Uranium Barter Revealed as USEC Bailout Scam
In the Cold War satire The Mouse that Roared—a 1955 novel also titled The Wrath of Grapes and a 1959 film starring Peter Sellers—the potentates of the Duchy of Grand Fenwick (all played by Sellers) realize that their best chance to avert economic collapse would be to declare war on the U.S., so to become a recipient of lavish U.S. aid to the vanquished. By a series of plot twists involving the holding of Q-Bomb technology for ransom, Grand Fenwick inadvertently wins the war, but is saved by American largesse anyway, not to mention government capitulation to nuclear extortion.
USEC Inc., is a so-called nuclear company, the real product of which is perpetual threatened bankruptcy. It has remained afloat thanks to periodic huge infusions of federal assistance, despite an attitude of overt belligerence toward its governmental patrons. The Financial Times of London called USEC "the trust fund baby of the nuclear industry," and that was in 2006, before its wresting of bailouts became a racket. USEC seems to have adopted The Mouse that Roared as its corporate strategy bible.
Twice in the past three years, USEC has demanded rather than ask for a $2 billion loan guarantee from the Department of Energy (DOE), set its own "deadlines" for award of the federal assistance, been denied for said loan guarantee as unqualified, lashed out at the Obama Administration for the temerity of due diligence and then "negotiated" for lavish material aid as compensation for its troubles. Both times, in 2009 and 2011, DOE capitulated to USEC's extortion, offering aid packages worth up to $595 million, $60 million more than was lost to the U.S. Treasury from the actual award of a loan guarantee to Solyndra.
Now, documents released by DOE under the Freedom of Information Act and made publicly available for the first time here reveal that claimed investments in viable centrifuge technology and nuclear cleanup were actually designed as nothing more than USEC bailout packages.
Unlike the Solyndra debacle, which was packaged as what it was, a public investment gone sour, the USEC bailouts, perpetrated by a small group of highly-placed federal officials with discretionary control of agency funds and government material stockpiles, have constituted a fraud on Congress and the American people. Central to this group was DOE's Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management, Ines Triay, who left the government suddenly last summer in a manner that has sparked intrigue.
With shades of the Reagan Administration's Iran-Contra Affair, let's call this one the Uranium-Triay Affair. Iran-Contra, which broke exactly a quarter century ago, centered on an inter-agency rogue outfit, with involvement of the White House and the U.S. Department of Defense, that planned to "use residuals" from the black-market sale of arms to Iran to fund the Contra guerillas battling the elected government of Nicaragua. Both the arming of Iran and support of the Contras violated the laws of the U.S.
The Uranium-Triay Affair centers on an inter-agency rogue outfit, with involvement of the White House and the U.S. Department of Energy, that has used the barter of government uranium stockpiles to fund politically-motivated programs to bail out USEC, in contravention of various U.S. laws.
By giving concessions like no-bid contracts to USEC, along with stockpiled uranium, which USEC then sells at a profit, DOE has met USEC's needs for emergency float funds, without the time-consuming hindrances of congressional appropriations, budgetary accountability or regulatory oversight.
It's in the sense of lacking those niceties of democracy that the uranium barter operation can be considered rogue. As in the Iran-Contra case, "national security" served as a false shield to keep illegal operations covert, with minimal or fraudulent disclosure to Congress and the public.
In September, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report finding this arrangement illegal and unconstitutional. According to GAO's summary:
DOE’s uranium transactions with USEC were sales authorized by the USEC Privatization Act, but they did not comply with federal fiscal law.... By not depositing an amount equal to the value of the uranium into the Treasury, DOE has inappropriately circumvented the power of the purse granted to Congress under the Constitution.
DOE's response to GAO, provided in an appendix to the report, has so far quashed investigation and law enforcement by arguing, essentially, that the funded purposes were independently authorized by Congress. Even if the funding mechanism represented a shortcut, according to DOE, it was a shortcut commonly employed by federal agencies in order to make ends meat. If arming Iran and supporting the Contras had been legal and worthy aims, in other words, then the rogue maneuvers and black-market accounting used to accomplish them would hardly have made for a scandal.
The legality and worthiness of the aims of the uranium barter, however, are now called into question by a previously non-public memo to Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, sent by then-Assistant Secretary Ines Triay. (The memo is undated but based on references in the text, it had to be issued between Aug. 4 and Aug. 12 of 2009.)
The memo reveals that the real purposes of the uranium barter were not the advertised ones of accelerating cleanup at the Superfund site near Piketon, Ohio. Rather, the purpose was to assist USEC with its proprietary personnel management problems, in the wake of DOE's denial of a $2 billion loan guarantee. The memo lists its first two "assumptions" as:
USEC could begin to lay off the expected 300-400 workers within the next month; those workers typically have a broad experience in working in the nuclear industry.
The only significant work the Department has at Portsmouth [Piketon] is the current EM [Environmental Management] work involving deactivation/shutdown and environmental cleanup of the diffusion plant and the planned decontamination and decommissioning (D&D) of the facilities, including the environmental cleanup of the site.
Triay went on to argue that this was the only "short-term" work for which the uranium could be bartered. In other words, USEC had to be given an infusion of resources immediately, and so-called cleanup was the only way to do it, even though the managerial and regulatory apparatus for the cleanup work was not in place.
