Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Puzzling Over Saving the Earth

Help me puzzle out where we are heading on this annual celebration of Earth Day.

It hasn’t helped to have read Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction earlier this month. From a scientific point of view, it looks pretty clear that continuing as we are on our highway of carbon emissions, we are driving to an end much of life as we know it.

I try not to despair since much of my job is to inform people about saving the land, waters and critters. I’d like to get up and believe every day is Earth Day or at least to believe, as reporter Gary Chittim at KING5 tweeted this morning, “On Earth Day; the movement toward a healthier earth keeps rolling along through the mud of skepticism by finding traction in common sense.”

That’s good, if it were true and helps you get up in the morning. But for many people common sense would say the earth is still the center of the universe and, if asked to choose between the accounts of the beginning of the universe given by Carl Sagan and Neal DeGrasse Tyson and Genesis, would say they didn’t know or opt for the Good Book’s version. [Poll: Big Bang a big question for most American]

Common sense, based on keen observation and experience, is smart. Common sense, based on custom and prejudice, is ignorant.

If global warming and ocean acidification aren’t real to you this Earth Day, how can you take seriously the 101 ways to save our planet?

Two-and-a-half years ago I lost my job and our household’s monthly gasoline bills dropped since I was not driving up and down the freeways. The car we drive now is almost twice as fuel efficient as the one before and, I am fascinated by the dashboard feature that measures my fuel efficiency in real time while driving. That’s the same fascination I have when I encounter those radar-activated traffic displays on city streets telling you how fast you are going. Drive steady; whoa, slow down...

I’m also hooked on taking my daily blood pressure, imagining the the fragrances on the tropical breeze, the rustling of the coconut fronds while the cuff constricts and slowly releases. What have I been eating, I wonder, when the reading is higher; what are you upset about? Whoa, slow down, take some deep breaths; try the reading again...

My ongoing skepticism on Earth Day and every day is that we are told to do things to reverse the bad things with no appreciable result we can see. Picking up litter or dog doo isn’t going to save the planet. The only results we learn about are the negative effects of increased carbon in the atmosphere and in our waters.

Gasoline prices in Puget Sound are now hitting the oil companies’ springtime bargain of $4 a gallon. [Whatcom County gas prices closing in on $4 a gallon] However, for many there is no connection between the miles driven and the boom in Salish Sea oil and fuel transport by tanker, train and pipeline— and the steady increase of carbon in our air and waters. [Surging oil traffic puts region at risk]

What’s the feedback mechanism in real time that will allow us to see how modifying our everyday actions will affect the health of the planet? What will shows us in real time how our everyday actions relate to larger issues and actions, the same way driving for fuel efficiency and speed limits can tell us about oil exports, climate change and public safety, the way taking one’s blood pressure and weight can tell us about medication, diet and exercise?

Unless we get to that point on Earth Day and every day, science will always lose to custom and prejudice. Unless we can show that we and our world are irrevocably connected, we and the world lose.

But sometimes the feedback mechanism is as simple as hearing once what you will always recall: Bill Frank, Jr. is said to have pointed to the overhead lights in a meeting room and said, “You know what I see in those lights? Dead salmon.” Since I heard that, I always think about salmon when turning off lights not in use.

And, as a palliative to The Sixth Extinction, I read the last chapter of Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table where he describes several incarnations of a carbon atom through the webs of space, time and life. The elements, thank goodness, are eternal.

--Mike Sato

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Early April 2014: 3 Down, 9 To Go

(PHOTO: Scott Terrell/Skagit Valley Herald)
We’re a fourth of the way through the year and the short list of things I said I’d be looking for in 2014 has gotten shorter, while the verdict’s still out on a few:

I think it’s pretty clear that nobody rose to govern in the Legislature or in the Governor’s office this past session but maybe that’s the strategy of divided government: make sure nothing happens so you can say the fault is divided government then go raise money for another election— so we don’t have divided government. The best we can say about this legislative session is that nothing bad happened to the environment. We’ll still have to wait to see who will rise to govern next year.

