Video: How Oil Trains Put the Northwest At Risk

This post is 17 in the series: The Northwest’s Pipeline on Rails

Why should the Northwest worry about the oil-by-rail projects that are cropping up around the Northwest? In three-and-a-half minutes, here’s your answer:

This is a beautiful piece of work (and I’m not just saying that because I’m featured in it).

Big thanks to Portland-based filmmaker Trip Jennings who produced the video, as well as to the folks at Columbia Riverkeeper and ForestEthics who made it possible

Originally published at Sightline Daily

What Big Oil’s Tax Break Costs Our Classrooms

         This post is 8 in the series: Big Oil’s Accidental Tax Loophole

Big Oil companies in Washington get $41 million from an accidental tax loophole that was never designed to benefit them. It’s enough to make the tangible investments in public education that our teachers and students so desperately need.

To learn more about it, check out this 2 minute video graphic:

Don’t have 2 minutes? This graphic says it all:

big oils tax break

There is some good news though. It’s entirely possible to end Big Oil’s taxpayer subsidy and redirect that money to kids. Go here to find out how.

Big thanks to designer Don Baker who produced these graphics.

We are a community-supported resource and we can’t do this work without you!

Originally published at Sightline Daily

We Don’t Need a $12B Transportation Package


King County should save Metro on its own.

Earlier this year, the US House of Representatives—a body that has shut down the government over health care reform, taken a hatchet to food stamps, opposed regulating greenhouse gases, and held immigration legislation hostage—still managed to support a federal transportation bill that devoted roughly 20 percent of its funding to transit + bikes + walking and 80 percent to roads.

How much worse could the road-heavy transportation package being floated by the Republican-led Senate Majority Coalition Caucus in a state like Washington possibly be? The $12.3 billion package that surfaced this week would spend less than 2 percent of that on transit and improvements for cyclists and pedestrians.

It would increase gas taxes in the state by a whopping 11.5 cents, mostly to fund dozens of highway projects at a time when traffic projections around the state are holding steady or dropping. It would spend nearly $9 billion on building roads and throw in $1 billion to maintain them. By contrast, it would devote $42 million to bicycling and pedestrian projects, $37 million to safe routes to schools, $12 million on making streets work better for everyone and about $114 million on transit projects and grants.

It is such a terrible and ridiculously lopsided proposal that a negotiation using it as one of its bookends, which is underway in Olympia right now with the goal of reaching a “deal” by next week, seems highly unlikely to achieve any reasonable balance or progress in creating a 21st century transportation system. That is why we should simply say: No, thanks. We don’t really need this.

King County can go it alone

The Senate Majority Coalition Caucus (which could cease to exist after elections are held in November of next year) apparently thinks it has the Puget Sound region—and anyone who cares about making streets safer for kids, reducing pollution, and giving people convenient alternatives to sitting in traffic—over a barrel. In order to convince us to swallow retrograde highway expansions, they have included in the package long sought-after proposals allowing King and Snohomish counties to ask voters to save the region from crippling transit cuts.

For instance, the proposal would allow King County to ask voters for a 1.5% motor vehicle excise tax to fund transit operations and road maintenance. It’s the best and most egalitarian option to fill a $75 million annual shortfall at King County Metro caused by a recessionary drop in sales tax revenue and provide a more stable funding source. (On top of that longstanding structural problem, state funding for extra bus service from West Seattle during viaduct construction will run out next June.)

But it’s not the only option. King County has wisely come up with a Plan B, which is starting to look more like a Plan A, to raise that revenue without having to go through the Legislature. It could form a Transportation Benefit District and ask voters in all or some portion of the county to approve a 0.2% sales tax increase and a flat vehicle license fee of up to $100.

Incidentally, King County Metro has just given us a sneak peak of what will happen if it can’t raise additional funds. It is, quite frankly, a horrorshow. More than 80 percent of bus routes will either disappear, change to provide crummier service levels, or become more crowded. (In my unscientific survey of one, one of the three bus routes on my commute will be rerouted through neighborhoods, rendering it so slow that I would never be able to make it to work or my daughter’s after school care on time. The second will become an express-only bus, and the third will likely become so crowded in the mornings that people waiting at Aurora Ave. bus stops will get passed by more often than we are now.)

The number of weekday buses on parts of I-405 headed towards Microsoft will drop by 23 percent. The number of buses headed south to SeaTac Airport on 99 will drop by up to 31 percent. People trying to get from east King County to Bellevue on I-90 will lose 15 percent of weekday bus trips. If people no longer have workable or convenient transit options, many of those who can will get back in their cars. And then people will start to realize what bad traffic really looks like.

The MVET option is the most progressive way to raise Metro revenue, since people who can afford to drive spendy new cars would pay more than than people nursing beaters, and the revenue stream would also grow with inflation. Sales tax and flat vehicle license fees are unfairly regressive, and they burden the people in our society who can least afford it. But so does an 11.5-cent gas tax increase that forces low-income drivers to pay for massive highway expansions they don’t want and may never use.

From Plan B to Plan A

So while King County would prefer to use the MVET, as long as that option remains embedded in a larger, controversial transportation package, it may not be a workable revenue source anyway.

