Kate Sheppard

East Coast Earthquake Reveals Major Flaws in Planning for Nuclear Disaster

To say that Tuesday's east coast earthquake surprised everyone would be an understatement. In a post 9/11 world, those of us in Washington always have the vague fear of something bad happening lurking in our subconscious. That fear is usually of an event caused by humans, not of a natural disaster, but we never really can know what Mother Nature has in store for us.

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Whole Foods Really Is Bad for the Planet

Earlier this week I pondered whether Whole Foods, or more specifically, its CEO John Mackey, is bad for the planet. Mackey's latest comments questioning whether mankind is warming the planet prompted the piece, but I also looked at some of the greater questions about just how much, if anything, Whole Foods is doing to back up its green image. Well, low and behold, a study of grocers and their sustainability efforts documents just how little the company actually does when it comes to climate and related environmental issues.

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Is Whole Foods Bad for the Planet?

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey has probably brought more people to organic foods than anyone else in the United States. And many of the folks shopping at his markets undoubtedly consider themselves to be environmentally aware. They might even believe that by purchasing their groceries at Whole Foods outlets they are doing their part to help the planet. But certainly many of them would probably be startled to learn of of Mackey's position on climate change: he's a global warming denier.

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Coal Industry Behind Forged Letters to Congressman Asking Him to Vote Against Climate Bill?

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Major Green Groups Offer Plan to Obama

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Obama Announces His New Energy Plan

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Democrat Barack Obama on Friday said he would be willing to support some offshore drilling if it were necessary to enact a comprehensive energy plan, and indicated that he could support the bipartisan energy plan put forward by the Senate's "Gang of 10" that includes both drilling and a major investment in renewables.

The shift on drilling drew a lot of heat over the weekend, as pundits accused the candidate of flip-flopping on the issue, though Obama says he still doesn't actively support opening up more areas for leasing as a solution to energy concerns.

"My interest is in making sure we've got the kind of comprehensive energy policy that can bring down gas prices," said Obama, noting that he remains skeptical that drilling would provide much, if any, relief on gas prices.

"We can't drill our way out of the problem," he said. But, he continued, "I also recognize that in the House and the Senate, there are Republicans who have very clear ideas about what they want, and at some point people are going to have to make some decisions. Do we want to keep on arguing, or are we going to get some things done?"

In a speech in Lansing, Mich., this morning, Obama clarified his position on the issue. "While I still don't believe that's a particularly meaningful short-term or long-term solution, I am willing to consider it if it's necessary to actually pass a comprehensive plan," he told the crowd. "I am not interested in making the perfect the enemy of the good -- particularly since there is so much good in this compromise that would actually reduce our dependence on foreign oil."

Obama said his energy plan would include a "use it or lose it" approach to oil leases, requiring oil companies to develop the 68 million acres already under lease, or be forced to turn the leases over to another company. But he emphasized that more drilling won't affect the price of gas significantly, while continued addiction to foreign oil puts the country in peril from an economic, environmental, and national security perspective.

"This addiction is one of the most dangerous and urgent threats this nation has ever faced -- from the gas prices that are wiping out your paychecks and straining businesses to the jobs that are disappearing from this state; from the instability and terror bred in the Middle East to the rising oceans and record drought and spreading famine that could engulf our planet," he said.

One new item in Obama's energy plan is a call for the release of a portion of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in order to cut prices, a move that some Democrats in Congress have been calling for as well. Campaign energy policy director Heather Zichal said that this isn't a complete reversal of his previous position, though just a few weeks ago Obama said he did not support releasing oil from the reserve. She said his proposal would swap out light crude from the reserve for heavy crude, and is necessary in an energy crisis. "Senator Obama has looked at this issue and he realizes Americans are suffering and he made the distinction that we do need to tap the strategic energy reserve," said Zichal, according to The Wall Street Journal.

In his speech today, Obama also touted his plan to issue an energy rebate to help deal with high gas prices. Families would receive a $1,000 rebate, and individuals would receive one for $500. His plan would use the proceeds of a windfall-profits tax on oil companies to fund his "Emergency Energy Rebate."Obama also called for efficiency improvements to reduce the country's use of oil by the amount we currently import from the Middle East and Venezuela. He proposed higher fuel efficiency standards for automobiles, calling for 1 million plug-in hybrid cars to be on the road by 2015, and for a $7,000 tax credit for consumers who buy those vehicles. He said he plans to create 5 million new, green jobs through $150 billion in investments in clean energy and job training over the next decade.

He also pledged to adopt a "Renewable Portfolio Standard," mandating that 10 percent of the nation's electricity supply comes from renewables by 2012, and 25 percent by 2025, which he said would help spur jobs and bring new energy sources to the market.

