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“The Whole City Would Have Burned”

One year later, the small town of Lac-Megantic is still at the heart of oil-by-rail debate

Jean Dubé runs an office supply store in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic. Both his store and home were badly damaged in last year’s devastating oil-train derailment that killed 47 people and destroyed more than 40 buildings. Oil filled the basement. Still, he opened three days after the accident and relocated his inventory to an employee’s garage. Basic office supplies were in high demand so they delivered everything by car and truck. One of Dubé’s cousins, Marie France Boulet, was killed in the accident. She lived and worked in the center of town. Because of the extraordinary heat of the burning oil—the fire could be felt from more than a mile away—her body was never recovered. Six months later, her older sister, Louise Boulet, died of a heart attack.

A veiw of La Megantic a day after the train accidentPhoto by Michel GagnonLac-Megantic a day after the oil train accident that killed 47 people and spilled 26,000 gallons of oil into the Chaudiere River. One year after the disaster, this small Canadian town still faces the enormous task of cleaning up and rebuilding.

When I met Dubé in late January he had reopened in a makeshift warehouse just across the tracks from where the train exploded. He still didn’t know what would happen to his home and store. But he had little doubt that oil, much of it from North Dakota’s Bakken formation, would once again be transported through Lac-Megantic. He rubbed his thumb and index finger together and said flatly that it was all about the money.

Indeed, soon after Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway Inc., the Maine-based railroad company blamed for the derailment went bankrupt and was purchased by the New York-based Fortress Investment Group in May, talk of resuming oil shipments began.

In the past five years shipping oil by rail has dramatically boosted rail industry profits and that has, in turn, increased the number of accidents and oil spills. At first, the Lac-Megantic disaster was viewed as a freak accident. But since then trains carrying Bakken crude oil have derailed in Alabama, North Dakota, Philadelphia, and Virginia. Last year more oil spilled in rail accidents — 1.15 million gallons — than the previous 35 years combined. (Read my Journal’s cover story “Highly Flammable,” to learn more about this.) Given the huge profits …more

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Farming for Developers

Coastal Commission Stories – Lesson One

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave…when first we practice to deceive.” Walter Scott, Marmion

Last week I got an email from a New York venture capitalist asking for advice about building a house in the California Coastal Zone. For six and a half years I served as a public official on the California Coastal Commission. The email reminded me that it’s been a year since I resigned, and it’s time to tell a few stories of what I learned as a coastal commissioner. Each and every month I learned that not everything was how it seemed.

Here’s Lesson One: Farming for Developers.


The California coast is a panorama of open farm fields and hundreds of miles of undeveloped land. Highway 1 (the Pacific Coast Highway) follows the coast for almost the entire length of the state. The kind of road you see in car ads and movies, it looks like it was built to be driven in a sports car with the top down. In fact, the nearly 400 mile coastal drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco is one of the road trips you need to do before you die.

aerial photo of a farm field adjacent to the shorephoto by Glenn Nelson, on FlickrAn artichoke farm on the California coast.

With 39 million people in the state, there’s no rational reason why there aren’t wall-to-wall condos, hotels, houses, shopping centers and freeways for the entire length of our state’s coast (instead of just in Southern California). But luckily, almost 40 years ago, the people of California passed Proposition 20 – the Coastal Initiative – and in 1976 the state legislature followed with the Coastal Act, creating the California Coastal Commission and saving California from looking like the coast of New Jersey.   

Essentially the Coastal Commission acts as California’s planning commission of last resort for all 1,100 miles of the California coast. Thanks to the Coastal Act and the Coastal Commission, generations of Californians and our visitors enjoy the most pristine and undeveloped coast in the country, with recreation and access for all. It’s an amazing accomplishment.

The downside is that the coastal zone has the strictest zoning and planning requirements in the country. As a new commissioner I learned quickly what …more

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Southeast Chicago’s Battle Against Petcoke

Residents and local environmental groups face well-financed foes – Charles and David Koch

On August 30, 2013, a vicious windstorm ripped through Chicago’s Southeast Side, blowing clouds of thick, black dust into the neighborhoods of this working-class corner of the city. The winds deposited the sticky dust on windows, screens, porches, lawns, and sidewalks. If you were unlucky enough to be outside, the dust attached itself like leeches to your skin. People couldn’t just rub it off; they had to scrub it off.

photo of an industrial plant by a watercoursephoto by Christopher JohnsonDuring storms, petcoke and its array of chemicals can wash into the nearby Calumet River.

The black dust was petroleum coke – petcoke for short – a byproduct of tar sands oil refineries that resembles coal. In this community of Chicago, huge mountain-like piles of petcoke sit out in the open, rising as high as five stories tall, and even a slight breeze can blow the dust into nearby neighborhoods. When a windstorm kicks up like the one last August, Southeast Side communities are blanketed with the sticky, smelly substance. As a result, during the past two years, the Southeast Side has become ground zero in the battle over petcoke.