This shifting of funds from one congressionally-mandated purpose to another purpose is illegal under the Antideficiency Act. DOE was acting as if it still is responsible for personnel management decisions at the Piketon site, but the point of the USEC Privatization Act had been to take that management out of the hands of government, precisely so that local politics and employment considerations would not adversely impact national interests at the two gaseous diffusion sites in Ohio and Kentucky.
The Triay memo acknowledges that the decision to deny a loan guarantee for construction of a new enrichment plant at Piketon was conveyed to USEC on July 27, 2009, and a decision to accelerate cleanup at the neighboring site of the old enrichment plant at Piketon was made on July 28, one day later.
While the goal of accelerating cleanup at a Superfund site sounds admirable, one day was hardly enough time to make that work "shovel-ready," especially given the complex procedural requirements of CERCLA, the statute governing Superfund cleanup. Indeed, the CERCLA decision-making process at Piketon is only getting in gear now at the close of 2011.
Workers reassigned or hired-on in 2009 wound up sitting idle on paid time, waiting for the necessary technical and regulatory assessments, while huge contract fees for the make-work employment accrued to USEC. Perhaps worst of all, those expenses may be counted toward the total Piketon cleanup budget, meaning that fewer funds will be available to complete the cleanup when work is most needed years from now.
Pike is indeed the county with Ohio's highest unemployment rate. But employing large numbers of temporary workers in a spurt followed by a dearth of jobs because no careful cleanup strategy is employed is hardly good for the region's revitalization. To date there has been no public assessment or accounting for USEC's slap-dash cleanup work, for fear that it would damage USEC's remaining if vanishing chances to secure a $2 billion loan guarantee.
Indeed the logic of the Triay memo was that a one or two-year acceleration of the Piketon cleanup would coincide perfectly with the coerced extension of time for review of USEC's loan guarantee application. About four hundred workers from USEC's on-again off-again centrifuge project could be retained locally, even if there was little immediate cleanup work to be done, so that they'd be ready to transfer back to the construction project, when the loan guarantee was obtained, as Triay was sure it would be.
The problem with that logic was that USEC's centrifuge project had been an empty shell all along, a vehicle for obtaining more lucrative contract service work from DOE, not an end in itself. After two more years elapsed, USEC was, by intention, no closer to demonstrating the commercial viability of its centrifuges than it had been in 2009, and certainly the company is much worse off financially. Thus, Ines Triay was helping USEC retain employees on payroll at government expense for a re-transfer that never was a possibility.
Conflicts of Interest
In addition, Triay's memo completely contradicted the earlier decision by the DOE General Counsel barring USEC from bidding on the general cleanup contract at Piketon, due to conflict of interest. While the reasoning behind the order was not released to the public, it may be inferred that USEC, as purveyor of a new enrichment plant project at the site and as a sponsor of other nuclear projects, had demonstrated interests against those of cleanup—that is, in biasing future site development toward continued nuclear use, for example by intentionally failing to remove contamination. Though it's federal land, USEC has long regarded Piketon as its own proprietary site to do with as it pleases: the Sovereign Grand Duchy of USEC in Ohio.
The general cleanup contract was subsequently given to Fluor Corporation, but the changeover from USEC to Fluor, originally scheduled for March, 2011, was extended at least through September, in yet another apparent effort to offer contract work that would keep USEC from going belly-up.
In 2009, and again in October of 2011, the DOE Loan Programs Office determined that USEC was far from meeting the performance and risk requirements of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and its Title XVII loan guarantee regulations. A Solyndra-like loan default was thus avoided. But a group of high-level DOE and White House officials arranged to substitute two compensatory packages for USEC, funded extra-legally, principally through the uranium barter.
In short, the Loan Programs Office, with its unappreciated review requirements, turned down USEC flat, actually requesting that USEC withdraw its application in July of 2009. Immediately, an ad-hoc bipartisan group of officials scurried to ensure that USEC did not sink, even though USEC is a private company, the federal supports for which supposedly had been cut by statute in 1996—the USEC Privatization Act.
That group, in addition to Ines Triay, included Chu's Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman, formerly of the high-powered Scowcroft Group; Obama energy adviser and Special Assistant to the President in the White House, Joseph Aldy; and Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Dennis Spurgeon, who had come to DOE during the G.W. Bush Administration after serving as Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of USEC, the company being extraordinarily assisted.
Of that group, only Poneman remains at his post, though a letter to the White House from 2008 Obama campaign adviser Dan Carol, reported by Politico on Nov. 11 called for his ouster as early as 2009: "At a minimum, Poneman and Kelly need to leave" as they are "scaring away the talent we need," wrote Carol. The leak of this letter now, by an anonymous government source, bodes ill for Mr. Poneman.
Spurgeon was removed by President Obama at the start of 2010. Aldy left the Obama White House later in 2010, after serving for only one year.
In September of 2010, Poneman and Triay visited Piketon for a gala event with state and local politicians, in tents outside the black-glass USEC office building. Ines Triay resigned her post over the July 4, 2011, holiday, citing the proverbial "family reasons," but the timing of her unexpected departure coincided with DOE's receipt of the scathing draft GAO report, which declared her uranium barter arrangement illegal.
