In his official Republican response to President Barack Obama's speech to the nation Tuesday, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said repeatedly that "Americans can do anything!"
With one exception, apparently. We don't need to keep an eye on simmering volcanoes.
Jindal singled out "volcano monitoring" as an unnecessary frill that Democrats stuck in the recently adopted stimulus package.
"Their legislation is larded with wasteful spending," Jindal said. "It includes ... $140 million for something called 'volcano monitoring.' Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C."
Jindal's comments provoked an eruption of their own. Alaska politicians, liberal bloggers and some scientists began pointing out how useful it is to let people know when a volcano in their neighborhood is about to explode.
"Volcano monitoring is a matter of life and death in Alaska," Democratic Sen. Mark Begich said in an open letter to Jindal.
Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski quickly agreed, noting in a press statement how "absolutely appropriate" it is to spend money on volcano monitoring. However, said Murkowski, Jindal raised "a legitimate question about funding volcano monitoring in legislation that's supposed to create jobs for unemployed Americans."
Jindal appears to have exaggerated by tenfold the $140 million he said was destined for the nation's volcano observatories.
Nearly all of that amount -- included in the stimulus bill for funding U.S. Geological Survey projects -- will go to other USGS functions nationwide, such as repairing facilities and mapping, said John Eichelberger, who heads the agency's Volcano Hazards Program in Reston, Va.
Only about $14 million will be spent on "monitoring volcanoes," mostly in Alaska, he said.
The USGS also staffs volcano observatories in Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest, but most of the nation's active volcanoes -- and most of the yearly eruptions -- occur in Alaska, said Eichelberger, who once worked at the Alaska Volcano Observatory while a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
"It was a strange thing for (Jindal) to pick up on," he said. "This is really very important work. We can see these eruptions coming, so it saves lives to be able to warn people."
Several online commentators, like New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, questioned why the governor of a state that depends so much on federally funded hurricane watching would criticize spending federal dollars to safeguard other Americans against volcano eruptions. "The intellectual incoherence is stunning," Krugman wrote.
Multiple requests for a response from Jindal himself via phone calls to the governor's office in Baton Rouge were not returned Tuesday. The 36-year-old Republican, who is considered a rising star in GOP ranks and a possible 2012 nominee for president, was in great media demand Tuesday and may not have had time to call Alaska.
A request for a comment from Gov. Sarah Palin -- also considered a future GOP presidential contender -- wasn't forthcoming either. But Palin press secretary Bill McAllister said, "Of course Alaskans want to know if a volcano is going to blow."
Begich said volcano monitoring also safeguards national economic interests, since Anchorage -- bordered by four active Cook Inlet volcanoes -- is one of the busiest cargo airports in the world.
"Any interruptions of that traffic by a volcanic eruption could be felt in Tokyo, New York or even Baton Rouge," Begich said.
The Web site "Live Science" noted that volcano monitoring by USGS scientists probably saved thousands of lives, including those of U.S. servicemen, during the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines.
Closer to home, the Alaska Volcano Observatory on Tuesday was watching Mount Redoubt, located 100 miles south of Anchorage, which has been rumbling for more than a month and is expected to blow.
Find George Bryson online at adn.com/contact/gbryson or call 257-4318.
By GEORGE BRYSON