Archive | March 2015

‘Green The Church’ Seeks To Mobilize Black Churches On Climate Change

Van Jones

Van Jones, founder of Green for All, is one of the leaders of a new effort to help organize black churches for action on climate change. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
Leaders of the “Green The Church” movement launched a new effort this week to help 1,000 African-American congregations take action on climate change.

Green The Church, its organizers said, “aims to bring the benefits of sustainability directly to black communities.” It includes a partnership between Green For All, the California-based environment and social justice organization, and the U.S. Green Building Council, which will work with churches on renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. It also seeks to “tap into the power of the African-American church as a moral leader and a force for social change,” through education and outreach to millions of black church-goers across the country.

“The black church has always joined hands with other faith traditions and stood on the front lines, as they did on ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Selma 50 years ago,” the Rev. Dr. Ambrose Carroll, a California-based pastor who founded Green The Church, said in a call with reporters Thursday. “So they must with climate change.”

Carroll said a lot of progress, such as efficiency retrofits and urban farming initiatives, can be made at the churches themselves. “We may not own a lot of real estate, but we do own church buildings,” he said.

The Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, the senior pastor at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, said his church has already purchased 27 acres of land on which to build a new urban farm, housing, and health, education, and wellness centers. “It will be green from the ground up,” he said, adding that they want to promote the message that it’s “not only, ‘Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud,’ but, ‘Say it loud, I’m green and I’m proud.'”

Green For All said it found in recent polling that three-quarters of minority voters expressed an interest in climate change and wanted to know more about it. Sixty-eight percent said they thought climate change threatens their communities.

“We get hit first and worst by everything negative in the pollution-based economy,” said Van Jones, the founder of Green For All and a current CNN contributor. Green The Church will advocate for “equal protection from the worst, and access to the best.”


John Kerry Calls Out Florida’s Ban On Saying ‘Climate Change’

John Kerry
Secretary of State John Kerry, challenging climate change deniers to face reality, not-so-subtly called out Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s (R) administration on Thursday for banning the term “climate change” from all government communications.

“We literally do not have the time to waste debating whether we can say ‘climate change,'” Kerry said in a speech hosted by the Atlantic Council. “We have to talk about how we solve climate change. Because no matter how much people want to bury their heads in the sand, it will not alter the fact that 97 percent of peer-reviewed climate studies confirm that climate change is happening and that human activity is largely responsible.”

News of Florida’a ban, which also extends to the term “global warming,” came to light over the weekend in a report by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

Scott in May declined to say whether he believed in climate change, but has said repeatedly that he is is not convinced by the science.

Such thinking is far too prevalent in Washington, and politicians who ignore the facts will not be remembered favorably by those who will face global warming’s worst perils, Kerry said in his speech.

“If we fail, future generations will not and should not forgive those who ignore this moment, no matter their reasoning,” Kerry said. “Future generations will judge our effort not just as a policy failure, but as a collective moral failure of historic consequence. And they will want to know how world leaders could possibly have been so blind or so ignorant or so ideological or so dysfunctional and, frankly, so stubborn.”

Kerry called for transitioning away from “dirty sources of energy.” But, as Politico noted, he didn’t mention whether he would approve the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would link Canada’s oil sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast. The project, which needs State Department approval to cross an international border, has been awaiting Kerry’s decision since early February. He will hand his recommendation to President Barack Obama, who will make the final decision on the project.

Environmental groups opposed to the pipeline said Kerry’s failure to mention it may be a positive sign.

“While Kerry didn’t bring up Keystone, he sure brought up more and more reasons why it should be rejected,” Sierra Club legislative director Melinda Pierce told Politico. “And he’s absolutely right: Burning fossil fuels has long-term costs that have to be at the front of our minds when evaluating both the pipeline project and development of the tar sands.”

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Wisconsin Governor Walker, Allies Targeting EPA Plan To Cut Carbon Dioxide Emissions

tamino_arctic warming-1


According to a report that aired last Thursday of Wisconsin Public Radio, the Walker administration is spelling out its case against a federal proposal to cut air pollution from coal-burning power plants, and reduce the impact of climate change.

The Obama administration’s nationwide crackdown on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants could force Wisconsin to reduce its pollutants by about one-third by the year 2030.

Susan Hedman, EPA Midwest region administrator, told a forum that the climate change plan is being debated as the planet is warming.

Hedman said the proposal, known as the “Clean Power Plan”, would have many other benefits too, such as sparking efforts to boost energy efficiency, help create jobs in renewable energy, and cut other pollutants that can lead to lung ailments.

Walker is already talking about having state Attorney General Brad Schimel file a lawsuit against the EPA, even though a final regulation won’t be issued until mid-summer.

Ellen Nowak, Public Service Commission member and incoming chair, is a Walker appointee and has zeroed in on Wisconsin’s carbon-cutting goal of 34 percent. Walker has now appointed all 3 commissioners Wisconsin Public Service Commission. “Why are we being forced to reach that goal, she asked (rhetorically)? Is the methodology the EPA came up with to reach that goal flawed?” “I think that answer is yes.”

The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSC) is supposedly an independent state agency charged with regulating over 1,100 Wisconsin public utilities that provide electric, natural gas, combined water and sewer service to Wisconsin households. Its mission is to ensure that safe, sufficient, and reasonably priced utility services are provided to all of Wisconsin’s customers.

Wisconsin utilities must obtain PSC approval before instituting new rates, issuing stocks or bonds, or undertaking major construction projects such as power plants, water wells and transmission lines. Recent PSC decisions approving 3 major fossil fuel burning utility companies’ rate restructure proposals, which effectively disincentivize household energy conservation and discourage installation of green energy investments (solar panels, others), despite the verbal and written objections of thousands of Green Bay, Milwaukee and Madison customers who had attended PSC public hearings last fall.

Keith Reopelle, of the environmental group Clean Wisconsin, said the Clean Power Plan isn’t perfect, but delaying action on climate change would be expensive.

“There’s a huge cost to some of our most important and iconic industries in the state, to the agricultural industry, to the tourism industry,” Reopelle said. “There will be very large, quantifiable costs from climate change and an enormous cost to public health.”

Reopelle also said changes to power plants would only grow more costly, the longer Wisconsin would wait to reduce carbon emissions.

Hedman said some Wisconsin firms could do very well under the proposal.

“Companies that do energy efficiency work, performance contracting like Johnson Controls. If you look at companies like Quad Graphics that are leaders in combined heat and power projects,” Hedman said.

EPA officials said they’ve received more than 4 million comments on the climate change plan.transmission line

Disposal of Drilling Water Use in Fracking for Oil Linked to Earthquakes in Texas, Ohio, Oklahoma and California

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” (a drilling process that injects millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals under high pressure into a well, cracking the rock and to release natural gas and oil) has only been known to rarely cause earthquakes.

