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Environmental Clearinghouse
Sept. 10, 2001 (Part 2)
Desertification, Supreme Court’s Sneak Attack on Clean Water Act, POPs persistence in the environment, Crash Course in Fuel Cells

Desertification: One of Earth’s Biggest Environmental Threats

Terrible environmental practices around the globe, including clearcutting, over-farming, shoddy open mining operations, and draining of wetlands have combined with warming global temperatures to fuel and accelerate a devastating negative feedback process in many regions of the world. This process of gradual drying and erosion, called desertification, quickly becomes self-perpetuating unless nothing is done to stop it. Dertification leads to the gradual change of an area from a moister, cooler enviornment to a dryer, hotter, more barren landscape.

The Dust Bowl of the the American Midwest in the 1930s was actually the beginning of desertification, brought on by clearcutting and overfarming. Many environmentalists early on saw what was happening and called for widespread tree planting and better land management. FDR vigorously supported this plan, but was just as vigorously opposed by the Republicans, who thought tree planting was a waste of time and money. We can thank our lucky stars that FDR prevailed and, through the CCC, began a massive tree-planting campaign. If he had not, and better land management had not also been implemented, the southern Midwest would by now be a “new Mojave” desert.

The U.S. is not alone, of course. Mao Tse Tung’s irrational crusade to “conquer nature” led to massive desertification in China, which is now being addressed through a huge tree-planting campaign. Other areas, such as Africa, have not been lucky enough to catch desertification in time. The Sahara desert, for example, is now gobbling up more arable land every year.

The problem of desertification world wide is escalating. In June, Takao Shibata, assistant president of the U.N’s International Fund for Agricultural Development said that desertification is one of the most serious and least well-known of all environmental challenges of our time. In the final days of the Clinton Administration, on November 17, 2000, the U.S. Senate ratified the Convention to Combat Desertification, which took effect on Feb. 2, 2001. The treaty hass been ratified by 174 nations.

Desertification now affects 70% of Earth’s dry lands, 30% of all the planet’s land surface overall, and is a serious problem in 110 countries. Each year, 10 million more acres are turned to desert, fueling the nightmare of regional famines and contributing signficantly to global warming. Desertification-related famine now costs the world $42 billion each year.

Desertifcation also has more subtle, but still lethal impacts. For example, dust from dried oult soil in Africa is routinely carried across the Atlantic on prevailing air currents and deposited in the Caribbean. Threre, the accumulated tons of material, often loaded with exotic fungal spores, has degraded the marine environment, choking and infecting coral reefs. On the other side of the globe, dust from desertification in China - is pumped across the Pacific to the northwestern shores of North America. Because dust particles act as a surface on which pollutants can condense, some of this dust is contaminated by pollutants from mining and industrial areas of China. In short, isolationism will not protect America from this world-wide problem.

Sneak Attack on Clean Water Act

Back in January, when everyone was still reeling from the awful reality of the Bush inauguration and his all-out assault on the environment and everything we all hold dear about America, his goons in the Supreme Court managed to make a ruling that may ultimately gut a major part of the Clean Water Act. The Court took it upon itself to remove CWA protections from ALL remote or isolated small water bodies and wetlands. Not only are these bodies some of the most critical components of their ecosystems, they are also among the bodies most in need of protection. Worse yet, they account for 20% of all remaining wetlands in the U.S. We have already lost over 75% of all original wetlands to draining and filling, while those remaining fight an uphill battle againt pollution. Removing protections from these small- and irreplaceable - oases of water and wildlife may prove to be one of the most horrendous environmental mistakes of the Bush Regime.

Crash Course in Fuel Cells: What they Are and Why They Are More Practical than Combustion Engines

In a conventional combustion engine, a certain high temperature must be reached (the operating temperature) for the fuel to burn and the engine to work. In the process, which is known technically as the Carnot cycle, about 80% of all the energy used is wasted, with roughly only one in every five gallons of gas you purchase, even in a fuel-efficient car, being converted directly into mechanical energy. Not such a great deal. This is because heat must be produced before mechanical energy can be generated.

In a fuel cell, on the other hand, fuel, which can be hydrogen, natural gas or other hydrocarbon compounds, is converted directly into electrical energy, which in turn is converted into mechanical energy. Because this process does not require the energy-intensive production of heat, fuel efficiency can, theoretically, be as high as 90%. When harnessed to a vehicle, at present, the efficiency is about 50% - more than twice as high as a combustion engine. In addition, smog and acid-rain forming pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and sulfuric oxides are all but eliminated, while CO2 is dramatically reduced. Fuel cells could eventually be used as an energy source for everything from cell phones to city buses and entire factories. A home fuel cell unit could provide an entire household’s energy needs without the need to be hooked up to outside power lines. Needless to say, the electrical utility industry isn’t terribly excited about fuel cells!

A fuel cell in its simplest form consists of a layer of material containing an alkaline electrolyte sandwiched between two other layers - one which acts as an anode (positive terminal) and one which acts as the cathode (negative terminal). The material used for these layers also acts as a catalyst. Oxygen is combined with the hydrogen from the fuel in a reaction that generates electrons and water (the byproduct). The electrons flow from the cathode to the anode through an external circuit as an electric current. Although fuel cells were once considered too bulky to be practical for many applications, they are rapidly being scaled down and made more user-friendly. Fuel cells are very versatile and can run on a variety of hydrocarbon fuels, including alcohol and methanol. Hydrogen is the cleanest, most ideal fuel cell fuel, but storage and infrastructure (as in a system of stations where you can “fill up” on hydrogen) present challenges. PCBs and Organochlorine Pesticides (POPs) in Butter

POPs (which include DDT) are just one example of pollutants that, because of their chemical characteristics, persist for long period of time once released into the environment. Because they hang around for so long, these compounds can, instead of disappearing, accumulate in the food chain and, in some areas, achieve toxic concentrations. Because such chemicals are stored in fatty tissue, they show up in fatty products, such as butter.

In a novel experiment, researchers at Lancaster University and the University of Exeter in the UK collected samples of butter from 23 countries around the world and analyzed the POP content. In an even more interesting wrinkle, the samples were collected by volunteers from Greenpeace.

Total PCBs: Worst: Czeck Republic, followed by Tunisa, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands (U.S. was 10th).

Total DDT compounds: Worst: India (twice the level of the closest contender), followed by Mexico, New Zealand, and the Philipinnes (U.S. was 18th).

Total HCH compounds: Worst: India (nearly seven times the level of the closest contender), Brazil, Spain, and the UK (U.S. is 8th)

DDT and HCH levels were much higher for areas where these chemicals are still - unbelievably! - legal to use: India and South and Central America for DDT; India, China and Spain for HCH.

The big point in all of this, of course, is that even though these compounds have been proven to persist for DECADES in the environment, the freemarket rightwingers think it is an infringement on their freedom that such things, esp. DDT, aren’t legal everywhere! In fact, some “science” fakes, notably Steve Milloy of Junkscience.com think we ought to use DDT liberally in schools to kill bugs. Better your child should be contaminated for life than to have to see a cockroach or, worse yet, deprive some chemical barons of easy profits.

Another type of persistent toxic compound, polybrominated diphenyl dethers (PBDEs), are used ubiquitously as flame retardants. Now PBDEs are being found everywhere in the environment, from the deep ocean to human breast milk. Most recently, a study by the University of Wisconsin showed that levels of PBDEs in Lake Michigan salmon are the highest ever recorded for fish in open water. Bon apetite!