Metro’s financial picture starts to get really dire towards the middle of 2014, which is why the county is launching a public process now to discuss service cuts. To avoid or minimize those, the agency ideally needs to start collecting new revenue next year.

But if the state Legislature decides to put a transportation package to an up or down vote of state residents, or someone tries to repeal it by referendum, that vote could occur as late as November of 2014. If state voters reject the larger transportation package (perhaps on the basis that it’s a terrible roads package or that people don’t want to pay for it), the county’s revenue source could go down with it. And even if it did pass, King County would then have to separately ask county voters to approve the MVET. By that point, Metro would already be well into cutting routes, losing customers, and possibly inflicting irreparable damage.

There is a simple fix to spare the state’s most populous and prosperous counties from the consequences of deep and economically unsustainable transit cuts. The Legislature could simply uncouple a bill that gives counties local options for raising transit revenue from the larger statewide package, and pass it with an emergency clause allowing it to go into immediate effect. Naturally, the Senate Majority Coalition is unwilling to agree to this and lose one of its main bargaining chips.

Absent that, it makes more sense for King County to take its chances with just one vote—the one that could occur as early as next April and that asks local pedestrians, cyclists, transit riders, and drivers whether they are willing to stand by and let our transit service fall into an almost unimaginable state of chaos and disrepair.

Raising revenue for King County Metro through a sales tax increase and vehicle license fee isn’t the ideal scenario. And because cities can also form Transportation Benefit Districts and the state caps the vehicle fee that any single person would pay at $100, a countywide TBD would make it necessary for cities and the county to share.

But Plan B looks a whole lot better than hitching the fate of King County’s transit system to an irresponsible roads package that’s likely to crumble under voter objections anyway.

We at Sightline are a community-supported resource and we can’t do this work without you!

Originally published at Sightline Daily

The Truth About Carbon Pricing

Mirror images: carbon taxes and cap-and-trade.

and on October 23, 2013 at 8:00 am

These are exciting times for carbon pricing in the Pacific Northwest. Under the auspices of the Climate Legislative and Executive Workgroup (CLEW), state leaders are, right now, engaged in the first serious look at the subject in years. (Please be sure to attend the hearings on October 23 in Seattle, and December 6 in Olympia!) The work is heavily informed by a recently released report commissioned by the state. It sets a foundation for the important work ahead, but we fear that it makes a few missteps that are unhelpful to policymakers. Our aim is to set the record straight about the benefits (and perils) of carbon pricing.

The truth about carbon pricing—a term that encompasses both carbon taxes and cap-and-trade systems—is that those two policies are two sides of the same coin. Unlike “command and control” policies that directly regulate the economy, “market-based” policies use the power of capitalism to protect the environment. Putting a price on carbon gives businesses and households a powerful financial incentive to reduce their consumption of fossil fuels and other greenhouse gases.

Although there are some (mostly subtle) differences between carbon taxes and cap-and-trade systems, they are more alike than they are different. In this context, efforts by some conservatives to re-label cap-and-trade as “cap-and-tax” makes perfect sense: the point of both of these policies is to make polluting more expensive. For the most part, whatever you do with one you can do with the other. (In particular, you can do either one well, and you can do either one badly.)

And that brings us to the state task force report, produced by the consulting firm SAIC. (Our comments refer to the original SAIC report, which can be found here, but they are also relevant to the updated report released more recently.)

First, the good news about the report: the treatment of carbon taxes is pretty reasonable. The analysis notes that carbon taxes will increase fossil fuel costs for households and businesses, but also points out that carbon tax revenues can be “recycled” by reducing property taxes, sales taxes, and B&O business taxes in a way that will help offset impacts on households and businesses. This kind of “revenue-neutral tax swap” was pioneered in British Columbia in 2008 and the result has been widely recognized by economists as the best climate policy in the world. Carbon emissions have fallen faster than in the rest of Canada, the provincial economy has grown faster than in the rest of Canada, and British Columbia now has some of the lowest personal income tax rates in Canada and some of the lowest corporate income tax rates in the rich world. The BC carbon tax is not a free lunch—as intended, fossil fuel prices have gone up—but it is good value for money, and the evidence shows that it’s a win-win for the environment and for the economy.

Now the bad news: the SAIC treatment of cap-and-trade ignores the fundamental similarities with carbon taxes.

The report notes that “revenue generated by the state [through permit auctions] can be invested based on state priorities”, just as carbon tax revenue could. But the report is less straightforward about where that revenue will come from, asserting in one place that “many of these costs can be passed on to customers” and in another that “there is no consensus among studies as to whether cap and trade would increase or decrease personal income.” Without wading too far into the complexities of the many possible flavors of cap-and-trade programs, let’s just state the obvious: if the program generates revenue, that revenue has to come from somewhere. And that somewhere—just like with a carbon tax—is going to be a combination of households and firms who will pay more to pollute.

In a few other places, too, the SAIC report seems to give the two policies unequal treatment in ways that we find concerning. For example, the authors estimate that a $50 per ton carbon tax would reduce CO2 emissions by 5 million tons in 2035. They also estimate that a cap-and-trade system would reduce emissions in that same year by over 17 million tons, yet they neglect to mention what permit prices would have to be in order to achieve such a reduction. Clearly, the figure would have to be much higher than the $50 per ton that SAIC uses as a high-water mark in the report.

