Who’s Accountable for the Environment #grnrev

DSC02403By Patricia Zick @PCZick

Macondo well

spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico

I celebrated Earth Day this year by promoting y my environmentally themed book, Trails in the Sand, and guest posting on other blogs essays about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Some reviewers thanked me for reminding them about the oil spill, but one reviewer wrote that she lived through it and didn’t need to read about it.

I lived through it, too, but I’m of the opinion, we do need to remember, and we do need to hold responsible the parties who break the rules to gain more profit. In Trails, I wrote about two major disasters from April 2010 – the oil spill that killed nine men and did untold damage to wildlife and the habitat and the mine explosion in West Virginia that killed twenty-nine men. In both cases, the companies were found to be negligent for causing the death of the men and harming the environment.

And so it was with a sense of nightmarish déjà vu that I read an article in my local paper, The Beaver County Times this past weekend.

“What Lies Beneath – Officials Worry Company in Ohio Buried Drill Waste,” made me mad and then rather frightened me to realize that we might not have protection from irresponsible companies despite each state having an environmental department and having the national Department of Environmental Protection. I’m beginning to believe the moniker is a misnomer because there are far too many cases where no protection for the environment exists. And far too many of those cases are far too close to my home.

Soil Remediation, Inc., owned by David Gennaro, has been on the radar of Ohio’s DEP for years. Yet that hasn’t fazed the company as they allegedly collected and disposed petroleum-contaminated waste on its property close to the Mahoning River, a waterway that flows into the Beaver River which flows into the Ohio River in southwestern Pennsylvania. A few weeks ago, I wrote about another company in eastern Ohio that had been dumping toxic waste into the same Mahoning River.

Beaver River

Beaver River

Not only is Soil Remediation disposing of the waste illegally according to the article, but it’s also been collecting those waste products without a permit. Several Pennsylvania-based companies have been shipping their waste over to Ohio where Soil Remediation has taken the products illegally. This isn’t the first instance of this company’s flagrant disregard of environmental regulations. Records show they’ve been charged with violating many other regulations over the years. Why is this company still operating?

I’m not in favor of shutting down companies in our country. However, as much as we want to keep those companies open, it’s not in our best interest to allow them to disregard the regulations that are already in place. Those regulations exist for a reason, and that’s to protect our environment from harm. A company that can’t follow safety regulations needs to be shut down until they comply.

We don’t need to lose anymore hardworking men and women just because companies want to show a profit. Their money won’t amount to much of anything if our rivers, lakes, groundwater, and aquifers are destroyed.

The sedge has withered from the lake,

And no birds sing.

John Keats (La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1819)cropped-dsc00860.jpg

Current Events Creep into Fiction

Fellow blogger and author Annamaria Bazzi hosted me for a guest post on her blog Annamaria’s Corner. Since it’s the third anniversary of the oil spill and Earth Week, I thought it appropriate to repost on my blog. Please stop by Annamaria’s Corner where she posts about writing and promotes her fellow authors.

By P.C. Zick

My new novel, Trails in the Sand, serves as a reminder of two preventable disasters that occurred within two weeks of one another in 2010. Forty men died and countless wildlife and their habitats were injured or destroyed. Both events touched my life in some way and both made their way into the writing of Trails in the Sand.

The first one occurred on April 5 when the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia exploded, killing twenty-nine miners doing their job in the bowels of the earth. Subsequent reports showed the company ignored safety regulations, which played an important role in the explosion. At the time, I was in the process of moving from Florida to western Pennsylvania. The mine is located several hours from my new home, so the local media covered the disaster continually for the next few weeks. The national news also kept its eye turned toward a small town in West Virginia where families mourned their husbands, sons, fathers, brothers, and cousins. After April 20, the lens of the cameras shifted to the southwest.

The news began as a whimper before erupting into cries of outrage. An oil rig somewhere off the coast of Louisiana caught on fire on April 20, 2010. Soon the whole rig collapsed and eleven men never made it out alive. Oil gushed from a well several miles below the Gulf’s surface.

As I made the transition to Pennsylvania, I still held my job in Florida, although I was in the process of leaving. I was a public relations director for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. I made the trip back and forth sixteen times in 2010. I conducted meetings from a cell phone in airports, highway rest areas, and at a dining room table from our small temporary apartment in Pittsburgh.

Every time I started to give my two-week notice to my supervisors, something happened, and my wildlife biologist bosses pleaded with me to stay. During a crisis, the spokesperson for a company or agency suddenly becomes a very important part of the team. Scientists become speechless when looking in the face of a microphone.

