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Metro Detroit Greens (Wayne, Oakland & Macomb Counties)

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Power Crisis in America

a rant by Art Myatt

At a press conference on March 29, 2001, President Bush stated his idea of the relative importance of the environment and the economy. Previously he declared that he will not support cuts in carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, despite his having made a campaign promise to that effect. Questioned about this, he said, "circumstances have changed since the campaign." He elaborated, "We're now in an energy crisis," referring to the rising prices of some fuels and to the rolling electrical blackouts in California. And finally he said, "... we will not do anything that harms our economy."

The real wages of American workers are, in the Bush way of looking at things, not really part of the economy, or at least not a part that he is concerned about. Sources of drinking water or refuges for wildlife are not part of the economy. Health care paid out of taxes would not be part of the economy in the same way that health care as a source of profit for insurance companies is. To him, "the economy" means nothing more than corporate profits and stock prices.

It is not always wise to take Mr. Bush at his word. However, in this instance, what he says is what he means. (He often lacks the skill of misdirection evident in many another politician.) He wants to open the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve to oil exploration and drilling. He wants to build more power plants, both coal-fired and nuclear, to keep up with a rising demand for electricity. He rejects the Kyoto Protocol entirely. How it will help the economy to call 50 parts per million of arsenic in drinking water "safe," when the rest of the world stops at 10 parts per million, is a mystery, but somehow this too makes sense to Mr. Bush. He does not wish to harm corporate profits and stock prices.

Contrary to Bush's concepts of what is important, the environment makes it possible for us to live, and to have a society, and to create an economy. The environment can be and has been degraded by the operations of the industrial economy, sometimes to the point that it can no longer support any further economic activity, or even life. The result of valuing the economy over the environment can be disaster.

If you don't believe this, on your next vacation, take in the sights around Butte, Montana. In 1917, the population of Butte was around a hundred thousand and mining was booming because of the demand for copper to jacket the bullets of World War One. Today, the population is a third of that, living in the most toxic town in America. The local economy is depressed. The population is still shrinking. The town is dying.

It is a town literally surrounded by slag heaps, with a pit of toxic waste in the middle. The Berkley Pit, a mile and a half square, was scooped out to a depth of 1800 feet in a desperate attempt to keep producing copper economically before it was abandoned in 1983. In 1997, the pit contained 26 billion gallons of contaminated water in the bottom 800 + feet of the pit, with more coming in at about 3-5 million gallons a day.

To illustrate just how contaminated the water is, consider the geese. In 1995, a flock of over 300 migrating snow geese, looking for a place to land late at night, mistook the pit for a lake. They landed. The acid water ate away at their stomachs and they all died. The water is still coming in, and the pit may overflow in another twenty years or so.

The Anaconda Copper company was not stopped by any silly environmental considerations. They kept the economy of Butte going, as long as they possibly could. The next generations are left with a poisoned mess and no obvious way to clean it up. Go see for yourself. Take drinking water.

Anaconda did to Butte what George Bush and his supporters are proposing to do on a much grander scale. Their old model of endless growth in every branch of the economy cannot forever be sustained. It can end in catastrophe and collapse, as has already happened in the old Soviet Union.

"We won! We won the Cold War!" is the conventional and superficial wisdom of conservatives. In fact, we won nothing, but the society and economy of a huge empire collapsed, for reasons that will remain a mystery to the "We won!" crowd. They are incapable of seeing that the old Soviet Union so disregarded the environment and so degraded it that finally the Soviet economy could not be sustained.

The story of the Aral Sea illustrates the Soviet policy of ignoring the environment in favor of the economy in a sustained fashion. The Aral Sea is actually a giant fresh-water lake. The Amu Darya River and the Syr Darya River are its main sources of water.

Fifty years ago, the Aral was smaller than Lake Superior but larger than Lake Huron (surface area). If it had then been one of the Great Lakes, it would have been the second largest. It supported a commercial fishing industry.

Now it is about half its former size, smaller than Lake Huron, smaller even than Lake Michigan. All the edible fish in the lake proper are extinct. By 1970, the lake shore had moved 10 kilometers (6 miles) away from the former fishing village of Muynak; by 1980 it was 40 kilometers away; by 1995, 70 kilometers. Still larger than Lake Erie although broken into at least two separate bodies of water, the Aral Sea will vanish entirely in the next 25 years if regional water management policies are not reversed.

Regional water management has consisted of diverting the flow of the two rivers (which used to feed water into the lake) into the desert for irrigation, specifically for growing cotton. It has taken less than 50 years of diversion to entirely destroy the Aral Sea.

This region grew up to 60% of the Soviet Union's cotton while there was a Soviet Union. By now, approximately half the irrigated land is showing signs of salinity due to over-irrigation and the yield of cotton is dropping. The use of excessive amounts of fertilizer, pesticides, and defoliants in order to force cotton to grow in the desert has contaminated ground water supplies. There are now salt storms in the region - clouds of choking salt laced with heavy metals picked up by the wind, blowing across the former sea bottom and the struggling agricultural fields - just as there were dust storms in the American plains in the 1930s.

