Monday, February 28, 2011

Honeywell’s Storage Pond Shut-down Plan Is Completely Safe (According To Honeywell)

From the Feburary 2011 issue of Bazooka Magazine

I went to Honeywell’s community meeting on January 12th mainly because I thought it would be a good place to hear some gossip and maybe talk to some people about a possible story on the lockout. The actual reason of the meeting--Honeywell’s plan to close four storage ponds at the plant--didn’t seem like much of a story. The ponds (and all the toxic waste in them) are already there, so turning them into a solid mass and covering them up didn’t seem like too bad a plan. I think that’s the kind of reaction they were hoping for, because their definitions of “community,” “meeting,” and “Honeywell” differed quite a bit from my expectations.

For starters, everyone had to sign in as soon as they walked in the door (though unlike Mayor Paxton, Honeywell didn’t ask for an address). This might be mandated by the same IEPA (Illinois Environmental Protection Agency)/NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) regulations that required Honeywell to hold the meeting in the first place, but (especially with the lockout going on), there was kind of a Big Brother vibe that didn’t really scream “community” to me, especially with six Honeywell security guys hanging around. Unfortunately, it only occurred to me after I’d signed in that I should have said I was Hagbard Celine of the Erisian Liberation Front. The “Honeywell” part also seemed a bit incorrect, since there wasn’t a single Honeywell spokesperson there (unless you count the goon squad)--just four representatives from the companies contracted to do the sludge pool closing.

As far as the “meeting” part goes, that is a technically correct, because they didn’t say “presentation.” They had some big fancy posters and a Power Point presentation running when the doors opened, and everyone sat down and waited for them to start talking. After about 20 minutes, people started to wonder if they were going to say anything at all. One of the USW guys finally confirmed our doubts by announcing (as he stood right in the path of the one TV camera there) “Everybody can go home, this is all they’re going to do.” One of Honeywell’s contractor confirmed that this was the case and tried to defend this set-up, telling him that they’d be happy to answer questions “one-on-one.” Since the obvious implication was that Honeywell didn’t want people’s concerns to really be publicly aired, this didn’t win the company any points.

It wasn’t long before all four reps were surrounded by groups of people, most of them current or locked-out Honeywell employees asking some serious questions about the plan to close down the ponds. After a few minutes of this, the contractors huddled up and decided to actually answer questions from the attendees as a group. While this decision might have just been made to avoid facing an angry mob, the spokespeople at least deserve some credit for realizing that their plan for the meeting just wasn't going to cut it. Once this started, the “cover up the sludge” plan seemed less and less sound to me. I realize that a lot of the people there were USW folks who have an interest in making Honeywell look bad, but the impression I got was that most of the workers there were people who know what goes on inside the plant and have serious reservations about Honeywell’s plan to close the pond. So either a lot of steel workers might have a future in acting if they don’t go back to work, or they’re genuinely concerned about the potential damage this plan can cause, and any points scored for the union are just a bonus.

Here’s a rundown of the potential problems with Honeywell’s plan:

* One of the big issues that kept coming up is the uranium content of the ponds. According to Honeywell, the average is 200-300 parts per million, which is equivalent to normal background levels of radiation. Several of the workers at the meeting, however, told stories of regularly pulling up samples that were 1,000 or more parts per million, and question whether the samples used by Honeywell are representative. Many of the workers were more inclined to believe their own experience rather than Honeywell's reports, especially given some of the questions about the company's credibility that have been raised in recent months regarding accidents at the plant.
* Another reason many questioned why the ponds are being shut down is that one of the most dangerous chemicals in the sludge, Calcium Fluoride, is used in the conversion process--at one point Honeywell management told employees that the ponds contained $1 million worth of raw materials that could be recovered and used. While this doesn’t get rid of all the toxic chemicals, it at least means a chunk of them will be shipped off to a nuclear plant somewhere and become someone else’s problem. The general consensus at the meeting seemed to be that closing down the ponds was the cheaper solution than recovering the useful materials or having the ponds shipped to a toxic waste dump (as they did with another pond several years ago).
* While a “solidify and cover” plan like this has been used in similar applications, the uniqueness of the Honeywell plant (and the fact that the chemicals in the ponds are known to erode concrete in the plant, and even the boats used on the ponds) makes some people wonder if it will work with this particular cocktail of chemicals. Honeywell plans to monitor the local water supply once the project is complete, but has no contingency plans for what to do if the water (and most likely the Ohio River shortly thereafter) turns up contaminated. Since Honeywell workers have not been allowed to drink the water in the plant for 2 years as it is, this lack of a backup plan doesn’t really inspire confidence. As one attendee of the meeting put it, “The contingency plan for something that’s going to be around for 4.5 billion years should explore all possibilities.”
* The last major problem concerns the liner that’s currently under the ponds. Its condition is unknown, but given that there have been leaks in the past, most of the workers aren’t confident that it will survive the process of mixing the solidifying agent into the ponds. The Honeywell contractors repeatedly pointed out that the liner didn’t even count as far as the EPA was concerned. The problem, of course, is that the EPA discounting of the liner only matters once the sludge is solidified. While it’s still a liquid, the liner is all that keeps the stuff from leaking out. The workers who asked about the liner were worried about what would happen if the liner breaks when the weight of the solidifying agent is added in but before everything settles into a solid mass. The spokespeople consistently failed to address this concern, going back to the EPA’s refusal to recognize the liner once the process was completed. This might have been an honest misunderstanding, but I have my doubts.

