The High Price Of Low Prices

Recently, in my home town of Bellevue, Washington, Wal-Mart announced they are opening a Wal-Mart Market store, which is a miniature grocery store version of the original Wal-Mart store.  This announcement came to the chagrin of many Bellevue residents, despite some positive aspects that accompany a newly opening business.  The new Wal-Mart location will bring jobs and provide a small boost to the local economy; however, according to disgruntled Bellevue residents, at the expense of the well-being of local businesses.  

Wal-Mart has an unfortunate knack for destroying small businesses because of the low prices for which they can sell their products.  Wal-Mart’s low prices stem from a number of different cost cutting measures.

Wal-Mart may be the most prime example of disintermediation in business.  Disintermediation removes unnecessary middlemen in the chain of supply.  Wal-Mart acts as their own distribution channel by shipping Wal-Mart-sold goods from the producers, most of which are in China, to distribution centers, and subsequently out to retail stores.  The huge size of the Wal-Mart Corporation has allowed the company to cut out the middleman by creating the necessary infrastructure to be their own middleman.

Perhaps more notoriously, Wal-Mart also cuts costs by being a poor place of employment.  Wal-Mart has gained a reputation for paying low wages, being staunchly anti-union, and providing employees with no added work benefits (such as healthcare, 401k, etc).  Wal-Mart’s poor work environment is reflected in the company’s high employee turnover rate; approximately 70% Wal-Mart employees quit within a year of beginning employment.

The Wal-Mart Corporation has made a concerted effort to shrug off their negative public image by providing consumers with a high volume certified organic products; By 2009, Wal-Mart became the largest distributor of certified organic products.  However, in 2010 the USDA filed a lawsuit against Wal-Mart claiming that they had misused the USDA organic label on products which contained no organic ingredients.  Furthermore, some of the organic products sold by the retail giant adhered to less strict organic certification criteria.

Even though Wal-Mart’s attempt at “going green” was supposed to create a more positive public image of the corporation, the company’s blatant greenwashing shows that they were in no way committed to helping the environment. 

Many consumers have the notion that buying eco-friendly products will somehow save the environment; Wal-Mart is guilty of exploiting consumers with such a mindset.  Consumers can lessen the effect that consuming has on the environment by buying eco-friendly products, but pretending that the largest retailer in the world is trying to protect the environment is a joke.

Amidst all of Wal-Mart’s attempts at becoming a more “green” company, they did not change corporate policies regarding labor or their chain of supply, which both have direct and indirect environmental consequences. 

If Wal-Mart really wants to win environmentally conscience consumers over, they need to start by addressing their workers’ rights issues and start supplying more American made products.  Until that day, I refuse to step foot into a Wal-Mart and urge any environmentally conscience individual to the same.

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Buyer Beware (Of Citizens United)

The adage, “buyer beware” has never been as true as it is today…

If you have followed the Republican Primaries at all, chances are you have probably heard something about the Citizens United Movement.  Though the movement has received a great deal of publicity in association with the Occupy Wall Street Movement and the primaries, many may not understand where the movement originated.  Citizens United ultimately boils down to an incident of controversy over corporate personhood.

In 2008, the non-profit group Citizens United attempted to run advertisements for a slanderous campaign documentary about Hilary Clinton entitled Hilary: The Movie.  The District of Columbia District Court ruled that the commercial violated the McCain-Feingold Act (AKA the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act) because the documentary was seen as a direct attempt to try to discredit Clinton and sideline her Democratic Presidential candidate bid.

However, in June of 2009, the Supreme Court issued an order to reargue the case on the grounds that the previous Supreme Court cases (Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce and McConnell v. Federal Election Commission) which were used to reach the District of Columbia Court decision may need to be overturned to reach a proper judgment.

In the Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, both Supreme Court cases used to reach the original verdict were overruled in a 5-4 vote under the argument that the cases violated corporation’s and union’s first amendment rights.  Not only did this validate Citizens United attempt to derail Hilary Clinton’s campaign but it also lifted almost all corporate campaign finance restrictions. 