But the disposal of drilling wastewater used in fracking has now been scientifically linked to earthquakes. The fluids used in fracking (and the wastewater that comes back up the well) is disposed of by injecting it into disposal wells deep underground. This is generally regarded as the safest, most cost-efficient way to get rid of it. But in some parts of the country, especially in the Barnett Shale area around Dallas-Fort Worth, it has also been causing earthquakes. And they’re growing both in number and strength.

How Fracking Disposal Wells Can Cause Earthquakes

The culprit of earthquakes near fracking sites is not believed to be the act of drilling and fracturing the shale itself, but rather the disposal wells. Disposal wells are the final resting place for used drilling fluid. These waste wells are located thousands of feet underground, encased in layers of concrete. They usually store the waste from several different wells.There are more than 50,000 disposal wells in Texas servicing more than 216,000 active drilling wells, according the the Railroad Commission. Each well uses about 4.5 million gallons of chemical-laced water, according to

“The model I use is called the air hockey table model,” says Cliff Frohlich, a research scientist at the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas at Austin. “You have an air hockey table, suppose you tilt it, if there’s no air on, the puck will just sit there. Gravity wants it to move but it doesn’t because there friction [with the table surface].”

But if you turn the air on for the air hockey table, the puck slips.

“Faults are the same,” he says. If you pump water in a fault, the fault can slip, causing an earthquake. “Scientists in my community know that injection can sometimes cause earthquakes,” Frohlich says.

The science linking manmade earthquakes to the oil and gas industry isn’t anything new. Decades ago, researchers even found they could turn earthquakes on and off by injecting liquid into the ground, says Dr. William Ellsworth with the Earthquake Science Center of the U.S. Geological Survey.

“This was seen as validation of the effective stress model,” he told StateImpact Texas. “This is work that was published in Science magazine and many other publications.”

The quakes are linked to drilling in Barnett Shale. The productive portion of the Barnett Shale is located directly beneath Johnson, Tarrant and western Dallas counties, about a mile and a half underground. The shale contains an estimated 40 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, making it the largest onshore natural gas field in Texas and potentially in the United States.

A University of Texas at Austin from study last summer found a definitive link between earthquakes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and disposal wells in the Barnett Shale.

And an earlier study by scientists at Southern Methodist University (SMU) and UT found links between disposal wells near the DFW airport and induced earthquakes for a series of quakes in 2008 and 2009. The study specifically looked at two injection wells in the area that were built in 2008. Seven weeks later, earthquakes started. “Were the DFW earthquakes natural or triggered by activities associated with natural gas production, most likely saltwater injection to dispose of brines?” the report asked. The study said yes, the “correlations are consistent with an induced or triggered source.”

The quakes studied from that two year period were all 3.0 magnitude or below, but in the years since there have been several quakes above 3.0 in the area, going as high as 3.5. There have been more than fifty earthquakes in the area since 2008.

It’s important to note that the earthquakes haven’t caused any reported significant damage. Generally an earthquake has to be magnitude 4.0 or higher to cause damage. But locals in the Dallas-Fort Worth area are disturbed and concerned about the trend of manmade seismic activity.

And there’s the open question of what kind of damage these induced quakes can do to drilling infrastructure. It’s plausible that the tremors could affect well integrity, Frohlich says. “In my business, you never say never. That said, most of the time these earthquakes are not right near the well. But it’s possible an earthquake could hurt a well,” he says, though he knows of no instances where that’s occurred.

It’s also important to note that there a tens of thousands of injection and disposal wells in Texas, yet only a few dozen of them are suspected of inducing quakes. It’s also true that disposal and injection wells have been known to induce seismic activity since the 1960s. What’s happening now is that with the rise of fracking, there is a need for more disposal wells. And in areas where fracking waste water is disposed of near population areas, it’s going to be noticed more.

South Texas experienced a magnitude 4.8 earthquake in Oct. 2011 near the Eagle Ford Shale Play, which is home to over 550 gas wells. There have been many other earthquakes linked to injection wells in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, over 50 since 2008. There were no earthquakes before then. The most recent quake was 3.0 magnitude on January 22, just outside the DFW airport. You can read about other recent quakes in the stories below.

And the quakes aren’t limited to Texas. Ohio experienced a magnitude 4.0 earthquake earlier this year near the town of Youngstown. The New York Times reported that Ohio officials believe this quake, the eleventh such event in Youngstown in 2011, was the result of disposal wells. Ohio stores much of Pennsylvania’s fracking waste in those wells.

Art McGarr, of the US Geological Survey’s Earthquake Science Center, has been looking at whether the amount of fluid stored in a disposal well affects the strength of an earthquake. The question is that as wastewater stays in the disposal wells longer and more and more fluids are added, will the quakes become stronger? McGarr predicts that they will.

“I think we’re at the point when, if you tell me that you want to inject a certain amount of waste water, for example a million cubic meters for a particular activity, I can tell you that the maximum magnitude is going to be five (on the rictor scale) or less. I emphasize or less,” McGarr said in a recent presentation.

Dr. Cliff Frohlich of the University of Texas at Austin is researching the links between fracking and earthquakes. Dr. Cliff Frohlich, Associate Director of and Senior Research Scientist at the Institute of Geophysics at the University of Texas at Austin, says that while just a year ago he would have never said fracking itself causes earthquakes, now he thinks differently. “In the last year there have three well-documented earthquakes that occurred during the frack job and were probably related to fracking. They were all small earthquakes – of a magnitude of 2 or 3 – and, considering, that there are millions of frack jobs, fracking-related earthquakes are so rare,” he told StateImpact Texas.

“The last thing a frack engineer wants is to have the fluids go through a fault and go somewhere,” he said. “It’s like pouring water through a drain. So if you’re a frack engineer’s doing their job, they’re avoiding faults, and they’re trying to bust up area rather than having the fluids move somewhere. People injecting are less concerned about that. They’re trying to get rid of it, so they want a very porous material where fluids can flow away across long distances. So they’re more likely to get to a fault.”

Earthquakes directly linked to fracking have been rare. That hasn’t been the case with disposal wells used to get rid of fracking wastewater, however.

Even if the earthquakes aren’t getting bigger, the growing scientific link between disposal wells and induced earthquakes has made many residents nervous. In response, some policymakers are searching for solutions.

A report out from the National Research Council referenced a nine year-old checklist of best practices for drillers and disposal well operators. That includes investigating the site’s history of earthquakes and its proximity to fault lines. But it included the observation that “government agencies and research institutions may not have sufficient resources to address unexpected (seismic) events.”

At a June 2012 Texas House Committee on Energy Resources hearing, state policymakers heard recommendations on what can be done to mitigate the risk of induced earthquakes. Melinda Taylor was one of the experts to give testimony. Taylor directs the Center for Global Energy, International Arbitration, & Environmental Law. She says other states have more safeguards in place against unwanted earthquakes.

