Archive for December, 2009

Human-caused pollution and meteorological conditions can combine such that our government needs to take immediate and decisive action to protect the environment and the public’s health.

Global warming? Not this time.

No, we took note of the “stagnant air advisory” for our region issued by the weather service, and the “burn ban” issued by Idaho DEQ.  And actually, since this happens with some frequency in our region, we thought we might look into what it really means.  

The weather advisory, for “elevations in Eastern Washington and the North and Central Idaho panhandle below 3000 feet,” is somewhat terse, but ominous-sounding in its advice: “An air stagnation advisory indicates that light winds and stable conditions are expected…and pollution has the potential to increase to dangerous levels. Persons with respiratory illness should follow their physician’s advice for dealing with high levels of air pollution.”

Although, at the moment, Coeur d’Alene air quality is still in the good range, St. Maries to the south, and Pinehurst to the east are indeed suffering air pollution levels in the moderate range for particulates. The advisory is in place until tomorrow morning (12/30) when a weather front should churn the air up a bit and clear out the smoky haze.

What does it mean? Particulate pollution refers specifically to the very small particles found in smoke that can be breathed deeply into the lungs where they can cause health problems. Moderate air quality means that the air is “acceptable” except that there may be “a moderate health concern for a very small number of people.” These health concerns, however, are no small matter. EPA notes that particulates are linked to increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing, or difficulty breathing; decreased lung function; aggravated asthma; development of chronic bronchitis; irregular heartbeat; nonfatal heart attacks; and premature death in people with heart or lung disease.

DEQ has the power to  issue a burn ban “when concentrations of air pollutants reach or exceed the health-based standards or limits established by state law or regulation.”  So, as a result, DEQ has issued a mandatory ban on outdoor burning for the entire North Idaho region until, probably, tomorrow. In some valleys, DEQ is also asking for a mandatory halt to residential wood heating unless it is necessary.

This reasonable regulation, based on science-based standards, to protect the environment and the public’s health, is pretty much what government is supposed to do. Right?

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Everyone knows that Woodsy Owl is “the name and representation of a fanciful owl, who wears slacks (forest green when colored), a belt (brown when colored), and a Robin Hood style hat (forest green when colored) with a feather (red when colored), and who furthers the slogan, “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute”, originated by the Forest Service of the United States Department of Agriculture.” Right?

But did you know that it’s the law?  See 16 U.S.C. 580p

We learned this after Harold Bell, one of the creators of the Woodsy Owl character died recently.  Originally a marketing agent for the Lassie TV show, Bell created the character with several forest rangers who were serving as technical advisors to the show.  According to Bell’s NY Times obituary, they considered a raccoon, a bull elk, a rainbow trout and a ladybug, before deciding on an owl.  Woodsy Owl was legislated in 1974 and the fanciful owl became the law of the land.

(Hat tip to Concurring Opinions.)

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We’re not all the way through it yet, but the brand new National Lakes Assessment from EPA appears to be interesting and important reading.  The summary of key findings (pdf here) appears to be highly relevant to our local lakes, noting that poor lakeshore habitat is the biggest problem and clearest indicator of a lake’s poor health. The report also notes that lakes are sensitive to human disturbances, while development pressures on lakes are steadily growing. This, says EPA, “could suggest the need for stronger management of lakeshore development.”  More commentary on the National Lakes Assessment can be found over at NRDC Switchboard.

Nevada’s Mustang Ranch brothel is key to river restoration project. NY Times

The conference might have been a dud, but how about that Copenhagen COP15 logo? — Brand New

Finally, if we had better mass transit in our region, we’d have a more merry christmas. Photos at NRDC Switchboard.

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We don’t have the wherewithal to comment on every last development proposal in Kootenai County. It’s a complicated process — talking to neighbors, researching the proposals, drafting comments and attending the dreadful hearings. Obviously, some projects have more environmental impact than others. And many projects are in compliance with the law and well within the rights of the particular property owners. And there are some projects we actually support.  So, usually, we try to focus our limited resources on projects with major impacts and are beyond what normally would be allowed under current zoning and the current comprehensive plan.

Sometimes, though, a seemingly small proposal with a tiny environmental impact can set a horrendous precedent, and we recently came across one of those projects, which comes up for a hearing later this week. 

A developer on Hayden Lake is proposing a “variance” to the County’s site disturbance ordinance to construct a walkway and landing in the 25-foot shoreline buffer zone. But when we looked at the County ordinance (pdf here), there’s no such thing as a site disturbance variance.