Nothing much happened in those early days of the oil spill for the wildlife community, although as a communications specialist I prepared for worst-case scenarios, while hoping for the best. Partnerships between national and state agencies formed to manage information flowing to the media. By May, some of the sea turtle experts began worrying about the nesting turtles on Florida’s Panhandle beaches, right where the still gushing oil might land. In particular, the scientists worried that approximately 50,000 hatchlings might be walking into oil-infested waters if allowed to enter the Gulf of Mexico after hatching from the nests on the Gulf beaches.

An extraordinary and unprecedented plan became reality, and as the scientists wrote the protocols, the plan was “in direct response to an unprecedented human-caused disaster.”

When the nests neared the end the incubation period, plans were made to dig up the nests and transport the eggs across the state to Cape Canaveral, where they would be stored until the hatchlings emerged from the eggs. Then they would receive a royal walk to the sea away from the oil-drenched waters of the Gulf.

The whole project reeked with the scent of drama, ripe for the media to descend on Florida for reports to a public hooked on the images of oiled wildlife. Since I was in transition in my job, they appointed me to handle all media requests that came to the national and state agencies regarding the plan. From my new office in Raccoon Township, Beaver County, Pennsylvania, I began coordinating media events and setting up interviews with the biologists.

As the project began in June 2010, I began writing Trails in the Sand. At first, I created the characters and their situations. Then slowly I began writing about the oil crisis and made the main character, Caroline, an environmental reporter who covered the sea turtle relocation project. Then suddenly I was writing about her husband, Simon, who mourned the loss of his cousin in the coal mine disaster in West Virginia. I didn’t make a conscious effort to tie together the environmental theme with the family saga unfolding, but before too long, I realized they all dealt with restoration and redemption of things destroyed. As a result, the oil spill and the sea turtles became a metaphor for the destruction caused by Caroline and her family.

I’m a firm believer in the subject choosing the author. When that happens, it’s best to let go and enjoy the gift.

trailsbanner3web

I’m on a Virtual Book Tour this week with Trails in the Sand  – Visit tour stops to enter giveaway

I’m on “tour” April 22-29 to celebrate the forty-third anniversary of Earth Day and to celebrate the publication of Trails in the Sand. At each stop, you’ll be able to enter a raffle for an exciting giveaway at the end of the tour. I’m giving away a package of autographed copies of both Live from the Road and Trails in the Sand, along with a Route 66 baseball cap, a Trails in the Sand magnet, all wrapped in a “green” grocery bag donated by fellow blogger Betsy Wild at What’s Green with Betsy. The bags were designed by Where Designs.???????????????????????????????

The Tour Schedule for April 25 – Check out this blog today and enter to win the tour giveaway.

April 25

I Read Indie blog features my guest post “Why I love sea turtles” about my first interaction with the ancient creatures and how they became a central part of the plot in Trails in the Sand. I Read Indie blog reviews and features Indie Authors.

Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers features Trails in the Sand and my guest post “Subject Chooses the Writer.” Stop by Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers to “feed your need to read.” Gina’s love of books led her to create a site for her readers.

One Wild and Wacky Job

Alligator on a lake near Tallahassee

Alligator on a lake near Tallahassee

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

I hesitated to fill out an application for days after I saw the advertisement for a public relations director with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). The ideal candidate’s qualifications could have been pilfered from my resume. Yet still I hesitated before I applied.

Did I really want to move from St. Augustine to Tallahassee? I wondered as I read the job description repeatedly. Yes, I did, I decided and hit the send button on the website for the state job. Only I messed up and tried again. When I went to bed that night, I wasn’t certain if the application had gone through or not.

When my phone rang the next morning and the voice on the other end said he worked for the FWC, I was certain it was to tell me my application needed to be sent again. I started to explain, until he interrupted.

“We’d like you to come up to Tallahassee for an interview,” he said.

“When?”

“Can you make it tomorrow?”

I tried not to make any assumptions about what it all meant. I’d been asked for an interview before the deadline for accepting applications. I drove the three hours from my home to the Community Relations office in Tallahassee for my interview. I was nervous, but as it turned out, the interview was the easiest one I’d done. I knew how to answer all the questions about media, writing, publishing, and news releases. I’d been on the other side for a decade, and I’d interviewed my share of state employees as an environmental writer. They hired me as soon as I passed a test to write a phony news release in thirty minutes.

wildlife biologist

FWC biologist measuring lake levels

I started in September 2007 and worked there for the next four years. I left when I moved to Pennsylvania.

