Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise has been watching the climate world since 2009. What she sees isn't pretty.

Environmentalism Runs Amok

I’ve added a new entry to my Recommended Reading list. If I were teaching a course in civics, critical thinking, or journalism Jonathan Last’s superb tale of how phosphates have disappeared from American dishwashing detergent would be examined early and referred to often.

This story illustrates how behind the times we all are. Nearly half a century has passed since the first Earth Day. The chessboard has undergone some dramatic alterations. The players with the power, the influence – and the war chests – are different now.

We’ve all been told that Mother Nature gets defiled by corporate entities who’ll inflict any sort of carnage merely to make a buck. We’ve learned to think of Nature as requiring defenders.

What we’ve failed to notice is that she now has those defenders. Small armies of them, in fact. First there are the environmental pressure groups. Organizations such as Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Environmental Defense Fund are all tremendously wealthy. They spend a ton of money lobbying government, courting the media, and educating the general public. They also employ battalions of lawyers – who file lots of lawsuits.

Then there are the legions of government officials. Every developed nation has a federal environment department. Every state / province / canton has a similar environment department. Most counties and cities also employ people whose main concern is the quality of the environment. In the US, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) alone reportedly employs 17,000 people. In Germany, as far back as 1990, an estimated 200,000 individuals were “directly involved in environmental protection.”

All of these people claim to speak for Mother Nature. All of these people are predisposed to take her side in every skirmish. And just who is on the other side? Human beings. People and businesses who are trying to earn a living, who are providing for their families, who are producing the goods and services we all rely on – from sewage treatment to dishwashing detergent.

We’ve all heard the stories about big business running amok, but few of us have heard the story Last has to tell. It goes something like this:

  • raw sewage used to be dumped directly into the Spokane River in Washington state
  • in 1958 a sewage / water treatment plant opened
  • in 1977 phosphorus in the river was linked to an increase in algae which was linked to the death of fish
  • following a citizen-launched lawsuit, the city of Spokane agreed to remove 85% of the phosphorus from the water discharged by the treatment plant
  • due to population growth, in 2003 the city gained approval from the state’s Department of Ecology to build a second sewage / water treatment plant
  • a few months later, the Department of Ecology changed its mind – apparently after being threatened with a lawsuit by the green activist group, the Sierra Club
  • the city was then forced to jump through a series of hoops in order to regain the approval of the eco authorities
  • in 2004 the existing treatment plant was dumping 229 pounds of phosphorus into the river each day
  • the city spent $125 million on upgrades and, by 2006, that figure had dropped to 195 pounds a day
  • the new, on-hold treatment plant was expected to “filter out 99 percent of incoming phosphorus and emit only 35 pounds per day”
  • but the state Dept. of Ecology declared that 5 lbs a day between the two treatment plants was the goal
  • others said this was impossible to achieve outside of a lab
  • in 2006 the entire Spokane city budget was $509 million
  • desperate to gain approval for the urgently needed new facility, the city agreed to spend $400 million over 12 years on phosphorus filtering
  • in 2005, Washington state politicians began agitating for a ban on phosphates in dishwasher detergent, even though a 2003 study in Minnesota had determined that these products are responsible for less than 2% of the phosphorus in that jurisdiction
  • even though the Sierra Club admitted that banning phosphate detergents wouldn’t solve the Spokane River’s woes, in 2006 such detergents were nevertheless banned in Washington state
  • by 2010 similar bans had been imposed in 15 other states
  • July 2010 marked the end of phosphate dish detergent in North America

Why should we care? Because dishes aren’t coming out clean – which means that people from one end of America to the other are washing them a second time – or washing them by hand, which actually consumes more water. It is difficult to conclude, therefore, that all of the above adds up to genuine environmental progress.

Moreover, as Last observes, the ban appears to have made no significant difference to the health of the particular waterway that started it all:

A year after [the ban] went into effect, supporters conveniently forgot their promises of reductions in the 15 percent to 20 percent range and trumpeted news that phosphorus flowing into the city’s water-treatment plant had declined by 10.7 percent, to just 181 pounds per day. Buried in the accounts was a remark by the plant’s manager admitting that because the new phosphorus filtration system was so efficient, nearly all of the in-flowing phosphorus was getting filtered out anyway. So the reduction of phosphorus actually making it into the river as a result of the detergent ban is much, much smaller. [italics in orginal]

…Last month the University of Washington released a study suggesting that some of the phosphorus being discharged into the Spokane River never actually worked as fertilizer for algae to begin with. It seems that not all phosphorus is alike.

Last’s article ends with a passing reference to a pulp and paper company. He says it has “spent millions fighting for its continued existence” because its industrial processes also discharge phosphorus. If that mill (which currently operates 24 / 7) is forced to shut down the millwrights, the electricians, the lab techs, the engineers, and the boiler operators who are all employed there will lose their jobs. Some of those blue-collar families will never recover.

There is no reason to believe that the eco authorities – or the lawyers from the Sierra Club – will shed a tear over the human carnage.

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read Last’s great piece of journalism here

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This entry was posted on February 27, 2011 by in ethical & philosophical, NGOs and tagged , , .
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