Saturday, April 30, 2011

Plastics, an enemy of life

2011-04-30 "'Plastic: A Toxic Love Story,' by Susan Freinkel" book review by David Zax from "San Francisco Chronicle" newspaper
Before the Second World War, worldwide consumption of plastic was practically negligible. Today, we consume 600 billion pounds of it each year. We've made more of it in the past decade than in all the years that preceded it. There is plastic in your car, in your clothes, in your children's toys; odds are there are traces of it in your body. The story of how this material of our own invention has come to invade every aspect of our lives - sometimes for better, often for worse - is the subject of San Francisco writer Susan Freinkel's new book, "Plastic: A Toxic Love Story."
The challenges of writing a book such as this one are made clear in its appendix. Titled "Cast of Characters," it tabulates the book's dramatis personae - a handy cheat sheet for any reader of a saga spanning multiple decades and continents. But in "Plastic," the characters have an array of names to rival those in the most confounding Russian novel: polyethylene, polystyrene, polyurethane, polycarbonate, polypropylene and so on.
Freinkel's central challenge is to make this cast of polys vivid. Fortunately, she has struck upon an ingenious organizational scheme: Each chapter tells the story of a particular object, its history and its significance. An exploration of the plastic comb, one of the oldest incarnations of the material, serves to introduce us to the aura of pure promise that surrounded plastic like a halo in its early years.
Plastic was the material to liberate us, in more ways than one. To the conservationist, it spared us the need to hunt more ivory or tortoiseshell; to the democrat, it brought abundance and even a kind of opulence to the lower classes; to the feminist - or, at least, postwar readers of women's magazine's like House Beautiful - it meant an end to entire subsets of household chores. "Plastics are here to free you from drudgery," chirped that magazine in 1947, a sanguinity it maintained in 1953, when it promised: "You will have a greater chance to be yourself than any people in the history of civilization."
A meditation on the Frisbee serves to explore how plastic became "the medium of play." Another chapter examines how the same material can at once be saving our lives and potentially doing our endocrine systems harm. An investigation of the disposable lighter is an occasion to criticize the idea of single-use products and to vividly render the severe problem of ocean-borne debris. The plastic bag offers a window into recent political battles over plastic, while the plastic bottle prompts a romp through the convoluted world of recycling (most plastics recycled in San Francisco, we learn, end up being processed in China).
When you write about something so ubiquitous as plastic, you must be prepared to write in several modes, and Freinkel rises to this task: Sometimes "Plastic" is a work of cultural history; sometimes, a work of business reporting; sometimes, an environmentalist screed. Where Freinkel is perhaps most at home is as a science writer. She manages to render the most dull chemical reaction into vigorous, breathless sentences like this one: "I tried to imagine the molecules roller-coastering through the three-quarter-mile-long circuit of pipe, pulling closer and closer together, lining up, forming new bonds, gaining weight and mass until they dropped out of their airy gaseous state and pooled into a liquid resin."
Freinkel's cheeky "Cast of Characters" notwithstanding, molecules, of course, aren't the only figures in her book. As her subtitle, "A Toxic Love Story," suggests, there are people, too: the other end of this troubled tale of love. Freinkel manages to ferret out some of the odder plastic enthusiasts, living and dead: the factory worker who feels a surge of pride each time he encounters a Ziploc bag, the homeless scavenger whose philosophical system combines Buddhism and paranoia, the married couple who fell in love over a shared passion for making art from plastic litter, and the Frisbee mogul who had his ashes molded into the toys his company made ("He wanted to come and rest on a roof somewhere, just out of reach, so he could bathe in the sun," says an admirer in remembrance).
Yet if there is something pathological in the way these people relate to plastic, it is only emblematic of a species-wide pathology. The central thesis of Freinkel's book is that while our relationship with plastic is a deeply flawed one (a toxic one, even), it's also one from which we have benefited greatly, and one we might yet manage to fix. Closing with the image of a New Jersey bridge - an actual, enduring, functional unit of infrastructure - constructed of recycled plastic, Freinkel entreats us to show the archaeologists who will judge us years hence "that we were a people with the ingenuity to make wondrous materials and the wisdom to use them well."

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

2011-04-27 "Air quality: Several Bay Area counties fail survey"