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Elsewhere, in a discussion of “complementary policies”—regulations independent of the core market-based pricing system—SAIC categorizes them as “complements” to cap-and-trade systems but as “partial diminishments” to carbon tax systems. This doesn’t make much sense. In reality, complementary policies in sectors of the economy covered by a cap-and-trade program will not yield additional emissions reductions. That’s because a binding limit on emissions is both a ceiling and a floor: you won’t get more emissions than the cap specifies, but as long as the cap is binding you won’t get fewer emissions either. (Complementary policies can, however, reduce cap-and-trade permit prices, potentially making the program cheaper if those complementary policies are smart and lower-cost than market-based options.) On the flip side, complementary policies added to a carbon tax can yield additional emissions reductions, even in the sectors of the economy subject to the tax.

We think that, done correctly, either cap-and-trade or carbon taxes could be an effective tool for Washington to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a way that creates a win-win for the economy and the environment. Yet we are concerned that the SAIC findings may oversell some aspects of cap-and-trade and do not pay sufficient attention to the success story next door. British Columbia’s carbon tax legislation was passed in February of 2008 and went into effect in July of 2008. It was implemented by a right-of-center party and now enjoys support from both major parties, in part because eliminating it would mean rolling back the reductions in personal and corporate income taxes that are financed by the carbon tax. BC’s carbon tax is now $30 per ton of CO2, among the highest carbon prices in the world. They’re waiting for the rest of us to catch up.

Governor Inslee has said he wants Washington to give serious consideration to joining forces with California’s young cap-and-trade program. We think that a well-designed cap-and-trade programs can make for a worthy climate policy, but we also think that the Governor and Washington State should give serious consideration to following BC’s lead by adopting a revenue-neutral carbon tax.


Eric de Place leads climate policy for Sightline Institute; he was instrumental in the development of several cap-and-trade proposals, including the Western Climate Initiative. Yoram Bauman is a long-time climate activist with a PhD in economics; he is a Carbon Tax Fellow at Sightline and (separately) is a leader in the CarbonWA.org carbon tax effort. They don’t see eye to eye on all aspects of carbon pricing programs, but they agree that using a market-based system to put a price on carbon is the single most important thing we can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Originally posted at Sightline Institute

How Coal and Oil Trains Will Block Traffic Along the Columbia River

Trains will divide towns from the river for hours each day.

Oil and coal companies hope to dispatch scores of trains across the Northwest each day, bearing fuel to refineries and port terminals. To help the public understand the magnitude of these schemes, Sightline is highlighting key rail crossings from Sandpoint, Idaho to Cherry Point, Washington along the main path the trains would take from the interior to the coast.

In this installment we examine communities along the Columbia River from Benton County to Vancouver, Washington.

Columbia_overview map image

So massive are the fossil fuel industry’s plans that simple math shows that the shipments would close streets and roads for hours each day as trains pass through at-grade crossings.

Sightline_coal and oil street closures

In our depiction below, we select several representative communities where coal and oil trains will travel, but these are by no means the complete accounting of street closures in the area. In every place along the route, coal and oil trains they would shut down streets and roads every single day from 1 hour and 47 minutes to 4 hours, on average, if all the plans were built and operated at full capacity.

After passing through Idaho, Spokane County, and eastern Washington, trains will make their way along the Columbia River, passing through small towns like Wishram.


Wishram, WA (Klickitat County)

The town of Wishram contains no public rail grade crossings, but it lies alongside the rail tracks that separate it from the Columbia River. Wishram Elementary and Wishram High School are visible in the grassy area to the north of the tracks. BNSF reports that about 30 trains pass through Wishram daily. Most are presumably freight trains, though the town does boast an Amtrak Station (designated with a blue square), and sees two passenger trains each day, one heading northeast to Spokane, and one bound west for Portland Portland. Coal and oil trains could, in theory, nearly triple train traffic through Wishram and towns like it, potentially posing a problem for passenger rail reliability.

Traveling west, trains reach the little town of Bingen.


Bingen, WA (Klickitat County): Maple Street

Maple Street, shown in the center of this photo with a red square, is protected by crossing gates where 43 trains pass daily across the street.

Further west in Klickitat County, trains reach White Salmon.

White Salmon

White Salmon, WA (Klickitat County): South Dock Grade Road

The town of White Salmon contains one public grade crossing at South Dock Grade Road. The crossing sees just 80 vehicles on an average day, but it is protected by gates. The community is further protected by a small hill that lies between the city and the rail line, and this may provide a modest buffer for noise, smoke, and air pollutants. Whitson Elementary School is the white L-shaped building to the North; the building for the White Salmon School District lies just to its southwest.

From White Salmon, trains continue west to reach Stevenson:


Stevenson, WA (Skamania County): Russell Avenue

One public BNSF grade crossing is found in the town of Stevenson at Russell Avenue. The crossing is protected by a gate from the 36 trains that currently pass through daily. Stevenson High School and its athletic fields are visible in the image to the north.

