Mercury in Our Drinking Water?

I was reading our 2011 Annual Water Quality Report. Trust me, this is one of the driest technical reports to the general public that you are ever likely to read. It’s mailed each year by our East Bay Municipal Utility District (EMBUD). By a sheer coincidence so random I deserve no credit for my discovery, the TV was tuned to a PBS Quest special, “Mercury in San Francisco Bay.”

There’s a hidden danger in San Francisco Bay: mercury. A potent neurotoxin that can cause serious illness, mercury has been flowing into the bay since the mining days of the Gold Rush Era. It has settled in the bay’s mud and made its way up the food chain, endangering wildlife and making many fish unsafe to eat. Now a multi-billion-dollar plan aims to clean it up. But will it work?

So, our San Francisco Bay annually flushes some 3,100 pounds of mercury out through the Golden Gate. Its principal source dates to the early days of the Mother Lode. Several rivers carry those compounds down into the Sacramento River. Mercury is not water soluble, but Methylmercury is. It’s a bacteria-generated trace compound of mercury found in all those waters. Although not normally considered present in hazardous concentrations, methylmercury is accumulated in the tissues of small aquatic animals and fish. Like other heavy metals, it is not metabolized. Smaller fish in turn are eaten by larger fish, and so on and so on, all the way up the predator chain. Sharks and largemouth bass are often too toxic to eat.

So what did I ever find in the EMBUD water quality report about mercury? Nothing! I checked more carefully. The report even cites trace levels of uranium (not mined in our area): the EPA target concentration is 20 pico-curies per liter, or less. All our water sources are less than 1 PCi/L. If EBMUD even lists uranium, why, then, no mercury statistics?

So, I went to EMBUD’s website. Plenty about water quality; a little bit about mercury in fish; nothing about mercury in drinking water.

Yet it’s plainly there. Now, we don’t get our drinking water from the Sacramento. Depending on the city we live in, we get it from the Hetch Hetchy, the Mokelumne, or regional reservoirs. In my area, we get it from the Upper San Leandro and Chabot Reservoirs. I haven’t fished Lake Chabot in years, but many people do.

I found a PDF from the California EPA listing CHEMICALS IN FISH FROM TEN RESERVOIRS IN ALAMEDA, CONTRA COSTA, SANTA CLARA, AND MARIN COUNTIES – INTERIM COUNTY HEALTH ADVISORIES.The report is on “elevated levels of mercury and PCBs” in those reservoirs.

“If you eat the recommended maximum amount of fish from one reservoir, do not eat any other fish during the same month.” For women of childbearing age, and children:

Lake Chabot: Carp (0) OR Largemouth bass (1) OR Channel catfish (4) OR Redear sunfish (4)

How does mercury get in the reservoirs, and what does it mean to we who drink it? The Upper San Leandro reservoir was not listed. Since we get drinking water from the Upper San Leandro and Chabot Reservoirs, I conclude there is a problem in both reservoirs since I have fished and hiked in both recreation areas. They are part of the same drainage.

Humans may not be in the fish foodchain, but we’re at the top of the predator food chain, AND we ingest and cook in a lot of drinking water. I caution the reader again, drinking a glass of water is NOT the same as eating a fish. The fish act as pollutant concentrators (think: toxin storage containers), from small snails to mosquito larvae to minnows and all the way up the chain.

Question of the day: Why is a water-drinking human not like a fish in water, even if we’re vegetarians? And why would EBMUD report on minuscule uranium concentrations, but not on the locally much more serious mercury pollution?

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Occupy Wall Street: Gone Rogue?

I picked up a free San Mateo Daily Journal yesterday when I joined a friend for lunch. There was a nice story on page 1 about some civic-minded Redwood City high school girls who decided to join a regional Occupy demonstration. They thought, by participating, they could make a difference.

“Students deserve the opportunity to discuss what they care about,” an organizer said. “Once you leave high school, life hits you like a ton of bricks and these students need to know about the troubles with the banking system and why cuts are made to education.”

