Environmental Politics, Think
Environews: November 2011
Gov. Herbert advocates dirty air; war on the Wasatch backcountry; artists for Canyonlands; Bishop and Big Oil; D.C. tar sands protests resume.
—U. Utah Phillips
Governor Herbert advocates dirty air
Apparently Utah Governor Gary Herbert doesn’t think Utah’s air quality problems are bad enough yet. In October, Herbert sent a letter to President Obama on behalf of himself and 11 Republican governors asking to delay implementation of the 1990 Clean Air Act. Herbert claims that protecting the environment would raise energy prices and hurt the economy, but doesn’t acknowledge that pollution from power plants is already a serious public health issue in Utah and a threat to the economy as well.
The Union of Concerned Scientists says “coal plants emit air pollutants that still kill thousands of people yearly, costing society over $100 billion per year.” One of the worst pollutants from coal-fired power plants is mercury, a potent toxin that interferes with the way nerve cells function. Mercury is especially dangerous to developing babies, and it’s toxic in very small amounts—a teaspoon of mercury can contaminate a 20-acre lake. Coal-fired power is the single largest source of environmental mercury contamination.
The Great Salt Lake has been found to have such high concentrations of mercury that the Utah Department of Environmental Quality has formed a Mercury Work Group to monitor the situation. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has advised against eating ducks from wetlands near the lake due to mercury contamination.
As if respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses and mercury poisoning weren’t bad enough, climate change impacts from coal power are potentially calamitous. For instance, the infestation of pine beetles that is currently gobbling up Utah’s forests is directly related to warming temperatures. A decline in snowpack Salt Lake City would impact both our drinking water and the ski industry.
War on the Wasatch backcountry
Pressure to increase development in the Wasatch Mountains is becoming so intense that Save Our Canyons (SOC) terms it a “War on the Wasatch Backcountry.” Among the awful proposals and projects currently on the table:
• A gondola between The Canyons and Solitude Mountain Resort? Planners say that skiers would ride over the backcountry but not be able to get off. Yeah, right.
• The Snowbird roller coaster, back from the dead. Salt Lake County rejected the plan so Snowbird is trying to get Utah County to approve it.
• Meanwhile, Salt Lake County is proposing to change the ordinances that prevented the roller coaster in the first place.
• SOC has information that Alta is building a lift in Grizzly Gulch.
• A whole new 203-acre ski area proposed in Cherry Creek Canyon in Cache County near Richmond, borders both the Richmond Wildlife Management Area and the United States Forest Mount Naomi Wilderness Area.
Artists for Canyonlands
Environmental debates often center on science and politics, but the most compelling argument for wilderness conservation is that wilderness feeds the human soul. In conjunction with its campaign to protect Greater Canyonlands, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance has collected an online gallery of photographs and artworks inspired by the redrock landscape. Reading the SUWA factsheet will tell you all the excellent reasons for protecting Utah’s redrock country, but looking at these artworks, short of being there yourself, will tell your heart why it’s so important.
Blended waste not so safe
Heal Utah is still playing Whack-a-Mole with threats to store more and hotter nuclear waste in Utah’s West Desert. Utah law currently bans Class B and C nuclear waste, but EnergySolutions is trying to take advantage of a regulatory loophole by blending permittable Class A waste with banned Class B and C waste.
HEAL Utah estimates that allowing blended waste into the state could triple or quadruple the current amount of radioactivity. The blended waste plan, called “SempraSafe,” is a joint venture between EnergySolutions and the Swedish company Studsvik. To go forward, the SempraSafe project requires a go-ahead from the Utah Division of Radiation Control. It is not yet clear what position Utah Governor Gary Herbert takes on SempraSafe, but he has previously opposed accepting blended waste in Utah.
D.C. tar sands protests resume Nov. 6
Climate activist Bill McKibben has invited Occupy Wall Street protesters to join the fight against tar sands development. In a New York City speech, McKibben announced, “On November 6, one year before the election, we’re going to be in DC with a huge circle of people around the White House, and they’re going to be carrying signs with quotations from Barack Obama from the 2008 campaign…. It’s time to end the tyranny of oil.” At the same time, local heroTim DeChristopher says that the climate justice movement needs to get behind the Occupy protests. In an interview from prison for Rolling Stone magazine, DeChristopher said, “The Occupy protests have hit a soft spot. They have found that little crack. And now they are pushing, and they are making that crack grow. The rest of us need to keep pushing and break that hole in the wall.” Although tar sands protests in Washington DC are focused on blocking a Canadian pipeline, large areas of Utah, Colorado and Wyoming are also threatened by the prospect of tar sands strip mining.
Bishop and big oil
At the Tooele County Republican convention, someone asked Utah Congressman Rob Bishop (R-1) if he supports tax breaks for big oil. Bishop replied that “there are no special subsidies or tax breaks for oil companies, period.” Meanwhile, Bishop keeps voting against efforts to end oil subsidies. PublicCampaign.org reports that half of Bishop’s funding for his re-election campaign came directly from the oil and gas industry. Is it any wonder that Occupy Salt Lake protesters are carrying signs with messages like “Big Oil Gets Tax Breaks, Grandma Gets Medicare Cuts?”