In Ohio, for example, well operators need to do a “fairly detailed analysis of the geological conditions” before the state’s regulatory agency offers a permit to authorize a new disposal well. ”So they can determine whether or not it’s likely to cause problems,” Taylor says.

Taylor also said the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas drilling in the state, may want to consider mandating setbacks, to ensure greater distance between disposal wells and public drinking water supplies, structures, and natural resources.

But as StateImpact Texas reported in January 2013, Texas regulators are largely ignoring the problem.

In a December 2012 forum hosted by the Texas Tribune, Railroad Commission Chair Barry Smitherman said he was aware of what he called “allegations” of a link between disposal wells and quakes.

“I know there are a number of studies being done and I think the University of Texas is doing one, and I’m anxious to see what kind of results we’re going to get,” he said in response to a question from StateImpact Texas. That study was released several months before, in August 2012.

That ‘wait and see’ approach is very close to the public position the Commission has taken previously. In an email to StateImpact Texas, Commission spokesperson Ramona Nye wrote that staff welcomes more data about “theories that hypothesize” a causation between seismic events and injection wells. But the Commission would not make any staff members available for interview.

To figure out how seriously the Commission was taking man-made earthquakes, StateImpact Texas filed open records requests for Commission emails relating to the subject.

The 111 pages of emails the Commission supplied show that staff members there accept what scientists and oilmen have known for decades: Injection wells can cause earthquakes. They even show staff members in communication with EPA researchers over certain quakes. The messages include forwards of media reporting on earthquakes and notes of concern from Texans.

The last email about earthquakes that the Railroad Commission has on record was dated August 6, 2012. There was no record of electronic communication about the quakes that hit the Dallas area in late September, nor about quakes that hit North Texas in October, November or December.

The Railroad Commission is starting the process of writing new rules about disposal wells. But in an email to StateImpact Texas, the Commission said those proposed amendments “do not address seismic activity.”

Frolich, the UT expert on man-made earthquakes, had one last suggestion on how to mitigate unwanted quakes: find new ways of disposing drilling related wastewater.

“If disposal is causing earthquakes you can find a different way of dispose of it. You can dispose of the stuff in a different well, or you can even take it to a fluid treatment plant,” Frolich said.

Of course, companies’ willingness to do that will depend largely on cost and state regulation.
“The people involved in this [disposal well operation] are going to do the cheapest way of doing things that is generally considered safe,” said Frolich.

The above was reported and researched by StateImpact Texas reporters, Kelly Connelly of KUT News, and David Barer and Yana Skorobogatov of StateImpact Texas and Reporting Texas.

Shortly before midnight on Aug. 23, 2011, residents of Trinidad, Colorado and surrounding communities were startled when the ground started shaking beneath them, knocking bricks and stones loose from buildings. Fortunately, no one was injured. As far as earthquakes go, the 5.3 event and the aftershocks that followed were relatively mild.

Nevertheless, the Trinidad quake raised anxiety for another reason. The U.S. Geological Survey eventually concluded that it probably was a man-made quake, caused by the disposal of waste water produced by the oil and gas industry.

While the fracking boom in recent years has provided an economic boost to the United States and increased its energy independence, some worry that there’s a potentially catastrophic downside, if the process adds to the waste water that’s lubricating earthquake faults.

And while most of the quakes linked to waste water injection wells have been small to moderate in intensity, some worry that one eventually could trigger a major quake that might seriously damage buildings and important infrastructure, and endanger people as well.

In oil-and-gas-rich Oklahoma, for example, where the rate of quakes increased by 50 percent between 2013 and 2014, the U.S. Geological Survey and state officials issued a May 2014 alert to residents that the state had an increased risk of a 5.5 magnitude quake or greater, and pointed to waste water injection wells as a likely explanation for the heightened seismic risk. (From Michigan Technological University, here’s a chart explaining what risks are posed by various magnitudes.)

It’s been known for a long time that humans could induce earthquakes by pumping fluids underground. Back in 1962, the U.S Army injected toxic waste fluids into a deep well at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal northwest of Denver, but then stopped after the area was rattled over five years by more than 1,500 quakes, including one that shook chandeliers at the state Capitol and forced legislators to take cover.

But those worries have risen because of fracking. Seismologists’ big concern is not the fracking process itself, but what what operators do with the enormous quantities of waste water that flows back out of the well afterward. Some of that water, which is salty and contaminated with chemicals used in the fracking process, is treated and reused in fracking. But much of it is too contaminated for reuse and has to be trucked or piped to other sites, where it is injected into storage wells that are drilled thousands of feet deep into the Earth.

There are about 30,000 such waste water injection wells across the nation. USGS research geophysicist Justin Rubinstein, who worked on the study of the 2011 Colorado quake, explains that injection wells have a potentially much greater seismic impact than the fracking process itself, because fracking wells tend to be short-lived. Injection wells, in contrast, may last for years and receive a far greater quantity of water, and not just from fracking.

In California, where a just-released study shows that fracking has been used in half of the state’s new oil and gas wells over the past decade. The state, which is crisscrossed with a complex system of large and small faults, has more than 1,500 active waste water wells, according to a March 2014 report issued by Earthworks, the Center for Biological Diversity and Clean Water Action. According to the environmental groups, more than half of those wells are within 10 miles of an earthquake fault, and six percent of them — 87 wells — are within one mile.

In a panel at the Seismological Society of America’s May 2014 annual meeting in Anchorage, several prominent earthquake researchers said that disposal of fracking waste water may also pose a serious risk in parts of the Southwest and Midwest where faults have not been mapped as extensively as California’s.

Gail Atkinson, an earth sciences professor at the University of Western Ontario, said that in addition to waste water disposal, the fracking drilling process itself also poses an earthquake risk — but only for smaller quakes, with a magnitude of up to 4.

The risk might be reduced if the oil and gas industry is able to reduce the amount of fracking waste water that it needs to put into injection wells. One company has developed a system that uses gelled propane instead of water. Because the fluid merges into the oil and gas being extracted, it could eliminate the need to drain away waste water. Friction-reducing additives also eventually could allow operators to keep reusing the same water in wells, instead of having to dispose of it.

Malnourished Baby Sea Lions Washing Ashore off Southern California by the Thousands

IT BEGAN IN January. At first, there were only a few. But as the weeks went on, more sea lion pups washed ashore. The dehydrated, emaciated pups showed up on Southern California’s beaches, tucked under trucks and lifeguard towers. One was found huddled in a flower pot.

In late January, scientists surveying Channel Island sea lion rookeries reported something worrying: Pups out there were in bad shape. By early February, regional marine mammal rescue centers were concerned.

The strandings hadn’t stopped. Instead, the pace was picking up.

