What I'm Thinking

by Andrew Gottlieb

The High Cost of Doing Nothing

Cape Cod is about to get another lesson in the high cost of doing nothing. There is building chatter in DC about a major infrastructure bill gaining traction in Congress. Should the stars align and federal funding becomes available for all forms of infrastructure investment in water, wastewater and transportation, the region’s relative inaction on the development of engineering and design for needed wastewater management infrastructure will again leave the Cape on the outside peering in.

Why will the Cape miss the bus? The answer is simple and predictable because it has happened before, most recently with the American Recovery and Restoration Act passed in response to the 2007 recession. The federal government sees investment in infrastructure as a way to both modernize the nations’ infrastructure and to prime the economic pump. As a result, the criteria for allocating funds favors projects that are designed and ready to go to construction. And that’s the rub. The Cape didn’t benefit much from ARRA funds because not many projects were ready to go. Now, more than a decade later, not that much has changed.

While a handful of towns have advanced their infrastructure plans, many have not and will miss this opportunity for significant federal financial assistance that would save their residents meaningful money. The irony is that the local forces that have frustrated town efforts to implement wastewater management because “its too expensive” will be responsible for their towns missing the opportunity to lower costs to residents by not having plans that will meet federal funding assistance standards.

While it may be too late to fully take advantage of this next round of federal funding, it is not too early to begin preparations for the round of funding inevitably due to follow. At some point the Cape will wise up and take advantage of opportunities to clean up the environment and reduce the cost to local taxpayers. Until we do, critical federal resources will continue to go elsewhere.

Clean Up Your Mess. Now.

Better late than never. An old adage, but one that applies to Barnstable County’s overdue decision to end active use of the Fire Training Academy site in Barnstable. The Academy is suspected as being a source of perfluorinated compounds found in the Hyannis water supply. While the consumers of the water supply are protected by expensive water filtration, the site itself is still contaminated with the perfluorinated compounds included in the firefighting foam used throughout the country. Once in the soil, these compounds travel into the groundwater and are very stable, long lived and persistent contaminants. Suspension of the application of water at the site will slow the spread of the contamination until the sources can be cleaned up.

While the County has responded, albeit more slowly than we would have liked, there is an instructive lesson here that applies to all similar situations where government owned sites are the source of contamination. The Massachusetts hazardous waste law, known as 21E, applies the principle of joint and several liability in hazardous waste cases. In plain English, that means if both you and I contaminate a site, we are both fully and completely liable for the cleanup. That principle is an important one that holds everyone responsible for their mess, but it can have a distorting effect on behavior. Because of joint and several liability, owners of contaminated sites have an incentive to deny, deny and accuse. Owners start off by denying responsibility and then eventually, almost always, upon conceding some responsibility, point the finger at other potential sources as a way to increase the number of parties contributing to clean up costs. That whole process slows down the clean-up of any one site and can result in longer public exposure to contamination before final clean-up is implemented.

While the 21E process is designed to encourage private sector clean-up of contamination, the reality is that the public sector is often a responsible party. Isn’t it fair to expect government to behave better than the private sector when it comes to cleaning up its own mess and protecting the public it serves from exposure to hazardous waste for even one extra day? While the Fire Academy problem is finally being dealt with, we should all approach the next instance of a public agency being the source of contamination with the expectation that the first response will be immediate clean up. The wrangling over who else is to blame can come after the public and the environment have been protected.

May 7, 2019

Pesticide Perspective

Fresh off the taping of a Lower Cape TV segment on the merits of continuation of Eversource’s use of herbicides, I am reminded of the importance of individual behavior. While not in any way making Eversource’s herbicide use ok, the persistent and excessive household use of herbicides and pesticides needs to change. Eversource points the finger at household use as a justification for its practices, but the fact is that true resource protection and restoration relies on big changes in personal behavior.

Just go to any garden center or box store and you will be confronted with gallons and gallons of pesticides and herbicides, and pounds and pounds of fertilizers. The marketing messages are clear: You need this and more is better. Both are wrong. Spend your money and time on native plantings and minimizing your lawn. Your water use and chemical bills will go down and you will help restore ecological balance and habitat one yard at a time. You will become part of the solution to water quality problems instead of part of the cause.