by Kelly Zito from "San Francisco Chronicle" []:
Periodic spikes in ozone levels and the choke-inducing fine particle pollution from diesel engines and smokestacks earned several Bay Area jurisdictions poor marks in air quality, according to a nationwide report card released today.
A county-by-county analysis by the American Lung Association in California gave failing marks to Santa Clara, Solano and Contra Costa counties.
But the Bay Area lapses pale in comparison with the persistent, noxious air in places like Los Angeles, Visalia and Bakersfield, which earned the association's title for worst air in the nation.
The 12th annual "State of the Air" report found that despite a drop in the total number of days that Californians breathe smog and diesel fumes, the state remains awash in some of the dirtiest air in the nation.
"Even though we're seeing tremendous improvement in California, the fact is, we still have a significant number of unhealthy air days," said Bonnie Holmes-Gen, senior policy director for the California lung association.
The association analyzed federal data collected between 2007 and 2009 on short-term and annual average concentrations of ozone, or smog - usually generated by car exhaust mixed with heat - and fine particle emissions from diesel trucks, coal-fired power plants and wood-burning fireplaces.
 The 177-page report concluded that most of the country - including California - had fewer total days when pollution levels exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency thresholds for unhealthful air compared with a decade ago. The Golden State nevertheless had 11 of the top 15 most smog-filled metropolitan areas. The Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside corridor topped the list of ozone offenders, followed by Bakersfield, Visalia (Tulare County), Fresno and Sacramento.
The Bakersfield area ranked worst for fine particle pollution, followed by Los Angeles, Phoenix, Visalia and Hanford (Kings County).
Taking both types of pollution into account for short and long periods, Bakersfield's air ranked worst in the nation, while Honolulu and Sante Fe, N.M., had the best air quality.
Kern County, where Bakersfield is, had about 102 days - more than three months - in which smog contamination reached levels considered particularly harmful to young children, the elderly and those with chronic heart and lung ailments during each year of the study.
Fully 154 million Americans are exposed to unhealthful air each year, the lung association said. Over the longterm, high levels of smog and particulate pollution are associated with asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, lung cancer and other disorders.
In the nationwide "worst of" lists, the San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland metropolitan area showed up only once, tying for 24th with Portland, Ore., and Wheeling, W.Va., for highest levels of particle pollution over a 24-hour period.
The Bay Area counties that received F's each had a number of high ozone or high particle pollution days. Santa Clara, Solano and Contra Costa had more than 10 high ozone days and more than 12 high particle pollution days.
San Francisco County got an A for low ozone days, but a C for five days of particle pollution spikes. Sonoma County, with no high ozone or particulate days, earned all A's.
In contrast, San Bernardino County had a whopping 136 days each year in which ozone topped federal health standards, the worst in the nation in that category.
During a conference call with reporters, representatives of the American Lung Association and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District acknowledged that pollution often accumulates in some regions of the state and not in others because of geography and weather patterns. The Bay Area's cool, coastal climate safeguards the region against some factors that exacerbate pollution, such as high temperatures and stagnant air flow.
 What's more, a small portion of Bay Area smog and particulates wafts into the northern Central Valley during summer months - though the reverse is true during winter months, air district officials said.
Wind and topography aside, the report's authors noted that the Bay Area has taken significant steps to cut particle contaminants, especially from wood burning. In 2008, the regional air district passed a sweeping ordinance that bans burning of garbage, requires federally certified stoves or fireplace inserts in new homes and remodels, and prohibits wood burning in fireplaces and stoves when air quality hits harmful levels.
Officials estimate wood smoke accounted for about 30 percent of wintertime particle pollution in the nine-county region.
"The wood smoke rule is really important here. People are heeding the call and burning less," said Lisa Fasano, spokeswoman for the air district.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

2011-04-26 "Pediatricians Warn EPA is Not Protecting U.S. Kids from Thousands of Toxins" by Angela Braun
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a statement [] yesterday, warning that children and pregnant mothers are being exposed to tens of thousands of potentially hazardous chemicals and that the Environmental Protection Agency needs to take immediate action for their regulation:
"The American Academy of Pediatrics is calling for an overhaul of the nation's chemical management policy because the current system fails to protect children and pregnant women, who are most vulnerable to hazardous chemical exposures. Over the past few decades, tens of thousands of new chemicals have been introduced into the environment, often in extremely large quantities. But the primary federal law that governs chemical management in the U.S. – the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) – has not undergone any meaningful revision since it was first passed in 1976, and since then, the TSCA has been used to regulate only five chemicals or chemical classes."
Other medical organizations, including the AMA, the Children's Health Advocacy Institute, the American Nurses' Association and the American Public Health Association, have all issued similar statements criticizing the gravely flawed TSCA and calling for its overhaul.
Under current TSCA law, countless potential toxins are un- or under-regulated, including common items that have become part of most children and adults' everyday lives: food additives, pesticides, dental resins, BPA-free alternative plastics, dyes and common construction materials. 

2011-04-21 "Pesticide Exposure Before Birth Linked to Lower IQ in Kids" by Rachael Rettner
Exposure to pesticides in the womb may harm a baby's brain and hinder the child's intelligence, according to three new studies published today (April 21).
All the studies found a link between prenatal pesticide exposure and lower IQ scores at age 7. One study found children with the highest levels of exposure in the womb scored 7 points lower on an IQ test than those who had the lowest levels of exposure.
That IQ drop is equivalent to a 7-year-old performing as if they were 6 1/2 years old, said Brenda Eskenazi, a professor of epidemiology and maternal and child health at the University of California, Berkeley, who led one of the studies.
Eating foods that have been treated with pesticides is one way a fetus can be exposed to these chemicals.
The findings do not appear to be limited to one region of the country or to rural environments -- two studies were conducted in urban areas of New York and one in an agricultural town in Northern California.
It's important to note the studies only show an association, and not a direct cause-effect link, between pesticide exposure and intelligence. But if these chemicals really do have an effect on IQ, they could impact a child's ability to learn and could result in more children requiring special services in school, the researchers say.
Pesticide use in the United States has gone down since the women in the study were pregnant more than 10 years ago. This means the children of pregnant women today might be at lower risk for pesticide exposure than those in the study.
Pregnant women can reduce their unborn child's pesticide exposure by thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables, using a soft brush, if practical. Eating organic foods, which are grown without synthetic pesticides, can also limit exposure.
The studies were published in the April 21 issue of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
Pesticides and pregnancy -
Pesticides known as organophosphates are widely used on food crops and some are approved for use in home gardens. These chemicals are known to be toxic to nerve cells -- they may affect the way brain cells communicate -- and indoor use of some organophosphates has been phased out due to the health risks they pose to children. The developing brains of children are more susceptible to pesticides' toxic effects, the researchers say.
Eskenazi and her colleagues collected urine samples from women who were pregnant in 1999 and 2000. The samples were tested for a breakdown product of organophosphates. Samples were also collected and tested from the children when they were 6 months old until age 5.
At age 7,329 children took an IQ test designed to assess verbal comprehension, reasoning skills, working memory and the speed at which they processed information.
Every tenfold increase in the concentration of organophosphates detected during a mother's pregnancy corresponded to a 5.5 point drop in overall IQ scores, the researchers found.
The results held even after the researchers took into account other factors that could influence the child's IQ score, including the mother's education, family income and exposure to other environmental contaminants, including DDT, lead and flame retardants.
There was no link between exposure to pesticides after birth and the child's IQ score. This may mean a baby's exposure to chemicals while in the womb has a greater impact on brain development than exposure during childhood.
One of the New York studies, conducted by researchers at Mount Sinai Medical Center, found that organophosphates had a particularly strong effect on children's reasoning skills. The other New York study, by researchers at Columbia University, found a link between pesticide levels in umbilical blood and a decrease in the child's IQ and memory scores.
Other pesticide sources -
The levels of pesticides in the urine of the pregnant mothers in Eskenazi's study were somewhat higher than those seen in the average U.S. population, but they are realistic levels, she said. About 25 percent of pregnant women in a national study had pesticide levels higher than those seen in the study.
In addition to exposure from foods, people can be exposed to pesticides around their homes, schools and other buildings. Farm workers, gardeners and florists are among those who might have a greater exposure to pesticides than the general population.
The researchers recommend consumers lower their use of pesticides at home, noting that most home and garden pests can be controlled without using those chemicals.