Further on, trains cross into populous Clark County, soon reaching the town of Washougal:


Washougal, WA (Clark County): 3rd, 6th, 20th, 24th, B, and 32nd Streets

Currently, about 35 trains per day close off streets in the heart of Washougal, which has six at-grade crossings. In the future, that number could easily double if coal and oil shipment plans come to fruition. The consequences are potentially serious for both safety and traffic congestion. The B Street crossing, for example, is protected only by flashing lights, while the 32nd Street crossing, the busiest arterial of the bunch, handles 12,600 vehicles per day.

Coal and oil-bearing trains continue into ever more densely settled areas, next coming to Camas.

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Camas, WA (Clark County): 139th, 147th, and 164th Streets

Three public streets cross BNSF tracks west of Camas. At 164th Street only flashing lights warn drivers of the heavy freight rail traffic on the mainline. With 1,250 vehicles on an average day, the busiest of these streets is 139th Street, which sits just north of the Steamboat Landing Marina. In the northwest part of the image, icons of children represent Crestline Elementary School and Wy’east Middle School.

Trains continue along the Columbia to reach Vancouver, Washington, a major regional city with a population of over 165,000.

Vancouver, WA

Vancouver, WA (Clark County): Jefferson Street, 8th Street, 11th Street

Home to a major railyard and infamous for its rail congestion, the city of Vancouver contains multiple BNSF grade crossings. The busiest crossings are at Jefferson and 8th Streets, where 88 trains daily shut off city streets. (These crossings are close together, and the red rectangles marking them overlap.) Just to their north, the crossing at 11th Street see 32 trains daily. The crossing at 11th is marked only by a simple cross buck road sign; the crossing at Jefferson is protected by gates. The busiest crossing, with 5,300 daily vehicles, is 8th Street, but it is marked only by flashing lights. Between the rail lines and I-5 the building are icons with columns that represent branches of Clark County government.

It is here in Vancouver that the first batch of fossil fuel-bearing trains would reach their destination. The Port of Vancouver is weighing a gigantic oil-by-rail terminal proposal capable of handling 360,000 barrels of oil per day, which would require roughly five loaded and five unloaded trains daily.

The Vancouver rail system is undergoing a major taxpayer-funded overhaul. Even as the Port contemplates a big new influx of fossil fuel trains, the state transportation department is spending more than $150 million in public funds in the hopes of untangling Amtrak service from freight rail congestion, and to build a bridge at 39th Street (not shown) owing to the frequent street closures from trains.

From Vancouver, the BNSF mainline for coal and oil heads north toward Longview and other sites. We’ll take up that region in our next chapter.

You can enlarge the images by clicking on them.

Click here for notes, sources, and methodology.

John Abbotts is a former Sightline research consultant who occasionally submits material that Sightline staff turn into blog posts. Thanks to Devin Porter of Goodmeasures.biz for designing the table.

We are a community-supported resource and we can’t do this work without you!

Originally posted at Sightline

Shoot Your Shampoo

What toxics and harmful chemicals lurk on our bathroom shelves?

by on September 13, 2013 at 10:55 am

I know I’m late to this party (like, by many years). But, I’m done with my brand name shampoo.

My colleagues and I have thought a lot over the years about toxics and how to keep them out of our food and our bodies. But I must admit I’ve remained a stubborn hold-out when it comes to a lot of my toiletries and cosmetics—hair products, lipstick, lotions, soaps, etc. I’ve allowed myself to ignore harmful ingredients in the name of vanity or convenience or price. I’m usually a pretty savvy consumer, but when it comes to personal care products, I’ve also allowed myself to be greenwashed (excuse the pun).

Here’s what happened recently to get me thinking more seriously now about the toxics and harmful chemicals on my bathroom shelves:

Heading out for a long weekend in the sun, I chastised my husband (yes, sometimes I’m like that) for picking up the cheapest sunscreen at the drug store (to his credit, he’s frugal). Knowing what harmful chemicals lurk in most mainstream sunscreens, the garish red and yellow bottle screamed “toxic” to me. So, I marched back into the store and bought sunscreen in a bottle that cooed “natural”—a mossy green number with a leafy motif and a reassuringly crunchy brand name, and claims in soothing pale yellow script about special herbal ingredients. I felt better about putting this stuff on my toddler’s sweet little face. When I got back to the car, my better half inspected the ingredient list and laughed, “It’s the same stuff in a different colored bottle.”

I was hoodwinked. I paid twice as much for the exact same chemical brew, with some trace of herb added only for marketing purposes.

A couple days later, I happened to hear Siobhan O’Connor and Alexandra Spunt on the radio talking about their book, No More Dirty Looks, a treatise on how the US (and Canadian) cosmetics industry—shockingly unregulated—gets away with selling us products with ingredients that can harm our health and our looks. (They also recommend lots of alternatives to buy and make yourself).

I got the book from the library, started my (incredulous) reading, spent way too much time poking around the Internet (found Annie Leonard and Ask Umbra being smart about cosmetics back in 2010), and commenced scrutinizing ingredient lists on everything in my bathroom.