Here’s what the decision did: corporations are permitted to give unlimited funds to any official running for a public office; additionally, the receiving campaign no longer needs to disclose their donation amount or the donator.  Basically, corporations were granted the same campaign donation rights as an individual.

This brings us back to the beginning; under the Supreme Court ruling, corporations may use corporate shareholder money or profit from sales to fund campaigns.  Consumer dollars may be directly funding a candidate’s campaign for office; the candidate may be someone the consumer supports, or they may be someone they oppose, but the consumer has no way of knowing.  The onus falls on the consumer to make conscientious purchases from companies with like-minded political leanings to avoid inadvertently supporting a candidate the consumer sees as unfit.

Even though the contributions from a single purchase are minuscule, they add up over time; and even though a company may opt not to make any campaign contributions at all, it is best to assume that they will.

As consumers, we have a plethora of choices, but the ramifications of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission are so monumental that citizens are essentially voting every time they buy a product or service.  Consumers have more responsibility than ever, and we must make a concerted effort to stay informed.  We must know which corporations are making an honest attempt at protecting the environment because those companies will support the candidates with an environmentally minded agenda.  Additionally, consumers must boycott any company, and their subsidiaries, who knowingly aids in the destruction of the environment.  Buyer beware.

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Progressive Religion In America

Recent Republican debates have chided President Barack Obama for attacking American’s freedom of religion.  These allegations are backed up by the Obama administration’s continued funding of contraceptives, abortion, and sterilization procedures.  Additionally, conservatives feel Obama has harbored an openly pro-gay agenda which violates the sanctity of heterosexual marriage.  While these criticisms about the Obama administration are well known and shared by a percentage of the US population, the administration’s actions may be indicative of a paradigm shift in the United States towards more progressive thinking and away from religious conservatism.

The United States has long thought of itself as a country defined by Puritan values and that same notion has reinforced itself through United States Census statistics which shows over 75% of American’s subscribe to some sort of Christian denomination.  While people’s religious affiliations have remained intact, religion’s priority in their lives has dropped.  A 2010 poll shows that people who believe religion is the most important thing in their life fell from 16% to just 9%, from 2006 to 2008. 

These statistics exemplify a growing disconnect between the percentage of claimed religious affiliates and religions role in American’s lives.  Perhaps the average American’s religious affiliation stands as more of a means of identification rather than guiding light in their lives; or maybe people refuse to cut ties from religions with which they have been historically affiliated (such as someone raised Catholic but no longer practicing).  Either way, American’s are keeping their religious affiliation, which provides them with the groundwork for a sense of morality, but does not let religion take precedent over their family, health, or careers/education.  This may be the source of America’s new found progressivism, particularly because of the United States’ emphasis on education.

In order to insure a more stable family life or health resources, the average American must invest more time and money into their education so that they may acquire a well paying job.  The forced critical and analytical thinking of higher education may be leading to a less religious populous.  This is not to say that people who are religious are stupid; but rather to suggest that religion plays a smaller role in educated people’s lives.  Most notably, in the ever popular field of science, only about 7% of Western society doctoral scientists believe in a personal god.

Religion’s fall from American’s list of priorities is enigmatic in the sense that the new priorities-family, health, career, education-are not mutually exclusive from religion; those same values, in some capacity, are preached and revered in every mainstream religious text.  American’s seem to be focused on improving the most fundamental religious values in their lives while casting aside the disputable specifics of religious texts.  Essentially, the nation is adopting a more accepting, conscious, well-rounded, and open-minded mentality, without the untouchable sacredness that can characterize a devout, unquestioning religious individual’s viewpoint.  Keeping that idea in mind…

What does a more progressive United States look like?  What does it mean for the environment?

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Seattle Plastic Bag Ban Comes At A Cost

On December 19th, the Seattle City Council officially voted to ban single use plastic bags.  This act stands as a major victory and a fitting end to a year chalked full of revolutions. Though the revolution against plastic bags pale in comparison to those that took place in the Middle East this past spring, I, for one, feel pride as a native Washingtonian to know my state is trying to protect the environment.  Not only did Seattle ban plastic bags but the outlying cities of Mukilteo, Bellingham, Edmonds, as well as Portland, Oregon followed suit.