Now, the County does have a variance procedure (Sections 9-23-2 and 9-23-3 here) for the zoning and building codes, as required by state law.  And maybe the County is supposed to have a variance procedure for the site disturbance ordinance, but it just forgot to write one into the law.  But at the moment, there’s simply no such thing.  As for the upcoming hearing, there are therefore no procedures to follow, and there are no standards a citizen can address in their comments.

This may be the ultimate test in how much the County is willing to bend over backwards for development interests.

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Last Thursday, nearly 100 people turned out for KEA’s premier of Karen Hayes’ new documentary film, The Hayden Lake Project which describes in clear and convincing style what is happening to  Kootenai County’s largest lake that isn’t Lake Coeur d’Alene.  

As the clear-eyed film points out, phosphorous is quite literally choking Hayden Lake, which doesn’t have a river outflow to relieve the pollution loads flowing into it each year. The pollution comes from logging sediments, stormwater runoff, and leaky septic systems in the watershed, and continues to build up year after year after year. The pollution threatens not only the Lake’s ecosystem, but the local recreation economy and lakefront property values. More frighteningly, however, algae growth is beginning to threaten the public’s health.

The efforts to clean up Hayden Lake seem stalled, however. In a panel discussion after the film, it was clear that frustration is building. When asked whether it was a problem of our laws not being strong enough or our existing laws not being enforced, local attorney Scott Reed said, simply, “Both.” It was also clear that the effort is hampered by a patchwork of jurisdictions without the funding or inclination to take strong action. Residents along the lake complained of ongoing development and docks moving forward without permits, violations without penalties, and elected and appointed officials without accountability.

Nevertheless, we were encouraged. Knowing that an informed citizenry is much more equipped to demand action, we were pleased to see that the film was having its intended effect.  Armed with information and motivation and new camaraderie, 100 Kootenai County residents left the film premier, we were convinced, to take action and demand more.

But we were devastated the next day with the news that Lee Shellman, a longtime resident, Republican activist, and unsung hero for Hayden Lake had passed away. Shellman, who was an active force behind the Hayden Lake Watershed Association, would have been the obvious leader to take advantage of this momentum and help lead the charge. We are enormously saddened by the loss. The job will be so much more difficult without him.

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We couldn’t quite get the funding together for a trip to Denmark, but we’re there in spirit this week, and we’re hoping for some successful negotiations on climate change.  Here are some perspectives worth reading:

EPA prepares the groundwork for carbon regulation today. — NY Times Green, Inc.

Clearing the PR smog regarding climate. — Yale 360

Climate Change Denial – The Dirty Dozen. — Mother Jones

Paul Krugman: “cutting greenhouse gas emissions is affordable as well as essential” — NY Times 

UPDATE 12/11:  Krugman again: climate deniers “furious, at the notion that they have to listen to guys who talk in big words” — NY Times

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Some of you may recall that Kootenai Environmental Alliance was competing in a competition for grant funding from Tom’s of Maine, the toothpaste maker and good corporate citizen. Well, despite all the clicking, KEA came up short. Tom’s recently announced the grant winners on their website.

Tom’s is funding some excellent projects:  a backyard garden program for low income residents in Ohio, improvements to a low income housing project in North Carolina, a spay-and-neuter program in Houston, and a fruit tree  gleaning  program for low income households (much like KEA’s Community Roots program) in Washington DC.

But one winner caught our attention and we suspect we should take some sort of consolation prize.  An elementary school in Venice, California won a Tom’s grant to create a native plant rain garden to deal with stormwater runoff.  That would be Coeur d’Alene Elementary School.   In Venice, California.  Not in Idaho.

Voters were probably just confused.

Seriously, congratulations to the winners. Thanks to all our IDAHO voters. And maybe we’ll try again next year.

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Our friends and colleagues at Idaho Conservation League were recently successful in their efforts to get Idaho DEQ to regulate carbon emissions in an air pollution permit to be issued to a new “clean-coal gasification fertilizer plant” in Southern Idaho.  This is notable because it is the first such air quality permit in the nation. It’s obviously somewhat ironic, given the climate-skeptic and anti-regulation attitudes of many Idaho leaders, but when a $1.5 billion project comes to town, and it’s ready to go forward on carbon limits, then, well, the permit gets written.

The new permit limits carbon emissions to 58% of what might otherwise have been permitted in a comparable plant. U.S. EPA hasn’t yet issued rules on how greenhouse gases might be regulated in future permits, so this Idaho permit could be an example for power plants nationwide.

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