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Eco-Beat

Plastic wrapClinging plastic like Saran wrap is difficult to recycle because the resin it contains that gives it wrapping power cannot be extracted without massive amounts of energy — more than it would take to make it new from scratch. And given that it’s usually soiled with some kind of food, used plastic wrap should always just go right into the trash. Pictured: A 1961 magazine ad for Handi-Wrap.

EarthTalk®

The Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Where do you recycle plastic stuff like sandwich bags, Saran Wrap and plastic grocery store wrappers? Can they just go in with other plastics in the recycling bin? There never seems to be any information available about this.
 — Renee La-Fountaine, Lake Hughes, CA

The reason you don’t hear much about recycling these types of plastic films is that most municipalities don’t take back items intended to wrap food. One exception may be sandwich bags, which are made from easy-to-recycle polyethylene, as long as any hard (i.e. “Ziploc”) components are removed and they are rinsed free of any food debris or stains.

For that matter, if you are going to the trouble to wash them, you may as well dry and reuse them at home a few times before relegating them to the recycling bin. There are even small countertop racks available for hanging plastic bags to dry before reusing them.

Clinging plastic like Saran wrap is problematic for recyclers because the resin that it contains (to give it wrapping power) cannot be re-extracted without massive amounts of energy—more than it takes to make it new from scratch. And given that it’s usually soiled with some kind of food, used plastic wrap should always just go right into the trash.

Other non-recyclable plastic films include dark-colored plastic bags, bags with handles or drawstrings, and anything else designed to be wrapped around food. Since you can’t even rinse or recycle these kinds of plastics, it’s better to avoid them altogether and invest in some reusable containers to store leftovers.

Another option is to use plastic grocery store shopping bags (though they are increasingly being phased out) to wrap your food leftovers in. Many municipalities and most stores that provide such bags accept them for recycling, so once you’re done with them, they can be recycled or returned to the store, after which they can be melted down and incorporated into weather- and rot-resistant window and door frames, decking (such as Trex), palettes, pipes, and other long-lasting hard goods. Like with sandwich and other bags you intend to recycle, make sure plastic grocery bags are clean before you turn them in for recycling.

If you are a Ziploc bag or plastic wrap fanatic, but want to do the right thing by the environment, look for plastic food storage film or bags made from biodegradable polymers. Some popular brand names to keep an eye out for at Whole Foods and elsewhere are Eco Wrap, EcoFlex, and BioBag. These plastics—some of which are made from agricultural scraps left over from corn crops—can go right in with yard waste or other compostables and will break down over time accordingly just like cardboard or food scraps. With time major brands will undoubtedly be offering similar products.

But even though there may in fact be “greener” plastic out there, reducing our reliance on disposable bags altogether should be the ultimate goal. Luckily many grocery chains are hip to greening their own operations and image, and are giving away or selling, for a nominal amount, reusable canvas shopping bags, so customers don’t have to choose between wasting plastic and paper at the checkout line.

Contacts: PlasticBagRecycling.org, www.plasticbagrecycling.org; Trex, www.trex.com; BioBag, www.biobagusa.com.


The Gulf spill catastrophe can be a goad to do the right thing

— Jamie Williams, Writers on the Range

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from BP’s disastrous oil spill, it’s how missed opportunities can come back to haunt you. One glaring example has received little attention, however. Back in 1965, Congress began funding land conservation through royalties from offshore oil and gas production, believing that the environmental cost of developing the outer continental shelf needed to be balanced by protecting the country’s most important natural areas. Congress created the Land and Water Conservation Fund in order to achieve this, and promised to give it $900 million per year.

That sounded like a fair bargain 45 years ago, but Congress has lived up to that promise only two years out of the program’s history. Over the last decade, Congress has appropriated an average of only $313 million per year for conservation, even as the average yearly revenues from offshore drilling royalties have exceeded $7 billion.

We now have a chance to salvage this conservation tool and restore Congress’ original intent. A bill recently introduced by Sens. Jeff Bingaman, N.M., and Max Baucus, D-Mont., would provide full and dedicated funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million per year. A dozen other senators have co-sponsored the bill (S. 2747), and a similar measure has been included in the House Energy bill. 

It is no accident that the leadership for restoring this fund is coming from the Rocky Mountain West. The fund has been pivotal to many collaborative groups and communities working to sustain large landscapes in the face of development pressures.