"I will not pretend the goals I laid out today aren't ambitious. They are. I will not pretend we can achieve them without cost, or without sacrifice, or without the contribution of almost every American citizen," said Obama. "But I will say that these goals are possible. And I will say that achieving them is absolutely necessary if we want to keep America safe and prosperous in the 21st century."

NC May Be First to Say No to Buying Coal From Mountaintop Removal Mining

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Last week, North Carolina State Rep. Pricey Harrison introduced legislation in the state House that would ban the burning of coal obtained through mountaintop-removal mining. If it passes, North Carolina would become the first state in the nation with such a law.

The mining method isn't practiced in North Carolina, but 61 percent of the state's power comes from coal; North Carolina is second only to Georgia in the amount of MTR-mined coal it burns. According to Appalachian Voices, a group devoted to ending the controversial and destructive mining practice, 13 power plants in North Carolina buy coal from mountaintop-removal mine sites. Most of it comes from nearby West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia.

MTR blasts off mountaintops for the purpose of extracting coal, wiping out biodiverse forest habitats and permanently scarring the world's oldest mountains. The debris left over from the blasts is usually dumped in nearby streams; according to the U.S. EPA, more than 700 miles of streams have been completely buried by mountaintop-removal debris, and thousands of others have been damaged. MTR also causes myriad health problems for nearby residents, in part because mine waste contaminates water supplies.

Harrison, a Democrat who represents Guilford County, told Grist she learned about the hazards of the practice by doing a flyover of West Virginian mountains that had been destroyed by MTR, and by watching the documentary Mountain Top Removal. Since there aren't regions in her state likely to be affected by the practice, banning the burning of MTR coal seemed like the most logical way to take action.

"I thought this was a pretty abhorrent practice," says Harrison. "[I] wanted to send a signal to folks in West Virginia and Kentucky that we object to the way they're being treated and we're not going to put up with it."

She equated her bill to a measure the state legislature passed last year that required the state's pension funds to divest all holdings in companies that do business in Darfur.

"We can't really impact policy in Darfur, but we can sure limit our investment in Darfur," says Harrison. "So why don't we impact policy this way in West Virginia by saying we find these practices objectionable, so we're not going to participate in the funding?"

Harrison, who was one of the sponsors of the legislation that enacted the first renewable portfolio standard in the Southeast last year, said she expects it will be quite a while before legislation like this could pass. The RPS took two years, and there isn't likely to be any movement on the MTR bill until January 2009 at the earliest, she says. Still, Harrison hopes her legislation will inspire others.

"I think if enough states got together and did this, then it would create momentum and give some courage to policy makers in West Virginia who might otherwise feel beholden to Big Coal," she says. "We're destroying a heritage in Appalachia, so I just hope we can send a signal that this is not acceptable, and this has got to stop."

A Dirty Trucking Industry Is Trying to Clean Up Its Act

Sandwiched between three freeways and the fourth-largest container port in the country lies the neighborhood of West Oakland, Calif. Its residents often choke down the exhaust of the 1,500 diesel trucks that pass through the community on the way to and from the Port of Oakland. On any given day, trucks are parked throughout this working-class, African-American neighborhood, sometimes idling for hours as drivers await their next load.

Margaret Gordon, 61, knows these trucks well -- and the toll they've taken on her neighborhood. She has asthma. Her son has asthma. So do her grandchildren and, according the Alameda County Public Health Department, at least one in five kids in the community.

Asthma is not all that afflicts the neighborhood. According to a March report by the California Air Resources Board, there are 1,200 excess cancers per 1 million people in West Oakland. And the average lifespan of residents is six years less than that of their more upscale neighbors in Oakland Hills, only 10 miles away.

"Every year for the last 15 years I have lived in West Oakland, I know somebody [who] has died of some form of cancer," says Gordon, a founding member of the Environmental Indicators Project, a nonprofit organization that studies the local effect of diesel pollution, and a member of the Oakland Port Commission.

For years, dirty air has pitted residents against truck drivers, many of whom are immigrants working long hours for low wages. A similar story plays out at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

But over the past year, groups as diverse as the Teamsters, the National Resources Defense Council and the American Lung Association have joined community members and truck drivers to form the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports to take on the broader culprit: an unsustainable trucking system.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Motor Carrier Act, which deregulated the industry, turning truckers into independent contractors. Most drivers now own their trucks and are contracted by trucking companies that, in turn, contract with businesses that ship through a port. Drivers are responsible for maintenance, route planning and parking -- an expensive system for people whose average annual salary is $30,000.