Apparently, Poneman and Triay worked together as a regular nuclear disaster squad—not addressing disasters but worsening them. On Nov. 22, Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA) sent a letter to Secretary Chu about the horrendous situation at Hanford, Washington, including an accusation that Poneman and Triay collaborated in suppressing Hanford whistleblowers.
I'm beginning to understand why Rick Perry might want to block the Department of Energy from his memory.
The Trouble with Triay
One of the highest-level appointments of a Hispanic woman of the incoming Obama Administration, Ines Triay was assumed by many to be a harbinger of new progressive environmental leadership. Triay was placed in charge of the multi-billion dollar program to clean up the nation's Cold War-era nuclear sites, including notorious radio-toxic messes at Hanford and Piketon.
In fact, Triay represented the most right-wing elements of American shadow government. She had come to the U.S. in 1961 at age three as a boat-person refugee from revolutionary Cuba, and achieved academic prominence within the Cuban exile community of south Florida—the same community in which support for the Nicaraguan Contras was organized in the 1980s. With a Florida PhD. in physical chemistry, she rose through the ranks at the nuclear weapons laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Her confirmation as an Assistant Secretary of Energy was marred by accusations of political influence from the right, owing to large campaign contributions she had made to the Republican Senator from New Mexico and powerful Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water, Pete Domenici.
That same subcommittee, under the chairmanship of Diane Feinstein (D-CA), is now deciding on round two of the USEC bailout package along lines originally proposed by Triay—a $300 million additional federal outlay, funded partly through the uranium barter. The Energy and Water Appropriations bill was scheduled for a Senate vote on Nov. 17, but now is delayed until after Thanksgiving.
In both the first and second rounds of the USEC bailout scheme, Secretary of Energy Chu has acted like an automaton, implementing the orders given by his inferiors. Within days of receiving the Triay memo in 2009, relayed to him through Daniel Poneman, Chu sent letters mimicking the memo, informing Congress of his determination to bail out USEC through the uranium barter, but failing to ask for congressional authority or an appropriation to do so.
He also failed to tell Congress that the cleanup work being funded was premature in the regulatory process, or that the centrifuge technology in development had already been pegged as lacking commercial potential.
Likewise, when the loan office turned down USEC for the second time in October of 2011, the company's agents at the second-rung of the Department of Energy struck a deal for a second infusion of funding that need not be paid back like a loan. Once again, Chu relayed the package as negotiated to Congress—half to be funded through the uranium barter already found to be illegal, and half through a new congressional appropriation, requested on an emergency basis to make 2012 budget deadlines.
At the end of October, when USEC announced a new deal with DOE, including $150 million to come from mysterious "existing funds" at the agency—existing funds that DOE refused to identify—the reference was to the uranium barter, claimed as outside the realm of congressional appropriations.
Broke and Broker
So let's total up the recent government bailout packages for private company USEC Inc. Not counting the billions of dollars dumped on USEC in gifts of uranium, transferred assets, no-bid contracts, and various federal subsidies attending its privatization, USEC was offered a $45 million payment for "technology development" in 2009 (not all of it paid), along with a no-bid cleanup contract for up to $200 million. In its 2011 third-quarter 10-Q statement filed with the SEC, USEC also acknowledged receiving an additional $50 million from DOE for unspecified and previously unanticipated contract services. USEC is requesting $150 million in uranium, immediately, to fund a "Research, Development and Demonstration" project that it had previously committed to complete on its own, for a hypothetical plant that has no chance of ever opening for business. On top of that, DOE and USEC are asking for another $150 million from 2012 congressional appropriations, at a time when federal funding is suspected of being kinda tight.
That's a recent total of up to $595 million, none of it to be repaid. A pretty good percentage on turn-down of a $2 billion loan! The modus operandi, as the potentates of Grand Fenwick would appreciate, is to continually demand a federal loan guarantee, and insure through belligerence that you get rejected!
All this for a company that produces shockingly little. Half or more of the enriched uranium fuel that USEC provides to utility customers comes from old Soviet nuclear warheads, with the uranium downblended to reactor-grade at Russian facilities. USEC only acts as a broker for that uranium, a service it used to provide at substantial profit as a sweetheart concession from the U.S. government, until the Russians threatened to withdraw from the treaty arrangement if USEC's profits weren't radically cut. The deal terminates entirely in 2013.
A declining share of USEC's uranium product is enriched at the government-owned gaseous diffusion plant at Paducah, Kentucky, which consumes an enormous amount of electricity, for which USEC cannot afford to keep paying. Paducah is scheduled to close next May, a deadline that Steven Chu has defended in verbal engagement with Kentucky's Senator, Mitch McConnell.
Meanwhile, all the uranium bartered to bail USEC out of its difficulties has dramatically distorted the uranium market, constituting a form of dumping, artificially lowering the price of uranium. This has had negative feedback effects on USEC earnings, mired deep in negative territory throughout 2011. The barter has also worsened unemployment among American uranium miners, outweighing any jobs maintained on the USEC payroll. Only 8% of the uranium fuel used in U.S. nuclear reactors is currently mined in the United States, due largely to USEC's dependence on raided U.S. stockpiles and Russian supply.
