Thursday, November 12, 2009

Gutter: One day is all it takes

Here I thought that serious, complicated issues took a considerable amount of time to address. Turns out you can get it done in one day.

From the Post-Gazette:

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Pittsburgh Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt this morning kicked off a summit on high school dropouts, one of more than 100 nationwide sponsored by the America's Promise Alliance, a nonprofit group affiliated with retired Gen. Colin Powell.

The daylong event at the Downtown YWCA is designed to bring city school and civic leaders together to develop a plan to address the city's 35 percent dropout rate. The plan will be finalized later in the day. (emphasis added)

"Okay guys, here's the plan. Let's sit down, have some coffee and bagels, shoot the breeze about how Panera's bagels are so much better than Bruegger's but they're also twice the size and, man, those calories go right to my hips and hey, has anybody been to that Dunkin' Donuts in Squirrel Hill yet? That is so good and oh-so-bad to have a D&D right up Forbes Avenue. Gonna have to do some extra running this year. Did you see that it's certified Kosher? How about that? Can I get a chocolate frosted Kosher donut hole?

"Anyway, let's talk about this drop-out thing. Man, it's bad, isn't it? Whoa, lunch time. Who's up for Sammy's? Love that corned beef. Is that Kosher?"

- Break for lunch -

"Oh man, I shouldn't have eaten that whole sandwich. I could take a nap right now. Anybody want to run out for some Five Hour Energy Drink. That would really hit the spot."

- Break for energy drink -

"Okay guys, it's about 3:30. What does everybody think about the drop-out situation?"

"It's bad."

"Good point by you. I like that. For our plan, let's make it resolution-style and start off with some whereas statements. Number one: Whereas the drop-out situation is bad."

"Nice. Good start."

"Oh oh oh, I know what number two should be: Education is good."

"Man we're cooking now."

"Okay, number three: hmmm, I'm not really sure what else to put for our whereas statements. Let's go with two."

"I know: young people are our most valuable resource."

"That is so money. I love that shit."

"Yeah, that's good, right? I saw it on a poster outside the YMCA."

"Nice. Now then, we've got three whereas statements. Let's hit the resolution and get the hell out of here. So, let it be resolved that the city of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Public School system focus renewed energy and resources on curbing this issue so that the young people of this city can have a brighter future ahead."

"Sweet. Think we should get into specifics about where the resources would come from or what exactly we plan to do to address the 35% dropout rate?"

"Are you kidding? It's quarter to five. We've been here since 9:30. I'd say this plan is finalized. Mad Mex anyone?"

End scene

Look. I'm all for addressing the drop-out rate. 35% is a ridiculously high - and embarrassing - number for the city school system. But a one-day summit? With a plan to be “finalized later in the day”?

Hey, let’s spend the next 45 minutes coming up with a plan to get out of Afghanistan. How about a two-hour sit-down to address the world’s AIDS problem? Got 15 minutes to shoot the breeze about swine flu?

Come on. What can realistically come out of this other than a photo op, a few handshakes with photogenically-disheveled drop-outs, and an empty “achievement” to brag about at a latter date? And this is happening all over the country as part of the America’s Promise Alliance, which is sponsoring “more than 100 nationwide” summits.

How about dedicating real resources to addressing the problem? A one-day summit is almost insulting to the breadth and seriousness of this problem.

Taking the drop-out problem seriously requires more than one day.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Peak: Now that's what I call Livable

(Photo: AP)

I moved to Pittsburgh in August 1997. In the 12 years since, I have witnessed three championships. That's 1 every 4 years.

Most Livable, indeed.

Peak: The hits keep on coming

Yesterday I celebrated the fact that the EPA is going after the electronics recycling operation that worked with local Humane Society’s. Now EarthECycle is getting it from below, too.

Some of the electronics collected through a free recycling campaign on behalf of several charitable organizations earlier this year were dumped on the property of a former auto repair shop in Homewood, according to workers for an Oklahoma recycling company.

The workers, Raymar Dawson and Jason Ivey, who were part of a crew of about 22 laborers that handled the electronics collected by Tulsa-based EarthEcycle LLC, say they dumped some of the electronics in the yard of an old car garage at 408 Finance St. (Post-Gazette 6/12/2009)
For those who came in late, you can read this blog’s initial post on the topic from last Wednesday and all the Post-Gazette articles linked within, but we’ll do a quick summary anyway:

- Boy meets charity

- Boy tells charity he can produce $10,000 for every 100,000 pounds of old electronics collected

- Boy says he’s going to recycle the electronics

- Boy turns out to be selling the electronics overseas where they are dumped illegally

- Environmental watchdog group blows whistle on boy

- EPA gets involved with a list of administrative charges against boy and demands a working plan to properly dispose of said electronics within a specific time period

Okay; all caught up.

So yesterday I was pleased that Jeff Nixon and EarthECycle were getting some heat from above, and today Post-Gazette reporter Karamagi Rujumba found a couple guys who worked at Nixon’s Homewood stop-over. The electronics were collected in the North Side and then moved to either an old garage in Homewood or an empty Levin Furniture showroom in Monroeville. From there, the electronics were sorted and loaded onto shipping containers that found their way to Newark and eventually en route to Hong Kong and South Africa.

Today’s story features some whistle-blowers from the Homewood site.

The electronics they dumped -- mostly broken computer monitors and televisions -- they said, are still piled up with other junk in the yard, which was initially used as a staging area by EarthEcycle.

"We would take the busted monitors and throw them out in the backyard," said Mr. Dawson, 27, who together with Mr. Ivey, 25,worked for EarthEcycle at locations in Homewood and Monroeville from early March to mid-May. (P-G 6/12/2009)
And then we get a real headshot on just how illicit Nixon and EarthECycle were being.

