J.A. Savage

Getting Off Our Nuclear Power Fixation

My favorite internet date site posits a question: "What is the best/worst lie you've told?"

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Nuclear Meltdown?

Before the WTO demonstrations in Seattle, before Cancun and before the about-to-be big street demos in New York for the Republican Convention 2004, there was Diablo Canyon. Over 3,000 people were arrested trying to stop that enormous nuclear power plant. It finally went on-line in the 1980s. California earthquakes, a whole reactor installed backwards, and the unprecedented $5.5 billion in construction costs didn't stop it. But, the state of California just might find a reason to shut it down two decades later.

California is embarking on an economic and social test where other states have feared to tread. At the end of February, the California Public Utilities Commission starts to determine whether Pacific Gas & Electric's Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant is worth continued operations and customer investments. Other states have been cowed by the industry's assurances that nuclear power is safe, despite recent near misses, like that at Davis-Besse in Ohio, and that the federal government has everything under control at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

But is it worth it? Is it worth spending ratepayer's money to keep running nuclear plants despite all the risks?

Since the 2200 megawatt Diablo Canyon facility went live, the world has changed. Nuclear plants have been considered targets by terrorists. The marine life in the Pacific Ocean surrounding Diablo Canyon near San Luis Obispo, as well as the marine life adjacent to another nuclear plant on the Pacific near San Onofre, has been denuded as the plants suck up billions of gallons of seawater a day to be returned to the ocean at higher temperatures. Like many other nuclear plant owners across the nation, PG&E plans to store its increasing pile of high-level nuclear waste on top of the ground at the plant because the promised long-term national waste storage dump at Yucca Mountain, Nevada will likely never come to fruition. There have also been several earthquakes near Diablo's reactors, most recently 50 miles away in December 2003.

California has another twist -- deregulation. As long the costs of an accident are ruled out, nuclear power in the state has become cheaper than some other types of electricity, thanks to deregulation. With deregulation in 1996, nuclear-owning utilities were paid back for their risky investments. PG&E was promised it would get paid back for all its original $5.5 billion investment in the plant, plus interest and subsidies, which accounted to over $28 billion in a total bill to the utility's customers. That cost is out of the picture now and because of that, nuclear appears cheaper on the surface.

Triggering the state's inquiry into the risk and rewards of nuclear power is PG&E's intention to spend $706 million in the next few years to refurbish Diablo Canyon. That potential new flood of ratepayer money is causing the state of California to see whether keeping Diablo Canyon on life support is worth the trouble. California is home to plenty of alternatives -- state law requires 20 percent of power to come from alternative sources in about a decade. Environmentalists are beginning to discuss alternatives for Diablo's megawatts.

Diablo owner PG&E cites the nuke's lack of air pollution as a plus, but avoids any mention of the cost of radioactive leaks.

Recent federal estimates of nuclear fuel-related accidents in the Los Angeles area estimated that within hours a nuclear plume would disperse radiation almost 30 miles and assumes nearly 400 latent fatal cancers in one year. Clean up costs would easily run in the multi-billion dollar range. These are costs that are not reflected in the "operating costs" of Diablo Canyon when PG&E promotes its surface value.

That's where the California Public Utilities Commission comes in -- almost coincident with the 25th anniversary of the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island plant.

The state may very well determine that running the aging plant is worth the economic and social risks, given the nuclear industry's history of heavy-handed lobbying. Then again, it could be a beacon for other states to initiate the same inquiry.

J.A. Savage is editor of the independent publication, California Energy Circuit.

Can Greenpeace USA Get Its Mojo Back?

Picture this: Little rubber Zodiacs sloshing up against giant ships dumping nuclear waste. Neoprene-clad environmentalists sneaking in to plug toxic waste discharge pipes. People putting their bodies between baby seals and hunter clubbers on northern ice floes. The Rainbow Warrior boat off to harass France's nuclear testing yet again -- until the government bombs the boat in retaliation.

These are fond memories of Greenpeace's subversiveness. While the venerable environmental organization remains a presence in many countries worldwide, Greenpeace USA misplaced its joie d'vivre a decade ago and has been limping along on international support.

"We lost the pirate to the bureaucracy," said Scott Paul, Greenpeace USA campaign spokesperson.

The last flamboyant US action dates back to 1989 when Greenpeace used its big toys to detour Trident II nuclear missile testing off Florida. Since then, Greenpeace has been a part of actions across the US, but has settled more comfortably into developing reports and lobbying in Washington DC.

This year, the Bush administration's attempt to turn publicly owned national forest tracks -- a land mass the size of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming combined -- into lumber and fuel for electricity is the arena where Greenpeace plans to get back into the hearts and guts of environmentalists and back on the front pages.

"Forest issues are heating up. This is bigger than the Watt years," said Paul, referring to the rabidly anti-environment former Secretary of Interior, James Watt, during the 1980s.

Greenpeace is bringing its international financing, its technological toys and "dinosaur" (as in elder wisdom) organizing skills to the front of forest issues in the US this summer. Expect mass arrests with celebrities along in 'cuffs. Expect forest occupations -- tree sitters and other mayhem -- to slow, if not stop, logging.

Even if Greenpeace doesn't get its Mojo back from these actions, it appears certain that it will be responsible for a well-trained crop of life-long activists.

Learning the Ropes

In a recent week-long training camp deep in Montana's Bitterroot Forest, 20- and 30-somethings learned the ropes -- both figuratively and literally -- of forest activism. Climbing trees, wilderness survival, interaction with, and protection from, forest workers, and of course dealing with the media, were all on the agenda. The camp had Greenpeace doing the heavy economic lifting, as well as transporting its solar-panel truck to back up the kitchen and the stereo system, the crammed electronics van with the microwave antenna and infrared sensors to detect incoming rednecks with malevolent intent in the middle of the night, and the necessary latrines. A coalition of 120 grassroots groups under the umbrella of the Native Forest Protection Alliance cosponsored the training camp.