Since USEC will have access to no enrichment facility as soon as May, and since its new plant remains a pipe dream with cracked pipes, it is generally expected that USEC, which inherited a uranium supply monopoly, will soon be nothing more than a uranium broker, entirely an office operation. The billions of federal dollars spent on USEC bailouts will have netted a few extended cubicle jobs in beltway Maryland.
The USEC Hustle
The hustle for a new USEC bailout aims at staving off a pre-election bankruptcy (stock price down 78% in 2011), though the FOIA documents reveal a deeper problem: DOE staff acting like naive facilitators for an insider corporation judged too rigged to fail.
A 2009 memo by DOE Public Affairs director Dan Leistikow demonstrates that DOE was well-aware that USEC was inflating if not fabricating jobs numbers associated with the proposed "American Centrifuge Plant." Despite that awareness, DOE allowed USEC to continue using the "4,000 Ohio jobs" sales pitch uncorrected, even while USEC has attacked DOE for denying a loan guarantee. The baseless 4,000 number is still the one commonly cited by the news media today, on the assumption that DOE would have long ago corrected it, if it weren't true.
After the loan guarantee denial decision was finalized on July 27, 2009, the "rollout" process for announcement of that decision was turned over to Administration operatives—principally Joseph Aldy and Daniel Poneman--who did not work in the Loan Programs Office and had not been part of the due-diligence review. Aldy did not even work for DOE and had only a few months experience in government. Aldy and Poneman shuttled drafts of DOE's rollout statement between them, in stages removing harsh explanations for the denial decision, and replacing them with booster comments about USEC's shining future. This undercut the denial decision, making it seem irrational, while forestalling realistic planning for project failure in Ohio.
DOE's statement underwent major revision after a tip-off allowed USEC to preempt DOE with the media, as USEC would do yet again with the second denial in October of 2011. According to a July 27, 2009, e-mail by Matt Rogers of DOE, USEC CEO John Welch delayed DOE's denial announcement: "[Welch] needs some time with his board to define the path forward and how they announce to the market." DOE thus timed its denial announcement to considerations of effects on USEC stock price. But Welch wasn't so concerned about stock price, he was stalling for time to get a jump with the media and Ohio politicians.
The Loan Programs Office asked USEC to withdraw its application on July 27, as the lack of evidence for qualification was painfully apparent. It stymied the DOE staff that USEC did not automatically comply, as any loan applicant would if told that the alternative to withdrawal was denial. But USEC played a shrewder game, using the crucial week of agreed postponement to marshal lobbying forces , including Ohio Democrats Governor Strickland and Senator Sherrod Brown, for an immediate compensatory aid package.
By the time USEC delivered its answer of a refusal to withdraw, the political operatives outside the loan office—Poneman, Aldy, and Triay—were ready to give USEC everything it wanted: a $245 million aid package plus an indefinite extension of the loan guarantee review, so the scam could be run all over again. Triay's August memo to Chu concretized the government capitulation. Not a peep of protest came from Chu.
And the scam was run all over again, in 2011, with a string of deadlines for DOE decision issued by the applicant USEC, a final demand for material compensation, a preemptive release to the media, and DOE's mimicry of the deal as USEC had described it, with a total take upped to $300 million in federal funds, half to be provided immediately through the uranium barter. The loan guarantee review has also been left open, to permit endless future iterations.
USEC re-framed both denial decisions as positive DOE commitments to move forward with the technology, when that was not at all the result of DOE technical and financial reviews. In both cases, perhaps for political reasons connected to that old Ohio electoral magic, DOE felt compelled to play to USEC's lead with the media. Don't try this at home with a mortgage lender: Preempting a home loan denial with a news release that alleges the bank's commitment to future approval is not guaranteed to bring positive results.
For U.S. Aid, Wage War on the U.S.
It's not that the Obama Administration "could not say no" to applicants, as has been the accusation. When the Administration did say no, in USEC's case, the message was massaged to sound like a yes, with hundreds of millions of dollars in compensatory payments attached.
Many have misread the Solyndra problem as one of the Obama Administration's commitment to "green energy," or a failure to foresee changes in energy markets. The Washington Post editorial board gets it right when it says "the Department of Energy's loan guarantee program is the real Solyndra scandal."
But the Uranium-Triay Affair reveals that the scandal reaches far beyond the Loan Programs Office. Twice, after that office accurately assessed USEC's commercial non-viability and refused to award the company a loan guarantee, the Deputy and Assistant Secretaries of Energy, with direct White House involvement, intervened to offer USEC huge compensatory packages which would never have to be repaid.
And to date, despite reports by watchdog agencies like the Government Accountability Office, the scandal has received virtually no attention by either the media, Congress, or law enforcement agencies.
GAO, it must be said, pulled its punch. It only accused DOE of violating the Miscellaneous Receipts Act, which sounds practically like a misdemeanor. More explicitly, DOE personnel violated the Antideficiency Act, aimed at protection of the U.S. Treasury, which forbids an official from diverting federal funds from one congressionally authorized purpose to another. That's exactly what Ines Triay and her companeros did. The Antideficiency Act carries penal sanctions, meaning jail time, a fact which I have reason to believe was brought to the attention of Ines Triay just prior to her July resignation.
Other laws were callously broken. Of lasting impact on the stakeholders at Piketon, budgets were blown and major cleanup decisions were made before any of the mandatory public participation processes could be implemented. And so this Appalachian community will likely be stuck with a massive 90-acre waste cell, placed to please the tenant who won't be around—USEC Inc.
