The Daily Grist: April 5

Talking Trash
New Biomass Process Holds Great Promise

Biomass -- the process of converting carbon-based waste into fuel -- is slowly but surely
becoming a viable enterprise. At the forefront are companies like Changing World Technologies Inc.; its first commercial plant, recently built in Carthage, Mo., sees thousands of tons of turkey parts from a nearby Butterball plant transformed, via a multi-stage process of intense heat, separating, grinding, and distilling, into fertilizer, fuels, and clean-burning oils. The process produces no waste -- no smoke, no dirty water -- and can run on virtually any carbon-based input, from medical waste to old tires to cast-off computers, says the company.
Currently, Changing World gets a boost from government subsidies, but it predicts that with refinements in its process and more cooperation from waste-producing industries, the sky's the limit. Enviros have mixed reactions to this type of biomass, acknowledging the benefits -- waste reduction, a cleaner process for producing petroleum, and a possible reduction in mad cow disease (with slaughterhouse waste burnt instead of fed to other animals) -- while worrying that it could distract attention from the needed move away from petroleum to genuinely clean energies.

Watershed Down
California Law Threatens Watershed Restoration Projects

An obscure California law may
threaten watershed restoration efforts across the state. At issue are the use of volunteers -- a common practice by watershed-restoration groups perpetually strapped for cash -- and a 2001 law mandating that all workers on public-works projects be paid the prevailing market wage for their work.
Last year, a labor union complained when one of its members saw volunteers operating heavy machinery, and the state Department of Industrial Relations ordered a local environmental group to pay $50,000 in fines and back wages (the group is appealing). The law, which expanded the definition of a public-works project in such a way that it included watershed restoration efforts, was written by state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D), who said through a spokesperson that he never intended to curtail volunteer work. Enviros hope that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) will overturn the department's position; state Assemblyperson Loni Hancock (D) has also introduced legislation that would explicitly exempt environmental restoration projects from the law, though it likely wouldn't go into effect until next year.

No Chemical Left Behind
U.S. State Department Helping Chemical Industry Fight E.U. Regulation

Last year, the European Union proposed a plan that would have forced all manufacturers to test industrial chemicals and report on their public-health effects before selling them in Europe. The Bush administration immediately began a lobbying campaign to forestall the move, including several messages sent directly from Secretary of State Colin Powell to trading partners of the U.S. Turns out,
according to a House report released last week, the campaign was waged in close consultation with the U.S. chemical industry. Shocker! Emails and documents in the report describe U.S. trade representatives asking the industry for "themes" to use in battling the law. Unsurprisingly, the industry pushed the notion that the legislation was based on "unsound science" and would cost jobs. (Sound familiar?) The report claims that environmental groups and the general public were completely excluded from the deliberations. The campaign has met with some success: A number of European nations have requested new assessments of the law's impact on industry. Under current rules, 99 percent of the total volume of chemicals sold in Europe have not been subject to testing requirements

For more environmental news and humor go to Grist Magazine.

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