Consider the Rocky Mountain Front in northern Montana, where the Northern Rockies dive into the Great Plains. This immense landscape defies all expectations: Windswept grasslands are braided with wetland-choked coulees, grizzlies still roam the open prairie, and an independent bunch of ranchers is quietly working to sustain this extraordinary place for future generations.

I first met rancher Dusty Crary in his kitchen over a cup of coffee more than a decade ago. He clearly had no use for most of the suggestions conservationists had for “saving” his home. But his ideas for maintaining this wide-open, working landscape were as breathtaking and articulate as any I have ever met. He challenged us to work with him to keep stewards like him on the land. He and a collaborative group of ranchers on the Front said they were interested in protecting their ranches with conservation easements if the resources could be found to purchase them.

What Crary and his neighbors wanted was an opportunity to sustain an entire landscape, not just a few isolated ranches. What they needed, in a word, was money – lots of it. The Land and Water Conservation Fund delivered. Led by Crary and other local landowners and backed by Montana’s congressional delegation, the resulting private-public partnership has now protected more than 138,000 acres of the Front with conservation easements. As Crary says, “Through this amazing cooperation, we have been able to tie together private and public lands at a scale that is much greater than any one landowner could have imagined alone.”

The Land and Water Conservation Fund has also helped the people of the San Luis Valley in Colorado prevent a trans-basin diversion by protecting the 97,000-acre Baca Ranch and its water. It was also key to preventing development of a 6,000-acre inholding within Oregon’s Hells Canyon National Recreation, and it is helping to protect working ranches around Idaho’s Henry’s Lake that serve as a crossroads for wildlife that migrate between Yellowstone National Park and surrounding lands.

These stories reflect a rising tide of collaborative efforts in communities all over the West. But little can be accomplished without adequate funding to achieve landscape-level solutions. Otherwise, communities can’t hope to keep pace with development that disrupts rural economies and fragments wildlife corridors. If communities want more than just symbolic demonstration projects, they need to think big. It takes large ideas to save large swatches of land.

Recognizing the promise of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Obama administration has proposed a 29 percent increase in its budget for the fund this year. But to truly restore the fund to achieve its original intent, Congress must act. I hope BP’s disastrous oil spill spurs our elected officials to do the right thing at last. The public agrees: A recent poll found that 85 percent of voters asked said it is even more important today that funds “from offshore oil and gas drilling be used to protect our forests, rivers, lakes, wetlands, beaches and wildlife habitat.”

If that can be achieved, then visionary landowners can help safeguard the West’s greatest places. As Crary puts it, “It doesn’t matter how long I’ll be here, because this ranch and many others on the Rocky Mountain Front will remain intact and productive forever.”


Planter boxes, a unique wooden coffee table, and various crafts are among the post-mill-fire wares that have supported sawmill staff during a year of rebuilding at SBS Wood Shavings near Ruidoso, NM. —Photo by Carmen Austin.

Forester’s Log: Saving the shavings

—Mary Stuever

Twisted corrugated steel is set off to the side, but not forgotten. Blackened stacks of wood stand waiting, the stays between the boards still holding open spaces once intended to allow freshly milled wood to dry. The skeletal metal remains of a trailer sit in the yard not far from the intact shelter that has taken its place. Where some would see tragedy in this lumber mill fire, owner Sherry Barrow is turning the disaster into opportunity.

It’s hardly fair to start this story with this backlot image. Driving into Barrow’s sawmill east of Ruidoso, New Mexico, one is immediately struck with a vision of creativity. Planter boxes line the drive. Carefully crafted of corrugated steel and treated lumber, the raised beds are marketed to gardeners who prefer the comfort of standing next to a box, rather than stooping to the ground. Only upon entering the office of the mill, finding a showroom of artistic stools, plaques, and decorative miscellany, does one start to get the picture. Most of the art, planter boxes included, is crafted from the fire debris. The creation and sale of these items represents a dogged determination to survive and thrive.

A year ago, this sawmill burned down. Not completely . . . the office and a few outbuildings were spared, but the mill and much of the stock on hand would have been what most people would call a total loss. It wasn’t just a loss for the mill owners, Glenn and Sherry Barrow, but a huge gap in the community’s quest for healthy forests.