While the ban is a definite victory for the environment, it feels somewhat bittersweet because of how long the measure took to pass.  Staunch opposition funded pro-plastic bag campaigns in Seattle over the past several years to ensure their lasting use.  Initially Seattle imposed a 20 cent tax on each plastic bag used by consumers; however the vote was later repealed due in part to $1.4 million plastic industry campaign to overturn the decision.  While 20 cents does not seem like a lot of money, if you consider that Seattleites use approximately 292 million plastic bags annually, 20 cents per bag makes quite a lot of revenue (more than $58 million).  Seattle is a city home to about 608,000 people which averages to about 480 plastic bags per citizen annually.  Now, of course not every citizen is choosing to use plastic bags; and of course, there are tourists and out-of-towners that factor into that statistic. But for arguments sake, we’ll say the average Seattleite would have spent about $95 dollars per year on plastic bags, which is a significant amount of money for the lay citizen.  This opens up an interesting debate, is it better to ban something that is environmentally harmful or heavily tax its use?

The pro-plastic lobby hammered the plastic bag ban referendum for denying Seattleites of their basic right of choice.  According to the lobby, Americans should have the freedom to choose whatever we want regardless of the consequences.  With a heavy tax on something like plastic bags everyone is happy; plastic enthusiasts get to have their bags (at a price) and environmentalists don’t need to use them, right? 

Unfortunately, lobbyist funding makes issues far from cut and dry.   The 2009 lift of the plastic bag tax in Seattle is an exemplar of the intricacies of policy making in the United States.

If a lobby throws enough money at an issue, no restrictions get placed on an item’s use or effects on the environment.  While the same could be said about a wholesale ban on an item, voters tend to make more informed decisions when something has the possibility of becoming completely restricted, which means lobby money has less of an effect on the overall outcome of the vote.

Most importantly, in the case of plastic bags, a freedom should not impede any citizen’s natural right to a healthy environment.  Plastic bags significantly pollute water sources thereby threatening the sources overall health.  Americans have an insane amount of options when it comes to consuming in the United States, and we all take part in and enjoy that freedom wholeheartedly; but a choice should never threaten the overall health of the natural environment.  For the sake of the environment, society must sacrifice some choices so that the well-being of the natural environment can be maintained. 

In theory a tax works for limiting environmental degradation from plastic bags (or any consumer commodity), but because of the societal stigmas and lobby money against new taxes, no progress is ever made.  For that reason, I’m happy that Seattle has opted to join San Jose, California, Las Pinas, Philippines, Rye, New York, and Northern Territory, Australia (just to name a few) in banning single-use plastic bags.

Chinese Protests Expose Communist Flaws

Over the course of the past few days, China has been home to a rare site, a protest attended by thousands of enraged Chinese citizens.  These protests come on the heels of a corrupt land sell by local government officials in the village of Wukan in the Southeastern corner of the country.  While the land sell only amounts to about 6.5 square miles of farm land, local officials failed to inform residence that their land was being sold.  Following the sale, local farmers were promptly kicked off their land with no prior warning, which ultimately led to the upheaval. To add insult to injury, the citizens have not and do not expect to be reimbursed for their land.  This phenomenon of government appropriation of privately owned land has long been a problem in China and the source of much frustration for Chinese citizens.

Chinese authorities have not released plans for the sold land but one can’t help but conjure memories of past land use decisions by the Chinese government.  Most notably, the Three Gorges Dam, which displaced millions of people while local government officials embezzled government relocation funds.  Though national authorities have their heart in the right place by providing relocation funds to displaced citizens and by building massive renewable energy projects, much of their effort is tarnished by corrupt local government officials. 