During the first few months on the job, I read about wildlife, which included fact sheets on managing them and laws on regulating them. I listened to phone calls between my supervisor and journalists from state and national media sources. I observed during meetings with the agency’s director, biologists, and media personnel as  they made decisions on sensitive issues. I began writing news releases of lesser importance about openings, closings, and campaigns for wildlife license plates. I took a few calls here and there from the media. I watched and mentally took notes during crises situations as those around me scrambled to write talking points and news releases in a few minutes time.

After a few months, I was assigned to write an article for Florida wildlife magazine featuring Rodney Barreto, the chairman of the commission. He received his appointment from Gov. Charlie Crist.

After I interviewed him, I searched for quotes from others about Barreto. My boss directed me to contact the governor’s press office and ask for a written quote. Two days after I sent the email request, my phone rang in my office.

“Hello, Pat? This is Charlie Crist,” the voice on the line said.

At first, I thought some friend was playing a trick on me, but I’d met Crist at a luncheon a few months before so I recognized the voice.

“I hear you’re writing about my buddy Rodney,” he said. “I wanted to talk to you about him.”

I was scrambling on my desk for my notes for the article. Of course, the folder was nowhere to be found.

“I’m just a little nervous, Governor, so excuse me while I find my notes,” I said.

“No need to be nervous, Pat. Let’s just chat.”

So we did. He gave me my quotes, and I took notes on the back of an old news release.

“Thank you, Governor. I know you have more important things to do, such as . . . ”

My mind went blank. What issues did he have on his mind? I started again.

“I know you’re dealing with big issues with . . . water,” I finally blurted.

Water? Really? That’s the best I could muster? Florida’s surrounded on three sides by water so of course he deals with water issues, but really that’s all I could say?

Charlie Crist dealing with water

Charlie Crist dealing with water
(from PhotoBucket)

I kept my job despite my ineptitude in handling a simple call from the governor. I learned to talk to media from CNN, Time magazine, the Associated Press, Fox News, and even a representative from a Japanese reality show who wondered if manatees farted under water, and if so, could they possibly film one farting.

It became my new normal and lasted for the next four years. Stay tuned for a few of my stories to learn how some freshwater turtles made a new law and how I became known as the “python princess.”

Working in an agency that manages wildlife in a state filled with human wildlife has given me a library full of stories to tell around campfires and novels to write until my fingers cramp. My hesitation in applying was simply the quiet moment I needed before heading into one wild and wacky job.

FWC law enforcement officer assists the "human" wildlife to pull a truck out of the water

FWC law enforcement officer assists the “human” wildlife to pull a truck out of the water

New Release from P.C. Zick

New Release
from P.C. Zick

Trails in the Sand (2013) follows environmental writer, Caroline Carlisle, on a quest to save sea turtles from the BP oil spill and to save her family after she marries her dead sister’s husband.

The idea from the story came while I was working with the FWC during the oil spill crisis. I was the media director for the sea turtle nest relocation project that occurred during the summer of 2010. During the project, thousands of sea turtle eggs were moved from Panhandle beaches to the Atlantic Coast. Thousands of sea turtle hatchlings were saved from eminent death as a result of the move.

Paying the Price for Oil Spills and Coal Mine Explosions

UBB Miners' Memorial Completed

Upper Big Branch Miners’ Memorial
Whitesville, West Virginia

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

We’re approaching the third anniversary of two major disasters in U.S. history – both claiming undistinguished titles.

First, on April 5, 2010, at a coal mine in West Virginia, twenty-nine miners lost their lives when an explosion ripped through the Upper Big Branch mine. The tragedy was the worst coal mine disaster in four decades in the United States. Fifteen days later, another explosion occurred on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana. Eleven men died in the explosion, which began the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill’s effect on the environment may take decades to assess.

Forty lives lost and record-making disasters in the same month in 2010 have something else in common.

Both could have been prevented.

It didn’t take long for investigators to determine that policies at both BP – the company running the oil rig – and Massey – the company that owned Upper Big Branch – played at role in the unsafe conditions that caused both disasters.

The Wall Street Journal reported on February 26, 2013, that the Justice Department found “a last-minute conversation between BP engineer on the rig and onshore . . . showed that the oil giant [BP] acted with gross negligence.”

oiled wildlife during BP's oil spill in 2010

oiled wildlife during BP’s oil spill in 2010

BP runs television commercials that encourage tourists to the states impacted by their oil spill. They’ve also agreed to pay $30 billion in fines, settlements, and clean up costs. They’ve paid out $4 billion in criminal suits for charges as high as manslaughter, which gives the oil spill another distinction for paying out the largest settlement in U.S. history.

Deepening the burnish on the behemoth company, the U.S. government has suspended BP from any new federal contracts because of its “lack of business integrity.”