When Solyndra requested a second loan guarantee to stave off bankruptcy, it was flatly denied. It seems they should have taken a page from The Mouse that Roared, waged war on the U.S. government, and made a set of extortionist demands. Then, like USEC, they might have gotten some material aid from the U.S. government, if not cold hard cash.
Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. According to The National Museum of American History, this popular slogan, with its iconic three arrows forming a triangle, embodied a national call to action to save the environment in the 1970s. In that same decade, the first Earth Day happened, the EPA was formed and Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, encouraging recycling and conservation of resources, Enviro Inc. reported.
According to Forbes, the Three R's sustainability catch-phrase, and the recycling cause it bolstered, remain synonymous with the U.S. environmental movement itself. There's only one problem: despite being touted as one of the most important personal actions that individuals can take to help the planet, "recycling" – as currently carried out in the U.S. – doesn't work and doesn't help.
Turns out, there is a vast divide between the misleading, popular notion of recycling as a "solution" to the American overconsumption problem and the darker reality of recycling as a failing business model.
The Myth: Recycling Began as a Plastics' Industry Marketing Tactic
A recycling dumpster in Los Angeles. Citizen of the Planet / Education Images / Universal Images Group / Getty Images
When it was first introduced, recycling likely had altruistic motivations, Forbes reported. However, the system that emerged was never equipped to handle high volumes. Unfortunately, as consumption increased, so too did promotion of recycling as a solution. The system "[gave] manufacturers of disposable items a way to essentially market overconsumption as environmentalism," Forbes reported. Then and now, "American consumers assuage any guilt they might feel about consuming mass quantities of unnecessary, disposable goods by dutifully tossing those items into their recycling bins and hauling them out to the curb each week."
Little has changed since that Forbes article, titled "Can Recycling Be Bad For The Environment?," was published almost a decade ago; increases in recycling have been eclipsed by much higher consumption rates. In fact, consumerism was at an all-time high in January 2020 before the pandemic hit, Trading Economics reported.
But, if the system doesn't work, why does it continue? Turns out, consumers were misled – by the oil and gas industry. News reports from September 2020 revealed how the plastic industry-funded ads in the 1980s that heralded recycling as a panacea to our growing waste problem. These makers of virgin plastics were the biggest proponents and financial sponsors of plastic recycling programs because they created the illusion of a sustainable, closed-cycle while actually promoting the continued use of raw materials for new single-use plastics.
To the masses, these programs justified overconsumption and eased concerns over trash that could be thrown into recycling bins, Forbes reported. Generations of well-meaning Americans since the 1970's and '80's – believing these communications masterminds – have dutifully used-then-recycled plastics and other materials. They trusted that their discards would be reborn as new goods instead of ending up in oceans and landfills.
The plastics industry went even further, lobbying 40 states to put the recycling triangle symbol on all plastic – even if it wasn't recyclable, Houston Public Media reported. This bolstered the public image of plastic as a renewable resource, but the cost was clarity about what actually can be recycled. As recent as 2020, a Greenpeace report found that many U.S. products labeled as recyclable could not actually be processed by most domestic material recovery facilities.
The Reality: Most Recyclables Aren't Being Recycled
An initial pre-sort removes contaminates, items that can't be recycled, at Republic Services in Anaheim, California on Thursday, April 15, 2021. Paul Bersebach / MediaNews Group / Orange County Register / Getty Images
The U.S. relies on single-stream recycling systems, in which recyclables of all sorts are placed into the same bin to be sorted and cleaned at recycling facilities. Well-meaning consumers are often over-inclusive, hoping to divert trash from landfills. Unfortunately, the trash often ends up there anyways – with the additional cost of someone at a recycling plant sorting through it.
The single-stream system is easier on consumers, but results in a mixed stream of materials that is easy to contaminate, hard to sort and more expensive to process. There are a variety of items – including dirty pizza boxes, old clothing, hangers, plastic bags, aerosols, batteries and electronics – that, if added to a residential recycling bin, will contaminate the entire batch of recyclables, a Miami recycling center representative told EcoWatch. At that point, it can be too costly and too dangerous for employees to hand-pick out erroneous items. Because these items cannot be processed in the same way as recyclable materials, their inclusion often means the whole batch will fetch a lower price from buyers or must be thrown away.
"Most people have the attitude that if they just put it in the blue bin, it will get taken away and somebody will figure out what to do with it, but putting something in the blue bin and actually recycling it are two very different things," said David Biderman, CEO and executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America.
Misunderstandings, misinformation and mislabeling aside, the harsh reality was and remains that most plastic can't and won't be recycled, reported NPR. For example, the EPA reported that plastic generation in 2018 was 35.7 million tons, accounting for 12.2 percent of municipal solid waste (MSW) that year. Of this total, only three million tons were recycled (an 8.7 percent recycling rate). The vast majority – 27 million tons – ended up in landfills, and the rest was combusted. The environmental agency also estimated that less than 10 percent of plastic thrown in bins in the last 40 years has actually been recycled.
