April 20, 2014

Yes, we have no bananas

Is it not enough that the price of avocados has jumped big time due to the drought in California? Chipotle has been in the news for raising their prices to counterbalance this.

A dire warning has been issued to Caribbean islands that produce bananas, many of them exported to the United States. The fusarium wilt disease that is very destructive to the banana industry has spread from Asia to Africa and the Middle East and is now menacing the islands and Central America.

April 16, 2014

Crude oil is coming through Virginia

When we read about all those recent crude oil spills ( in North Dakota, Alabama and Quebec among others) from trains carrying this toxic stuff to refineries, we don't realize how close to home these trains might be.

Since last December, the Yorktown Terminal on the York River (closed as a refinery since 2010) has been the destination for quite a few of these trains. The terminal can handle 140,000 barrels per DAY and can store up to 6 million barrels. That potential for disaster gets my attention. Human error and train derailments do not coexist with a healthy Chesapeake Bay watershed. Sure hope that the Department of Transportation is overseeing the transport of crude oil with eagle eyes after these recent spills. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation folks worry that the bay is on borrowed time.

Environmentalists worrying about leaks in the proposed Keystone Pipeline point to these train derailments as inadequate incentive for pipeline approval. 

Renewable energy goals in Virginia

Today's article in the Daily Press on solar power included a US map showing states with MANDATES to generate ten percent of their energy from renewables. It included Virginia but that is inaccurate. Virginia has VOLUNTARY goals: 7% by 2016, 12% by 2022 and 15% by 2025. And we are not headed to those figures by any stretch of the imagination unless those offshore wind farms are up and operating. Voluntary anything is almost impossible to achieve.

April 1, 2014

Climate change no longer denied?

The United Nations panel on Climate Change issues another grim warning about the alarming consequences of a warming climate. Rising waters and threatened shorelines always get my attention since our home is so near the encroaching James River and I enjoy Caribbean islands for vacations.

But I fear that the New York Times' editorial is not yet true:

"Perhaps now the deniers will cease their attacks on the science of climate change, and the American public will, at last, fully accept that global warming is a danger now and an even graver threat to future generations. "

March 19, 2014


It is time for our annual home inspection for termites by our pest control company. Money well spent because I am NOT entering our home's crawl space. I saw a black snake slither into an air vent years ago and that was enough to dissuade me from becoming an exterminator wannabe.

Most homeowners suffer from some degree of termite phobia. If they hear that a neighbor has termites, they likely freak out. The sight of one tunnel is enough to cause heart palpitations. So I did a lot of online research today after receiving the annual reminder for our home inspection. As a "valued and loyal customer" for ten years, they are offering me an "exciting offer" of a free termite bait system. Won't this simply attract the termites who are already happily munching on fallen trees in my backyard?

The goal of the bait system is to first install inground termite stations to detect if we have termites tunneling near our home. And then to bait the stations with some yummy termite food that they will ingest before it slowly inhibits their molting process while they are back in their colony, passing on this substance to their fellow immature termites. Supposedly the queen and adult workers are not affected by this growth inhibitor and this process can take a long time.

In the meanwhile, the pest control company must inspect the stations regularly for termite activity. Aha! So instead of an annual inspection, I'll now need quarterly visits? Hmmmmm. Sounds like an extra expense for me. And any termites who don't find those stations can still dine on my home's wood. That doesn't sound like "long term protection" for my home to me. But it does sound like a cash cow for pest control companies.

And can't these stations simply detect termites that were not interested in my home anyway? Renegades from my neighbors' yards? Perhaps the same rationale for NOT using Japanese beetle traps should apply with termites. Will they simply attract nearby termites?

Sure wish that a good alternative to Chlordane had been developed! 

March 11, 2014

Voles are a curse

How can one to two ounce rodents cause so much angst? Voles eat the roots of plants and even small trees. Their burrows in lawns can turn an ankle too. A recent headline proclaimed that the polar vortex would curtail certain invasive insects such as ash borers. So I had hoped that our freezing temps over the last few months might have curtailed them. 

But it seems the dreaded voles just burrow down for the winter and hang out under the frost line in the soil which isn't very low in these parts.

As their breeding season approaches, we might see even more vole damage. They are now waking up and these critters are very prolific. Up to ten litters each year! And they can survive for 15-19 months. 

