Park(ing) Day – 16 Sept 2011 – MIG Farmlet

Park(ing) Day 2011 hits the streets of Portland in fine countrified form!

 

Our office participated in its first Park(ing) Day event. We had an urban farm theme, which attracted many passersby. We fed people lemonade and iced tea and had a jazz band show up during lunch. We had few complaints.  More photos are located here. How did you commemorate Park(ing) Day?

 

 

It’s happening….Let’s hope it holds!

Mississippi putting immense pressure on the Low Sill Structure, looking south.

Old River Control's Low Sill Structure, looking north up the Mississippi River.

Full-circle downsizing – 20 jobs for Pascagoula

My own disclaimer: I fully intended to post about this news item when it was “newsworthy” but I got bogged down in my daily work obligations for the last 6 weeks and it never happened. Aside from that, since Feb. 1 the world has literally witnessed revolutions, massive tidal waves, immeasurable human suffering and near nuclear meltdown – so this little story about ‘a little refinery-that-could-but-won’t’ in rural MS probably seems like a wasted effort. Anyhoo, I hope that the unforgiving pace of the news cycle will excuse my tardiness and readers will find interest to continue reading about events in Pascagoula.

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In late December, the media caught wind of an expected announcement from Chevron about new investments in their Pascagoula plant that would help to better diversify their “downstream” product line and services. The announcement came shortly after firing 1,000 San Ramon, CA employees at its home office and another 1,000 workers worldwide.

The new facility in MS will only produce 20 permanent jobs after construction of the $1.4 billion facility is complete. That’s an capital investment of $95 million on Chevron’s part to create just one full-time job. Sure, construction will create about 1,000 jobs each lasting two years, but after that it’s just 20 lucky souls who can plan their lives with assurance they will be able to raise families with security and contribute to long-term retirement plans. The others? Might as well be day laborers.

The argument that private sector investment is the only way the U.S. will be able to dig out from high unemployment is pretty hard to make with players like Chevron at the table. For Chevron and other similar corporations, investment is a numbers game with a strict bottom line — not a social, humanistic exercise to see who can make the most well-paying, full-time jobs with the least amount of money spent. The fewer jobs created, the less amount paid out to salaries, benefits, worker’s comp and the like – and that’s the outright goal: profitability.

Even Chevron can’t exude much confidence in their announcement that the plant will contribute to Mississippi’s future economic prosperity. A disclaimer at the bottom of the press release reads:

 

Some of the items discussed in this press release are forward-looking statements about Chevron’s downstream activities at its Pascagoula refinery. Words such as “anticipates,” “expects,” “intends,” “plans,” “targets,” “projects,” “believes,” “seeks,” “schedules,” “estimates,” “budgets” and similar expressions are intended to identify such forward-looking statements. The statements are based upon management’s current expectations, estimates and projections; are not guarantees of future performance; and are subject to certain risks, uncertainties and other factors, some of which are beyond the company’s control and are difficult to predict. Among the factors that could cause actual results to differ materially are changes in prices of, demand for and supply of crude oil and natural gas; changing refining, marketing and chemical margins; actions of competitors or regulators; potential delays in the development, construction or start-up of planned projects; the potential disruption or interruption of production and manufacturing facilities due to war, accidents, political events, civil unrest, or severe weather; government-mandated sales, divestitures, recapitalizations and changes in fiscal terms or restrictions on scope of company operations; and general economic and political conditions. You should not place undue reliance on these forward-looking statements, which speak only as of the date of this press release. Unless legally required, Chevron undertakes no obligation to update publicly any forward-looking statements, whether as a result of new information, future events or otherwise.

 

Chevron’s buzz-kill public relations approach is somewhat admirable, though, considering the fact that thousands will still apply for these jobs with hope they’ll be one of twenty. The job market is just that TOUGH these days (spoken from someone just recently into full-employment after looking aimlessly for 15 months).

The sweet n’ sour on steel

Following up on the Nucor Steel project in Louisiana, the latest news out of New Orleans claims the deal is still on although the State was forced to cut 118 public works projects to fund Nucor’s incentive package.  This kind of fiscal shuffling is commonplace, especially considering the prolonged economic crisis affecting most of middle America. Sidelined by State lawmakers thirsty for new industry and jobs, these unfunded projects represent many efforts to revitalize New Orleans, a city still incredibly hobbled by flood and storm damage from five years ago.