Both Mr. Dawson and Mr. Ivey, who said their job at EarthEcycle was to load the electronics on 53-foot containers, said that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection inspectors didn't know about the electronics that were dumped in the back of the Homewood facility.

"They made us hide the broken monitors when the DEP came around," said Mr. Ivey. (P-G 6/12/2009)
As we’ve discussed at length before, the fatal flaw in the whole scam was that Nixon promised the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society, the Washington Area Humane Society, and the Humane Society of Westmoreland County he could recycle the electronics and somehow make a profit off the deal, which he would then use to make the charitable donations.

But as has been pointed out several times, it costs money to properly recycle electronics, so the whole plan is screwed and shady to begin with, and if today’s whistle-blowers are to be believed, a simple trip to Homewood probably would have been evidence enough that the deal was a sham.

When Mr. Nixon partnered with the charitable organizations, which collected thousands of pounds of electronics for his operation, he promised to generate money for the charities by reselling the old electronics that were still usable.

What could not be salvaged, Mr. Nixon said, would be broken down and reprocessed by local companies and other smelters across the country.

But both Mr. Dawson, who lives in the North Hills, and Mr. Ivey, of Chartiers, said that what they did for EarthEcycle was not what Mr. Nixon promised the charities he would do with the electronics, much less recycle them.

"There was no testing [to check whether electronics were usable] going on, we didn't even have electricity in Homewood," Mr. Ivey said. Each container was packed with about 1,200 computer and TV monitors and CPUs, without packaging or wrapping the electronics, he added. (P-G 6/12/2009)
Like I said, I’m glad this story isn’t going away, and eventually we’re going to need to hear more from someone at the Humane Society. They have to answer for why they were so clueless about this. I suppose the promise of big money can cloud one’s vision, but this isn’t a kid filling up his Radio Flyer with old Coke bottles and getting a nickel for the lot.

These are electronics, which are dangerous and harmful if improperly disposed of. I realize that the Humane Society was lied to, but by putting their name on the set-up, they lent their credibility to it. I donated old printers because the Humane Society was involved, and I believe they owe some sort of explanation.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Peak: The government gets involved

So, I’m glad this story hasn’t gone away and I’m even more glad that some higher authorities are getting involved.

The Oklahoma company that worked with a number of area charitable organizations in a free electronics recycling program earlier this year violated at least seven hazardous waste management regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency, officials said.

The federal regulatory agency on Friday issued a complaint and compliance order against the Tulsa-based EarthEcycle LLC, which is owned and operated by Jeff Nixon, 44, a former Allegheny County employee. (Post-Gazette, 6/11/2009)
You might recall that this matter was discussed at length on this blog last Wednesday, but to refresh, let’s run through some details.

1. The Western Pennsylvania Humane Society set up a charity fund drive with EarthECycle whereby the Humane Society would collect electronics - TV’s, computer monitors, printers, cell phones, and the like - and EarthECycle would facilitate the recycling of everything collected.

2. For every 100,000 pounds collected, EarthECycle would donate $10,000 to the Humane Society. More than 1,000,000 pounds were collected, thus putting the Humane Society’s bounty above $100,000.

3. But according to a report from the Basel Action Network, an environment watchdog group, the collected items were not recycled; rather, they were shipped to various points in Hong Kong and South Africa where they were to be stripped and disposed of in an unsound manner that in no way resembles recycling.

4. As of last Wednesday, the Humane Society had not been paid its expected donations from EarthECycle. A single check for $10,000 had been issued to the Humane Society, but it came with an indefinite hold, most likely due to the looming legal battle EarthECycle and operator Jeff Nixon knew would be coming.

That’s the nuts and bolts of it. In my last post on the subject, I was particularly pointed in putting blame on the Humane Society for this mess, and I still feel like they bear the brunt of the responsibility. Without further re-hashing everything I posted last week, I’ll just sum it up by saying that safely and properly recycling electronics costs money. If you want to recycle your TV or old computer monitor, you have to pay someone to take it, and that company will most likely turn around and pay someone else to do the actual recycling. Either way, someone is getting paid.

Which is why the Humane Society-EarthECycle deal made no sense. The only way - as far as I’ve seen - to produce the kind of money EarthECycle promised to the Humane Society was to sell the electronics to overseas companies who would strip the items of any valuable materials and then dispose of the remains. Even just a little research would have likely led the Humane Society to sense that something was rotten in the state of Demark, but from all appearances, the lure of the cash was too strong.

(For full disclosure: I donated a couple old printers and some other broken electronics to the Humane Society’s collection, so I bear some personal responsibility as well for not being more diligent. My mistake was trusting the Humane Society.)

Okay then; I think we’re up to speed. The latest news to come on this story is that the EPA is involved.

The administrative charges against EarthEcycle include: failure to make a hazardous waste determination; failure to prepare a hazardous waste manifest; unauthorized export of hazardous waste; failure to provide notice to the regional [EPA] administrator of an intent to export cathode ray tubes for reuse; failure to package the electronics; failure to label; and failure to mark them.

"EPA takes proper and safe management of electronic waste seriously, which is why we have opened an investigation of EarthEcycle for violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act," said a statement issued through agency spokesman Dave Ryan yesterday. (P-G, 6/11/2009)
So it’s all administrative, and I’m of the opinion that any way you can stop a company like EarthECycle is good. It would be nice if they could actually go after this company for the exporting/improper disposal of those goods, but unfortunately the United States has not ratified the current international accord regarding hazardous waste, so for now we’ll have to go after the paperwork.