Out of the corruption comes high unemployment rates, high homeless rates, and rampant social distain for local government, which in turn, can lead to environmental problems.  These are all things that keep China from being a more sustainable country; though making a country as large as China more sustainable seems like an impossible task, China has the unique ability to make swift and drastic national changes due to their communist regime.  While China has made respectable efforts to become environmentally sustainable, they have not realized the need for holistic sustainability, which optimizes social, economic, and environmental benefits. 

The world witnessed China’s commitment to the environment when they essentially banned plastic bags overnight, which studies show, has prevented the use of more than 1.6 million tonnes of oil.  China’s population makes such an immediate and noticeable impact on the world environment that their communist system seems to be the most effective method of government; but China has time and time again neglected to respect the natural human rights of their citizens.

While citizens have shown resistance to local authorities, they have not lost faith in the Chinese communist system.  Amidst anger toward local officials at the recent protests were intermittent cheers of “Long live the Communist party!”  Even with a suspect human rights record, national pride and communist support remain solid in China.  

What the world has seen from China is a supposed commitment to becoming a more environmentally friendly country; however China continues to miss the target by exemplifying an unwillingness to take their citizens rights into account or stop local government corruption, which leads to further environmental issues.  China has the unique power of being able to have complete government oversight of the planning and implementation of eco-friendly development project.  But this means nothing until they quit overlooking the well-being of Chinese citizens.  You cannot have sustainability without the consent of the people and these protests show that the Chinese government does not have the peoples consent.

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A Sustainable Holiday Season Suggestion

The holiday season marks the point of the year where many retail businesses begin to turn a profit for the fiscal year, and chances are you’ve helped some retail business along the way to getting into the black.  But amongst the holiday consumerism madness, it seems we, as a country, lose sight of what the holiday’s are truly about.  For the sake of sounding preachy, the holidays are a celebration of the people, friends and family, with whom we surround ourselves.  Beyond family and friends, the holiday season is a celebration of our respective communities, and right now, America is seeing a new emphasis on community building.

Communities all over the country are becoming more solidified due to difficult financial times and an aging general population.  2010 saw the lowest relocation rate since the United States began tracking relocation rates in population surveys in 1948.  One could argue that something good has come out of the financial depression; what began as a strictly food related movement, has grown to something that applies to all goods and services. 

The local movement displays behavior that may seem like an act of financial sacrifice; that we must give up creature comforts that exist abroad in order to survive; but in reality, what we end with is a far more sustainable society.  With more people staking into local communities and moving around less, suddenly we have created a healthier environment for small businesses.  With strengthened communities comes community pride, and out of community pride comes local brand loyalty.  Community members will buy locally produced and sold products to help support the community, which intern creates stronger small businesses.  Thriving small businesses create jobs for the community.  Ultimately, the community becomes a self-sustaining economic entity, less influenced by the rise and fall of the global markets.

Additionally, a localized economy helps reduce fossil fuel use from the transportation of goods which helps maintain a healthier global environment.  Localized economies satisfy the triple bottom line of sustainability, being beneficial from economic, social, and environmental standpoints.  We all have the opportunity to help make this holiday season more sustainable.

A more localized American life sets up an opportunity for citizens to help better their local communities while showing their appreciation for their loved ones.  This holiday season, if you chose to buy gifts for your family and friends, buy them something from a local owned and operated business and put your money directly back into the local economy.  If you do not live near a locally owned or operated business, buy your loved ones an experience gift; take your  loved one to a movie, restaurant, sporting event, live theater event, or a concert.  This type of gift can be just as special as a material gift because of how personalized and memorable the gift can be.

Experience gifts offer the same economic stimulus as a product from a local business but without the resource use of a material product.  Ultimately, this is a better option for anyone trying to be environmentally conscience during the holiday season.  If you have last minute holiday shopping, you don’t have to go far to get your friends and family something special.  This holiday season, act locally, and think globally.  Happy holidays!

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The Natural Threat To Rural Communities

America’s rural communities are starting to feel the pinch of fossil fuel exploration. Recent discoveries of massive natural gas stores in North Dakota have led to huge influxes of workers and equipment-filled trucks into small rural communities in the Western half of the state.  In such a tough economy these developments may seem like a blessing, however, the small towns are having trouble providing for the new members of the community; moreover, communities, such as those in Western North Dakota, are beginning to say “no” to natural gas development near their towns.  The modern day gold rush for natural gas points out a gleaming problem with the United States energy infrastructure.