There is still plenty of work to be done in New Orleans but today the to-do list just keeps getting longer. Projects to increase the self sufficiency of urban New Orleans are desperately needed, but they are secondary to creating jobs – any kind of jobs – even ones that are unlikely to uplift under-served urban residents. The State axed funding to a New Orleans food co-op proposal which was anticipated to increase the variety of fresh food available in the city.  The State cut $1.25 million for upgrades to New Orleans’ central open space, City Park, which was severely damaged by levee floods.  A quarter million was frozen for a bike and pedestrian trail proposal in Eastern New Orleans, a project which could have improved connections between disparate areas of the city with poor access to critical goods and services. Funding for improvements to a University of New Orleans science building is also on hold.

These projects deserve some attention because they also represent lost work for urban designers, architects, planners and landscape architects such as myself who would jump at the opportunity to help improve public life in New Orleans. While these projects do come at a cost for tax payers, they are not without merit or need. They are not an extravagance as some would claim.  They are critical projects geared at boosting self sufficiency that the private sector has either no interest or incentive to promote. They are projects that have been years in the making, and will likely remain on the public’s wish-list long after Nucor gives any souls in Louisiana a job.

Sweet Deal: Sugar to Steel – Convent’s search for high-paying jobs

In May 2007, the town of Convent, Louisiana received bad news.  After months of making plans, drafting agreements, and putting together incentive packages, it found out it would not be the chosen home for a new ThyssenKrupp steel manufacturing plant. Instead, the German metals conglomerate chose a site in Calvert, Alabama, 225 miles to the northeast.  For the short term, it seemed Convent’s landscape would remain limited to the familiar vocabulary of sugar cane fields, petrochemical plants, refineries, and grain elevators.

The scraped landscape along Alabama's Tombigbee River - new home to ThyssenKrupp steel.

SketchUp rendering of Alabama steel mill. Photo credits: http://www.thyssenkruppnewusplant.com/careers.aspx

Convent and the Parish of St. James were hard struck by the announcement.  So much effort, consensus building, money, and man hours had gone into making the case that Convent was an ideal place for this kind of industrial investment.  Now, not only were officials and citizens out time and money it took to make their ill-fated application, they had nothing to show for it – the most important being jobs – ThyssenKrupp pledged the creation of 2,700 high paying jobs once the facility was operational, and thousands upon thousands of construction-related jobs.

For St. James Parish, population 20,000 in the 2000 U.S. Census, ThyssenKrupp’s presence promised big change.  The plant would have made Convent a regional job center for Louisiana, bringing a bigger tax base, improved services, and expanded economic opportunity to a struggling area of the state.  It suggested new thinking about St. James’ economic landscape – an exchange of agricultural jobs for higher-paying manufacturing jobs serving ever-expanding global markets.  Each new ThyssenKrupp job was expected to pay $50-60K per year, an astounding jump from the $35,277 median household income for St. James Parish.

In the three years since the rejection, Convent and St. James Parish have stayed focused on marketing the area’s potential to other investors.  News announced this week by Republican Governor Jindal and Nucor Steel, an American steel manufacturer, describes plans for another steel manufacturing facility, with jobs paying on average $75K per year plus benefits.  Nucor’s plant hits additional efficiency targets using production techniques that create less greenhouse emissions than the proposed ThyssenKrupp complex.  The phased project could ultimately bring 1,250 jobs to St. James Parish (500 jobs in the first phase).

Proposed site for Nucor's newest American steel plant in St. James Parish.

What kind of incentives did Louisiana have to offer to ultimately get Nucor’s bid?  The state approved $600 million in tax exempt bonds that will cover the capital costs of building the first phase of the project.  Additional payments and incentives depend on the company’s ability to meet state-mandated minimum targets for payroll and investment.  The website steelguru.com states: “one of the surprising aspects of the deal is that Nucor, rather than the state, will pay for a river port terminal upgrade. Also, the state is not guaranteeing major infrastructure improvements for roads and site preparation.”

Reader do note the significance of these remarks about incentive packages.  From previous experiences courting investment, states have learned it makes little fiscal sense to sell the state out in the short term for a project whose promise depends on decades of sustained growth.  Although the desire to create jobs cannot be overstated, states should know better than to get in over their heads in these tenuous times.  Sustainable economic development – the kind of growth that does not compromise the potential of future generations — requires a proportionate balance of risks, benefits, and costs among and between participants.