That being said, it does look like the EPA plans to make life very difficult for Jeff Nixon and EarthECycle until the company properly handles the collected items.

Now the EPA has ordered Mr. Nixon to "take possession of all of the containers that are returned to the United States and remove them from the Port of Newark," within 30 days. He also is supposed to transfer the containers to a secure warehouse for temporary storage under his control.

Within 45 days, Mr. Nixon must submit a plan for EPA approval detailing how he will manage each item in each container in accordance with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
The order further states that Mr. Nixon "shall not remove any items from the storage facility without EPA approval" and he "shall remove all items from storage within 20 days of EPA's approval" of his plan.

If Mr. Nixon fails to comply with the requirements of the order within the time specified, the "EPA may seek the imposition of penalties of up to $37,500 for each day of continued noncompliance, in addition to any other penalties that maybe assessed for past or ongoing violations." (P-G, 6/11/2009)
Hopefully the EPA will be strict about getting those electronics into a proper recycling program.

But the one thread still hanging is the Humane Society. No Humane Society representatives are quoted in today’s article about the EPA action, and I suppose that makes sense. The last we heard from the Humane Society was last Wednesday’s article in the P-G under the headline Humane groups think they’ve been duped.

"I haven't been able to get a hold of Mr. Nixon since our [recycling program ended]," said Alice Wancowicz, volunteer coordinator for the Washington animal shelter.

Kathy Burkley, executive director of the Humane Society of Westmoreland County, said she also received a similar check from Mr. Nixon two weeks ago, "after prodding him for a while." (P-G, 6/3/2009>
The Washington Area Humane Society and the Humane Society of Westmoreland County were also caught up in EarthECycle’s plan/web/scam/scheme, and while that article doesn’t actually quote anyone from the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society, I think we can assume that those people probably have the same reactions as the other two Humane Society’s.

But both Ms. Burkley and Ms. Wancowicz said they are quickly losing hope in recovering their proceeds.

"We probably will have to sue him if he doesn't make his payment to us," said Ms. Burkley, adding that she has already given a copy of the check she received from EarthEcycle to Greensburg police. (P-G, 6/3/2009>
Yeah, I’m going to have to go against the grain on that one. I know Nixon promised this money to the Humane Society’s, but in light of everything that has come out - and with the EPA now involved, we can pretty safely say that the scam was what it appeared to be - shouldn’t the Humane Society’s turn down that money? Even if Nixon recycles the collected items, which will come at severe cost to him, should the Humane Society’s still feel entitled to that money? They facilitated this situation by not doing the proper research, and even if they are patsies in the whole thing, I’m not sure that they deserve to reap any rewards from it.

I would go so far as to say that, if the environmental watchdog group released its report but it had no impact and Nixon’s scheme went as planned, there would be a certain responsibility on the part of the Humane Society’s to not accept the money. At this point, they probably won’t get any money because Nixon’s not going to have any to give - I would assume - but they should realize that a mea culpa is in order, along with a condemnation of Jeff Nixon and EarthECycle, a public apology to those who donated items, and a stated guarantee that no money will be accepted from this program.

And you know, there might be another angle on this thing. Allegheny County was involved in the program to a certain degree - although they washed their hands of it from the first cry of foul - but I wonder just how much involvement the County had. There might need to be a second mea culpa issued. Perhaps we’ll look a little more into that in the future.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Gutter: Summertime and the living's easy

Another day, another recognition as the Most Livable City in the state/country/world.

…Pittsburgh once again is the most livable city in the United States -- and 29th worldwide -- in a 2009 survey by British magazine The Economist…(Post-Gazette, 6/10/2009)
And again I say, take that, East St. Louis!

The Economist Intelligence Unit -- which publishes numerous surveys and studies for paying clients -- has ranked Pittsburgh first in U.S. livability ratings since it started measuring them in 2005, said Jon Copestake, editor of the survey….

…The Economist's ranking is just one of many kudos Pittsburgh has earned recently: In 2007 it was rated as "America's Most Livable City" by Places Rated Almanac, and in January Forbes Magazine cited it as the sixth best city in "Ten Cities For Job Growth In 2009."
But we should give the other side a say as well.

Of course, there was that survey by the Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends project, which found Pittsburgh one of the least popular of places to live -- in the bottom 10 of 30 cities surveyed -- with only 17 percent of those surveyed saying they wanted to live there. And Business Week magazine reported that Pittsburgh is the 14th "Most Unhappy City" in the nation.
And it’s also humorous to note that when you Google the phrase “most livable city,” you come across the website, which has nary a mention of Pittsburgh on its lists.

But let’s put the negative aside. We can here to praise Pittsburgh, not to bury it.

Well, some of us did.

"Livability is in the eye of the beholder," [Jake Haulk, president of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy] said, noting surveys tend to overvalue cultural institutions -- which benefit relatively few people -- and undervalue economic indicators such as job growth and low taxes, which benefit many. Places like Charlotte, N.C., attracted people for that reason, he said.

"I would think that livability would have to do with finding a good job. If you're just looking at cultural things, sure, Pittsburgh is a nice place to live, if you can afford to send your kids to private schools or live in the suburbs and pay high taxes for good schools, but people tend to go where they can find work."
Hmmm, those are some interesting points, particularly about the overvaluing of cultural institutions. So what factors were considered when deeming Pittsburgh the most livable city in America?

In The Economist's report, between 30 to 40 indicators were considered under five categories: stability, health care, culture and environment, education and infrastructure. The Economist used its own analysts plus statistics and input from correspondents in each city.

