Earth Day 2012: No Planet B

Posted on Wednesday, 18th April 2012 @ 05:13 PM by Text Size A | A | A

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Forty two years ago on April 22 the first Earth Day was established by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson who called for an environmental teach-in, or Earth Day in 1970.  Earth Day is now coordinated globally on a grand scale by the Earth Day Network, a coalition of quasi-governmental agencies, local governments, activists, and others and is celebrated in more than 175 countries every year.  In 2009, the United Nations designated April 22 International Mother Earth Day “a global effort to accelerate the growing awareness that we must enter a new phase of reconciliation and stewardship of our beleaguered planet”.


Some sources trace the term “Earth Day” to John McConnell in 1969 at a UNESCO Conference in San Francisco, or the City of Saint Francis, patron saint of ecology. Earth Day was first observed in San Francisco and other cities on March 21, 1970, the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere.


Over 20 million people participated in 1970 and the observance has now grown to include more than 1 billion people and several national governments in 175 countries who observe the date.  And now, an entire Earth Week is observed in many places. It’s an entire week of activities focused on educating the planet’s stewards (us) on environmental issues.


Back in those heady days when the new age was dawning on a post-industrialized world that left behind abandoned brownfields sites of hazardous waste and other pollution, we announced that we would reclaim the Earth.  The industrial manufacturing age had bestowed America with a legacy of smog, contaminated water and a landscape peppered with all those nasty sites blighted with scrap medal, brackish soil and fuel tanks cancered-out with rust holes.


After abandoning America for cheaper labor, new markets or massive close-outs, a degraded landscape was left behind. It was the result of manufacturers like Lockheed Martin that ditched a former factory site in Wood-Ridge, New Jersey where 67 acres lay saturated with volatile compounds and other deadly contaminants until an EPA-approved cleanup transformed the site into a neo-traditional mixed use, mixed income transit village.


Senator Nelson had conceived the idea for his environmental teach-in following a trip he took to Santa Barbara right after a devastating oil spill off the coast of California in 1969, 6 miles from Santa Barbara.  That spill ranks third in damage and volume after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon and the 1989 Exxon Valdez spills. These oil disasters were caused by what’s known as a “blowout”, or an uncontrolled explosion of crude oil from an oil well due to extreme pressure and after the control systems fail.


An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 barrels of crude oil spilled into the Santa Barbara Channel and onto nearby beaches in Southern California, ravaging the coastline from Goleta to Ventura. Havoc was wreaked on marine life, killing thousands of sea birds, dolphins, elephant seals, and sea lions.  Public outrage and extensive media coverage condemned this siege on the region’s ecosystem.  And yet, the offending “Platform A” of the operation remains in operation in the Santa Barbara Channel along with three others –  Platforms B, C, and Hillhouse – all still pumping oil in outrageous disregard for marine life or coastal inhabitants of the Golden State.


Almost two decades later, on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck a reef in Prince William Sound wit its many islands, fjords, and tidewater glaciers. The disaster resulted in the spilling of 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into a pristine sea teeming with life.  The spill eventually stretched out over 11,000 square miles.    This assault resulted in the killing of 250,000 seabirds, almost 3,000 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles and up to 22 killer whales. Alaskan fishing villages and the natural ecosystem have still not fully recovered from that toxic assault.

And finally we have the Gulf spill the largest so far. Perhaps in a cruel twist of environmental fate, we will be recalling the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  That spill resulted from an explosion of the drilling semi-submersible Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit (MODU) on April 20th, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico can continued spilled 4.9 million barrels (not gallons) of oil over the period of 87 days.


A full year later 66 miles of Gulf coastline remained moderately to severely oiled, there was a fourfold increase in dolphin deaths,  and  microscopic organisms at the bottom of the ocean food chain had also, not surprisingly become contaminated with oil. Deep ocean corals seven miles from the spill was found dead and dying, coated in brown gunk.


A Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration (NRDAR) study a year later found 2121 birds deeply oiled and dead, 3387 not visibly oiled but dead,         and 873 with unknown oiling effects.  This is but a small sample of the damage to the ecosystem as a result of the events on one day in April in the Gulf of Mexico, in part, because of a stubborn reliance on fossil fuels and its necessitating extraction from the earth’s ecosystem.


The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill was the largest accidental oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.  Eleven crewmembers were killed and 17 other were injured.  When the emergencyoperations finally capped the gusher, it had released about 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.


Despite the legislation and the disastrous blowouts that triggered them, oil drilling technology has not improved.  Today’s oil rigs are essentially operating with the same technology since at least the Valdez spill if not longer, immersed in fragile marine ecosystems all along our Gulf and Pacific coastlines.   Although BP received billions in profit, it has spent absolutely nothing for researching how to drill safely and spill cleanup.  Technology that includes the boom, dispersants, induced burns and the related use of skimmer boats to pick up spilled oil simply has not been changed much since 1989.


On March 2, 2012, BP Oil had agreed to pay about $7.8 billion in damages to over 120,000 individuals.  Think of what that money could have leveraged in terms of investment in safety equipment, or better yet, in clean energy.   What’s that saying about an ounce of prevention?   Where are those Founding Fathers when we need them?


To be fair, these three oil spills have resulted in numerous pieces of environmental legislation within the next several years, legislation that forms the legal and regulatory framework for the modern environmental movement in the U.S.


Then of course there’s the Keystone XL pipeline. North of the border in Canada, the oil industry is destroying one of the world’s last ecosystems for oil extraction.  Alberta’s boreal forest and wetlands are home to a diverse range of animals including lynx, caribou and grizzly bears, and serve as critical breeding grounds for many North American songbirds and waterfowl.


Keystone is designed to move costly Canadian tar sands, not domestic crude, across 2000 miles of environmentally sensitive land to the Gulf Coast.  That land includes the subterranean Ogallala Aquifer, a subsystem of the underground mega-system called the High Plains Aquifer containing billions of gallons of water of potential drinking water.  Ninety percent of TransCanada’s contracts are to transport Canadian crude, not US crude.  And none of it can be used directly within the United States.


Potentially even more destructive are recent efforts to end critical environmental regulations.  Governor Paul LePage, of Maine has announced a 63-point plan to cut state environmental protections.  This would include the opening of three million acres of the North Woods for development and the suspension of a law meant to monitor toxic chemicals found in children’s products.


Governor Rick Scott of Florida has proposed eliminating millions of dollars for land conservation and the cutting of $17 million the $50 million allocated in last year’s budget for the restoration of the environmentally fragile and dwindling Everglades.


In North Carolina, the state legislature has proposed a budget that would cut operating funds to the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources by 22 percent.


Due in part to current efforts to repeal or dismantle legislation, these three oil spills, Keystone and many other forces, every hour, three plant and animal species become extinct.  According the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, every day up to 150 species are lost.  Every year, between 18,000 and 55,000 species become extinct.  This is nothing less than alarming and unacceptable.


This is not to say that progress in a positive direction is not being made.  According to Frances Beinecke, President of the Natural Resources Defense Council,Earth Day continues to play a vital role in nurturing environmental stewardship in America. Every year it brings people together at recycling centers, community gardens and rallies in support of new safeguards. But it also does something else: It provides a touchstone to see how far we have come in restoring the Earth and how we can best protect it for the future.”


As a licensed city planner I am abundantly aware every day of how vital it is to maintain the sustainability and delicate balance of our precious planet and all its resources. I’m happy for the protections that have been put in place during a more progressive time in our history.


The National Environmental Policy Act is a comprehensive environmental protection provision that established a national policy and program that protects the environment along with and also established the President’s Council on Environmental Quality.


The Clean Water Act enumerates a list of water quality standards that are risk-based criteria setting site-specific pollutant levels for individual water bodies, such as rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands.  It’s our primary federal law that governs water pollution. As a planning consultant, I have had the honor and privilege of working on local water restoration projects in New Jersey at the Wallkill River, predicated on CWA.