2011-04-26 "Santa Rosa: 2 hurt in chemical blast at Agilent"

by Henry K. Lee from "San Francisco Chronicle" []:
(04-26) 13:24 PDT SANTA ROSA --
 Two people were injured, one critically, in a chemical explosion Tuesday at a Santa Rosa company, authorities said.
 The blast happened at Agilent Technologies on Fountaingrove Parkway at about 10:30 a.m. and forced the evacuation of more than 100 employees. A determination is expected to be made today on whether the building is deemed safe so employees can return, said company spokesman Jeff Weber.
A male Agilent engineering employee who was working on a machine suffered critical injuries in the blast and was transported to UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, where he was being treated for burns on his face Tuesday night, Weber said.
A woman who is employed by another company and works at the Agilent campus suffered a minor head injury from falling objects, Weber said. A chemical buildup on the bottom floor of one of the company's four buildings caused the explosion, Weber said.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

2011-04-20 "Bottom feeders: A novel way of dealing with an unpleasant problem" 
DESPITE their name, disposable nappies are notoriously difficult to dispose of. Studies of landfills suggest they may take centuries to rot away. But Alethia Vázquez-Morillas of the Autonomous Metropolitan University in Mexico City thinks she has found a method of speeding the process up.
As she and her colleagues describe in Waste Management, cultivating the right type of mushroom on soiled nappies can break down 90% of the material they are made of within two months. Within four, they are degraded completely. What is more, she says, despite their unsavoury diet the fungi in question, Pleurotus ostreatus (better known as oyster mushrooms), are safe to eat. To prove the point she has, indeed, eaten them.
The culinary use of oyster mushrooms was one reason why she picked them for the experiment. The species is frequently used in stir-fries and is often added to soups. The other reason was that Pleurotus ostreatus is widely used in what is known as mycoremediation—the deployment of fungi to clean up waste. It is, for example, already grown on agricultural materials such as wheat and barley straw, and industrial waste like coffee grounds and the leftovers from making tequila. Dr Vázquez-Morillas and her colleagues were trying to extend the oyster mushroom’s own culinary range.
The reason nappies are difficult to break down has nothing to do with their use. Even a clean nappy would hang around for a long time in a dump. The main ingredient of a nappy is cellulose, an annoyingly persistent material. Pleurotus, however, grows on dead or dying trees in the wild and is thus well provided with enzymes that break cellulose down. And, since Mexicans alone throw away 5 billion nappies every year, there is plenty of material from this source for them to get their mycelia into.
The idea that the result might be sold and eaten may be controversial but it is not absurd. The nappies the researchers used were contaminated only with urine, not faeces. A healthy person’s urine is sterile and Dr Vázquez-Morillas also treated the nappies with steam, to make sure. Such treatment would kill the nasty bugs in faeces, too, though, so mushrooms grown on treated nappies should, in theory, be safe to eat.
In practice, overcoming the yuck factor might be an insuperable barrier to marketing nappy-grown fungi, and the cost of the steam treatment could make the exercise futile. Mycoremediation of this sort does not, however, depend for its success on selling the results. Merely getting rid of what would otherwise hang around indefinitely is worthwhile. And of the fungi themselves, Dr Vázquez-Morillas observes, “they are cleaner than most of the vegetables you can find in the market, at least in Mexico.”

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

"Working to Keep Sewage Out of the Bay" by Deb Self, Executive Director of SAN FRANCISCO BAYKEEPER
From the April 2011 edition of Bay Crossings
At the time of this writing, this year’s rainy season had already brought nine million gallons of raw sewage to Bay Area waterways, and a stunning 125 million gallons of undertreated sewage from the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) plants at Point Isabel and in Oakland.
Many people don’t realize that the Bay Area has such an old-fashioned public health threat. Sewage overflows can contain harmful bacteria, disease-causing pathogens, and toxic chemicals that hurt fish, sea lions, birds, and even swimmers in the Bay.
The spills and overflows are a direct result of long-deferred maintenance by cities throughout the Bay Area. Most of the cities surrounding San Francisco Bay have aging sewer infrastructure with cracked and leaking pipes that let in rain water, which leads to overflows at treatment plants. This situation also leads to sewage spills in neighborhoods, where backed up sewage erupts from manhole covers and then runs into storm drains that transport the raw sewage directly to the Bay. For the most part, Bay Area cities have delayed their capital improvement projects for years and abandoned routine maintenance work, making the problem even worse—and ultimately adding unnecessary costs.
To compel cities to engage with these essential public services, Baykeeper has brought a series of legal actions over the past decade to turn some of the worst performing sewage agencies in the Bay Area into some of the best. Recently, we reached a major milestone in United States v. City of Alameda, et. al—a lawsuit with EPA against the cities of Alameda, Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland, Piedmont, and the Stege Sanitary District, which serves El Cerrito, Kensington and the Richmond Annex.
Under an agreement lodged with the Federal Court last month, all of the cities have committed to drastically reducing their frequent sewer overflows by establishing aggressive inspection and maintenance programs and fixing broken pipes to stop infiltrated rain water from overwhelming EBMUD’s treatment plant. Ultimately, the agreement should stop the routine wet-weather overflows of hundreds of millions of gallons of undertreated wastewater into San Francisco Bay.
On the Peninsula, Baykeeper also settled lawsuits against the cities of San Carlos, Millbrae and South San Francisco in the past year. These three cities are now on a tight timeframe to invest tens of millions of dollars on system-wide improvements that will reduce the number of sewage spills and overflows to popular recreation areas in the South Bay, and create green jobs in the process. The cases also resulted in the cities providing a combined $975,000 in lieu of penalties to other local community groups for projects to improve water quality in the Bay Area.
Major sewage system upgrades are also underway in Richmond, Burlingame, and Hillsborough, Burlingame Hills and East Bay Municipal Utility District as a result of previous settlements with Baykeeper. Legal action is ongoing against the West Bay Sanitary District, which serves the cities of Menlo Park, Atherton, and Portola Valley, and areas of East Palo Alto, Woodside and unincorporated San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Nuclear Power is Anti-Life

