Food security and Y2K : LUSENET : Sonoma County : One Thread

I am posting this from Matt Russell of National Catholic Rural Life Conference which is an 80+ year old group of sustainable agriculture/spiritual-thinking individuals. Matt attended the Community Food Security Conference in October and had this to say about Y2K. I for one would like to see a Food Policy Council created much like that in Marin County and Berkeley. The University of California Cooperative Extension Sonoma County and the Redwood Empire Food Bank just issued a joint report entitled "Hunger in Sonoma County" which can be viewd at It goes to show that even with the abundance of food present in our county, there are still social and physical access barriers to those in need.



Subject: Food security and Y2K Date: Tue, 26 Oct 1999 13:31:56 EDT From: To: Community Food Security Coalition

I talked with some of you at the CFSC's Annual Meeting in Chicago about Y2K and food security. Regardless of how the new millennium starts, there seems to be an opportunity right now to raise serious questions about food security in our current food system. I'm finally getting around to posting a notice from Fred Millar at the Center for Y2K and Society. I've included an old e-mail from Fred. He has some interesting insights into food security issues that have emerged because of Y2K discussions. No one seems willing to talk about where the food is in the distribution system. This could pose major problems in case of Y2K disruptions, but it also illustrates the fragility of our food system. He also has some concerns about food banks. What are the contingency plans for food banks if there are major disruptions? I encourage those with questions or interest to get in touch with Fred Millar.

Matt Russell National Catholic Rural Life Conference

Fred Millar, Ph.D. Director of Enironmental and Public Safety Policy Center for Y2K and Society 1800 K Street, NW Suite 924 Washington, D.C. 20006 Tel: 202-775-3162 Fax: -3199 e-mail: An activity of the Tides Center

This is a draft letter from Millar sent out this summer.

Dear Honorable Legislators:

The Center for Policy Alternatives is concerned that impending Y2k problems pose potentially serious risks for your state and community and that elected legislators should play a leadership role in assessing the risks and reducing potential harms.

Many state legislators have been working hard on assessing Y2k risks by holding hearings and talking with major infrastructure providers and constituents. But these conversations and meetings have mostly focused on the risks to state agency and state university computer systems and the funds and time needed to fix them. Our concern is that many cities, counties and some states began so late that there is a good chance that many communities will probably experience failures in their core systems.

Recent newspaper articles (cite) have highlighted how Washington, D.C. and New York City will almost certainly experience serious failures. Many cities as well as major corporations that anticipate that not all Y2k problems will be fixed are doing contingency planning. Examples for cities include the use of pre-designated "warming centers" for the most vulnerable citizens and manual backups for failed automated systems. In addition, major federal government programs are at risk (which ones?), and Y2k failures in these could have major impacts on state programs.

One way of focusing these questions is to ask who is responsible, specifically and ultimately, for ensuring that adequate supplies of life-and-death goods and services such as food, medicine, and natural gas are available in communities in case of Y2k disruptions that may be long-lasting. We think there is a need for greater leadership on this issue, which is why we are writing to you to encourage you to get involved.

We are aware there is a flood of positive and well-publicized "happy talk" from industry trade associations and from John Koskinen (the President's point person on Y2k conversion) that virtually every national supply chain and infrastructure (food, pharmaceuticals, air travel, etc.) will be OK on January 1, 2000. We fear that this over-optimistic approach will be in fact counterproductive. It may cause the prevention of thorough analysis of Y2k risks and concrete preparedness by communities and citizens.

The priority here is to prevent panic. But a veneer of reassuring messages underestimates the resilience of Americans and undermines serious contingency planning. Research on emergency response indicates that providing a reliable flow of accurate information is the only way truly to prevent panic.

We need to find out just how deep our trouble may be. For example, Washington Gas Light, the major supplier to the Washington, DC area, reported to a citizen public forum that they had had extensive independent auditing done on their own Y2k system fixes. They had not, however, done similar audits on the pipelines and rural electric coops which bring their gas from Texas. In fact, no one had.

We note with alarm that the reassuring messages at the national level are based on inadequate information, often only on self-reported data from tiny samples of the affected industries. In regard to small chemical companies, for example, the Synthetic and Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association and six other similar associations put out a feel-good national press release on the basis of self-reports from only 300 of their 6000 companies - this is reassuring?

Similarly, the public is receiving many patently overkill public relations exercises such as "drills" of a few local systems that are designed to come out perfect. And this summer the President's Council is promoting in all 50 states a series of "Y2k community conversations", at which typically the stage is packed with a chorus of 50 to 60 bankers, utility execs, etc., all singing the same tune that all is under control. Please consider the following:

* We are crucially dependent on an incredibly complex and fragile national electric utility grid. Because of this very complexity, it is not going to be subjected to the "end-to-end" testing that could assure Y2k readiness. The widely overhyped April 1999 NERC "drill" was not about the viability of the national electric grid, but only about the power plants' ability to communicate with radios in case the national telecom network fails. National Guard units have also drilled on this risk.