There was some isolated violence. The real violence was in Oakland, Seattle and elsewhere in the nation. Banks were vandalized, windows were smashed, police cars were burned, police were assaulted, and police and the crowd were at one point bombarded by a roof-top crazy hurling down long sections of heavy steel piping. There was no follow-up story on the high school girls, but I bet most were disappointed.

Occupy Wall Street, what the hell do you think you’re doing? Continue reading

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Telephone Opinion Surveys

The next time your phone rings and it’s a telephone opinion survey, instead of hanging up, consider telling them, “Sorry, you don’t meet our eligibility criteria” — and THEN hang up.

My mother used to enjoy public opinion research for part-time income and stimulation in her senior years. We spent many an enjoyable evening together over dinner, analyzing how surveys were conducted, how the survey scripts sometimes channeled responses into canned categories, and how much she enjoyed talking with other people who care passionately about our country and its issues.

So I always viewed opinion surveys as a valuable civic feedback mechanism, almost a birthright, and I tried to participate enthusiastically. But no more. This ain’t our mothers’ polite question-and-response era no more.

For one thing, the survey concept has been hijacked by the fundraising crowd. When you get a mail survey, for example, flip to the back page and see the donation checkboxes for $50, $100, $250, $500, $1000 or “more.” They don’t want our opinion; they want our money.

For another, the audience is rigged. Once, participants were selected by elaborate statistical methods designed to guarantee a truly random polling base. Now, they don’t even want to talk with you unless you meet selection criteria that practically guarantee you’ll tell them what their sponsors want to hear.

So, guess what: 99.5% of (Senator Snort’s) supporters say they’re voting for Snort this year.

When the phone rings, “What is this about?” and “How long will this take?” are fair questions. Telephone surveys are scripted to be evasive and misleading on both queries. Their first job, of course, is to ascertain whether they even want to talk with you.

Last fall I took a call soliciting my opinion on the economy. It should “only” take 20 minutes. I hesitantly agreed. Their first question was whether my age group was 18-25, 26-45, 46-55 or “above.” When I answered “above,” they thanked me for my time, said they had no more questions, and hung up.

Earlier this week I took a call on a phone that does not display caller id. They were sounding out respondents on the November elections. I hesitantly agreed. Their first question was whether I felt I’d “definitely not” vote in November, was “uncertain” whether I’d vote, or “definitely” would vote in November. When I answered “definitely,” they thanked me for my time, said they had no more questions, and hung up.

Now, I’m unlikely to even answer the phone if caller id indicates it’s a survey, but if I do, it’ll be to tell them “Sorry, you don’t meet our eligibility criteria,” and hang up.

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Predator: The Slippery Slope

We are still fighting wars with tactics better suited to World War II than Afghanistan. We use tanks even though we are not in the desert fighting Rommel. We use gunships even though this may take out a whole village to take down one insurgent, and we call that “collateral damage.” We send our boys overseas for three, four, even five tours, asking them to go into those villages and figure out which handful of Afghans are combatant Taliban. In Afghanistan, our enemy are in the villages because they live there.

In Bill Cosby’s 1963 “Toss of the Coin” take on the Minutemen vs. the Redcoats, the British lose the coin toss. They’re told “you guys have to wear red coats and march in a straight line” while “we get to hide behind trees and shoot at you.” We lost the coin toss in the Mideast.

In Bill Moyers’ recent in-depth interview “Moving Beyond War”, he has a series of interesting conversations with Andrew Bacevich, “a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran-turned-scholar who’s become one of the most perceptive observers of America’s changing role in the world.”

The following excerpt tracks that portion of their discussion in which they covered our increasing and controversial use of the Predator unmanned drone. Many Americans are asking if this tactic is moral. Does it divorce accountability from the military-political process? Perhaps, but does it save American lives? Here is the excerpt from the transcript:

ANDREW BACEVICH: I don’t think anybody today thinks that counterinsurgency is going to pacify Afghanistan.

