Skip to content Skip to site navigation
Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


NYC public housing claims it’s going green, but stymies residents’ green efforts

To its credit, the New York City Housing Authority (popularly known as NYCHA) launched an effort five years ago to "go green." "NYCHA is going green," its website announces, by focusing on recycling, energy efficiency, and community gardens.

An apartment tower in Ft. Greene
An apartment tower in Ft. Greene.

And the website is about all the help NYCHA is offering to public-housing residents. But as The New York Times reports, "many residents say the agency has failed to follow through. The agency, they say, has not been supportive of residents’ efforts and has in some circumstances stood in their way."

Residents are encouraged to recycle, but:

[M]ore than half of the 334 public housing projects in the city have no recycling bins, according to agency documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request. That may help explain why the recycling rate is so low in neighborhoods with a large number of public housing projects -- in the South Bronx, home to 14 projects, the rate is just under 5 percent.

Margarita López, a New York City Housing Authority commissioner who leads the agency’s environmental initiatives, said the collection rate was low because in most projects it was easier to throw recyclables in the regular trash.

The agency “has chutes in every floor where people put their garbage through that chute, and they do not separate the recycling material,” Ms. López said. “We have no choice but to encourage people to bring the recycling down to the first floor of buildings. We have no choice but to tell people that this is something you must do for the quality of life and for themselves.”

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Shell’s Alaska mishap has a big PR cost — and a big cost to taxpayers

Even at 6:30 a.m. Alaska time today, three hours before sunrise, there was a hum of activity at the unified command center coordinating the response to Shell's breakaway drilling rig off Kodiak Island on the state's southern coast. The command -- coordinating the efforts of Shell, the Coast Guard, the state, Noble Corporation (the drilling contractor), and local officials -- is responsible for figuring out how badly the 28,000-ton Kulluk is damaged, if it's leaking any of its 143,000 gallons of diesel fuel, and how it can be towed back out to sea. Three days after the rig broke free of two tugboats in bad weather and ran aground, only one of those questions can be answered: It isn't leaking fuel. Yet.

Hoping to figure out the extent of the Coast Guard's role in recovery -- how many of the 600 people working on the response are employees of the agency, or of the state of Alaska -- I called the Coast Guard station in Anchorage this morning, and was quickly referred to the unified command. When I called there, I spoke with Destin Singleton over clamorous background noise. Singleton is the spokesperson for the recovery effort -- and a Shell public relations staffer.


Leaked, useless report suggests fracking is fine for New Yorkers

The New York Times got its ink-stained hands on a report from the New York Health Department assessing the risks associated with fracking, the primary issue at play as the state considers whether or not to lift a ban on the practice. While the report suggests that fracking doesn't pose risks, there are at least two gigantic caveats. From the Times:

The state’s Health Department found in an analysis it prepared early last year that the much-debated drilling technology known as hydrofracking could be conducted safely in New York, according to a copy obtained by The New York Times from an expert who did not believe it should be kept secret. ...

The eight-page analysis is a summary of previous research by the state and others, and concludes that fracking can be done safely. It delves into the potential impact of fracking on water resources, on naturally occurring radiological material found in the ground, on air emissions and on “potential socioeconomic and quality-of-life impacts.” ...

Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Environmental Conservation, said the analysis obtained by The Times was out of date. “The document you have is merely a summary, is nearly a year old, and there will be substantial changes to that version,” she said.

Can you spot the caveats? Yes, the report is an aggregation of existing research, not new reporting on any health effects. And, yes, it's outdated.

newy york fracking


Cash for Clunkers program drove right into a brick wall of waste

Hey, remember back in 2009 when President Obama was saving the American car industry by whatever means necessary, including offering cash incentives for trading in old cars for newer, more efficient ones? And remember how a lot of people used that incentive to buy cars that were only marginally more efficient than their junked clunkers?


Billed as stimulus both for automakers and the environment, the Car Allowance Rebates System, better known as Cash for Clunkers, turned out to be clunker itself. Besides fueling more unsustainable new-car-buying consumerism, the program also destroyed thousands of older, functional vehicles -- vehicles that, according to the Automotive Recyclers Association (ARA), were almost 100 percent recyclable. Through Cash for Clunkers, about 690,000 vehicles had their engines destroyed and many were sent to junkyards, bypassing recycling companies altogether.

E Magazine reports:

The ARA issued a report when the CARS program was announced saying that a much more efficient program would have been to encourage recycled parts usage. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration explained at the time that the engines must be destroyed to prevent the vehicles from being resold and taking the road again. For any dealer that did not follow that law, there was a hefty $15,000 fine per infraction against them.


Fiscal-cliff deal ups tax benefit for transit riders

FISCAL CLIFF TRIGGER WARNING! Obviously there's a lot to be annoyed about in this deal, but there are a few bright spots that aren't getting much attention. Renewed tax credits for wind energy are cool, and even more people will benefit from a near-doubling of a tax benefit for transit riders.


The benefit is basically a tiny tax shelter for the dollars you're spending on public transportation, available if your employer participates in a federal program. On Dec. 31, 2011, that shelter was shrunk from $230 a month to $125, while the benefit for people who drive to work and pay for parking was increased from $230 to $240 -- meaning the government was incentivizing people to drive instead of take public transit. Now, thanks to the fiscal-cliff deal, tax benefits for transit takers and car parkers will be equalized -- both will get a benefit of up to $240 a month.

From Transportation Nation:

Read more: Cities, Living


Record-high average gas prices in 2012 are almost certainly great news for oil companies

These prices are actually low by today's standards.
These prices are actually low by today's standards.

