Deja’ Vu All Over Again

While America with navel-gazing intensity has been shooting itself in the foot with a disastrous government shutdown and fiscal Russian roulette, the rest of the world has been steadily chugging onward, particularly in the most populated parts where they are ignoring the bad example we set for them a half century ago.

Global Air Pollution credit:

Global Air Pollution

I’m talking about the environmental catastrophe that is shaping up in China. It’s worse than I even imagined. I knew that the air in Beijing was so bad that some neighborhood playgrounds were being covered by inflated tarps but I didn’t know that China’s crops are being poisoned on a massive scale. Now I do, thanks to a startling column by Joel Brinkley.  He calls the poisoning “China’s biggest problem.”

Just for convenience, here’s the heart of his column.

Xinhua, the Chinese government-run news agency, quoted academics who blamed the surge in mass hornet attacks on “ecological reasons.” Rapid urbanization, it seems, has driven away most of the birds and spiders that are the hornets’ natural enemies.

That’s a chilling example, but a far larger problem comes from industries that are being forced to relocate to rural areas, in an effort to reduce industrial pollution in China’s cities. But now these new factories are dumping copious, untreated industrial waste directly into ponds, streams and lakes from which farmers draw the water to irrigate their crops.

As a result, farmers end up growing crops they dare not eat.

A government survey in 2006 found that 10 percent of the nation’s arable land was hopelessly polluted with cadmium and other heavy metals that wreak serious health problems if consumed.

And then in 2008, Nanjing Agricultural University published a study that said 60 percent of the rice purchased in southern provincial markets was tainted with cadmium, an element that has largely gone out of use worldwide because of its toxicity — though it’s still used to make rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries. That’s an important Chinese industrial product.

Other studies, the Wall Street Journal reported, indicated that some of this rice was also tainted with arsenic and lead.

This year, the government concluded another land-pollution study. But when the results came in, the Ministry of Environmental Protection refused to make them public, calling the results “a state secret.”

That brought an angry outcry. Even the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, posted a blog that said “covering this up only makes people think: I’m being lied to.”

The Chinese aren’t the only ones who are loathe to learn from the past, who can’t recall burning rivers, lakes so polluted they wouldn’t support fish, and smog so thick that highways stunk. Our very own Grand Ole Party as recently as the year before the 2012 election was still fighting reality. This is from a news blog in the fall of 2011:

The mantra of the House Republican led Energy and Commerce Committee has been to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency. Barring that, the Republican leadership (Fred Upton (MI), Chair, Joe Barton (TX), Ed Whitfield (KY), John Shimkus (IL) and Cliff Sterns (FL)) vow to do away with as many, what they call ‘onerous’, EPA regulations as possible. Lisa Jackson, the head of EPA and other EPA officials have been called to testify before various committees of the House Energy and Commerce Committee so many times, they could almost call 2123 Rayburn, House Energy and Commerce Hearing Room, their second home.

These actions have kept wily Democratic members of the Committee such as Congressmen Henry Waxman (CA), Ed Markey (MA), and John Dingell on the defensive for much of the past year.

Much of the legislation, aimed at EPA regulations have passed through the committee and will eventually pass the House. This legislation will likely fail in the Senate. Conference Committee can result in compromise which will have some negative effect on EPA’s regulatory authority.

The GOP Presidential candidates have taken up the same Anti-EPA mantra. Texas Governor Rick Perry is probably the most vocal in his opposition to EPA environmental regulations and called for an immediate moratorium on environmental regulation. Prayer, not regulations, is the answer according to Perry. Last year, his administration filed suit against EPA to block the agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. He fought EPA to defend his state’s ‘flexible’ air pollution permits for oil and gas refineries.

Michelle Bachman has been quoted as say she “wants to padlock the EPA’s doors”. To her, the EPA is the evil heavy handed regulatory agenda of the Obama Administration.

Mitt Romney is backing away from his earlier position as Governor to capture carbon and find solutions for reduced emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases.

Because of the exceptionally weak economy, the GOP is using their EPA bashing rhetoric to erroneously link environmental regulation to jobs and the economy by suggesting that we cannot afford measures that impose greater costs on business and consumers. Michelle Bachman called the EPA the “job-killing organization of America”



Strange, isn’t it? The GOP rhetoric sounds just like the crap coming out of China. The other crap is on the way via the jet stream.  It’d be coming on container ships too, if it weren’t for that other job-killing pain in the butt, the FDA.