Electronic survelliance for errant rednecks is serious business at training camps like these. In this part of the country they practice a different kind of discrimination. Posted on storefronts and saloon doors are signs: "No Earth Firsters Allowed. This is logging country." (All environmentalists appear to be Earth First!ers to them.)

Also in Montana -- in the stuff you can't make up department -- is serious public debate over the National Bison Range. Native Americans are making a pitch to take over its management. Many there are questioning the capability to protect the remaining bison.

"I spent all my money on tree spikes and beer," sang camp ringleader Mike Roselle around a post-training campfire." Roselle is a mountain man who often gets the bum's rush for his raw antics in the city. He helped found Earth First!, and in general, prefers to stir up shit than put on something that resembles a suit to lobby politicians. He knows his forests, his celebrities and the inside of several jails.

Greenpeace, with Roselle as pie-eyed piper, is aiming to lead activists back toward the Big Show, the visceral juxtaposition of good and evil that reaches for the public's gut, vote and wallet. Stunts, magic, and, at the very root of the activism -- a good time.

"It's serious business," said Woods, an activist from Berkeley, California, who spent his morning roping up and down tall Ponderosa pine. "But we're supposed to be having fun."

J.A. Savage is a frequent contributor to AlterNet.

A Nuclear Whistleblower at Home

Oscar Shirani just didn't understand when his former employer, Exelon, wouldn't stop its high-level nuclear waste container manufacturer. The containers, like the ones Shirani say headed for the Dresden plant in Illinois, are being filled with radioactive spent fuel and installed at nuclear plants around the country. Shirani fears the shoddy work will result in affecting the health of millions of people.

Despite their delicate and deadly cargo, the casks "are nothing but garbage cans" if their fabrication violates government specs, said Shirani.

Instead of giving him a medal for thorough work and dedication, Shirani says Exelon convinced him to transfer to another job and then, conveniently, laid him off. The self-described "company man," turned freshly minted whistleblower, might be able to do what anti-nuclear activists have been unable to accomplish -- pounding nails into the nuclear casket, forcing old plants to shut down. Then again, the federal government could acknowledge the alleged sub-standard work and hope the casks don't leak anytime in the next few thousand years.

The nuclear industry has turned to on-site radioactive waste storage in what's called "dry casks" in order to keep nuclear plants humming. Commercial nukes all have spent fuel pools. When those are filled up -- and most are at, or near, capacity already -- environmentalists expected the industry would be forced to turn off the plants.

Like a clogged septic tank, you have to quit flushing when it's full. But environmentalists were out-flanked by industry when it figured out a new "sewage" storage plan.

Industry hoped that it would have a permanent waste site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, long before now. Nuclear plant owners, however, could see that a Yucca repository is a far off, if ever, possibility. They moved to simply build a new and different kind of above-ground septic tank.

What Shirani alleges is that those tanks (a company called Holtec designed them and uses U.S. Tool & Die to make them) are not being fabricated to Nuclear Regulatory Commission specs. While some believe NRC specs themselves don't provide much safety assurance, Shirani did.

"I thought the NRC was a big dog and a force," he said, but without the kind of oversight he maintains was thwarted, the safety of nuclear plants "is suspect."

Failure Points

Shirani's nuke casket story is akin to, say, ordering a new Hummer from the dealership. In the glossy brochure, the thick boxy steel can repel almost anything short of armor-piercing projectiles. But when you get the SUV home, you find it's made of glued fiberglass and spills passengers all over the sidewalk at every approaching pothole.

If the casks are shoddy, would they leak radioactivity and endanger public health? Shirani could only guess that it could affect "millions." Activists say they just don't know.

"Federal regulations should not make [Shirani], or us, or the NRC, or the cask owner guess about consequences," said David Lochbaum, Union of Concerned Scientists nuclear safety engineer. "The regulations require a certain level of performance and his findings were below that minimum level. It may not be that the cask will fail when challenged, but they are unnecessarily and illegally closer to the failure point."

Welds on the casks were performed by "unqualified welders" and materials control was inadequate for the casks, Shirani reported to Exelon in mid-2000. Fabrication engendered brittleness in materials, weakening them, Shirani notes. He maintains Holtec failed to report holes in the neutron shielding material. He allleges that Exelon "falsified" quality assurance documents and "misled" the NRC in last year's investigation of the problem. He found "hundreds of non-conformance items." Overall, he claims that what is being manufactured to hold nuclear waste is not what was approved in conceptual design by the federal government.

"I called my people in Washington and tried to get them to do something, but they didn't do anything," said Ross Landsman, NRC Region III inspector in a January deposition provided by Shirani.

"Every time I find some stuff wrong with any of the Holtec stuff, my brilliant cohorts in Washington say, 'Give them an exemption'," Landsman said sarcastically. "Holtec, as far as I'm concerned, has a non-effective QA (quality assurance) program and US Tool & Die has no QA program whatsoever."

Landsman added that the issues raised by Shirani on the casks headed for the Dresden plant had not been resolved, despite an August 2000 audit stating the problems had been fixed.

Cover Up?

Shirani had audited Holtec and its suppliers for the Nuclear Users Procurement Issues Committee, identifying what he calls "major design and fabrication issues" against Holtec in 1999 and 2000. He filed those with the NRC in November 2000. The NRC closed the allegations procedure a year later.

Shirani said he tried to put a "stop work" order on the casks' fabrication to no avail. Anti-nuclear activists have followed up on Shirani's claims, filing Freedom of Information Act requests to find out what the government did about these claims.

The activists are backing Shirani in his quest to get the NRC to look into the original allegations and their cover up through the NRC inspector general.

