Dateline Earth

Dateline Earth takes the broad view of what’s going on environmentally. Yes, we live in western North America. But we’re all over the map when it comes to the story of the century: climate change and, more broadly, the environment’s effect on all of our lives.

InvestigateWest interns take prizes in regional SPJ contest for universities

Yahoo! We just received word that Alexander Kelly, InvestigateWest's correspondent at the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks, won first place in the online news category for universities in the annual contest of the Society of Professsional Journalists, Northwest region.

It brings back the bleary-eyed December nights Alex and I worked from different sides of the Atlantic -- not to mention tireless toil by videographer Blair Kelly and photographers Mark Malijan and Christopher Crow. It was exhausting! We weren't doing it for a prize, but it sure feels good for Alex to win one.

It was the second award for InvestigateWest coming out of the climate summit. Malijan also won a National Press Photographers Association prize for the excellent photos he shot in Copenhagen. (In another Copenhagen update, Crow has produced an audio piece on the conference. It runs over 30 minutes, which might help explain why I haven't been able to download it and listen to it yet. If it gets posted on the web, I'll let people know.)

The Dateline Earth posts from Copenhagen that Alex submitted to SPJ focused on varied topics out of the international climate meeting including controversial Ethiopian strongman and alleged genocide perpetrator Meles Zenawi's role in the talks; criticism of a United Nations-brokered timber pact; and UN officials'  exclusion of our journalists from the meeting hall where the negotiations  were held.

The InvestigateWest quartet also did a great job covering the massive street protests, and brought home interviews with Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire and then-Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels.

More than 200 Cruise Ships headed for Seattle

Before the end of the month, a 780-foot visitor will arrive at Pier 66. And Holland America’s ms  Amsterdam is just the first of many—more than 200 other cruise vessels will dock in Seattle this spring and summer.

Cruise ship season — which brings a sharply growing number of giant vessels like the ms Amsterdam to Puget Sound each year — is just around the corner.

“We’ve been talking about cruise ships for the past 10 years, really because of the significant expansion in our waters” said Marcie Keever, a representative from national environmental organization Friends of the Earth (FOE). “We have seen an explosion of cruise ships. They really are small cities.”

The number of cruise ships docking in Seattle each year has increased from 6 vessels carrying 6,615 passengers in 1999 to 218 vessels with 875,433 passengers in 2009. The Port of Seattle estimates the city will see five more ships this year, carrying a total of 858,00 passengers. The ships will dock at either Pier 66 or Pier 91, which opened to cruise ships last year.

And as the number of vacationers relaxing on cruise ships climbs each year, so does the volume of air and water pollution that cruise lines produce, Keever said.

Federal law prohibits cruise ships from dumping untreated sewage within three miles from shore. International law mandates cruise ships wait until they’re 12 miles out to discharge waste. One a vessel passes sails past the marker, however, no laws prevent them from dumping.

Federal scientists ordered to do half-baked analysis of Alaskan oil-drilling plans, audit finds

When the Obama administration not long ago went ahead with what could become a major expansion of oil drilling off Alaska's coasts, it did so with full knowledge that its scientists hadn't been able to do a proper environmental review.

That's the upshot from auditors at the Government Accountability Office, an arm of Congress. And it appears that oil companies' pleas to keep some information secret from the scientists also played a role in the half-baked look at environmental threats, a new GAO report states:

"According to regional staff, this (secrecy) practice has hindered their ability to complete sound environmental analyses."

Those analyses are required under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Although the GAO report just came out, drafts had been available at the Interior Department, which oversees the offshore oil drilling, since sometime before March 1, records show.

The report says some scientists who were sick of being told to do a lousy job on environmental analyses just quit, further complicating the task for doing a first-rate job taking stock of the risks as required under NEPA. Remember, folks, we are talking here about the Obama admnistration, which, as we noted recently, seems reminiscent of the Bush administration on some enviro matters lately. This latest finding flies in the face of President Obama's chest-pounding about how his administration would end the era of arm-twisting government scientists.

What are your nominations for the environmental problems sociologists should study?

Folks, it had been my intention to write tonight about the challenge to the feds' plans for Snake-Columbia river operations filed today by salmon advocates. But instead I got wrapped up in a discussion on the Society of Environmental Journalists' listserv about what sociologists should be studying in our realm. Here's what I told my fellow SEJers:

"Sewage disposal: What is our big hangup with composting toilets? Think of the infrastucture repair and construction costs we could save merely by figuring out what to do with our pee and our poop. Night soils were the answer in ancient China -- why not today, here?"