So resist the siren song and turn your back on the chemicals. And while you are at it, we can help build pressure on big users like Eversource to be leaders by example.

April 29, 2019

Going Native

If you are like me, it feels like time to get some color in the yard and do some planting. What we plant can have a big impact on the health of the environment that surrounds us and can either support, or harm, the birds, bees and insects we all rely on. So please think about what you are planting before grabbing the prettiest plant in reach. The decisions you are making today will last long after the enticing bloom on the plant you are buying has faded.

If you want to make the best choice to have an attractive yard that also supports and works in tandem with our Cape environment, choose native species. Plants native to our region are adapted to the conditions we find on the Cape. If properly selected for the location in your yard, once established they won’t require regular watering. And, there’s no need for pesticides or fertilizers or amending the soils for them to survive. As an added value, they support native insects and birds. By planting native species, you will provide much needed habitat that has been lost due to development and the tendency of traditional landscapers to make the Cape look like everywhere else USA.

The native plant movement has been catching on and many nurseries and outlets now carry some native plants. We encourage you to do some research before buying. For example, know the scientific name of the plants you are after – common names are not reliable. Select the right plant for the right place. A plant that thrives in shade won’t be happy in the hot sun, native or not. Many online native plant catalogs are great resources to learn site requirements for each species.Go to retail nurseries that carry native species and if you are not sure if a store has natives, ask. If the answer is no, the fact that you asked and left to shop someplace else will help educate shop owners that there is a market and consumer interest in native plants. Nothing will encourage stores to add native species to their inventories more than customers walking out in their absence.

Lastly, avoid any plants that have been treated with neonicotinoids. These systemic pesticides are toxic to bees and other pollinating insects. The pollen, nectar and even the dew forming on plants treated with neonics (long before you buy them) cause toxicity to pollinators. Death may not be immediate, but the neurotoxin can weaken and disorient. And, since pollen is used to feed the young, the next generation is at risk. It is not always easy to avoid treated plants because there is not uniform regulation to require public notice. Start by asking store personnel and reading the label on the plant (if there is one). Some nurseries, including the big box stores, have labels on the plants that say the plants have been treated with neonicotinoids. The labels may even say the pesticides have been approved by EPA, but that does not change the fact that they are toxic to bees. Simply don’t buy them. And tell the store why you are not buying them. It’s the only way to change the store’s practices.

Just like knowing your farmer, it pays to know your plant nursery and to “buy local” from trusted sources. Taking a little time and effort now, before planting, can yield big results over the long term. It is time well spent.

April 16, 2019

Our Own Worst Enemy

“Fight climate change, save the planet.” We hear that all the time and it sounds about right, so what’s the problem? The trouble is that the message doesn’t resonate sufficiently to result in serious, committed, transformative and durable change at the political level. If you are reading this you probably already think climate change is one of the great existential issues of the day, and it is. The catch is that it’s not just about saving the planet. The planet will continue on one way or the other, with or without us. The planet was here before we arrived, and it will be here after we depart. What we should be concerned about is saving the human species.

As a species we are pretty focused on us. So why should we expect a campaign about saving something else, in this case the planet, to resonate in a way that drives real change? For better or worse, to get the climate issue taken seriously, the messaging has to make it more about our survival because that is what gets people to pay attention. And sadly, I’m not talking about protecting our grandchildren or great- grandchildren because we needn’t, and often don’t, look that far down the road. I’m talking about us and our kids. It is time to realize that we, and the people who currently are alive that we actually know and profess to care about, are threatened by the impacts of changes in the climate already underway. We must take action. Our survival, yours and mine, is what is at stake and it’s about time we started to act that way. Until and unless we realize what we are facing, nothing will change.

Regardless of what we do, the planet will continue on. It might be warmer and stormier than it would have otherwise been without us, but it will keep spinning with another mix of life forms on it, different than what we currently have. The planet has served as host to many different life eras and the only difference right now is it is being dominated by a species that seems driven to eliminate the very ecosystems needed for our own survival. In fact, one could look at it from a perspective that the Earth is reacting to rid itself of the irritant causing the changes the planet is experiencing. That irritant is us. The Earth doesn’t need us to save it. We need the Earth way more than it needs us. When you talk to people about the urgency around climate change, think about encouraging them to do it for all the right reasons, and to save themselves. The only way to do that is to take better care of the planet and the ecosystems we rely on for our existence.