The Clean Air Act is a law to control air pollution on a national level, specifically, the control of the emission of air pollutants from human sources.  It empowers the Environmental Protection Agency to protect the general public from exposure to hazardous airborne contaminants. The 1963 Act established a basic research program, which was expanded in 1967. The major amendments to the law, requiring regulatory controls for air pollution, were enacted in 1970, 1977 and 1990.


Federal and state legislators have also passed other supplementary laws in the years since 1970 to ensure that our water quality, endangered species, and hazardous waste are kept at optimal levels.

The first Earth Day once mobilized Americans around the country who cared about the environment. There was great excitement about having the ability to control the health of the world’s ecosystem as well as provide for a healthy future.


Here in New Jersey coastal waters and the land adjacent to them are protected by a variety of statutes that include the Waterfront Development Law, the Coastal Area Facility Review Act, and the Wetlands Act of 1970. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection applies the New Jersey Coastal Permit Program Rules and the Coastal Zone Management Rules to determine what may or may not be built under these three laws.


I know.  Cynics will growl that all the planning and statutes in the world will not do the job without action. And what if the laws are dismantled as some public officials would like?  It’s not going to happen.  There are too many stakeholders invested in a healthy environment to let that happen. I’m guessing you’re one of them.


As environmental degradation, polar melting, poverty, disease and balloonin public debt sweep the  globe, sustainable, much less restorative, development seem far out of reach.  Yet, planners, key decision makers, and grassroots environmental activists are working toward that end.


Students at the University of California are volunteering to work toward a local community-based initiative to restore the native wetlands of Upper Newport Bay in Orange County.


New York City was recently awarded the Daniel Burnham Award for  Comprehensive Plan for Vision 2020: New York City Comprehensive Waterfront Plan. It’s a visionary and epic plan to restore tidal wetlands and reclaim the waterline for a broad mix of eco-friendly public uses. It promotes goals that reach 10 years, a realistic time frame for the restoration of a post-industrial 520 mile coastline.


In the last few decades very encouraging progress has been made in the production of solar panels.  The growing market has made this clean, renewal and sustainable energy source, along with wind power, dramatically less expensive.  There has also been considerable growth in hybrid gas-electric cars.  According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, “We are witnessing the launch of a new era of more fuel-efficient, less-polluting vehicles powered by technologies that aren’t always familiar”.


These nascent examples show us that on the ground, real progress is happening.  They show us that across the nation progress can be made through even stronger legislation, broad coalitions and judicious investment in research and development as they apply to our infrastructure.   Entirely anthropomorphic or not, climate change is occurring and getting ourselves weaned off carbon producing fossil fuels can’t hurt.  I’m sure the polar bears will agree.


It was a Republican, Presiden Richard M. Nixon, who established the Environmental Protection Agency as the environmental sentry of the American ecosystem. The EPA has been better at its job at certain times more than others.  The same holds true for the Minerals Management Service, the federal agency that was responsible for ensuring that the Deepwater oil rig was operating safely before it exploded.  That agency was charged with the duty of monthly inspections which had apparently lapsed.


And yet, so-called “job killing regulations” continue to be a favorite target of certain members Congress who condemn the Environmental Protection Agency and call for it to be shut down.   In reality, the “job-killing” status of these protections is mythical at best.


Despite what might appear to be 21st Century environmental apathy, the observance of Earth Day has grown exponentially in the four decades since its inauguration. It’s is no longer celebrated in the United States exclusively among environmental aficionados.  Earth Day Network, the organization now mainly responsible for promoting Earth Day, has worked to spread awareness of the event among 192 countries with the help of more than 22,000 partner organizations. As a result of their efforts, an estimated 1 billion people celebrate Earth Day each year, making it the largest civic observance in the world.


Many conservatives are fond of quoting Genesis: “Have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”  However, “dominion” means responsible stewardship, not exploitation.  It certainly does not mean oil spills over the fish of the sea.


At best, a celebration one day a year in honor of the Earth’s health is but a reminder that the other 364 days a year we need to work diligently to preserve what’s left of this fragile global ecosystem.   Energy and other resources might be renewable but the Earth is not.

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