"The idea was that the city presenting the least challenges to your lifestyle would be deemed the most livable," said Mr. Copestake -- in other words, cities that aren't too big, too crowded or too crime-ridden. Pittsburgh's medical centers and its cultural amenities -- unusual for a city of its size -- helped propel it up the charts, he added.
Okay, so:

Not too big - This city is nothing if not geographically small.

Not too crowded - We’re losing people everyday, right?

Not too crime-ridden - I guess that per capita the crime rate’s probably not too bad.

Look, I like Pittsburgh. I really do. I moved here almost 12 years ago and I’ll probably be staying here for quite some time (although I wouldn’t be surprised if the future finds me living in the scenario Haulk suggests - in the suburbs and paying high taxes for good schools). And to tell the truth, my life is pretty, well, livable. But I look around and I see city employees wondering if their pensions will survive and I see murders increase by 38.5% from 2007 to 2008 and I see neighborhoods ignored so that developers’ interests can be met and I see whole groups of people in this city being completely undervalued - or, as The Wire creator David Simon once said, “people are worth less” - and I have to think that a strong percentage of this city is having its lifestyle challenged.

And again we find ourselves thinking back to Carmen Robinson and her talk of “two Pittsburgh’s.” Time and again during the election Robinson talked about how you have the Most Livable City of Champions and you also have the real Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh that’s made up of neighborhoods no one on Grant Street has cared about in some time and definitely no one at The Economist considered when ranking the city so high.

So if you consider Pittsburgh to be America’s Most Livable City but you aren’t really taking the whole city into consideration, then you’re saying that those neighborhoods that don’t fall into the mold aren’t part of the city and they don’t exist. Sounds like sweeping the problems under the rug or, even worse, ignoring them altogether.

And that’s probably the worst effect of these kinds of reports: they give the impression - delusion? - that things are going well. For a great many people in this city, things are not going well. But every time a study like this comes out, those in charge can sit back and feel good about themselves, content to go another day without addressing the real problems.

Also, for a brief history of Pittsburgh's placement in these kinds of studies, check out Null Space's take on the matter.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Peak: Renewal in various forms

I guess the Post-Gazette headline writer and I have a different take on “vibrancy.”

East Liberty becomes a vibrant community

I just don’t know about that.

East Liberty has gone from being a neighborhood in need of someone to invest private money to being a beehive. Sixteen developers are at work there currently. Two new hotels are coming, the first hotels in decades. The Eastside complex that includes Whole Foods is expanding. Hundreds of new homes are being built, and a green-infrastructure plan will bring geothermal heating and cooling to about 800 of them. Storm water sequestration plans are in the works, as is a European-style town square.(P-G)
That certainly sounds like a beehive, and as someone who has lived near East Liberty for the past six or seven years, I’ve been pretty close to a lot of those recent revitalizations and have watched them with great interest. Because whether I was driving to East Liberty - for the McDonald’s, naturally - or through East Liberty - to reach points east - I was always intrigued by this neighborhood with its gateway high-rises and main drag full of wig shops and clothing outfitters and peculiar traffic pattern.

In fact, I once fancied myself a very wise civic observer when I stated to anyone who would listen that Penn Circle was like a noose, suffocating East Liberty until it had lost all life.

Yeah, I was pretty proud of that one.

Largely that image came to me after purchasing a copy of Pittsburgh Then and Now, a fascinating photographic study of the changes in this city over the past 100-plus years. The premise is pretty simple but probably time-consuming to produce:

Take a photo from a long time ago - could be the 1970’s, 1960’s, 1950’s, 1940’s, or before - and then take a current-day photo of the same location from the same angle. Then juxtapose and voila; you have a pretty entertaining and enlightening photographic history of the city, or at least a document of the changes in the city.

There is all kinds of interesting stuff in the book, but the section on East Liberty may have had the biggest impact on me. On one page, a photo from June of 1937 showing shops lining the street and the Pgh. Curb Market (for “fancy fruits and vegetables”) on the corner; in the same location in August 1987, a giant high-rise built over the street.

Or another photo from May 1936, when a street in a business district seems to stretch as far as the eye can see; in its counterpart from August 1987, another high-rise - the one that was recently imploded - climbs out of the photo’s frame.

It continues. From February 1935 we have a photo of a healthy strip, with a Hay’s market/pharmacy and a Cameraphone Theater (showing movies for 25 cents at night); in that same location in August of 1987 stands the big bus stop in the east end of Penn Circle.

And perhaps the most heart-breaking photograph from the East Liberty collection is a shot from the sidewalk on Penn Avenue near that bus stop in the east end of the Circle. This photo isn’t notable so much for the architectural differences between “then” and “now” - although those differences do exist - rather, the photos from 1935 and 1987 are contrasted most for what’s happening in them.

In 1935, there are people. People walking, people talking, people shopping, people smiling. In 1987, a solitary soul stands by a tree and another lurks on a corner in the distance.

So after spending a lot of time driving through East Liberty and also seeing what the neighborhood used to be, I started thinking a lot about what revitalization would/could look like. How could a once-thriving business district - often referred to as Pittsburgh’s second downtown - that had undergone misguided renewal already, renewal that thoroughly destroyed the neighborhood’s vitality, regain its life and become vibrant once again?

Right around the time I moved into the Penn Avenue corridor in the east end, Whole Foods opened at the so-called Eastside complex along Center Avenue, and this was hailed as a step toward revitalization for the jobs it would provide.

But, once again donning my clever civic observer hat, I pondered aloud, “Doesn’t anyone see the ugly symbolism here: the jobs will go to African-Americans from the neighborhood, and they will be employed serving rich white people.” I thought I was very clever for that observation (of course, it would turn out that the jobs also went to hippies, so I wasn’t completely accurate on that).