It’s a shame the session wrapped up before the 25th memorial anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on March 24 and the Galveston oil spill coming at the same time. It may have prompted more serious consideration of the oil spill prevention measures and fees proposed. There’s always the opportunity to remember the BP Gulf disaster this month, saying so inspiring words around Earth Day and hope there is no major spill here.

Still haven’t heard whether anyone’s figured out what caused our starfish to die. Haven’t heard much about whether they’re still dying. Still worrisome.

As we wrote earlier, the Puget Sound Partnership’s new executive director is fully on board and the Leadership Council has the blood of new members. We may not know for awhile whether it’s a new game or game over but an early measure would whether the draft 2014 Action Agenda creates some excitement. I’ve been told discussions have been scheduled for April 8 in Edmonds and April 15 in Tacoma. As always, we stay tuned. [4/10 edit: The Partnership cancelled the 4/8 Edmonds meeting and announced in a 4/9 news release
 the Edmonds meeting would be on 4/16. The 4/15 Tacoma date remains unchanged. Go here to read about the updates.


No Seahawks for a few more months but there’s Mariner baseball to strut and fret over. 10th Man, anyone?

--Mike Sato


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Orca Tour 2014 Features Author Erich Hoyt In May Events Along The Range of Southern Resident Orcas



Erich Hoyt
NEWS RELEASE
March 25, 2014

ORCA TOUR 2014 FEATURES AUTHOR ERICH HOYT IN MAY EVENTS ALONG THE RANGE OF SOUTHERN RESIDENT ORCAS



The endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales spend a significant amount of time on the Pacific Coast, from Vancouver Island to Monterey, CA. In May, The Whale Trail and partners are collaborating with noted author and marine conservationist Erich Hoyt on a series of nine presentations throughout the orcas' range.

Events will be held on Saturna Island (May 3) and Vancouver B.C. (May 20); Port Townsend (May 7), Port Angeles (May 8) and Seattle WA (May 18); Newport OR (May 10); and San Francisco (May 13), Monterey (May 14) and Santa Cruz CA (May 15).

“The Whale Trail's goal is to promote awareness of J, K and L pods throughout their range, and inspire stewardship for the marine environment,” said Donna Sandstrom, The Whale Trail executive director and Orca Tour organizer. "We are thrilled to partner with Erich on this tour, and grateful for the host organizations and sponsors who have made it possible, from BC to California."

Each tour stop will feature a presentation by Erich Hoyt exploring “Adventures with Orcas in the North Pacific—From A1 Stubbs to Iceberg, the White Russian Bull.”

Erich is the author of the books, Orca: The Whale Called Killer and Marine Protected Areas for Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises. A Research Fellow with Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) in the UK, he is co-founder of the Far East Russia Orca Project which has recorded the Russian killer whale pods and photo-IDed some 1500 orcas off Kamchatka and in the Commander Islands—including three white orcas found so far in the study areas.

“We are living in an era and in a part of the world where whale research has exploded,” says Erich Hoyt. “And we’ve got some amazing orca stories to tell here—mostly positive, some heartbreaking, but all compelling.”

Orca Tour partners include the Saturna Island Marine Education and Research Society, Georgia Strait Alliance and the Vancouver Public Library, Port Townsend Marine Science Center, Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and the Fiero Marine Life Center, the Oregon chapter of the American Cetacean Society, the National Marine Sanctuaries West Coast Region, and NOAA Fisheries.

“There is no better place, overall, for marine wildlife watching in the world than the national marine sanctuaries offshore central California,” said William J. Douros, National Marine Sanctuaries’ regional director.  “The Whale Trail is an outstanding program that can inspire greater appreciation for whales, boost local tourism and provide families with a great way to spend time together in the outdoors.”

