Heard around the West


James Watt is positively basking in nostalgia these days. For those who don’t recall his bumpy years in Washington, D.C., Watt was the former Interior Department secretary under President Reagan, who pushed for energetic energy development on all public lands. When The Denver Post caught up with Watt recently, he was delighted to talk about the Bush team’s emphasis on mining and drilling wherever necessary. "Everything (Vice President) Cheney’s saying, everything the president’s saying — they’re saying exactly what we were saying 20 years ago," he said. "Twenty years later, it sounds like they’ve just dusted off the old work." As for conservation and bringing on more renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, Watt scoffed, calling them "teeny infant portions."

Meanwhile, energy-deprived California has turned into the "trailer park next door." It’s the "cash-only, deadbeat neighbor forced to beg for enough power to keep the swamp cooler running," says the San Francisco Chronicle. Spending an amazing $50 million a day on power since mid-January, California has gotten way behind on its payments to suppliers, some of whom have reaped windfalls by charging much higher prices for electricity. "We have to go into higher begging mode for generators out of state," says Jim McIntosh, who directs grid operations for California. "From the electricity standpoint, we’re operating like the Third World." Things got ultra-tense in early May when some spot-market suppliers balked. Canadian utility BC Hydro, for example, was miffed because California owed it $307 million for past sales of power. The utility told California: Pay up, or our electrons halt at the state line. Faced with a loss of electricity to 2 million homes, California staffers "marched down to the bank and wired the money." Even with generators under contract, there’s a tug-of-war. McIntosh says in his 3l years in the electricity business, he never before had to ask a lawyer to work the phones. Now, when utilities obligated to send electricity demur, two lawyers stand by "to remind generators of their commitment."

Tut, tut, Bill Gates, you are a water hog. Last year, the Microsoft maven scarfed down 4.7 million gallons of water — enough to flood his five-acre estate almost three feet deep, reports the Seattle Times. The cost: $24,828 for Gates and his wife, Melinda, to become the area’s top residential water consumers. The couple was anything but pleased about their status. "Immediately, they asked the staff to look into the cause of the high level of water use," a family spokesman told Associated Press. Here’s a clue: The $109 million monster-house includes a 60-foot pool, sauna and indoor-outdoor spa. But groundskeepers say most of the water went for irrigation and heating and cooling the mansion.

The Army is bragging about its new bullet that will kill you dead but in a way that’s environmentally friendly to the ground. The "green ammunition" for M-16 rifles cost $12 million to create and contains a less toxic tungsten composite instead of lead, reports Associated Press. By 2005, the military says, soldiers in all branches will fire some 200 million rounds a year of these better bullets.

If President Bush wants to know just how well he’s confused Americans about where he stands on environmental issues, he can consult a Newsweek poll. Half the 1,002 adults asked said Bush is not committed to protecting the environment. At the same time, over half said Bush is doing a "good job" of tackling the nation’s energy and environmental problems.

The water filling the 900-foot-deep Berkeley Pit, left over from the now closed open-pit copper mine in Butte, Mont., shines a seductive blue. Despite its poisons, it attracts migrating birds for a drink and a stopover. Inevitably the birds flop over dead; even houseflies croak instantly, victims of the metallic mine-wastes that taint the water. But a Montana Tech graduate student, studying whether algae could clean up the pit, couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw tiny bugs thriving in its water. "I was shocked," Sarah Dakel told Associated Press. "I yelled, ‘There’s a bug in here!’ " She and her professor, Grant Mitman, then scrambled to collect some of the insects, known as water boatmen. Mitman guesses that the animals, which can fly and swim underwater, developed their tolerance for metallic water over hundreds of years in the Butte area.

Everyone has an opinion about french fries. A 106-year-old woman in western Colorado says she swears by McDonalds’ salty version, delivered daily by her son. High cholesterol is not a problem for Mary Clark; she’s been eating french fries for decades, reports the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. But french fries can be a big problem for vegetarians, reports the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, if they come from McDonalds. Though the fast-food chain claims that its fries are cooked in "100 percent vegetable oil," a class-action suit charges that McDonalds uses beef tallow as "natural flavor." "This is pretty outrageous behavior," says attorney Harish Bharti, who filed the suit in King County, Wash. "Hindus and vegetarians all over the world feel shocked and betrayed." McDonalds had no comment.

Heard around the West invites readers to get involved in the column. Send any tidbits that merit sharing — small-town newspaper clips, personal anecdotes, relevant bumper sticker slogans. The definition remains loose. Heard, HCN, Box 1090, Paonia, CO 81428 or betsym@hcn.org.