We have tried traps and baits to control their numbers. But raccoons and possums have learned how to spring the traps and enjoy the peanut butter. We applied castor oil based mole repellent to our yard a few weeks ago to send them retreating to a neighbor's yard, but they don't seem to get the idea. It seems like a futile battle.

One somewhat successful approach is to spread diatomaceous products in the hole as you plant new plantings. Moles' sensitive snouts find the diatoms annoying. But most gardeners find moles even more annoying.

Coal ash spill followup

The early February coal ash spill in North Carolina from a Duke Energy coal ash storage area is finally getting the attention of Virginia official and nearby residents. That 70 mile polluted section of the Dan River is a drinking water source for a lot of people. Coal ash contains mercury, lead and arsenic. So worries are not unwarranted. 

Just last week, a federal judge ordered Duke Energy to eliminate sources of groundwater contamination at its coal ash dumps. Duh. Should not this have been a requirement PRIOR to the power plant's beginning? It sure looks like a too cozy relationship may exist between Duke and the regulatory agencies to a lot of folks.

March 1, 2014

Golf greens not so green?

Feast or famine? The headlines about the ongoing drought in Southern California are now gone, replaced by dire warnings about the heavy rains and possible mudslides Californians are experiencing.

But the rain is good news for the 124 golf course superintendents in the Coachella Valley of California. Their courses consume about 17 percent of the available water in their region. And one quarter of that is pumped out of their aquifer. I wondered about the source of the healthy looking greens as we played golf in the Palm Springs area last January. I did not see any signs stating that they were "watered by reclaimed water" as I have seen on Florida courses.

Statewide, about 1 percent of California's water keeps their fairways green. But desert courses consume about 1 million gallons DAILY. That is three or four times what the average U.S. course uses.

Dominion lines to go over the James River

Over the River and through the woods,
With power lines we go!

I just read that Virginia's SCC ( State Corporation Commission) approved Dominion Power's plan to install the 500kV power line across the James River. That's the historic James that John Smith and friends sailed up in 1607. True, portions of the James do not appear as pristine as during Smith's time. But that particular section is still quite beautiful, especially the area along the Colonial Williamsburg Parkway. The "ghost fleet" of mothballed Navy ships is down to a shadow of its former self.

But the opposition of Colonial Williamsburg, James City County government, the James River Association and sundry other groups did not prevail. Even the valid concerns of the BASF chemical company did not concern the wise men on the SCC. So what that the line bisects their property and makes selling any portion of it less likely. So what that BASF has been doing remediation in that area to purge chemicals from the ground and that the digging will potentially release some leftover chemicals into the James. The buried kepones on the river bottom can welcome a few more chemical buddies as they get churned up during the construction.

One small concession to those who opposed the power line for aesthetic reasons: it will not be built on huge lattice towers but on tall monopoles. 

Ah, the price of progress.

February 19, 2014

Wind farm offshore Virginia?

Will we really see the proposed offshore wind farm off Virginia Beach? I haven't seen much news about it for quite some time. Our continental shelf is waiting.

But Oregon may beat us to the punch, and floating turbines no less?

The U.S. Department of the Interior recently announced an important step forward for the first offshore wind project proposed for federal waters off the West Coast. DOI's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has given the green light for Principle Power, Inc. to submit a formal plan to build a 30-megawatt pilot project in a 15 square mile lease area, using floating wind turbine technology offshore Coos Bay, Oregon.

The project is designed to generate electricity from five floating "WindFloat" units, each equipped with a 6-megawatt offshore wind turbine. The facility, sited in about 1,400 feet of water, would be the first offshore wind project proposed in federal waters off the West Coast and the first in the nation to use a floating structure to support offshore wind generation in the Outer Continental Shelf.

The West Coast holds an offshore capability of more than 800 gigawatts of wind energy potential, equivalent to more than three quarters of the nation’s entire power generation capacity. The total U.S. deepwater wind energy resource potential is estimated to be nearly 2,000 gigawatts. 

February 18, 2014

Sludge good for lawns?

I posted a piece on lawn fertilizers a few years ago that touted the benefits of treated sewage sludge on lawns. HRSD (see last posting) used to produce a dandy product called Nutri-Green that was available in our area. Some neighbors even claimed that it deterred deer from visiting their property. That I could applaud too.