"The Whale Trial is implementing actions in the Recovery Plan for the Southern Residents by raising awareness, encouraging land-based viewing, and promoting stewardship" said Lynne Barre, the lead for the killer whale recovery program at NOAA Fisheries.  "As a partner with the Whale Trail, we are engaging new audiences to support recovery of our endangered Southern Residents."

Orca Tour information and local event information can be found at http://www.orcatour.org


Contact: Donna Sandstrom, The Whale Trail (206) 919-5397

Monday, March 24, 2014

When Bad Things Happen, Who Ya Gonna Call? Thinkin’ ‘Bout the “G”-Word

Last week Alan Durning at Sightline wrote about how a lot of people distrust and don’t like The G-Word, that is, the government.  I’ve thought about the G-word these last few days while thinking about the 25th memorial anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster and Saturday’s oil spill in Galveston Bay and this weekend’s terrible landslide between Arlington and Darrington along the Stillaguamish River.

When disasters strike, it’s the “G”-word that responds whether we like the “G”-word or not. And that’s a good thing. Sometimes the “G”-word does a great job, sometimes it doesn’t do such a great job in responding but that’s what we count on in emergencies and crises.

I sometimes think it might be hard for people who work for the “G”-word to go to work if they know that lots of people distrust them and don’t like them. But maybe they don’t think about that while they are inspecting meat and poultry, testing drinking water or investigating outbreaks of E-coli.

I think most of us like the “G”-word doing their jobs when it comes to our health and safety. We want them to do their jobs well and we get angry if they don’t.

John Stark at the Bellingham Herald wrote a story last week about how officials at the Whatcom County “G”-word were enforcing health and safety rules on a rental business ( Whatcom County, former tenants in dispute with land owner over run-down rentals ). What made the story interesting was the claims by the landlord that, while he was collecting rent, he was providing affordable places for low-income people to live, despite the lack of proper sanitation and electricity, and that “health and safety codes and zoning makes it hard for people like him to provide low-cost homes for people in need. ‘The rules and regulations are hurting the little guy,’ (he said).”

The word “slumlord” comes to mind and I’m sure he distrusts and hates the “G”-word for getting involved in his business and maybe he will find sympathetic allies and become a next poster child of those who proclaim the “G”-word is turning their world into the “nanny state.”

But those proclamations ring hollow when it comes to public health and safety because we want the “G”-word to do their work and to do it well. In fact, as with disasters, we want the “G”-word to prevent oil spills and landslides in all the ways it can and to respond well when disaster happens. That’s the “G”-word’s job.

As environmental activists, our job is not to defend the “G”-word; it’s our job to make sure the “G”-word does its job well. When we talk in terms of protecting public health and safety and preventing and responding to disasters, we’ll find a lot more folks agreeing with us.

--Mike Sato

Friday, March 21, 2014

Oil And Water Don’t Mix— Never Have

Prince William Sound birds (WikiCommons)
I learned about the Exxon Valdez going aground 25 years ago while working in corporate communications for the investor-owned utility, Hawaiian Electric Company. We sadly watched the national news for days as 11 million gallons of oil spread and coated the pristine shorelines.

I told my colleagues there about being with the nascent Puget Sound Water Quality Authority on the Olympic Peninsula in late December 1985 right after the Arco Anchorage went aground west of Port Angeles spilling 239,000 gallons of oil.  What stayed with me was the pervasive smell of the oil and the frantic and futile efforts to clean seabirds with detergent before they ingested the oil and died.

Right before I returned to Puget Sound to begin work and launch the new People For Puget Sound, the fishing vessel Tenyo Maru spilled 354,00 gallons of fuel oil and 97,000 gallons of diesel in a collision off the mouth of the Juan de Fuca Strait in July 1991.

I was on vacation in Hawaii and taking calls from the news media in late December 2003 when 4,700 gallons of oil overflowed late at night while a barge was being loaded at Point Wells near Edmonds, then floated over to ruin the shellfish beds on the Suquamish reservation.

