue is important and partly because it shifts the funding away from hunting and fishing and toward wildlife watching. I imagine the funding shift will also be reflected in the research and conservation priorities that the money pays for. Too bad it can't happen in Washington (because there's no state income tax and hence no form with a handy box to check).
Anyone else know of similar stuff happening elsewhere?
UPDATE: And by the Oregonian, of course, I meant the Salem Statesman-Journal. Of course. Here's the article. (Thanks, Grace.)
February 28, 2006
There's been a bunch of comment in the blogosphere today about hiking gas taxes -- with the rough consensus that it's ok environmental policy, tough on the poor, and politically risky (though perhaps not quite as unthinkable as it once was).
So it's interesting to note that Oregon -- often considered a policy innovator among US states -- is in the middle of an experiment that could eventually lead to a repeal of the state gas tax.
Oregon's transportation department is recruiting volunteers to test a system that would charge people based on how far they drive, not on how much gas they use. The trial will test two rate structures -- some participants will pay a flat rate of 1.2 cents per mile, while others will pay a variable rate depending on whether they're driving during rush hour; a control group would continue to pay normal gas taxes. (See here for details, or if you're interested in volunteering.)
The state is interested in this sort of approach for a bunch of reasons, but if I read things correctly, they're mostly worried that gas tax revenues are poised to fall, perhaps significantly, over the upcoming years.
Here's the issue: if gas prices remain relatively high, or keep rising over time, economists project a gradual per-capita decline in gas consumption, as people replace their cars with more efficient ones. And if cars keep getting more and more fuel efficient, then total gas revenues could actually fall, even as the demands on the road network increase. Ultimately, states may be forced to choose between continual gas tax hikes and persistent funding shortfalls for roads -- both of which are bound to make lots of people unhappy. Under a pay-by-the-mile system, however, transportation funding would be keyed to how much people actually drive -- so the state would still keep up its funding no matter how efficient the cars get.
Obviously, shifting from gas taxes to mileage-based taxes has some signficant downsides. First, the gas tax does create a slight incentive for fuel-efficient cars; getting rid of it could put Hummers on a more even footing with hybrids. And second, it's not entirely clear that a falloff in highway funding would be a bad thing. Obviously, most drivers want the roads maintained in good working order; but, in my mind at least, a lot of highway spending seems like it's pretty wasteful.
That said, we've been pretty interested in the pay by the mile idea, despite the potential downsides. Fully developed, the technology could facilitate two innovations that could be far more powerful at promoting fuel conservation than the exisiting gas tax. First, the same technology used to track mileage for taxing purposes could also be used for a more comprehensive congestion pricing system -- which could simultaneously clear up congestion, reduce driving, and promote bus ridership by keeping streets and highways flowing. And second, it could pave the way for Pay-As-You-Drive car insurance, which would have the same effect on driving overall as roughly doubling the cost of gas.
If you want to get really fancy, you could even fine tune the pay-by-the-mile taxes, to increase fees for cars with the worst pollution or CO2 emissions, the most road space (SUVs require longer stopping distances, and tend to use up a little more space on streets and highways), or the worst safety records.
Of course, pay-by-the-mile taxes suffer from one huge drawback: they're much more complicated than gas taxes, not just because they require special technology but also because a properly "fine tuned" system -- one that accounts for all the different externalities of driving, ranging from pollution to congestion -- could be pretty incomprehensible to the average driver. And mileage-based taxes would be vulnerable to all sorts of political shenanigans, as car manufacturers would jockey for special exemptions or rates for certain kinds of vehicles. All of which means that, even though I'm very excited by the tests, I'm not yet ready to support the idea -- and certainly not until we see how drivers really react to the system.