Semanticable

Re: Lofty Ambitions

Dear Editor:

I absolutely applaud Boyle and Brown’s efforts to create such an amazing living space. Their commitment to reusing materials is exactly the direction that construction, as well as industry, should be headed. My point of polite criticism concerns semantics.

With the terms “sustainable” and “green” becoming so trendy, everyone adds them to their jargon without considering their validity. Boyle and Brown’s description of their design as a “sustainable building” is simply another example of this error. While their lofts are certainly a step in the right direction, they are not yet “sustainable.” For example, the use of fly ash in the building’s concrete floors is not truly sustainable. Fly ash often falls under the EPA’s definition of hazardous waste, because of its heavy-metal content. (Fortunately, those heavy metals are not likely to be mobilized, especially if steps are taken to ensure that there is no abrasion to the concrete.) For the present, this use is probably innocuous. However, the concrete flooring will eventually reach the end of its useful life, and will require removal. That is the point where this design can no longer be termed “sustainable.” As with most things “recycled” these days, it will eventually be disposed of, either in a landfill, a body of water, or an incinerator. Thus, this creative idea to use fly ash in concrete has simply become a postponement of its inevitable disposal. Perhaps the more appropriate term for their design is “environmentally preferable.”

For those who want to see what true sustainability could be, I suggest reading Cradle to Cradle, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. Until then, let’s keep making steps toward sustainability!

Elizabeth Sommer

Boston University

Boston, Mass.

 

The Last Word (Yeah, Right) on Animal Testing

Re: Write Your Cake and Eat It Too

Dear Editor:

As a toxicologist, I want to assure letter writer Amy Todisco that toxicity studies on animals don’t yield the clear benefits she thinks they do. In fact, I’d say companies rely on crude animal models to obscure the real dangers to human beings.

It may be true that inhalation toxicity tests “accurately detect the physical reactions of mice to breathing a real-life dose …” But we’re not really worried about the reactions of mice, are we? In fact, the reactions of a mouse may tell us nothing about the effect of a substance on a human being.

For example, because manufacturer-sponsored tests did not produce leukemia in mice, benzene was not withdrawn from the market in a timely manner, despite clinical and epidemiological evidence that the chemical causes leukemia in humans. Let’s hold chemical and pharmaceutical companies accountable in another way: Force them to come up with methods that really certify the safety of their chemicals for humans, instead of cruel tests that don’t.

Kristie Stoick

Washington, D.C.

 

Bechtel Me No Lies

Re: Fluid Dynamics

Dear Editor:

In the online discussion between Peter Cook of the National Association of Water Companies and Maude Barlow and Sara Ehrhardt of the Council of Canadians, the subject of Bechtel’s water takeover in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 1999-2000 came up. I am sure that Cook is interested in being accurate in his public comments, so I’d like to note a couple of points where he might wish to take another look at the facts.

1) The Bechtel rate hikes: In his comments, he repeats Bechtel’s common public statement that, “In January 2000, the government raised the rates 35 percent, not Aguas del Tunari.” First, the rate hikes, as a matter of clear record, were well beyond 35 percent. The Democracy Center has documented this quite clearly through both actual before and after water bills and an aggregate analysis of the rate hikes using Bechtel’s own pricing data carried out by the current water company.

It is also a bit odd to say that the Bolivian government raised the rates. To be sure, they approved those rates, but if Cook has evidence that Bechtel asked for lower price hikes, I’d appreciate seeing that evidence. The increases were the natural result of the contract and profit arrangements that Bechtel negotiated.

2) Who owns Aguas del Tunari: Cook says, “By the way, Bechtel was only a 27 percent partner in the deal. Aguas del Tunari was not, as you say, a ‘Bechtel-owned private company.'” This is a classic bit of shell game. The facts are quite clear. At the time that Aguas del Tunari negotiated and signed the water contract with the Bolivian government in September 1999, a controlling 55 percent interest was held by International Waters Limited, which at the time was 100 percent owned by Bechtel. It was only after that contract was signed and after the rate hikes were set in motion (in November 1999; see a Bechtel press release) that Bechtel sold 50 percent ownership in IWL to Edison of Italy. Again, it is a clear matter of record that Bechtel held a controlling 55 percent interest in AdT at the time the contract and rate hikes were negotiated.

