Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Alaska Railroad To Resume Chemical Weed Abatement Program Despite Opposition From Environmental Extremists

The Alaska Railroad says burning, cutting and scalding isn’t keeping its tracks free from vegetation. That's why railroad officials plan to bring a specialized spraying rig to the state and resume chemical eradication. Click here for Tuesday's (June 13th) KTUU story and here for today's (June 14th) more comprehensive Anchorage Daily News story.

In an application filed with the state's Department of Environmental Conservation, the Alaska Railroad proposes to spray two commonly-available weed killers, glyphosate and 2/4-D, as well as a Dupont Chemical product called Oust Extra (the latter available only to professionals) on more than 500 miles of track and another 100 miles of rail yard. The substances would be sprayed straight down from a rail-mounted vehicle for up to 15 feet on either side of the center of the tracks. However, the agency's review of the application, including a public comment period, will put off a final decision until this fall, so railroad officials don't plan to begin using the chemicals until next year. Public notice for the spraying plan will go out today. Click here for the Alaska Railroad's explanation of their weed eradication program.

Weeds and roots growing in the rail bed hamper drainage and destabilize tracks, according to Ernie Piper, the railroad's assistant vice president for operations and safety. Taller brush growing along tracks can block vision at crossings and turns in the line. The Federal Railroad Administration has fined the state-owned railroad tens of thousands of dollars in recent years for failing to adequately control vegetation. Piper further stated that the railroad hasn't used herbicides since 1984, when a federal judge decided that it hadn't done enough environmental review and ordered it to stop. In the interim, railroad workers have used steam and rail-mounted brush cutters and have whacked weeds by hand. Those methods are no longer doing the job effectively enough, and vegetation is threatening the integrity of the tracks, Piper said Tuesday. It wasn't that long ago that a freight train derailed just short of the Glenn-Parks interchange south of Palmer; track destabilization was one of the contributing factors.

In addition, the railroad has spent millions of dollars to rebuild and straighten sections of track and is preparing to issue bonds to do more work, Piper and railroad spokesman Tim Thompson said. Protecting that new track is another good reason to revisit the herbicide issue, they said. "We want to get at it now rather than later, when it's become a problem," Thompson said.

Railroad officials have sought to resume using chemical weed-killers several times, but resistance from rural Railbelt communities like Talkeetna and environmental groups have stopped each effort. One opponent, Pam Miller of Alaska Community Action on Toxics, said at least two of the chemicals the railroad is proposing to use are known to cause health problems or birth defects. "The fact this (would be) sprayed on railroad right of way that crosses hundreds of creeks, salmon streams, places where people gather berries ... the potential for exposure is very high," Miller said.

However, Alaska Railroad officials quickly addressed this concern. Piper explained that the proposed chemicals are absorbed in soil and decompose quickly, and that a drift retardant will be added to the mix so it doesn't blow off-site.

Analysis: First, we must better define the nature and role of environmental activism. In general, the environmental community is divided into two schools of thought. One group, which I designate as "conservationists", prefer conservation or wise use. The other group, which I designate "prohibitionists", prefer prohibition or denial of use.

Unfortunately, the environmental community is dominated by prohibitionists like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club. One of their "scriptures" is Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which is an excessively pessimistic, doom-and-gloom assessment of man's effect on wildlife. Unlike conservationists, who believe in a responsible, balanced partnership between environment and development, prohibitionists believe any perceived threat to a "pristine" environment, no matter how slight, warrants prohibition. As a result of their influence, most of the Tongass has been designated a roadless wilderness, even though properly planned and sited roads not only can serve as firebreaks to slow wildfire progression, but can enable much less expensive surface access for firefighters in case of a wildland fire.

One example of prohibitionist influence was the complete ban on DDT implemented in 1974. Concerns about long-term health implications were warranted, but DDT was a virtual death sentence for malaria. The incidence of malaria has actually risen since the ban, so this was clearly an over-reaction. On the East African island of Zanzibar, the percentage of residents affected by malaria, which had dropped from 70% in 1958 to less than 5% in 1964 thanks to regular DDT spraying, skyrocketed to 50% in 1984 after DDT spraying was stopped in 1964 due to environmentalist pressure. See the and websites for more fair and balanced information on this issue.

Another example was the large-scale ban on logging in the Pacific Northwest implemented over a decade ago to protect spotted owl habitat. A National Public Radio account from that period provides a surprisingly fair and balanced account of the impact. Here's an excerpt:

In the heart of the Olympic Peninsula, the town of Forks, Wash., used to boast it was the logging capital of the world. Now, men who once made their living in the woods are prison guards, and the jagged edges of clear cuts once visible from the town have long since greened over. The listing of the spotted owl led to the eventual shutdown of 2.4 million acres of forest in Washington alone, and 30,000 forest jobs were lost.

The transition away from timber was hard in Forks, with many people
losing their jobs, homes and timber-related businesses. But the townspeople say
they've survived. And while they still resent the government for placing the
needs of the owl over the needs of families, some say the community is stronger
because it no longer relies on a single industry.

It's good that some of the lumberjacks got replacement jobs as corrections officers. Our nation's prison systems certainly need more C.O.s to better combat inmate-on-inmate violence. However, corrections officers do not create wealth; lumberjacks do. One of the reasons for our persistent and growing trade deficit is the failure to generate the additional production necessary to create additional wealth. Thanks to NAFTA, CAFTA, and the WTO, along with corporate greed, we've exported many of these jobs and the plants where they worked.

An example closer to home was the closure of Ketchikan's largest private employer at the time, the Ketchikan Pulp Mill back in 1997, due to environmentalist pressure. This cost 500 people their jobs in a city not on the state's road network and too small to provide enough effective employment alternatives. Yeah, yeah, I know, they could move, but that's easier said than done, particularly once one has a well-established family and deep-seated networks within a community. This predatory global economy puts a premium on mobility and flexibility and is antagonistic to loyalty and stability, since neither loyalty nor stability generate windfall profits.

And finally, there is one common element in these environmentally-influenced dislocations that needs to be explored. Which people were required to sacrifice their jobs? It wasn't $300,000 per year lawyers or molecular biologists. It was $30,000 year lumberjacks and pulp workers, who frequently lack immediate alternatives and who must spend additional personal funds to get retrained. This puts the environmentalist lobby in the position of appearing anti-working class. I don't believe they do this deliberately, but the environmentalist lobby is dominated by intellectuals, many of who come from privilege themselves, and so have no concept of what it's like to earn one's daily bread by the sweat of their brow. The neo-conservatives are similarly dominated by such people who are out of touch with mainstream America; when we "elected" one of them President, we got open borders, tax cuts for the rich, the end of the estate tax, "free" trade, and the creeping militarization of American society. The environmentalists are NOT the enemy. However, when their initiatives take jobs from the working class, they become perceived as the enemy, because they implicitly snatch bread out of people's mouths. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt imposed too many punitive economic measures upon Japan, he backed the Japanese into a corner and they responded by lashing out at Pearl Harbor. To broaden their credibility with mainstream America, environmentalists must switch from the "prohibitionist" mode to the "conservationist" mode.


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