We’ve all seen the television and internet advertisements promoting natural gas as the clean fuel of future; the truth is, those advertisements are not entirely true.  Indeed, natural gas is the cleanest burning of all fossil fuels; but advertisements focus solely on the burning of the fuel, while neglecting the invasive extraction methods used to obtain the gas, and ignoring the fact that natural gas in no way lessens the United State’s dependence on fossil fuel. 

Mounting evidence show a strong correlation between natural gas development and high levels of groundwater contaminants.  During the drilling process, companies use a method called hydraulic fracturing (AKA fracking) to release gas stores.  The process of fracking pumps thousands of pounds of highly pressurized, corrosive fluids into the bedrock to break it down.  The fluids tend to dissipate throughout the bedrock layer and can find its way into groundwater sources, thus contaminating the source and rendering it hazardous for consumption by anybody.  The contamination can be so bad that tap water can be ignited due to the fracking fluids in the well.  Furthermore, the companies who drill wells have no obligation to repay land owner for damages if groundwater contamination occurs.    

Natural gas’s slingshot into the mainstream of the United State energy sector came on the heels of the creation of the National Energy Policy Development Group (NEPDG) under the Bush administration.  This energy task force, headed by Dick Cheney, quietly paved the way for the development of natural gas wells all over the country, while violating private and government land ownership rights and environmental regulations.  Currently, legality of the task force is being determined in court due to significant involvement of special interest groups (particularly oil and gas companies) in the creation of the doctrine; however, while tied up in the judicial process, the doctrine is still in effect.  This means natural gas exploration will continue until a moratorium is placed on the activity or the doctrine is amended.

A community has the potential to benefit from energy infrastructure development because of the economic stimulus provided to the area.  United States citizens should understand that something is amiss when communities do not welcome natural gas development with open arms; the externalities of natural gas drilling far outweigh the economic benefit for rural communities, and sadly, most communities do not have adequate funds to fight oil/gas companies in court when damages occur.  America’s small towns act as a sacrificial lamb while the rest of America gets cheap, “clean” fossil fuel energy without seeing the environmental degradation the host communities must incur.  To call natural gas a green form of energy is one of the greatest examples of “greenwashing” in existence and a red herring for a practical, environmentally friendly energy solution for the United States.   The sooner the general public can understand this fact, the sooner the United States can start making true progress in the field of renewable energy.

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Boreal Forests: Our Threatened Carbon Sinks

In the world of climate science, much study exists concerning climate tipping points.  Tipping points refer to event(s) that indicates that the earth’s climate has irreversibly changed; possibly the most well known proposed tipping points are the melting of the Arctic and Greenland ice sheets or rising global temperatures.  In climate change scenarios, tipping points launch positive feedback loops where climate disruption effects trigger furthering and worsening events, which in-turn, trigger even worse events, and so on.  Though melting ice receives a large portion of study and media attention, other climate change events receive little to no media attention.  One such event is boreal forest dieback.

Boreal forests, also known as the taiga, are the world’s largest terrestrial biome, covering about 15% of the earth’s surface.  Boreal forest biomes act as carbon sinks for the world’s atmosphere, which means that the biome actually sequesters carbon from the air.  However, as climate disruption worsens, boreal forests switch from being carbon sinks to huge greenhouse gas emitters.  Unfortunately, these events have already begun, particularly in the Eurasian boreal forest.  Several indicators have shown that the world’s taiga is in trouble.

El Niño and Arctic Oscillation play a big role in determining temperatures and how much precipitation the taiga will receive.  Global temperature rise have caused both Arctic oscillations and El Niño to bring lower rainfall and higher temperatures throughout the year.  This has led to a more active fire season in Eurasian boreal forests; additionally longer fall and spring seasons have shortened the winter freeze and led to more sun exposure on methane filled permafrost and ice. 