The situation is slightly better for other recyclables, though they make up a smaller percentage of MSW. For example, glass products totaled 12.3 million tons in 2018, or 4.2 percent of the annual MSW generation. Almost 25 percent of glass was recycled, 61.6 percent ended up in landfills and 13.4 percent was combusted.
Post-consumer paper and cardboard for 2018 totaled 67.4 million tons, or 23.1 percent of total MSW generation for the year. The material also had the highest recycling rate of any other material in MSW – 68.2 percent. 25.6 percent of paper ended up in landfills and 6.23 percent was combusted.
According to this EPA data, recyclable plastics, glass and paper accounted for 18.5 percent, 5.2 percent and 11.8 percent of MSW landfilled in 2018, respectively. Those three materials alone comprised 35.5 percent of the total landfilled trash in the U.S. for the year; had they been properly collected, processed and purchased, they theoretically could have been diverted and recycled.
The Reason: Recycling Is Bad Business Around the World
Recyclable waste must be sorted, cleaned and processed before it can be sold as a commodity on the open market. Nareeta Martin / Unsplash
Unfortunately, the EPA data also shows that 2018 was not an anomaly but rather another data point showing how the single-stream system in the U.S. has never been economically viable or feasible on a large scale. To further understand why recycling in America is failing, we need to think of recycled goods as commodities – because that's what they are.
According to the recycling center representative, municipalities and counties pay for residential and commercial recyclables to be trucked to local and regional recycling plants for processing. Clean batches are sorted and/or compressed into bales of similar plastics, paper, aluminum or glass. The centers sell the cleaned recyclables on the open market to buyers who will process them into recycled materials like plastic pellets or post-consumer paper; these can be turned into new products.
This entire process – the processing and creation of saleable recycled goods – costs money. As with any good, profitability requires selling for a higher price than it costs to make. Contaminated batches are harder to process into new products and therefore fetch a lower price on the market, if they can be sold at all. Currently, U.S. recyclables are no longer profitable, and no one wants to buy them.
China used to buy the majority of the world's plastics and paper for recycling, The New York Times reported. The U.S. has been the #1 generator of plastic waste in the world for years and used to ship more than half of its total plastic production to China, a November 2020 study found. The research also noted that up to one-fourth of American plastics sent abroad were contaminated or of poor quality, which would make it extremely difficult to recycle anyways.
Starting Jan. 1, 2018, China banned imports of most scrap materials because shipments were too contaminated, The Times reported; the country no longer wanted to be the "world's garbage dump."
As a result, the U.S. and other Western nations who had relied on China to offload their recyclables saw a "mounting crisis" of paper and plastic waste building up in ports and recycling facilities, The Times reported.
The Western nations began sending recyclable waste to other Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, India and Malaysia. These countries often lacked the infrastructure to handle recyclables, so a lot of the waste ended up incinerated or landfilled
In response, in 2019, the United Nations passed an amendment to the Basel Convention hoping to protect the poor and developing countries who'd taken up China's vacated role in the global recycling trade. The amendment ambitiously aimed to clean up the global trade in plastic waste, making it more transparent and better regulated and allowing developing countries to reject contaminated shipments. The U.S. did not ratify the amendment, and new evidence suggests it continues to send illegal and/or contaminated shipments to developing countries.
Domestically, the closing of the Chinese market to U.S. recyclables bankrupted many domestic recycling programs because there was too much supply and no real demand. The smaller Asian countries could not accept nearly as much as China had. Prices of recyclables dropped, and bales of scrap materials were sent to landfills and incinerators when they couldn't be sold, another Times article reported.
This left waste-management companies around the country with no market for recyclabes, The Atlantic reported. They've been forced to go back to cities and municipalities with two choices: pay a lot more to get rid of their recycling or throw it away. The news report noted that most are choosing the latter.
"The economics are challenging," agreed Nilda Mesa, director of the Urban Sustainability and Equity Planning Program at the Earth Institute's Center for Sustainable Urban Development. "If there is not a market for the recycled material, then the numbers do not work for these facilities as well as cities, as they need to sell the materials to recoup their costs of collection and transportation, and even then it's typically only a portion of the costs," Columbia's State of the Planet reported.
Tiffany Duong is an avid ocean advocate. She holds degrees from UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School and is an Al Gore Climate Reality Leader and student member of The Explorer's Club.
She spent years as a renewable energy lawyer in L.A. before moving to the Amazon to conduct conservation fieldwork (and revamp her life). She eventually landed in the Florida Keys as a scientific scuba diver and field reporter and writes about the oceans, climate, and the environment from her slice of paradise. Follow her on Twitter/Instagram @lilicedt.
- U.S. Leads the World in Plastic Waste, New Study Finds - EcoWatch ›
- U.S. Products Labeled Recyclable Really Aren't, Greenpeace ... ›
- John Oliver Takes on the Plastics Industry - EcoWatch ›
- The Myth About Recycling Plastic? It Works - EcoWatch ›
One of the silver linings of the coronavirus pandemic was the record drop in greenhouse gas emissions following national lockdowns. But that drop is set to all but reverse as economies begin to recover, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned Tuesday.