The upshot: I’m going clean. Here are some of the ugly truths that have spurred me on:

  • Research by the Environmental Working Group shows that personal care products—from deodorants and lotions, to make-up and even baby shampoos—contain chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities, skin problems, and other health effects.
  • In fact, one in eight of the 82,000 ingredients used in personal care products are industrial chemicals, including carcinogens, pesticides, reproductive toxins, and hormone disruptors.
  • More specifically, at least 1 in 5 personal care products contain chemicals linked to cancer (some say as many as 1 in 3), 80 percent contain ingredients that commonly contain hazardous impurities (a.k.a. byproducts not required to be listed on ingredient lists), and 56 percent contain “penetration enhancers” that help deliver ingredients deeper into the skin—and into your body.
  • The cosmetics and personal care industries are basically self-regulating. Due to lax laws dating back to 1938, the Food and Drug Administration (which has an Office of Cosmetics and Colors) does not have the legal authority to review or regulate products before they are sold. They do not test personal-care products for safety before they hit the market nor require companies to test or provide safety data about their products. The FDA has little power to recall dangerous products. (What the FDA can do is conduct studies. They’ve been measuring 1,4 dioxane levels since 1979, for example, and since 2000 have issued feeble recommendations that manufacturers voluntarily reduce 1,4 dioxane limits.)
  • Voluntary industry safeguards aren’t working very well. Only 11 percent of chemical ingredients in cosmetics have been assessed for health and safety by the industry’s self-policing safety panel. (Mostly they test for short term affects like rashes.)
  • In the 1970s, the 1980s, and again in 2013(and lots of years in between), US lawmakers have introduced legislation to make personal care products safer. The cosmetic industry trade organization has fought hard against these measures and they haven’t gone anywhere. We’re exactly where we were in the 1930s, except with lots more chemicals to work with.
  • Canadian laws are stricter than American laws, but mostly they follow the FDA’s lead. To their credit, the Canadian government recently created a Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist that includes hundreds of prohibited and restricted chemicals and contaminants such as formaldehyde, triclosan, nitrosamines and 1,4-dioxane—all of which are allowed in US products.
  • Europe has banned over one thousand ingredients for use in personal care products. The US has banned only ten in almost as many decades.
  • Words used on product labels such as “organic,” “natural,” and even “certified hypo-allergenic,” actually have no legal meaning. In practice they usually mean nothing.
  • This gross stuff wends its way into our bodies. A number of studies have shown that the man-made chemicals in our environment and in consumer products—including cosmetics—show up in our “body burden.” Many of the chemicals found in cosmetics are absorbed by the skin into the body, and can be detected in blood or urine.
  • The thinking has been that personal products only deliver low doses of these toxics, so we shouldn’t worry about it. It turns out that the dose doesn’t make the poison. Low doses may even have more impact than high doses. Plus, we’re using all kinds of different products on a daily basis. Things add up. Plus, the timing of exposure matters—crucial times are prenatal, during certain stages of childhood development, and during puberty, but adults are vulnerable too.
  • It’s not just human damage. Personal care products are chock full of chemicals that act like estrogen and can harm wildlife. A 2004 study found that 57 percent of all products contain paraben preservatives, nearly 2 percent contain surfactants called alkylphenols and just over 2 percent contain estrogenic sunscreen ingredients.

It turns out a lot of my stuff is packed with chemicals with sinister sounding names I can’t pronounce. The worst offenders are products I was convinced I needed: the expensive conditioner and styling goop my hairdresser recommends, the perfect shade of long-lasting (read: extra toxic) lipstick.

Greenwashed by Baby Wash. Photo: Anna Fahey.

Greenwashed by Baby Wash. Photo: Anna Fahey.

Guess what? There’s lead in most lipstick. That’s a proven neurotoxin and I’m putting it on my mouth! In fact, in a 2011 study, 400 lipsticks were found to contain lead. Another study this year found that a wide range of brands contain as many as eight other metals, from cadmium to aluminum. Many people apply their lipstick more than 20 times a day. And the problem here is that metals tend to accumulate in the body—especially bad for pregnant women and their offspring.

What makes me feel even worse is that there’s nasty stuff in my daughter’s baby shampoo. Just like the sunscreen, I bought it because it claimed to be more natural. On the bottle it says “natural oat formula.” The brand, Aveeno, is marketed as natural and earth-friendly. They tout their use of “only high-quality natural ingredients—grown in regions that provide an ideal environment for the plant to thrive and produce beneficial ACTIVE NATURALS® ingredients.” Whatever “active naturals” are, one gets the impression that this is pure and healthy stuff. (Check out their ingredients page).

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But the ingredients list on the bottle tells a different story. Yes, there’s a miniscule amount of avena sativa kernel extract in there—that’s oats. Otherwise, the stuff is chock full of laboratory chemicals. When I began searching these ingredients online, I ran across a class action by some parents in New Jersey against Johnson & Johnson—Aveeno’s parent company. Like me, these folks were misled by the claims on the bottle only to find the stuff contained the exact same suspect synthetic and chemical ingredients found in regular shampoos, including some of the worst byproducts like 1, 4 dioxane and Quaternium 15 which releases formaldehyde, both known carcinogens.

Yuck. And that’s just the carcinogens! There are also ingredients I’m putting on my kid’s head—and in her bath water (which she sometimes drinks!)—linked to “organ system toxicity,” and others that are likely endocrine disruptors linked to reproductive and genital abnormalities.

I am a terrible parent.

As I’ve pointed out, these crazy ingredients are not unique to my daughter’s shampoo. They’re in mine too. They’re everywhere!