Many can afford only older, polluting diesel rigs, and must park wherever they find free space. The trucking companies and the industries for which they transport goods, meanwhile, absorb almost none of these costs.

"This trucking system is totally broken," says Doug Bloch, an organizer with Change to Win and Oakland director of the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports. "And it's exploiting the community and it's exploiting the immigrant truck drivers, all for the benefit of Wal-Mart and Target and these huge companies that are moving goods through our port."

In 2000, California set a goal of cutting overall diesel pollution in the state by 85 percent by 2020. And in December 2007, the state followed with a regulation limiting diesel emissions from port trucks. With port traffic expected to double by 2020, these state decisions marked two big victories for community and environmental groups.

In September, the port will begin phasing in new standards that require drivers to purchase clean-burning diesel or natural gas trucks, or to retrofit older trucks. By the end of 2009, all trucks will be required to meet these standards, but under the current system, few truckers can afford to do so.

"I'm in agreement that we should clean up the environment," says trucker José Manuel Lino Rivas, who lives in Oakland. "But we also need the authorities to help us obtain a truck, because with the salaries we're paid, we can't."

A new truck costs upward of $125,000. The ports are applying for state grants to help cover some of the costs of transitioning to the new rules. But under the most optimistic projections, grants would provide only $20,000 to $50,000 per truck, and maintaining new truck models can cost significantly more.

Rivas was one of 1,250 Oakland drivers to sign a petition last fall calling for a new system that makes them employees of the trucking companies, grants them the right to organize and forces trucking companies to purchase and maintain the trucks.

In addition, the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports has proposed requiring businesses at the port to pay a fee and to provide information about truck noise, emissions and labor standards in order to do business there. The coalition is also asking for a local-hire policy, which would reserve half of new jobs at the port for people who live in the areas with the highest poverty and asthma hospitalization rates.

Business interests, though, are fighting this model and attempting to divide the coalition, attacking environmentalists in the press for taking up labor concerns, claiming that this shows a lack of commitment to clean air. The American Trucking Association, an industry group, has threatened to sue if the ports adopt a comprehensive plan such as the one the coalition proposes.

The threats, however, didn't stop the Port of Los Angeles Commission from adopting a plan on March 20 that requires the trucking companies to buy and maintain the new, modernized rigs and to employ truckers. And though the Long Beach port commission caved to industry pressure by approving a plan that left the independent contractor system in place, because of Long Beach's proximity to Los Angeles, it seems likely that Long Beach could ultimately accept Los Angeles' plan.

Meanwhile, in late March, the Oakland commission agreed to charge businesses a fee for each container that passes through the port -- with proceeds used to retrofit and replace trucks.

Port commissioners also agreed to hire consultants to look at the economic impact of a comprehensive truck management plan, and are expected to make a decision based on those results by late June.

"[Our plan is] good policy, and good policy trumps the grandstanding and misinformation campaigns that industry mounts," says Adrian Martinez, project attorney for the National Resources Defense Council. "Industry and other groups have been trying to separate us, but we've held strong."

Are Evangelical Voters Abandoning the Republican Establishment?

Rev. Joel Hunter might not seem like an obvious progressive. He's the pastor of Northland Church, a 12,000-member evangelical congregation just north of Orlando, Fla. He's staunchly pro-life and was an outspoken supporter of Mike Huckabee's bid for the presidency. But Hunter has emerged as a leader among the growing bloc of evangelicals who are concerned not just about abortion and homosexuality, but also global warming, healthcare and poverty -- issues traditionally associated with progressives. And these "new conservatives," as Hunter calls them, aren't necessarily going to be faithful to the Republican Party they've called home for so many years.

There has been evidence of this divide among evangelicals in the primaries this year. While it's difficult to pin down exact figures, as exit pollsters don't ask Democrats if they identify as evangelical, surveys have found that Republicans no longer have a monopoly on these voters. A new survey released last month by the Barna Group, the country's leading evangelical polling group, found that 40 percent of all "born again" adults who plan to vote in November said they would choose a Democratic candidate, while just 29 percent said they would vote for a Republican. Faith in Politics also commissioned its own exit polls in Tennessee and Missouri on Super Tuesday, which found that one in three white evangelicals there participated in the Democratic primary. Huckabee's long run of success in the primaries evidenced this split, as he was the only Republican candidate talking extensively about issues like poverty and the environment.

Over the past few years, Hunter has blazed a trail for these "new conservatives." He serves as the spokesperson for the Evangelical Climate Initiative and is part of a coalition of more than 20 major religious groups calling for government action on climate change. In 2006 he served as the president-elect of the Christian Coalition of America, the hard-right political advocacy organization founded by Pat Robertson, but stepped down from the post following disagreements with the coalition's board of directors over expanding their agenda to include issues like poverty and the environment -- which Hunter says should also be considered "pro-life" concerns.