Obama again looks pretty much like Bush, this time allowing mining companies to dump toxic waste on public land

In my post on the week’s biggest enviro news – Obama’s massive expansion of offshore oil drilling – I noted that increasingly, Obama's environmental decisions are indistinguishable from those made by the previous inhabitant of the White House. Nothing demonstrates that better than this week’s biggest sleeper enviro news: Obama approving dumping of small mountains of toxic waste on public land.

It’s all related to the General Mining Law of 1872, which even today gives mining companies access to gold, silver and other precious metals on public land – without asking the mining firms to pay anything to the public for the minerals taken off public land.

Obama's decision this week – which has gotten very little attention – backs the  Bush administration's stance: allow mining companies to use large amounts of land around their mines to dump mining waste laced with all kinds of nasty stuff.

To really get the picture of how industrial-scale gold mining is done in America today, you have to understand that whole hillsides are ground to dust and then doused with cyanide to extract the tiny percentages of gold contained in the ore.

After that, these whole hillsides worth of dirt have to go somewhere. Miners want to use public land for that. The Bush administration said OK. This week, so did the Obama administration, acting in a case in which enviros challenged a Bush-era decision allowing the waste dumping on so-called “millsite” land around the actual mine.

Not Energy Star's brightest hour - bogus energy saving products win approval in sting

How much are those appliances and electronic devices sporting Energy Star logos truly downsizing America’s obese ecological footprint? And how much do your “green” products and building materials really trim your utility costs? Maybe not as much as you think, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report that casts doubt on the Energy Star certification as unfailing guarantee of a product's energy efficiency. 

Under the guise of four bogus manufacturing companies, GAO submitted 20 fictitious products to Energy Star from June 2009 to March 2010 and saw Energy Star qualify 15. Energy Star gave very little scrutiny to many of the products before awarding them an environmentally friendly emblem, the GAO report notes.

Energy Star, established after the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments and the Energy Policy Act of 1992, is a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) joint venture. The program aims to promote sustainable home appliances and electronic devices and to help American save money on their power bills by identifying energy efficient products and building materials. All but four states offer rebates to consumers who purchase products or materials approved by Energy Star. The program reports saving Americans nearly $17 billion on their utility bills and stopping the emission of a massive amount of greenhouse gases —  equal to the amount 30 million cars would produce -- in 2009 alone.The Energy Policy Act of 2005 even mandates that federal buyers select Energy Star-qualified products.

Obama's offshore-drilling OK may not be a flip-flop but it's sure Bush-like -- except the Alaska part

Did President Obama do a flip-flop when he opened up vast swaths of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico to offshore oil drilling? It depends on how far back you want to go in the President's record. In the Senate he supported efforts to limit offshore drilling. But as a presidential candidate he came around to accepting at least some offshore drilling as a way to build consensus on the energy issue.

Catharine Richert brings us this analysis for the worthwhile politifact.com website run by the St. Pete Times. Her post is worth a read.

Flip-flop or no, though, it's one of what seem like increasingly more common Obama decisions on the environment that could easily have been made by the George W. Bush administration (but probably not  by the George H.W. Bush team.) Example: On Monday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it was going with a Bush-era interpretation of the Clean Air Act that delays a crackdown on regulation of greenhouse gases from stationary sources such as power plants. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, this will allow construction of another 50 coal-fired plants.

Other thoughts in the aftermath of Obama's drilling decision:

+ I couldn't resist retweeting David Roberts of Grist.org:

"Imagine Obama banning offshore drilling in the vague hope that environmental groups might some day support his bill."

:>)

"Water: Our Thirsty World" hits the spot in filling information void

Only an hour or two after posting my recent item on World Water Day, I arrived home to find an aptly timed National Geographic in the mail, a special issue with the cover hed "Water: Our Thirsty World." It's a powerful reminder of how a print publication can take on a meaty issue and give it the royal treatment. (Not that NatGeo doesn't also have some great stuff on the website to accompany the package.)

I haven't finished wading through the whole NatGeo edition, but thought I ought to call this to Dateline Earth readers' attention while the magazine's still available on the newstand. I'm sorry, but for me, the print NG is still a joy, and this issue helps show why.

Of course there are jaw-droppingly gorgeous photos. The stories include these worthwhile pieces:

+ Women in Third World countries are saddled with spending big chunks of their days fetching water. It sounds ridiculous, but I've been wondering about this since, on my trip to Africa, I saw numerous women and girls out in the middle of nowhere carrying big water containers. This piece by Tina Rosenberg,  from east central Africa, has this sell: "If the millions of woman who haul water long distances had a faucet by their door, whole societies could be transformed."