Don't let this bug you

25 March 1998

There are those who say that micro-organisms will ultimately displace us and inherit the earth. Now that genetic engineers are tinkering with them the danger may be smaller – or greater. Even the bugs' IT simulacra, computer viruses, to some extent threaten society and civilization.

Now another microbial peril has appeared, but disguised as a blessing for such people as the manufacturers of printed circuit boards. British researchers have isolated a bacterium, previously unknown, that promises to help clean up the effluent from pcb factories. When the waste water is passed over columns of inert material coated with the bacteria in a sustaining film, more than ninety per cent of a particular toxic constituent is taken out of the pollutant stream by the bugs –they devour it.

I shall not spell out the possible consequences of this organism's spread. Let me say merely that they could be grave. To guard against them biocide developers may, for all I know, already be producing disinfectant dispensers for installation alongside fire extinguishers in every vulnerable plant, dwelling or vehicle. Sprinkler systems are perhaps being brought out for power stations, industrial plants, ships, office blocks and other important buildings.

Meanwhile, pending the availability of such protection, you would do well to situate your premises as far as possible from pcb or other factories that cosset the bacteria. Biofilters are said to be proof against the beasts' escape, but you would not want to risk laying yourself open to infestation by the progeny of any specimens that did get away. Just imagine how hugely these newly discovered organisms would enjoy (as you would hugely not) their feasting on your every precious morsel of their favoured food, copper.

Democracy be dammed

I marvel at the railing of the many conservationists who oppose means for tapping renewable energy sources to power a sustainable civilization. Landscape lovers often seem to be synonymous with windfarm loathers and dam detesters. An ancient Dutch windmill is by such folk deemed scenic while they vilify a modern wind turbine generator as worse than a transmission pylon. And they damn a large static-head hydroelectric works as a countryside-drowning abomination.

Hydropower also gets hit on the other side of the dam, where the absence of flooding is the environmental sin. The Colorado River in the USA is dotted with dams that have been condemned for denying inundations to Grand Canyon ecosystems.

Many millions of dollars have been spent on years of research concerned with this problem. The great expenditure of wealth and effort culminated in a procedure that was tested on the Glen Canyon Dam. Before that dam had been finished, in the early sixties, the river had regularly bestowed huge quantities of sediment on the Grand Canyon and thus created a habitat for a variety of plants, insects, fish and birds. The completed dam had brought clear green water downstream and electricity to twenty million people round about: 90 percent of the mud and sand stayed upstream.

Environmentalists' condemnation of the ecological damage spurred the government to act. Tinkering with water releases proved inadequate and, after years of wrangling, it was agreed that the hydro operators should recreate what had used to be the effect of the spring snow melt in the Colorado mountains – a major flood. This stratagem worked, to the delight of conservationists if not of all the ratepayers. Rates have risen by over 25 per cent since 1990.

Joe Hunter, executive director of the Colorado River Energy Distributors Association, has said that, effectively, almost a third of the generating capacity of one of the Americans' largest hydroelectric dams has been sacrificed. He has commented that the public and the federal policymakers have to grasp that the protection of environmental and recreational values is not without cost.

I wonder whether the millions of people affected by such protection have been enabled properly to compare the environmental and recreational gains with the environmental and recreational losses entailed by the surrender of so much cheap and reliable electricity. What might have been proved by a fully informed public debate – and a subsequent referendum?

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