The elections are coming soon.  What environmental policies will Rand Paul and Ted Cruz be recommending?  I can hardly wait.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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22 Responses to Deja’ Vu All Over Again

  1. IzaakMak says:

    It’s kinda funny Jim, the “red state” heirs of the “better dead than red” generation harmonizing along with “red tide” folks who’ve join their “holy quest” for the almighty greenback. I’d be LMAO if I weren’t so busy choking down the bile. Where’s Stewart and Colbert when we need them?


  2. Jeff says:

    Thanks for posting. This is yet another great answer to the question of “What are our mainstream news stations ignoring while they focus on gossip and political maneuvering?” (I suppose Chicago Tribune editorials excepted…)


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      As I’ve said in comments to others herein, I see the problem as a political inability of our system to plan far enough ahead. It sure doesn’t help when one party wants to eliminate the only agencies that try to do so. Thanks for commenting, Jeff.


  3. I have trying to be keeping tabs on what has been going on in China. The pollution situation is horrendous and is getting worse as time goes by. With crops being poisoned, the water supply polluted and the air so thick with smog that people have to walk around with masked on is scary enough. History shows that when a nation is in despair and their resources are depleted or contaminated then that country looks elsewhere for new land in which to live and farm on. Maybe it is me but reading when China purchased 5% of the Ukraine for farming, and buying small parcels in the U.S., Europe and Africa it seems they are expanding their nation outward not by war but in a quiet economical way to avoid suspicion. Yet politicians around the world have not raised any alarms and voiced their concerns. Instead they are doing more and more business with this state run nation which strengthens their nation economically and in a matter of time militarily in this world.


    • Jeff says:

      “Yet politicians around the world have not raised any alarms and voiced their concerns.” One side believes that unbridled capitalism can never be a problem while the other side believes that capitalism with certain socialist aspects, like heavy public funding for technologies of the future and shared problems simply works better than either pure capitalism or communism. It is not surprising that no-one is covering it because the former considers the problem impotent and the other side is actually rooting for hybrid countries like Japan, South Korea, and China.


  4. Reblogged this on My opinions on America's issues and commented:
    With everything going on in the world, China is slowly becoming the leader in this world.


    • Jeff says:

      America can retake it’s position of leadership if it wants to. Remember that we grew 10% a year from 1933-1942 using FDR’s approach. Tripling in size over that period certainly made a big difference when we entered the war (although in truth USSR has the best claim for having won the war for the allies).


  5. PiedType says:

    I can only assume the GOP thinks somehow they’ll survive the pollution, poison, and global warming they want to inflict on the rest of us. But if it gets bad enough, there will be no hiding place, not even for the very wealthy.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      You know, PT, I don’t think the GOP party faithful actually believe bad things will actually happen to the environment. They are living in the moment. Certainly those in the House seem to be able to see only two years into the future! 😆


      • PiedType says:

        So true. These days I wonder if anyone in Washington is thinking past the next election.


        • Jeff says:

          The issue of planning horizons and people in power is actually very similar to the “group selection” vs “individual selection” discussion in biology. We should look at the attitudes of the wealthiest not from the perspective of “oh well, this lot seems to be jerks”, but from the perspective of the attitudes that society has rewarded most faithfully over the last 50-100 years.


  6. aFrankAngle says:

    Isn’t it interesting how humans tend to learn their own mistakes over the historical mistakes as others. I recall telling students 15-20 years ago to watch for the following: companies leaving the US (they already were) for countries with lower wages and fewer (if any) environmental laws … then their standards of living will raise, but their environmental quality decrease, … at which they will raise environmental standards, thus companies will leave for elsewhere … and the beat goes on.

    In terms of our EPA, I imagine there are instances when their restraint should be lessened … but eliminate the agency? I sure hope not. As far as Paul and Cruz, I say keep them talking.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Agreed, Frank. Learning from the past is difficult when problems develop gradually and everyone is living in the moment. I saw a segment on the evening news yesterday about Harbin, China. For you and others, here’s an excerpt:

      The level of fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, in Harbin’s air this week reportedly reached 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter, exceeding the World Health Organization’s daily target level by a factor of 40. While Harbin’s predicament is alarming, it is not isolated; many cities in Northern China, including the capital Beijing and neighboring Tianjin, rank among the most polluted in the world. In January, Beijing made headlines when its air quality got so bad that it went beyond the very top of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index.

      Thanks for commenting.


    • Jeff says:

      I agree with part of what you say, but what you describe doesn’t raise American standard of living. During most of our history, when we were moving from “one of the lot” to “world leader” we had tariff rates of 30%-50%. This is why smugglers feature so richly in our literature. Is this the best way? Maybe not – Japan and South Korea’s approach of selectively blocking imports for “future industries” like cars and electronics while heavily sponsoring research from the state seems to have built first world countries in less time than it took us with a more shotgun approach, but falling for the Smith-Ricardo consensus is the kiss of doom on both the ecology and economy side of things.

