Route to Recovery

A trip through the epicenters of the recession

Water-focused group tries to steer government money to clean up Buffalo

Nov 24, 2009 18:47 UTC


BUFFALO, New York – When the state of New York and this post-industrial city don’t have the resources to seek government funding for water preservation projects, Julie Barrett O’Neill’s staff step in.

“There is a lack of capacity at the state and city level,” said the executive director of nonprofit group Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, which works to promote, preserve and protect the environments of the Buffalo and Niagara rivers. “There’s not a lot of infrastructure so we have to step in.”

“We have wound up taking a much bigger role in tackling Buffalo’s water issues than you might expect,” she added on a windswept tour of a section of the Niagara River where fishermen come to catch fish, many of them to feed their families.

Canada is just across the river, with homes right down to the river bank. This section of the swift-flowing river – 12 miles an hour, 200,000 cubic feet per second – was part of the Underground Railroad, an informal network of secret routes and safe houses used by black slaves in the 19th century to escape to Canada.

So far the 20 or so staff at Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper have brought up to $12 million in funding to Buffalo, with another $50 million to come over the next two years.


The group is now looking at ways to access some of the $475 million set aside by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama as part of the Great Lakes Initiative, aimed at restoring the Great Lakes. Together the Great Lakes contain 22 percent of the world’s fresh water.

“There is a growing recognition at the federal level of the importance of the Great Lakes as a water reserve,” Barrett O’Neill said. “Taking care of that resource will be cheaper in the long run than some of the alternatives, such as desalination.”

She says that the group has its work cut out for it, as Buffalo’s industrial past has left a legacy of environmental destruction.

Barrett O’Neill says that toxic sediment dating back to the city’s manufacturing heyday has built up on the bed of the Niagara River and needs to be cleaned up.

She also took us to have a look at an old, flat industrial area along the banks of the Scajaquada Creek, which has been polluted by polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs — man-made organic chemicals which were banned in 1979. Barrett O’Neill says the group hopes to use this industrial wasteland to store rainwater and prevent it flowing into the city’s sewer system.

“A city like this is like a Victorian house, there are a lot of old issues that need to be dealt with,” she said. “We can’t prevent a lot of the pollution, but we can find ways to limit the damage.”

Photos by Brian Snyder

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A crowded race to run scandal-hit Birmingham, Alabama

Nov 15, 2009 20:26 UTC


BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Plagued by scandal and the struggle to stave off bankruptcy, the race to become mayor of this former industrial city in America’s Deep South includes the interim mayor and an attorney who styles himself as being in the mold of President Obama.

“I am a fresh face for a new beginning in Birmingham,” said Patrick Cooper, who came in second to Larry Langford in 2007. “I like to think of myself as part of a new generation of African American leaders that include Barack Obama.”

“While every other city in the South has been moving forward, we have been stuck standing where we are,” he added, speaking at his campaign headquarters where staff were preparing campaign banners. “We may as well have been in reverse.”

Langford was found guilty late last month of charges ranging from bribery to criminal conspiracy. The growing field in the race to serve out the rest of his two year term has several figures who have tried before and lost.

Apart from Cooper, that includes interim mayor Carole Smitherman – who has had two unsuccessful bids – Jefferson County commissioner William Bell – three previous attempts – Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries, and councilman Steven Hoyt.

The special election will take place on December 8.

The race takes place against a backdrop of Langford’s trial and the ongoing struggle by Jefferson to avert what would be the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history over a multibillion dollar sewer debt. Birmingham also faces a $20 million shortfall in its 2010 budget.

When we arrived to meet the interim mayor, instead of the interview we expected we stumbled upon a press conference where she announced she was cutting 7 appointed jobs from the mayor’s office to save $500,000.

“I understand these are tough economic times and I could not in good conscious ask each department to tighten their belt if the Mayor’s office didn’t tighten first,” she said.

Afterward Smitherman told us that she had asked city department heads to come up with possible budget cuts, but added that the city would just have to provide the same level of service with less money.

“Everybody has to put their shoulder to the wheel,” she said.