As with most western towns, in the recent long-term drought, Ruidoso became painfully aware that forest health is essential to community health. For more than a century, natural, landscape-scale wildfires have been prevented. In the absence of what fire ecologists dub “low- to moderate-intensity, frequent return interval” fires, young fire-susceptible trees have grown full-size, often exponentially increasing the density of the trees in the forest. Over time, the forest transitioned from open woodlands, rich in shrubs, grasses, and scattered clearings to a homogenous carpet of dense forest cloaking the hillsides—a forest now prone to high intensity, large—and frequently destructive—fires.

For many of the area’s residents who have moved into the woods over the last two to three decades, these forest conditions are thought to be “normal” and “beautiful.” The Village of Ruidoso even had a law on the books making it illegal to remove trees on private property. That is until the threat of wildfire, and several blazes in and around the community, restructured the town’s approach into one of the more pro-active and responsive programs in the region.

With thousands and thousands of acres to treat, and a need to remove millions of small trees, the appeal for industries that can use small diameter wood material is ringing loudly around the West. The communities that are most effective in rapidly treating areas large enough to protect their towns are those that nurture businesses that can take the excess wood fiber and stimulate the economy. These businesses often drop the costs of treatments from over a thousand dollars an acre to several hundred dollars an acre—helping wildfire hazard fuel reduction budgets treat three to four times the area with the same funding. The actual products vary from community to community based on local need and well-thought-out business plans. These operations include commercial firewood yards, wood pellet mills, and wood pallet plants. For the Barrows’ Ruidoso sawmill, the product was pine shavings, often used in horse stalls, a good fit for a community that boasts a popular horse race track.

The Barrows not only operate the pine shaving mill, but run the woods operation as well. By implementing the harvest operations, they are assured that the wood coming into their mill comes from practices that leave forests in better shape. This same commitment to lofty principles guided their post fire rebound as well. Determined to continue to provide jobs while the mill was being rebuilt, Sherry tapped into a deep well of creativity to produce new lines of products, many crafted from the debris left after the fire.

Now, one year post fire, small pine trees are once again being turned into large bags of pine shavings. In addition, the mill continues to offer polished stumps, character mantels, and a vast array of art that celebrates the beauty of wood and the joy of facing life’s challenges.


Health studies gas up

— Rachel Waldholz, High Country News

Driving through Battlement Mesa, a community of 5,000 perched on a bluff in western Colorado, Cheri Brandon thought she saw something she'd feared. A bulldozer was clearing dirt near the new middle school in the heart of Brandon's quiet subdivision, right where, according to a grainy photocopied map, Denver-based Antero Resources plans to drill for natural gas. She pulled over.

From the back seat, Mary Ellen Denomy peered out the window.

"They're digging a pad without a special permit," Brandon said.

"They're excavating a pad without any permit!" Denomy said.

A quick phone call, however, established that this bulldozer was not, in fact, Antero's. The middle school was just removing dirt from a recent excavation.

"OK, no panic there," said Denomy.

"No panic there!" Brandon laughed and exhaled. Then the pair continued down the road to the spot where a drill rig will, someday soon, sprout just off the sixth green of the golf course.

If some folks here are a little on edge, it's not hard to understand why. This is Garfield County, in the heart of the Piceance Basin, where residents live atop at least 21 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Drilling has a long history here, and so do people's worries: In 2008, outfitter Ned Prather drank a glass of water from his tap and ended up in the hospital, poisoned by chemicals that had seeped into his spring. Eighteen gas wells surrounded his property. A 2007 county study found at least five drinking water wells contaminated with methane. In 2004, West Divide Creek was so contaminated by methane and benzene that neighbors could light it on fire. Locals blame hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the process in which drillers shoot over a million gallons of high-pressure water, sand and chemicals into a well to crack the rock formation and release the gas inside.

Stories like these bubble up across the West's gas patches. And yet, after decades of drilling, public health officials and activists agree that no one knows with any certainty how natural gas production affects the health of people who live near it -- and whether such reports are the leading edge of a health crisis, as activists worry, or isolated accidents, as industry contends. That's because there have been no comprehensive studies of human health impacts.

That may be about to change. Brandon and Denomy belong to the Battlement Concerned Citizens, a small but vocal coalition of retirees, who have pushed Garfield County to fund a health assessment before approving Antero's drilling proposal. It will be one of the first times that regulators will be asked to consider a detailed health assessment when permitting gas drilling. (The only other formal health assessment of an oil and gas project in the U.S. was in Alaska, in 2007.) And it comes at a time when communities -- and policy-makers -- from Wyoming to New York are taking a growing interest in the health impacts of natural gas production.