BILL MOYERS: Why didn’t it work?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Again, one would refer to Afghan history here, that this is simply not a place that accommodates foreign invaders who think they know how to run the place better than the local population. But what I would want to emphasize, I think, is that by last year, I think Obama himself had given up on the notion that counterinsurgency provided a basis for U.S. strategy and had, indeed, begun to implement Plan C. And Plan C is targeted assassination.

Plan C is relying on drones, unmanned aerial vehicles with missiles, and also commandos, special operation forces, in order to conduct military operations, in essence on a global basis, identifying those who could pose a threat to us. And without regard to congressional authority, without regard to considerations of national sovereignty, to go kill the people we think need to be killed. Plan C is already being implemented.

BILL MOYERS: Most people seem to accept it as an alternative to failure in Afghanistan, and as a way of keeping American soldiers out of harm’s way.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, and also they accept it because of course, it doesn’t cost us anything. We are not, the people are not engaged in any serious way. The people are not asked to sacrifice. The people are asked only to applaud when we are told after the fact that an attack has succeeded.

I don’t have any easy answers to the Predator problem. I favor keeping our boys out of harm’s way. That’s why I’m also for an accelerated withdrawal from a hopeless quagmire. I do not see Afghanistan as a unified country in need of defense or capable of benefiting from it, even if they asked us to stay, which doubtless they now will not.

But we all recognize that targeted robot assassinations are a slippery slope. Yet we never resolved our differences on CIA assassinations several decades ago. At what point do assassinations become immoral?

My take on Predator’s slippery slope is that “assassination” launches should be accountable to, and only authorized by, our country’s highest elected civilian leaders, never by military field commanders – however reputable and trustworthy. This kind of target must be a high-ranking military or paramilitary individual or unit, actively engaged in military hostilities against the United States or its armed forces, or poised to do so when it is too late to stop them by conventional means. The high-profile target must be non-containable by means of timely kill-or-capture. And the target may not be a civilian head of state unless the President determines an extraordinary and imminent threat to national or global security, such as a Hitler.

I draw a sharp line between targeted assassinations and calling in a drone strike in a combat situation. If no noncombatants are killed, and American lives are saved, I’m for tactical strikes. But I still resist the idea of uncontrolled field-level deployment. I believe Congress and the Defense Department should get involved in creating light-speed control and monitoring mechanisms, and high-level field commanders should have the responsibility for approving tactical strikes and reviewing results.

Remember, the United States will not long be the only nation deploying smart unmanned aircraft systems. It would be in our own self-interest for the United States to take the lead in defining clear-cut boundaries.

Bin Laden obviously would have been an eligible Predator target (though we took him out with our miraculous Navy Seal team). But Assad most probably would not be. For that, we need the United Nations. It is perhaps too soon to tell if Russia and China have committed to cooperative global efforts to reduce global atrocities, but their new-found willingness to go along with the UN’s Mr. Annan in pressuring Syria is encouraging. And, China has greatly facilitated efforts to pressure North Korea on its nuclear weapons program.

Concerted world cooperation and containment is the anti-terrorist weapon of the future.

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Three News Commentary TV Shows

1. Washington Week (McLaughlin Group, PBS): a moderate vs. conservative shouting match NOT moderated by panel moderator John McLaughlin. Usually features neocon journalist Pat Buchanan. I call it the “shouter’s show.”

2. FOX channel: Previously, I’ve seen enough unwarranted ad hominem attacks on this network that I don’t watch Fox. A friend recently told me he thought their news coverage had become “fairly balanced,” so I said I’d check it out again anyway. The news segments themselves seemed fairly enough presented, though with a higher ratio of sensational content than I usually care for. Last week, Fox had a half hour hosting Mike Huckabee. Huckabee much as labeled Barack Obama, our President of the United States, “stupid.” I’ll check Fox out again in another decade or so.

3. Belva Davis has hosted KQED (PBS) show This Week in Northern California for more than 19 years. I remember when Belva came to Bay Area channel KPIX in the 1960′s. At that time, there was still some national controversy about black women bringing news into white living rooms. I remember feeling that we should wait and see what kind of reporter Belva was. Over the years, Belva’s been a bedrock of calm Bay Area reporting of a hotbed of news and issues. Her mission was always to “bear witness” to events and let the viewer evaluate the content. Belva will be retiring in November. I for one will always miss her soothing and salient presence in a turbulent news world. Carolyn Jones of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote an excellent article Belva Davis, grande dame of Bay Area journalism, and I recommend it.

