The Daily Grist: March 5

Southwest Passage
New Mexico Passes Renewable-Energy Bills

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) yesterday celebrated the passage of a remarkable package of progressive energy bills, with the vocal support of a broad coalition including utilities, environmentalists, ranchers, and consumers. The centerpiece is a new law stating that all investor-owned electrical utilities in the state must generate 10 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2011. New Mexico is uniquely positioned to lead the country as the "Saudi Arabia of renewable energy," said Dan Reicher, a former U.S. Department of Energy official: "You've got great sun, great wind, you've got biomass, you've got geothermal." The Coalition for Clean, Affordable Energy estimates that the laws will result in $600 million in economic development for the state and the emission of 1 million fewer tons of greenhouse gases a year. Said Richardson: "We can have a prosperous economy. We can have sensible development. We can protect the environment, and we can have jobs."

Nothing but a GE Thing
Federal Court Gives GE Go-Ahead for Suit Against Superfund

The constitutionality of the Superfund toxic-site cleanup law is once again an open question. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., this week instructed a lower court to reconsider General Electric's suit challenging the 1980 law, overturning a year-old district court decision dismissing the case. The suit concerns a provision of Superfund -- inserted by lawmakers to avoid cleanup delays that might threaten public safety -- holding that companies ordered by the U.S. EPA to fund cleanup of a polluted site may not challenge the agency in court until after the project is finished. GE contends that the provision violates the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. The company claims the case will not affect its current negotiations with the EPA over a massive PCB dredging project on the Hudson River, but some enviros question the company's intentions. "It's very hard to think GE is continuing to act in good faith," said Rich Schiafo of the environmental group Scenic Hudson, "when they continue to challenge the very law they're supposedly cooperating with."

Eek-otourism
Ecotourism May Be Harming Wildlife

Ecotourism -- and tourism erroneously billed as eco -- may be harming the very animals and ecosystems it claims to venerate. As many as one in five tourists are "ecotourists" under some definition, and those numbers are expected to continue their dramatic rise in coming years. It's a booming business sector that can benefit poor countries, allowing them to make money by showing off their ecosystems rather than exploiting them. But a growing body of research is indicating that animals may not do very well with groups of humans tromping about their backyards. Humans can pass diseases to vulnerable species, disturb their daily routines, and increase stress and its related illnesses. The problem is that many ecotourism operations are unaudited and unaccredited, and there is no shared standard to ensure that they are low-impact. "The animals' welfare should be paramount," says researcher Rochelle Constantine, "because without them there will be no ecotourism."

Plumbing New Depths
D.C. Lead Contamination Casts Doubt on EPA Testing Methods

The ongoing drama over lead contamination in Washington, D.C., tap water promises to spill over (ahem) to the rest of the country, as a hearing on Capitol Hill today examines how federal agencies handle local drinking-water safety. Extensive testing of residential tap water by the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority -- conducted in an effort to avoid federal penalties -- revealed a problem much deeper than previously thought. Lead levels rose as faucets ran for more than a minute; unsafe levels of lead were found in new homes without lead service lines; and leached lead was found in water coming from brass faucets. All these results cast serious doubt on the standards the U.S. EPA uses to test for lead in drinking water and suggest that many cities elsewhere in the country may have similar lead problems. In a statement, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) worried that "D.C. could be the canary in the coal mine for a broader national lead contamination problem."

Ken You Dig It?
London Mayor Considers Expanding Downtown Congestion Charging

London Mayor Ken Livingstone boasts that the year-old, eight-square-mile pay zone in the center of the city -- where motorists are charged $9.40 to enter between 7:00 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. on weekdays -- has worked to reduce congestion and increase the use of public transportation. He promises that, if reelected, he'll double the size of the zone to include three largely residential boroughs on the city's west end. While the current congestion-charging scheme has roughly 75 percent support among London denizens, some critics claim that businesses inside the pay zone have been hurt, that public transportation is overwhelmed, and that expanding the zone over the protests of wealthy west-end residents might well push things too far and get Livingstone booted. The success of the plan has sparked interest in municipalities near and far, including Milan and Chicago.

For more environmental news and humor go to Grist Magazine

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