      By the way, the “we are helpless because our companies will leave for elsewhere” argument doesn’t hold water because we are essentially giving away our most valuable asset – access to a captive consumer market for these companies – for free thanks to Smith-Ricardo. A great reference on all of this is “Free Trade doesn’t work”.


  7. ansonburlingame says:

    In 1972 my wife and I made our first trip to Asia (Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong). I recall seeing most Japanese wearing surgical masks anytime they were “out and about” in Tokoyo.

    I have just completed reading a book “Command and Control” relating the history of nuclear weapons development since the Mahatten Project and all the “accidents” that historically have occurred during those years. I also recall my own “shock” when I first set foot in a nuclear weapons manufacturing facility in 1990. The safety practices therein were simply “beyond the pale” based on my own experiences in the military side of that technology. I saw things that would never have been permitted or done by military personnel in the civilian controlled facility. “Fixing” even glaring errors was a long, expensive and politically charged situation, for sure.

    I have a classmate from college, a former Navy “nuc” now diagnosed with methothemilonia (spl?). Like me he spent many years around asbestos bearing materials doing maintenance with little of no protection. I am sure the lawyers are lining up to get him on their lawsuits lists now.

    In the 1990’s I became very familiar with EPA regulations to control bad stuff. The intent was sound for sure. But my God the implementation of such regulations was simply astounding to me in terms irrational interpretation of such regs. I saw multiple very dangerous situations where NOTHING was allowed to be done until everyone’s (and I mean almost everyone) permission was provided to “do something”. “Crap” was all over the place yet nothing, absolutely nothing was done for a year or more, while an “environmental impact statement” was concocted to “do something”, as only an example. Just leave it there and let the wind blow naturally, while people that didn’t know radioactivity from a hole in the ground argued about what to do and how to do it.

    The concerns about what we put into the environment are reasonable concerns to me. But what to do about it is way beyond my comprehension. Just take the issue of “limits”, how much of “something” is “safe” to put into the air or ground or water. ZERO is what you hear from many environmentalists. Fine, put zero of such “stuff” into the enviroment, or at least the lowest level that can be measured with modern technology and just see what gets shutdown, all over the world. Back to the “stone age” would be the result. And after you meet minimum detection criteria today, what do you do tomorrow, when better measuring technology is developed? Shut it down, again, maybe?

    If you can measure it, don’t release it has become the mantra of many in the environmental movement and to me they sound like the kind of “nuts” that I had to deal with 20 years ago.

    I acknowledge issues in China today and believe many are reasonable issues over which to be concerned. But what to do about it, other than slam the GOP, is of far greater interest to me. Get the politics out of this issue, environmental impact, and figure out what to do about it, constructively is my call. Certainly I never hear the “nuts” with any constructive suggestions, other than “don’t release any”, period. Opps, no more campfires I suppose.

    As I have written many times, if you are worried about Global Warming and greenhouse gases from energy production, well we have the solution right before our eyes with a proven 50 plus year technology. Create electricity with nuclear power!!! When you do that, well open up Yucca Mountain to bury the resulting waste as well. But instead, if you want to wait for full scale “clean energy” to give us the power demanded, well go find a mask, like the Japanese were doing 40 plus years ago. As well please explain how to deal with unemployment in the coal industry right now, as well. Think you might retrain a coal miner to be a good nuc? Maybe, but who will pay for it and enforce the same standards that I tried to enforce 20 years ago in a defunct government industry!!



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      @ Anson,

      Your complaint that the EPA is over-reaching and has unrealistic standards is a common one heard from the right. That they are too bureaucratic and too slow are also common. That seems a natural reaction for anyone with a military background like yours and mine because we are accustomed to being able to take decisive action and have all the troops immediately respond. But bureaucracies are forced to respect other bureaucracies and be circumspect of political fiefdoms and feelings. Hence, they are ponderous. Anyone who can think of ways to make them more efficient, I’m in favor.

      In times of war, however, exceptional things can progress rapidly – I’m thinking of the Manhattan Project as an example. It is also an example of how that can lead to problems, as in troops and workers being exposed to radiation unnecessarily. Personally, from what I’ve read I think the EPA does a very good job, given all the resistance that’s put up against them, but as you say, that’s a matter of opinion. This post however was mainly to point out that there’s a growing example in Asia of what our country might look like had there been no EPA. Oh, and also to point out that there are people who, despite obvious evidence, wanted and still want to completely do away with the agency.