Revitalization continued on the eastern outskirts of East Liberty with the Bakery Square project - still in progress and still reeking of government-developer stank - and Trader Joe’s, and once again I asked: Who are these projects for? Who shops at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods? Who will frequent Bakery Square, provided it maintains an aura of safety? Are these things really for the community? Or is revitalization being used synonymously with “bring in white money”?

Because if bringing in money from Shadyside and some of the more affluent surrounding communities is the key behind East Liberty’s revitalization, I’m not sure if I buy it. I don’t know if building destinations for out-of-towners is the best way to build a neighborhood and community. That was the premise behind the ill-conceived renewal of the 1960’s, and the results were disastrous (although the problem at that time wasn’t the intentions; it was the plan and the execution).

But then I read more about the history of the neighborhood.

In 1868, the City of Pittsburgh annexed what is now East Liberty. Thanks to its favorable location and Mellon's guiding hand, East Liberty became a thriving commercial center in the following years. East Liberty's merchants served many of Pittsburgh's industrial millionaires, who settled in nearby Shadyside and Point Breeze. Professionals in Highland Park and Friendship and laborers in Bloomfield and Garfield also shopped in East Liberty. By 1950, the area (now often called 'Sliberty) was a bustling and fully urban marketplace. )Wiki)
And then it hit me:

East Liberty was always a shopping destination for the white people who live outside the area. So by building Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods and the Richard Chen restaurant and Target and Bakery Square, East Liberty’s revitalization is being historically accurate.

Historically accurate revitalization: urban renewal with book-smarts.

So maybe I should just get off my high horse and accept that East Liberty’s renewal is what it is. Ideally, the influx of income will have a positive impact on the neighborhood and perhaps even provide an opportunity for local business owners to flourish as well (I’m particularly hopeful that the new retail space on the west end of the Circle will house some local businesses).

And I shouldn’t completely disregard some of the things East Liberty Development Inc. is trying to do. They’ve got a number of green initiatives in place, and I think the East Liberty Town Square idea - which seems to carry a much more organic tone than Bakery Square - is a good one, since it should make the main Penn Avenue corridor more pedestrian-friendly.

I guess we’ll see what happens. Perhaps bringing in stores like Target and Whole Foods can be the impetus for change on a more community-based scale, and I certainly don’t know enough about city planning/urban renewal to say that’s not the case. But doesn’t it feel like real renewal, real revitalization, would take a different form?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Gutter: Encountering an error

Due to personal culpability - or at least compliance - I figured I should post some thoughts on the story about the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society and its charitable electronics recycling program.

For those who don’t know, the Humane Society was collecting old computers, cell phones, printers, and various other electronics. The items were collected under the premise that they would be recycled and the Humane Society would reap charitable rewards ($10,000 for every 100,000 pounds collected).

As a proponent of the Humane Society and a holder of numerous old and un-working electronics, I was on board with the program:

Get rid of the old junk in a safe way and help the Humane Society raise some money in the process. Sounds good to me.

Then this came out last week. From the Post-Gazette:

The company that held a free recycling program collecting old computers and other electronics to benefit the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society in March is facing accusations that it exported the materials to Hong Kong and South Africa where they could end up in toxic dumping grounds.
From the next day’s follow-up article:

[Seattle-based environmental watchdog Basel Action Network] this week issued a report claiming that EarthEcycle, which collected more than 1 million pounds of old electronics through the Humane Society's recycling campaign in March and April, ships hazardous waste to countries where it will most likely end up in toxic dumping grounds.
And this is bad because…

Such dumping grounds can cause severe health risks to people who live near them, because most electronics -- from televisions to computer monitors -- contain metals like lead and mercury that can cause cancer and other sicknesses when left exposed.
For the in’s and out’s of this thing, there are a couple places to turn. A good start is this report from the Basel Action Network, the environmental watchdog group that blew the whistle on the EarthECycle scam in Pittsburgh. They followed the recycled electronics from the North Side to Homewood to Monroeville to Newark and eventually to Hong Kong, and it looks like they’re on to something.

From what the report says, Jeff Nixon, who runs EarthECycle, was not in the recycling business as much as he was in the re-selling business.

From the BAN report:

In addition to the actual tracking evidence of EarthECycle’s export of the e-Waste from the events in question, BAN has discovered unabashed solicitations by EarthECycle asking for all comers including those in export markets to buy for 15 cent/pound his massive accumulations of e-waste.
So even if he pays the $10,000-for-every-100,000-pounds donations he promised to the Humane Society (which may or may not actually happen), he’s still pocketing $5,000 per 100,000 pounds. According to the May 28th Post-Gazette article, the Humane Society collection drive netted “more than 1 million pounds of electronics,” meaning Nixon’s pulling at least $50,000 on that haul.

But who is paying for the e-waste and why? Back to the BAN report:

Much of the e-Waste exported from the United States by “recycling” companies such as EarthECycle are sent on ships directly to Hong Kong where it is then quickly smuggled into mainland China. It is important to know that no legal electronic waste recycling takes place in affluent Hong Kong and thus no import permits have been granted there according to the EPD. Containers are routinely removed from the ship and are taken to yards or warehouses in Hong Kong which sort and reload the waste onto trucks.
The sorting entails pulling out the good stuff.

The only reason EarthEcycle can even raise such significant amounts of money is because it is selling the electronics to vendors in countries where they extract aluminium, plastic and other materials from the electronics before dumping them, Ms. Westervelt said. (P-G)
And for the dump we go back to the BAN report.

