The Public Eye

Reports from the Bee's investigative team

March 23, 2011
The growing U.S. nuclear waste problem

ranchoseco.JPGThe continuing battle to cool spent fuel rods at Japan's Fukushima's nuclear power station puts a spotlight on the growing amount of radioactive waste accumulating at American nuclear power plants.

Because there is yet no permanent storage facility for spent fuel, this very hazardous material is kept near the reactors which generated it. According to a new Associated Press investigation, the nation now maintains nearly 72,000 tons of nuclear waste. And this amount is growing by about 2,200 tons every year.

Nuclear fuel waste -- which stays toxic for thousands of years -- is currently housed in two types of temporary storage: cooling pools and dry casks. Fuel rods must first cool in the pools for at least five years before transfer to the casks that keep the material safe for about 100 years. AP reports that many of the pools are overloaded, some with four times what they were designed to hold. Almost 55,000 tons of waste are still in pools.

U.S. commercial nuclear waste is housed at 119 power plants in 31 states. (Fifteen of these plants are no longer operating.) California has four such facilities. (Two are producing electricity, two are closed.) California's current waste totals 3,186 tons (2,180 in pools, 956 in dry casks). See AP's interactive map for statistics on other states' inventory.

PHOTO CREDIT: A SMUD technician walks over the pool where the first fuel rods are being kept before being loaded into the new Rancho Seco nuclear reactor. 1974 Sacramento Bee photo by Andrew DeLucia.

July 29, 2010
Recycling: Who's responsible?

Last week, the city of Roseville became the 100th California entity to adopt a resolution ewaste photo.jpgcalling on manufacturers to take responsibility for recycling the products they sell; this week, the Placer County Board of Supervisors became the 101st.

Historically, the job of recycling has been largely left to government, meaning consumers and taxpayers pay the bill. Heidi Sanborn, executive director of the California Product Stewardship Council, wants to change that.

"Government's role in recycling should be limited to goal setting, establishing transparency, oversight and enforcement," said Sanborn, who is calling for the passage of statewide "product stewardship" laws for a range of hard-to-recycle items, from batteries to carpet - and for reform of the state's pioneering, five-year-old e-waste recycling program.

Earlier this month, The Bee reported that the California's e-waste program is plagued by faulty and fraudulent claims and ineffective law enforcement. Since its launch, none of the other 22 states that have followed California have tackled e-waste recycling with a government program; instead they have made manufacturers responsible.

Sanborn plans to convene a workshop later this year in Berkeley to chart possible changes to California's government-run e-waste program. "Everybody else is going producer responsibility," she said. "We are now the outlier."

"This needs to be a very public discussion of the role of government versus the role of the private sector," she said. "We need the primary responsibility to be back on the manufacturers. Right now, they have literally no skin in the game. They just privatize the profit and socialize the cost."

More information about the California Product Stewardship Council can be found at its website at: http://www.calpsc.org/

Bee photo by Tom Knudson.

July 26, 2010
Severe local water shortages on the way due to global warming

Sacramento County is one of four in California and just 29 nationwide that face likely, extreme water shortages by 2050 -- even if global warming were to mysteriously disappear -- according to a recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group.

The report found that California and 13 other states face severe shortages under expected global-warming scenarios. Nationwide, more than 1,100 counties -- one in three -- were projected to face water shortages due to global warming.

The research was conducted for the environmental group by Tetra Tech Inc., a Pasadena-based research and engineering firm, which factored in increasing demand from population and economic growth.

"Water shortages can strangle economic development and agricultural production," said Dan Lashof, an official with the environmental group. "Cities and states will bear real and significant costs if Congress fails to take the steps necessary to slow down and reverse the warming trend." Given that climate-change legislation remains stalled in a polarized Congress, water conservation would seem a more fruitful response, but hardly an easy one.