Now, hundreds of these little animals have been admitted to rescue centers between Santa Barbara and San Diego. For a non-El Niño year, the numbers are much too high, too early. Something is going badly wrong offshore, and no one knows what it is yet.

“We’re in the process of trying to understand what is actually causing this,” said Sharon Melin, a wildlife biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service. “The stranding centers in Southern California are being inundated with animals. It hasn’t hit the northern centers yet.”

As of Mar. 13, 517 pups had been admitted to five Southern California rescue centers. That total is higher than the total for some entire years, said Sarah Wilkin, regional strandings coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “And we’re only two months and a week in.”

The stranded animals are about nine months old – most were born around June 2012. At this age, sea lion pups normally weigh between 25 and 30 kilograms (55-66 pounds). The animals coming ashore weigh about half that, Melin said. She’s visited the island colonies several times recently, first in September and again in February, and noticed that the pups hadn’t gained much weight between visits. “Normally, they would have doubled their weight by February,” Melin said.

She and others suspect the pups have weaned themselves early and left their colonies. Not yet strong enough to find food on their own, they strand themselves on the mainland in a last-ditch effort to save energy and survive. Why they’re leaving home early is an open question.

By the time the pups are rescued, many are too far gone to be saved, Wilkin said. Dehydrated, emaciated, and malnourished, those who can will spend several months in a rehabilitation facility, gaining weight and nourishment before being returned to the sea.

Rescue and rehab groups in the area are struggling to keep up with the onslaught. The pace of admissions is still accelerating, Wilkin said, noting that both Los Angeles County and Orange County admissions doubled last week.

So far, Marine Animal Rescue, based in El Segundo, has rescued 170 sea lion pups, said director Peter Wallerstein. “The pups are hypothermic, dehydrated and skinny,” he said. Marine Animal Rescue brings those pups to the Marine Mammal Care Center in nearby San Pedro for treatment.

“We have admitted over 250 [pups] since January 1,” said MMCC’s director David Bard. “We normally have numbers in the teens for those animals.”

Once admitted, pups are examined, tested for disease, and started on a treatment program. Nutritional supplementation begins with clear fluids, then moves on to “gruel” – a mix of electrolytes, protein, sugar, and ground up fish – until, eventually, the pups are fed solid, fishy food. The process can take several months. “Overall, they’ve been responding very well,” Bard said, on Mar. 13. “We actually released four of them this morning.”

Right now, the San Pedro facility is caring for more than 100 pups. Down the coast, the Pacific Marine Mammal Center has more than 90. On Mar. 12, that facility declared a state of emergency after 18 rescues over two days threatened to overwhelm existing resources. Farther south in San Diego, SeaWorld reports more than 140 marine mammal rescues this year, the majority of which are California sea lions. In all of 2012, SeaWorld rescued 131 marine mammals.

“The good aspect to this is that emaciation and dehydration are something the rehab facilities are very experienced with, and doing a good job,” Wilkin said, reporting that mortality rates in the centers are relatively low, between 20 and 30 percent.

But the bad news is, the onslaught isn’t over. Peak stranding season hasn’t happened yet. Historically, most sea lion strandings occur during April and May, when pups are weaned and have to find their way on their own. “We anticipate it will only get worse in the coming months,” Melin said.

Such large numbers of strandings so early in the year are unusual, and suggest the situation offshore must be pretty grim. “When we see a big uptick like this, we know it’s bad,” Melin said. “There’s something not right. We go out to the islands.”

Melin’s September visit to San Nicolas Island revealed that pup mortality rates were around 34 percent — about what one would expect for an El Niño year. By February, the rate had risen to somewhere near 50 percent. “By the time we get around to their first birthday, mortality might be as high as 60 percent, maybe even 70 percent,” Melin said.

It’s not just last year’s pup population that’s being affected. After giving birth in June, females spend the next months nursing, foraging, and reproducing. By this point in the year, many are probably pregnant again. But when food is scarce, females will sometimes abort a pregnancy and funnel all their resources toward the already growing juvenile. “We are seeing premature pups being born, up and down the coast. A lot of pregnancies are not coming to term,” Melin said.

This means the sea lion population will take a double punch: reduced numbers of surviving pups from 2012, and fewer pups born in 2013. “It’s two years of impact from something that we don’t yet know,” Melin said. “Thankfully, it’s a healthy population. It weathers these kinds of things fairly well.”

But the cause of the mass stranding is still a mystery. Disease or an environmental perturbation affecting the food supply are the best guesses, though scientists are still in the early stages of the investigation. Next week, a team will return to San Nicolas Island and reassess the colonies there. Wilkin is working on applying to have the strandings declared “an unusual mortality event” by the National Marine Fisheries Service. That classification would free up funding and investigators, allowing scientists to move more quickly.

“If this was a disease process, you might expect it to be a little more across the board,” Wilkin said. “It does seem to be pretty targeted to that age class.”

Another possibility is that hookworms – which can infect pups until they’re about six months old – have weakened the pup population and left it susceptible to a second disease agent that is just now sweeping through. But while some pups are showing signs of having been infected with hookworms, it’s not being seen at abnormally high levels, Melin said. “It does seem more likely to be food-related,” she said.

‘Sea lions are usually pretty good at adapting.’ Warmer ocean temperatures, can affect the food supply.
Those warmer waters dampen nutrient-rich seafloor upwellings. Without cold waters and added nutrients, prey species — phytoplankton, krill, and small fish — are scarce. Animals that eat those critters, such as larger fish, sea lions and sea birds, either move with the food toward colder water, or struggle. Scarcer food means sea lion mothers have a tougher time finding a meal for their pups. They may have to swim farther, dive deeper, and stay away longer, prompting pups to wean themselves and strike out on their own in search of fish.

“It’s not that mom isn’t coming back, she’s just taking too long,” Melin said. “It takes a lot for a sea lion to leave its pups.”

After a strong El Niño event in 1997-1998, rescue centers around the state saw elevated intake numbers, similar to what’s occurring now except more broadly distributed. In spring 2009, an unpredicted halt in normal upwellings caused the food supply between Point Conception, north of Santa Barbara, and the Monterey Bay to collapse. “We had huge mortality of pups weaned that year,” Melin said. “Close to 80 percent.”

So far, this event doesn’t fit into a pattern. The strandings are localized to southern California, and this isn’t an El Niño year. At least, not really: In summer 2012, a short-lived patch of abnormally warm surface water did settle off the Southern California coast. But that’s cooled off now — and the sea lions stuck around.

“Sea lions are usually pretty good at adapting,” Melin said, noting that biologists often monitor female sea lions and use them as a gauge of ecosystem health. “If the system starts changing or becomes out of whack, they’re the one that are going to show the signs.”

