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Thu Apr 25, 2013 at 06:56 PM PDT

Explosive power

by Thunderthief

Just out of morbid curiosity, I just calculated the power of that fertilizer factory in Texas. I came up with the equivalent in explosive power of about 113 tons of TNT, or:

The full war-loads of six B-52 heavy bombers

About 200 Tomahawk cruise missile warheads

Roughly 15,600 NATO-standard 6-inch artillery shells

1,476 16-inch shells from an Iowa-class battleship's main battery (which is actually more shells than a battleship's full war load)

Five and a half of the Army's old Davy Crockett tactical nukes.....

Not quite what you would want sitting next door to a school, eh?

This is why DHS worries about fertilizer.


Manny of you have probably seen this pollposted on the Huffington Post today.  Forty-two years ago, on the first Earth Day in 1971, 63% of Americans believed it was ‘very important’ to work to restore and enhance the national environment.  In 2013, only 39% said it was very important.

This sounds alarming on the face of it.  What changed?  The conservative revolution?  The generational change?  The endless onslaught of four decades of “regulations cost jobs” punditry funded by Wall Street?  Apathy bred of weariness?  I don’t think that’s it.

It seems to me the reason Americans are less concerned about the environment is precisely because we've come so far. The environment just doesn’t look like the same imminent problem it was in 1971.  We used to see pollution everywhere, pollution so bad that once we realized just how bad things had got, that a country badly divided by politics, race, economics, class and the Vietnam War came to the sort of consensus that you almost never see anymore in our society—63% thought it was very important, 25% thought it was ‘fairly important,’ and only 8% said it wasn’t important.  88% in favor of anything doesn’t happen too often.  Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives alike made common cause on a subject now more likely to divide them than unite them.

Forty years of concerted effort later, we no longer see factory and powerplant smokestacks vomiting coal smoke into the air everywhere we go, and our rivers by and large no longer stink like open sewers because of the raw sewage dumped into them every day.  Factory and car emissions aren’t splattering lead all over the country, to the detriment of our children’s developmental health.  Our drinking water is tested for pollutants and its sources are protected for posterity.  Hazardous industrial wastes can no longer be dumped anywhere on a whim—although some of it does still happen, now it’s illegal as all hell rather than standard procedure. Companies that store potentially devastating quantities of dangerous materials (yes, I’m looking at you, West Fertilizer) are required to store the materials carefully and warn local governments of the hazard.

None of these victories were easy.  Some of them took over a decade of legislation and litigation and public outcry, and all too many of them were prompted only by disasters like the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, Love Canal, or the epidemic of lung cancer and mesothelioma that followed the asbestos industry wherever it went.  There was a struggle at every step—Ronald Reagan nominated two business industry lawyers, Anne Gorsuch and Rita Lavelle, to senior positions at EPA in 1980 with the express mission of castrating the agency.  In a display of bipartisanship that really doesn’t happen anymore, Gorsuch was cited for contempt of Congress, and Lavelle was convicted of lying to Congress.  

Some of our successes are less obvious and less dramatic.  We use more and more natural gas instead of coal.  We have made wind power and solar power proven technologies rather than the dreams of sci-fi writers or hippies.  Even though we generate more solid waste (garbage) than we did in 1980, recycling and composting programs recovered 85.1 million tons of solid waste for reuse of 2010, up from 15 million tons in 1980.  Ocean dumping is ended, and incinerators now have air pollution controls.  Rather ominously for my own career prospects (I’m a hazardous materials consultant), as a nation we generate about 1/10 of the hazardous waste we did two decades ago.  At this rate I’m going to have to find a new career well before I get to retirement age…

It’s easy to not realize how far we’ve come.  I was born in 1978—most of the federal environmental laws were passed before I was born, and I didn’t grow up in the shadow of smokestacks the way my parents did.  I once met a woman, Helen Gagliarducci, who lived in the south end of Springfield, MA during the late 1940s, when it was a prosperous and respectable neighborhood. Her husband bought her the first Cadillac sold in Springfield after the Second World War’s moratorium on car production was lifted, a bright red Series 62 coupe with what would now be considered a thoroughly indecent amount of chrome. Mrs. Gagliarducci and her family lived about a quarter mile from the United Electric Light Company’s power plant and the Springfield Gas Light Company gasworks.  Between the two of them, these two facilities put out enough sulfur and other pollutants from the soft coal they burned that the brand new car’s finish was thoroughly ruined within two years.  Mrs. Gagliarducci doesn’t drive anymore because her eyesight is not so good, but she still lives in the same house (though it is no longer such a nice neighborhood) and still owns a Cadillac (though not the same one).  I met her when I had to drill a hole in her back yard to find out whether gasoline was oozing beneath her house.  She talked my ear off and insisted I eat lasagna she made.  Five years ago, I met another woman, Henrietta Molitoris, who worked in a textile mill in Stafford, Connecticut during the Second World War.  A good-sized stream flowed through the factory complex, and it turned colors depending on what color the factory was dyeing the cloth that day.

We’re not done yet.  We have a long way to go on some issues—we’re still cleaning up the toxic waste dumps from half a century ago, and we still get 40% of our energy from coal.  Our automobiles are now our largest threat to air quality and the health of people who breathe (which is almost everyone, except maybe for Dick Cheney).  

There are new battles, too.  Genetically-modified organisms have eclipsed exotic pesticides as the centerpiece of the agribusiness alchemy.  Water supplies like the Ogalalla Aquifer are under greater strain than before, thanks to decades of urban sprawl. Bisphenol A and other endocrine disruptors, a subject not even on the radar forty years ago, are now a major subject of debate in public health.
Some old battles just won’t end—for all the scientific consensus on global warming, it is still as debated as it was in Nixon’s day.  