But HRSD stopped producing Nutri-Green for the general public a few years ago. It is still available to farmers. It was more economical to privatize the operation versus HRSD building a new compost facility. They still believe that composting the treated "stuff" is the sustainable way to go.

So McGill Environmental now produces a similar product called Soil Builder that several local garden centers carry. Let me know if you like it.

Where does all the sewage go?

To paraphrase the recently deceased Pete Seeger, who was more interested in "flowers," where does all the sewage go? Here is the straight poop.

Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD), a utility or political subdivision of the Commonwealth of Virginia that treats the region's sewage, has thirteen sewage treatment plants, nine in Hampton Roads and four on the Middle Peninsula. Three are in our immediate area (Williamsburg, York County and Newport News).

HRSD, created by public referendum in 1940 to eliminate sewage pollution in the tidal waters of the Chesapeake Bay, currently serves 17 cities and counties in southeast Virginia. This utility maintains 500 miles of pipes and 104 pumping stations to serve 1.6 million people over 3100 square miles. Some of those pipes are quite old.

Do we trust these pipes to convey 249 million gallons of "stuff" to be treated daily in 9 major treatment plants in greater Hampton Roads and 4 smaller ones on the Middle Peninsula? EPA folks, worried about past leaks, are requiring localities to inspect, repair or replace these pipes. James City County inspected their system over the past few years, and some of theirs are relatively new. 

But during heavy rains, sewage overflows frequently occur. 40 times in our area in 2012 and 14 in 2013. Stormwater, you see, mingles with our flushed stuff and heads to the treatment plants. That meant 23 million gallons of nasty stuff  entered our waterways in 2012 alone. That was the reason for those Department of Health warnings to not swim off some local beaches after heavy rainfalls. That is also the rationale behind HRSD's initiative for a regional approach to dealing with sewage overflows at a projected cost of $2.18 billion. That could be a saving of $1 billion over going the individual route.

To also meet EPA requirements, HRSD must also upgrade the wireless system used to monitor and operate the 500 miles of pipes within their system and install a "Smart Sewer Tower" telecommunications facility at the Williamsburg Treatment Plant. They are proposing a 138’ tall monopole.

But where does all that treated water go? Two distinct categories of water are the end result. Drinkable potable water, after treatment to levels determined safe for human consumption, could come out of your faucets and is often used to meet other demands, such as irrigation, carwashing, and heating and cooling factories.  Nonpotable water, after treatment by HRSD to meet regulatory standards (but not drinkable) is released back into our local waterways.  But, with a retrofit to a dual piping system, this reclaimed nonpotable water could be used to flush toilets, in fire hydrants, or irrigate lawns and gold courses. We have seen signs on many Florida and California golf courses that state "irrigated by reclaimed water."

Grass and plants do not need potable water to survive and in fact, certain plants such as Bermuda grass can survive on brackish water alone.  This is a terrific water conservation method that we will see more often as droughts continue in our country.

February 13, 2014

How can 21 attorneys general be so wrong?

Why are 21 attorneys general in the U.S. trying to derail efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay?

Mostly Midwest AGs, but Florida? C'mon. You especially should understand the value of clean water. What if your farmers were allowing runoff from your farmland, poultry and pig pens, grazing lands and tons of fertilizer to end up in your waters?

Stand your ground, indeed!

Yikes, Caribbean islands, take notice for earthquakes and tsunamis

Another headline today got my attention: new study suggests that a mega-tsunami could devastate coastlines from Florida to Brazil following a volcanic eruption in the Canary Islands. Chesapeake Bay Area residents, take note.

And what about the Caribbean islands? Two hundred foot waves are not a good thing for them. Years ago, we saw shells deposited on the highest elevated land in Eleuthera after a freak wave of 100 feet (just prior to "The Perfect Storm" off Gloucester, Massachusetts).

Marigot Bay in St. Lucia
We visited St. Lucia last week and learned about a Christmas Eve mega-storm that wiped out many of their roads, bridges and homes. A few lives were lost as well during the heavy rains. Yet I do not remember the American media covering it. Perhaps Jim Cantore missed it, but we hear little about the Caribbean islands unless it's hurricane season.