There are other hints that something more systemic is amiss in the Islands, namely the nesting numbers and success of brown pelicans in the Channel Islands National Park. Pelicans, like sea lions, are top predators. Both species tend to forage for the same fish, and their numbers tend to fluctuate in tandem. In 2004 and 2005, pelicans in the islands made roughly 6,500 nest attempts, said seabird biologist Laurie Harvey of the California Institute of Environmental Studies. Last year, out of several hundred nest attempts, only five pelican chicks fledged on Anacapa Island. “That ended up being the poorest reproduction year for pelicans on the Channel Islands since 1970,” she said.

This year, though it’s still early in nesting season, pelican numbers are fairly low, with fewer than a hundred nests on Anacapa. “We think that yes, it definitely looks like it’s linked to the sea lion strandings,” Harvey said. “Sea lions and pelicans feed primarily on coastal pelagic species like anchovies and sardines. What it’s looking like is that the local availability of prey is insufficient.”

Duke Energy Fined $25 Million for Polluting Groundwater from Leaking Old Coal Ash Pits


North Carolina environmental officials said Tuesday that they are fining Duke Energy $25 million over pollution that has been seeping into groundwater for years from a pair of coal ash pits at a retired power plant.

The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources called it the state’s largest penalty for environmental damages. It issued the fine over ongoing contamination at the L.V. Sutton Electric Plant outside Wilmington. The site includes a pair of unlined dumps estimated to hold 2.6 million tons of ash.

The state touted the fine as an important development to hold Duke accountable for years of pollution.

“Today’s enforcement action continues the aggressive approach this administration has taken on coal ash,” said Donald R. van der Vaart, the department’s secretary.

But environmental groups said the fine doesn’t force Duke to clean up the pollution — something they’ve been trying to get the $50 billion Charlotte-based company to do for years. Without that, groundwater near Flemington, a largely working-class community, will remain contaminated, said Kemp Burdette, executive director of the nonprofit Cape Fear River Watch.

“A $25 million fine doesn’t do anything to clean up the contamination caused by Duke’s coal ash ponds,” Burdette said.

“They’re not forcing Duke to start treating groundwater, or start doing something to clean up the contamination. What they need to be doing is forcing them to clean it up. If they want to fine them, fine. The important thing here is getting the groundwater cleaned up,” he said.

Charlotte-based Duke Energy has 30 days to appeal the fine.

The company did not immediately respond to email or phone messages Tuesday.

The state said monitoring wells near Duke’s dumps at Sutton showed readings exceeding state groundwater standards or boron, thallium, selenium, iron, manganese and other chemicals. Thallium was used for decades as the active ingredient in rat poison until it was banned because it is highly toxic.

With thallium, the state said it determined that Duke allowed the toxic chemical to “leach into groundwater at the Sutton facility for 1,668 days.”

Duke’s 32 coal ash dumps scattered at 14 sites across the state have been under intense scrutiny since last year, when a pipe collapse at the company’s plant in Eden coated 70 miles of the Dan River in gray sludge. The ash, which is the waste left behind when coal is burned to generate electricity, contains toxic heavy metals.

North Carolina lawmakers approved new legislation last year requiring Duke to dig up or cap all of its coal ash dumps by 2029.

And federal prosecutors recently filed multiple criminal charges against Duke over years of illegal pollution leaking from coal ash dumps at five North Carolina power plants.

The three U.S. Attorney’s Offices covering the state charged Duke with nine misdemeanor counts involving violations of the Clean Water Act. The prosecutors say the nation’s largest electricity company engaged in unlawful dumping at coal-fired power plants in Eden, Moncure, Asheville, Goldsboro and Mt. Holly.

Duke has said that it has already negotiated a plea agreement under which it will admit guilt and pay $102 million in fines, restitution and community service. The company said the costs of the settlement will be borne by its shareholders, not passed on to its electricity customers.

While Sutton was not one of the plants, state water quality officials knew for years about the contamination at the unlined ash pits but took no enforcement action until August 2013 — after the Southern Environmental Law Center, on the behalf of citizens group, tried to sue Duke for violating the Clean Water Act.

“The easiest thing for Duke Energy is to write a check…But this proposed fine does not eliminate or clean up one ounce of coal ash pollution,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the environmental legal group.

Environmental groups said Duke Energy and state regulators are attempting to legalize potential toxic leaks from controversial coal ash ponds. New permits for three Charlotte area sites show Duke is requesting permission to allow multiple leaks to continue.

Duke Energy’s coal ash disaster is well-documented.

Last year, a failure at a coal ash pond near the Virginia border sent a toxic sludge of coal ash into the Dan River.

Since then, Duke Energy has agreed to pay a $100 million fine to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Yet in new wastewater permits filed with the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Duke Energy is asking that the very leaks that have gotten the company in trouble be allowed to continue.

That’s causing major concerns among environmentalists.

“Duke (Energy) is trying to paper over them and basically grant them an excuse,” Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins said of three coal ash ponds around Charlotte.

Permits request that discharges continue from “12 potentially contaminated groundwater seeps” near Mountain Island Lake, which supplies Charlotte’s drinking water.

In addition, Duke Energy asked for permission to monitor levels of hazardous chemicals itself.

Sara Benke, who lives near the Riverbend Plant on Mountain Island Lake, said she doesn’t trust Duke.

“I don’t think they’re going to hold themselves accountable,” Benke said. “I think it’s up to the state and the people to do that.”

This week, Duke Energy was fined $25 million by Department of Environment and Natural Resources for coal ash problems.

Critics said the new permits should take that into account.

“You would think that they might start to buckle down on those sites and actually try to get them to clear up their act,” Perkins said.

With their new permits Perkins said they “have done quite the opposite.”

Duke Energy said in a statement that it needs the permits in order to quickly move ahead with its plans to remove coal ash from the ponds at Riverbend. Duke Energy has agreed to a plan to clean up all 14 coal ash ponds in North Carolina by 2029.

Lawmakers Calling for Stricter Rules for Trains Hauling Volatile Crude Oil to Ensure Public Safety

The wreckage after an oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in July 2013.

When residents in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic describe the scene after an oil-train derailed and then exploded there last July, they say the burning petroleum was like a wall of fire, or a river of fire. The blaze, which burned for 36 hours, sent flames and smoke hundreds of feet into the air. At one point, the fire was pulling in so much oxygen that nearby trees were whipping about as if in a tropical storm. Several blocks from the blast site leaves turned an orange-red color from the overwhelming heat. It was early summer, but they looked like autumn foliage.

The explosions and fire destroyed some 40 buildings and killed 47 people, most of whom were enjoying live music at a popular cafe. Wooden homes along the lakeshore burned from the inside out as fire erupted out of water pipes, drains, and sewers. A 48-inch storm pipe that runs from the train yard to the nearby Chaudière River became a conduit for the petroleum, spewing flames and oil more than half a mile into the water. “It looked like a Saturn V rocket,” says Robert Mercier, director of environmental services in Lac-Mégantic. Manhole covers on the Boulevard des Veterans exploded as columns of fire shot into the air.