Yet former CEO Tony Hayward walked away with no charges filed against him, and BP’s shareholders barely felt a blimp on investments in a company intent on increasing profits at the cost of human lives. Something tells me BP is hardly unique or record-setting in that department. They were simply the ones who were caught – and the money and advertising are simply the price to pay.

CEO Don Blankenship headed up Massey Energy at the time of the coal mine explosion. His arrogance during the aftermath angered many. He eventually stepped down eight months and many disastrous press conferences later.

Now a former employee of a Massy subsidy has implicated Blankenship. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported recently that many of the families of the victims wanted justice in the form of prosecution of the former CEO who at one time even went so far as to suggest the miners were responsible for their own deaths.

Three years ago, forty men lived their lives and worked grueling jobs miles offshore on a rig or underground and in a mine shaft. By the end of April 2010, forty men paid the price for bringing fossil fuels out of the earth. They did their jobs based on the rules and regulations followed by the company.

They didn’t know they were risking their lives by following orders.

The prosecution of the men sitting at the top of the heap making the big decisions and reeling in the big paychecks and bonuses will never bring justice. Justice means the dead men would be home for Easter dinner.

But it might bring a moment of grace to the families and friends who remain.DSC00870

Florida’s Fragile Environment

Gulf of Mexico – off the coast of Cedar Key, Florida

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

I lived in Florida for nearly thirty years. Its landscapes and wildlife still inspire me. Its fragile environment serves as a canary in the coal mine for ecosystems everywhere. Here’s my view of Florida through my camera and words.

I often imagine what the early inhabitants of Florida saw as they fished in the rivers, hunted in the forests, and lived on the prairies. Breathtaking beauty exists in the Panhandle, on both coasts and in the central rolling hills of the peninsular state.

Unfortunately, wherever perfection exists, man attempts to perfect perfection. Nowhere is this practice more evident than in the Sunshine State. Yet when we destroy one thing in an ecosystem, we are not just destroying a part; we are working on the erosion of the whole.

The wholesale destruction of mangroves for most of the twentieth century along the southern regions of the state should have sounded a warning. Without the mangroves, the entire southern coastal zone would be in danger of disappearing. Studies conducted by the Florida Marine Research Institute show that in the Tampa Bay area alone, forty-four percent of the coastal wetlands acreage — including salt marshes and mangrove forests — have been destroyed over the last one hundred years.

mangroves in the Keys

What does this have to do with the ecosystem in which the mangrove lives? Plenty. The mangrove roots trap organic material and serve as surfaces for other marine organisms to attach and thrive. The forests themselves serve as the home base for marine life, and animals shelter themselves from the elements within the protective cover of the mangrove arms. The salt marshes serve as the lifeblood to the mangrove – a tree that revels in a salty environment.

woodstork in the Everglades

Efforts to protect some of the last of rural Florida include the government buying lands at the federal, state, and local levels. However, places such as St. George Island in Apalachicola Bay, with its nine-mile stretch of state park, cannot fight the development that is creeping up on the entrance to the park.

dunes of St. George Island in the Panhandle of Florida

Even with the purchase of these lands for public use, ribbons of asphalt roads and ropes of boardwalks make an impact upon the pristine nature of the land. However, they are unavoidable if we are to enjoy the rawness of nature without doing more destruction, such as destroying the sea oat from its protective berth upon the dunes.

sea oat roots help hold the sand in place

Those little wisps of stalks sitting upon the sand shoot deep roots into the dunes helping to keep the sand in place and thus preventing erosion. Without their presence, the coastline would begin disappearing back into the sea at an alarming rate.

In the middle of the state the connectivity to all that happens in every part of Florida is seen in the appearance of pollution in the rivers and springs, which lead directly into the Floridan aquifer and the drinking water.

manatee in Wakulla Springs near Tallahassee

Ichetucknee Springs, a long time local favorite for tubing and canoeing, appears to be one of the last pristine locations left in north Florida. Floating down the fast-flowing river past the great blue herons feeding on the banks, the turtles sunning on the rocks and the live oaks hanging low over the river, it is impossible to imagine that trouble lurks all around.

great blue heron – St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge

Yet recent studies from Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Geological Survey show pollution from Lake City’s wastewater spray field is making its way down into the underground water system to the headspring of the Ichetucknee nearly fifteen miles away. The discovery of DEET traces in these waters should sound the alarm to wake up.

Studies show that an underwater highway beginning at Alligator Lake in Lake City connects to the headspring of the Ichetucknee, a completely spring-made river. The Ichetucknee River eventually flows into the Santa Fe River and the Santa Fe, several miles later, reaches the Suwannee River, which then flows into the Gulf Mexico.