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Church vs. State: Religious Freedom vs. Freedom of Speech

Just when we thought the HHS “Contraceptive Kerfuffle” was resolved! So-called “social conservatives” from the religious right are attempting to hijack the issue from the Catholic Bishops to put a two-pronged political and religious spin on it.

  1. The President ordered a change to the HHS ruling so that health insurers automatically provide the coverage at no additional charge to any insuring employer.
  2. Brooks and Shields agree that the Administration pulled us back from the brink of “religious war.”
  3. The Catholic Church, ACLU, women’s groups and Planned Parenthood all seem mollified.
  4. GOP candidate Romney finally announces “that attacks religious liberty and freedom of speech.”
  5. Brooks shows how the Administration’s original ham-fisted proposal for universal access to birth control, and the recent California court overturn of the ban on gay marriage, have emboldened the religious right.
  6. The religious right will step up its long-standing assault on personal choice it opposes.

Well, Catholics having been somewhat mollified, we should have been able to predict this would only prompt the religious right “social conservatives” to step in where Bishops care not to tread. Brooks explained the religious right would be opposed to any aspect of the HHS bill anyway, since the original proposal concretized their claim that the whole “Obamacare” program is an unwarranted government intrusion upon their religious freedom, not to mention the untouchable private sector.

As we’d expect from any religion-driven political movement, this is partly political and partly because in the view of the religious right, reproductive preventative services of any kind are a violation of the word of the Creator who blessed only their interpretation of our founding state papers. We only need a Supreme Court to rubber-stamp doctrinaire edicts from the great pulpit on high. The constitutional separation of church and state is being broken down, piece by piece.

In other words, in the “social conservative” view, religious freedom must trump personal freedom of choice every time. In that view, religious freedom requires an imperative to impose upon others sharia, i.e. religious law, by force of political legislation. Never mind that this is unconstitutional in the United States.

Do you want fries with that? Did you know that the very organization which aggressively defames gays and lesbians has its own anti-defamation league? The irony is that we find freedom of speech and religion being used here as a tool to silence personal liberty. See:

1. DefendChristians.org
2. Right Wing Watch
3. Christian Anti-Defamation Commission

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Contraception: Controversial Health Care Mandate

The U.S. Health and Human Services department (HHS) recently announced a controversial ruling that would compel most religious organizations to offer contraceptive services as part of their basic health care package. Churches themselves would be granted the “religious exemption.”

Sometimes it may seem hard to defend organizations which in many cases push intrusive meddling upon the rights and private lives of American citizens. Here we have a case where the exact same wrong is being perpetrated upon some of those religious groups. The danger in each case is that the wrongs are perpetrated through the offices of the United States government.

What was HHS thinking? Who would be beneficiaries of this new ruling? PBS reports that while churches themselves are exempt from the new rules, Catholic hospitals and universities must comply. Continue reading

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“Occupy:” Say What?

We all dimly remember when some targets of the Occupy movement’s scorn struck some resonant chord with most of us. The popular spotlight on the vast 99%-1% gap was launched by Occupy. Public resentment against the unholy bank/investment bank consortiums who brought the economy to its knees in 2008 was brought into sharp focus by Occupy.

The cities of Oakland and Washington, D.C. are current newsworthy Occupy targets (among many others), further straining the resources of already financially beleaguered cities and their residents. And why Oakland, indeed? We don’t just have cities to house large law enforcement repositories. Believe it or not, ordinary citizens also try to live in cities, raise kids, and, if possible, earn a living.

Besides discovering that some police departments have learned nothing at all about police brutality vs. effective and humane crowd control in half a century, we don’t hear as much about Occupy these days because the question “how’s your poison oak” is only interesting to most of us for about the first week of the infection.

But they’re still here. What the hell do they really want?