By the time the fire had been contained, the soil surrounding the blast site was a layer of grey ash. “It was like being on the moon,” says Sylvaine Perreault, an emergency responder who arrived early Saturday morning. “It was all dust.”

On Friday, July 5, a 79-car train carrying petroleum from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields had been parked for the night on a modest but steady incline in the town of Nantes, seven miles outside of Lac-Mégantic. The sole engineer employed to secure the train and responsible for applying handbrakes in some of the cars left his shift at 11:25 p.m. At 11:30 p.m. a 911 call was made reporting a fire on one of the locomotives. Twelve firefighters from the town of Nantes arrived, along with two track-maintenance employees from Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, the company operating the train. They extinguished the fire and left the scene. Just before 1:00 a.m. the train began to roll down the incline. It eventually reached a speed of more than 60 miles per hour before it careened off the track toward the Musi Café nightclub and exploded.

Rejean Campagna, a 73-year-old Lac-Mégantic native, was awoken by the sound of the train screeching past his apartment and then of steel piling on steel. “As if somebody had a big drum of steel and was hammering on it with a sledgehammer right beside my window,” he told me. The train tracks are a scant 200 feet away from Campagna’s front window, and when he opened the blinds the first thing he saw was a large ball of fire. “It grew and grew and grew and then it mushroomed.”

Campagna and his wife, Claudette Lapointe, grabbed their pillboxes and cell phones and fled. The hood of their car was so hot that he couldn’t touch it. (According to Mercier, the heat could be felt for more than a mile.) From a safe distance, about a quarter-mile away, they watched as the town burned. In the early morning hours a steady rain began to fall. The surface of Campagna’s umbrella was so warm that when the drops of water bounced off it they sent spirals of steam into the night. If not for the rain, Campagna says, the whole town would have been destroyed. “The rain saved us,” he says.

Lapointe lost two cousins. Campagna knew everyone who lived in the homes along the lake, some of whom also died. Roger Paquette, a 61-year-old friend of Campagna’s, could not be awoken in time. “Neighbors tried to wake him up, but the back of his house was already on fire,” he says. “All of these people never had a chance to get out of their homes, so swift was the flow of fire.”

Lac-Mégantic residents had little warning they were in danger. Few residents interviewed for this article knew that millions of gallons of highly flammable light crude oil were passing through their lakeside village nearly every day. When it comes to transporting oil by rail, the railroad industry and oil and gas companies operate in near total secrecy, with little federal oversight or regulation to ensure public safety.

The oil moving through Lac-Mégantic was mislabeled – classified as packing group III instead of packing group II or I, which refer to more dangerous substances with lower flashpoints. A hazardous-materials inspection team issued safety warnings in 2011 and 2012, but no changes have been made to tank cars since then. Inspections of loading facilities in the Bakken oil fields conducted in October 2011 and June 2012 found that there were shortages of suitable rail cars; those in use were often being overloaded; and, because of the many different companies involved in transferring and shipping the oil, compliance was difficult to enforce. According to those inspection documents, which were obtained by NBC News shortly after the Lac-Mégantic accident, shippers were regularly using tank cars that did not meet industry specifications. “The pressure to ship those cars was more than the risk of failure in transportation or discovery by FRA [Federal Railroad Administration],” the inspectors noted. They also said the oil was extremely flammable and warned truck drivers and inspectors to take special precautions. “Fire retardant clothing, and grounded equipment, truck and rail cars are mandatory due to the high flammability of the crude and possibility of static discharge.”

The criminal investigation into the accident in Lac-Mégantic, which has focused on the question of whether the brakes were properly secured, was completed in late March. Charges had not been issued, though they were anticipated, when this story went to press.

Even as federal regulators discuss new safety measures – updating or retrofitting the standard petroleum tank cars, reducing train speeds near towns, and performing spot inspections of oil trains – oil trains continue to roll through towns and cities across the United States and Canada. In the last six years the quantity of oil being shipped by rail across North America has increased dramatically. Most of that increase comes from the recently tapped shale oil fields in North Dakota. The Bakken formation is now producing more than one million barrels of crude oil a day, and more than 60 percent of that is shipped by rail. According to the American Association of Railroads, there were 9,500 rail cars carrying crude oil in 2008. Last year there were more than 400,000.[Story from Earth Island Journal.]

In the wake of several recent rail disasters, lawmakers in Wisconsin and Minnesota are calling for new measures to improve oil train safety.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Rep. Ron Kind on Monday sent a letter urging President Barack Obama to impose new rules governing trains hauling volatile crude oil, like one that exploded after derailing near Galena, Ill.Lawmakers calling for new oil train rules

The Department of Transportation has proposed new rules, including new tank car standards, better classification for liquid petroleum products, route risk assessment planning for railroads and reduced speed limits for oil trains.

But the White House did not act by the Jan. 15 statutory deadline to release final rules. Kind and Baldwin asked the president to issue the final rules — with additional safety measures.

“It is time for you to take action,” the Wisconsin Democrats wrote in their letter to Obama. “We believe that recent accidents make clear the need for rules stronger than those originally proposed.”

They requested rules that would require shippers to stabilize oil — by taking out explosive gases like propane and butane — before it is transported as well as stricter safety standards for the tank cars that haul it.

Two recent derailments — in Galena and in West Virginia — involved cars built to the new safety standards proposed by the DOT.

Kind and Baldwin also called for lower speed limits and enhanced braking on trains carrying flammable materials and for increased transparency about the shipment of oil.

In Minnesota, two state lawmakers plan to unveil an oil train safety initiative Tuesday.

House Deputy Minority Leader Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, and Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, are proposing rail crossing enhancements along with a plan to make railroads pay for public safety improvements.

Citizen’s Group Challenges Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource’s Permit to Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Allowing Railway Expansion


A BNSF Railway freight train loaded with crude oil burns near the Illinois Wisconsin border last week near Galena, Illinois.

As crude oil trains rumble through Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), responsible for issuing permits for bridges over navigable water, has been challenged by “Citizens Acting for Rail Safety” for its recently permitted rail expansion in the La Crosse River marsh.

Following a fiery train derailment last week in Galena, Illinois, near the Wisconsin border, the Department of Natural Resources is facing a legal challenge over its permit to allow wetland filling and building a bridge to facilitate more crude oil shipments through the state.

With help from the nonprofit Midwest Environmental Advocates, members of the group Citizens Acting for Rail Safety filed a petition for judicial review in La Crosse County Circuit Court asking a judge to block a wetland permit and to require the DNR to complete a more thorough environmental review of the project.