      • Jeff says:

        Excellent point. The real question is not really whether we would be better off with or without the EPA for one year. More important is whether we can avoid the situations that build up over generations without the EPA.


    • Jeff says:

      “I saw things that would never have been permitted or done by military personnel in the civilian controlled facility.”

      This raises a very interesting point. A profit motive is a very powerful motivation, but we must always remember that it is just one motive possible among several, with pride of service and military chain of command offering interesting alternatives. When evaluating profit motives, you must ask yourself whether there is an “ownership” model involved in the good or service. For example, barring the reestablishment of slavery, educators will never own the product they are creating and so you will always have a contractor/agency relationship involved in any private education firm. There is a similar story for private prisons and private military. This is a big contrast with, for example, Intel, which owns the chip factories it is producing and will suffer if it tends them poorly.

      There is another factor gumming up the works here as well. Corporations are not people and hence do not have human motivations. When you talk about “ownership models” and “profit motives” what you are really talking about is a benefit relationship that usually holds up between imaginary corporate benefits and real CEO/employee benefits. This is a situation where understanding the exceptions is necessary in order to understand the rules.

      Tepco, the operator of the nuclear plant involved in the Fukushima disaster had a long history of being “efficient” and cutting red tape before the accident. I don’t have any indication that they did anything wrong specifically in that case, but they were written up long before that in investment newsletters as a company that could “get things done” without all the normal government bureaucracy.

      We saw clear as day in the financial disaster of 2008 that indeed corporations are not people and when you base your decisions on what is smart for “banks” (as if they had self-awareness) and ignore what is best for “bank CEOs”, then you see a consistent bias for downplaying “black swan” risk. After all, a bank CEO can earn enough in a couple years to give himself bond interest equal to the salary he received one or two promotions back if he can just paint a rosy enough picture for the board to see himself invested in the role. Nuclear power CEOs have the same issues as Bank CEOs. Further, Corporations that downplay black swan risks earn a higher profit on their capital investment and also trade at a higher multiple to that profit than a nuclear corporation that fully values the black swan risks, so the deck is stacked against the cautious approach in the nuclear industry from the very get-go.

      Note that I am not saying the private sector should not be involved in nuclear power. To build a nuclear power plant requires innovation and the best innovation usually comes from a public-private partnership with the public sector doing the initial research and bootstrapping talent at the universities and the private sector turning ideas into efficient production. But I am saying that in the nuclear industry it would be better to relegate the private sector to a supplier role, where quality can be double-checked at every iteration and there is never a profit motive for cutting corners at the highest level of decision making (of course that also implies that kickbacks should be punished even more severely in the nuclear industry than in other areas, but that is another story, and all kickbacks do is make the situation resemble the private sector more closely).

      “Just take the issue of “limits”, how much of “something” is “safe” to put into the air or ground or water. ZERO is what you hear from many environmentalists.”

      Zero is certainly not what you will hear from this liberal.

      “Get the politics out of this issue, environmental impact, and figure out what to do about it, constructively is my call.

      As I have written many times, if you are worried about Global Warming and greenhouse gases from energy production, well we have the solution right before our eyes with a proven 50 plus year technology.”

      I have heard that you have many times as much radiation released into the atmosphere from burning coal as you have from even moderately well-managed Generation 1 nuclear plants. I don’t have the ability to evaluate this claim personally, but it seems pretty clear that nuclear power could have a big role in making the earth greener. Unfortunately this is frequently attacked by both the left and the right with the left saying “it’s too dangerous” (Compared to what? Cigarettes kill a lot more people in the US than guns. Why do guns get all the attention?) and people on the right not liking it because it doesn’t fit as well into the capitalistic model (The company who digs the most efficient oil well is probably the best for the company, whereas the company that pumps out the greatest number of watts nuclear power is probably not best for the country because of this, nuclear proposals tend to have a more socialist flavor than oil well proposals).


  8. ansonburlingame says:

    Of course there are two sides to the arguments over the EPA. But it goes far beyond the EPA itself. I found the bureaucracies spawned by the EPA, down to state and local levels were simply terrible bureaucracies, all thinking they were marching to the tune of the EPA. I also found “zealots” high up in the EPA that a “good contractor” could simply have no meaningful conversationa with on technical matters. Such conversations were all “political” for sure and paying any heed to a paid contractor was beneath such bureaucratics, at the Assistance Secretary level and below.

