Don’t drink the water!

This is a very sad story from The New York Times. It’s stunning that we still have issues with contaminated drinking water in the United States. On the other hand, with so many corporate interests undermining common sense regulation, it shouldn’t be that big of a surprise. Remember the all the issues with financial regulation? It seems like we’re having the same problems here.

Jennifer Hall-Massey knows not to drink the tap water in her home near Charleston, W.Va.

In fact, her entire family tries to avoid any contact with the water. Her youngest son has scabs on his arms, legs and chest where the bathwater — polluted with lead, nickel and other heavy metals — caused painful rashes. Many of his brother’s teeth were capped to replace enamel that was eaten away.

Neighbors apply special lotions after showering because their skin burns. Tests show that their tap water contains arsenic, barium, lead, manganese and other chemicals at concentrations federal regulators say could contribute to cancer and damage the kidneys and nervous system.

“How can we get digital cable and Internet in our homes, but not clean water?” said Mrs. Hall-Massey, a senior accountant at one of the state’s largest banks.

She and her husband, Charles, do not live in some remote corner of Appalachia. Charleston, the state capital, is less than 17 miles from her home.

“How is this still happening today?” she asked.

When Mrs. Hall-Massey and 264 neighbors sued nine nearby coal companies, accusing them of putting dangerous waste into local water supplies, their lawyer did not have to look far for evidence. As required by state law, some of the companies had disclosed in reports to regulators that they were pumping into the ground illegal concentrations of chemicals — the same pollutants that flowed from residents’ taps.

Hopefully the EPA in the Obama administration will push for real enforcement.

Co-op Gardening, Save Money, Stay Healthy

Organic food used to be something you could buy at the supermarket even if your dad wasn’t called Bill Gates. Not anymore; so many people are looking for organic food these days that unpleasant economic laws have had to take control of the situation and really put the price beyond human reach. Ergo, if you want to eat organic and stay healthy, grow it.

That’s easier said than done if you live in the city and don’t have a large backyard. Even if you do, however, capital costs may just be too much. Vegetable seeds may cost too much, or farming instruments; more labor time than you can afford may be required. The way out? Go co-op with your neighbors on organic gardening, and you can optimize your capital costs, and your labor, and even manage to grow organic food on larger pieces of land. This saves money while keeping you healthy.

The good thing about going co-op is that it helps you pool resources together much more efficiently. It’s a well known fact that capital cost is maximum when the volume produced is low. You may have to spend a few grands on some machine that could actually work 3 backyards just like yours. If you only have one, the machine is not used efficiently. But if you are going the co-op way, capital and labor are both used more efficiently. Efficiency equates to lower costs; hence you save money.

If a few of your neighbors have adjoining backyards, go and ask about co-oping together. Plan together on how much food you want to grow. That will give you a good idea about how much labor you need, and what instruments and things you have to buy. Plan it well; you will save a lot of money this way. What’s more, along with the organic food, you will probably grow friendlier neighbors, too.

Plug-in hybrids should NOT be a problem for our electric utilities

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The Plain Dealer has a misleading headline regarding plug-in hybrids: “Plug-in hybrids could prove costly for utility companies.” That’s true only if we approach the issue of charging plug-in hybrids without using our heads, but as the article points out there are very logical ways to address this potential problem.

Scott Moore, vice president of transmission for American Electric Power, said that issue could be solved either by smart chargers on the cars or by smart charging plugs in houses. If drivers plugged in their cars at 6 p.m., but the car didn’t start charging until 2 a.m., the system could probably handle the demand.

Even better would be if the driver plugged his car into an Internet-connected charger that could switch on and off as power was available. On a blustery day, when wind farms were producing extra power, cars could charge in the early evening. On a more typical day, charging could happen late at night.

“You’d get about 80 percent of the benefit from just changing the time of charging until early morning,” Moore said. “You’d get an extra 20 percent benefit from letting (utility companies) figure out when to charge you.”

The solution is obvious, so at least they got that part right. It also highlights the need for a smart grid and smart meters connected to the Internet so we can see how we use electricity and how we can make minor modifications to our behavior, or set clear guidelines, so that we use energy when it’s least expensive.

States rush to get high-speed rail applications ready

The Obama administration has set aside $8 billion in the stimulus package for high-speed rail projects, and states need to submit their applications by October 2, 2009. Some have estimated that the aggregate dollar amount of the applications will exceed $100 billion, so competition is fierce. These aren’t just emergency loans – this is money specifically tagged for building transportation infrastructure in cities that need it.

The Plain Dealer is reporting on the progress Ohio is making, and the enormous time and effort being devoted by government agencies and private individuals.

Ohio passenger rail advocates are moving at breakneck speed to fulfill requirements to apply for up to $450 million in federal stimulus money to provide service from Cleveland to Cincinnati.

They are seeking public input through a Web site, toll-free phone number and meetings across the state as part of an environmental assessment study that is required as part of the funding application, due by Oct. 2 to the Federal Rail Commission.

The study, which usually takes about a year, will be compiled in less than three months.

“We are really compressing this process and a lot of it is driven by the tight timeline,” said Stu Nicholson, spokesman for the Ohio Rail Development Commission, an independent agency of the Ohio Department of Transportation. “But I am not overstating this at all to say the level of interest from virtually every community large and small is very high.”

Under Ohio’s 3C plan, three trains would travel daily from Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati in each direction along the 260-mile corridor. The service, with 79-mph trains, would begin in 2011 with minimal stops. It would eventually add more stops and become part of a 110-mph high-speed network to connect west to Chicago and east to New York.

The trains would be operated by Amtrak on freight tracks owned by CSX and Norfolk Southern. More than 6 million people live within 15 miles of the route, said ODOT spokesman Scott Varner.

The stimulus money will be down-payment on an even more aggressive federal push for high-speed rail, and as evidenced by the activity in Ohio, states are serious about moving forward. The impact on the environment and on economic development can be significant. Hopefully budget issues won’t impact the next wave of high-speed rail funding.

Chinese citizens are sick of pollution

China’s growth has been impressive, but until now things like pollution and dissent have not been roadblocks to growth. The Chinese government has done as it pleased with little resistance.

Those days might be over, as BusinessWeek reports.

China has some of the most polluted cities in the world, a consequence of the country’s rapid economic development. More than 320 million people in China drink unsafe water, according to Greenpeace China. The country’s Environmental Protection Administration considers 45% of the rivers and waterways it monitors to be unsuitable for human contact, says Greenpeace.

Now, after years of silent suffering from the effects of filthy air and dirty water, many Chinese are saying they’ve had enough. And in some cases, their protests are turning violent.

This may be one of the issues that cracks the Chinese government’s grip on power. The situation in China is dire, and the people are awakening to the seriousness of the problem. This is good for China and the rest of the world.

As reported earlier, the Chinese are making huge investments in wind and solar, and this poses a threat to the US from a manufacturing point of view, but naturally these investments are a positive step for the entire world and the green economy. But this isn’t enough to address the pollution crisis in China. China needs to enact and enforce real regulations preventing companies from polluting the environment. They need to change the manufacturing culture. Until that happens, they will be facing ever-increasing protests and possible social unrest that can destabilize the regime.

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