April 2, 2019

More Than Words

Of late, the Cape leadership has been consumed in a discussion about freedom speech. While impassioned and necessary, the conversation has kind of missed the point. The question should not just be if there are standards of speech that public officials should be held to, but rather why we elect people whose speech prompts the question in the first place. From where I sit, it is far more productive to redirect the energy being spent debating limits on speech to identifying, vetting and supporting better candidates for public office.

In my experience, anyone running for public office will tell you, if asked, who they are. Their words may or may not honestly depict their core values, but their record almost always does. If you take the time, and make the effort, you can learn what you need to know to make informed votes for candidates for local offices. It is also my experience that the more extreme a candidate’s views are, the more likely they are to tell you, and tell you, and tell you exactly who they are and what they are about. Given that, there is absolutely no reason to be surprised when someone with radical views, from either side of the spectrum, is elected and starts to spout off. If you are surprised, it generally means you didn’t do your homework.

As spring town elections approach, now is a good time to build good voter habits. Take a few minutes and learn who is on your local election ballots. Support the candidates whose values and priorities best fit the needs of your community. An informed electorate will elect candidates whose presence in office will eliminate the need to have an endless and unproductive conversation about how to muzzle someone’s offensive speech. Kept out of public office, the offensive comments can be relegated to the echo chamber of online chat rooms.

March 11, 2019

An Easy Choice

Want to refuse financial assistance from a tax paid by non-Cape residents and, in doing so, increase your own property tax burden? I suspect not. Well, if you don’t want that to happen you should contact your local selectmen and town councilors and insist that they keep your town in as a member of the Cape and Islands Water Protection Trust. The Trust was established to lower Cape property taxes needed to fund water quality improvement.

While hard to believe, there is serious talk among some elected town officials to opt out of the Trust. This move originates from a lack of understanding of the financial benefits the Trust offers. In short, these misinformed town officials, fortunately few in number, want to increase the amount Cape residents have to pay to restore and protect water quality. It is up to each and every one of us to stop this movement in its tracks. Contact your local elected leaders and insist on two things: 1) your town proceeds with wastewater management and 2) it remains a member of the Trust. If your town decides to move forward with opting out, show up at Town Meeting or the Town Council meeting and say, “no”. Say no to dirty water and say no to sticking local taxpayers with an unnecessary portion of the bill.

March 5, 2019

Strange Bedfellows

It has been long said that politics makes strange bedfellows. While true, every now and then the pursuit of smart public policy and shared mutual objectives brings together interests not normally seen as aligned with one another to pursue a big idea. Now is such a time on Cape Cod.

Four very different organizations, the Association to Preserve Cape Cod (APCC), Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, Cape Cod & Islands Association of REALTORSⓇ (CCIAOR), and Housing Assistance Corporation (HAC), have come together out of a shared belief that the future of Cape Cod depends heavily on infrastructure improvements and community investment for future economic stability and environmental improvement. The 4 organizations see now as the perfect time for local government to establish infrastructure banks and direct resources to long-term community investment. Collectively we are asking all 15 Cape towns to adopt a local bylaw this spring directing at least 50% of the local option rooms excise tax to a discrete stabilization fund, earmarking that revenue for housing, wastewater management, broadband, transportation, and competitive marketing of Cape Cod. Making long-term investments will dictate the economic viability and sustainability of Cape Cod and defer the use of property tax revenues for these needed projects, saving Cape Codders money.

Part of the impetus for this initiative is the unusual opportunity for towns to take advantage of a new revenue source provided by legislation at the end of 2108. More broadly though, and perhaps more encouraging, is that our 4 organizations have come to realize that many of our interests are better served by coordinating our efforts than by seeking our own objectives in a vacuum. In APCC’s case, our pursuit of water quality improvement is not a zero sum game where the environment can only improve at the expense of housing and economic interests. Collectively we stand to improve water quality more quickly and at lower cost by working with, not against, our partners.

At a time when people seem to spend more time shouting at one another, good work is being done on hard issues through collaboration and discussion. More to come. Stay tuned.