The Wall Street Journal is tremendously incensed about gas prices. For the record, it tells us in the headline of an article, gasoline was the most expensive ever in 2012.

The national average price of [gasoline] for the year was $3.60 a gallon, a significant jump from the previous record of $3.51 set in 2011. While 2008 is famous for a huge summer spike that drove the average above $4 a gallon, price[s] weren’t as consistently high as this year, leaving 2008 in third place overall at $3.25. ...

AAA said the national average has broken a daily record high for a total [of] 248 days in 2012, including 134 consecutive days of records. April 5 and 6 marked the highest daily national average of the year at $3.94 a gallon ... while the price dropped to its low point of $3.22 on Dec. 20.

The paper’s heavily conservative readership might be puzzled by this news. After all, this is what domestic oil production is doing:

production over two years

And as we know from Republicans, increased drilling means gasoline prices should be going down. But they aren't (as we've noted before). They're bouncing all over the place.


A new savior for California state parks?

It's been a rough few years for California's state parks. Since 2008, the state has threatened nearly all the parks with closure, only to save many of them at the last minute thanks in large part to private donations. One such donor, ex-Marine General Anthony Jackson, is now taking over the department after the scandalous resignation of the former head, who had helped to hide $54 million in park funds while the system was in dire straits.

CA state parks: Full of pretty and problems.
California state parks: Full of pretty and problems.

Appointed in November, Jackson is now tasked with restoring faith in the department. So far, so good: Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, told the Los Angeles Times: "It's kind of shocking how much I like him." She said Jackson "may be exactly the right man at the right time" for the job. Not that the job will be a super-fun one.

Can Anthony Jackson save California's parks?
California Dept. of Parks
Can Anthony Jackson save California's parks?

Restoring the sheen to the state's park system won't be easy.

The discovery of about $54 million that parks officials had hidden will not solve the funding problems. More than $1 billion in maintenance work has been put off over the years. The accounting scandal, including fresh irregularities unearthed last month by Brown's Department of Finance and the state controller, may even make things harder.

"It's going to be difficult to get people in the state of California to rally around parks," said Dan Jacobson, legislative director at Environment California, an advocacy group. "The image of the money found in someone's couch is going to keep popping up."

Jackson comes across as a seriously no-nonsense character, which may not be surprising for a retired Marine general. He doesn't have any background in politics, but he told Bay Nature that's a great thing when it comes to this job.

Read more: Politics


2012 was the hottest year in history in New York, D.C., Louisville, Philadelphia …

A city on fire, literally
A city on fire, literally.

It's not yet official, but 2012 was the hottest year in American history. Recorded history, that is; we'll allow climate change deniers the possibility that the United States was hotter when it was a still-forming Pangeal mass of semi-solid lava. Beyond that, though: hottest ever.

This led to a bumper crop of "hottest year ever!" stories in local media last week. Here's a Google News search for "hottest year." Among the areas noting that accomplishment: Lexington, Richmond, Topeka, New Jersey, Cleveland and Columbus, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Burlington, Louisville, and New York City. In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicates that its 170,000-odd monitoring stations in the U.S. recorded 24,280 new record highs over the course of 2012, and 9,728 tied highs.

high and tie records in 2012

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Avis buys Zipcar, delighting investors and unnerving customers

In 2011, Zipcar, the world's largest car-sharing company, was valued at $1.2 billion, but it sold today to Avis for just shy of $500 million. If Zipcar's shareholders approve the sale, it will likely become final in a few months.

Image (1) zipcar-shinya-suzuki-flickr-500.jpg for post 40282

"By combining with Zipcar, we will significantly increase our growth potential, both in the United States and internationally, and will position our company to better serve a greater variety of consumer and commercial transportation needs," Avis Chair and CEO Ronald Nelson said in a statement.

Given the clear downward trend in American car owning and driving, it was only a matter of time until a big corporation got in the sharing game, and the easiest way to do that is always to eat one of the little guys and absorb its start-up life force. According to Nelson, the deal will mean more cars for Zipcar, especially on weekends when most of Avis' fleet is sitting in parking lots. While Avis' rivals Hertz and Enterprise started offering hourly rentals, Avis never did, so the acquisition presents a real expansion of services for the old-timey rental dealership.

It's certainly got investors feeling good -- Zipcar's shares jumped more than 48 percent this morning on news of the deal.


Coal keeps on selling, lawsuits and bad economics be damned

Vile scourge/cheap energy producer
Vile scourge/cheap energy producer.

When I started writing this post, the ticker on the homepage of Peabody Energythe largest private-sector coal company in the world, indicated that it has sold 970,470 tons of coal so far in 2013. Can't find the ticker? It's down there next to the "Environmental Responsibility" box. Yes, really.

An activist group has filed a lawsuit against Emerald Coal Resources, citing extensive pollution in southwestern Pennsylvania. From the Associated Press:

The Center for Coalfield Justice, based in Washington, Pa., filed the federal lawsuit Friday in Pittsburgh against Emerald Coal Resources LP, which operates the Emerald Mine in Waynesburg, Greene County. The citizens' group is being backed by the Earthrise Law Center in Norwell, Mass.

The lawsuit contends Emerald Coal has violated pollution levels for iron, manganese, aluminum and other pollutants more than 120 times in the past 12 months and more than 400 times in the past five years. The group is basing those claims on violations the company has been self-reporting to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection under Emerald's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit as part of the federal Clean Water Act.

The parent company for Emerald is Alpha Natural Resources, which recently announced plans to shut a number of mines.

972,199 tons … 972,283 tons …