Between 2001 and 2003, forest fire activity tripled in area from 27,000 square kilometers to 81,000 square kilometers; burn areas have only continued to grow since then.  The world was exposed to the devastating effects of boreal forest burns in 2010 when Russian forest fire air quality killed an estimated 56,000 people in Moscow and surrounding areas over the span of several months.  Boreal forest fires not only affect local air quality, they release higher volumes of methane from melted permafrost which speeds up climate disruption processes.  Methane persists in the atmosphere for less time than carbon dioxide (which is also released during forest fires), but it has 24 times the insulting power of carbon dioxide.  In addition to methane from melted permafrost, frozen taiga lakes trap methane air bubbles in the ice which are released into the atmosphere when ice melts.  Rising global temperatures create the necessary conditions for ice and permafrost to release their methane.

Though the Eurasian boreal forests are extremely damaged, the Canadian boreal forests remain in decent health.  Unlike the Russian taiga, the Canadian boreal forests still acts as a carbon sink, but for how long?  Global temperature rise poses the same risk to Canadian boreal forests as Eurasian forests; also, mining development in tar-sand deposits in Northern Canada stand as a huge threat to the health of the biome.  Boreal forest dieback must become a better known issue for the general public; their deterioration has already begun, but efforts to save the biome have been limited.  If conservation efforts do not improve, climate disruption could become unstoppable and boreal forest could become a thing of the past.

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America’s Pastime, Made In China

Two things that often aren’t mentioned in the same breath are sports and the environmental movement.  Taken together, they are somewhat contradictory.  Sports require a lot of resources for both fan and player, and for the sake of what?  Entertainment?  Economic stimulus for a city?  The spirit of competition?  However, one particular sport and the environment are beginning to come together. 

Back in 2009, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental group based out of New York, and Major League Baseball (MLB) teamed up to work on “greening” the sport.  The NRDC started with the biggest consumer of all, baseball stadiums.  Stadiums operate for at least 4 months out of the year and see millions of fans walk through the gate every season.  

Some of the highlights include solar panels and biodegradable cups in Cleveland, wind turbines and biomass burning in Philadelphia, and a $60,000 recycling program and composting in Seattle.  However, the most impressive achievement goes to the Washington Nationals; whose new stadium, which opened in 2009, was the first LEED certified stadium in Major League Baseball.  Both the Minnesota Twins and Florida Marlins followed suit with new LEED certified stadiums in 2010 and 2011, respectively.

In many ways, baseball stadiums embody the obstacle of “greening” an institution whose practices and traditions do not mesh with the green movement; certainly stadium construction and energy needs are an obvious top priority for environmental updates.  But, a less obvious aspect of baseball exists whose environmental, social, and economic effects need to be addressed, merchandising

In 2007, MLB signed a seven year long contract to give team apparel rights to VF Corporation, the owner of apparel manufacturing giant Majestic.  Other than the actual uniforms worn by players, which are made in the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, the production of Majestic merchandise happens almost exclusively in China.  This shouldn’t come as any great surprise because most clothing items are made abroad, but baseball is America’s pastime. 

Sports franchises pump millions of dollars into local economies, which is why having a sports team is desirable; but on a more philosophical level, sports teams represent the competitive spirit of an entire city or state.  A fan wearing a piece of team apparel sports his/her team’s colors as a means of monetary support for his/her team and pride in his/her team and city.  Why should sports merchandising not be localized to the city/state of the fans that love and support their team?

The localized production of sports merchandise provides added benefit to being home to a sport franchise.  A sports team’s city/state would see the creation of thousands of well-paying jobs from the production of apparel products.   Additional ancillary businesses would see increased profits as a result of localized merchandise production; for example, team T-shirts could be produced with locally grown cotton, which would provide a huge profit boost to local growers.  MLB merchandising produces $3 billion of sales annually; in each city/state with an MLB franchise, those revenues would be directly invested back into local markets through merchandising employees.  This creates a more sustainable local economy.