Twenty five percent of St. Lucians live in poverty.  So how could this poor country pay for needed repairs? Dollars came from many countries, I learned, but especially from Taiwan. 

St. Lucia maintained diplomatic relations with Taiwan (Republic of China) from 1984 to 1997; switched to China (People's Republic of China) from 1997 to 2006; then re-established diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 2006, much to the chagrin of China. This tug of war of chumminess has been going on for the last few decades, depending on the ruling party of St. Lucia. China regards Taiwan as a renegade province, so is not thrilled with shifting alliances by the St. Lucia government of Prime Minister Kenny Anthony and does not recognize "double recognition."

Over the last few decades, St. Lucia has received multiple grants from both Taiwan and China to finance roadwork, stadium, psychiatric hospital, meat packing plants, economic development projects, etc. A recent grant will light playing fields, construct "Community Access Centres” and develop a Block-Making facility at a St. Lucia correctional facility. Taiwan is also helping St. Lucians propagate new strains of fruits and vegetables, develop livestock, upgrade their fishing industry and create information technology learning centers to combat poverty.

These loans and grants of billions of dollars are common practice in all Caribbean nations, with much of the work done by Chinese labor.  We noticed miles of new roads and much appreciated guard rails in Dominica last year that were funded by China. I wondered then about the rationale behind foreign aid. It is not all humanitarian.

Was China improving Dominica's infrastructure for Chinese tourists? During the last ten years, only a few Chinese shops and restaurants opened on St. Lucia, and the predicted influx of Chinese tourists has not occurred there. We did see quite a few small Chinese grocery stores in Belize last June. Yeah, yeah, we do travel a lot. MANY islands on our bucket list yet!

I was concerned in 2008 during a visit to Dominica about a vacancy for U.S. ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean (Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines). Who was watching out for American interests in these islands?President Obama finally filled the post in May 2012 with Larry Leon Palmer. And his Department of State website implies that he is doing his job. But one man? And so many islands? 

I also wonder how these poor islands are going to repay these huge debts. The average public debt for Caribbean nations now amounts to about 84 percent of GDP, with five countries (Barbados, Grenada, Jamaica, St. Kitts-Nevis, and Antigua and Barbuda) experiencing debt-to-GDP ratios of close to 100% and higher. 

How will these countries repay these debts if and when the lending countries demand it? Some are loans extended under Venezuelan oil arrangements. China's loans are concessional with little if any interest charged and there is no indication that China or Venezuela will write-off these loans.  What happens if they default? I am not an expert in foreign aid, but I can only imagine this scenario--especially in the case of that tsunami.

January 31, 2014

Oyster shells in high demand

Oyster shells do NOT belong in your trashcan, or your favorite restaurant's dumpster. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation folks have a dandy oyster restoration project going on at Gloucester Point, Virginia.

And today they were the happy recipients of four months of oyster shells gathered in just one location in Richmond. "12,000 pounds of oyster shells" may not yet be a song title (as was "thirty thousand pounds of bananas" as sung by Harry Chapin) but this amount matched a prior year's worth of shells from all of CBF's Virginia partners combined.

Thanks to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, City of Richmond, Tidewater Fiber Corporation ( our local TFC recycling trucks), Virginia Master Naturalist Program, Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, Rappahannock River Oyster Company and four Richmond-based restaurants (Rappahannock Restaurant, Lemaire at the Jefferson Hotel, Acacia Mid-Town, and Pearl Raw Bar) who collect used oyster shells for this gallant effort. That was a lot of oyster shells NOT going to a landfill.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) needs your help–and your oyster shells–to restore native oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. Donate your empty shells to CBF so they can recycle them into more oyster reefs and repopulate the Bay with more oysters.  Oyster shells are literally the foundation of our reef restoration efforts!
Oyster shells are becoming increasingly scarce.  Through CBF's Save Oyster Shell program, shells that would typically be thrown away are saved and used in a variety of oyster restoration projects.
So spread the word to save your shells. Baby oysters just love to attach to them and continue their lives, filtering water as they grow, Drop off sites in Virginia include:

CBF has four shell drop-off locations in Virginia. This program is a partnership between CBF and Keep Norfolk Beautiful.