There are a couple reasons to single Aveeno out here, even though there are lots of similar lines marketed to people like me, that is, anybody willing to pay a premium for a pretty bottle and sense of (false) security. As mentioned, this is a product I was slathering all over my daughter. It happens to be made in Canada. And—and here’s some good news—prompted by growing concerns raised by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and other citizen groups, Johnson & Johnson, the makers of Aveeno, Neutrogena, and Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, have announced that they will be removing carcinogens and other toxic chemicals from their baby and adult products globally.

That means that pressure from consumers can be successful. It’s good reason not only to rid your medicine cabinet of toxic stuff but also to demand accountability from manufacturers and policymakers for getting harmful substances out of our cosmetics and personal care products once and for all. Here are some resources for doing both:

  • Check the products you have and ones you’re thinking of buying on Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database.
  • Familiarize yourself with the worst offenders. Here’s David Suzuki’s handy list of the ‘dirty dozen’ chemicals to avoid. Parabens are endocrine disruptors and may be linked to breast cancer. Phthalates can cause reproductive problems. Petrochemicals are, well, petrochemicals. They come under all kinds of nicer sounding monikers. Sodium laureth sulfate and sister chems usually come with carcinogenic bi-products. Anything with “fragrance” can contain a slew of nasty chemicals that go unnamed because of trade secret protections. Remember that certain chemicals are listed under numerous different (sometimes sneaky) names.
  • You can find all kinds of inexpensive and effective alternatives at your health food store or co-op. In doing so you’ll be supporting more sustainable small businesses. (For the truly adventurous: Make your own). O’Connor and Spunt are convinced you’ll actually look better when you rid your skin and hair care regime of drying, irritating, harmful chemicals.
  • Ask your legislators to act (let’s let the FDA do their job protecting us). Put pressure on retailers to clean up their shelves. And demand safe products from the big beauty corporations. You can learn about what’s happening and how to get involved by checking out the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

Originally published at Sightline Daily.

Sightline is a community-supported resource and we can’t do this work without you!

The Coal Export Bubble

Coal’s price collapse spells trouble for terminals’ investors.
This post is part of the research project: Northwest Coal Exports

There’s been so much news on the coal export front of late—the massive scope of the proposed Gateway-Pacific terminal’s Environmental Impact Statement; the Lummi Nation’s unequivocal opposition to a coal terminal at Cherry Point; and recent revelations about the ongoing financial woes of coal terminal developer Ambre Energy—that it’s hard not to sense that Northwest coal export projects are on the ropes.

But perhaps the most important coal export story has gotten surprisingly little attention—the collapse of Pacific Rim coal prices. With the latest price decline, I think we can definitively call the hype over Northwest coal export projects for what it always was: a bubble.

But to see why the inflated hopes for Northwest coal exports were the product of a bubble mentality, you have to look at the long-term price trends.

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Three closed terminal projects

Starting in early 2009, Pacific Rim coal prices began a rapid, 22-month rise—lifted, in part, by surging demand from China for imported coal. And as prices soared, would-be US coal exporters saw a business opportunity, hatching plans for six different coal export terminals in Washington and Oregon to service the Pacific Rim coal market.

But their timing was terrible. The surge in international coal prices wasn’t permanent. In retrospect, it showed all of the classic signs of a bubble.

As it turned out, each of the six proposed export projects was launched after Pacific Rim coal prices had already peaked. Prices dipped from their January 2011 high, and stabilized in the $120-$130 range for nearly a year. But only a year after they peaked, Australian benchmark coal prices plummeted, quickly falling below $100.

At that point, and with no sign of a price recovery on the horizon, three of the coal terminal proponents gave up the ghost.

The fall in coal prices was somewhat predictable. As coal prices skyrocketed, established exporters such as Indonesia and Australia boosted output, and China took steps to make its own coal industry more efficient. Meanwhile, growth in Chinese electricity demand slowed. That combination—slower demand growth, massive supply increases—pulled coal prices back to earth.

coal_prices-080413-projects_still_open-DCoal prices have sunk even lower since the last of those three terminal proposals folded. For the last month, Australian benchmark coal prices have hovered around $77 per ton, or $65 per ton below their 2011 peak. That means that prices have fallen back to where they were in the middle of 2009—back when massive US coal exports were just a pipe dream. At this point, the early investors in the three remaining Northwest coal terminal projects must be sweating bullets.

Global minerals analysts have been sounding the alarm about coal prices for months. Back in February, IHS-CERA published a report forecasting a near-term peak in Chinese coal imports, followed by a long-term decline, and warned that China’s coal market was not the “Promised Land” that coal companies were hoping for. Researchers for Greenpeace International reached the same conclusion. Then in May, Deutsche Bank predicted that coal markets would remain oversupplied for a decade. And then just last week, Goldman Sachs announced that due to global oversupply of coal, “The window for thermal coal investment is closing.” (Dave Roberts has a nice writeup.) At this point, the most bullish, pro-coal analysts believe that…

…exports could reasonably hit 30 million tons of coal from the Northwest, or about a third of the capacity currently proposed to move through the export facilities still being proposed [emphasis added].

That’s right, the “bulls” are now saying that two-thirds of the Northwest’s coal export capacity will simply sit idle.