To inspect the horse’s mouth – that part of the equine anatomy presented to those inspecting its teeth – I checked out an actual Occupy web site, OccupyWallStreet.

That site issues a disclaimer on the posted list of demands, “This content is user submitted and not an official statement,” but alas, I could not locate an “official” list. Here’s a smattering of the wackier zany demands I did find:

  • Repeal the Taft-Hartley Act. Unionize ALL workers immediately. [Return of the 1923 "Wobblies?"]
  • Open the borders to all immigrants, legal or illegal. Offer immediate, unconditional amnesty, to all undocumented residents of the US. [Oh, sure]
  • Lower the retirement age to 55. Increase Social Security benefits. [Pie in the sky, a chicken in every pot]
  • Ban the private ownership of land [Nyet, komrade]
  • Make homeschooling illegal. Religious fanatics use it to feed their children propaganda. [Regular parents use it to give their kids real educations, too. Even Hippie parents couldn't have sanctioned this proposal.]

So much for the notion “Occupy” is for increased freedom.

Looking up “Wobblie” in Wikipedia, I find the following wording in their preamble to the “current IWW Constitution:”

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.

Sound familiar? Occupy needs to re-focus or disband. I believe union and popular social movements that address social problems by hurling walls of human bodies into the maw are short-selling the potential of the 99% to conceptualize and debate real issues. “Let’s protest police brutality by seeing if we can provoke it” is not a solution. It’s a shopworn, coldly calculated gambit to manufacture martyrs for a cause that often doesn’t bear up well under closer scrutiny. Rather than performing public-service educational functions, why do these movements invariably send their supporters into the failed strategic equivalent of World War I trench warfare?

Occupy can jolly well get out of the cities and try a 21st-century communications solution, like the Internet.

Occupying Oakland makes about as much sense as picketing “Elmo & Oscar’s Kiddie Daycare Center” to force Assad to democratize Syria, or to induce North Korea to enthusiastically embrace free speech and elected government.

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Ron Paul, Libertarianism and 2012 Issues

by Alex Forbes

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”

– The Walrus and The Carpenter, Lewis Carroll

How long will our existing two-party system last? What do the parties really stand for? When will elected officials stop governing on the one-way, top-down model? Everybody wants to know, and no one has the answers. All we can do here is look at the one party that continues to change and surprise, even if those come as unpleasant surprises to so many of us. What’s going on?

Republicans are scrambling to find someone articulate enough to stand up to Barack Obama in debate, yet look good wearing the party’s ultraconservative new clothes. Gingrich has a tarnished past and is viewed as somewhat volatile and unpredictable, but he can certainly handle debate. Ron Paul by all accounts would have been viewed as a crackpot only a few short years ago, and the more you look at his platform and ask the question “so how would this work?” the more dubious it looks.

But Ron Paul has an unaccountably strong following. Why? Ron Paul is articulate; he can explain things all of the other candidates fumble, even though they are generally all sipping from the same slipper. Why is only Ron Paul giving answers that seem to make sense to the Republican base, even if they only make sense when we don’t ask what would happen next?

Ron Paul has been called the “godfather of libertarianism.” How did we get from a fringe backwater political philosophy to a serious national candidacy?

This isn’t the forum to discuss libertarianism, a generalized political philosophy with 18th century roots which anchors the individual (not governments) as the unit of all social transactions, advocates minimization of government, prohibits the use of force in settling disputes, and usually has a strong platform on individual rights. A “free market” is viewed not just as an adjunct to those principles, but as indispensably rooted in them. In the U.S., libertarianism is more apt to affiliate with “right wing” policy, where in Europe one may still see variants such as “libertarian socialism.”

The old-time U.S. Libertarian Party never expected to win popular acceptance, so they didn’t have any identifiable next-step plan in the event that should ever happen. What seems odd is that, under the present success of the Paul candidacy, which may properly be regarded as a huge and unexpected popularity boost for the libertarian philosophy, they still don’t.

