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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Community health centers rise up from toxic brownfields

If poor communities aren’t living in the shadow of active industrial pollution, they’re often living in its graveyard. Industrial polluted brownfields are fenced and festering from California to Maine, frequently situated near low-income residents. When developers come to clean up and build on the sites, too often they plan projects that will push out rather than benefit the people who live nearby.

A Worcester, Mass. brownfield.
Massachusetts Dept. of Environmental Protection
A brownfield in Worcester, Mass.

But today The New York Times points to a different kind of trend in brownfields development: building health centers for low-income local residents on sites formerly occupied by meatpacking plants, gas stations, and factories. These kinds of projects stand to bolster communities, not just property values, and they’re still serious investment opportunities for health-care companies.

[There's] a nationwide trend to replace contaminated tracts in distressed neighborhoods with health centers , in essence taking a potential source of health problems for a community and turning it into a place for health care. In recent years, health care facilities have been built on cleaned-up sites in Florida, Colorado, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Oregon and California.

“These health care providers are getting good at it,” said Elizabeth Schilling, policy manager for Smart Growth America, an advocacy group. “They have internalized the idea that this is an opportunity for them.”

Because these sites are contaminated, many qualify for government tax credits and grants, providing health centers with vital seed money to build. Community health centers, by design, exist to serve populations in poor neighborhoods, where there also tend to be available but contaminated properties like old gas stations, repair shops and industrial sites.

Read more: Cities


Yoko Ono is here to convince you that fracking is bad

I have some familiarity with modern and contemporary art. I enjoy it. I know a Twombly from a Rauschenberg from an Ellsworth. A woman sits in a museum for weeks on end, silently, or a man creates artwork from explosions? I get it. Generally.

But this?

Not a fan of Yoko Ono. In 2002, I went to an Ono exhibit at the MoMA in San Francisco. It was one of the worst exhibits I've seen there: trite, pretentious, slathered with the artist's name. I doubt my assessment of her work is unique -- and, of course, others dislike Ono for other reasons.

Therefore, I highly, highly doubt this ad, which ran full-page in this week's New York Times, is going to resolve the debate over fracking.


2012 saw the fewest wildfires in a decade — but the second-most acres burned ever

This is the most calm the Forest Service's active fire map has looked all year.

current fire map dec 2012

After all, here was the year 2012 in fires, as compiled by NASA.

From the description: "Areas of yellow and orange indicate larger and more intense fires, while many of the less intense fires, shown in red, represent prescribed burns started for brush clearing and agriculture and ecosystem management." Click to embiggen.
From the description: "Areas of yellow and orange indicate larger and more intense fires, while many of the less intense fires, shown in red, represent prescribed burns started for brush clearing and agriculture and ecosystem management." Click to embiggen.

Through August, the continental U.S. had seen the most acreage burned by wildfires in history. Happily, that trend didn't continue. We only came in second.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Americans are quite literally giving their gold and silver away

A quick civics quiz to start your day. The answers are in italics at the end of each question. (If you read the headline, you're cheating.)

  1. When was the General Mining Act, which is still in place, signed into law? 1872.
  2. Under the General Mining Act, how much do companies pay to stake a claim to extract precious metals on public land? How much in annual maintenance costs thereafter? $189; $140.
  3. How much do they pay to the government in royalties for each ounce of gold extracted? Silver? Copper? Zero dollars; nada; zilch.
  4. How much did the government earn in royalties from precious metal extraction last year? Not one fucking penny.

In other words, if your company staked a claim in 1873, and had been mining gold from it continuously, the total cost to your company would have been $19,509. At today's spot price of $1,715 an ounce, you'd have needed to extract only 12 ounces over the past 139 years to recoup the entire amount you'd paid the U.S. government.

These miners paid the same amount to the government that a mining company would today, because the system works
This mining operation paid the same amount to the government that a mining company would today, because the system works.


Interior: We’ll maybe finalize those fracking rules next year

Bad news, water lovers: You're going to need to wait until at least 2013 before you know if you're drinking fracking fluid.

Last May, the Department of the Interior, America's most introspective governmental bureau, announced proposed regulations for the fracking process. The proposal was … not very strong. Companies would have to provide information on chemicals used in the process, but only after the fact.

department of interior
The fast-acting Department of the Interior.

Nonetheless, the fracking industry was hella mad, because if you government pencil-necks say companies have to worry about where chemicals end up or, worse, have to tell everyone what chemicals they use, those companies will have to fire everyone and probably resort to a life of crime. And besides, they noted, the existing rules states have are already so oppressive.

But Interior was all, too bad, guys. We're going to crack down! By the end of the year, you watch, we'll have final rules.

And, lo, The Hill reports:

The Interior Department no longer plans to finalize rules this year that will impose new controls on the controversial oil-and-gas development method called hydraulic fracturing, a spokesman said.

“In order to ensure that the 170,000 comments received are properly analyzed, the Bureau of Land Management expects action on the [hydraulic fracturing] proposal in the new year,” Interior spokesman Blake Androff said.


Different breeds of urban agriculture duke it out in Detroit

On Tuesday, the Detroit City Council voted to sell about 1,500 city-owned lots to the Hantz Woodlands project to plant trees as a beautification effort.