Notwithstanding the end of the three-year drought, the State Water Resources Control Board recently recommended that to sustain the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (a pleasant Delta day pictured here) as a healthy ecosystem, water drawn from it should roughly be cut in half. Water providers consider such cuts impractical in the extreme, given the lack of ready alternative sources.MC_ CSP_BRANNAN.04.JPG

Many urban areas, including the City of Sacramento -- among a handful of cities that does not yet fully meter its customers -- have enacted tougher conservation rules in recent years.

The city has had difficulty conserving on its own properties, due to a preponderance of grass and other thirsty landscaping combined with antiquated sprinklers that can be costly to upgrade.

But under a law enacted last year, the state mandated a 20 percent reduction in water consumption for urban areas by 2020. Agricultural water users will have their usage measured by July 2012, and will pay for water based partly on the quantity used.

- Charles Piller

July 22, 2010
Report hits federal subsidies that harm the environment

A coalition of environmental and consumer groups issued a new report detailing $200 billion in federal subsidies, to be distributed over the next five years, that allegedly harm the environment. The coalition, including Friends of the Earth, Taxpayers for Common Sense and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, cited more than $31 billion in giveaways to the gas and oil industry, including $9 billion for intangible drilling costs.

(AP photo of some of the more tangible costs of the BP spill in the gulf, below.)Gulf Oil Spill.jpg

Coal "gasification" will tap $8 billion in taxpayer help, and $28 billion will go to propping up commodity crops such as corn for ethanol -- regarded by some environmentalists as a bigger contributor to global warning than gasoline. More than $36 billion more will go to an ethanol excise tax credit, according to the report.

The groups called for steep cuts in what they termed wasteful benefits to environmentally harmful industries and projects.

-Charles Piller

July 22, 2010
Is federal cattle grazing too cheap?

cattle.jpgEnvironmentalists have sent a letter to the Obama administration suggesting how the U.S. Forest Service can begin to meet a presidential directive to cut their budget by 5 percent: stop subsidized livestock grazing.

The agency charges just $1.35 cents a month for each cow and calf that graze on its lands, including in the Sierra Nevada. In 2005, the U.S. GAO found the Forest Service loses $69.5 million nationally on its grazing program.

"The fee has failed to keep pace with inflation, failed to cover the administrative costs of operating the program and incentivizes destructive grazing practices on public land," wrote seven environmentalists, including Ara Marderosian, executive director of Sequoia ForestKeeper in Kernville.

Earlier this year, The Sacramento Bee reported on scientific research of retired UC Davis emergency room director Robert Derlet, who has documented serious water pollution in high Sierra meadows. His photo (above) shows cattle grazing just outside the Hoover Wilderness Area on Forest Service land in the eastern Sierra.

Overall, 15,045 sheep and 35,721 cattle grazed on national forests in the Sierra Nevada last year, according to the Forest Service. Total grazing fees came to $168,942;about $3.33 cents per animal, less than the cost of a latte.

The environmentalists' letter also targets the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

July 9, 2010
State officials fly free - courtesy of corporate nonprofit

By law, corporations are forbidden from giving gifts worth more than $420 to state officials.

But when gifts arrive via a corporate-funded non-profit group, the sky is literally the limit.

One year ago this month, The Bee reported that top state officials, legislators and business executives have regularly fanned out across the globe on yearly, lavish "study travel projects" trips paid for by the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy, a non-profit funded by major corporations, including Chevron, PG&E and Southern California Edison.

That story documented stays at the five-star beachfront Copacabana Palace hotel in Rio de Janeiro and a safari in Kruger National Park in South Africa, and cited concerns of current and former state officials who went on the trips about the propriety of meeting with corporate executives behind closed doors.

Three months after The Bee story, state officials and business executives were off again on another foundation-funded trip, this one to China, according to state records dug up by citizen-journalist Jim Rothstein, through the California Public Records law.