At People For Puget Sound we scrambled in the early morning and throughout the days that followed a spill or discharge of 1,500 gallons of oil near Vashon Island’s Dalco Passage.

And we watched and watched and watched in April 2010 and for months afterwards as 210 million gallons of oil gushed and gushed from BP’s Deepwater Horizon drill site in the Gulf of Mexico.

These spills have brought to some extent or another hand wringing, calls to action, studies, enhanced planning and communications, more regulatory oversight, training, response equipment— and even a permanently stationed rescue tug at Neah Bay paid for by the shipping industry after over 12 years of wrangling for enhanced protection near the outer Strait.

Are we better prepared to keep the genie in the bottle with better spill prevention measures? Are we better prepared to try to get the genie back in the bottle with better spill recovery measures?

The amount of large vessel traffic and oil transport is expected to increase with an additional oil pipeline to Vancouver BC, an coal export facility at Cherry Point in Whatcom County, and railroad tank cars bringing Bakken crude oil to refineries in Skagit and Whatcom counties.

I think, as long as human beings are still operating transport systems, increased frequency and volumes will increase likelihood of human error and mechanical failures.

For some, that’s the risk and cost of living and working and doing business in a port and shipping based regional economy. The risk, of course, is to our “commons”— the waters and shores and natural resources of the Sound and Straits— while the benefits are to those who work for, invest in and are associated with those industries. Of course, taxes are paid and wage dollars are spent in the community but does that offset the cost and the risk in using the “commons”?

Damage to our “commons” are paid for by companies after a spill. The first court judgment post-Exxon spill awarded plaintiffs $287 million and assessed $5 billion in punitive damages. Exxon lawyers have fought that judgment for years and years.

Industries using the “commons” should be required to put aside in advance money in a fund sufficient to pay for all natural resource, restoration and personal injury damages, indemnifying their use of the people’s “commons”— our waters and our shores. Until they do it, the public will continue to bear the risks.

They won’t like it and won’t do it willingly but I’m sure industries will be even more careful than they say they are when the public holds them not only accountable but holds their profits as well.

--Mike Sato

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Hey, Puget Sound! It’s A “New Path Forward!”

(MAP: EPA)
That’s what the Puget Sound Partnership says Governor Inslee has done by reconstituting the Partnership’s Leadership Council. And, having named a new executive director, Governor Jay has his new team now to make or break Puget Sound recovery on his watch.


“Gov. Inslee has appointed longtime environmental advocate Stephanie Solien and former Ecology director Jay Manning to the Leadership Council, the Puget Sound Partnership’s seven-member governing body. Diana Gale, a senior lecturer at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs, was reappointed to fill the remainder of David Dicks’ term [who had earlier resigned].”  Gov. Inslee builds new path forward with appointments to PSP's Leadership Counci

Partnership chair Martha Kongsgaard sounded positively ecstatic with the new appointments in her March 11 letter, characterizing executive director Sheida Sahandy as “whip smart, curious, articulate, wise, and arrives firmly acquainted with our mission.” Gracious as ever, the chair praises departing members David Dicks (who started as executive director), Steve Sakuma and Dan O’Neal and warmly welcomes environmental activist Stephanie Solien and former Ecology director Manning. The position vacated by Sakuma still needs to be appointed by the governor. Kongsgaard, former King County executive Ron Sims and Billy Frank, Jr. of Northwest Indian Fisheries are the other members of the Council, with Gale and Frank the only ones from the original board organized when the Partnership was launched.

Well, will this make any difference, this “new path forward”? It’s hard not to feel like the old path built thus far by the Partnership has been into a quagmire, a morass of bureaucracy and squandered moral capital, built by the best and the brightest.

Is Puget Sound recovering or not? Do we know or not?