Diagramming the environmental risk of hog farms

A brief internal review of my blog entries this evening revealed I’ve left out one or two important stops.  In late March with much effort and logistical maneuvering, I had scheduled a flight over North Carolina’s eastern plains to observe the impact of the hog growing industry on the Neuse and Cape Fear Watershed areas.  It turns out I never got around to writing about the flight itself, or highlighting the organization that helped get me up in the air.  ‘Better late than never’ certainly applies in this case.  Plus, I think this entry will be both a pleasure to write and to read.  So off we go:

When I was planning my adventure through the American South earlier this winter, I realized a few difficulties I was bound to face as a road-going traveler.  Traveling by car meant that most of my sites would need to be accessible by personal vehicle.  For most sites on my itinerary this was no problem: parking lots are plentiful in the south, afterall.  But some of the places I wanted to visit and poke around a little bit — take a few photos, do some field sketches, trample around in my rubber boots, etc. — happened to be on private property.  Two such sites were mining areas in Kentucky and hog producing regions of Eastern North Carolina.

I’d heard some stories about people getting shot at in the South for mistakenly trespassing across private property, so I was sufficiently shaken enough to brainstorm a different approach.  I did a little online research one night and came across some great aerial photos of both of these site types – coal mining and hog farming.  The perspective from a small aircraft is different from anything you can find on the ground.  You can see relationships from the air that are not perceived with your two feet on the ground.  Right then and there I got in my mind that I needed to find a way to get in the air.  With surprisingly little effort, I identified an organization that could help me do exactly that:  Southwings.

Southwings motto of “conservation through aviation” translates to a lot of logistical work and relationship building to pair volunteer pilots with parties doing research, surveying, reconnaissance, photography, among other things.  Southwings’ local partner organizations – like National Wildlife Federation, Gulf Restoration Network, and other conservancy based nonprofits – typically “sponsor” the flight and can invite academics, journalists, government leaders, etc. to come along.  They use the unique opportunity to spread the word about a particular issue or controversy impacting the South’s diverse ecosystems and landscapes.  Flights address all kinds of issues: logging, mining, habitat loss, watershed pollution, oil spills, unsustainable development patterns.

I dropped by Southwings’ Asheville, NC headquarters on a cold, blustery afternoon in early March to ask about what I’d need to do to set up a flight to look at concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in eastern North Carolina.  I received enthusiastic assistance from Caroline Douglas, the organization’s Conservation Program Director.  She suggested I contact Lower Neuse Riverkeeper Larry Baldwin to ask if he’d like to sponsor the flight.   I filled out some forms and left their office with Larry’s cell phone number, excited about the idea of this aerial adventure and what it would bring to my research.

Our flight was finally scheduled for March 18 after more than a few urgent calls and emails to get everyone on board.  But it was set.  Bad weather came in that day (of course) and we reassembled to meet the following day, March 19.  I met pilot Jack Lynch early that morning in the parking lot of the Burlington Hardee’s fast food restaurant.  I followed him into the small airport and parked my car, all the while getting a little anxious as this was only my second time flying in a small plane (first time was a few months earlier – when I flew in Kauai).  It turns out Jack’s plane was a *little* bit nicer than the plane I flew on in Kauai.  Jack owns a stunning state-of-the-art single prop plane manufactured by Lancair Columbia out of Bend, Oregon.  I immediately felt a little safer after observing the care Jack took in prepping the plane for our flight.  We took off with no problems, and headed to New Bern, NC to pick up Larry.  We would take off and land a total of 6 times that day!

L-R: Lower Neuse Riverkeeper Larry Baldwin, Rachel Edmonds, Southwings Pilot Jack Lynch

Now for the hog farming part of this story.  A *brief* history is important to understand what things I was going to see on the Southwings’ flight.  Hog farming has been HUGE business in NC ever since the tobacco industry bit the dust in the early 1990s.  Farmers who’d traditionally specialized in tobacco needed to find new ways to support themselves.  Some began raising hogs, chickens, and turkeys in small-scale family operations.  By the end of the decade, some of the largest pork producers in the world (Smithfield, Premium Standard, etc.) figured out ways to vertically integrate the industry and deliver enormous profits to the corporate coffers.  They used their influence at state and national levels to push out independent farmers and later sign them on as contractors.  Animals would be farrowed and fattened by contract farmers in barns on their family land, but the pigs would remain corporate property.  The farmers would be paid a fee for raising the animals, but they would be required to purchase feed and other supplies (hormones, medications, antibiotics) from their corporate “partners”.  Similarly, contract farmers would assume liability and be responsible for the environmental impact of raising hogs they don’t even own.  Many signed on, eager to make money the only way that seemed possible.