Those records show the purpose of the trip was to investigate Chinese energy projects, low-carbon vehicles and broadband technologies -- but that it included plenty of downtime, including a stay at the Portman Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai plus sight-seeing and nature tours.
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According to the documents Rothstein obtained, trip participants included members of the California Energy Commission, the Public Utilities Commission, State Senate and Assembly as well as executives from Chevron, Covanta Energy Corp., AES North America Pacific, Shell Oil, Calpine Corp., RRI Energy, Southern California Edison and two environmental groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Union of Concerned Scientists.

The cost of the two-week trip for Energy Commissioner Jeffrey Byron (pictured at right) was estimated at $12,200, including $6,350 for round-trip airfare from San Francisco to Shanghai.

June 10, 2010
Carbon, climate and conflict

Carbon offsets are controversial, with some challenging their effectiveness at mitigating global warming.

Last year, The Bee explored the subject by examining widespread confusion in state government over whether or not top officials should buy carbon off-sets when they travel abroad on environmental business. Some do. And some don't. Some think it's a problem, others don't.

One official told The Bee in its story: "Do we need a policy for how this stuff works? Absolutely, yes - because one does not exist."

Now Frontline explores this issue in an intriguing program, which is viewable on the Web.

How did Chevron and General Motors end up owning valuable carbon offsets in the rain-forests of Brazil? And why did the purchase of those off-sets, which are billed as an important tool in the battle against climate change, anger local people in the region?

June 3, 2010
Gulf Coast population is booming

On the eve of hurricane season (and in the middle of the BP oil spill crisis) the U.S. Census Bureau issued a report documenting the phenomenal rise in population along the Gulf of Mexico coastline. Currently home to 14 million people, Gulf counties have ballooned 150 percent between 1960 and 2008, according to Census data. That growth rate is more than twice that of the country as a whole, and it beats the Pacific Coast increase of 110 percent over the same period.

There are twenty-three states with coastal counties. Of these, eleven saw an increase in the proportion of residents living along the coast and nine saw a drop. Califonia's share of coastline population fell from 78 percent in 1960 to 69 percent in 2008. In 2008, 28.8 percent of the nation's coastal population lived in California.

-- Pete Basofin

June 2, 2010
Thieves at work in Death Valley National Park

bighorn s.jpg

At 3.3 million acres, Death Valley National Park is America's largest national park outside Alaska.

But is this desert sanctuary in eastern California too big to protect the treasures within its boundaries?

Hike the back-country in Death Valley and you may be surprised -- as I have been -- to find signs of illegal plundering, and attempted plundering, of archeological artifacts, such as this Native American petroglyph that someone clearly has tried to remove with a chisel.

Last winter, not far from where this photo was taken in May, I came across more evidence of illegal activity near a circle of stones that appears to be a Native American medical wheel, or sacred hoop, where indigenous people once gathered for ceremonies. Here, in an isolated corner of a national park set aside for the benefit of all Americans, someone had apparently been digging for arrowheads and other artifacts, for their private benefit.

dig site s.jpg

Obviously, patrolling a national park larger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined is an enormous challenge. But just as obviously, more effective law enforcement is in order; otherwise, the archaeological treasures that make Death Valley and other national parks special will continue to disappear, not unlike pieces of art work from a museum wall.

ring s.jpg

June 2, 2010
What the BP spill would look like in Central California
It's hard to get a handle on the size of the BP oil spill by looking at maps showing it in a distant ocean. To rectify that, some crafty environmentalists have created a simple app that superimposes the outline of the spill -- as tracked by the federal government -- on the city or region most familiar to you.

Here's what the spill would look like if it were centered on Sacramento instead of out in the Gulf.


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About The Public Eye

Welcome to The Bee's newest blog: Public Eye. In the coming months, you will see us breaking news here as well as following up on investigations we have published with tidbits, news breaks and behind-the-scenes descriptions of our news-gathering process. Know of a wrong we could right? Send our fraud squad your tips at: fraudsquad@sacbee.com.

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