So, if you’re worried about this, what can you do? Unfortunately, not a lot. The 60-day public comment period ended on January 31. Even if you would have commented, your comments would not have necessarily influence the IEPA or NRC’s decision. In fact, from what I can gather, public comments are only entered into the official record if there’s a public hearing, and that only happens if there is “significant public comment.” Even comments from a hearing don’t necessarily affect the final decision (though they can result in stiffer penalties if something goes wrong later on)--it’s all up to the regulators, and that might be the most troubling aspect of the whole process. Of the four Honeywell contractors at the meeting, one was former IEPA regulator and I got the strong impression that another used to work for the NRC. If the revolving door between regulators and the people they’re regulating doesn’t seem like a problem, you might want to check out some news stories from the Gulf of Mexico and Wall Street from the last couple of years.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Bucky Awards

From the current issue of Bazooka Magazine.

It’s awards season, and there’s really no reason why people with informed opinions and credentials should have all the fun. Nominees for each category were selected by a panel of me and winners were decided by a vote of eligible members of the Manitoba Academy (also me). Where appropriate, I have provided commentary to further explain the award and/or decision.

Books & Comics
Literary Event of the Year: The release of Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1 by Mark Twain
How often does a guy who’s been dead for a century release a new book?

Book of the Year: Last Words: A Memoir by George Carlin and Tony Hendra
This books was actually released in November of 2009, but in the words of Carlin himself, “these are my rules, I make ‘em up.”

Best Short Story Collection: Who Fears The Devil?(Planet Stories) by Manley Wade Wellman, collected by Paizo Publishing
A collection of stories about John the Balladeer, an Appalachian troubadour who fights evil with his silver-stringed guitar. It’s like a Shack Shakers album in book form.

Most Inexplicable Literary Phenomenon: Steig Larsson’s The Girl Who Did Things series
I’ll admit I’ve only seen the movies, but I just don’t get it. I could see an argument that the girl of the title is a strong female character, but all her strength is rooted in victimhood, Swedish Hero Man ultimately saves her every time, and I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that she may in fact just be spank material for some dude named Steig. Also, I hear the writing’s pretty bad.

Most Still Alive Author: Dave Barry
Because I just realized that with the exception of Hendra, every author I’ve mentioned so far is dead.

Best New Comic: The Sixth Gun by Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt
Awarded to the creative team with the most double consonants in their names.

Most Disappointing Character Death: Rupert Giles in Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season Eight
If you’re going to kill a character whose been around since the beginning of the TV series, you really should make it count (and get a better artist to draw it).

Comic Book Character With Too Fucking Many Titles: Batman
Seriously, I can’t afford all this shit.

Worst Mini-Series of the Year: The Rise of Arsenal by J.T. Krul
It’s very likely that The Rise of Arsenal is, in fact, the worst comic mini-series ever. After his daughter is killed in a super-villain-caused disaster, Roy Harper (formerly Green Arrow’s heroin addict sidekick, Speedy, who at different times has also been known as Arsenal and Red Arrow), understandably loses his shit and starts doing a new drug called “China cat.” Some authors would have turned this into a poignant story of loss and redemption, but not J.T. Krul. In no time, Krul has Roy remembering the good ol’ days of drug use and gang rape with the ghost of his former dealer, and by issue 3 (arguably the worst comic ever written), Roy has his ex (and dead kid’s mother) tied up and is trying to have sex with her, but can’t get it up. So he goes out and beats up some homeless guys in order to protect a dead cat (that he thinks is his daughter). Then Batman shows up and beats the shit out of him while telling him, After-School Special style, “I’m your friend!” I’m sure I read beyond that, but at this point I’ve blocked it out. This mini-series managed to take a character who for decades has been merely uninteresting and make him unlikable and creepy.