Problems regularly arose as contract hog operations expanded across many counties in Eastern North Carolina.  Heavy seasonal rain and hurricanes tended to overflow hog lagoons that capture excrement and liquid waste from adjacent pig barns.  These pig manure filled lagoons are what I planned to observe on my Southwings flight.  Essentially open cesspools, hog lagoons are a major threat to water resources in North Carolina.  Sadly, there are no regulations that govern the decision where to site lagoons on property with streams or wetland areas.  No fool-proof technology for their construction or management is mandated to prevent contamination of shared water resources or wildlife habitat.  Since neighbors tend to complain about visibility of hog farming infrastructure, lagoons are usually built at the rear portions of a property where watershed areas are present.  While out of sight, they aren’t out of mind; lagoon waste spread over farm crops eventually reaches groundwater resources that everyone in the community shares.  It’s a no-win situation.

The flight was an amazing eye-opener and it certainly clarified some issues for me in terms of understanding the relationship of the hog industry to the landscape.  Because the technical aspects of the problem are vast and evolving, simplifying it with a few key graphics is the way I would like to make it more accessible to a lay audience.  I developed this graphic below the other night based on an actual aerial image I found with Google Earth.  Compare the diagram with some of the photos I have included from the flight and try to identify potential hazards.

Conceptual diagram of hog production facilities in Eastern North Carolina

Each of these hog barns holds approximately 2500 pigs. The lagoons here abutting a drainage way hold the waste of up to 20,000 hogs.

Liquid waste is transferred from the hog barns to lagoon through an underground piping system.

What does the future say about NC’s hog industry and its troubled agricultural coastal plain?  I am hopeful that technology will bring us solutions, coupled with some old fashioned regulatory reform.   Agriculture extension offices and universities are studying new models and practical methods for addressing the waste issue.  Some claim to have solved the problem, but corporate pork interests have not promised the capital needed to pay for equipment and training for contract farmers.  So far just lip service.  The day will come when it will not make economic sense for Smithfield and others to ignore the problem.  While vertical integration rules today, it will surely fail if local water resources become unreliable.  Water is the common denominator for all of us.  Industry should resolve to protect local water in the interest of its own longevity.  Just sayin’.

The path less taken

My journey through the South, spring 2010.

Louisiana’s bad (black) luck

For the few readers who may be wondering, I haven’t ignored what has been happening down in Louisiana.  You know, the oil spill stuff?  Thousands of jobs lost?  Seafood industries soon to be obliterated?  Wildlife suffocating under brown muck?  The future of Louisiana teetering on the brink of disaster?  Sigh.  Yeah.  I’ve simply been stewing for the last several weeks, trying to figure out a way to get this entry down.

I left Louisiana for Oregon on April 18, 2010, just a couple days before the epic blow out at the BP undersea rig Deepwater Horizon.  Had I anticipated this scoop, I probably would still be down in the bayous today trying to cover the story of the year (a story that happens to address my research thesis for this fellowship trip pretty darn well!).

Earlier in the spring I’d driven along coastal Louisiana hopeful to see some of these fabled rigs out in distance.  For me, a researcher of the South’s economic-fueled landscapes, the opportunity to capture the image of these floating virtual cityscapes was extremely alluring.  Sadly, from the vantage point I chose at Cypremort State Park, I couldn’t see them at all.  I was warned I would need to move further east to see anything – words of advice from an Army Corps of Engineers watchman I met at one of the Old River Control facilities. So I left the South in late April with only a faint idea of what the oil and gas industry means in a physical sense – the closest I got to an actual rig was in Morgan City, Louisiana where a retired (outdated) rig named “Mr. Charlie” is open to curious visitors like myself.  The rig functions as a museum and public outreach facility.

Morgan City's oil rig museum - modern rigs are exponentially larger than this old relic.

Oil and gas extraction is huge business in Louisiana and the South in general.  The diagram below describes the presence of offshore oil and gas rigs along Louisiana’s coast:

Over 3500 oil and gas rigs are in the Gulf of Mexico. Deepwater Horizon is just one of these.

As an avid radio listener, I’ve gotten downright depressed listening to the seemingly endless interviews and feature stories about forlorn shrimpers, oyster guys, and fisherman of lower Louisiana.  These people are some of the most dedicated, self-reliant, and earnest workers I’ve ever read or heard about.  They are not modern people – they are old-fashioned in terms of their global footprint and worldly ambitions.  But they sure know how to work a shrimp boat, which makes them a rare breed in today’s workforce.

One of the most remarkable things about  Louisiana’s coastal fishing communities is how tied to the landscape their members find themselves for their everyday existence.  That close relationship with the land is what makes the situation so much sadder.  With the inevitable arrival of oil into the marshes of coastal Louisiana, shrimp breeding and fishing grounds will be decimated and likely closed by government officials.  Considering forty percent (40%) of the U.S.’s seafood is harvested off the coast of Louisiana, it goes without saying that more than just shrimpers and fisherman will be put out by this oil spill.  As consumers, we will probably have a hard time finding seafood at an affordable price in the coming months and years.