February 25, 2019

An Insect Problem

Whatever your weekend reading was, I’m pretty sure it did not include the journal Biological Conservation and its article “Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers”. The short version is that the report warns that 40% of worldwide insect species could become extinct in the next few decades. The result could be a collapse in ecosystems across the planet with impacts that are hard to fully grasp. Insects play important roles throughout healthy ecosystems and their role as pollinators is essential to worldwide food production. The loss of diverse insect populations is a big deal.

As is true with increasing frequency, habitat loss, ubiquitous pesticide use and climate change are all conspiring to cause accelerated species decline. While continuing to work on the broader issues, there are some very personal things we can all do to make our own yards and towns more hospitable to a wide range of beneficial insects. APCC has long advocated the preservation and restoration of native plant species that support local beneficial insect species. Native plants have many benefits, reduced water and fertilizer needs among them, but none more important than providing habitat for beneficial insects. Planting native species has never been easier. Many nurseries now carry native plants and you can support them and the environment by asking for, and buying, local plant stocks.

Equally important to consider is eliminating the use of insecticides on your property. Insecticides have a singular purpose, killing insects. As the pesticide/insecticide industry has grown more sophisticated, it has begun promoting “natural” insecticides with the implication that their toxic properties are somewhat more benign. While perhaps safer to humans than older chemicals, all these newer insecticides are still toxic, and many are especially damaging to pollinators even if the targets are mosquitos or ticks. A dead bee probably doesn’t care that it died from a “natural” insecticide instead of a synthetic one. The bee is still dead.

So as the spring gets closer, think hard about what you are doing in your yard and make the smart choice. Don’t introduce insecticides into your yard, no matter what the marketing says. Add some native plants to enhance the beauty and functionality of your landscaping. You may not be able to stop the worldwide pressures on beneficial insects, but you can make your yard an oasis for beneficial insects and the plants and animals that rely on them.

February 11, 2019

An Opportunity in Local Government

The days are getting longer, the sun stronger and it feels like a corner has been turned. It is also the time for a lesser known, but no less important, seasonal occurrence. Now is the time of year when nomination papers are available from Town Clerk offices for spring municipal elections.

I can almost hear you thinking, “What’s the big deal about that?” In a lot of towns candidates for important elective office run unopposed and many incumbents run without serious challenge. If you think that all is well in your town, then you probably aren’t alarmed. But if you have wished your town did more to address its water quality issues, protected more open space, had a more thoughtful approach to balancing housing and environmental issues, was more aggressive adapting to climate change challenges, invested more in energy efficiency or did more to promote recycling, you need to realize that it’s the people who take out papers and get elected are the ones responsible for these issues. What happens in your town, and how it views it’s role in environmental protection, largely gets decided now by who takes out nomination papers to run for selectman, town council and planning board.

One of the most significant things you can do to improve the environmental performance of your town is to make sure that people who prioritize the environment run for office in your town. Maybe the right person is someone you know who needs a little encouragement and support to take that next step. Maybe you are the person who should be stepping forward and running this year.

Rarely does anything good happen by accident. It takes work, attention and commitment for environmental improvement to come to your town. Now is the time to take the necessary step to make sure that the people in municipal decision making positions understand and value environmental protection. The future gets decided now, you can help decide if your town will help lead.

February 8, 2019

The Shutdown - Part 2

Other than the Patriot’s annual march to the Super Bowl, 2019 has been off to a pretty rough start. While the federal government shutdown is finally over, for the moment anyway, it did highlight the great economic instability confronting a shockingly high number of American families. It was indeed sobering to see how quickly many federal workers lacked the ability to weather just one missed paycheck. Until recent times, federal workers enjoyed a degree of economic job security not shared by the general population. The events of the last month highlighted not just the vulnerability of federal workers to financial insecurity but that of the broader population that perhaps we do not heed as much as we should.

It’s hard to have watched and listened to people struggle with making ends meet and not to have gained some important insight into the fear and insecurity of the daily lives of so many of our fellow citizens. Of the many lessons is a partial explanation of why more people are not more involved in civic life in general, and engaged on the environment in particular. It’s not because people don’t care, or that they are ignorant. Maybe it’s because when you live paycheck to paycheck and are one major illness or accident away from serious financial pain or bankruptcy, the environmental issues of the day take a back seat. Sure, open space protection and clean water are important, but not so much perhaps if you are also worried about the mortgage or paying for college or choosing between prescriptions and food.