Battlement Mesa does not look like a good place to drill for natural gas. Its sweeping views -- and top-notch golf course -- have long drawn retirees to its quiet cul-de-sacs. But among the comfortable houses and schools sit 14 sites pre-approved for natural gas well-pads. The sites are a remnant of the community's genesis as a company town, built to house workers for Exxon's ill-fated Colony oil shale project in the early 1980s. Mapped out before most of the houses were built, the sites have sat dormant, unknown to most residents, for over two decades. Dormant, that is, until last summer, when Antero Resources announced plans to drill some 200 wells from 10 of those sites, some only 500 feet from homes.

Antero's plan came at the tail end of a huge drilling boom. When Brandon moved to Battlement Mesa in 2004, there were no rigs in sight, she says. By 2008, the nearby I-70 corridor was an industrial zone. After a game of golf, Brandon says, the dust from drilling was so pervasive, "I felt like I had pancake makeup on." Oil and gas workers flooded in, and many retirees left, forced out by sharply rising rents. Then in 2009, amid an international gas glut, gas prices plummeted. Battlement Mesa emptied once again, and is now a third vacant. Against this backdrop, Antero's plans are, to some, particularly galling.

"We've endured the industry in this part of the state for the last few years. But we know that our country needs the energy, and this is where it is, and so we tolerated the inconvenience," says Dave Devanney, co-president of the Battlement Concerned Citizens. "But now they are not satisfied with drilling in the countryside around us; now they're drilling in our backyard."

Drilling can release a range of pollutants. Fracking a well can require hundreds of truck trips, and the associated dust and diesel exhaust can cause respiratory problems. Emissions can combine to form ground-level ozone, a major cardiac and pulmonary toxin. Companies usually keep their fracking-fluid recipes secret, but they can include everything from diesel to methanol. Both fracking fluids and the natural gas itself can contain volatile organic compounds like benzene, a carcinogen that can also damage the nervous system. Those compounds have turned up in drinking water, raising worries that they are migrating to water wells. Fluids stored in open waste pits can contaminate the soil or surface water, or evaporate into the air.

But while researchers may know some of the chemicals being used, and some of their health impacts, they seldom know exactly what is being released into the environment, how much, or at what concentrations. They don't know exactly what people living nearby are exposed to, or for how long. In many cases, they know the health impacts of chemicals at high levels, but not at lower levels. They may know the impacts of one chemical in isolation, but not in combination with the others used in natural gas production. The only way to find out, says Judy Jordan, Garfield County's oil and gas liaison, is to "go in there and start studying people."

In 2004, the county used the fine levied in the Divide Creek incident to fund a broad health survey. The study only found some evidence, "not definitive," of increased respiratory conditions, says Teresa Coons, the epidemiologist who headed the study. But it recommended ongoing health monitoring, especially of vulnerable populations, like children and the elderly. Battlement Mesa's mix of retirees and young families fits the bill.

Not all the residents are worried. Keith Lammey, president of the Battlement Mesa Service Committee, the community's homeowners' association, spent years working in finance in the oil and gas industry before retiring. "No, I'm absolutely not concerned about the drilling," Lammey says, adding that it's heavily regulated.

And Antero, which has a history of operating in residential areas, has proposed what it calls unprecedented mitigation efforts to shield residents. Antero plans to use one centralized and covered wastewater pit, so that volatile organic compounds and odors don't escape into the air. It also plans to use pipes to transport wastewater, in order to limit truck traffic -- "leading edge" measures, according to Jordan. Even the plan to drill 500 feet from homes is well above the state's minimum of 150 feet.

Many residents remain unconvinced. Last fall, the newly formed Battlement Concerned Citizens collected over 400 signatures on a petition requesting that any drilling be postponed until a health study could be completed.

The BCC met with a sympathetic county commission, ready to get to the bottom of questions that had dogged the drilling boom. "There's so much misinformation, fear, as well as accusation. We said, ‘Let's do it right,' " says Commissioner John Martin.

"I receive calls from people that get constant nosebleeds and headaches," says Commissioner Trési Houpt, who also sits on the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Houpt helped write new regulations for the state, effective in 2009, which, among other things, require operators to disclose fracking chemicals to Colorado's public health department in the event of an emergency. "The industry has the intellect and the resources to be able to respond if they're impacting peoples' health," she says. "If we can identify concerns through this study, I have the confidence and expectation that they'll come up with a better process for extracting natural gas near residential areas."

