Sunday, September 30, 2012

Should your kitchen faucet catch on fire?

In the picture “Sherry Vargson, who leased the mineral rights under her Pennsylvania farm to an energy company, demonstrates that methane has leached into her well by lighting the water in her kitchen sink on fire.” Thus the American Medical News for September 3, 2012.
Energy companies in Pennsylvania and New York states, and elsewhere in the US use a process called “fracking" (induced hydraulic fracturing) to drill for natural gas.
Fracking is a delicate operation. One drills down and down to about 9000 feet to where the gas is in the shale. Then the operators pump a mixture of saline water and other chemicals down under high pressure. These chemicals the drillers treat as proprietary and therefore hide what they are. The water and chemicals break up (“fracture”) the shale, the gas comes up the pipe. But so does the water pumped down earlier, which the gas company then must dispose of safely.
That's problem number 1. How to dispose of large quantities of unhealthy water without injuring natural resources or human beings.
Problem number 2 is a really big one: is fracking safe? The industry says that, yes, of course it is a perfectly safe method for making more natural gas available. But many critics tell stories of private wells being polluted by chemicals. The drillers allege that contamination of drinking water occurs only where the drilling goes wrong in some way. For the person sickened by polluted water that is cold comfort.
Physicians report cases from different parts of the country of patients with serious skin rashes and bleeding sores, kidney failure, low platelet levels, and other serious illnesses. The patients often have their own wells located near natural gas drilling sites and their symptoms disappear—in some cases—when they stop drinking from their wells. And then there is Sherry Vargson whose drinking water will catch fire if you hold a match to it.
It does not seem unreasonable to suspect that the drillers are not speaking the truth when they claim that fracking is clean and safe. There are enough cases that suggest that fracking pollutes drinking water.
Problem number 3.  Energy companies are planning to use fracking to drill for natural gas near the Delaware River, which supplies half of all the drinking water for New York City and all of it for Philadelphia. If fracking pollutes private wells, is it safe for the clean water supplies of New York City and Philadelphia?
            Problem number 4. Drillers are secretive about the chemicals they use. That is a serious problem for the physician trying to treat patients sicked by fracking because the drillers refuse to tell them what chemicals are involved in the patients' problem.
Some states have passed laws making it mandatory for drillers to tell what chemicals are involved to the physician treating a fracking victim. But before the physicians receive this information, they need to sign a confidentiality agreement. If they need to consult with another specialist about a case, they cannot share the information they received from the drillers. (American Medical News for September 3, 2012.)
Problem number 5. Fracking is a new technique involving multiple substances whose long term health effects are unknown.
Should we, perhaps, go slow and check it all out first? Should we, perhaps, use the resources involved in fracking and in curing its victims to find ways of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels?
Should we perhaps stop and think about what we are doing?
As long as the free-market enthusiasts are on the loose, there is no chance of that. Pity our children and grandchildren.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Don't recycle that computer or cell phone!

Green is in. The big electronic box stores all offer to take your used electronic equipment for recycling. Unsuspecting consumers congratulate them for their forward looking stance. But what do they do with all this recycled material?
According to various estimates, 70% of discarded electronic equipment ends up in landfills. The rest is supposedly recycled. According to some estimates 80% of recycled material – a significant portion of it generated in the United States – is dumped in large containers to be shipped to low-wage countries. There, in China, Vietnam, and India or Ghana, recycling is done largely by children and women.
Recycling takes components of machines or appliance that have stopped functioning to convert them into raw materials for other products. Recycling a computer would involve salvaging the plastic and metal covers to be used in the production of other plastic or metal products. But that is not what happens when electronics are being "recycled."
The basic process consists of burning or "cooking" used computer components in order to melt the metals contained in old computer boards – metals like gold, copper, lead. These metals can bring in a bit of money. The plastic in the machines is worthless and hence is simply burned. The bulk of electronic waste is not being recycled at all but is being burned to be converted into toxic ash or gases polluting the atmosphere that are bound to sicken the adults doing the work.

It seriously affects the growth of today's children, who are a significant portion of the recycling workforce, and future children women, who work in recycling, will give birth to. There is no question that these backyard recycling operations not only do not really recycle, but do tremendous harm to the people who make a meager living there. Often they are undertaken in large urban settlements, for instance in Accra, Ghana, where the pollution injures large numbers of people.
It is illegal to ship electronic waste abroad from the US but the domestic recyclers circumvent those prescriptions by labeling used computers, cell phones, – with bitter irony--etc. as "charitable donations."
There exist some modern recycling plants which undertake this hazardous job in ways that are environmentally safe. One of those is in India where, with the rising prosperity, the problem of electronic waste takes on monumental proportions. Another such plant is located outside Toronto. It is not clear what percentage of electronic waste these high-tech plants process. The problem clearly is that recycling electronic components without, frankly, killing people is expensive. And no one seems to want to pay the price of building the requisite plants. (I must clearly include myself in that.)
Upgrading our electronic gadgets is very tempting. But before you do that you have to ask yourself what will happen to your discarded computers, cell phones or tablets.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Creeping Fascism?

Not too long ago President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act. Most of it concerns funding for the military but at the end there are some sections that essentially allow the military to arrest American citizens, suspected of connections with terrorism, without warrants and to hold them indefinitely without bringing them before a judge for an arraignment. This part of the act is now in litigation. A federal judge in New York has declared those sections unconstitutional, but it is not clear that the government will respect that judicial decision.
Even more recently, a story in the New York Times reveals that since 2002 the United States government has been spying on its own citizens. The National Security Agency, established for spying abroad, since 2002 has used a programs written by one William Binney for espionage on the Soviet Union to collect immense amounts of data about every American citizens, to be stored in a very large computer facility under construction in Utah. Binney has spoken out about this top secret program--”Stellar Wind”--concerned that it was clearly illegal, convened the Constitution and Bill of Rights and constitutes a serious threat to our democracy. Spying on its citizens is typical of autocratic governments.
Here are two examples of the government blatantly ignoring the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The freedoms of American citizens apparently do not count for much in the eyes of the present administration, or of its predecessors under George W. Bush.
Is this the beginning of fascism in America?
Fascism is a complex phenomenon. One of its chief characteristics is an authoritarian government that has no regard for individual liberties and constitutional protections of free speech or against arbitrary arrest and indefinite detention. Fascist governments tend to be very nationalistic; they are supportive of large corporations, and are vicious in their persecution of labor organizations. The directors of large corporations have a significant role in Fascist governments.
Full-fledged fascist governments come into power by arresting masses of real or imagined enemies. The first act of the Hitler regime in Germany was to arrest large numbers of political opponents, union leaders, religious leaders who seemed to be hostile to the new government. The Nazis made it very clear that opponents would end up in concentration camps indefinitely.
That is not yet happening in the United States. But the NDAA and the Stellar Wind Program of the NSA may be interpreted as preparations for just such mass arrests.
It certainly appears that there are groups in the US – some of them powerful, some of them influential in the intelligence services, some of them influential in Congress, who would not hesitate to introduce a fascist authoritarian regimes in our country. The passage in Congress of the National Defense Authorization Act indicates the willingness in the highest places – even in Obama's White House – to ignore the Bill of Rights. The program to spy on citizens similarly ignores constitutional guarantees and threatens civil liberties.
America is not yet fascist but a lot of Americans are flirting with fascism.
Before you go to sleep tonight, look under your bed for a fascist or for one of their microphones. They may be recording your snores. Be sure your snores are loyal and patriotic.