Waste Management Facility
(enter to right of building by
Electronics/Hazardous Household Waste Recycling)
1176 Pineridge Road
(Pineridge is off Azalea Garden and Village Roads. Turn into the first WM Facility entrance, follow the driveway behind the building, and then bear to the right. Shells are collected at the Electronics/Hazardous Household Waste Recycling Center.)
Open for Norfolk residents M-Sat. 10 a.m.—2 p.m.
Larchmont Library
6525 Hampton Blvd.
(under the Birdsong Wetlands kiosk)


103 Industry Drive
Behind York Bolt off Hampton Hwy-138


Near Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center
Service road across Route 60 from Parkway Drive
GPS: 37.280507, -76.692713
see map

Virginia Participating Restaurants in CBF Save Oyster Shell program:

Berrets, Williamsburg

Harpoon Larry's Oyster Bar, Hampton
Le Yaca, Williamsburg
O'Sullivan's, Norfolk
Red Lobster, Newport News
River's Inn, Gloucester Point
Riverwalk, Yorktown
Rosemary & Wine, Gloucester
Yorktown Pub, Yorktown

More Ways to Help

Volunteers are needed to collect shells from Virginia restaurants and drop them off at CBF oyster shell "curing" sites in Colonial Williamsburg and at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science boat basin.
CBF also collects shells from oyster roasts and seafood festivals. We can provide bins and signage to minimize shells mixing with other refuse.
To participate or for more program information, contact Jackie Shannon at jshannon@cbf.org or 804-642-6639

January 30, 2014

Retreating from rising water

Local headlines during the past few years have drawn attention to the fact that Tidewater Virginia is slowly losing its battle with rising waters. Plus our coastal regions are sinking due to a complex reaction from a meteor strike in the Chesapeake Bay eons ago. Flood insurance companies are taking a hard look at insuring high risk homes in high risk areas. Some New Jersey homeowners, for instance, have seen gargantuan rises in their flood insurance premiums as a result of rising water during Superstorm Sandy. That does not appear to be a problem here yet although insurance companies have required that some homeowners elevate their homes when rebuilding. Drive through Guinea Neck and you will see plenty of "high risers" that remind me of storks with long legs. We jokingly say that our home with a wetlands area between us and the James River may be "waterfront property" in our lifetime.

Virginians are not retreating yet. But it is happening in the South Pacific in the tiny village of Vunidogolo in Fiji. Residents are leaving under their country's "climate change refugee" program. These folks are not climate change deniers. They have seen rising sea levels flood their homes and farmland during high tide. NOT storms, simply high tide.

If Fiji is spending almost $900,000 to relocate one village's residents into 30 new homes and help them rebuild their lives, we should be watching. 

Tourism is a big part of Fiji, as well as the Maldives, another threatened group of islands that are on my bucket list. Perhaps I should go visit them soon.

January 26, 2014

Lionfish in the Chesapeake Bay?

Not yet! Or at least no one has reported them. But the invasive lionfish, native to the Pacific, may arrive if efforts to control them do not occur. They have been seen off North Carolina shores since 2000 and they reproduce quickly. Juvenile lionfish have been spotted off the coast of Rhode Island in recent summer months after hitching a ride there in warm Gulf Stream waters. They may have heard that 'Virginia is for lovers' so get ready for an invasion if the Chesapeake warms up. This winter's cold weather may have kept them at bay (pun intended) for a few years. Jellyfish are bad enough.

The good news is that, in areas where scuba divers hunt them with spearguns and nets, the lionfish population has decreased to a threshold where native fish can numbers can recover. Lionfish cannot be completely eradicated, but reducing them to 75-95 percent of their numbers in test areas is doing the trick. In the Turks and Caicos, annual lionfishing tournaments have been popular.

Some propose eating them as well. I had the opportunity to try them on a small island off Belize last summer and they were quite delicious when fried by the scientists living there as part of an Eco-project. We even dined on barracuda that night.

The venomous spines of this beautiful fish are dangerous to humans too. The advice is to immediately remove them and apply a hot pack if you brush against a lionfish. Then seek medical help.

NOAA has been studying lionfish for many years, after they appeared in Florida waters in the late '80s, most likely from tropical pet fish tanks. So we already know that lionfish reach sexual maturity within two years and spawn several times a year, producing up to 30,000 buoyant eggs each time. Currents carry them easily to warm waters. Lionfish have no natural predators in the Atlantic and they eat anything smaller than them. And LOTS of them. These fish are not like most fish that stop eating when they are full. They gorge on shrimp, baby crabs and fish and can withstand starvation for long periods.