Worst Ongoing Comic Series of the Year: Green Arrow by J.T. Krul
Fucking J.T. Krul. After he made us hate Arsenal, he was allowed to take on the re-launch of Green Arrow. The premise: well, Green Arrow’s sort of like Robin Hood, so he should be an outlaw in a forest. So, since a huge chunk of Star City has just been destroyed (in the catastrophe that killed Roy Harper's daughter and/or cat), why not have a magical forest spring up there, banish Green Arrow from Star City, and have him live in the forest? I’ll tell you why not, J.T. Because it’s fucking retarded. Green Arrow is my favorite super-hero, but I secretly hope for this title to be canceled.

Politics & Journalism
Reporter of the Year: Matt Taibbi (Rolling Stone)
For making Wall Street and banking schemes that were incomprehensible by design understandable to normal humans, and doing it in an entertaining way.

Best Political Blog: You Are Dumb (
For calling out stupid people for being stupid.

Best Kentucky Blogger: Joe Sonka of Barefoot & Progressive (
For asking whether there will be dinosaurs on the ark.

Story of the Year: Jon Ronson’s interview with the Insane Clown Posse, in which they reveal that they are, and have always been, evangelical Christians.
Because a giraffe is a fucking miracle.

Stupidest Political Trend: The Left claiming that their rhetoric is just as hateful and violent as the Right’s.
Seriously. Quit it.

Funniest Political Story: Aqua Buddha
Remember, it’s funnier to the tune of Kool & The Gang’s “Jungle Boogie.”

Southern Hospitality Award: The City of Mayfield
For their acceptance of the Somali Muslims.

Gadsden Flag Award: Rand Paul
For protecting small business owners from the kind of government tyranny that would require them to serve black people.

Biggest Disappointment: The Mid-term Elections/The Obama Presidency (tie)
These are really two sides of the same coin, both proving that most Americans are stupid enough to believe that there’s a difference between the political parties. The truth is we’ve got one party: The Corporate Interest Party, which politically is somewhere to the right of nearly every single one of the first 39 Presidents. We need some variety. Next time around, lets elect some old school Democrats, old school Republicans, true Progressives, principled Libertarians, Environmental Nutjobs, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswogglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass-kickers, shit-kickers and METHODISTS!

Best Movie: True Grit

Best Use Of Gratuitous Violence In A Motion Picture: Machete

Triumph of the Year: The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
Those of us who have experienced the heartbreak of watching Lost In La Mancha were sure that Heath Ledger’s death would make this another Gilliam movie that never saw the light of day.

Tragedy of the Year: News that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was once again on hold.
Seriously, why the hell won’t somebody just give Gilliam a big pile of money? Also, the film rights to Good Omens.

Worst Movie News: That they’re making a Buffy The Vampire Slayer movie without Joss Whedon.

Hudson Hawk Award: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The Universe
The Hudson Hawk Award goes to the most awesome move of the year that most people just didn’t get.

What You See Is What You Get Award: Hot Tub Time Machine

Most Wasted Potential: The Expendables

Worst Casting Decision: Giving Ali Shawkat a role with almost no lines. (Runaways, which also totally dissed Lita Ford).

Most Gratuitously Ironic Ending In An Otherwise Very Good Movie: A Single Man

Worst Movie of the Year: Faster

Most Overdue Award: Jeff Bridges’ Oscar for Crazy Heart.

Album of the Year: AgriDustrial, The Legendary Shack Shakers

Song of the Year: “Hoboes Are My Heroes” by The Legendary Shack Shakers
While the song is, in fact, great, the real reason the Shack Shakers get this award is for their early recognition of the fact that 2011 will be the Year of the Hobo. Hobos are going to be the new zombies, folks. Get ready for it.

Local Band of the Year: Uncle Skunkle & The Scarecrow Family Band
Long-time title-holders The Union Suit were edged out this year by Skunkle, in part because these guys played so damn many shows--hall shows, house parties, bar mitzvahs--Hell, if you didn’t lock your door there was a good chance you’d come home to find them setting up instruments in your living room. Also, I’m pretty sure they stole some of Trent Summar’s Hank Flamingo-era outfits, which has to count for something.

Celebrity Who Turned Out To Be Just Who We Always Hoped He Was: Bill Murray
As revealed in Dan Fierman’s GQ interview. The Daniel Clowes art was also a nice touch.

Most Talked About Geek Television Event: AMC’s The Walking Dead
Fucking Kirkman.

Meme of the Year: The “Bed Intruder Song” by Antoine Dodson & Autotune The News

T-Shirt of the Year: Topless Robot’s shirt featuring Dr. Doom riding a Unicorn

Role-Playing Game of the Year: American Artifacts (Hex Games)
There were a lot of worthy nominees in this category: Sex, Lies, & Ultraspies (Hex Games), Mars & Venus At War (Hex Games), Fratboys Vs. (Hex Games), and many others(mostly not Hex Games), but American Artifacts wins the prize.

Winner of ComicCon: Helen Miran, for her Harvey Pekar shirt.