Once in mainland China the waste is likely to be sent to the final dumping ground for most of the global e-Waste trade, a region known as Guiyu in Guangdong Province just about 5 hours drive from Hong Kong. There the e-waste is usually cracked, burned and melted down in unsafe conditions by some of China’s poorest communities. Since BAN first went to Guiyu in 2001, scientists have followed and have recorded some of the highest levels of dioxin, lead, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon contamination ever recorded due to the highly toxic waste being recycled with inappropriate technologies. Eighty percent of children in Guiyu, China, a region where many “recycled” electronics wind up, have elevated levels of lead in their blood due to cooking the circuit boards that originate in the United States.
So even if we acknowledge that BAN is pretty zealous, we can still probably agree that the dumping process, if it resembles the picture BAN paints, sucks pretty bad.

And - assuming the BAN report is accurate - we were all party to it by trying to help the Humane Society.

That sucks pretty bad, too.

So how did this happen? How did the Humane Society and the public get duped? That’s the question I’m asking, and so is my man Alan Boring.

When Alan Boring heard that EarthEcycle LLC had partnered with a number of area organizations in a free electronics recycling program to raise money for the charities, the first thought that crossed his mind was: "I can't compete with that."

Mr. Boring owns and operates A. Greenspan Computer Recycling Inc., in Turtle Creek, which charges anywhere from $5 to $25 to dispose of a range of electronics. He said his second thought was a more troubling one.

If EarthEcycle is collecting all these electronics for free, where is the money to be raised for the charities going to come from if EarthEcycle is not selling the electronics as hazardous waste, he wondered.
Hmmm…if you want someone to recycle something that requires a special process, it costs you money to do so?

Housed in the Keystone Commons, the former Westinghouse Electric Corp., Mr. Boring's company sends the electronics to one of three smelters: one in Ontario, Canada, one in Denver and one in Wisconsin.

Mr. Boring said the smelters charge him about 6 or 7 cents per pound for the electronic materials he sends them.(P-G 6/2)
6 or 7 cents per pound, eh? At 6 cents per pound, the 1,000,000 pounds of Humane Society collections would cost Nixon $60,000 to recycle, which would put a dent in his $150,000 donation, not to mention the $50,000 he was going to pocket if he sold the materials, as BAN is accusing him of doing.

Let’s run through this again:

It costs money to recycle electronics. So the idea of a free e-waste collection that will turn into a charitable donation DOESN’T MAKE SENSE.

And that’s how you get duped.

"I haven't been able to get a hold of Mr. Nixon since our [recycling program ended]," said Alice Wancowicz, volunteer coordinator for the Washington animal shelter.(P-G 6/3)
(The Washington Area Humane Society also took part in an EarthECycle recycling program)

So the Humane Society is now sitting with checks it can’t cash (Nixon put holds on the first checks he sent to the WPHS and the WAHS), and it’s also got the knowledge that the items it collected are most likely not going to be recycled but will end up as hazardous waste.

And they have no one to blame but themselves, because they forgot the all-important adage that, when something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

All-important adage #2: Nothing is free.

"People have to understand that if they want their electronics disposed in the right way, they have to pay for it," said Mr. Boring, 60, who started his recycling business in 2003.

The right way of doing business, he said, must include a certain fee that is assessed to the consumer. That fee is essential because the collector has to pay a smelter in the United States, Canada, Japan or some countries in Europe to properly shred the electronics.( June 2nd P-G)
Which leads me to believe that some research would have shown the people at the Humane Society that what EarthECycle was proposing was not plausible. Nixon essentially claimed that he could collect the materials and somehow make money off the recycling. But if the Humane Society had investigated the topic - either by contacting a group like BAN or my man Alan Boring - they would have found that the only way money could be generated from this collection would be by selling the materials, not recycling them.

So I’m putting this one on the Humane Society, and I can’t really feel too bad for them if they never get any money from Nixon and EarthECycle. At the same time, though, I probably should have looked into it a little bit more before I made my own donations.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Gutter: Don't rock the jukebox

I can admit it:

A lot of the items listed on Stuff White People Like apply to me. I guess that’s what makes that website so hilarious: it’s funny and true.

Case in point: this classic post from last March. As a proud owner of the first four seasons of The Wire (not the fifth season, though, because it’s not as good; if there’s another thing us white people are good at and like to do, it’s going out of our way to make distinctions among seasons of television shows), I can relate to almost every point made in the write-up. But while they do talk about how white people love the perceived authenticity of The Wire, they fail to follow through on that point to its effect:

Enthralled by the show’s authentic nature and presentation, white people believe that they have been truly exposed to any number of environments, cultures, and elements of society that, in reality, they’ve spent their entire lives hoping to avoid. But this exposure - or at least the idea of it - allows white people to think that they know something about these social subsets: drug dealers, dock workers, cops, etc.

So that’s why, when I read this story from the Post-Gazette, I feel like I’m somehow qualified to look deeper due to my many viewings of The Wire.

Both violent crime and property crime were down in Pittsburgh last year, mirroring a national trend, according to statistics released yesterday by the FBI.
And they have the numbers to prove it:

Nationwide, the FBI's preliminary Uniform Crime Report shows that violent crime -- which includes murder, aggravated assault, robbery and rape -- dropped 2.5 percent in 2008. Property crime -- such as burglary and motor vehicle theft -- fell 1.6 percent.

In Pittsburgh, violent crime fell 2.8 percent and property crime was down 9.4 percent.
Take that East St. Louis.

But wait, let’s not pop the anti-crime champagne just quite yet.

The city's homicide rate saw a sharp increase of 38 percent. There were 72 murders in Pittsburgh in 2008, up from 52 in 2007.
And actually, there were more than that.

By the end of the year, the city homicide squad had investigated 79 homicides, but the number counted by the FBI dropped to 72 after some were reclassified as justifiable, including three police-involved shootings and several defense killings.
But like I said, I watch The Wire, so I know how to gloss this information.