2011-04-08 "Strawberries, mushrooms with Cesium-137 found in Northern California; 5 of 6 items in food chain sampling test have radioactive particles"
UCB Food Chain Sampling Results, University of California, Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering []:
Six items were tested: spinach, strawberries, cilantro, topsoil, grass, and mushrooms. Measured in Becquerel per kilogram.

* Wild Mushrooms, Collected April 2 in Alameda, CA:
I131 @ 8.4 Bq/kg
Cs134 @ .63 Bq/kg
Cs137 @ .47 Bq/kg

* Strawberries, “Best By” Date of April 1, Location Unknown :
I131@ 2.5 Bq/kg
Cs134 @ .69 Bq/kg
Cs137 @ .67 Bq/kg

* Grass, Collected April 3 in Alameda, CA:
I131 @ 9.8 Bq/kg
Cs134 @ 6.9 Bq/kg
Cs137 @ 6.9 Bq/kg

*Spinach, “Best By” Date of April 8, Location Unknown:
I131 @ 2.8 Bq/kg

* Topsoil, Collected April 6 in Alameda, CA:
I131 @ 12.5 Bq/kg
Cs134 @ .99 Bq/kg
Cs137 @ 1.5 Bq/kg

* No radionuclides were found in Cilantro from an unknown location
Read the report here [].

Guidance Levels for Radionuclides in Domestic and Imported Foods, Food and Drug Administration, July 2004 []:
For infants the FDA set the level of concern at 55 Bq/kg of Iodine-131.

Table 8 - Derived Intervention Levels (Bq/kg)
(radionuclide groups, most limiting of all diets)
Radionuclide Group    Derived Intervention Levels
Sr-90    160 (15 years)
I-131    170 (1 year)
Cs group    1200 (adult)
Ru-103(a)    6800 (3 months)
Ru-106(a)    450 (3 months)
Pu + Am group    2 (3 months)
(a)Due to large differences in DILs for Ru-103 and Ru-106, the individual concentrations of Ru-103 and Ru-106, the individual concentrations of Ru-103 and Ru-106 are divided by their respective DILs and summed. The DIL for the Ruthenium group is set at less than one.

* Latest UCB test results: First time radioactive cesium found in spinach, arugala, and kale around San Francisco Bay area []
* Human embryos in US likely bioaccumulating radioactive iodine, cesium, and strontium says physician who taught at Harvard Med School []
* Cesium-137 levels in Vermont milk at 66% of maximum contaminant level allowed by EPA []
* IAEA: “Uncontrolled nuclear chain reactions” may be coming from melted fuel in No. 1 reactor []
* Cesium-134 and 137 found in US food supply; Organic milk bought in San Francisco Bay Area []

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

2011-04-06 "Roseland getting unique ‘urban farm’ park" By KEVIN McCALLUM from "THE PRESS DEMOCRAT" newspaper
 They could have had a swimming pool. They could have received swing sets and soccer fields.
But when the city took the time to ask residents of Roseland what kind of park they really wanted, they got a surprising answer – vegetable gardens.
 The folks in this underserved section of the city, many of whom live in apartments or homes with small yards, wanted more than anything else space to tend their own gardens.
 “We’re in a recession and people want to grow their own food,” said Magdalena Ridley, outreach coordinator for LandPaths, non-profit agency she said aims to “foster a love of the land.”
 That’s the vision behind the master plan for the six-acre Bayer Neighborhood Park & Gardens project on West Avenue, which won high praise from the Santa Rosa City Council Tuesday.
 “It’s a very good example of community involvement and doing something good for a neighborhood,” Mayor Ernesto Olivares said.
 The need for more parks in the city’s southwest has been painfully evident for years. The area has just 2.15 acres of parks per thousand residents, less than half the city average of 4.4 acres per thousand residents.
 “The southwest area is basically under-parked in relation to the rest of the city,” Marc Richardson, director of Recreation, Parks & Community Services told the council.
 There are several park projects planned to remedy that imbalance. But Bayer is unique for the degree of public input that went into the plan.
 Area residents got involved with the property almost immediately after the city acquired it in 2007. The city joined with LandPaths, which organized programs to teach people about gardening and now runs the community gardens.
 This early involvement of residents — who earn family plots by volunteering — built strong ties with the neighborhood and got them engaged in the planning proc
ess. That, in turn, helped the city win significant grant money for the project, Richardson said.
 The project has received $11.5 million in grants and other funding for acquisition and construction, which is expected to begin in 2012. An additional $2 million nature education grant is pending.
 The master plan includes a long list of amenities, including a greenhouse, farm stand, livestock barn, amphitheater, picnic area, multi-use turf area and a community center. The farmhouse on the property will be demolished.
 The goal of this “urban farm” and neighborhood park is not just to help people eat healthier food. It’s to nurture a sense of community, Ridley said.
 “It’s beyond just gardening,” Ridley said. “It’s creating a real positive context to interact with other community members.”
2011-04-06 "Napa reduces solar panel fees" by ALISHA WYMAN from "Napa Register" newspaper
In an effort to encourage green energy, the Napa City Council agreed Tuesday to dramatically decrease its permit fees for businesses and residents seeking to install solar panels.
 A 2010 report by the Sierra Club revealed Napa’s fees were much higher than some nearby towns such as Yountville and American Canyon, and well over the amount that Napa needed to charge to cover its costs for commercial permits.
 The city will now charge a flat fee of $299.55 for residential permits, down from the previous $391 fee.
 Commercial permits will now be based on staff’s time needed for plan review and approval, instead of the project’s value.
 For example, a permit for a 131-kilowatt project valued at $792,000 will now cost $1,219, instead of the more than $10,000 estimated by the Sierra Club. A 131 kW-sized project would power a typical grocery store.
 Councilman Mark van Gorder said he was grateful for the grassroots effort that prompted the city to reduce the fees.
 “I think this is going to hopefully encourage more people to ... install photo voltaics,” he said.
 The permit fees came to the city’s attention after officials began looking at ways to encourage solar panel installation, said Cassandra Walker, the city’s Community Development director.
 A Sierra Club report pointed out that Napa’s fees were out of line with surrounding cities.
 A committee of the Loma Prieta chapter of the Sierra Club has been evaluating permit fees in the Bay Area and Southern California for the past seven years, said Kurt Newick, committee chairman and author of the report.
He has found that cities are arbitrary in how they determine fees for commercial permits and usually base it on the value of the panels.
 “They are very expensive relative to the time and effort it takes for the city to approve a permit,” he said.
 The time needed to review an application isn’t tied linearly to the system’s size, the report says. Contrary to what the city’s fees would imply, a 100 kW system doesn’t take 10 times more time to review than a 10 kW system does, the Sierra Club said.
 In the reports, Newick uses an Excel fee calculator for commercial projects that a retired deputy building official for San Jose constructed. It is based on the time it takes to review the permit process.
 Newick was thrilled that the city council approved changes in the fees and is adopting use of the calculator.
 “I’m very impressed with the leadership in the city of Napa for so whole-heartedly embracing our Sierra Club solar panel fee recommendations,” he said.
 The permit fee change might not have instant results, but studies show that government policies can steer society to certain technology or solutions, he said.
 “It’s not going to be that the next week everyone floods the office to get a permit, but over time you will see a difference,” he said.
 Solar panels offer a way for towns to become more independent in energy production, as well helping society steer away from non-renewable energy sources, he said.
 “We need to convert over our society to clean energy sources so we can thrive as a civilization,” Newick said. “Otherwise, we might be come extinct.”
 Despite the high fees, Napa and the surrounding county have distinguished themselves as being a high producer of solar energy.
 In 2007, Napa won an award from the NorCal Solar Energy Association for generating more energy per capita from photo-voltaic sources than other comparable cities in Northern California. Napa County and St. Helena also won the award.
  Napa is trying to become a green city and is happy to take one more barrier out of the way for businesses helping to achieve that goal, Councilman Peter Mott said.
 It shows that government can be reactive to inequities, he said.
 Councilwoman Juliana Inman agreed, adding that the city has reduced fees in other areas as well.
 “It’s a good demonstration of the fact that the city is reasonable about these things,” she said.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