Supporters say it's just what Detroit needs: large-scale blight removal and reforestation to reinvigorate the post-industrial wasteland with urban innovation. Detractors say it's a land grab that jeopardizes a local fast-growing urban farming movement and stands to displace low-income residents of color.

urban farm
One of Detroit's already-thriving urban farms.

Multi-millionaire money manager John Hantz now has a deal to purchase the lots from the city for $300 each -- about eight cents a square foot, which is very, very cheap, even for beleaguered Detroit.

From The New York Times:

A Web site set up by Mr. Hantz, a wealthy entrepreneur, to advance his proposal says the farm would return the city “to its agrarian roots.” The repurposed lots -- cleared of blight and planted with roughly 15,000 hardwood trees -- would establish an economic zone, raise property values and return vast tracts of abandoned land to the city tax rolls, according to Mike Score, the president of the venture, Hantz Farms. Ideally, the enterprise has signaled, it would eventually become a major source of local food ...

Saunteel Jenkins, a City Council member who favors the proposal, argues that the city needs to think in new ways. “Farming will be one of the many things that be part of Detroit’s reinvention,” said Ms. Jenkins, chairwoman of the council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee. “The auto industry used to be our bread and butter, but now we have to diversify.”

But In These Times reports that about 100 people still live in the areas that Hantz plans to demolish, clean, and plant full of trees by next spring. And some Detroiters object to the plan for other reasons:

Read more: Cities, Food


Oil companies polluting aquifers with EPA’s blessing

oil barrel in water
Kind of like this, but underground.

Oil companies: They're kind of like pet cats, it turns out. They don't care what you want, they're only out for themselves, and they love to bury their waste wherever they feel like it. And thanks to the Environmental Protection Agency, they're able to bury it via aquifer injection at hundreds of sites across the country where the EPA says the water is not "reasonably expected" to be used for drinking.

In some of America's most drought-stricken communities, this practice is polluting what little drinkable water there is left. A new report from ProPublica digs into the EPA's spotty record on issuing exemption permits for dumping in the nation's precious aquifers -- starting with the fact that the EPA itself hasn't kept great records on which permits it has issued at all.

Federal officials have given energy and mining companies permission to pollute aquifers in more than 1,500 places across the country, releasing toxic material into underground reservoirs that help supply more than half of the nation's drinking water. ...

Though hundreds of exemptions are for lower-quality water of questionable use, many allow grantees to contaminate water so pure it would barely need filtration, or that is treatable using modern technology.

The EPA is only supposed to issue exemptions if aquifers are too remote, too dirty, or too deep to supply affordable drinking water. Applicants must persuade the government that the water is not being used as drinking water and that it never will be.

Sometimes, however, the agency has issued permits for portions of reservoirs that are in use, assuming contaminants will stay within the finite area exempted.


Study finds ‘widespread seafood fraud’ at restaurants

Dead fish don't lie -- except for a lot of the ones served in restaurants.

Matthew Kenrick

A new study from conservation group Oceana found that 39 percent of New York restaurant fish DNA-tested by the group was mislabeled. That, combined with past studies of Los Angeles (55 percent), Boston (48 percent), and Miami (31 percent), paints a sad and even scary picture of what diners can expect when they sit down at American seafood restaurants.

Mislabeled fish was found at a range of eateries from low- to high-priced, and at every sushi spot tested. The New York Times reports:

In some cases, cheaper types of fish were substituted for expensive species. In others, fish that consumers have been urged to avoid because stocks are depleted, putting the species or a fishery at risk, was identified as a type of fish that is not threatened. Although such mislabeling violates laws protecting consumers, it is hard to detect.

Some of the findings present public health concerns. Thirteen types of fish, including tilapia and tilefish, were falsely identified as red snapper. Tilefish contains such high mercury levels that the federal Food and Drug Administration advises women who are pregnant or nursing and young children not to eat it.

Ninety-four percent of fish sold as white tuna was not tuna at all but in many cases a fish known as snake mackerel, or escolar, which contains a toxin that can cause severe diarrhea if more than a few ounces of meat are ingested.

Read more: Food, Living


Sen. Boxer to form congressional ‘climate change caucus,’ which should do the trick

barbara_boxer.jpgSen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has decided that this is the perfect moment to launch a brand new congressional caucus. From The Hill:

[Boxer] said Tuesday that she’s forming a “climate change caucus,” and argues that Hurricane Sandy “changed a lot of minds” on the topic.

The move signals that Democrats might again be ready to aggressively promote bills to curb greenhouse gas emissions, even as the political prospects for global warming legislation remain remote in Congress.

“I am going to form a climate change caucus, because people are coming up to me, they really want to get into this. I think Sandy changed a lot of minds,” Boxer told reporters in the Capitol.

Pack it in, Chevron. Peace out, coal industry. Ya burnt, so to speak. After all, nothing gets things done like a congressional caucus.


Drought hits Colorado ranchers, and polluting oil drillers deliver another blow

As of last week, 95 percent of Colorado was under severe drought conditions. A reminder: It is December.


That's an improvement since early September, when the entire state was in severe drought. At this rate, the problem will be resolved in ... oh, five years.

The effects of the drought have been felt broadly -- but the damage done to sheep farmers has been particularly acute.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food