We must look no farther than fictional Baltimore Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin, commander of the Western District, who, after hearing the mandate from superiors that the felony crime rate had to see an immediate decrease lest Colvin and his fellow officers suffer the consequences, opined that some crimes could be written up as less than they are - aggravated assault reported as simple assault or disorderly conduct, rape reported as indecent assault - but great difficulty exists in the case of homicide.

As Bunny said, “How do you make a body disappear?” And that task grows considerably tougher when there are 79 lives taken by the hands of others in a city with a population of 300,000.

Because the practice of “juking the stats” - adjusting criminal statistical reporting to make it appear that crime is less than it truly is - is likely at work in every metropolitan police department, we can only really get a rough estimate on the matter of such violent crimes as aggravated assault, rape, and even robbery. But homicide is a different story. If someone’s murdered, there’s no other way to slice it, even if the death is later termed “justified.”

In a sense, murder is the only crime stat we can really trust, and isn’t it the most important one of all anyway? More than anything else, more than not having your car stolen and not having your house burned and not getting your ass whooped or your wallet snatched, you really, really don’t want to get killed. But in Pittsburgh, 38.5% more people suffered that fate in 2008 than in 2007.

By comparison, according to the FBI Preliminary Annual Uniform Crime Report for 2008, Pittsburgh had one of the highest jumps of any major city in the country with its 38.5% increase. Columbus - population: 751,887 - saw its murder count increase 38% from 2007 to 2008, with 109 homicides in 2008 and 79 in 2007. Jackson, Mississippi - population: 174,734 - climbed from 46 murders in 2007 to 63 in 2008, a 37% increase. Kansas City, Missouri (451,454) increased 27.8%; St. Louis (356,204) increased 21%; Tuscon (528,917) increased 32.7% (although even with 65 murders in 2008, the per capita rate was lower than Pittsburgh’s); Chicago (2,829,304) increased 15%; New York City increased 5%; and South Bend, Indiana, saw its murder numbers more than double in 2008, with 15 homicides as opposed to the 7 recorded in 2007. The increase was no doubt linked to Pitt’s four-overtime win at Notre Dame last fall.

But most major American cities saw a decrease in 2008. Detroit decreased 21.9%; New Orleans decreased 14.4%; Baltimore decreased 17%; Houston decreased 16.2%; Philadelphia decreased 15.6%; Milwaukee decreased 32.4%.

You might recall that this is what Carmen Robinson was talking about during her run for mayor. She always took the “most livable city” claims and the lower crime rates and asked us to look beyond, to look at what’s really happening. What’s really happening is that more people were murdered in this city last year than any year since 1993, when Pittsburgh was in the grips of New Jack City fever.

Last summer, when there seemed to be a new homicide in the paper everyday, I heard an interesting theory that I cannot back up or support or prove in any way, shape, or form, but I think it’s worth considering. The Post-Gazette article references “1993, when there were 83 killings amid a crack cocaine epidemic and intense gang rivalries.”

That’s a little more than 15 years ago. You’d have to think that such violence would have led to a lot of task forces and crackdowns and mass arrests, right? And, in my unqualified mind, it’s easy to imagine that gang-related crimes would carry a sentence of anywhere between 10 years and life. From there, it’s not hard to imagine an influx of prison releases, either from 10 or 15-year sentences or early release on longer terms, all happening around the same time. Old beefs die hard, I would presume, so you could have a confluence of events coming together in 2008, which might have resulted in the high murder rate.

Just something to consider. I’m sure local government would rather look at options like putting up cameras or opening curfew centers in the hopes that those devices will lead to better crime stats, even if they probably won’t prevent any murders.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Gutter: Who wants to get held down?

The highly-encouraged daily reading of The Radical Middle has an excellent post today on the topic of the sanctity of marriage. The whole topic of gay marriage - or at least the frequent proposals to legally demonize it - has always stuck in my crawl, and TRM has one of those classic “let’s have fun and point out how stupid this is” posts, so I recommend you check it out.

Fortunately for me, that segues into a post for me to make, since I seem to be thinking about same-sex marriage and the issues surrounding it quite a bit lately.

In fact, after last week’s primary, I haven’t really had anything to say, or at least nothing really worthy of being spread on this blog. But like I said, same-sex marriage has a sticking power with me for whatever reason, so here I am putting up a post.

First off, I think most reasonable people can see through the ridiculousness of notions such as “defending marriage” or “protecting the sanctity of marriage.” With a conservative estimate of somewhere around 40% of marriages ending in divorce, it’s difficult to place much value in the sanctity of the sacrament.

To a certain extent, those who are truly interested in defending marriage or protecting its sanctity would probably be well-served by crafting laws against infidelity, poor money management, differing opinions on child-rearing, household cleaning tendencies, and careers that require long stays away from home, because all of these factors have contributed to the degrading of marriage as a sacrament.

Of course, we hear that marriage doesn’t need to be protected (need protecting?) from divorce; it needs to be protected from the vile filth of man laying down with man. And we know that’s bad news because it says so in the Bible.

But there are plenty of things that the Bible says are bad news, and they’re not all constitutionally prohibited. In fact, of the traditional Christian ten commandments, only three are prohibited by law (don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness). And of the other seven commandments, two of the prohibited acts - have no other gods, don’t make for yourself an idol - are actually protected by the first amendment to the Constitution.

As far as I know, there aren’t any movements afoot to constitutionally prohibit working on the Sabbath or refusing to honor your mother and your father.

So why this issue? Why is same-sex marriage picked out and trumped as the worst threat to our nation? How does this always seem to end up on the tongues of grandstanders?