The DNR last month granted BNSF a permit to fill 7.2 acres of the marsh and build a bridge over the river as part of a plans to add about four miles of new tracks through the city of La Crosse between Farnam and Gillette streets.

At the root of their concerns are the growing number of trains hauling highly explosive crude oil from North Dakota, such as the 105-car train that derailed last Thursday near Galena, Ill., causing at least five cars to burst into flames.

That fire continued to burn until Sunday morning, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which is overseeing the response and monitoring the nearby Galena and Mississippi rivers for potential contamination.

“The marsh project being considered is one of a series of projects intended to facilitate even more traffic flow,” said Ralph Knudson, one of the petitioners. “An Environmental Impact Statement would compel a thorough look at all aspects of construction and operation of rail lines for opportunities to minimize risk and protect the marsh environment and public assets.”

DNR water management specialist Carrie Olson previously said the department decided against a full EIS because her two-month review of BNSF’s permit application covered most of the same ground.

But Sarah Williams, staff attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates, said that does not comply with the state’s Environmental Policy Act.

The petition says the agency did not take into account the environmental and public safety risks associated with the derailment of a train carrying hazardous materials, the disturbance to neighbors from increased train traffic and the incremental impact of continuing to fill in the marsh, which has been reduced over the years to about half its original size.

It also questions the transparency of the review process.

Knudson wondered whether anyone would have known about a Jan. 7 public hearing — attended by more than 150 people — had the citizens groups not publicized it, according to a report by Chris Hubbuch of the Lacrosse Tribune.

While the DNR posted a legal notice of the meeting, the agency did not send out a press release.

“Our strategy here is just to really have our public service agencies — in this case the DNR — be as accountable as possible for what their mission is, and to be as open as possible about their process,” he said.

BNSF’s La Crosse project is one of 13 planned upgrades the railroad is making to its route along the Mississippi River between the Twin Cities and the Illinois border.

BNSF says the La Crosse upgrade will ease delays at each end of what is the area’s only section of single track. Opponents say it will lead to increased train traffic, a position supported by the railroad’s permit applications.

The marsh project is still awaiting a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is still considering BNSF’s application. State and federal lawmakers have joined the call for a comprehensive study known as an Environmental Impact Statement.

The citizens also petitioned the DNR for an internal review of the permitting process. In each case, the DNR and BNSF will now have an opportunity to respond before any ruling.

The suit says the DNR did not conduct a full environmental impact statement when it granted the permit to Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) for a second set of tracks through the La Crosse River Marsh.

More than 40 oil trains now rumble through the state each week from North Dakota, many with more than 100 tank cars, some passing through Sauk, Columbia and Jefferson counties.

Petitioners are asking the La Crosse County Circuit Court to reverse a permit granted last month and force the DNR to do a more thorough analysis under the Wisconsin Environmental Policy Act (WEPA), a 1972 law that required sound decision-making by state agencies.

“As we have seen with recent derailments like the one that happened in Galena, last Thursday, today’s rail traffic is much riskier than a few years ago,” said Ralph Knudson of Citizens Acting for Rail Safety in a statement. “The marsh project being considered is one of a series of projects intended to facilitate even more traffic flow.”

Changes to NR Chapter 150 in 2014 now allow the state to meet requirements of WEPA without doing an environmental assessment. This change in state law allowed the bridge and wetland permit to go forward with a minimum amount of public review, according to the Madison offices of Midwest Environmental Advocates, which is assisting the citizen’s group.

“Compliance with WEPA isn’t just a paper exercise or a box to check,” said MEA attorney Sarah Williams.

The lawsuit notes a series of risks with the expansion of rail traffic through the La Crosse marsh.

They include:

• the threat of a more train derailments with increased shipments of hazardous materials

• impact on nesting bald eagles

• noise and air pollution for neighbors living near the tracks

• filling of the La Crosse River Marsh, which has already been reduced to half its original size by previous developments.

Meanwhile, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis) and Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis) on Monday issued a joint statement calling for the Obama Administration to take immediate action to address oil train safety. The U.S. Department of Transportation was to have finalized new rules to address oil tank car safety but has missed a Jan. 15 deadline.

The statement noted that just a few years ago it was rare to see an oil train in Wisconsin but today more than 40 oil trains a week pass through the state, many with 100 or more tank cars.

“The danger facing Wisconsin communities located near rail lanes has materialized quickly,” the statement said. “It is clear that the increase in oil moving on the rails has corresponded with an uptick in oil train derailments.”

Republicans Risk Nuclear Annihilation by Meddling President U.S. Barrak Obama’s Affairs


President Barak Obama has every reason to be angry with the Republican members of the U.S. Congress going behind his back in sending their own letter to Iran, attempting to deflate the U.S. president’s negotiating stance keep Iran from getting the bomb.

According to a New York Times story by Peter Baker, the fractious debate over a possible nuclear deal with Iran escalated on Monday as 47 Republican senators warned Iran about making an agreement with President Obama, and the White House accused them of undercutting foreign policy.

In a rare direct congressional intervention into diplomatic negotiations, the Republicans signed an open letter addressed to “leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” declaring that any agreement without legislative approval could be reversed by the next president “with the stroke of a pen.”

While the possible agreement has drawn bipartisan criticism, the letter, signed only by Republicans, underscored the increasingly party-line flavor of the clash. Just last week, the Republican House speaker, John A. Boehner, gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel the platform of a joint meeting of Congress to denounce the developing deal, and Senate Republicans briefly tried to advance legislation aimed at forcing Mr. Obama to submit it to Congress, alienating Democratic allies.

The letter came as Secretary of State John Kerry’s office announced that he would return to Switzerland on Sunday in hopes of completing the framework agreement before an end-of-March deadline. Under the terms being discussed, Iran would pare back its nuclear program enough so that it would be unable to produce enough fuel for a bomb in less than a year if it tried to break out of the agreement. The pact would last at least 10 years; in exchange the world powers would lift sanctions.

Whether the Republican letter might undercut Iran’s willingness to strike a deal was not clear. Iran reacted with scorn. “In our view, this letter has no legal value and is mostly a propaganda ploy,” Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, said in a statement. “It is very interesting that while negotiations are still in progress and while no agreement has been reached, some political pressure groups are so afraid even of the prospect of an agreement that they resort to unconventional methods, unprecedented in diplomatic history.”

A senior American official said the letter probably would not stop an agreement from being reached, but could make it harder to blame Iran if the talks fail. “The problem is if there is not an agreement, the perception of who is at fault is critically important to our ability to maintain pressure, and this type of thing would likely be used by the Iranians in that scenario,” said the official, who spoke anonymously to discuss the negotiations.

The White House and congressional Democrats expressed outrage, calling the letter an unprecedented violation of the tradition of leaving politics at the water’s edge. Republicans said that by styling it as an “open letter,” it was akin to a statement, not an overt intervention in the talks.