Chicago is not alone. Detroit once had similar mountains of the stuff, but when storms blew dust over adjacent homes in August 2013, then-Mayor Dave Bing ordered the Detroit Bulk Storage Company to move the piles of petcoke outside of city limits.

In Chicago, though, the solution to this pernicious pollutant hasn’t been so simple. That’s because Southeast Side residents and local environmental groups face supremely well-financed foes – Charles and David Koch. One of the Koch brothers’ subsidiaries, KCBX Terminal Company, stores the towering piles of petcoke at two locations, together covering about 140 acres.

Some of the petcoke makes its way to KCBX from nearby Whiting, Indiana, where a gigantic BP refinery processes tar sands from Alberta, Canada. A byproduct of the refining process is a residuum, or residual material, which the refinery then sends through a coking operation, producing some 2.2 million tons of petcoke a year. The resulting substance fuels power plants, cement kilns, and steel mills – and enhances the profitability of tar sands. Producers export about eighty percent of the petcoke, primarily to China, India, Mexico, and Turkey. But until it’s shipped overseas, it has to be stored somewhere, and that’s where KCBX comes in. …more

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UN, Scientists Alarmed Over Plan to Dump Dredged Mud In Great Barrier Reef

Australia’s coal port expansion project could place reef on UNESCO “World Heritage in Danger” list in 2015

After waffling about changing the Great Barrier Reef’s World Heritage Site status for the last two years, the United Nations recently let Australia off with a warning that the iconic reef could be added to the “World Heritage in Danger” list in 2015 if the country went ahead with a proposal to dump 3 million cubic meters of dredged spoil in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

photo of a long pier on a coastline, wide sea and tropical clouds to the horizonPhoto © Tom Jefferson / GreenpeaceAbbot Point, surrounded by wetlands and coral reefs, is set to become the worlds largest coal port should the proposal to expand it go ahead.

At the UNESCO’s world heritage committee’s annual meeting in Doha in June, the committee said that Australia shouldn’t have approved the dumping “prior to having undertaken a comprehensive assessment of alternative and potentially less impacting development and disposal options.”

Most of the 46 sites in the current World Heritage in Danger list are in developing or war-torn countries, with Syria and Congo dominating the list.  Only a few sites, such as Florida’s Everglades National Park, are in developed nations. 

Australia has said in the past that the impact of the dredging would be offset by a series of programs to bolster the reef’s health, which would improve the water quality by 150 percent. But the UN world heritage committee says it hadn’t seen a clear proposal for how that would be achieved. Australia now says it will provide a long-term plan for how it will care for the reef before the UN committee meets again in 2015.

The Australian and Queensland governments have approved the dumping proposal as part of the massive expansion of the coal port Abbot Point, which is located near the reef – a decision that’s been met with protests from the public, environmentalists, and the World Heritage Body. Government officials say they’ve looked closely at the issue and cite the 47 safety stipulations attached to the approval of the dumping. The port, they say, will greatly increase Australia’s ability to export coal and will bring jobs to Queensland.

Environmentalists and 233 scientists disapprove of the plan, saying that the effects of the dredging are yet to be really studied and adding more stress to the already struggling reef is perilous to …more

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31-Day Undersea Mission has Been a Boon for Marine Scientists

A young researcher talks about Fabien Cousteau’s underwater living experiment

Three years ago, I dove 63 feet undersea at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to visit Aquarius — the world’s only remaining underwater research lab — and gawked through the portholes at the researchers (they are called “aquanauts,” by the way) living inside the 81 ton, 43 by 20 by 16.5 foot, yellow, not-quite submarine (it’s stationary). I’ve been fascinated with that lab ever since and have been keeping track of its fate, from its near death by federal budget cuts in 2012, to its miraculous rescue in 2013 by Florida International University (FIU).

Aquarius Reef BasePhoto by Kip Evans/Mission31Aquarius residents can spend up to nine hours a day diving to depths of 99 feet without risking decompression sickness — a gift of time that allows researchers to accomplish in a few days what would otherwise take several weeks or months of diving from a boat.

The Aquarius Reef Base, as it’s officially called, is all kinds of cool. The structure is pressurized so that researchers can live for weeks underwater. It can sleep six people, has hot water, power, and high speed Internet. Using a technique known as “saturation diving,” Aquarius residents can spend up to nine hours a day diving to depths of 99 feet without risking decompression sickness — a gift of time that allows researchers to accomplish in a few days what would otherwise take several weeks or months of diving from a boat. Built by the federal government and currently managed by FIU, the 27-year-old facility has hosted everyone from marine biologists studying ocean ecosystems and endangered corals to NASA astronauts training for near-zero gravity missions in space.