The intertwined relationship these fishing communities have with the oil and gas economy is not unrecognized.  Some of the best paying jobs are on oil rigs and most these communities have members who depend on them for their livelihood.  Many shrimpers work rigs on the off season.  This fact may explain the even-keeled nature of the public’s comments on how BP is handling the capping operations and pending clean up.  Restrictions on future oil drilling is just as much a threat to the communities of coastal Louisiana as is the oil slick arriving in nearby marshes.

As for me, I’m hoping Louisiana’s bad luck changes course real quick.  I would be downright happy if I didn’t hear any news out of the state for a long time save for Super Bowl victories and everyday indecencies on Bourbon Street.

Homeplace geography: a drive through Glascock County, GA

The following lyrics are from a song called Old Home Place written by The Dillards, a 1960s bluegrass band:

What have they done to the old home place?
Why did they tear it down?
And why did I leave the plow in the field
And look for a job in the town?

An overgrown home place, a common sight in rural Georgia.

In Georgia, the decaying remains of the homeplace are a common sight from the state’s two lane country roads.  Their solemn presence has sparked the interest of laypeople and scholars alike.  Nearly everyone is curious about spooky ruins, afterall.  Each homeplace has a unique story since its beginning and end are tied to the idiosyncracies of a single (albeit usually extended) family.  Interestingly, the family histories seem to have a few things in common based on the general age, condition, siting, and contemporary use of the structure and the surrounding property.  First, a definition:

homeplace (plural homeplaces)

-noun

The part of a piece of land on which a home is built; a person’s birthplace or family home

-origin

1730–40, Americanism; “home” + “place”

In early April, friends I was visiting in Louisville took me on a Saturday morning drive through Glascock County.  Their aim was to show me some of the state’s finest examples of historic rural-residential decay.  Why you ask?  Well, first, the homeplace typology – as a way to explain a lot of things about the region, economy, climate, and patterns of social change – seemed a good fit for the travel fellowship project I am doing.  Second, it involved a country drive, a past time my friends Helen and Kathleen often enjoy on their own.  So we were off.

The county is small, with only 2771 residents and four small towns.

The typical homeplace ruin is wooden frame construction built around the turn of the century.  The facade might be embellished with Victorian detailing – cornice, eaves, shutters, etc.  Others are simple A-frames with a modest sitting porch.  Two positions in the landscape are most common:  One, as seen above, the structure is enveloped in layers of strangling vines, the roof line silhouette the only indication of order, sagging windows and buckling walls, open windows that welcome vegetation to pull the place apart from the inside.  Two, as seen below, the structure is more or less preserved and well-displayed.  Absent of tangling vegetation, they often have boarded up front doors and windows, though appear to receive some degree of upkeep (someone mows around the base of the structure every few weeks, yard furniture, etc.).

On the same family property, prefab dwellings contrast with a traditional homeplace in Glascock County, GA.

Inevitably, as time passes family structure changes.  Jobs change.  Technology begins to alter the landscape.  Even the weather patterns seem a little different.  It is of little surprise the old family homeplace is not immune to the passage of time.  The structure succumbs to weathering.  Soon, repairs overwhelm what remains of the family.  Like other rural areas, more and more young Glascockians have left the county for higher education or eastward to Augusta for salaried jobs.  The few that remain struggle to reconcile the future of their family assets.

Because it makes little sense to keep putting money into a crumbling relic, the family moves on as well.  They don’t move far, however.  A prefabricated home, within the purchasing power of the younger descendants, is delivered and set up a few hundred feet away from the old homeplace.

The original homeplace, now abandoned and perhaps boarded up, remains as important symbol in Georgia’s rural landscape.  It’s a vestige of a bygone era of building tradition as well as the vessel of family memories.  In many ways, it is as though every established clan in rural Georgia erected their own personal family history museum!  As you can imagine the nearby mobile home begs the question of permanence.  How much longer will the family remain here?  If the old homeplace lasted for 110+ years, how long will the mobile home be around?  20-25 years?  30 (at best)?  Do the remaining family members conceive the mobile home as an equal replacement to the structure built by their (great) grandparents?  When the day comes to abandon their newest home, will it be preserved and displayed like the old homeplace?  Left to the ravage of the vines?  Or simply carted away and replaced with another outright?

The old homeplace porch appears to remain in use, with an aging mobile unit in the background.

Graphic on Kentucky surface mining

The Lexington Herald-Leader published an interesting article on the prevalence of surface and MTR mining in KY.

Graphic credit: The Lexington Herald-Leader