So as you read about the legal, regulatory, and financial hurdles that coal terminal developers face, remember the economic backstory: Northwest coal terminal developers launched their projects just as the Pacific Rim coal bubble was starting to deflate. Coal terminal proponents are now facing their toughest tests—regulatory hurdles, community opposition, and cash crunches—in a backdrop of a precipitous price decline and increasingly desperate economic fundamentals.

Originally published at Sightline Institute

Scope of Gateway Pacific Analysis is Bad News for Coal Industry

Government will review congestion and greenhouse gases.
and on July 31, 2013 at 11:23 am.

Hot off the presses: the three “co-lead” agencies in charge of reviewing the proposed Gateway Pacific coal export terminal at Cherry Point, Washington have published the scope of their review. The major takeaway is that it’s bad news for the coal industry.

The industry did win an empty victory with the Army Corps of Engineers, the sole federal agency at the table, which opted for a narrow scope of review. But in the end it doesn’t much matter. One of the other lead agencies, the Washington Department of Ecology, is going to require in-depth analysis of four elements that the coal industry had desperately hoped to avoid:

  • A detailed assessment of rail transportation on other representative communities in Washington and a general analysis of out-of-state rail impacts.
  • An assessment of how the project would affect human health in Washington.
  • A general assessment of cargo-ship impacts beyond Washington waters.
  • An evaluation and disclosure of greenhouse gas emissions of end-use coal combustion.

Of those, two stand to be particularly damaging for would-be coal exporters: rail impacts and greenhouse gas emissions. There’s not a lot of wiggle room with either of those elements.

First, burning the 48 million tons of coal proposed for export at the terminal annually would release roughly 100 million tons of carbon dioxide, a staggering figure that amounts to as much carbon pollution as every activity in the state of Washington combined. In other words, it’s a clear environmental disaster that would overshadow every other effort the state has made to reduce climate-changing emissions.

Second, moving that much coal to a terminal will create congestion throughout the region. There’s simply no way around the math. In Seattle, for example, both Sightline and the traffic analysis firm Parametrix have confirmed that new coal export shipments would completely close major center city streets by an additional 1 to 3 hours every day, 365 days per year. (Sightline analysis here; Parametrix here.)

What’s worse for the coal industry, is that the expansive scope of review will likely create further delay and uncertainty, potentially scaring off investors. Just yesterday, in fact, in a sad sack discussion of its second quarter earnings, Cloud Peak executives griped about the slow progress on coal export terminals:

They did flag though unfortunately because of opponent’s abilities to protest everything then the things don’t go any faster, they tend to go slower… We’re thinking like 2018 for Gateway Pacific, I think is what we got at the moment, but it will be what it’ll be, but I think the next thing to wait for is the scope of the [E]IS and then we’ll need that work to be done which takes a couple of years.

Now that public agencies will be tallying the manifest pollution, health, climate, and congestion impacts of Gateway Pacific coal terminal, there’s likely to be even more opposition the potential impacts become more widely understood. Plus, given more analysis and a wider exploration of the proposal’s problems, opponents will likely find abundant opportunities to litigate, which would of course create even more delay and uncertainty.

So for the proposed Gateway Pacific coal terminal, the bottom line of today’s announcement is: long delays, high costs, more opportunities for public opposition, and a near-certainty of litigation. Coupled with the ongoing collapse in Pacific Rim coal prices, it’s not a fun time to be in the Northwest coal export business.

Originally published at Sightline Daily

King County Bus Riders, Brace Yourselves

By Jennifer Langston
What will losing 17 percent of transit service feel like?

In blocking a vote on a transportation package before the Washington State Legislature adjourned this weekend, Senate Republicans led by Rodney Tom utterly failed anyone who rides the bus—or drives through or around—King County. There was plenty not to like about the transportation bill, but one important piece would have given King County Metro the option of raising new and needed revenue through a local motor vehicle excise tax.

Now that that’s dead, the agency plans to go about systematically cutting up to 17 percent of its service hours over the next two years. Just think about that. It is, quite plainly, insane. For a region with employers eager to attract car-averse Millennials or who depend on service workers who travel from cheaper and more diverse suburbs, such deep transit cuts will disrupt business as usual and make it impossible for some of those employees to keep their jobs.

And who imagines the city of Seattle can come close to meeting its climate goals (like becoming carbon neutral by 2050) if we not only stop making investments in services that get cars off the road, but actively start dismantling that system at a time when we should be expanding it just to keep up with population growth?

So what’s now on the table to help backfill Metro’s immediate $75 million budget hole? Eliminating roughly one-third of Metro’s routes and reducing service on another 40 percent of routes. The remaining one-third of high-volume routes that don’t get cut will become more crowded. These cuts will be painful for the vast majority of people who rely on Metro. And for those who don’t, now your roads will be clogged with cars driven by people who once took the bus but gave up on it because it either never comes anymore or is too crowded when it does. I’ve directed people to this neighborhood-by-neighborhood map outlining the potential cuts before, but I’ll do it again, because it’s astonishing.

Tom et al. say they’ll work on an alternative transportation package to put before state voters in the fall of 2014 (which presumably might contain new funding for Metro in order to convince King County voters here to support all the other terrible ideas in it). But by then Metro will already be well into the process of identifying and eliminating routes and service.