2011-04-07 "Solar panel installers get on-the-job training, help low-income Vallejo homeowners" by Jessica A. York from "Vallejo Times Herald" newspaper
With the sun glinting off newly installed solar panels Wednesday afternoon, Mark Todd and his family feel like they are living the "American Dream."
The family of four moved into the Phoenix Circle house in November after Solano-Napa Habitat for Humanity bought the foreclosed property and worked its volunteer-powered restoration magic.
Shortly after, a GRID Alternatives flyer arrived in the mail, offering to help the low-income family offset their energy costs through free solar energy panel installation.
"I'm lucky enough to be a homeowner right now," Todd said, watching as the nonprofit Oakland-based GRID Alternatives volunteers aligned the rooftop solar panels. "To have this (solar) come in, I'm double blessed."
On Tuesday and Wednesday, Vallejo was the convergence point for three such solar installations -- the first in Vallejo by this company, said GRID spokeswoman Stacy Sauce. The Phoenix Circle home, plus ones on McGrue Circle and Rhododendron Court, are to save a combined $120,000 in 30 years, the equivalent of planting about 377 trees, company officials said.
While helping to improve the environment by reducing fossil fuel usage and energy bills for low-income homeowners, GRID earns a third benefit:-- on-the-job training for volunteers exploring a career in the solar field, said GRID Bay Area Regional Director Mary Biasotti.
Vallejo Mayor Osby Davis was invited to the Todds' home for the installation, by way of introduction to the project. Biasotti added that she shared her concerns with the mayor about the comparatively high cost of the city's solar permitting fees of $1,500.
Biasotti and Sauce said that potential solar panel recipients are worried that the free offer is "too good to be true," which is why they try to partner with city officials, like Davis, and local organizations -- to lend credence to the program.
The work being done on her new home was pretty clear for 4-year-old Olivia Todd. She told a reporter that it involved "sun," "good" and "lights."
Her dad said he had previously rented a house, and spent a year hunting for a home to call his own -- out from under a landlord's watch. During Todd's search, he saw the property that was eventually to become his, and immediately dismissed it.
In an otherwise quiet hilltop neighborhood, the house had bar-covered windows and a security door, Todd said. He was quick to pass over the foreclosed location, he said, because he assumed the whole neighborhood was unsafe.
After Habitat for Humanity had taken over the home over the summer, Todd took a second look.
"I saw this house a year ago and wouldn't have considered it at all," Todd said. "(Later), I said, 'Wow, what a difference.' I can't believe the work they've done."
The Todds' home was the first of several foreclosure rehabilitation projects in Vallejo by Habitat for Humanity, with the help of a Neighborhood Stabilization Program loan through the city of Vallejo.
For more information on GRID Alternatives, visit them online at or call (866) 921-4696. Solar installations are reserved for low-income homeowners. For more information on Solano-Napa Habitat for Humanity, visit or call (707) 422-1948.