“It’s somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with the hard-liners in Iran,” Mr. Obama told reporters. “It’s an unusual coalition.”

Other Democrats were sharper. Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, called it “just the latest in an ongoing strategy, a partisan strategy, to undermine the president’s ability to conduct foreign policy.” Senator Harry M. Reid of Nevada, the Democratic minority leader, said the “Republicans are undermining our commander in chief while empowering the ayatollahs.”

One has to wonder if the Republicans who signed the letter to Iran would have done so had Franklin Delano Roosevelt been president now.

Say it isn’t true. (Jackson Browne)


Chagan nuclear test – Russia, 1965

Pete Seeger’s “My Rainbow Race” – His Award Winning Environmental Song


I hadn’t heard many of Pete Seeger’s songs over the years, not having followed folk music as intensely as I have followed rock and roll music. I knew he sang with Woody Guthrie, who wrote and made “This Land is Your Land”. I knew he was always an activist fighting for unions, social justice, civil rights, and environmental causes later in his life. So when I heard that he died, I tuned into community radio, because I knew they would be playing many of his songs. I knew that, because I remember when John Lennon was killed in 1980 in NYC, I was listening to WORT when it was announced. It was sad, it was quiet for awhile, and then it was NON-STOP John Lennon and Beatles music the rest of the night on the radio for me. No commercials and very little other talk as well. But I digress. Anyway, of course they were playing Pete Seeger – “If I had a Hammer“.

Recently, I checked out a Seeger CD at the library simply called “Pete”. The music was recorded in the 1960’s. It had a song called “My Rainbow Race” which caught my attention. I read the liner notes from Pete Seeger on the booklet that came with the CD and he said he wrote the song in response to seeing and ad for people to submit song lyrics and the songwriter whose lyrics were chosen the winner would win an all expenses paid trip to Japan. Unfortunately, his song (“My Rainbow race”) didn’t win because he never heard back but he was glad he wrote the song anyway because he included it in his concerts the following 20 years!

Pete Seeger (May 3, 1919 – January 27, 2014) was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. He is credited with reviving and ensuring the survival of folk music. With the possible exception of Woody Guthrie, Seeger is the greatest influence on folk music of the last century. Born in New York City, he was the son of musicologist Charles Seeger. He took up the banjo in his teens and in 1938, at the age of 19, assisted noted folk archivist and field recorder Alan Lomax on his song-collecting trips through the American South. He soon began performing on banjo, guitar and vocals. In 1940, he formed a highly politicized folk trio, the Almanac Singers, which recorded union songs and antiwar anthems. They toured the country, performing at union halls for gas money, and recorded three albums. Woody Guthrie joined in 1941.

The Almanac Singers broke up with the advent of World War II. After a short stint in the army, Seeger formed the Weavers in 1948. They were a popular concert attraction who were at one point America’s favorite singing group. Their best-known numbers include such singalongs as “The Roving Kind,” “On Top of Old Smoky,” “Kisses Sweeter than Wine,” “Goodnight Irene” and “Wimoweh” (a.k.a. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”). Their popularity cut across all boundaries. As American poet Carl Sandberg attested, “The Weavers are out of the grassroots of America. When I hear America singing, the Weavers are there.”

During the communist witch-hunts of the early Fifties, however, the Weavers were blacklisted, resulting in canceled concert dates and the loss of their recording contract with Decca Records. Under congressional subpoena to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Seeger asserted his First Amendment rights, scolding the committee, “I am not going to answer any questions as to my associations, my philosophical or my religious beliefs, or how I voted in any election or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked.” Unlike many entertainers and writers who careers were ruined in the McCarthy era, Seeger stood his ground and persevered – even though he was sent to jail, albeit briefly, for defending his beliefs.

After leaving the Weavers in 1959, Seeger was signed to Columbia Records. He recorded prolifically for the label. His popularity hit a new peak with We Shall Overcome, a live album recorded at Carnegie Hall that is estimated to have sold half a million copies. Seeger is responsible for such folk standards as “If I Had a Hammer” (originally written by Seeger and Lee Hays of the Weavers as “The Hammer Song”) and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” Seeger’s one dalliance with the pop charts came in 1964, when his version of folksinger Malvina Reynolds’ exercise in suburban mockery, “Little Boxes,” reached #70. Seeger’s songs were also popularized by others, principally Peter, Paul and Mary (“If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”) and the Byrds (“Turn! Turn! Turn!,” “The Bells of Rhymney”).

Though he had objected to Dylan’s use of electric instruments at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965, Seeger himself recorded with electric guitarist Danny Kalb (of the Blues Project) two years later on his album Waist Deep in the Big Muddy and Other Love Songs. Seeger, with his outspoken commitment to the peace movement, often wrote directly or metaphorically of the Vietnam war in the Sixties. A tireless champion of causes, Seeger has devoted himself to environmental issues, particularly the cleanup of his beloved Hudson River.

In Seeger’s capable hands, from the Forties to the present day, a concert isn’t regarded as a one-way proceeding but a group singalong. Indeed, Seeger’s gently assertive insistence that his audience sing out can be read as a larger metaphor for the necessary involvement of citizens to insure the healthy functioning of democracy in America. Seeger has recorded and performed tirelessly throughout his career, honoring the folksingers’ timeless commitment to spread the word and involve an audience. “My ability lies in being able to get a crowd to sing along with me,” he said in a 1971 interview. “When I get upon a stage, I look on my job as trying to tell a story. I use songs to illustrate my story and dialogue between songs to carry the story forward.”

Pete Seeger passed away on January 27, 2014. He was 94.

My Rainbow Race

One blue sky above us, one ocean lapping all our shore
One earth so green and round, who could ask for more?
And because I love you I’ll give it one more try
To show my rainbow race, it’s too soon to die

Some folks want to be like an ostrich
Bury their heads in the sand
Some hope that plastic dreams
Can unclench all those greedy hands

Some hope to take the easy way
Poisons, bombs, they think we need ’em
Don’t you know you can’t kill all the unbelievers?
There’s no shortcut to freedom

One blue sky above us, one ocean lapping all our shore
One earth so green and round, who could ask for more?
And because I love you I’ll give it one more try
To show my rainbow race, it’s too soon to die

Go tell, go tell all the little children
Tell all the mothers and fathers too
Now’s our last chance to learn to share
What’s been given to me and you

One blue sky above us, one ocean lapping all our shore
One earth so green and round, who could ask for more?
And because I love you I’ll give it one more try
To show my rainbow race, it’s too soon to die

One blue sky above us, one ocean lapping all our shore
One earth so green and round, who could ask for more?

Woody Guthrie – This Land is Your land

Friends of Woody Guthrie sing This Land is Your Land

Buffallo Springfield sing For What it’s Worth

Pete Seeger leads We Shall Overcome Someday