If we can make the connection from Lake City to the Gulf of Mexico, is it such a giant leap to connect the dots between the Keys, the Everglades, Tampa Bay, Miami, and the rest of the state and beyond? Florida’s example is one of the most visible, but the connections exist in every single ecosystem in the world.

We can’t live in oblivious ignorance regarding the world around us any longer. If we continue on the same path, our water and food, contaminated with our irresponsibility, will cease to exist.

 

Florida’s Water or Lack Thereof

By P.C. Zick@PCZick

I moved from Florida two years ago, but I still keep track of this place I consider a part of my history. I learned to canoe and kayak on the Santa Fe River in North Florida. This river flows to the infamous Suwanee River, which eventually empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The Santa Fe River is host to several first-magnitude springs, such as Ginnie and Blue. But for how long? Already some of the first-magnitude springs on the Suwanee are no longer. And I’m hearing those springs on the Santa Fe are in a fight for life.

This photo was taken on the Santa Fe River somewhere between the High Springs boat ramp and Poe Springs in 2009. Compare that to a photo taken this weekend and posted on Facebook by Santa Fe River resident Robert McClellan.Santa Fe RiverFilm maker Jill Heinerth shoots footage for her documentary “We Are Water” at the High Springs boat ramp in North Florida on what was once the Santa Fe River.

Robert’s Facebook post shows startling pictures of the death of a river. For far too long, we have ignored the practices that are harming and destroying our lifeblood – our water. Contamination and withdrawals from the Floridan aquifer to feed and fuel the explosion of Florida’s population have now taken a toll. Tropical storms and hurricanes can’t come soon enough dumping much needed rain back into the earth. I doubt that one or two seasons could undue what havoc has been wrought by out of control development and irresponsible agricultural practices.

Last year, my husband and I kayaked this river. There were some low spots made even more unnavigable from the plants and algae crowding and suffocating the water’s surface, but at least there was water.

Thank to Robert McClellan for putting this information out there. Florida’s political environment is not very friendly to the ecological environment these days. We all need to become vocal proponents of saving the most important thing to all of us: our water. Just because it’s flowing out of your faucets easily now does not mean it will always be that way. If you don’t believe me, then perhaps I could sell you some waterfront property in North Florida just a short drive from the Gulf of Mexico – no bridges to cross to get there.

Celebrate Rachel Carson and Earth Day 2012

Oregon Coast 2008

By P.C. Zick@PCZick

The Earth Day Network  credits the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring,  in 1962 as a “watershed moment for the modern environmental movement.”

In the emerging light on the pollution we were spraying into the air, Earth Day 1970 took a share of the spotlight.

That first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, came in part as a public response to the gargantuan oil spill in Santa Barbara in 1969. Ironically on the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day in 2010, news of another oil spill began trickling into the media. But little attention was paid to an oil rig fire in the Gulf of Mexico because we were all patting ourselves on our eco-friendly backpacks for the strides made in past forty years.

When the green bio-degradable balloons burst several days later, our spirits fell as flat as those deflated balloons to learn of the massive amounts of oil spewing forth from the depths of the sea and with no possible solutions in sight to stem the flow after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded.

Ms. Carson’s book from fifty years ago brought change – that can’t be disputed. The Environmental Protection Agency and passage of legislation such as the Clean Air Act  and the Endangered Species Act  stand as testament to the revolution she brought to bear on industry in the United States. But it didn’t protect us completely from big corporations’ quest for profit over safety.

Her words still are relevant and pertinent today, and we must not forget them. We’ve come so far since she made the connections between what we do to the environment and the toll we pay for its destruction. We can’t let her down now as we prepare to celebrate another Earth Day.

The PBS documentary A Sense of Wonder uses Ms. Carson’s words in her final year to sum up her legacy.

“Mankind has gone very far into an artificial world of his own creation. He has sought to insulate himself in his cities of steel and concrete, away from the realities of earth, water, the growing seed. And intoxicated with a sense of his own power, he seems to be going farther and farther into experiments toward the destruction of himself and his world. . .I do believe, that the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and the realities of this universe about us, the less taste we shall have for its destruction.”

She also states, “There is no single remedy for this condition.” But as Earth Day 2012 is upon us, I wonder what we can do as individuals to keep her vision alive 50 years after the publication of Silent Spring.

I’d love to hear from you. What do you do or what do you believe we all should do to prevent mankind from destroying himself? Or do you believe we are headed on the right course already?

I can’t wait to hear what you think.