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S.F. Green Business Program rewards polluter 

Wednesday, Nov 18 2009
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Back in the days when Gavin Newsom aspired to become governor, his every move seemed tailored toward succeeding Arnold Schwarzenegger as California's bogus-environmentalist-in-chief. He did a photo-op piloting an electric sports car, proposed underwater wind farms, proclaimed he'd switched from bottled water to tap, and traveled to Davos, Switzerland, to discuss global warming.

Newsom's statewide campaign is over now. But, like spent uranium or excessive atmospheric carbon dioxide, enviro-bunkum lingers as hazardous residue long after its useful life is gone.

Thanks to yet another of Newsom's pre-governor's-race-dropout "green" programs, San Francisco taxpayers have actually paid to greenwash a major toxic polluter. I'm not making this up. In 2006, he backed legislation, approved by the Board of Supervisors, that established the San Francisco Green Business Program, whereby city employees would help interrogate local companies about whether they used both sides of their photocopier paper and washed windows with biodegradable cleaner. Those that passed muster enjoyed drinks and hors d'oeuvres under the 24-lamp chandeliers of the Veterans Building Green Room at an Oct. 27 reception, where they also received plaques made of recycled pallet wood certifying their businesses were environmentally friendly.

A party was in order, since being certified as green could sometimes be a long ordeal for businesses and their municipal overseers. Because they were part of a "green" program, the workers assigned to check up on businesses biked or took public transit to worksites, meaning a single green-business verification could take days of employee time and delays of as much as a year. Sushma Dhulipala , the director of the program, told me that each designation has been estimated to cost the city $700 to $1,500 to complete. So far, there are 175 official San Francisco green businesses.

Among the recipients was the local subsidiary of Sims Metal Management, a global company that shreds automobiles and appliances for recycling. The corporation also happens to be a big generator and dumper of hazardous waste.

As reported in this space previously, earlier this year the automobile shredding industry successfully lobbied to block rules that would have halted the dumping of treated waste from automobile recycling plants into municipal landfills.

While recycling may seem like an environmentally friendly idea, grinding up cars and separating only recyclable metal actually leaves behind hundreds of tons of toxin-containing residue in the form of ground-up cushions, wiring, and other material. Scientists say the stuff is unsafe, even when treated with silica-based coating, unless buried in specially sealed hazardous waste landfills.

Regulators with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control hoped to require just that. But the industry backs a pending bill to stop a rule that would have officially designated its byproducts as hazardous waste. Sims Metal can now plausibly claim in its financial filings that the million metric tons of waste per year it dumps in North America is "nonhazardous." The attempt at changing this designation was a big deal. In a worst-case scenario, the material could leach lead, PCBs, mercury, and other toxins into groundwater.

Notwithstanding, attending the Veterans Building party to pick up a plaque last month was a vice president for Sims Metal Management. State records show that last year, 41,300 tons of waste went to landfills from Sims' auto shredder facility in Redwood City.

City employees apparently were too occupied sniffing out nonbiodegradable window cleaners to conduct a Web search that might have revealed SF Weekly's report noting Sims' status as a major dumper of toxic garbage.

Why does this matter? Because it's an example of how environmentalists' strategic decision to make every battle about global warming has in some ways backfired, producing a noxious emission called eco-phoniness. In this contaminated environment, programs with nebulous objectives such as the Green Business Program seem to have taken the place of old-fashioned yet tangible targets such as defending endangered species, maintaining healthy air and open space, and keeping toxic sludge out of our drinking water.


There's no denying global warming's appeal as a rhetorical sword. Rather than haplessly begging loggers to preserve spotted owls, environmentalists can now play rulers of the earthly realm, commanding us to change our lifestyles or see entire cities submerged. But this edict is far fuzzier than it seems, and uncertainty attracts bullshit.

Climate change is real; I'm no kook. But we lack specifics. Are methane-spewing cows, and the humans who eat them, worse than motorists? Does burning ethanol, as some scientists allege, actually produce greater net carbon emissions than gasoline? Paper or plastic? No one knows for sure.

We do know, however, that nobody — no person, no city, no state — can, acting alone, prevent the planet from heating up. This quandary is quite different from the old view of environmental stewardship, in which even a child could make a difference by picking up litter. In a new climate-change world where nothing is necessarily true, nothing is necessarily false, either. And hokum has risen in value.

The global consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers has a division dedicated to offering "sustainability" advice, because "the misjudgment of matters related to sustainability can have serious repercussions on how the world judges your company and values its shares."

Saatchi & Saatchi S (for sustainability), a San Francisco division of the advertising giant, has organic fruit delivered to its York Street office, uses nonpetroleum-based ink in its photocopier, and has helped Wal-Mart burnish its speciously green image.

In case you were wondering: Saatchi & Saatchi S got a San Francisco Green Business award, too.

Similarly, Newsom wished to paint himself as America's environmental mayor without throwing his weight behind policies that could make a difference.

Cities can actually change humanity's energy consumption, a notion Michael Bloomberg has embraced by promising to build a million new apartments in already-dense New York to reduce East Coast sprawl. A proportional equivalent in smaller San Francisco would mean adding merely 50,000 new apartments. And to be honest, such a local measure would have an imperceptible effect on climate change. But concrete environmental steps — to be distinguished from electric sports car photo ops and green business awards — become significant when looked at the old-fashioned way: Do they improve the world we see, smell, and taste? Bay Area urban infill could save a few thousand acres of Valley oak from Central Valley sprawl.

On a similar note, stopping the incautious dumping of mislabeled hazardous waste by the likes of Sims Metal Management wouldn't save the polar bears. But it could theoretically prevent another Love Canal–type disaster, a distinction muddied by the company's official San Francisco Green Business award.


In other news: Told ya! In a July 29 column, I warned readers that an advertisement run by a major bank in the San Francisco Chronicle seemed intended to lure mom-and-pop investors into possible financial disaster. A Nov. 9 bankruptcy filing, and a follow-up Securities and Exchange Commission filing on Nov. 11, suggest my warning was valid.

On Sunday, July 12, Advanta Corp., once a top supplier of credit cards to small businesses, ran an advertisement in the Chronicle's business section that announced, "You can now earn: 1 year — 11.00 percent."

Fast forward to the present: As foretold in SF "Financial Nostradamus" Weekly, investors now seem doomed to receive pennies on the dollar.

It was possible to see this train wreck in the making — with the help of retired bank examiner Richard Newsom — because Advanta's balance sheet suggested the floundering company was giving investors faulty information on the prospectus for the Chronicle-advertised notes, glossing over the company's precarious condition.

Now, investors holding the $138 million notes outstanding must get in line with creditors grubbing for the $100 million in cash the bank has left. Last week, however, Advanta released financial documents stating that the $100 million will be used to meet "ongoing operations as they come due during the Chapter 11 case, including payment of employee salaries and benefits in the ordinary course of business."

This suggests that the money will not be used to pay back investors who responded to the Chronicle ad. An Advanta spokesman told me a plan to repay the investors "has not yet been formulated."

I asked whether the company was being criminally investigated for offering investments it's ill-prepared to pay back. The company declined to give a direct answer.

"There is not, nor has there ever been, a Ponzi scheme," the spokesman wrote in an e-mailed statement. "The company believes it is in full compliance with all regulatory rules and regulations."

For William Black, a federal regulator during the savings and loan crisis and now professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri–Kansas City, Advanta's doomed Chronicle offer highlights flaws in the financial regulatory system. Advanta "knew they were in desperate trouble," he said. "They knew they couldn't have sold it to sophisticated investors. So they sold it to people who are vulnerable to this kind of offer."

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Matt Smith

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