3) The rate rollback: Cook also says, “This rate increase didn’t last long, however; it was rolled back the next month.” Again, as a matter of record, after two inflamed protests, the Bolivian government announced a temporary rollback of rates, over the company’s objections, for an announced period of six months. Cook’s statement misleads readers into thinking that this was a permanent rollback, which it clearly was not.

To be certain, there are many reasonable questions to debate regarding water privatization — however, they ought to be debated on the facts. I am not surprised that Bechtel’s PR department continues to spin a false version of these facts. Their Cochabamba privatization was a disaster for them. However, Cook does himself and his organization a disservice by repeating those inaccuracies without first checking the facts for himself.

Jim Shultz

Executive Director

The Democracy Center

Cochabamba, Bolivia

 

Private Eyes, They’re Botching You

Re: Fluid Dynamics

Dear Editor:

Municipal water and wastewater system privatization is a very bad idea. The idea that private companies can bring economies of scale to infrastructure needs is simply ludicrous. A vertically integrated corporation may be able to slightly reduce costs by internalizing some, but there are plenty of competent water-resource consulting firms that would compete for needed engineering and construction improvements.

Sure, corporations can raise capital and defer their return on investment for years, making needed infrastructure improvements appear cheaper to water customers in the short-term than direct municipal financing. But eventually the stockholders want to see a profit from their investment. Inevitably, once a corporation’s property interest in a municipal water system is fully vested, rates will go up. The only question is: How far up? The answer is: How much are you willing to pay for clean water? Think about it.

Where municipal water systems typically perform worst is in equitably distributing the costs of infrastructure improvements. For example, the biggest cost to most municipal systems is upgrades needed to serve new customers as the municipality grows. New treatment systems, new mains, and new distribution systems need to be constructed as a town grows. Who should pay for this growth-induced cost? Few municipal managers are sufficiently insulated from the pernicious interests of land developers to demand that they pay most of the cost of new development. Usually, new bonded indebtedness is supported by the entire system’s customers and everyone’s rates rise. This is patently unfair to existing customers, whose property taxes paid for the existing system and could be served for many years without substantial capital improvement. Costs for replacement and repair of existing systems should be paid for by the entire customer base, but expansion needed to serve new development should be paid for by that development. Today, this seldom happens because politicians are corrupt and the most corrupt politicians are local ones. They don’t think anyone’s watching and they’re usually right.

But that is a debate about good civil governance. Privatization would make an absolute hash of the equity question. Under the profit motive, the more water sold the better — and if you can get all customers to pay for expansion without recourse (one cannot vote a money-grubbing corporation out of office), then the public would effectively pay its water-providing corporation to increase the corporation’s profit-making potential. Try to imagine a water-service corporation in, say, Albuquerque, N.M., saying “no mas” to developers even if it had to drain the Rio Grande River dry to meet their needs. They’d simply go to their bankers with their customer rolls to demonstrate surety and get the capital needed to drain the river. The environmental implications are obvious.

The bottom line is that clean, reasonably priced water is in the public interest. Local politicians seldom do a great job of protecting the pubic interest, but placing the public interest in the hands of monopolistic private entities is not just a bad idea, it is contrary to common sense. The answer, my friends, is: Pay more attention to who you elect to local water boards. Make sure they have your interest at heart — not theirs or their cronies’. Never elect a land developer to local governance. They dominate local governance in this country today and are the primary source of corruption.

Richard Domingue

Oak Grove, Ore.

 

And Now for Something Completely Different

Re: Fluid Dynamics

Dear Editor:

Water is a right for all people who wish to fill buckets from local streams or other nearby sources in nature; it is a privilege to have the convenience of walking down a hallway of a home and turning on a tap 24/7. For that privilege, there is a cost.

Kathy Shandling

Executive Director

International Private Water Association

New York, N.Y.

 

Queer Eye for the Green Magazine

Dear Editor:

I just want to let you know how great it is to read things like “Yeah, That’s the Ticket” in today’s Grist, which are, for once, not written as if the reader is assumed to be a straight male! So much journalism seems to be about straight guys writing for straight guys, even though straight women (like me) plus gay men far outnumber the straight men. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a straight guy, of course (some of my favorite people are), but I thought the musing on Edwards’ physical assets was a hoot. Of course, I’d vote for him and the other John even if they looked like Jabba the Hut.

Thanks again for providing a light-hearted, sympathetic voice for your readers.