A recent generous donation will allow the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Maryland to include a lionfish aquarium in their Estuarium renovation. So plan a day trip there next spring to get a close look at lionfish as well as the invasive snake fish. 

January 23, 2014

Can black ice be green?

I detest black ice as much as any driver, but I was puzzled when I saw those squiggly lines on our local roads before the snow arrived. I had heard of brining turkeys but never brining roads. So I wondered just how much of this salty compound was put down whether the snow arrived or not. Is anti-icing or pre-wetting preferable to de-icing after the snow falls?

Then I read that Hampton City Public Works crews had applied more than 400 tons of salt and more than 100,000 gallons of brine solution on their roads alone. Add in what I saw on James City County roads and the Chesapeake Bay will still end up with an onslaught of salty water entering its waterways when that snow melts and the next rain occurs. Hope those crabs and oysters like a saltier environment.

Traditional salt brine is usually a 23 percent salt solution, derived from rock salt. But I discovered that alternate sources of brine include agricultural by-products such as beet juice, and even cheese making leftover liquids in Wisconsin. Love those cheese heads!

I admit that rock salt trucks of olden days may have put down even more salt on the roads. Perhaps four times as much. At least that is what the brine enthusiasts say. A New York State study reported that using salt brines before anticipated snowfalls was more effective and cheaper than using solid rock salt. And the brines are more effective in lower temperatures too, although 15 degrees seems to be the limit. Since our local temperatures have dropped below that threshold this week, black ice has still been a problem.

So is salt brine a greener option than rock salt? Perhaps a tad but still a threat to the Chesapeake until local governments truly address rainwater runoff.

January 21, 2014

Runoff still hurting the Chesapeake Bay

IJoni Mitchell's lyrics, "they paved paradise and put up a parking lot," came to my mind as I read about the continuing threats of rain runoff to our local waterways. All the amenities wanted by the 17 million people who live near our Chesapeake shorelines are not conducive to good water quality. One inch of rain falling on one acre of paved surface equals 30,000 gallons of polluted runoff. That's enough to fill up an 18 by 35 foot swimming pool, if you want something to picture.

So I cringe when I see another swath of land being developed. Yes, I realize that I am one of the lucky ones who chose to live here. And yes, I am part of the problem. Or at least my driveway and rooftop are. 

And today a new assault as Virginia road crews have applied trails of salty compounds on our roads, whether we get the snow or not. 

But how should we mitigate rainwater runoff. One outlet mall on Richmond route installed a porous or permeable surface that reminds me of Rice Crispies treats on much of their parking lot years ago. I thought that James City County had required it. But, obviously that requirement did NOT apply to the huge Settlers Market and nearby Courthouse Commons parking lots years later. And that is a lot of rainwater that is now draining into our creeks, and ultimately into the James River on its way to the bay. All Virginia local governments are under the gun to develop more stringent storm water regulations. So I do not understand why impermeable parking lots still appear.

Every year another 38,000 acres of land throughout the 64,000 square mile Chesapeake watershed get developed. 10,000 acres of that are hard surfaces. And more no swimming warnings are issued by the Virginia Department of Health. 

It still looks like a one-way road to me. No serious efforts to hold back that runoff will occur until the naysayers stop using terms like "toilet tax" and "rain tax."

January 16, 2014

Joshua Tree endangered?

I usually stick to Virginia issues but a recent visit to Joshua Tree National Park sparked my interest in endangered trees. Most folks don't know that the trees that remind you of Dr. Seuss in California's Mojave Desert are threatened by more than brush fires. It seems that the increased amount of nitrogen from cars and general Los Angeles pollution drops onto the desert floor and adds more fertilizer than the plants need. Nitrogen also supports the growth of grasses that never grew in this area. Lightning strikes used to zap one Joshua Tree. Now the fire spreads to nearby grasses and voila, you have a large brushfire.

Joshua Trees also need a cold snap in order to flower. Warmer winters mean less flowering, even with the help of a unique yucca moth. And these magnificent trees need a hundred years to mature, growing VERY slowly. 