Friday, April 1, 2011

2011-04-01 "Greener Ferries Are Blowin’ in the Wind; Like car owners, ferry riders determined to green their commute have thus far had to settle for hybrid power" by Bill Picture from "Bay Crossings" newspaper
Like car owners, ferry riders determined to green their commute have thus far had to settle for hybrid power. While considerably better for the environment than their diesel-guzzling predecessors, hybrid ferries, like hybrid cars, have left some commuters wondering, “Is that really the best we can do?” 
One person who isn’t satisfied is Jay Gardner, co-founder of Napa-based Adventure Cat, which has offered sailing adventures on the San Francisco Bay since 1991. For the last three years, Gardner and his Adventure Cat partner, Hans Korfin, working under their newly formed company, Wind+Wing Technologies, have been using their knowledge of sailing and the wind to develop a wind-powered ferry vessel that could put its hybrid-powered peers on the Bay to shame.
“Wind is a resource that we’re never short of out on the San Francisco Bay,” Gardner said. “We’re blessed with consistent, powerful winds.” In fact, the winds blowing through the Golden Gate are so reliable that 95 percent of the trips made by Adventure Cat’s catamarans are done under sail—that is, without the assistance of diesel motors.
“And reliability is very important, for both the ferry operators and the people who rely on those ferries to get where they need to go,” he said.
Wind vs. solar -
Ferry vessels running almost entirely on solar-and-wind-generated power produced by Australian company, Solar Sailor, are already being used to scoot passengers around Sydney Harbor and Shanghai. In March, sea trials also began in Hong Kong with a true commercial hybrid vessel propelled by wind power, solar power, stored electricity and fossil fuel. But there’s a major difference between Sydney, Hong Kong or Shanghai and San Francisco.
“The difference is that famous San Francisco fog,” Gardner said. Even on the foggiest day, enough sun manages to filter through the fast-moving blanket above our heads to power lights, televisions and laptops, and to charge our precious smart phones. It’s not enough, however, to produce the thrust required to move a several-hundred-ton vessel across the choppy waters of the San Francisco Bay, given existing solar technology limitations.
“Wind is a much better resource because its power is exponential,” Gardner explains. “When you double the speed of the wind, you quadruple its force. A 15-to-20 mile-per-hour wind is enough to fully power a ferry. That’s actually a light day on the Bay.”
Wind+Wing’s design replaces a traditional sail with a carbon-fiber wing similar in structure to an airplane’s. Two articulating pieces work in tandem to harness the wind’s power by creating either a flat surface to increase speed or a curved surface to generate power.
Rallying support -
Gardner and Korfin presented their design to the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District last month, and proposed outfitting an existing vessel with one of their wings to test it out on the Bay. The winged vessel would shadow existing ferry routes to test maneuverability both on the water and at the docks, mechanical reliability and handling in heavy or unpredictable weather.
“The boat will also be outfitted with GPS, wind sensors and wind-angle indicators,” says Gardner. “We need to collect data on every route to find out how the wind behaves and how the boat behaves under a variety of conditions.”
Golden Gate’s board got behind the project, with one member calling the idea “fascinating.” Another board member, San Rafael Mayor Al Boro, told the Marin Independent Journal, “With lower fuel costs, you could drop the price of the ferry and get more people to ride the boat.” The prospect of significant savings has also helped Gardner and Korfin enlist the support of some of the region’s ferry operators, who are currently struggling with extreme fuel prices.
The U.S. Navy is also interested. As the single largest consumer of fossil fuels in the world, the Navy has a serious stake in finding an alternative. To that end, they’ve offered to loan one of their vessels to Wind+Wing. Now, Gardner and Korfin must come up with the $1 million they need to outfit the Navy’s vessel with a wing. To date, they’ve spent about $100,000 of their own money.
“State funding is disappearing, and federal money is disappearing,” said Gardner. “Now’s not the best time to have your hand out. What little money there is left out there has already been committed to other projects, for the most part. But things are happening, and we’re very encouraged.”
When asked what the chances are of coming up with the money by March 12, 2012, when the Navy proposes handing over its vessel to Wind+Wing, Gardner responds, “I’m 75 percent positive it’s going to happen. There’s a lot of good will behind this project, and desire to see it happen.”
For more information, visit

Solar ferries produced by Solar Sailor have been used for years commercially in Australia’s Sydney Harbor. Photo courtesy of Solar Sailor