    I also interacted with two real principles, two different Secretaries of Energy. One was “great” and I could brief him “blindfolded”. The other was a politician-like bureaucrat who could not sit still for a meaningful technical conversation. And yep the first was Adm (retired) Jim Watkins, just like countless men that I interacted with for years before “going civilian”.

    The difference is clear to me, the underlying difference. Leaders in the military all, each and eveyone of them, started on the deck plates and eventually moved up to high levels of responsibility. Go to any “agency” in the federal government and try to talk about “tanks”. NO ONE at high levels will have ever operated a “tank”, for sure, or any other component of a controversial or even dangerous nature.

    I challenge you to find ANYONE high up in EPA, Assisant Secretary or higher, that has ever tried to clean up a nuclear mess, as just an example. All they have done is “regulate” such cleanup. There is a HUGE difference, in my view, yet bureaucracies continue to thrive with “regulators” not doers, if you will.

    Even the famous Naval Reactors had to learn, early on, how to deal with regulation and operators. Even Rickover was never a superior operator and none of his people in NR had much experience in such matters as well. The result was lots of angry “phone calls” from NR down to operators UNTIL, Rickover himself put a senior operator, a Navy Captain, right by his side to try to avoid outbursts that threatened careers from a bunch of DC technicians. Rickover also sent his senior staff into the field to inspect operational facilities all the time in the early years. Those superb “technicians”, people that wrote the “Rad Con Manual” quickly found out the challenges to implementing the demands in such “regulation”. Regulations were then changed as a result, many times because of that interaction.

    I cannot tell you how often I had to beat my head against the wall of “regulators” in the environmental community, some even self-appointed, like Physicians for Concerned …… (whatever). Give a public speech on efforts at Rocky Flats and then sit back and listen to the questions “from the floor”. OMG. Some were even dressed up like Buddist Monks, beating tom-toms outside the door. And MANY “regulators” felt those Buddist Monks were on the mark and regulated accordingly!!

    Here is a classic example. Before I arrived at Rocky Flats, in 1990, as part of the new contractor team, Rockwell had identified a pond, a body of water in which low levels of radioactive contamination had been found. It had been that way for years. Rockwell stopped all discharges thereto, let the water evaporate and found residual radioactivity in the mud. They dug it up and turned it into concrete, literally. It was called “Pondcrete” and there were several parking lots filled up with wooden boxes of the stuff, piled about 4 boxes high.

    NO ONE would tell Rockwell what to “do with the stuff”, where to send it for burial. So it remained standing in those parking lots for several years, subject to weather, etc. That was part of the fine paid by Rockwell, having boxes of “pondcrete” stacked up high enough to see it in Denver. It took “us” about two years to get rid of the stuff, low level radioactive material that did not harm a flea but was a political nightmare. It is buried in Nevada, now, about five or so miles from Yucca Mountain, where NOTHING is buried, yet, to the tune of $9 Billion in studies and some construction!!

    Now tell me that is not ridiculous “regulation”.

    I am very concerned that if we get serious about global warming we will find more and more regulators impeding the process of greenhouse gases emissions to the point of ……..!



    • Jeff says:

      “Those superb “technicians”, people that wrote the “Rad Con Manual” quickly found out the challenges to implementing the demands in such “regulation”. Regulations were then changed as a result, many times because of that interaction.”

      There is a growing movement in the software industry to avoid “waterfall” development, where you have a specification an inch thick and everyone works together to implement it and replace it with agile methodologies, in which you implement a couple note cards worth of functionality, put it in front of customers, then design some more after the initial feedback is in. There are places where waterfall is required, for example, if you want to implement a TCP stack or DNS server, but in general modern developers believe that early customer involvement is not only essential for building a higher quality product, but also for building the right product. It seems to me that an analogy could be made with what you are saying about EPA regulations.

      “Leaders in the military all, each and eveyone of them, started on the deck plates and eventually moved up to high levels of responsibility. Go to any “agency” in the federal government and try to talk about “tanks”. NO ONE at high levels will have ever operated a “tank”, for sure, or any other component of a controversial or even dangerous nature.”

      I will agree that this can be a problem and I am certainly interested in suggestions for fixing this. I think that the first thing to remember is advocacy. Everyone will agree that there are some really sleazy defense attorneys, but the general consensus is, in a trial, both sides do their best to protect the interests of their charges. In general, government plays the part of defending the average person, whereas government’s counterpart plays the role of defending the interests of a small minority that has different goals. Government, like a public defendant, frequently does a bad job, but at the same time, we need to have someone representing us. I think that once we have settled the question of advocacy, discussing how to refine the situation to streamline processes and separate important concerns from unimportant ones is a very worthwhile discussion to have.


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