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05.07.08

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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

Volunteers ride to the rescue of the Beach Flats Community Garden, local environmentalists just say no to new landfill technology for Buena Vista and one of the world's leading climate change scientists visits UCSC for the fourth annual Fred Keeley Lecture on Environmental Policy.

Happy Ending

The members of the newly organized Beach Flats Community Garden Committee are infinitely relieved to be discussing where to keep their garden waste. For one thing, that means they're no longer talking about how to keep the garden open. That question was settled two weeks ago with the establishment of an experimental volunteer-based committee comprising two community members, two gardeners and a liaison who works for the Parks and Recreation Department. The committee will take over tasks formerly overseen by employees of the short-staffed Parks and Rec Department, including working out contracts with gardeners, creating garden policy and communicating with the city.

Beach Flats Community Center coordinator Reyna Ruiz says there just wasn't enough staff to handle oversight of the 2-acre garden. The crisis came to a head in late March when Ruiz put up signs on the garden gate in Spanish asking gardeners to hand in their keys. "Staff couldn't do it on their own," said Ruiz. "But they found a solution, and so now it's a question of how this committee will work." The thought of a grassroots fix to a vexing budget problem warms the cockles of Nūz's heart. And there's a bonus: when it looked like the old garden was going to close, the city established nearby Poet's Park as the new (smaller) community garden. Now Beach Flats has two places to watch its garden grow.

Trash Talking

A new innovation in incineration technology is promising to help pave the county's path to an eco-friendly, landfill-free Utopia, but environmentalists are alleging that the technology is overhyped and are urging supervisors to take a second look.

On April 15, the county's public works department got the supervisors' go-ahead to prepare an agreement with Southern California-based AdaptiveARC allowing the company to test its spiffy new waste-to-energy conversion machine at the Buena Vista Landfill. The "plasma arc gasification" equipment, which converts trash to a synthetic gas by roasting it at 5,400 degrees Fahrenheit, supposedly won't spew out the nasty chemical emissions usually associated with trash incinerators and, by burning the synthetic gas in a separate chamber, could reportedly generate electricity for use at the landfill. To sweeten the deal, AdaptiveARC offered to place its new toy at the landfill as a demonstration project, meaning the county wouldn't have to pay and could get rid of it whenever it wanted (it's supposedly small enough to be hitched onto a truck).

Wait a second. Something that can turn trash into virtually emission-free electricity and it won't cost a dime, at least for the first few months? To a coalition of environmentalists and local residents, it sounds too good to be true. The Santa Cruz chapter of the Sierra Club and California-based anti-toxics group Green Action for Health and Environmental Justice are both warning local residents that AdaptiveARC isn't telling them the whole story about its supposedly eco-friendly new machine. Bradley Angel, executive director of Green Action, alleges AdaptiveARC's depiction of the technology is chock-full of "disinformation," especially when it comes to the part about "near zero-emissions" (a claim made on AdaptiveARC's website). Angel points to similar machines in other parts of the world that have been shown to emit dioxin, a byproduct of chlorine that the EPA has determined to be a likely carcinogen.

"In Santa Cruz they're talking about putting in municipal waste and sewage sludge, both of which will have chlorinated chemicals in them," says Angel. He points to reports, such as one from 2002 prepared by the Environmental Technology Evaluation Center, which did indeed find that dioxin and other chemicals were present in the "offgas emissions" at a different plasma arc gasification plant in the state of Washington.

However, County Solid Waste Manager Patrick Mathews says the AdaptiveARC invention is a new, better variation on the older machines cited by environmentalists and that he still plans to urge the supervisors to go forward with the plan when it comes up on June 10.

"They are putting a lot of fear in people without a lot of data," Mathews says of Green Action. "We're preparing an open letter to Green Action to invite them to participate in testing of the facilities when they're up and running to see whether [the machine] is really as toxic as these people say it is, because it really isn't. There isn't enough data out there to prove it."

Rainmakers

With the June 3 election less than a month away, local political meetings are popping up everywhere. One community group, however, is turning the usual candidate endorsement forum on its head. Communities Organized for Relational Power in Action (COPA) is refraining from endorsing a candidate for 1st or 2nd District county supervisor this year, opting instead to have the candidates for each position endorse its platform. COPA, which is a collaboration between community groups across Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, wants positive movement on expanding affordable housing, health care services and public safety officer positions regardless of who ends up in the supes' seats.

THE COPA FORUM takes place on Monday, May 12, at 6:30pm at the Live Oak School Gymnasium, 1916 Capitola Road, Santa Cruz.

Climate Klatsch

You know that relative who doesn't know jack about science but nevertheless feels qualified to argue that climate change is a product of natural cycles? Well, here's your chance to gather up intellectual ammunition before the next family get-together. Benjamin Santer is coming to town. Think of him as your arms dealer in the war against climate-related ignorance.

If anyone knows about humankind's impact on the climate, it's Santer. In 1996, he was the lead scientist on a key committee of the Second Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations-convened group made up of hundreds of scientists from around the world. Santer's work on "climate fingerprints"--measurable and traceable patterns in climate change--linked warming to human activity for the first time in history, forever changing the public discourse about global warming.

"I think that was really a breakthrough moment," says Santer, speaking from his office at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories, "saying for first time: the jury's in and we really think there is an identifiable human effect on global climate change. And it's nice to think that subsequent assessments [by the IPCC] have essentially vindicated the findings of the second."

The groundbreaking report was not welcomed. Besides calls for his dismissal with dishonor at Lawrence Livermore Labs, Santer faced a congressional investigation spearheaded by Orange County Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. "This is an area where science and politics collide," Santer says; "1996 was a very, very unpleasant time for me."

Santer has continued his work with the IPCC, serving on the third and fourth assessments, the latter of which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore for its findings that most of the warming of the past 50 years is anthropogenic--a direct result of Santer's research. He has also continued refining his climate fingerprints model to see if there are patterns relating not just to temperature but also to pressure, rainfall and the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere. "And the answer seems to be, indeed, there is this remarkable internal consistency to the story the climate is telling us," he says.

Recently Santer and a team of fellow researchers looked at snowpack and runoff in the arid Western United States. They found that more of the moisture that precipitates over the Western United States has been falling in the form of rain and less in snow, a development attributable to human activity. "That's important for us because snowpack is a big buffer that delivers water to us later in the year, when we need it for irrigation," he says. "That doesn't bode well for the future."

Santer isn't advocating despair, however. On Thursday he delivers the fourth annual Fred Keeley Lecture on Environmental Policy at UCSC, and on Friday he'll participate in a roundtable discussion with community leaders sponsored by UCSC's Science Technology Engineering Policy Society (STEPS) Institute. "The important thing is to have an informed electorate," he says. "It's hard for people to take wise decisions in the absence of a basic understanding of what climate change is and why they should care about it."

BENJAMIN SANTER delivers the Fred Keeley Lecture on Environmental Policy on Thursday, May 8, at 7:30pm at the Media Center, UCSC, Santa Cruz. Free.


Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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