"The NRC has not contacted us," responded Brian Gutherman, Holtec manager of licensing. "The NRC did approve the design as a snapshot in time. We're allowed to make certain changes below the safety threshold." Gutherman said Holtec "is absolutely not concerned" about cask safety and potential leakage, and that between the NRC and Holtec's clients, "nowhere has anyone suggested such a thing." As for Shirani, Gutherman said, "He's just making things up."

If the casks are found to be fabricated below specifications, the NRC could simply let them be. "They could be accepted as is or get approval of the [changed] design. There could also be an exemption," said NRC spokesperson John Monninger. He added, though, there is a possibility the government won't let the casks be used at all.

Insider Information

Being a whistleblower isn't easy. You can be celebrated, like Jeff Wigand who revealed the dirt on tobacco purveyors Brown & Williamson and had a movie, "The Insider," made about him. Most likely, though, whistleblowers lose their livelihood, are mocked by their former peers and considered "eccentric" at best -- all this for deciding to follow the muse of conscience instead of the dominant paradigm.

"It's ethical cleansing," of the nuclear industry, chided Union of Concerned Scientists' Lochbaum -- a former industry man himself.

Shirani's former employer, Exelon, rejected the dust-up. "His case has been heard by numerous boards and agencies and it was dismissed. There is no substantiation for those claims," said Exelon spokesperson Ann Mary Carley She could, however, say that only the labor administrative review board has heard Shirani's complaints. The board's decisions are on appeal.

As a pro-nuclear power conservative company man, Shirani can't help still believing in the efficacy of the system -- but now he believes that the system can be flawed.

"Without the enforcement [of NRC regulations] I believe that we allow these people to spit on the face of quality and safety. This would be my top priority in my life more than my financial damage -- to see justice served."

Sidebar

Holtec casks approved, according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesperson:

Pennsylvania: Exelon, Dresden
Oregon: Portland General Electric (Enron), Trojan
New York: Entergy, Fitzpatrick
Georgia: Southern Nuclear Operating Company, Hatch
Washington: Energy Northwest, Columbia Generating Station

Holtec casks in consideration by nuclear plant owners according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesperson:

Alabama: Farley, Southern Nuclear Operating Company
Tennessee: Tennessee Valley Authority, Sequoyah
Arkansas: Tennessee Valley Authority, Browns Ferry; Entergy, ANO
Vermont: Entergy, Vermont Yankee
Louisiana: Entergy, Riverbend
Utah: Consortium of owners and utilities known as Private Fuel Storage for a potential waste site.
California: Pacific Gas & Electric, Diablo Canyon; Humboldt Bay.

J.A. Savage is an environmental economics reporter in the San Francisco Bay Area.

House Debates Orwellian Logging Bill

Log federal forests in order to save them? That's what the House voted to do Tuesday. Invoking the ghost of George Orwell, the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 encourages federal land managers to "conduct hazardous fuel reduction projects." In a 256 to 170 tally, the House would allow what environmentalists say will lead to logging 190 million acres the Bush administration claims are "at risk" of forest fire. It also limits citizen participation and authorizes another $125 million in industry subsidies. The Senate plans to take it up in summer.

"We call it the 'Healthy-Stealthy' Act," explains Andrew George, National Forest Protection Alliance campaign coordinator. "It allows logging in the forest when logging is one of the single greatest causes of fires."

Environmentalists allege it hands prime forests, including ancient trees, to the timber industry and will lead to decimating precious public lands. Rep. Scott McInnis' (R-CO) HR1904 uses community protection as the Act's raison d'être -- stopping fires from burning down homes and structures at the fringes of the forest. Instead of addressing the development/forest interface, the bill "does nothing" to protect communities, according to George.

Pro-logging forces, like the American Land Rights Association, admit the bill will also allow the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, "discretionary authority to limit [environmental] analysis ... meaning the agencies would not be required to analyze and describe a number of different alternatives to the preferred course." The Association adds in a letter, "This legislation is crucial for protecting our air, water and wildlife from insect infestations and catastrophic wildfires."

The Society of American Foresters agrees, pointing to, "80 years of the accumulation of fuels -- dead vegetation and overly dense stands of trees" leading to an "all-time high" potential for fires.

The "stealthy" part of the Act comes from supporters like these who greenwash their intent, say environmentalists. "The greenwashing starts in the bill's title," said Matthew Koehler, Native Forest Network campaign coordinator. He said the proposed legislation would implement the Bush administration's Healthy Forest Initiative launched last summer -- following the 2000 wildland fire season, one of the worst in a half-century -- using the "guise of protecting communities while severely curtailing citizen participation."

Underlying the administration's urgency is its public complaint that environmentalists delay logging plans.

In a federal report out May 14, environmentalists were apprised that if delaying logging is their strategy, they are lousy at it. Of the "fuel reduction" plans that environmentalists appealed in the last two years, two-thirds were approved as planned and only 10 percent were reversed. But in so reporting, the investigative arm of Congress, the General Accounting Office (GAO), also noted that if environmentalists' delay tactics are the reason for stripping out public input in the Healthy Forests Act, than that too is a canard.

Koehler said that at least the GAO report put the lie to the Bush administration's claim of "analysis paralysis" in invoking the necessity of the Healthy Forests Act.

Another key greenwashing in the Act is in the form of Undersecretary for Natural Resources & Environment, Mark Rey. Both environmentalists and the Act's author consider him an important facet of the Bush administration's logging initiative. Environmentalists point to his background as a timber lobbyist for nearly two decades and the author of two pieces of anti-forest legislation. The first was passed into law in 1995 allowing clearcutting ancient forests in the Northwest. The second was not passed. It would have made environmental standards "unenforceable" and fined citizens up to $10,000 for filing appeals, according to the Native Forest Network. "This is the guy behind the rollbacks" of forest environmental rules, noted George.

