The Daily Grist: Feb. 26

There's Coal in Them Thar Hills
New Coal-Fired Power Plants on the Horizon

Coal, for decades the reviled stepchild of the U.S. energy family, is about to become the prodigal son. Stoked by easy availability, the rising costs of other fuels, and a growing desire to reduce dependence on foreign oil and gas, coal is roaring back: Plans are in the works to build some 94 new coal-fired power plants in 36 states. Because most plants are still in the private planning phase, not yet open for public comment, the impending coal rush has thus far come in under the radar of most environmental groups and state officials. The burning of coal produces more airborne mercury and greenhouse gases than any other single source, and those levels could increase dramatically when the new plants come online. Says Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's energy program, "I think most Americans would be shocked that utilities are dragging the 19th century into the 21st century."

Every Which Way but Laos
Laos' Natural Resources Are Rapidly Disappearing

A perfect storm of widespread poverty, corrupt and inefficient communist leadership, and international indifference has made the Southeast Asian nation of Laos a virtual case study in environmental decline. Although it is one of the world's poorest and least developed nations, Laos is rich with natural resources, which represent an almost-irresistible source of short-term profit. Profligate logging has reduced forest cover from 70 percent in the mid-20th century to less than 40 percent today, and illegal wildlife trade with China is booming. Although Laos has a network of protected areas covering 14 percent of the country, critics call them "paper parks" whose defense is woefully underfunded, making them easy targets for loggers and poachers. There is little local expertise or interest in environmental issues to slow the decline. Says Latsamay Sylavong of the World Conservation Union, "Suddenly income-earning opportunities, like wildlife sale and logging, come to people's doorsteps and most can't resist them. They don't think about the future."

Buy Winslow, Sell High
Green Investment Fund Doubles Returns

The Winslow Green Growth Fund, established in 1994 and run by Matthew Patsky, has doubled its worth in the last 12 months -- and outperformed stock benchmarks like the Standard & Poor's 500 Index -- by investing in environmentally and socially responsible companies. Winslow targets such companies as Quantum Fuel Systems Technology Worldwide, a maker of hydrogen and natural-gas fuel tanks for cars, and Chiquita, which emerged from bankruptcy in 2002 with a firm commitment to environmental stewardship. Winslow's rise mirrors the wider rise of socially responsible funds -- funds that avoid companies involved in alcohol, tobacco, nuclear power, weapons, gambling, or other unsavory enterprises -- from $12 billion in investments in 1995 to about $151 billion last year. Patsky summarizes the logic connecting green behavior and profitability: "It makes sense that if I haven't been sitting there scheming about how to dump stuff in the backyard without getting caught but have been thinking about how to do it right, I probably have been thinking about how to do everything right."

Getting the Vapors
Concerns About Hanford Worker Safety Grow

Concerns over the safety of workers cleaning up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southwestern Washington state -- site of the largest nuclear waste dump in the Western Hemisphere -- continue to escalate. Yesterday, the Department of Energy announced a formal investigation of the private contractor that monitors worker health, responding to charges that the Hanford Environmental Health Foundation, under pressure to increase speed and reduce costs, systematically altered medical records and suppressed reports of workers harmed by vapors from Hanford's 177 underground waste tanks. Critics say the charges point up a decades-long pattern of mismanagement and fraud at the site and are pushing for a wider investigation. "The situation is too murky to trust the Department of Energy's self-investigation, and the sooner some independent eyes are trained on Hanford worker safety, the better," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

For more environmental news and humor visit Grist Magazine

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