The first sea-trials of “Solar Albatross” took place last month in Hong Kong of Solar Sailor’s 24 meter 100 passenger carrying catamaran ferry with its stow-able SolarSails. Photo courtesy of Solar Sailor
Wind+Wing plans on fitting a vessel on loan from the Navy with a carbon-fiber wing and running tests following existing ferry routes used in the Bay Area. Artist rendering courtesy of Wind+Wing
2011-04-01 "Organic Farmers Sue Monsanto over GM Seed" by Nancy Roberts
A group of organic farmers and seed dealers is preemptively suing agribusiness/biotech giant Monsanto to protect themselves from legal action by the corporation in cases when Monsanto seeds contaminate their organic crops. The suit is intended to protect farmers from charges of patent infringement by Monsanto when the farmers' crops are contaminated by Monsanto's patented, genetically modified seed. Under current law, if Monsanto seeds are found in a farm for which they were not purchased, Monsanto is legally entitled to sue, even if the seeds drifted over accidentally or by natural cross-pollination. The suit was filed by the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT) on behalf of 60 farmers, seed businesses and organic agriculture organizations, representing some 270,000 members.
Monsanto's blog [] called the lawsuit a publicity stunt, and the allegations "false, misleading and deceptive." The blog states that "It has never been, nor will it be Monsanto policy to exercise its patent rights where trace amounts of our patented seed or traits are present in farmer’s fields as a result of inadvertent means."
Yet there are multiple cases [] of harassment [] and legal action by Monsanto against farmers over alleged unauthorized use of its seed products.
Sourcewatch claims ['s_Legal_Battles_against_Farmers]: "Monsanto has an annual budget of $10 million and a staff of 75 devoted solely to investigating and prosecuting farmers."
PUBPAT's [] Executive Director Dan Ravicher, noted, "It seems quite perverse that an organic farmer contaminated by transgenic seed could be accused of patent infringement, but Monsanto has made such accusations before and is notorious for having sued hundreds of farmers for patent infringement, so we had to act to protect the interests of our clients." Transgenic (aka genetically engineered) seed contaminates and destroys organic strains of the same species. Ravicher noted, “Some say transgenic seed can coexist with organic seed, but history tells us that's not possible, and it's actually in Monsanto's financial interest to eliminate organic seed so that they can have a total monopoly over our food supply."
Plaintiff Rose Marie Burroughs of Cloverleaf Farms stated, "We must protect our world by protecting our most precious, sacred resource of seed sovereignty... We must protect the environment, farmers' livelihood, public health and people's right to non GMO food contamination."
2011-04-01 "Napa sheep slaughter solved: Culprits were cougars" by Peter Fimrite from "San Francisco Chronicle" newspaper
(04-01) 11:15 PDT NAPA --
Seven dead lambs were found scattered among leaves and brush in the woodlands of Napa County's Mount Veeder area, some half-buried and others just lying there after being dragged from the adjacent vineyard.
It was a massacre - in all, 10 specially bred sheep had been killed, and some of them had been eaten - but the carnage was not the work of bloodthirsty humans as sheriff's investigators and the sheepherder had believed.
It was marauding mountain lions that killed the sheep, officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Thursday.
"They found evidence of sheep and baby lambs that had been torn apart," said Tom Meadowcroft, the owner of Mount Veeder Vineyard, who was using the flock of sheep to control weeds on his property.
"Some were half-buried. Others had been left there on the hillside. It's all evidence of mountain lions."
Napa County sheriff's investigators and sheep-owner George Richmond had erroneously concluded that three sheep found dead in the vineyard March 25 had been shot and that six others had been stolen, possibly for someone's Easter roast. They were all Babydoll Southdowns, a gentle breed with short legs that make it difficult for them to reach grapes on the vines.
Richmond noticed that the gate, which has a pass code, was wide open. A sheriff's deputy spotted wounds in the back of the head of the dead ram, ewe and lamb and concluded that they were gunshot holes.
The news created an uproar in this normally peaceful wine-growing region northwest of Napa, where there have been several recent burglaries. The missing sheep, all but one of them young lambs, added an element of mystery to what looked to everyone like a diabolical crime.
That all changed when a federal trapper found the missing lambs' carcasses in nearby woods, Meadowcroft said. The trapper told Meadowcroft that more than one mountain lion, probably a male and female, had killed the sheep in the vineyard, dragged them down a hill, ate some of them and buried the others for later.
"I imagine their appetite was satiated," said Meadowcroft, 50, of Kentfield, who was grazing sheep on his 2 1/2-acre property for the first time. "What a feast."
Meadowcroft suspects the vineyard gates either blew open during heavy winds or were left open, but experts say it wouldn't have made any difference for the sheep because cougars can climb fences.
Mountain lions are found in most wildland areas around the Bay Area, but attacks on livestock are rare, said Zara McDonald, executive director of the Felidae Conservation Fund, a Marin County nonprofit dedicated to the protection of wild cats.
McDonald said deer make up 80 percent of their diet, but mountain lions are opportunists and will go after easy prey when they see it. They typically kill with a bite to the back of the neck and head, which would explain why the punctures on the dead sheep looked like gunshot wounds.
Killing rampages like this one are unusual but not unheard of, she said.
"Sometimes if they kill one it sort of drives the predator instinct and that will trigger them to continue to kill," McDonald said, "kind of like a house cat playing with a toy."
McDonald said folks in the area need not panic. Cattle, horses and people are almost never on the mountain lion menu, she said.
The fact that pumas and not people were responsible actually makes things a little better, Meadowcroft said.
"I'm relieved to know that what caused this was part of the cycle of life," he said. "I hope it gives comfort for people to know that it wasn't some crazy sick person out there."

Tom Meadowcroft / Courtesy to The Chronicle
Sheep graze on Tom Meadowcroft's Mt. Veeder vineyard, Meadowcroft Wines, March 19, 2011. The sheep are specially bred to graze in the vineyards, clearing overgrown brush, but unable to reach the grapes on the vines. Authorities now say that several lambs were killed by mountain lions, not shot, as earlier reported.
2011-04-01 "California's recreational salmon season opens Saturday" from "Associated Press" newswire
SAN FRANCISCO — For the first time in four years California's recreational Chinook salmon fishermen are gearing up for what is expected to be a normal-length season.
California Department of Fish and Game officially opens the season on Saturday, after forecasts predicted triple the amount of salmon expected to return to the Sacramento River this fall.
It was also welcome news for the state's bait and tackle shops, boat mechanics and others who have been hard hit economically by the salmon declines.
Anglers can fish salmon legally from Cape Mendocino south to the U.S.-Mexico border. Waters north of Cape Mendocino to the Oregon border will be opened at a later, undetermined date.
The fall Sacramento River Chinook salmon run provides 80-to-90 percent of the fish caught off the California coast.

Nuclear Power is Anti-Life

2011-04-01 "The Nuclear Accident in Japan: Impacts on Food" by Rich Bindell from "Food & Water Watch"
Radioactive emissions from Japan have been detected throughout the United States, from California to Colorado and as far east as Massachusetts. Monitors in the Carolinas have detected the presence of radioactive iodine, the first time this material had been detected there since the Chernobyl accident 25 years ago.
A major avenue for exposure to radioactive contamination comes through food and water. Decades after the Chernobyl accident, the United Kingdom still maintains restrictions on large sectors of the country’s sheep production because radioactive cesium—dispersed through wind and rain—still contaminates grazing lands.
The U.S. imported around 150 million pounds of food from Japan in 2010, a small percentage of what Americans consumed, but not an insignificant amount. Imports from Japan included nearly 600,000 pounds of crab and anchovies and nearly 5 million gallons of bottled water, soft drinks and other non-alcoholic beverages containing water, products that may be potentially higher risk if contamination continues to spread to the ocean and fresh water sources.
American consumers could be at risk through consumption of food products from other countries that experience radioactive fallout from the nuclear accident in Japan as well.