So get ready, King County. This is what happens when the state’s voters eliminate stable funding sources for important services. Let’s see how we like it.

Originally published at Sightline Daily

Coal: Bringing you fish too toxic to eat

This post is part of the research project: The Dirt on Coal
Photo Credit: heydrienne via Compfight ccPhoto Credit: heydrienne via Compfight cc

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I wrote a lot on this blog about the dangerous toxics that we carry in our bodies and that pass through us to our babies in the womb and in our breast milk.

So many things gall me about this issue. It seems crazy that we’ve come to a place in history where fish—the best possible source of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acid DHA, which is critical for a baby’s brain and eye development—is so laced with contaminants, in particular methylmercury from coal plants, that it’s often too dangerous for expecting mothers to eat.

It galls me that the onus is on the “woman of childbearing age” to learn about and avoid certain fish and, worse, it’s up to her to weigh the benefits of crucial nutrients for fetal brain development against the risks of damage to her baby’s brain—all while together as a community we give polluters nearly free rein to contaminate those fish.


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It should be noted that the damage done by these toxics to developing brains is far from trivial. In 2000, the National Academy of Sciences released a report that concluded that each year in the United States, as many as 60,000 children are born at risk for neurodevelopmental problems owing to prenatal exposure to mercury. These are kids that the report described as “struggling to keep up in school and who might require remedial classes or special education.” Another study—an analysis of data gathered from 1999-2002 by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey—estimates that 200,000 to 400,000 babies born in the United States each year “have been exposed to mercury levels in their mothers’ wombs high enough to impair neurological development.”

Still, what is perhaps most galling to me is that most of the resources available about fish consumption, including the mainstream pregnancy books and popular expecting-mom websites, fail to mention where the dangerous mercury and other toxics come from. It is most often treated like it’s just there and has always been there—a natural occurring substance (you actually get those words a lot). No culprit, no causation. Blame the fish, I guess.

So I was pleased that Mark Bittman made the connection in the NYT yesterday:

If you’re like most people (including me, up until a month or two ago), you know that tuna and other top-of-the-food-chain fish contain unsafe levels of mercury and that childbirth-age women and nursing mothers, especially, are warned off these fish. What you don’t know, probably (I didn’t), is the mercury’s source, or how it gets in these fish.

Turns out that about three-quarters of it comes from coal-burning power plants; it dissolves in water, where micro-organisms convert it to methylmercury, a bio-available and highly toxic form that builds up in fish. The longer a fish lives, the more mercury builds in its flesh.

You could, of course, eat less big fish, but there are other sources of mercury: increasingly, it’s being found in vegetables and especially grains like rice that are grown near older, and even no longer functioning, coal-burning plants.

Bittman chronicles the “dirty and depressing” Environmental Protection Agency saga to regulate these dangerous substances. Almost needless to say, he laments, as the EPA insists that coal plants take measures to clean up our air and water—and fish, “the industry and its representatives are fighting these regulations and trying to stall their implementation with all their power.”

After decades of delays and industry ploys, in December 2011, the agency developed the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), likely to go into effect in 2015. MATS looks pretty good. By regulating mercury emissions, it also decreases many other harmful emissions—including chromium, nickel and arsenic, hydrochloric and other acid gases, formaldehyde, and soot—stuff that gets into our bodies in a variety of ways and can cause all kinds of health problems, including respiratory disease, heart attacks, and strokes.

By reducing mercury and the raft of other dangerous stuff that coal brings with it, implementing MATS is likely to pay off in sizable health cost savings. According to Bittman:

The EPA estimates that implementing MATS, which will cost power producers around $9 billion annually, will save as many as 11,000 lives per year while significantly reducing asthma attacks, chronic bronchitis and other diseases. These plus other factors, the agency estimates, are worth as much as $90 billion to society. Ten dollars in health benefits for every dollar spent in pollution reduction, plus an overall increase in quality of life.

So it’s not just every mom out for herself, keeping her children away from dangerous fish. It’s not just about tuna. At least it shouldn’t be. It’s about our food and air and health—and even about lots of money.

We all have a stake in it. And I haven’t even gotten into the climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions associated with burning coal. (We do cover that now and again though.) Bittman (albeit in a footnote) reminds us that a “further unintended benefit of MATS is that by forcing the closure of some coal plants, shifting electricity production to natural gas, and so on, it will reduce carbon emissions.”

Back when I was pregnant, I dreamed about launching a one-woman, vigilante campaign to insert information about the source of mercury—coal-fired power plants—each and every time any pregnancy book or website or hospital pamphlet discussed the dangers of eating too much fish. But then I had the baby and got kind of busy, so that didn’t happen (I encourage you to write to editors of those publications though; I did back then and I think some of the articles have improved slightly, though it’s rare to see coal pinpointed).

However, I still do think the effort is worthwhile. There’s something about moms (and dads) that can get them riled up in new and exceptional ways once they make the connection between coal and fish and their babies’ brains. (As Bittman points out, that’s exactly why journalist and mother Dominique Browning started Moms Clean Air Force.) And I think moms—and anybody who cares about kids and public health—are right to stand up and insist on better standards for coal plants and to think more generally about what role a dirty, last-century fuel like coal should play—if any—in shaping our kids’ health and their future.

Originally published at Sightline Daily