* Similarly, although major oil and chemical companies have said that they will shut down some "batch" plants, they cannot afford to shut down huge and complex "continuous flow" facilities such as oil refineries for genuine Y2k testing. We have to assume that some degree of not-very-publicized Y2k risk testing is going on in the 66,000 chemical and oil facilities that can have serious off-site impacts in case of accidental releases.

* Major corporations are spending serious amounts of money not only on attempting to mitigate Y2k risks, but on serious contingency plans to meet possible seriously lengthy disruptions in power, supplies, customer contacts and supply chains.

* Because of inherent and intractable liability and other constraints on corporate sharing of information, it appears that critical information sharing is not being done adequately between companies (much less the joint testing of interrelated systems such as electricity and telecom that would be needed for realistic assurance). In their December 1998 "Y2k Summit for State Utility Regulators" the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission asked if anyone had "a model executive order that our Governor could sign that would force the utilities to talk to each other". In the recent San Francisco Y2k symposium (cite) , nearly all the representatives of various major multinational corporations expressed concerns about the viability of basic utilities and transportation.

* There has been no serious increase of production in even the most crucial commodities (food, medicines, fuels, etc.) needed in case of serious disruptions. National regulators have decided to increase only the supplies of crude oil and cash (neither of which is edible), and these only by a little. Electric generator manufacturers say they have on their own built more manufacturing capacity and expect to sell all they can make, but according to the Center for Y2K and Society it is still likely not to be near enough.

* There is no adequate oversight of the oil and chemical facilities and the other 66,000 facilities which can impact citizens off-site with fires, explosions and toxic gas clouds. Thousands of small and medium-sized facilities are particularly at risk, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazards Investigation Board.

* Serious international failures are predicted which will inevitably impact on the U.S. The Gartner Group has cited international shipping and the oil industry as likely to suffer many failures of mission-critical systems.

What can state legislators do about Y2k?

State legislators have a key opportunity to raise awareness of the serious Y2k risks and to work for preventing the worst possibilities. Legislators need to ratchet up their legislative oversight activities to:

1. Demand that local officials and companies provide complete and accurate information on the key infrastructure systems of electricity, natural gas, water, telephone, food, medicine and banking services. It is very important that information be obtained on environmentally risky facilities in the oil, chemical and other manufacturing businesses, so that important data for community planning can occur in the face of Y2k environmental risks. Only a steady flow of reliable information will prevent irrational public fear, anger and panic in a time of rising anxiety about Y2k vulnerabilities.

Two major options for securing more accurate information on Y2k risks are:

* Require 'independent auditing' of key infrastructure providers. Elected public officials who must look after the constituents, should not be in a position of merely trusting rosy Y2k assertions.

* Hold public forums to enable the public to ask tough but important tough questions to agencies, companies and local officials. Citizens need to ask these questions in public forums involving water, utilities, chemical facilities in order to be reassurred that their communities and families will be safe and that food, water, electricity and heat will be available.

2. Push for local assessment and comprehensive contingency planning for potential serious Y2k related disruptions that can affect public health and safety. This would especially involve planning for responsible shutdowns and re-starts of dangerous facilities, which are the most risky operations in such facilities. Citizens should insist that local officials provide adequate resources for contingency planning to maintain essential water and wastewater services, to protect drinking water resources, and to respond to hazardous releases.

3. Ask a whole series of commonsense "Where is it?" questions. For example: Where does our natural gas come from? Where are the most risky facilities in our community for fires, explosions, toxic gas clouds? Where is the food, fuel and medicines supply for our community in the pipeline? What is the back up plan in case of utility interruptions of 3 days, 2 weeks, or as long as 8 weeks (which is what Portland is contemplating)? Where are the manual operations plans for key risky facilities? Where is the list of "warming centers" for vulnerable populations in case of major utility disruptions?

4. Demand more responsible, fuller and more enterprising coverage of Y2k environmental issues by the media, versus merely parroting handouts from "happy-talk" press releases by agencies and companies.

The purpose of this letter is to bring to your attention some troubling questions and concerns. I strongly encourage to participate in the regional conference call, so you can further learn about Y2k and ask questions you might have.

Very truly yours,


=== Fred Millar, Ph.D. Director of Enironmental and Public Safety Policy Center for Y2K and Society 1800 K Street, NW Suite 924 Washington, D.C. 20006 Tel: 202-775-3162 Fax: -3199 e-mail: An activity of the Tides Center

-- James Johnson (, November 20, 1999

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