"If the Act passes, it would be considered implementation of the administration's plan," said Koehler, who characterized the bill as one of several that are "payback" to campaign contributors. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the timber industry contributed $4.6 million to politicians last year -- most of which went to Republicans.

"The Bush administration has been good at greenwashing -- good at using people's fear of fire to limit opposition," said Koehler. "It has also sold the American public a false bill of 'analysis paralysis.' That's the level they'll go to to ensure we will see more logging on public forests."

J.A. Savage is an environmental economics reporter who has also worked as a forest firefighter. For more info, visit ForestAdvocate.org and NativeForest.org. To take action, visit WorkingforChange's Action Page.

Canary In a Data Mine

tia logo

A few items at the local Wal-Mart find their way into your basket--a computer hard drive, a wrench, a discounted Halloween mask, a gallon of lighter fluid, and a CD of The Coup’s album Party Music. You look in your wallet. No cash. You pay with the ATM card. The bored woman at the register asks for your zip code, and, distracted, you give it to her.

Wal-Mart’s streaming data secrets your purchase data to Arlington, Virginia, where it hooks up with a speeding ticket you got at the Canadian border last week and your subscription to The Nation. Next thing you know, two FBI agents are at your door with probable cause to sift through your belongings. They find a small bag of pot your old roommate left behind and a copy of the book "Bomb the Suburbs." Your patriotism is suddenly questioned at headquarters.

IAOThis scenario is being painted by even those only moderately fearful of how the new Total Information Awareness program under Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will work with the new, encompassing, Homeland Security Act. TIA’s intended purposes is to catch potential terrorists before they strike. While the moderately fearful have their point, computer-savvy techies say this scenario isn’t likely to happen--yet.

"It’s the Three Stooges Go to Data Mining School," says Paul Hawken, environmental/capitalist and chair of Groxis, a data mining software company.

"The good news is Americans don’t have much to fear soon," Hawken says. "It will take 10 years to get going." In addition, "the brilliant, cutting-edge technology companies won’t touch this," he says. "DARPA’s going to get the second-rate companies."

Those companies, like IBM that Hawken calls "second rate," have repeatedly received government contracts leading to billions of dollars worth of technology that doesn’t work. IBM, for instance, wasted much of a $15 billion contract on upgrading the nation’s aviation system a decade ago.

In late November, Hawken was approached by DARPA with a request to allow the military to license Groxis. Hawken said no. As far as he knows, his company is the only one to publicly decline the millions of dollars involved with licensing data mining software to the government for Total Information Awareness.

"We got a lot of e-mails from companies--even conservative ones--saying, ‘Thank you. Finally someone won’t do something for money.’"

But the rest of those companies, the IBMs of the nation, will be happy to go along with DARPA’s plan. "All those vendors whose stock has crashed in the last few months are rubbing their hands at the tons of pork," said Cory Doctorow, the Electronic Frontier Foundation outreach coordinator.

So far, a traditional technology company, Booz Allen Hamilton, has been awarded a contract by DARPA to start technology integration. Telcordia, a communications company and Cycorp, which has a sort of artificial intelligence product that sorts questions and answers have also been hired, according to DARPA spokesperson Jan Walker.

While those companies might waste taxpayer money, they may still be able to get the job done. Doctorow and others believe the data mining necessary to compile dossiers on the public is feasible. DARPA doesn’t even need supercomputers. It can set up a basement full of white box PCs to crawl through incoming data.

There are two main technical questions. Can software make sense of it in a way for government agencies to use without being overwhelmed by nonsense and can the vast numbers of sources of data agree on ways to talk in the same language?

It’s not simple, but it’s also not very high-tech, according to Doctorow. "It’s like how to get Sears and Macys to agree on a Dewey Decimal system."

Yet, government isn’t good at figuring out even the most basic technology. One of the first aspects of the Homeland Security Act to be made public was that the 22 agencies involved will have to set up a common e-mail system so they can talk to each other--presumably they cannot do so now and have yet to discover Yahoo! groups.

According to DARPA, after the e-mail system is in place, the plan is to gather "transactional data" on individuals, including information about their financial, educational (such as high school permanent record), travel, medical, veterinary (terrorist cats?), transportation, housing and communications activities.

But even if they are able to pull all this information together, compiling data in one massive center as DARPA plans is unlikely to catch the intended terrorist targets. The military and the big technology companies expected to sign onto the Total Information Awareness program are structured in a way that could well thwart the initiative.

"The response of this administration is to build a new hierarchy, when the [model] is the flat framework of al Qaeda," said Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future and a technology sage. Because al Qaeda works in small relatively independent cells, it's unlikely TIA would uncover an entire network.

Putting all that information in one hierarchical, centralized situation could very well backfire, especially if more and more people start getting knocks on their doors. Many Americans are used to being able to do as they please and while they seem relatively complacent now, if all this data gathering starts to impinge on their daily lives, they could start holding politicians accountable.

Hawken expects TIA to have an enormous error rate, one that Americans will not endure. "The error rate is ten to the third power. That means for every person TIA identifies who might possibly have information leading to something that could have the potential to affect security, it’s mistakenly identifying at least a thousand who are totally innocent. The error rate comes from the problem with inferring meaning from the information, not the tracking of the information itself.

"Yes, all this data can be mined. But then what?" Hawkins asks. "You have to sort, analyze and make sense of it. I don’t think anyone knows how it’s going to work."

That doesn’t mean the military can’t pull it off. TIA was granted $137 million to spend in the next fiscal year and expects to have a research prototype in five years, according to DARPA’s Walker.

Much has been made of the director of the Total Awareness Program, John Poindexter, whose reign as President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser was most noted for his hip-deep involvement with Iran Contra. He was convicted, and his conviction was overturned. Saffo calls him "extraordinarily smart" though "vile." "But," Saffo says, "he knows his information technology."