Maybe it’s complacency that we don’t care as much as we used to?  Maybe our record of success has cost us some momentum, made it seem less vital that we continue trying.  

But try we will.


Sat Apr 20, 2013 at 09:06 PM PDT

Boston, MA vs West, TX

by Thunderthief

This is a brief post, just because this thought has been bugging me all day....  Two douchebags with jihadi ideas in their heads and some homemade bombs blow up the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring-- what, 170?--and we turn over every stone in six towns to find it should be.  

Some douchebags in Texas decide to flout federal laws that have been in force for decades, because obeying would cost them money, and as a result get sloppy with explosive chemicals and blow a small town off the map, killing 14 people and injuring we don't even know how many....

One is a national tragedy, and the other is ultimately going to be written off as an 'industrial mishap.'  Are the douchebags in Texas really any less evil than the douchebags in Boston, for all that their motivation to save a buck on safety and upkeep was so banal?  

Actually, not to moralize, but alhough it lacks the visceral horror of the Boston tragedy-- which is murder by two guys whose sole goal was death and havoc, plain and simple-- IMHO the Texas thing is in some ways worse because it was ENTIRELY PREVENTABLE.  We can't blame a McVeigh or an abdel-Rahman or a bin Laden or a Tsarnaev for this.  

In my experience working in the environmental industry, stuff like the West fertilizer plant explosion doesn't happen unless you have a really serious and ingrained climate of sloppiness, lack of maintainance, and safety provisions that are just plain missing, all of which can usually be blamed on management's bad decisionmaking and wilful neglect, and that in turn is usually due to either management not caring, not understanding (two problems we have a lot more of nowadays, since plant managers USED to be mostly engineers rather than MBAs), or not  wanting to spend the money.  That OSHA hadn't been to the plant since 1985 isn't an excuse-- you're supposed to follow these procedures becasuse they will help prevent disasters, not because OSHA might fine you a few thousand dollars.  

Just for clarification, there's a lot more to OSHA than just "lift with your legs, not with your back," hardhats, and safety railings.  Most of the requirements for safe storage and handling of explosive, flammable, and toxic materials are part of OSHA.

That's all I've got tonight....


Just as a PSA-- a firefighter friend of mine was recently hospitalized for several days after responding to a fire and unknowingly inhaling hydrogen cyanide (HCN). The 'fire' was a plastic dish that an elderly woman had mistakenly put on a stove, and which melted, ignited, and gave off hydrogen cyanide. It wasn't much of a mess but it was still enough to almost kill someone. DO NOT BURN OR MELT PLASTIC.

You can also take this as a good reason to rationalize the use of plastics on the whole.  

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Sat Mar 17, 2012 at 10:25 PM PDT

The Battle of the Uterus

by Thunderthief

I think every civil rights struggle has to have a battlefield, real or metaphorical, as a monument to posterity.  Cable Street, the Ludlow mines, Tahrir Square, Montgomery Alabama, Bloody Sunday.... I guess we have a new one this year, and it's a funny-looking little battlefield... or rather about 200 million battlefields, since every uterus of every woman in the country is involved....

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Fri Dec 30, 2011 at 09:46 PM PST

The Buffalo Gold Replica Coin

by Thunderthief

Sometimes you have to appreciate a really good scam.  Then there's stuff like this, that just makes you want to sigh and shake your head.

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Thu Aug 11, 2011 at 08:46 PM PDT

My reply to Meghan McCain

by Thunderthief

Hi Meg, I’m Tom.

We’ve never met, but I’m a regular reader of your posts on the Daily Beast. I saw your August 10 piece on the ‘Obamaclypse,’ and the return of ‘politics as usual’ to Washington.  You complain that “we’ve traded hope and unity not only for politics as usual in Washington, but for something far worse. We’ve entered a new chapter in government selfishness, new levels of disillusionment and public distrust of elected officials, something that the Twitter world has dubbed the “Obamaclypse” or “Barackalypse.”

Since I actually have a regular job and a part-time job, and am not a talking head and incipient professional celebrity—really, Meg, why are you hanging out with the Perez Hilton set?—who can blow off work to party in Vegas, it took me a couple days to find the time to write you a response.  

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Tue Jun 14, 2011 at 05:56 PM PDT

Flag Day

by Thunderthief

Just a brief set of Flag Day grumbles about how the flag of the United States is used and abused.

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Sun May 01, 2011 at 08:28 PM PDT

Bin Laden is Dead

by Thunderthief

Just as it says on the tin.

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The question is, why did the Egyptian and Tunisian militaries refuse to take action against the protesters, when the Libyan military did?  

Someone IM'd me that question earlier today, in idle conversation.

There are few more embarrassing things that can happen to someone at my time of life (age 32) than suddenly to come out of a fugue and realize that your music playlist has run out of tunes, the tea's untouched but gone dead cold, your Firefox has about fifty open tabs, it's 11 PM and you somehow lost five hours out of your life.  

Then you gaze blearily at your computer screen and realize that you've written a six-page analysis of a problem in response to a question a friend of yours IM'd you as a digression from a conversation about chemical vapor intrusion, muffins, and Pearl Jam.

Well, that's what happened to me, and this is the result.  


Who's the best ruler?

0%1 votes
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| 191 votes | Vote | Results

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Everyone on TV seems to be giving the president flak for not sending in the Marines already.  This diary is my take on why getting involved prematurely would be the worst thing we could do, and what we should do in the future.


Who is most wrong?

66%2 votes
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| 3 votes | Vote | Results

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Wed Jan 26, 2011 at 08:47 PM PST

Salt, Pollution, and Capitalism

by Thunderthief

I read a book.

It pissed me off.

So here's my response:

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