Over the years I’ve come to see how nations succeed by creating a culture and environment that brings all their citizenry into the participatory fold. Nations that leave their children under-educated, create exclusionary castes, shelter their elite classes, and cut loose their middle classes are, historically, nations on their way out. As corporations use to spout, “people are our most important asset.” What conservatives have forgotten in the past 50 years is that squandering people is not like squandering money. You cannot simply go out and get more. The just society is also the most efficient when everybody is a player. And efficiency is exactly what capitalism was supposed to be all about, was it not?

2012 is the first election year in memory when we the electorate could actually really use a primer to better understand some of the libertarian political tenets. First, we’ll survey some snippets of libertarian ideology. Afterwards, we’ll sample some of what Paul would like to do to implement them.

1. The Theoreticians

In 2012 we’ll face another contest between the two main US political parties. The Democratic Party seems to be the last safe haven for the moderate, leaving the old-school liberal in a kerfuffle. The Republican Party is the new, mean, aggressive soldier force for corporate America and the wealthy. Many people who are neither corporate not wealthy still believe this is a good cause that will trickle down for the rest of us.

Ron Paul breaks the mold.

This means, uh-oh doodie, talking about the last vestiges of capitalism’s theoretical underpinnings, as preserved through the dark ages of participatory democracy by the high priests of old Ayn Rand style libertarianism. That would be Ron Paul if it were anyone. Paul is the one candidate who most closely explains most platform positions of all the others, because he appears to be the only one who understands the theory, and he’s the only one advocating it. Continue reading

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The Fallacy of False Equivalence

I was reading a convoluted article in The Nation entitled ‘The Proud Liar Mitt Romney Claimed Today‘ when I came across the phrase ‘the time-honored MSM tactic of false equivalence.’

I never did figure out author Eric Alterman’s reference to ‘MSM.’ Clearly not Methylsulfonylmethane, probably not Manhattan School of Music, even more clearly not Men Who Have Sex With Men. Ironically, Alterman is profiled as ‘a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.”

But I did think I knew what the Fallacy of False Equivalence means. Or should mean … I looked it up too, of course. I fancy myself a student of rhetoric. I once even wrote a series of articles on rhetoric and persuasive writing. I found no really solid definition.

I think the fallacy of false equivalence is a modern composite re-invention of several older classical fallacies. It also seems to be endemic to political journalism. In my day we were trained to just call these non sequiturs (Latin, “doesn’t follow”).

The general structure of the false equivalence fallacy (and its variants) would have a structure similar to the following:

Deadly nightshade is a member of the potato family. Paprika and chili peppers are members of the same family. We must regard paprika and chili peppers as poisonous.

Or, one of the more family-friendly examples found in a blog by a gentleman named Wally who wrote a 2005 post called Generalized definition of ‘false equivalence’

I didn’t pay you back once when you lent me a dollar, you stole a dollar from my wallet, therefore we’re even.”

What statement actually got The Nation contributor Eric Alterman’s goat?

The most recent punditocracy kerfuffle involves Mitt Romney’s first paid presidential television advertisement. Ironically titled keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” Deliberately left out of the ad were the preceding words: “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote…”

I bring this topic up because we’re going to see a lot more real-life examples. For more information (and some examples that use cuss words) see the article The fallacy of false equivalence by Furry Brown Dog. He does an interesting analysis of the Bush v. Kerry campaign misuse of the Swift Boat furor, about which I happen to agree with the author: Bush’s stance boiled down to the claim Kerry’s Department of Defense documentation lied, whereas Bush’s anecdotal version was the contextually more accurate if you happened to be serious about voting Republican.

No, it’s not just Republicans. We need to watch election statements more critically, rather than blindly applauding anything which makes our side look better, no matter how egregious the misrepresentation. Non sequitur arguments are so embedded in the political culture that the discerning reader should have no trouble spotting them in either camp. But, as Guardian writer Michael Tomasky posts in his blog Can you play False Equivalency!?:

And no, people, I’m not saying liberals never do anything bad. I am saying (read slowly now): this. is. a. constant. habit. of. conservatives. in. a. way. it. is. not. quite. with. liberals.

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