In the areas formerly home to prosperous fishing villages, infant mortality is approximately 60 deaths per 1000 live births. 80% of women (this is not a typographical error) suffer from anemia. Kidney and liver diseases have increased to a level thirty times that of 15 years ago, so that over 20% of young women aged 13-19 have kidney disease. Many have high levels of lead, zinc and strontium in their blood. This is not entirely the fault of irrigation policies. The strontium is there because of nearby atomic and hydrogen bomb testing in the 1950s and 1960s.

Control of the sea, the desert, and the rivers is now divided among the republics of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzia. There have been dozens of plans to correct various aspects of the ecological disaster in the area, including agreements to restore the Aral Sea to its former levels over a period of twenty years. The plans and committees remain unfunded. The actual operating plan of Uzbekistan is to expand the irrigated area and to grow more cotton for export. The local governments see this as a critical source of hard cash essential to the region's economy.

George Bush could take lessons on valuing the economy over the environment. Instead, he imagines his plans are somehow fundamentally different from the ones that ruined the Soviet Union, environment and society and economy and all.

The fire and meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant fifteen years ago was the final monstrous stress on the environment and the society, the stress from which the economy could not and did not recover. This event released 90 times as much radiation as the Hiroshima bomb, of which 70 percent fell on Belarus, just north of Ukraine, where the plant is located.

In Belarus, the rate of thyroid cancer has increased by 2,400 percent in the last 15 years, and continues to rise. Congenital birth deformities have increased by 250 percent, and those who were children when Chernobyl spewed its cloud of radioactivity are just beginning to have children. 2000 town and villages were "permanently" evacuated, but authorities are now allowing and even encouraging individuals to move back into some of these areas. With 99 percent of the land area of Belarus contaminated, it is just a question of degree for a population that has no place they could evacuate to.

The designers of Chernobyl imagined their design was so safe that no containment was necessary, so hundreds of thousands were heavily contaminated with radioactivity. In fact, millions were contaminated to some degree. The evacuated were never able to return. There is debate as to whether the dead should be counted in the hundreds or the thousands, so far. Lives ruined are even harder to count.

The new nuclear plants being proposed here are, their designers believe, so inherently safe that no containment structure will be needed. As Rush Limbaugh might say, I couldn't make this stuff up, folks. Relatively safe nuclear plants with containment structures are too expensive to build. Therefore, (since the economy demands more electrical power) let's convince the public that "pebble bed reactors" are so safe that a containment structure would be superfluous. This propaganda is about as truthful as an advertisement for cigarettes.

In the service of "the economy," Bush believes we must have more electricity. Keep the existing coal plants burning, and perhaps build new ones.

The waters of the Great Lakes and the many smaller pretty good lakes are already contaminated with mercury at about half the level the EPA considers safe for drinking. The fish in these lakes and streams cannot safely be eaten, because the fish concentrate mercury in their bodies. Mercury causes brain and other nervous system damage along with lung and kidney damage in humans, especially in children, infants, and developing fetuses. In wildlife, and possibly in humans as well, it is a reproductive hazard.

The mercury was not in the waters 150 years ago; it has come from coal-burning electrical power plants and other sources. The power plants account for about half the mercury; other sources are incinerators and cement plants.

The cleansing rains won't clean up the mercury, or even dilute it. The rains are what pull out of the skies the mercury our smokestacks put there. Rains in the midwest have been measured by the National Wildlife Federation. In Chicago, the rain held 42 times as much mercury as the EPA considers "safe." Along the Illinois/Wisconsin border, the result was 56 times higher. Here in Detroit, rain had 65 times the EPA standard of one part per million.

We are used to thinking of rainwater as clean and pure. For previous generations, it was the best sort of drinking water. Now it is not fit to drink, and it is not clear how much longer lake or ground water throughout the region will be fit to drink. But the economy demands more electrical power.

We ought not be looking for reasons to build more power plants. We should be looking for ways to shut down the ones we are now using. This is apparent even without considering soot, or the toxic waste produced by both nuclear and coal plants, or global warming, all of which topics simply add weight to the same conclusion.

The Rocky Mountain Institute has done some studies that may point the way to a more benign and more lasting solution to the demand for power. The cheapest source of new electricity is increased efficiency and conservation. The next cheapest is burning soft coal, which has all the disadvantages pointed out above plus plenty of sulfur and other pollutants. After that, the next would be wind power. Solar electric panels are already cheaper than nuclear plants with containment buildings, and could become cheaper still with mass production.

Clearly, efficiency and conservation and wind power ought to be much preferred over nuclear or fossil fuels. This is not what George Bush and his friends in the oil and coal industries want to hear. It is not what auto industry executives want to hear, either. The airline executives have their hands over their ears by now. And they certainly don't want to hear about the large-scale disasters their policies of eternal economic growth have caused and are now causing.

We need to transform this blindly greed-driven economy into a sustainable one. This will mean many things, including living with less electrical and mechanical power. We would much prefer a deliberate and fair transition to the abrupt and painful one we will get if our environment is pushed until it fails. That is why the Green Party opposes both Republicans and Democrats. Both major parties revere the economy over the environment, though the Democrats are a little more deceptive about it.

The Green Party is in no position yet to expect victory in the next presidential election. We've barely gotten to where the Democrats and Republicans take us seriously. The Bush smirk and the crassly greedy attitudes and policies of his administration will wake up millions in the coming years, and the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the Democratic Party will cause the best of them to seek us. Our recruiters are running the country. We had better prepare well for growth.

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