2011-03-31 "Any Radiation Can Be Harmful" by Rich Bindell from "Food & Water Watch"
Let’s start with the bottom line: the National Academy of Sciences says that exposure to even low levels of radiation can be harmful. They originally shared this finding in a report published back in 2006. This is critical information to consider since we all have legitimate reasons to be concerned with the current situation regarding Japan’s nuclear reactors.
News has spread quickly that evidence of radiation is turning up in several states in the United States. But rather than explain how they will protect people from potential exposures, our government is simply telling us that the levels of radiation are minor and that we shouldn’t worry about it. Did they read the NAS report?
Reminder: There is no safe level of exposure to radiation in food or in water.
From the National Academy of Sciences Report []: “A preponderance of scientific evidence shows that even low doses of ionizing radiation, such as gamma rays and X-rays, are likely to pose some risk of adverse health effects.”
The big hook here should be the “preponderance of scientific evidence.”
The FDA has said that it will be blocking imports that come from the region where the nuclear plant sits, but that’s not really enough. Sadly, the FDA would need to block all imports from all of Japan to truly be effective.
It’s true that only four percent of our food imports come from Japan, most of which is fish and processed foods. Considering the fact that 80 percent of seafood in the United States is imported and only two percent is inspected, this becomes much more of a concern. Last year, we imported nearly 600,000 pounds of crab and anchovies and nearly 5 million gallons of bottled water, soft drinks and other non-alcoholic beverages containing water, from Japan. These products may be potentially higher risk if contamination continues to spread to the ocean and fresh water sources.
There is also the possibility of radiation exposure from the plumes that have drifted into North America. While it’s not clear how widespread or severe the contamination is so far, keep in mind that the damage is done over a longer period of time, and it can affect us through the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we use.
The real danger from radiation will be cumulative and will involve many factors. As humans, we are at the top of the food chain and therefore more susceptible to radiation exposure as it moves up the food chain.
Considering all of these factors, and knowing that we are extremely vulnerable to radiation exposure, we need our government to step up and take action.
Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter has sent a letter [] to President Obama, heads of federal agencies, and Congressional leaders noting that the agencies responsible for regulating our food— the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)—have done very little to detail specific ways in which they are responding to the threat of radiation in food.
Food & Water Watch is asking for a comprehensive and transparent plan to monitor and test for radiation, and expand the monitoring program into agricultural regions of the United States.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should increase its monitoring of air, water, and precipitation, as well as step up monitoring of radiation in milk.
If you’d like to learn more about the impact of Japan’s nuclear accident on our food, check out our fact sheet [].
Take action to make sure our food and water is being monitored for radioactive contamination []
2011-04-01 "California’s 'Dust Bowl Drought' that Really Never Happened - is Officially Over!" by Patrick Porgans
(916) 833-8734 [pp @]
No; it is not an April Fool’s Joke Governor Jerry Brown’s recent announcement that California’s “drought” is officially over, which critics claimed was grossly exaggerated; government records indicate it may not have happened.
Gov. Brown’s Proclamation officially rescinds former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Executive Order S-06-08, issued on June 4, 2008 and ends the States of Emergency called on June 12, 2008, and on February 27, 2009.
It took as much as 50 feet of snowpack, which blanketed the roughed Sierra Nevada Mountains, all of the state’s major reservoirs full or overflowing, many of which are making floodwater releases to provide room for spring runoff, and the Golden State at “ground saturation, before the Governor’s water advisors to confirm the “drought emergency” was over.
Ironically, doubts were raised at the time former Gov. Schwarzenegger issued the “drought proclamation”, which he issued at the very onset of a below-average water year; slightly less than the “average” amount of precipitation and water runoff received statewide.
Last, year, for example, California received more than 110 percent of “average” precipitation, and statewide reservoir capacity reach 95 percent. At the end of that year, the “fourth” year of the “drought” federal and state water “experts” were at odds as to whether the drought was over; state officials took the position it wasn’t.
A series of in-depth reports, based entirely on government documents, revealed that the so-called “drought” was not only significantly overstated but, revealed serious doubts as to whether it actually happened. For example, for the four year period (water-years 2007 through 2011), at which time the “drought proclamation” was in effect, California received 85 percent of “average” precipitation, and the “average” water storage, based on “averages”, in its major reservoirs, for that period was in the 90 percentile range.
Weather conditions in the Golden State vary from year to year, the “average” precipitation and water runoff varies; it is not unusual to experience wet and dry cycles. In fact, prior to 2007, the state had experienced a series of very wet water years.
When it rains it pours, and if it someone “claims” it doesn’t rain in Sunny California, it pours a torrent of free-flowing “drought-relief” grant funding. Funds that primarily go to benefit government water agencies, their customers, and wealthy landowners and water speculators. This funding mechanism is made possible by using the public’s credit to borrow vast sums of money, which is repaid back by the public-at-large, from the $26 billion deficit-ridden General Fund.
One of the how to get “drought” relief money give-away sessions was held at the Irvine Ranch Water District duck club, which was announced on California Department of Water Resources’ letterhead. The district is a well-healed and politically connected supporter of water development.
Critics contend that the motive behind the drought was essentially a major financial bailout for Gov. Schwarzenegger’s campaign supporters that rely heavily on publicly subsidized water, provided by government water projects, exporting water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to central and southern California. They claim that by issuing the drought proclamation at the onset of the below average conditions, and not declaring the drought as being over in 2010, allowed the flow of cash to continue.

Obviously, the drought proclamation opened up the floodgate to release hundreds of millions of dollars of public moneys used to fund so-called drought relief programs to a host of local water agencies and agricultural recipients [].
California recently sold $733 million in bonds to fund drought, flood control and water management projects, and the state is preparing for another bond sale of $400 million for water and drought response, according to a press release issued by the Governor on the 15 April 2009. [].
Lastly, and yet equally important, is when a state-of-emergency is proclaimed, it essentially sets aside many regulatory and environmental safeguards.
Next in the series: Harvesting Windfall Profits from the so-called Drought – While Funds for Public Safety-Net Programs and Jobs Dry Up. Other drought-related stories, published by the author, can be obtained at the following websites:; or Google “Doubts About the Drought”. Ω
For additional information send request or comments to pp [at]