What the last month helped drive home to me is that an even bigger part of the population than I thought is living closer to the edge, more than we all want to think. How can you not rethink what you assume after seeing food collections for Coast Guard personnel?

As APCC moves forward as an organization we have to be more aware of the trade offs that are part of daily life for our fellow citizens. Taking full account of the economic pressures many people experience should challenge us to advocate for policies and laws that help people as well as the environment.

January 28, 2019

The Shutdown

Looking at the inability of the federal government to get its act together, I thought perhaps there was a silver lining. Perhaps the closure of the EPA would have the inadvertent benefit of putting on hold, if just for a little while, the systematic and thorough dismantling of the framework of environmental protections built since the 1970s. A total of 78 environmental rules have been put on the chopping block or have been withdrawn. The scope of the rescissions is breathtaking as standards and protections of land, air, water, public lands and animals have all been under assault. In an era where government has demonstrated an inability to perform many of its basic functions, this Administration has proven itself to be more than capable of executing its anti- environment and anti-public health agenda.

So, while hating the now record-setting government shutdown, I did take some comfort from the fact that it might slow down the relentless elimination of environmental protection. That comfort was misplaced. I learned over the weekend that, in spite of the shutdown, the Administration is proceeding with the opening of public lands to oil and gas exploration. Turning over public lands to the oil and gas industry is bad enough in and of itself but paired with the news that the clean-up of Superfund sites has been suspended reveals a contempt for the environment and public health that is without precedent in my lifetime. Think about it for a minute. The Trump Administration is saying that giving its oil and gas allies access to public lands is more important and a higher priority than protecting the health and welfare of those being poisoned by known hazardous waste sites.

At the core of the mission of any government is to protect the health and well-being of its residents. If the government cannot find a way to fund itself and must close, even if that means the cessation of cleanup activities, okay. But what I can’t get my mind around is the choice to continue oil and gas development at the expense of the cleanup of hazardous waste. If you harbored any uncertainty about who this Administration places first, it is industry and not you, me or anyone we know. The Trump Administration certainly does not seem to much care about the well-being of our children and grandchildren who will be left cleaning up this mess.

Over the next two years, it is up to all of us to pay attention and push back on the assault on the environment. We at APCC will do all we can to keep you informed of what is happening and will provide guidance on how to make your voice of opposition heard.

January 15, 2019

Cape and Islands Water Protection Trust Fund

APCC’s 50th year ended with a bang when the Governor signed legislation creating the Cape and Islands Water Protection Trust Fund. It’s not an understatement to say that the Trust Fund is the most significant legislative milestone for the Cape’s environment in a generation. APCC is proud to have been a driving force in effort to create the Trust and is grateful to our partners and legislative delegation for their hard work and dedication.

Right after the ink dried on the Trust Fund bill, the calendar turned to 2019 and my mind shifted to the challenges ahead for the first year of our second 50 years. There is no shortage of issues to confront and any number of places where APCC can spend it’s time. The interesting question to me is determining where APCC can provide leadership and make a difference. Very often the environmental community gets most energized in opposition to a project, a proposed rule or legislation. While often important, opposition is a reactive stance and the prevention of something bad doesn’t improve baseline environmental conditions. The challenge for APCC, and our broader environmental community, is to develop an agenda that improves the baseline and creates a road toward environmental improvement. I know this works because we just did it with the Water Protection Trust Fund.

We will be talking to you more in the next weeks about our advocacy agenda. It’s already clear we are going to continue our focus on water quality restoration and fighting for rational climate change policies and practices. In addition, look for APCC to weigh in heavily into the ongoing debates about affordable housing production, and bridge replacement. Finally, we will be loud and persistent in our opposition to the outrageous rollbacks of basic environmental protections by the Trump Administration. While opposition will not be the focal point of everything we do, some things require steadfast opposition. APCC will oppose the Trump Administration’s reckless and systematic gutting of federal environmental rules at every turn.

2019 promises to be a productive and busy year for APCC. I am glad we have you as a supporter as our ability to protect the Cape relies on you.

January 8, 2019