Cassie Thomas

Anchorage, Alaska

 

Brown and Browner

Dear Editor:

The author states that Clinton was no better than Bush [on the environment]? There is one thing he forgot to mention. Clinton didn’t change any major environmental laws to get what he wanted. The Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and National Environmental Policy Act were not touched on Clinton’s watch. I know the Endangered Species Act was amended to include Habitat Conservation Plans, but they can be good if done right.

Sure, Clinton is no angel, but Shrubbo is much, much worse. Drill in the National Petroleum Reserve? Isn’t that what it was designated for? The roadless rule should stand, and it was Clinton’s rule. Bush ignored public sentiment on the roadless rule and didn’t defend it. Can you see Bush adding any national monuments at the end of his term?

Richard Smith

Sacramento, Calif.

 

Tropicapocalypse

Re: The Age of Aquariums

Dear Editor:

I worked in the tropical fish wholesale business in Canada for 20 years and during my time I witnessed many horrific animal-cruelty issues — to the point that I don’t believe there is an industry on earth that can match the tropical-fish industry for sheer callous cruelty, whether the fish is wild-caught or aqua-farmed. After the typical aquarist buys them and takes them home, the abuse continues in different forms.

Dynamite and drugs have been and likely still are used all over the world to harvest wild fish. No consideration is given to the species that are not the object of the expedition. When fish are shipped, they are shipped in bags of up to 1,000, as in the case of Neons and Cardinal Tetras. Others, like Bleeding Hearts and so on, are shipped 500 to a box. The fish are drugged and packed with minimum water and the bag is inflated to its maximum with pure oxygen.

When the fish arrive at the destination wholesaler’s warehouse, they are often minutes from death. The wholesaler has very little margin of error between receiving them at the airport and dumping them into a tank with aged water that is almost never of the same quality as the water the fish are in or from. Consequently, the first thing that happens is they go into shock. They are treated with more drugs to keep disease at bay while they recover. Some do, some don’t. Mortality is calculated into the price and resale value. It is nothing to see entire boxes of 500 tetras or barbs belly up the next day. Some fish literally disintegrate when they arrive if they aren’t treated properly. Elephant Noses are well known for this.

The food fish are given is generally the least expensive that won’t foul if too much is put into the tanks, but accidents happen. It is impossible to duplicate the natural menu a fish takes for granted in the wild. That is because water is not just water. It’s a biological soup filled with billions of tiny plant and animal organisms that are ingested every time a fish eats something else. That’s not to say that fish can’t be kept successfully without their natural foods, but over time, domestic populations of some species deteriorate.

Then there are hormone treatments. Guppies are the most famous recipients of hormonal treatments to accelerate their growth and finnage. Don’t for a moment think that all the fancy finnage is strictly the result of selective breeding — it isn’t. Sometimes the fish have the last laugh if they only knew it, when the handlers absorb the hormones themselves through their skin. Men can grow breasts, women grow facial hair. I’ve known two people this has happened to, one man, one woman, and a husband-and-wife team. What a mess they were in.

John Newell

Pickering, Ontario, Canada

 

Heir Apparel

Re: The Environmentalist’s New Clothes

Dear Editor:

A few other suggestions are: Buy well-made, basic clothing. It will last longer. Trendy clothing quickly becomes dated. Poor or mediocre sewing and weaving quickly wear out.

Consider re-dying clothing that has become stained or gray. Yes, there are chemicals involved, but not as many as in the manufacture and shipping of the stuff in the first place. Avoid fabric softener. It builds up in the fabric and turns things gray. Use a vinegar rinse instead.

Another great option for used clothing and even new is eBay. It’s an easy way to buy brand new clothes that were department store returns, overruns, and factory seconds. This allows you to buy new clothing that would otherwise be wasted. Also, you can find really nice used clothing that might be hard to locate at your local consignment store. And another thing: Recycle your old clothing. Make rags out of the truly old and donate the usable to charity. Larger charities bundle what they can’t sell here and ship it overseas where it finds new life. See here for more info.

Tanya Graham

Glorieta, N.M.

 

Get a Job, Ya Bum!

Re: Bake Your Cake and Eat It Too

Dear Editor:

For readers who wonder about how to break into environmental jobs, I can recommend a newspaper and an organization devoted to just that: the National Environmental Employment Report, published by the Environmental Career Center in Virginia. It’s filled with job listings of all kinds all over the U.S. and beyond, and contains articles surveying environmental career fields and offering information on how to get a job.

Miranda Spencer

Philadelphia, Penn.