Asked by reporter Bellamy Pailthorp, the Partnership’s Jeaneatte Dorner, its Director of Local Ecosystem and Salmon Recovery, said it is not possible to give recovery a grade because the grading system isn’t in place:

“And until we actually have that system in place, it’s sort of like we don’t have the test scores to actually give a grade,” she said.

Dorner added, it's more like the agency needs to discuss reasons why it deserves  a no-credit grade of incomplete. Because -- despite millions of dollars spent on restoring habitat --the Puget Sound Partnership doesn't fully understand or know how to measure its progress in protecting endangered fish.

“If you talk to folks and get expert opinion, I think most would say that we are not making the progress that we need to; there’s still more habitat that we’re losing than we are gaining from the restoration work that we’re doing,” she said.

One big problem, says Dorner, is that many philanthropists and environmental organizations or contractors enjoy seeing habitat restoration, so they donate to set aside specific areas. But terminology used in the patchwork of efforts is different, and can’t be easily entered into databases that would help clarify which kinds of conservation measures work best. State Of Our Salmon The Focus Of 2-Day Puget Sound Partnership Meeting

Candor like Dorner’s is refreshing but might lead one to ask what, since 2007 when the Partnership was created by the legislature, has it been doing such that, six years to its original 2020 goal of a Sound fishable, swimmable and diggable, “we are not making the progress that we need to; there’s still more habitat that we’re losing than we are gaining from the restoration work that we’re doing.”

A simple answer would be to suspend, stop, prohibit the loss of any more Puget Sound habitat so that restoration actions effect a net gain. To do that requires leadership, regulatory authority and political backbone. Not more agendas or studies or plans or systems and systems within systems within systems.

If this “new path forward” takes us to stopping the loss of Puget Sound habitat, I cheer Governor Jay and Martha K. If not, it’ll be more of the same so somebody can tell me when it’s ‘game over.’

Where do you think we’re going now?

--Mike Sato

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Where Were You When...?

PHOTO: Reuters/Kyodo
It’s a simple question I like to ask to place people quickly on the continuum of time and space. Nothing fancy, like, where were you three years ago when you heard about the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami? [Japan marks Fukushima disaster anniversary]

I was in Cannon Beach on the Oregon coast and was awakened at 3:30 AM and advised to get to higher ground, which I did. Back in the room after getting tired of waiting in the car listening to radio reports, I alternately watched the TV images of the giant wave sweeping Fukushima away and the real Pacific Ocean before me eerily ebbing and silently surging  to the shore’s vegetation line.

Three years later I’m sad that the people of Fukushima still suffer. I worry about the radiation escaping from the damaged nuclear power plant. And I wonder what effects the radiation will have on the North Pacific’s ecosystem and our Northwest coast.

Anniversaries or memorials as in this case provide an opportunity to assess the progress of recovery, the changes made from lessons learned, and the continued inability to do things any differently than the ways in which they were done before.

Natural disasters like Fukushima, Sandy, Haiti, Katrina return to the news and our consciousness on these anniversaries. It’s the same with despicable actions of terrorism and murder and human error like 911, Sandy Hook, Columbine and Exxon Valdez. For many of us who were not directly affected, we get to think about these things once a year if reminded. For those who were directly affected, the pain and suffering and memories are a daily burden.

Who said you become an old guy when you spent more time looking back than looking ahead?  My 8- and 5-year old grandkids certainly don’t spend much time talking or thinking about last year. On the other hand, some wise guy said that we understand backward and live forward, and another wise guy said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Maybe the best thing is to split the difference. Learn from the past to change the future— for the better. What’s the lesson to be learned from each “act of God” and “act of Man” disaster and how are those lessons applied? But isn’t that just what we should be doing every day?

The third memorial anniversary for the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami will come and go. Problems, big problems remain. The next memorial anniversary coming up? The 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster. [Exxon Valdez 25th Anniversary: Lessons Learned, Lessons Lost]

Where were you on March 24, 1989? What have we learned and what difference has it made?

--Mike Sato