Right now the Aquarius is hosting a unique 31-day research and education outreach mission spearheaded by ocean explorer and documentary filmmaker Fabien Cousteau. The Mission 31 expedition, which ends tomorrow, was conceived as an homage to the first underwater living experiments in the Red Sea 50 years ago pioneered by Cousteau’s grandfather, the legendary French ocean explorer Jacques Yves Cousteau. (Mission 31 is so named because it will last one day longer than that first expedition in 1963.)

A team of filmmakers and researchers dove to Aquarius with Cousteau on June 1. After 15 days, the FIU researchers traded places with researchers from Northeastern University, who will emerge from the waters with Cousteau and …more

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Yosemite National Park Was Created 150 Years Ago

Nature preserve planted the seed of an idea that has spread around the world

Adapted from Seed of the Future: Yosemite and the Evolution of the National Park Idea by Dayton Duncan. Copyright © 2013, used with permission from Yosemite Conservancy,

The idea that a nation’s most majestic and sacred places should be preserved for everyone, and for all time, is what we now call the national park idea. At age 150, the national park idea seems such a natural part of our landscape that we often forget that it wasn’t always so. We take it for granted that the grandest canyon on earth or the nation’s highest mountain or the world’s greatest collection of geysers would of course be protected from destruction or despoliation. We assume that an exquisite valley with the continent’s highest waterfalls and a grove of Creation’s biggest trees would of course be saved for future generations to enjoy and experience. “Of course,” we think, “that’s only natural. That’s the way it should be. That’s the way it’s always been.” But in this last thought, we are mistaken.

Yosemite Valley Viewphoto by Trey Ratcliff/FlickrView of Yosemite Valley. From Yosemite the idea of national parks would spread to other places.

National parks are simultaneously very real places and the embodiment of an idea, and that idea found its first home in a very real place. The place was the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. From Yosemite the idea would spread to other places, evolving and changing as it grew and interacted with the world around it. Biology, ecology, evolution – and history, too – work that way: not just as mechanical processes of predictable cause and effect, but something more fluid, something that takes chance and choice and change into equal account, realizing the nearly infinite variables at play in the myriad interconnections of existence, and recognizing that the way things are now is not the only way things could have turned out.

Yosemite was not the world’s first national park. Yellowstone holds that distinction. But Yellowstone National Park’s creation came eight years after Yosemite was set aside by Congress and entrusted to the state of California. Its DNA was 99 percent that of Yosemite’s, the only difference being which level of government was in charge. On an evolutionary tree, Yellowstone is a branch of Yosemite – …more

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Death in the Wilderness

There is no one path to death in the forest. There are a myriad of dyings. And that is as it should be.

For me watching the red colobus monkeys in a small West African forest was an  addiction. I suppose this was my Downtown Abby and my Mad Men writ large. Absolutely nothing mattered except this soap opera. The world could be spinning out of control, tectonic plates colliding, but when I was with the colobus I was glued to the forest, mesmerized to the point of semi-insanity. I had to be there from absolute beginning to the very end and nothing, no one, absolutely no one, could disturb me. The characters spilt out onto the forest floor and up into the canopy and took over. Their dilemmas were my dilemmas. Their joys were my joys. Their pain was my pain. These were not simply long-tailed, pot-bellied, thumb-less monkeys in trees. These were my “friends.” I thought about them all the time. I dreamt about them. They became my obsessions.

Female colobus monkey with infantPhoto by Photo by Dawn StarinFor Dawn Starin, the colobus were "not simply long-tailed, pot-bellied, thumb-less monkeys in trees," they were her "friends.”

I needed their stories. I needed — absolutely desperately needed like a junkie’s need — to have the latest red colobus soap opera instalment of love and passion and success and failure. I needed this forest, its array of Dr. Seuss-like creatures and its Dali-esque vegetation, sunrises and sunsets.

For years I religiously, fanatically took my time samples, recorded the temperature and humidity, plotted the colobus movements on a map, described all social interactions and took photos of everything and anything. I noted all snake sightings, bushbuck sightings, sitatunga sightings, and patas and green monkey sightings. I constantly, compulsively collected facts. Relevant facts, irrelevant facts. It made no difference. In fact, I’m not even sure I was able to distinguish between the two. If something happened it found its way into my notebook.

If I was sick, if it was storming with death defying thunder and lightening, I still went into the forest way before sunrise and sat under the sleeping trees waiting for the colobus to wake up and start my day. I was afraid that if I missed one minute of their awake-time I would miss the one piece of the puzzle that would complete the picture.  I was convinced that whenever I was away from them there was going to be an Archimedes …more

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