Also, environmentally speaking, localized apparel production is a more sustainable option.  The shipping of apparel via boat, plane, train, or truck, creates millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions which would be spared in the localized production of sports merchandise.  Additionally, merchandise producers would have to adhere to stricter American environmental standards, as opposed to more lax standards in developing countries.  This alone saves countless tons of unnecessary pollution in foreign environments.

Lastly, from a social standpoint, localizing merchandise production is a more humane option when you consider that many foreign sweatshops harbor unsafe, unhealthy, and hostile work environments for their employees.  Furthermore, foreign sweatshop jobs often do not pay employees well enough for them to afford basic necessities.

Ultimately, fans have control over their franchises; and, if they want, they can have control over where their franchises’ merchandise comes from.  Indeed, Major League Baseball has a contract with VF Corporation but that doesn’t mean that fans need to buy their product.  A true fan of a team and city would boycott MLB merchandise as it is made now.  A true fan would demand that his/her city have the rights to their own team’s merchandise; and that the production and sale of that merchandise directly benefit his/her team and city.  It is time for America to take back its pastime.

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Congress Keep The Coal Coming

It has happened again; yet another coal related environmental disaster.  Yesterday, in Wisconsin, thousands of tons of coal ash, mud, and industrial equipment suddenly spilled into Lake Michigan when a bluff collapsed.  This event follows a Republican-controlled House of Representatives bill passed two weeks ago that prevents the EPA from protecting Americans from coal ash pollution; this bill was heavily funded by industry lobbyists. 

Reaction from yesterday’s event evokes memories of past coal related disasters; most recently, we saw the danger of coal mining, when a mine collapse in West Virginia killed 29 workers.  It was the worst mining disaster in the United States in four decades.  In 2008 we saw the environmental damage coal can do when a disaster similar to yesterday’s occurred.  A dike broke at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Kingston Fossil Coal Plant in Tennessee, releasing 5.4 million cubic yards of wet coal ash into local rivers and streams.  The spill was the worst environmental disaster of its kind in United States history.  Several weeks later, another smaller spill occurred in Alabama at a different TVA operated coal plant.  But, with so much coal ash spilling into waterways, where is it all coming from?

During the combustion stage at a coal plant, electrostatic precipitators collect fine particles that rise in the flues; these particles are known as fly ash.  After combustion is complete, bottom ash from the furnace is collected and combined with the fly ash to create coal ash.  Coal ash is stored at the power plant in wet settlement basins, put into landfills, or recycled via input into other products such as Portland cement; though the former only comprises 43% of coal ash disposal. 

Environmental concerns over coal ash stem from the high concentration of heavy metals which are harmful to all members of the ecological community.  Some of the most harmful contaminants include mercury, lead, arsenic, and cadmium.  These contaminants can enter ecosystems in a variety of ways, most commonly, dry coal ash is distributed onto land and water by wind currents.  Dry ash distributed on land can seep through soil and contaminate ground water sources.  In more catastrophic cases, settlement basin infrastructure can fail and lead to the release of large quantities of pollutants directly into local water sources.  Indeed, no water source is safe from coal ash.

Scientific studies have shown an increasingly strong correlation between coal plant proximity to water, both surface and ground sources, and coal ash contamination.  Shockingly, politicians seem to be okay with this reality.

The House of Representative’s decision a fortnight ago proves that policy makers are content to let coal companies take advantage of Americans and our environment.  When will Americans become fed up with coal?  The events in Wisconsin should remind Americans that no coal plant or mine is impervious to disaster and neither is any natural resource.  Yesterday’s disaster could have happened anywhere, but it happened in Lake Michigan, a water source already on the brink of collapse from the effects of industrial pollution, invasive species, and expanding anoxic zone.  In all of this doom and gloom, there is some good news; as Americans we have the tools to end this abuse.  In addition to having the ability to call or write our congress members, we have the resources at hand to make informed decisions about who we’re voting into office and keep tabs on elected official’s voting records.  Don’t let the injustices continue, on November 8th, go out and vote, and get coal out of our air and water.

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