Overall energy demand is expected to rise 4.6 percent this year compared to 2020 and 0.5 percent compared to 2019, according to the IEA's Global Energy Review 2021. Demand for fossil fuels is expected to jump to such an extent that emissions will rise by nearly five percent in 2021. This will reverse 80 percent of the emissions decline reported in 2020, to end emissions just 1.2 percent below 2019 emissions levels. Because the lockdown saw the biggest drop in energy demand since World War II, the projected increase in carbon dioxide emissions will still be the second-highest on record, BBC News pointed out.
"This is a dire warning that the economic recovery from the COVID crisis is currently anything but sustainable for our climate," IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said in a statement reported by AFP.
Birol said much of that increase was being driven by the resurgence of coal use. In fact, coal demand is expected to increase by 60 percent more than all forms of renewable energy, according to the report. Overall coal demand is expected to increase by 4.5 percent in 2021. More than 80 percent of that growth is in Asia, and more than 50 percent is in China. While coal use is expected to increase in the U.S. and Europe as well, it will remain far below pre-pandemic levels. Still, global coal use is expected to rise to nearly its 2014 peak, BBC News reported.
Natural gas demand is also expected to rise by 3.2 percent in 2021, to put it more than one percent above 2019 levels, according to the report.
There are, however, two bright spots in the report from a climate perspective. The first is that oil demand, while up 6.2 percent from 2020, is still expected to remain around 3 percent below 2019 levels. This is because oil use for ground transportation is not expected to recover until the end of 2021, and oil use for air travel is expected to remain at 20 percent below 2019 levels by December of 2021.
"A full return to pre-crisis oil demand levels would have pushed up CO2 emissions a further 1.5%, putting them well above 2019 levels," the report authors wrote.
The second bright spot is that renewable energy demand is set to rise in all sectors in 2021. In power, where its rise is the greatest, it is set to increase by more than eight percent. This is "the largest year-on-year growth on record in absolute terms," the report authors wrote.
Renewable energy will provide 30 percent of electricity overall, BBC News reported, which is the highest percentage since the industrial revolution. The problem is that the increase in renewables is running parallel to an increase in fossil fuels in some places. China, for example, is also expected to account for almost half of the rise in renewable electricity.
"As we have seen at the country-level in the past 15 years, the countries that succeed to cut their emissions are those where renewable energy replaces fossil energy," energy expert and University of East Anglia professor Corinne Le Quéré told BBC News. "What seems to be happening now is that we have a massive deployment of renewable energy, which is good for tackling climate change, but this is occurring alongside massive investments in coal and gas. Stimulus spending post-Covid-19 worldwide is still largely funding activities that lock us into high CO2 emissions for decades."
To address this issue, Birol called on the world leaders gathering for U.S. President Joe Biden's climate summit Thursday and Friday to pledge additional action before November's UN Climate Change Conference, according to AFP.
"Unless governments around the world move rapidly to start cutting emissions, we are likely to face an even worse situation in 2022," said Birol.
- Global Carbon Emissions Fall by Record 7% in 2020 - EcoWatch ›
- Multisolving Our Way to COVID-19 Economic Recovery - EcoWatch ›
- Analysis: India's CO2 Emissions Fall for First Time in Four Decades ... ›
- Coronavirus Lockdowns Led to Record 17% Emissions Drop ... ›
The guide, 40-year-old Charles "Carl" Mock, was attacked Thursday while fishing alone in a forested area near West Yellowstone, Montana, The AP reported. He died in the hospital two days later. Wildlife officials killed the bear on Friday when it charged while they were investigating the attack.
"They yelled and made continuous noise as they walked toward the site to haze away any bears in the area," Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wrote in a press release. "Before they reached the site, a bear began charging the group. Despite multiple attempts by all seven people to haze away the bear, it continued its charge. Due to this immediate safety risk, the bear was shot and died about 20 yards from the group."
The AP reported the bear to be an older male that weighed at least 420 pounds. Wildlife workers later found a moose carcass about 50 yards from the site of the attack.
"This indicates the bear was defending a food source during the attack," Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wrote.
Mock was an experienced guide who worked for Backcountry Adventure, which provides snowmobile rentals and tours in Yellowstone National Park, according to The AP. His friend Scott Riley said Mock knew the risks of working around grizzly bears.
"He was the best guide around," Riley told The AP. "He had sight like an eagle and hearing like an owl... Carl was a great guy."
Mock carried bear spray, but investigators don't know if he had a chance to use it before the attack. Grizzly attacks are relatively rare in the Yellowstone area, CNN reported.
Since 1979, the park has welcomed more than 118 million visitors and recorded only 44 bear attacks. The odds of a grizzly attack in Yellowstone are about one in 2.7 million visits. The risk is lower in more developed areas and higher for those doing backcountry hikes.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks advises being aware of surroundings, staying on trails, traveling in groups, making noise, avoiding animal remains, following food storage instructions and carrying bear spray and knowing how to use it. Above all, it's important to back away slowly if a bear encounter occurs.
It's also important to pay attention to the time of year.
"Now is the time to remember to be conscientious in the backcountry as the bears are coming out of hibernation and looking for food sources," the sheriff's office of Gallatin County, Montana, wrote in a statement about the attack.
Historically, people pose more of a threat to grizzly bears than the reverse.