He's released two books on this growing schism. His 2006 book Right Wing, Wrong Bird is a guidebook for evangelical Christians who feel like the Religious Right's narrow focus ignores these other concerns. His new book, A New Kind of Conservative, released in January, calls for a conservatism not solely concerned with morality, small government and lower taxes, but a larger range of issues traditionally associated with progressives. These new conservatives, Hunter believes, must force change in the Republican establishment -- or abandon it.

While in Florida, I caught up with Hunter at his church to talk about his support for Huckabee's campaign, expanding the evangelical agenda, and whether this new movement creates inroads for progressives with a group that has long been seen as out of reach.



Kate Sheppard: A lot of these the issues that you talk about and that Mike Huckabee was talking about in the primary, issues like climate change and poverty, haven't been discussed by any Republican candidates in recent years.

Joel Hunter: It is something that's new, but it's something that's very needed. Unless Republicans take up these issues that are important to everybody, they're really going to lose the elections. People really do care about everybody having their basic needs met. I'm not talking about a socialist society here. I'm just talking about basic policies that would help people who are really trying. I think that the general population of America is not interested in trying to run the rest of the world by force or trying to buy the rest of the world by a superior economy.

KS: Do you worry that this divides the conservative coalition that has been created over the past decades?

JH: I see it as a great benefit that it divides the coalition. I want for the coalition to broaden. [There is] a certain section of the coalition that says we're going to keep focused on the issues that got us to the dance, so we want small government, we want less taxes, we want strong military. But I think that there's a growing number of conservatives that say, "No, we want a government that is effective in helping people out. It's not the answer, but it's not the enemy either. Yes, we'd love to have lower taxes, but we'd love even more for the government and private industry and the faith communities to be able to cooperate to help people in need with support systems that really make a difference. Whether or not taxes are lowered is not the real question. The question is how well are we assisting people who really have needs.

KS: What are your hopes of electing a Republican that cares about issues like the environment, since that's been a big one for you?

JH: I'm not sure I'll vote for a Republican that doesn't care about the environment. For me, to stay consistently pro-life is to care for the vulnerable outside the womb as well as the inside. I know that our record on abortions in this country is horrible, but I know that lives will be lost due to climate change. As we face the floods and droughts brought about by climate change, we will face starvation because of the lack of ability to make produce out of the land. We will face wars because of the scarcity of resources. We will face disease because of the mosquito-borne illnesses. The literally millions of lives that will be lost because of climate change is also a pro-life issue.

KS: The environment is an issue that has separated you from other conservatives, but do you think that the conservative movement is coming around on this topic?

JH: I know it is. Part of it is that the accumulating evidence more and more marginalizes those voices that say, "Well, science is still divided." Science is not divided on this. The other reason that this is changing is because people of [the younger] generation are just coming out of the woodwork on this. And they don't care about evangelical, not evangelical, left, right, Republican, Democrat. They care about solving problems. And they know this is a problem to be solved. So there is this huge tsunami of the younger generation that says, "Quit debating this thing. Let's do something about it."

KS: Do you see any possibility of the people you're talking about voting for a Democrat if there isn't much of a change within the Republican Party?

JH: I do. [Abortion and gay marriage] will always be core issues for us, but I think that many evangelicals and many Republicans are now looking for a broader agenda, and they're looking at pro-life not just as whether we can get Roe v. Wade overturned. That's a rather limited approach to stopping abortion, because the decisions would come right back to the states, many of whom would still be pro-choice. It's just not a good strategy, and I think as people become more sophisticated politically, they understand that in order to be pro-life when it comes to abortion, you have to affect the heart. Many of the Democratic candidates say they want to lessen abortion. I think that this broader agenda will make Republicans have to work harder for a broader constituency base, and I think if they don't do that, many evangelicals will vote for a Democrat.

KS: It seems it's mostly the big religious and conservative organizations that are pushing the idea that marriage and abortion are your only two issues. Do you see those institutions changing?

JH: I see it changing not because they're changing, but because people are sick of hearing it. People are so tired of this caustic condemnation. The reason that it's been effective up until now is because the easiest way to raise money is through fear and hatred. And it's worked. But I think people are writing that off now. I think that generally there's a shift from those very accusatory voices to the visionary voices. I don't think there's any surprise that Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee have gotten the kind of political traction they have, because their voices have been positive. Nobody can tell what the future will bring, but it's a sign that people are ready for something else.

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