"There are ways in which technology can help preserve rights and protect people’s privacy while helping to make us all safer," said Poindexter in a speech this summer. He gave no specifics.

If the government can pull off the technology, at its very core, the technology has to have a set of criteria that defines potential terrorism. It’s doubtful that a chief executive officer of a corporation that pollutes drinking water, for example, will be considered a terrorist. The set of criteria will be based on the current government’s ideology. This means that basically anything that questions the government or government policies can be programmed into the computer to turn up a terrorist.

Hawken asks, "Is a terrorist someone who opposes a proto-fascist government in D.C.?" If he asks the question, does he get put on the list?

In any event, Hawken and others say that anyone who actually isa threat to U.S. security can easily learn to evade any Total Information Net. For at least the next five to 10 years, while the government fumbles with its computers, so can the rest of us.

J.A. Savage is a regular AlterNet contributor and former tech reporter.

Roots of Discontent

One of the most active places for responsible environmental militancy this summer and fall is in a remote corner of Northern California. Dozens of people have risked their lives and their economic future security and given up huge chunks of their daily existence to stop environmental damage from intense logging, including significant amounts of ancient forests.

"Common sense and reason are insufficient to effect social change," says Randy Hayes, director of Rainforest Action Network.

And the activists are indeed causing a ruckus in their attempts to effect change. They are in the corporations' faces and the government's crosshairs. They get arrested, tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed. They're loose cannons, non-strategic thinkers. They have been branded "eco-terrorists." Far from being Sierra Clubbers, they consider themselves the brutal soul of the environmental movement.

Hayes and a handful of other graying environmental leaders hold up militancy as a good thing -- unless it's really stupid and then Hayes admits he tries to distance the organization from any embarrassment. He makes the distinction, however, between "responsible militancy" and anarchy. "I don't hide my face."

The corporate adversary is Maxxam, which owns land on which some of the last vestiges of ancient redwoods and Douglas fir still reign. Activists haven't yet stopped Maxxam from logging a potential 32,522 acres this year, but living in treetops and flailing their bodies in front of logging machinery, they aspire to bloody well do something about the devastation the lumber company has wreaked upon California's North Coast.

Julia Butterfly Hill, who spent two years perched in a redwood tree named Luna, is the most famous of the protesters. Now, after her, there are many more treesitters. Some take their cue from Hill and remain aloft for months; others put up strategic short-term tree occupations just in front of current logging operations. Both types know that one false move and they end up a pile of broken bones 100 or so feet down. Indeed, one tree sitter fell to his death in October.

Add to that anti-logging tactic now is a hunger strike. "I had my backpack packed about three weeks ago to go sit in a tree," explains Susan Moloney, executive director of the Garberville-based Campaign for Old Growth. "I can take to a tree and stay for two years and maybe I'll protect that tree, but there are not enough people to protect all the trees." She estimates there are only seven million ancient trees left.

Her hunger strike, taking place from a lawn chair at the steps of the California State Capitol, is intended to get California Governor Gray Davis' attention. Moloney insists that Davis own up to a promise he made in 1998 to ensure that "all old-growth trees are spared from the lumberjack's ax."

While Moloney starves herself and the treesitters face a chilling winter season of wind and rain, Maxxam continues to fell trees at an alarming rate -- despite two court orders to stop operations and with the support of two California regulatory agencies managed by the governor's appointees.

Louis Blumberg, spokesperson for the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection, defends Davis: "The governor has followed through with the promise," he says. "It was made at a time when he was trying to consummate the Headwaters Forest deal which brought the largest grove of virgin redwoods under state control." The Headwaters deal had state and federal taxpayers pony up $380 million to save 7,500 acres of ancient redwoods from Maxxam's logging operations.

State regulators have a curious relationship with Maxxam. The Department of Fish and Game has sent wardens to help Humboldt County sheriffs and Maxxam security forces. Earth First! reported that while temperatures were in the 40s, law enforcement, including DFG wardens, poured cold water 10 times over four hours on protesters. DFG again helped the county sheriff, chasing protesters with dogs, helicopters and all-terrain vehicles, according to Jack Nounnan, a 71-year-old activist. Maxxam's Pacific Lumber spokesperson Mary Bullwinkle would not confirm or deny the reports. "We did chase people around on foot," admits James Barton, assistant DFG chief, Region 1, who adds, "I'm 99 percent sure" marshals weren't in the helicopters or pouring water on protestors.

In April, Maxxam's logging subsidiary Pacific Lumber president and chief executive officer Robert Manne asked the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors to apply for anti-terrorism funds through the federal Homeland Security Act to fight what the company branded "eco-terrorists" on its property. Humboldt County Sheriff Dennis Lewis' spokesperson said that Manne's request is "not currently active."

But the lack of interest on behalf of county officials hasn't deterred Maxxam/Pacific Lumber. "In April, when I warned the supervisors that eco-terrorism was coming to Humboldt County, there were those who scoffed," Manne stated in August, after protesters locked themselves into a car at the entrance to the company's office. "This kind of activity," he stated, "fits a pattern of behavior that the Department of Justice will be keenly interested in reviewing."

Meanwhile, on the Capitol steps Moloney is one of the few forest activists who uses her real name. Most treesitters are known only by monikers like "Remedy" or "Wren."

"They have their forest names. I learn their real names when they get arrested," says Nounnan. Since late 2000, there have been about somewhere between 50 and 70 arrests related to logging protests.

Maxxam is pursuing not only criminal arrests for trespassing, but civil suits against protesters, as long as the company can find out their names. Considered by some outside of the corporation to be a SLAPP suit (strategic lawsuit against public participation), Maxxam filed its civil suit in April 2001 with a long list of empty spaces for names of future activists -- John and Jane Does. They have been adding new names rapidly -- from the original nine to about 60. Maxxam left room for up to 200 unknown names in the civil suit and adds one every time someone new is arrested.

"As they're arrested, jailers serve them with the [civil] lawsuit," explains attorney Jay Moller, who represents many on the civil lawsuit, which he does not consider a SLAPP suit. "You can sue someone who trespasses on your land and causes you damage."

What Moller feels is overkill on Maxxam's part is the damages the lawsuit portends. Assuming most activists have few assets, the civil suit calls for paying back Maxxam for the time and cost of logging not completed.

"There's a variety of damages sought," says Pacific Lumber attorney Paul Brisso. "By blocking access of contractors and subcontractors, there's a substantial amount of damage just in down equipment time, helicopters and crews idled." He's in the process of tallying up a total, which could run $100,000 or more. "These people entered into a conspiracy," Brisso said.

"Nothing I'm doing is illegal," says Susan Moloney. "I'm not trespassing or breaking any laws." But as a non-violence trainer, she sees many activists who do break the law, and she calls them "my absolute heroes." And she respects them for hiding their true identity given the risks involved.

Rainforest Action's Hayes advises the activists to keep on acting on their convictions. "Whose hands are on the chainsaw?" he asks. "It's not the workers who cut down trees. It's the corporate executives who don't give a damn about survival of the earth."

The Shipping News

In the second week of a shutdown that has closed 29 ports on the West Coast and is costing the U.S. economy upwards of $1 billion a day, the Bush administration amplified its involvement in the dispute between the International Longshore & Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association, by forming a "board of inquiry."

This is the administration's likely first step toward invoking the controversial Taft-Hartley Act, which would force union workers back to work for an 80-day cooling off period.

On Sept. 29, shipping company representatives locked out 10,500 union members, accusing them of staging an illegal work slowdown.

At issue in the dispute is the PMA's use of new port technology. ILWU spokesperson Steve Stallone says the conflict revolves around a disagreement about roles and who controls technology and information that affects the workers.

"We want to be able to review the data -- usually there are 50 pieces of information on each container and we've found that with 30 percent to 40 percent of the information something is wrong," Stallone says. "We want that to be our work. We want a closed system where only union clerks can get into it and manipulate data."

Shippers, however, want to allow non-union eyes on the data. "They want to use the technology to outsource the jobs," Stallone claims.

According to PMA president and CEO Joseph Miniace, the shippers "guarantee job protection for every registered worker who may be impacted by technology."

What's really at stake, say union watchers, is the survival of what many consider the most politically progressive union in the country.

"We support farmworkers and El Salvador, and even Nelson Mandela credited the union for kickstarting the American anti-apartheid movement," Stallone says. The union refused to allow military cargo to be shipped to the El Salvadoran dictatorship in the 1980s and its dock actions highlighted South African divestment.

The union has weathered repeated strikes, government intervention and employer/government violence since its post-Depression makeover. A 1934 strike led to "Bloody Thursday," in which two workers were shot and killed. Then, shippers employed "goon squads" -- commonly referred to now as "security" -- as well as the National Guard, to rough up strikers. Six men were shot or beaten to death during the strike and hundreds were arrested.

This led to a four-day general strike involving all local labor interests that basically shut down San Francisco. Eventually, the ILWU won its issues in arbitration.

"An injury to one is an injury to all," read a banner hoisted during the 1948 strike. The motto is emblematic of the ILWU's socialistic bent and its methods of organizing alongside other unions. Events leading to that strike caused Congress to pass the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act. Included in the Act was a provision, later overturned, that required labor leaders to declare they were not Communists. Accusations of Communist ties became a tool used in corporate and government attempts to destroy unions. ILWU leader Harry Bridges was hauled before the Supreme Court twice in attempts to deport him (he was originally from Australia) for being "a Commie."

Many strikes and lockouts and more violence later, union members can now lead a middle to upper-middle class lifestyle due to hard-fought changes wrought from industry. Still, the work is not full time and it is often bone-crushingly dangerous.

"You don't work a regular job. You go to the hiring hall and if a ship is in, you work," Stallone says. He said some members work full time, mostly at the Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif. docks. And one has to consider the risks workers face to earn their legendary high wages.

"Five people died in the last six months in California," Stallone says. "One was smashed by a machine so badly it took three days to identify the body. ...The docks are full of huge pieces of equipment so when you get hurt, you get hurt big." All the thundering movement of big containers from ships to trucks to warehouses is conducted in a brain-numbing haze of inescapable diesel exhaust.

Negotiations have ranged from the heavy-handed to the ridiculous. In June, a White House Task Force including the Labor Department and Homeland Security secretly threatened to take away ILWU's right to strike; and the Los Angeles Times got a Labor Department official to confirm the tenor of the meetings. Negotiations continued off and on from there.

On Oct. 1, union reps walked out of a meeting when PMA representatives showed up with armed bodyguards.

And then there was the fart machine. At one negotiating session, there was a repeatedly audible, although odorless, passing of gas that was finally traced to an electronic whoopee cushion under the table. "There are some good old boys on the safety committee," says Stallone. "They said, 'Everything they're putting on the table is a pile of shit so we added the soundtrack.'"

The PMA represents 71 shippers and terminal owners, most of which are not based in the U.S. They are highly capitalized industries with expensive ships.

The PMA, however, is in a delicate position.

Stallone paraphrased former union leader Bridges in explaining how the ILWU can exercise its power: "We sit on the artery and all we have to do is pinch."

Since Bridges' reign ended in 1977, that artery has become engorged with world trade. All the World Trade Organization's work to bring down barriers between countries for the flow of goods has resulted in a huge increase in container ship traffic. And, note the "International" in the ILWU. This lockout is on West Coast ports, but union docks all over the world can play a role. Until the shipping owners build their own docking and transportation infrastructure, or figure some way to claim it from local ports, the ILWU will have some leverage.

If Congress and President Bush want to bust the union as Ronald Reagan did with the air traffic controllers, they will have a much more difficult time with ILWU. Remember the "injury to one is an injury to all" line? That sort of organizing endears the union to other powerful unions.

The AFL-CIO, a federation of 66 unions, is making the survival of ILWU a priority by sending staff to bolster the ILWU's bargaining position, according to an August resolution. Its president John Sweeney condemned the lockout and asked the Bush administration to refrain from intervention. "The teamsters told Bush, 'Don't do it,'" added Stallone.

Taft-Hartley is widely viewed as anti-union, and some say Bush's use of it could risk a backlash from organized labor against Republicans in November's congressional elections.

And while many politicians are ready to use federal authority to control the docks due to the current economic implications, labor still has friends in Congress. In an attempt to dissuade Congress members from supporting federal intervention, California Democrat George Miller wrote that, "Taft-Hartley is rarely employed and is properly viewed as an aggressively anti-union weapon for undermining the collective bargaining rights of working people."

J.A. Savage is senior correspondent for the independent publication California Energy Markets.

The Original Mean CEO?

Long before Ken Lay was squandering his employees' 401(k) plans, Charles Hurwitz was pioneering the pension fund raid of about $55 million, money that had been set aside for lumber workers in the economically challenged rural north coast of California. Before WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers allegedly mismanaged the $100 billion company into bankruptcy, Charles Hurwitz was at the helm during the $1.6 billion collapse of a savings & loans. Prior to Aldephia’s John Rigas ever dreaming he would be led away in chains, Charles Hurwitz’ company was investigated for its responsibility for the death of logging protester David Chain. Lagging, however, was Hurwitz dismissal of corporate accountant Arthur Anderson -- he waited until four months after the Enron scandal to let the firm go.

If there were a role model in business school for sheer corporate meanness, Charles Hurwitz as chair and chief executive officer of Maxxam, would be featured prominently -- according to tenacious Hurwitz watchers. Hurwitz is proof that while Lay, Ebbers and Rigas may all be guilty, they're not original.

Maxxam spokesperson Josh Reiss, after verbally attacking this journalist for even considering a comparison of Hurwitz’ legacy and ongoing operation to the spate of current high-profile corporate miscreants protested, "To say that you’re lumping of Mr. Hurwitz [in with the others] is bizarre, absurd."

Hurwitz, has developed a loyal (or disloyal, depending on how you look at it) following of critics in the last 15 years. The core of inquisitive souls after Hurwitz centers in Humboldt County, California. Most of the nation knows Humboldt County as the font of all things hemp. But its rugged forest land and the ripe climate for trees to turn to lumber has been its more traditional economic base. Hurwitz moved into the rural area with a swagger and arrogance that Ken Lay and his minions barely touch, according to the Hurwitz watcher network. Unlike the other CEOs in the news for various transgressions, Hurwitz is still getting away with it.

In 1985, the sleepy, well-fed, well-manicured, company town of Scotia, California, got a rude awakening. Its bread-and-butter, the Pacific Lumber Company was taken over by Maxxam. It was a classic "greed is good," 1980s’ event. The little logging company had a lot of land on which grew giant redwoods. The little logging company had been harvesting redwoods in a manner that allowed re-growth on a long-term basis. In other words, there were still giant redwoods as far as the eye could see. What Hurwitz apparently saw were chainsaws turning those trees into lumber for cash to pay off the high-demand junk bonds used in the little logging company’s takeover. The company doubled its rate of logging, according to the Environmental protection Information Center, a local watchdog group. A company document listed the 1997 tree cut rate as 253 million board feet. That’s a lot.

By threatening to cut down some of the vestiges of the ancient forest, Maxxam was able to cut a deal with taxpayers to buy out some of its property to avoid logging. The Headwaters forest, about 3,800 acres, cost taxpayers in the vicinity of $400 million in debt-for-nature swap. Also part of the deal is a Habitat Conservation Plan. According to Maxxam, the March 1999 debt-for-nature swap agreed to include managing its forest on 100-year sustainable level. However, in recent documents to shareholders, Maxxam complains about that 100-year sustainability clause for causing the company’s fortunes to decline.

Neighbors have complained and filed lawsuits over the effects of increased logging. It’s not just the barren hillsides that once hosted lush forests and wildlife, including the spotted owl, but the increased flooding that have severely impacted some of the local community.

A lawsuit by Earthjustice and Environmental Protection Information Center from July 2001 charges Maxxam’s Pacific Lumber with illegal dumping and violating the Clean Water Act on the 6,000 acre Bear Creek watershed. The case is still in federal district court, according to Earthjustice attorney Mike Lozeau.

There was a fatality. The disloyal Hurwitz watchers got under the company’s skin with their incessant logging protests, most notably that embodied by tree-sitter Julia Butterfly Hill. In 1998, logging protestor David Gypsy Chain was killed by a tree felled during a Pacific Lumber logging operation. After a three-month investigation, the Humboldt County Sheriff decided not to press charges against the company. Hurwitz watchers called it a whitewash. Remarkably, tree sitting and logging protests continue to this day on the company’s territory, according to Earth First! organizer Darryl Cherney.

In addition to the chance to plunder the forest, Hurwitz also seems to have noticed the company workers' well-stocked pension fund. In an era before 401(k)s, Pacific Lumber had set aside money for its workers’ retirement. When Hurwitz took the company over, the pension fund disappeared as far as the workers were concerned. Later on, right before Christmas 2001, Hurwitz laid off 10 percent of the logging company’s workforce.

Maxxam also had a bit of a worker problem with a subsidiary, Kaiser Steel. Maxxam bought the company in 1988, when it was still in hungry buy-out mode ofter the Pacific Lumber take-over. But by 1999 and into 2000, the company locked out Kaiser steelworkers over labor demands for 19 months. By early this year, Kaiser had filed for Chapter 11.

Even before the logging and the labor disputes, Hurwitz was in trouble for his business practices. Two federal agencies, the Treasury Department’s Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS), and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, have brought actions against Hurwitz. Hurwitz allegedly had a hand in the demise of the United Saving Association of Texas in 1988. Backed by the FDIC, OTS was seeking $820 million against Hurwitz. In September 2001, an OTS administrative law judge recommended Hurwitz and the company be cleared. Hurwitz, via Maxxam, filed counter claim against the FDIC earlier this year. The agency has yet to make a final decision.

And after all that help from taxpayers, all that raiding of workers’ pension, all that nasty flooding from all that wicked logging of giant redwoods, what does Hurwitz have? As far as Maxxam goes, its latest report to the Securities & Exchange Commission show a shaky operation at best. In the first quarter of the year it showed a $55 million deficit. Meanwhile, a statement from last year to stockholders reveals Hurwitz has a total package of $1.8 million in income--$786,000 in salary, $910,000 in bonus and $142,000 in "other" recompense.

"The master of the shell game is a shell of itself," noted dogged Hurwitz watcher Cherney. And the shell games eventually fold.

Hurwitz still shows up in the Houston society columns -- same as George W. and Ken Lay -- according to Cherney. Whether the CEOs currently in the news for corporate malfeasance actually paid that much attention to Hurwitz' career path is unknown. But Hurwitz's past shows that the kind of "corporate creativity" that leads to forgiven personal loans, accounting tricks and general hubris has its biography.

Still, Hurwitz remains different from Kenny Boy and some of the other CEOs. Hurwitz remains, somehow, unscathed.

More information can be found from Hurwitz watchers at www.jailhurwitz.com.

Halfway to Yucca Mountain

Utah's Skull Valley is already a busy place. All arround it, the Air Force makes practice blasts in its Hill Bombing Range. Dugway Proving Grounds tests chemical and biological weapons. There's a Safety Kleen hazardous waste incinerator and landfill. The Deseret Chemical Depot stores weapons and the Tooele Chemical Demilitarization Facility burns 'em.

If the Department of Energy gets its way, Skull Valley will also be the home to so-called "temporary" high level radioactive waste on its way to the permanent waste dump in Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

With the Senate set to vote June 5 to override Nevada's veto of the Yucca Mountain facility -- the House already voted overwhelmingly to ignore Nevada's preference -- the people who live in Skull Valley are getting increasingly nervous.

The fate of Yucca Mountain has grabbed all the headlines. The fate of Skull Valley is barely a blip on the national radar. No matter whether you think the Nevada site is a good or bad place to store waste, at least it has big plans to use the best technology available, bury the waste deep underground and monitor it. Skull Valley doesn't.

At Skull Valley, waste would be shipped by rail in containers and set above ground next to the bombing range. The technology would consist of some concrete and steel and a chain link fence. The plan calls for the area to hold -- for 20 years with a 20-year extension -- enough nuclear waste to accommodate all the spent fuel for every reactor in the nation.

"If there's enough focus on Yucca, they can sneak Skull Valley in there and buy Yucca 40 more years," said Sammy Blackbear, a Goshute Indian opposing the storage site.

The only way the Department of Energy could get a lease for this halfway-to-Yucca storage site so quietly and efficiently is because it is owned by Native Americans -- the Goshute Tribe, whose Skull Valley members number about 130. Of that, 70 are voting members with authority over 18,000 acres. Fifteen have filed litigation to stop the proposed radioactive dump.

Native Americans' governments are sovereign unto themselves. As such, they don't have all those pesky laws that the State of Nevada, for instance, and even the Department of Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission, have for environmental protection and public process. None of that applies to the Goshutes.

The legal complaints allege federal support for a Tribal Council of three whose chairman was recalled by the tribe, but returned to power by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1994. The chairman, Leon Bear, convenes an "illegitimate regime," according to filings, which "remains in power through bribery and corruption." However, when pressed for specifics, Blackbear said he couldn't release the material due to the current court battle.

Tribal chairman Leon Bear cited in a statement the potential flow of money from nuclear waste storage to the Goshute, which everyone involved agrees is impoverished.

"For a long time the tribe has been pretty much distressed over revenues that they don't have, lack of infrastructure of the tribal government. And we were looking for economic benefits or development for the tribe."

Those revenues would be provided by Private Fuel Storage, a consortium of reactor-owning companies (Consolidate Edison Company of New York; GPU Nuclear, New Jersey; Genoa FuelTech, Wisconsin; Florida Power & Light; Indiana-Michigan Power, also known as American Electric Power; Xcel, Minnesota; Southern California Edison; and Southern Nuclear Operating Company, Alabama). Private Fuel Storage has applied for a federal license to run the facility.

Private Fuel Storage is impatient about Yucca Mountain.

"There are nuclear plants that will run out of on-site storage before Yucca Mountain could open. Those plants are faced with the difficult decision to shut down their reactors prematurely, severely limiting their ability to meet the electricity needs of their customers," noted the consortium.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering granting a license for the facility. A Final Environmental Impact Statement released by the NRC at the beginning of the year "concluded environmental impacts would be small or small-to-moderate and that the proposed Private Fuel Storage facility is the best alternative of those considered," according to the company.

It appears that no matter what happens with the Senate vote to override the State of Nevada's Yucca Mountain veto, the potential for a far less protected nuclear waste dump in the so-aptly named Skull Valley will remain.

J.A. Savage is a senior correspondent for California Energy Markets newsletter.

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