"When Lewis and Clark explored the West in the early 1800s, grizzly bears roamed across vast stretches of open and unpopulated land between the Pacific Ocean and the Great Plains," the U.S Fish and Wildlife service wrote. "But when pioneers moved in, bears were persecuted and their numbers and range declined. As European settlement expanded over the next hundred years, towns and cities sprung up, and habitat for these large omnivores — along with their numbers — shrunk drastically. Of the many grizzly populations that were present in 1922, only six remained when they were listed by the Service in 1975 as a threatened species in the lower-48 states."
- Grizzly Bears at Risk of Being Hunted for the First Time in Decades ... ›
- Yellowstone Grizzly Bears to Lose Endangered Species Protection ... ›
- Wyoming Votes to Allow First Grizzly Bear Hunt in 40 Years ... ›
By Brett Wilkins
In the latest of a flurry of proposed Green New Deal legislation, Reps. Cori Bush and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Monday introduced the Green New Deal for Cities Act of 2021, a $1 trillion plan to "tackle the environmental injustices that are making us and our children sick, costing us our homes, and destroying our planet."
If approved, the bill would provide federal funding for state, local, tribal, and territorial governments to respond to the climate crisis, while creating hundreds of thousands of jobs in communities disproportionately affected by economic inequality.
"St. Louis and communities across the nation need the Green New Deal for Cities," Bush (D-Mo.) said in a statement introducing the bill. The St. Louis native added that Black children in her city "are 2.4 times more likely than white children to test positive for lead in their blood, and are 10 times more likely to visit the emergency room for asthma each year than white children."
"Black neighborhoods host the majority of the city's air pollution sources," Bush continued. "And there is a nuclear waste site—the West Lake Landfill, which is a catastrophe-in-progress."
"This legislation would make sure every city, town, county, and tribe can have a federally funded Green New Deal," she added. "This is a $1 trillion investment to tackle the environmental injustices that are making us and our children sick, costing us our homes, and destroying our planet."
We're introducing the Green New Deal for Cities. Here's what it means for you: ☀️ $1 trillion investment in our c… https://t.co/uJnnbM5NNx— Congresswoman Cori Bush (@Congresswoman Cori Bush)1618852007.0
Specifically, the GND4Cities would:
- Authorize $1 trillion, with a minimum of 50% of all investments going each to frontline communities and climate mitigation;
- Fund an expansive array of climate and environmental justice projects including wind power procurement, clean water infrastructure, and air quality monitoring;
- Support housing stability by conditioning funding to local governments to ensure they work with tenant and community groups to prevent displacement in communities receiving investment; and
- Support workers by including prevailing wage requirements, equitable and local hiring provisions, apprenticeship and workforce development requirements, project labor agreements, and "Buy America" provisions.
In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio, Bush explained that the Green New Deal for Cities is personal for her.
"I remember talking about lead paint as a child, hearing about it on the television and showing up at parks and people testing us for lead," she recalled. "It was like this thing when I was a kid, and it just went away."
Tune in to @STLonAir at noon to hear @RepCori discuss her and her colleagues' proposal for a Green New Deal for Cit… https://t.co/q3N0hmJndg— St. Louis Public Radio (@St. Louis Public Radio)1618845961.0
Bush said that "this whole thing is about saving lives," adding that "there are labor provisions in this bill to make sure that the workers are well-paid and well-treated for work."
"The urgency of this climate crisis and environmental racism demands that we equip our cities and our local governments with this funding," she added.
In her statement introducing the measure, Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said that "the GND4Cities would provide local governments the funding to create good-paying, union jobs repairing their infrastructure, improving water quality, reducing air pollution, cleaning up parks, creating new green spaces, and eliminating blight."
"The desire for these investments is there," Ocasio-Cortez added. "We need to give our local communities the funding and support to act."
Although only Monday, it's already been a busy week for Ocasio-Cortez and the Green New Deal. Earlier in the day, she and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) reintroduced the Green New Deal for Public Housing, which they said would significantly improve living conditions and costs for nearly two million people who reside in public housing units, while creating more than 240,000 new jobs.
It’s Green New Deal week!👷🏽♂️🌎 This week we’re highlighting: ✅ Green New Deal reintro tomorrow w/ new Congression… https://t.co/3kEllAc40y— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez)1618878563.0
Later on Monday, Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) announced they will reintroduce their landmark 2019 Green New Deal bill on Tuesday. In a Spanish-language statement previewing the bill's introduction, Ocasio-Cortez said the measure "aims to create a national mobilization over the next 10 years that fights against economic, social, racial crises, as well as the interconnected climatic conditions affecting our country."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
- Green New Deal Champion AOC Will Serve on Biden Climate Panel ... ›
- 81% of Voters Support a Green New Deal, Survey Finds - EcoWatch ›
- Kamala Harris Becomes Latest 2020 Dem to Support a Green New ... ›
Offshore oil and gas drillers have discarded and abandoned more than 18,000 miles of pipelines on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico since the 1960s, a report from the Government Accountability Office says.
The industry has essentially recovered none of the pipelines laid in the Gulf in the last six decades; the abandoned infrastructure accounts for more than 97% of all of the decommissioned pipelines in the Gulf.
The pipelines pose a threat to the habitat around them, as maritime commerce and hurricanes and erosion can move sections of pipeline.
The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement does not conduct undersea inspections even though surface monitoring is "not always reliable for detecting ruptures," according to the GAO.
For a deeper dive: