Archive for May, 2009

Monopoly Utilities

May 13, 2009

Electric Company Water Works

Power grids and water supplies are important aspects of the nation’s infrastructure. Along with roads, sewers, and telecommunications, they help provide the necessary services and facilities for a society to function. Unfortunately for Bristolians, unlike these other elements of our infrastructure, which are publicly owned or allow for private competition, we have single entities supplying our electricity and water — National Grid and The Bristol County Water Authority — that have both become monopolies.

Advance token to the nearest utility

Rhode Island is in an ideal position to help lead the country in a green energy revolution. We have the wind (thanks to our beautiful coastlines). We have the people to fill the jobs (thanks to our ugly unemployment numbers). And, at the local level, we even have the political will (thanks to our many passionate community activists). But there’s still one thing standing in the way: monopoly money.

With their stranglehold on the market, National Grid has plenty of dough to lobby the state’s Public Utilities Commission to do their bidding. As a result, they have been successful in setting the buyback rate of excess energy from wind turbines at only 3 cents per KW, a full 7 cents less than the reimbursments of other renewable sources. They were also able to reinterpret the word “account” in legislation on how to credit these buybacks on a turbine owner’s electric bills. Rather than applying credit to all of the accounts under the owner’s name (a.k.a. “virtual net metering”), which is actually what lawmakers intended, buybacks can be credited to no more than five accounts. Considering the owners of the state’s only two existing turbines, Portsmouth Abbey and the Town of Portsmouth, each have dozens of National Grid accounts, this narrow interpretation is a huge blow and could very well discourage other groups from considering wind power.

However, as obstructive as National Grid is to regional progress, the Bristol County Water Authority (BCWA) may be worse.  The steadily increasing water bills over the years have likely met with disgust from residents, who use the least amount of water per capita in RI yet now pay the highest rates in the state, but that disgust has certainly not been accompanied by improved services. An aging pipeline system and an insufficient number of water towers, most of which are rotting into rusty relics, do little to suggest otherwise.

So where’s all this money going? Well, one thing’s for sure, a good chunk of it is going to the Authority’s employees and corporate officers. Yes, that’s right, despite calling itself a “public agency” and being listed alongside the numerous volunteer boards on the Town of Bristol’s website, the BCWA is run more like a private business than a public commission. It’s only natural then that their officers would want to do whatever they can to maximize profits — even if it means inadequately testing our drinking water for contaminants.

In March of 2008, the BCWA was part of a nation-wide investigative study released by the Associated Press that examined the types of drugs found in U.S. water supplies. And the results were shocking: Half of the water utilities in the report (including the BCWA) do not test for pharmaceuticals, while those that do found trace amounts of medications like anti-epileptics, sex hormones, mood stabilizers, antibiotics and steroids — worrying scientists about the long-term health and environmental effects on the millions of people who inadvertently consume such chemicals each and every day.

But the BCWA isn’t worried. Not about “meaningless” issues like water quality at least. No, their sole concern of late seems to be on growing their monopoly and trampling anyone who dares get in the way. In February of this year, board member John Saviano was ousted for speaking out against the latest pricy labor contract approved by the BCWA, which of course will inevitably lead to another rate hike. While nobody should lose much sleep over someone who helped oversee the Authority during the past twenty years, his removal should be viewed as a measure of the lengths a monopoly will go to maintain its dominance.

Community Chest

The Bristol Wind Power group is pushing for the idea of a consortium of East Bay towns to build a series of turbines, which will pay for most, if not all, of the municipal electricity use in the area. But this plan won’t go far without passage of the virtual net metering provision. Find your state reps and urge them to support H5907.

Water privatization, meanwhile, is a growing trend which stretches far beyond county lines. Watch the Democracy Now! interview with water rights activist Maude Barlow and learn more about the global movement to turn our water supplies into corporate commodities.

Do not pass GO

The best way to resolve problems with natural monopolies is to make them public. Bristol must take back its rights to energy and water from the greedy hands of National Grid and the Bristol County Water Authority even if that means invoking eminent domain on our power lines and pipelines. It’s high time we tell Rich Uncle Pennybags to quit playing games with our infrastructure.

Movie Review: Sir! No Sir!

May 11, 2009

Sir! No Sir!

Sir! No Sir! tells the story of the GI movement to end the Vietnam War. I found this documentary fascinating for a number of reasons:

  • I realized that, of all the anti-war protestors of the era, those in the military were probably the most influential.
  • I was amazed at how little I had previously known about the GI movement against the war, which according to the film, is due to a bit of revisionist history.
  • Ironically U.S. soldiers do not have many rights, including that of free speech. Someone has to explain to me how this is constitutional.
  • The urban legend that returning veterans were unwelcome and, in some cases, spit on by peace activists was debunked. Another revisionist history fun fact, perhaps?
  • Unlike a lot of movies about this turbulent period in American history, it remained focused on the larger issues of war and peace and didn’t get lost in the comparatively irrelevant “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” experience.

With all that said, the most important thing I took away from Sir! No Sir! was how it could be used as a blueprint for today’s soldiers. Hopefully they will watch it and be inspired to action, because that may be the only way the wars on terror can come to an end.

Leaders Of The New School?

May 9, 2009

Once again, the Bristol Warren school committee is employing disaster politics to try and steer their agendas past the electorate. They are claiming a decision must be made immediately to alleviate yet another pre-fabricated problem looming on the horizon, but quick decisions are exactly what have led us to this latest “dire” situation in which we find ourselves.

In 2002, the committee believed we were going to have a population explosion so we needed to build additions to our schools. It turned out this prediction, coincidentally made by the same company (The Mount Vernon Group) who was also hired to do the renovation work, was completely inaccurate. Last year, the school board then realized that in fact the population was declining so we needed to close two more schools to go along with the previously abandoned Walley School.  Now this year they again claim a huge population boom is coming so we need to build a school and move more students into Warren. Only a dog chasing its own tail has as much dizzying logic!

There must be a hidden agenda within our school committee and possibly town council or else this is utter incompetence. Convincing townspeople to build new schools and ship our kids off to Warren evidently proved too daunting for officials to take head on. So they have resorted to scare tactics which, by their narrow measure of success (i.e. pushing their agendas through at any cost), have been effective. In closing down a total of three schools they have guaranteed overcrowding, leaving me to wonder: Was a huge addition added to Hugh Cole because the intention all along was to close the Town Common schools and bus our elementary students to Warren?

Unfortunately, what the members of the school committee fail to recognize is that these bull-headed ways are catching up to them. We are lucky to live in a town whose citizens are so engaged, involved and willing to help. The majority supports our public education system but when their voices are continually silenced and such subversive strategies are implemented, the goodwill quickly turns to angst. It is only a matter of time before more Bristol residents will reach the same conclusion as I have – that the end does not always justify the means. An open, transparent government is far more important than any set of policies, no matter how well intentioned those policies might seem.

While the notion of improving the educational resources for our students is noble, the hasty and questionable approaches taken by the committee have already had a negative impact. Superintendent Ed Mara and several concerned parents pleaded with the committee and town council to leave Reynolds and Byfield open, and to not be so impulsive in their decision making. But they refused, were quick to make a decision and it has proven to be a bad one. As a result, the successful Arts Magnet program was thrown away and the students were shuffled around. In addition, while some members of the school committee claim to embrace the idea of neighborhood schools, they are willing to send Bristol students into Warren, ignoring the potential ramifications such an upheaval will have on young children and on a town whose goal it is to remain lively and vibrant. Still others on the committee, instead of paying a significant amount of money to update the Town Common schools — many features in Byfield and Reynolds are original to the buildings and understandably deteriorating — would rather pay significantly more money and ruin what little open space we still have left in Bristol to build something new.

We do not need to bus Bristol students to Warren and we do not need a new school. And we especially do not need anymore disaster politics. What we need is renewed leadership, proper planning and most importantly a transparent government. We must reopen Reynolds and Byfield and possibly even Walley, and actually take care of them. These are historic buildings that should be used for their intended purpose. If Colt school with its marble façade and intricate stained glass window could be beautifully renovated then it is completely possible and necessary to treat our other educational treasures with the same care.

Citizens of Bristol, I implore you to speak out against bussing our students to Warren and building a new school (listed in the town council meeting minutes for May 13 as item K2).  Demand that our schools be reopened and properly maintained.

The Fall Of Troy

May 9, 2009

In 1991, Troy Anthony Davis was sentenced to death for the murder of an off-duty police officer in a Burger King parking lot on August 19, 1989. Today, almost two decades later, Davis still sits on Georgia’s death row — even though the case against him, which wasn’t very strong to begin with, has all but crumbled.

Not only was there no physical evidence or murder weapon tying Davis to the crime, but, since the trial, seven of the nine eyewitnesses have recanted or contradicted their testimony, and one of the remaining witnesses has been implicated by nine others as the actual murderer! Yet, instead of being released or given a new trial, Troy remains in prison awaiting execution while running out of appeals… and time.

How has this miscarriage of justice been allowed to continue, one might ask? Here’s a hint:

I Am Troy Davis

(Troy Davis is African-American.)

The notion that we suddenly live in a post-racial society, simply because the country elected its first black president, is a complete whitewash. But whether white America is so far removed from the plight of minorities that we fail to recognize it, or we pretend the rise of Obama has somehow appeased centuries of inequities (just so we can continue reaping the benefits of those very inequities), doesn’t really matter. Because the truth is that, on top of all the other socio-economic disadvantages that historically come with being anything but Caucasian, we can now add target of the burgeoning corporate prison system to the list.

Fortunately this sort of stuff only happens in the Deep South though, right? Think again.

Last August, Hiu Lui “Jason” Ng, a 34 year-old Chinese immigrant, died in the Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls, RI, but it wasn’t by lethal injection, electrocution, hanging, firing squad, guillotine, or crucifixion. Those would have been much too quick for the likes of an illegal who (gasp) got caught applying for a green card! Nope, the capital punishment Mr. Ng received was a slow and excruciating cancer:

  1. Of the liver.
  2. And of the lungs.
  3. And of the bones.
  4. Oh and he had a fractured spine too, but who’s counting?

See, despite complaining for months of severe pain while in custody, Ng was refused medical treatment by immigration officials who told him to stop faking his illness. I wonder if they think he’s faking his death now too.

Sadly, the increasingly disproportionate number of minorities in prisons, the harsh crackdown on illegal immigration, and even the detainee torture scandals of the Bush Wars are all symptoms of a booming private prison industry, one that is profiting from taxpayer dollars to house so-called criminals, who in many cases are guilty of charges that might not equate to such stiff penalties if they were more white, more American, or more holy.

Of course, it’s not like we’re a bunch of closet Klansmen. While the country isn’t yet post-racial as a whole, many of us have welcomed our melting pot of diversity. However, as long as segments of the population remain disenfranchised and perceived as vulnerable by those looking to exploit others for financial gain, then places like Wyatt will continue to exist and good people like Jason Ng and Troy Davis will continue to suffer.

Davis, a young guy hanging out with his friends who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, could just as easily have been me in my early 20’s. Ng, a husband and father with a background in computers, was at the same stage of his life as I am today. My heart goes out to them because, in a sense, I am them. We all are.

Indeed, if only we lived in a post-racial America, we would prevent the tragedies that befell these men from ever occurring again…

I Am Troy Davis

by embracing our common humanity.

