Week of 04/29/2007

Dear EarthTalk: Are we making progress in cleaning up America’s rivers?

—Maria B., via e-mail

When the Cuyahoga River caught fire in downtown Cleveland in June of 1969, a nation already becoming more aware of environmental problems took note. Across the country, people were fed up with bans on swimming and fishing due to growing pollution levels. And rampant logging was clogging many a remote river system with soil and debris, making them uninhabitable by the fish that had evolved there for eons.

In 1972, in response to such concerns, Congress passed the landmark Clean Water Act, which regulates the discharge of pollution into America’s waterways. This important law has worked well to curtail pollution and keep development in check, but it does little to restore already damaged river ecosystems.

Luckily, a large array of local governments, nonprofit organizations and ad hoc citizen groups has risen to the challenge, making the United States the world’s nexus for river restoration work. The National River Restoration Science Synthesis Project, a 2005 survey conducted by leading river scientists, identified 37,000 different river restoration projects either completed or underway across the U.S.

According to the survey, American taxpayers and foundations have invested nearly $15 billion in U.S. river restoration projects—or about $1 billion yearly—since 1990. Projects include: reforesting riverbanks to curb erosion; recreating natural river channels to reduce downstream flooding; removing dams to allow fish to migrate more freely; and restoring wetlands to better do their jobs at naturally filtering pollution.

Some specific high profile examples include Native Americans and farmers working together to bring wild salmon back to Oregon’s Umatilla River, and the creation of natural habitat and buffer zones along Texas" San Antonio River. And General Electric finally complied with state and federal mandates to begin removal of the PCBs they had dumped in New York’s Hudson River for years.

"It’s no mystery why river restoration is booming," says Andrew Fahlund of the nonprofit American Rivers, a leading rivers advocacy group. "Rivers in good condition more readily meet the needs of the surrounding community than polluted and degraded rivers."

A new House budget resolution calls for increased spending on programs to reduce the amount of raw sewage going into American streams and to better manage the nation’s 168 designated "wild and scenic" rivers. The resolution also calls for allocating funds for removing obsolete dams that could rupture and threaten nearby communities with potentially catastrophic flash floods.

Despite the positive trends, not all rivers are doing well. American Rivers" annual list of "America’s Most Endangered Rivers" highlights river ecosystems across the U.S. that are still in disrepair or under threat. Those on the 2007 list include New Mexico’s Santa Fe, New York’s Upper Delaware, Washington’s White Salmon, Texas’s Neches, Wisconsin’s Kinnickinnic, North Carolina’s Neuse, Alaska’s Chuitna, Iowa’s namesake Iowa River, Arkansas and Oklahoma’s Lee Creek, and California’s San Mateo Creek.

CONTACTS: The National River Restoration Science Synthesis Project; American Rivers

Dear EarthTalk: Did Exxon/Mobil really pay scientists and economists to write articles trying to de-bunk global warming?

—Rosemary R., via e-mail

A February 2007 report in the British newspaper, The Guardian, fell like a ton of bricks on efforts by ExxonMobil, the world’s largest and most profitable oil company, to repair its damaged environmental reputation. According to the report, the Exxon-financed American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative Washington, D.C. "think tank," offered scientists and economists $10,000 each, plus expenses, to write articles undercutting the dire findings of the United Nations" Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) about the extent and impacts of human-caused global warming.

The ties between ExxonMobil, AEI and the highest levels of government go way back. AEI has received more than $1.6 million from ExxonMobil over the years, and more than 20 of its staffers have worked as consultants for the Bush administration. Former Exxon head Lee Raymond is still an AEI board member.

A month before the Guardian report, the Boston-based Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released its own report documenting ExxonMobil’s $16 million in donations since 1998 to 43 organizations working to discredit the science of human-induced climate change. UCS joins a growing chorus of voices asking the company to turn the corner on global warming and start embracing a transition away from fossil fuels.

"ExxonMobil has manufactured uncertainty about the human causes of global warming just as tobacco companies denied their product caused lung cancer," says Alden Meyer, UCS’s Director of Strategy & Policy. "A modest but effective investment has allowed the oil giant to fuel doubt about global warming to delay government action just as Big Tobacco did for over 40 years."

In September 2006, Britain’s leading scientific academy, the Royal Society, asked the company to stop supporting groups that "misrepresented the science of climate change." In response, ExxonMobil said that it funded groups that research "significant policy issues and promote informed discussion on issues of direct relevance to the company" but that such groups do not speak for the company.

No doubt feeling some heat, ExxonMobil issued a statement recently in response to an IPCC update: "There is increasing evidence that the Earth’s climate has warmed on average about 0.6 C in the last century. Many global ecosystems, especially the polar areas, are showing signs of warming. CO2 emissions have increased during this same time period—and emissions from fossil fuels and land use changes are one source of these emissions." The statement also acknowledged that "the risks to society and ecosystems could prove to be significant
it is prudent now to develop and implement strategies that address the risks

Whether the company is really ready to aggressively develop alternative energy sources—like its competitors Shell and BP—is yet to be seen. But environmental leaders share a guarded optimism that the tide is turning in their favor and that ExxonMobil will back up its words with action—eventually.

CONTACTS: The Guardian; Union of Concerned Scientists Report; ExxonMobil-GlobalWarming-tobacco