Well, I guess you could start with homophobia. There’s a lot of that in this country, and if you’re a politician looking for votes, you could do a lot worse than to play on the in-born (inbred?) fears of a largely-homophobic populace with the threat of a couple queers moving in next door and flaunting their gay-sex lifestyle under the grace of the law (not to mention the affront it would be to your own marriage, loveless and joyless as it may be).

But I think there’s more to it than just good old fashioned queer bashing. This is the question I’ve been tossing around the past few days, and the conclusion I keep coming to is this:

It’s oppression.

I mean, let’s face it: if you’re in power, who is left to kick around? You can’t go after the blacks anymore. And women were always good for some oppressing, but they’ve got the law behind them, too. So what’s a powerful person to do? The law is protecting all the traditional groups that suffer under the oppression of those in power.

Still got the gays. Always got the gays. And if you can’t physically abuse them, you can demonize them and demoralize them by the power of the law. Psychologically, you can continue to remind homosexuals that they are not on an even par by legally telling them that their love - and, by extension, their lives and their being - is not permissible.

So let’s call it what it is. It’s not a defense of marriage. It’s not about sanctity or sacrament. It’s not about the bond two people are trying to legally form, a bond that will no ill effect whatsoever on you or your life or your children, save for maybe contributing to a more tolerant and forgiving society.

It’s about oppression. It’s about those in power protecting and furthering their power through stomping on those below them.

“You can’t get married. Why? Because I said so. And by me controlling your life, I’m reaffirming and strengthening my own power.”

Because when you’re in power, you need to have somebody to hold down. And like I said, there’s nobody left but the gays.

Well, I guess there are always immigrants. But that’s just a given.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Gutter: At least David Johnson cares

The cliché says that you can judge a society by the way it treats its prisoners. By the same token, you can judge a city - or town or region - by the way its local television stations handle news.

In that regard, Pittsburgh’s interest in the election of its next mayor could be described as secondary, at best.

Of course, this isn’t news for anyone who has watched this city live in inertia since the 1970’s - or before - and in situations like this, new evidence of apathy can have just as much impact as the original evidence of apathy.

Anyway, we knew the voter turnout would be low for Tuesday’s primary. But the local news coverage of the election was so unbelievably disinterested that you almost have a hard time blaming the body politick for its lack of civic involvement (which was reportedly at 21%).

We’ll start with the positive.

Channel 11 did what was supposed to be done: a live broadcast on PCNC starting at 8 PM when the polls closed with live look-ins on the Ravenstahl, Dowd, and Robinson election night parties. The broadcast wasn’t without its shortcomings - referring to District 2 candidate Georgia Blotzer as “Georgia Blouser” both in a graphic and from the mouth of David Johnson - but the mere existence of live coverage at least implied that the election was relevant.

Then there was the 11 o’clock news. The primetime-iest of primetime news broadcasts, the top dog of local news, the main course for relevant information. The 11 o’clock news has a time-honored tradition as the pulse of what’s happening each day in your city or town or region. So on the night of an absolutely essential election, what led the local news broadcasts?

Some kinky sex and a closet-pooper who lost his car.

KDKA led with the sordid tale of a student and teacher from Carrick who possibly had sex with each other. For WTAE and WPXI, the most important news of the day was the woeful story of Najeh Davenport, the former Steeler running back whose car was stolen and totaled, which reinforces the old adage:

“If it bleeds (black and gold) it leads”

Except in this case, it used to bleed black and gold.

Just to reiterate: this was a story about FORMER Steeler running back Najeh Davenport. And WTAE and WPXI led with it.

WTAE did assure us all that at 11:15 they’d have a special report on the day’s election, thus buying themselves a quarter-hour before they had to talk about the primary.

WPXI made up for leading with the Davenport story by following it with a long segment of election coverage, including more field reports from all three election night parties.

KDKA went from the teacher-student sex story to an update on repairs to those notorious steps in Greenfield that led to the rape of an 11-year old a few weeks ago, while WTAE segued from Davenport into a story about a dog getting tasered and killed.

From the Greenfield steps, KDKA went into something that included the graphic “Car vs. Motorcycle” - which I think was about an accident - and then a story about a car crash on Route 28. Still no election talk.

After that, KDKA caught up with the other two stations with a report on Najeh Davenport and his Impala before giving an update on the light pole that crushed a woman at a bus stop in East Liberty. Then, finally, at 11:07, KDKA let us in on the fact that there was an election, with a good block of coverage.

WTAE really bought themselves some time with the “special report at 11:15.” I guess the first 15 minutes or so of a broadcast are probably the most-watched minutes, so WTAE was smart enough not to waste any of it with silly election coverage. Instead, they hit on Davenport, the tasered dog, a young boy who wandered away from school, the Carrick student-teacher sex, James Harrison’s White House refusal, a weather report, a very special story about Ryan Clark (including a very special one-on-one with Sally Wiggin), a sports report, and a shameless pimping of a special Penguins playoff t-shirt (the shirt says “Stixburgh” with an image of Marc-Andre Fleury).

After all of that, WTAE went to commercial before coming back with its “special report on the election,” the best part of that report being Bob Mayo’s interview with Luke Ravenstahl, parts of which I’ve already posted about.

And through it all, WPXI just kept plugging away with election coverage, even dedicating time to races other than mayor and examining the Georgia Blotzer slate card issue. By contrast, KDKA let us know that we could find out about the other races by going to their website.

So I’ll give some credit to David Johnson, personal favorite Darieth Chisholm, and WPXI/PCNC. At least in terms of coverage minutes, they made it seem like they were interested in this election.