Over at his campaign headquarters, Cooper said that 30 years ago the debate in Birmingham was focused on joblessness and rising crime, the same issues the city faces today.

“I don’t want another 30 years to go by and have us facing the same issues,” he said.

Cooper said he wants to follow the lead of the Obama administration and institute a local stimulus package paid for by existing taxes that would hire the unemployed to clean up the city.

Whoever wins next month would appear to have their work cut out in trying to persuade local voters that corruption is endemic and deep-rooted here.

“All those politicians want is to make money, they don’t care about us,” said Ernest Blair, 45, an unemployed construction worker.

And Alyce Tyler, 32, who works at a fast food restaurant, said that she doubted that things would change, whoever won the election.

“People used to run for office to serve the voters,” she said. “Now it’s all about personal gain. I’m sick of it.”

Photos by Carlos Barria

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Go to college, get a degree. There are pell grants available from the Government. You have to want to rise above the muck and then make a real effort to do so. Education and hard work are the only two ingredients that will fix that city. Of course that is asking too much of people these days isn’t it? You reap what you sow.

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Imperial Valley strives to be small-scale renewable energy capital

Nov 5, 2009 15:49 UTC

EL CENTRO, California – At a time when alternative energy and “green jobs” have become a significant talking point under the administration of Barack Obama, Imperial Valley is pushing to make it a reality.

The Valley –- which locals in this part of southern California also call Imperial County — already has 10 geothermal plants in operation with a combined capacity of around 330 megawatts. Geothermal energy,  extracting power from underground heat, is a constant and sustainable form of generating electricity.

“This is going to be a great opportunity for the Imperial Valley,” which has a high unemployment rate, said Mark Gran, vice president of community relations at CalEnergy. “We’re going to be the renewable energy capital of the world.”

Potential geothermal or other renewable energy projects need to go through a lengthy approval process. But Imperial County officials have streamlined that process to help companies get permits far quicker, in particular for power plants under 50 megawatts. The state of California has more say in larger projects and has a reputation for being a stickler for due process.

“Getting anything done in California is hard,” said Imperial Valley Economic Development Corporation CEO Tim Kelley. “But it is less hard to get it done here.”

Apart from 360 days of sun a year and suitable geological conditions for geothermal power, the state has mandated that 33 percent of its electricity must come from renewable sources by 2020. Kelley says  companies are falling over themselves to come to Imperial County, where they know the will be welcome.

Some 30 other renewable energy projects — geothermal, solar and wind — are in the permitting process in Imperial County. One geothermal plant has just been built and construction of another will begin next year.

“We have found the optimal way through the process,” said El Centro city manager Ruben Duran. “We recommend to companies that if they want to get approval faster they follow that path. They don’t have to follow those recommendations, but we’ve found that the system works.”

Local officials hope that renewable energy will help lower rising unemployment and help diversify the economy of this rural, largely agricultural community. But one problem Imperial County faces is transmission – getting the power to customers in major markets like San Diego, around 100 miles to the west on the Pacific coast.

“It’s one thing to produce the power, but we need to be able to deliver it to customers,” Kelly said.

The existing infrastructure can handle all of the capacity that the 30 projects currently in the pipeline would require, but not much more.

“Transmission moving forward is going to be a big concern,” Duran said.

Sue Giller, a partner at Valley Solutions Group Inc, which handles public relations for some companies in the area, including one that just opened, said far more needs to be done by California and around the United States to make renewable energy as much of a priority as it is in other countries.

“It’s amazing to me that although Germany doesn’t get much sun that the Germans lead the world in solar technology,” she said. “Something needs to be done to change that.”

For more Route to Recovery stories, click here

(Picture: President Barack Obama speaks about new energy in front of solar panels at the Thunderbirds Hangar at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada May 27, 2009.  REUTERS/Jason Reed)


I like this “Amtrak- road to recovery” feature. It is a clever, useful and integral way for Amtrak to get the word out about its services while providing useful news and interesting stories. I wish Verizon and its ilk were that clever and willing to participate in a more up-to-date pluralistic fashion.