In mid-February, the county commission voted to pay for two studies: a health impact assessment (HIA), to be completed this summer, and the first phase of a longer-term, more in-depth community health study. Both will be conducted by the Colorado School of Public Health.

For the HIA, researchers are restricted to gathering existing health and environmental data. The goal, says Roxana Witter, the lead investigator, is to assess the current health of residents, determine whether they might be particularly vulnerable to industry activities, and then present regulators with recommendations about modifying Antero's plans. The HIA will also identify gaps in current data, which will be used to design the longer-term study. Because it needs to be done in time to be included in the permitting process, the researchers won't be able to address questions about exposure levels and pathways. Witter hopes the longer-term study will tackle these.

Neither Antero nor the state are required to use the HIA's recommendations, but so far, both have cautiously embraced the idea. Antero has said it will most likely wait for the recommendations before submitting its permit applications to the county and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. COGCC Director Dave Neslin, in turn, has committed to considering the HIA, and both the county and the commission could attach health stipulations to Antero's permit. But Neslin said he could not recall the commission ever denying a permit for health reasons.

The Battlement Mesa health study is part of a growing national trend. New York state was so alarmed by the potential impacts of fracking on water supplies that this spring it imposed regulations effectively blocking all drilling in New York City's watershed. This month, the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission voted to require operators to disclose the chemicals used in fracking. And most significantly, in March the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would launch a new national study on fracking's health and environmental impacts, to be completed in 2012.

But for some Battlement Mesa residents, the health assessment is only a partial victory. A long-term study simply makes them guinea pigs in their own homes, they say.

"The jury is still out," says Devanney. "My hope is that the HIA will show that natural gas drilling and a residential community are incompatible activities." He hopes, at a minimum, that wells will be pushed back 1,000 feet from homes.

"It doesn't seem like rocket science, it seems like common sense. But common sense has fallen victim to business sense in some areas."


Heard around the West

— Betsy Marston, High Country News

COLORADO

Pot dispensaries may be proliferating on Main Streets across the West, but a new sign that weed is going mainstream can be seen in Durango, a college town in southern Colorado that attracts lots of hikers, climbers and mountain bikers. Just turn on Durango’s public-access television channel, and you can watch pot-inspired recipes come to life on a new cooking show catchily called Cannabis Cuisine. It’s aimed at medical-marijuana card holders who “prefer to eat their medication rather than smoke it,” reports the Durango Herald. But the recipes demonstrated on camera by Ian Curie, a chef who works at Steamworks Brewing, aren’t for mere kitchen dabblers. The debut show included Southwestern specialties such as jalapeño popper appetizers with marijuana bud ground into the cream cheese, a main course of pineapple-chipotle double-roasted pig “that had been sitting in a marijuana marinade for 12 hours,” and a chocolate chile tart dessert topped with “Gooey Ganja Mango Sauce.” Curie, who says just about any recipe can incorporate marijuana — “especially ones that use butter, oil or flour” — obtained his medical marijuana card for a slipped disc because he couldn’t handle the side effects of oxycodone or other prescribed painkillers. “I was done with having my skin itch,” he says. Cannabis Cuisine is the first show of its kind in Colorado but not the first in the region: California inaugurated a program called Cannabis Planet, which includes a cooking segment.

THE WEST

In other food news, there’s a restaurant in Phoenix called Mini Mercado Oaxaca that specializes in a dish that’s not even on the menu, reports the Arizona Republic. It’s available only in the summer, and people in the know — mainly people from Oaxaca in Mexico — have to ask, “Do you have chapulines today?” If chapulines are in season, what you get is a plate “full of little fried things” that you sprinkle in a tortilla and flavor with salt, lemon and maybe some salsa. “Mmmm. These grasshoppers sure taste good,” says writer Daniel Gonzalez. And, he adds, they don’t taste a bit like chicken. From Willamette Week Online in Oregon, we learned about a great part-time chocolate-tasting job in Portland. Well, actually, a one-day job. To become part of Oregon State University’s “Sensory and Consumer Group,” wannabe participants first had to complete a questionnaire: “Hint: Answer yes to question No. 1 — ‘Do you like and frequently eat chocolate?’“

THE WEST

We saw a pleasant bumper sticker the other day: “Not a native but I got here as fast as I could.” And from radio station KUYI in Arizona, which serves the Hopi Tribe, came this high-wind advisory: “The Weather Service suggests securing personal belongings on your property…” to which the announcer added, “or your neighbors might get rich!”


     

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