Green Poop

May 3, 2009

Green For All

Before Quinn arrived we had this wonderful idea that we would use cloth diapers.  This sounded perfect for our environmentally concious lifestyle.  I researched all of the options and decided only 100% organic cotton was worthy of touching our baby’s bum.  I bought about 30 diapers from and thought I’d be all set until she was potty trained. These top of the line diapers were the requisite 100% organic cotton and came in three colors: yellow, blue and natural. Each has a snap-in liner and adjustable snaps that would keep Quinn comfortable throughout her diaper years. I soon learned that I would also need some sort of outer covering as these diapers had no waterproof layer. Trying to be all natural we decided on 100% wool diaper covers.

In reality the diapering didn’t go as smoothly as we had hoped.  The diapers with wool covering were so thick they kept poor little Quinn from moving around.  When other 4 month olds were rolling around she was stuck laying on her back (or stomach if it was “tummy time”).  I quickly decided we were doing her a disservice and investigated other diapering options.  We really didn’t want to succumb to disposables and add pounds of trash to the land fill.  So search and search we did.

Soon we discovered gdiapers.  These diapers are flushable, compostable and absolutely wonderful.  They are comprised of an outer cloth layer, a snap-in plastic-y layer and then an insertable flushable/compostable pad.  We faithfully flushed the poop pads and composted the pee pads.  The only downside of these diapers was the cost of having to continually purchase the inserts.  But for what it made up for in Quinn’s comfort (and her ability to move) and ease of use  it was well worth it.  On the odd day that all of the covers were in the laundry we would often improvise and use one of the Ecobaby cotton diapers with the the gdiaper plastic-y layer and insert. We used these until she was about 2 years old and showing signs of potty interest.

Along the way we tried out a few other kinds of diapers too.  I was really curious about the all-in-one  (aio) style. www.nickisdiapers had a great selection. After using the the snap style from ecobaby I decided to try the velcro options (great choice as it can be closed at any increment).  I bought 4 different kinds: Imse Vimse organic cotton, Bum Genius 3.0, Bumkins (in super cute Dr. Suess One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish fabric) and Monkey Doodlez.

The Bum Genius 3.0 were by far my favorite. The ease of use was amazing and she stayed dry with no leaks or poopy blowouts.  They were a nice trim size so clothes fit over them very well.  Plus, they cleaned up beautifully with little to no staining.  If I were to do it all again I would buy these diapers or the gdiapers regardless of the fact that they’re not organic.  I really loved that they weren’t bulky. Poor Quinn, in addition to being immobilized by the cotton diaper and wool covering she looked like a huge sausage because they were so incredibly bulky!

Here’s the lowdown on the other three all-in-one diapers. The Imse Vimse were terrific in that she never leaked and that it was organic cotton. The downside was that they were quite bulky. The Bumkins were similar in bulkiness but not quite 100% leakproof. I have little good to say about Monkey Doodlez other than the very trim size.  But I think the size was part of the problem…they were so small that on occasion she would leak immediately.  Needless to say I tried to use this last kind as a last resort when all others were in the wash.

You might wonder what we used for wipes if we were this wacky over diapers.  Choosing wipes was actually quite easy.  I bought about 24 white wash clothes and a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s organic liquid castile soap.  I mixed the soap with water and put it in a small spray bottle.   Since Quinn was born we’ve been using these items as wipes.  They have worked really well and I plan on making the cloths in to rags once Quinn is completely potty trained.

No, my house doesn’t smell like poo and I don’t soak diapers or wipes.  Quinn’s diaper pail is a large stainless steel trash can with a flip up lid lined with an old pillowcase.  When the case gets full I just take it out, empty it all in to the washing machine, wash once in cold water and then once in hot water.  After that it all goes in the drier (other than the plastic-y gdiaper liner).

For us it was an easy decision…5000 disposable diapers added to the landfill or use cloth diapers.  We’ve been very happy with our choice even on those mornings when we’re scraping poop off the cloth and in to the toilet.