Our local loblolly pines are succumbing to something in addition to hurricanes. And local oaks are dying more often too. Even orange trees in Florida have a bacteria that is killing them quickly. Too bad that the trees cannot talk and that Dr. Seuss's Lorax must speak for the trees.

January 4, 2014

E-cycle your old electronics for free

If Santa brought you some new electronic "toys," and you don't want to wait for the next country household hazardous waste recycling day, you need not despair. So think before tossing!

Your local Staples store will accept up to ten of these items daily and recycle them responsibly:
  • Desktop and all-in-one computers
  • Laptops, tablets, eReaders
  • Monitors
  • Desktop printers, copiers, scanners, faxes, multifunction devices
  • Shredders
  • UPS/battery backup devices (with or without included battery)
  • Computer peripherals including mice, keyboards, modems, routers and computer speakers
  • Small electronics including mobile phones, MP3 players/iPods, calculators, GPS devices, digital cameras, camcorders and cordless phones
  • Digital projectors, CD/DVD/Blu-ray players, gaming devices, A/V receivers, video streaming devices
  • External hard drives and small servers
  • Rechargeable batteries (if 11 pounds or less)

December 22, 2013

Wrapping paper is not green

This is the time of year that I remind y'all to forego Christmas wrapping paper and "go fabric."

I made these gift bags from discounted Christmas theme fabric nearly 40 years ago and they are still in use by MANY family members. Kids (and husbands) like them because they make wrapping gifts simple, especially weird shaped items.

So after the holidays, pick up some vastly discounted fabric and get out your sewing machines. If you don't have one, ask someone who does to help you make some gift bags. Some crafty websites offer them for big bucks, but you can make your own quite easily.

Note that the gift tags are recycled Christmas card fronts.

December 11, 2013

Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree

In a few weeks, a lot of you will be wondering what to do with your now drying out Christmas Tree. Some of you will be lucky and can take it to your curb, where it will be recycled into mulch. Some of you will need to haul it somewhere.

Click here to find out how to recycle it in Tidewater Virginia towns.

Then think about an artificial tree.

A thing more lovely than a tree?

Sorry, Joyce Kilmer, but Harry in Charlottesville just transformed a tree.

When a large holly tree in our back yard blew over in a nor'easter last year, we did not want to simply toss it into the woods to slowly decompose. So my husband, a Dr. Seuss Lorax too, chainsawed the trunk into 8 foot logs and looked up woodworkers who might want a piece. Several were interested and the sections gradually disappeared from our driveway.

So what a surprise when a mysterious package arrived yesterday. Our holly tree became the very light wood layer in this gorgeous bowl. Thank you, Santa Harry!

Recycling gets easier

Some local Tidewater Virginia governments are looking both at new recycling contracts that are less costly and, even better, larger rolling recycling bins for curbside pickup. That is super news for those of us with bad backs. Lids will keep newspapers and magazines dry and other recyclables from blowing down the street. The bad news is that it won't begin until July 2014.

Poquoson led the way, making their decision before James City County signed up last night. Williamsburg and York County have it on their agendas too. The change next July will involve a new pickup schedule--to every OTHER week--by a different company, County Waste (formerly SDI) in West Point. That is where the cost savings originate.

You have probably seen these upright rolling bins in many cities already. We will opt for the larger 95 gallon container since we fill up two small 18 gallon bins already each week. 

The difference in size is almost negligible. 65 gallon ones are 27" x 29" and 41" high. 95 gallons are 29" x 34" and 46" high.

But I ponder how a recycling company's bid that is more than half lower than the current company can responsibly recycle our "stuff." Plus they do not have a MRF (materials recycling facility) yet. I suppose that time will tell if this was a cost-cutting decision but not an environmentally sound one.

December 10, 2013

Does Virginia need to say "my bad"?

Oops! It seems that Virginia's northern neighbor states (Maryland, Delaware and the entire Northeast) don't like breathing our air. Prevailing winds blow their way. So they have formally asked the EPA to take a hard look at our coal-burning power plants that do not include "best available control technologies" to capture power plant emissions. Most of theirs do. So that's the issue too.

Stay tuned for the Supreme Court to enter this discussion very soon. 

November 17, 2013

How green is Virginia's power?

Not very, even though the EPA gave Dominion Power a green award a while back. Perhaps they were duped by Dominion's claim that they have more than 19,000 green customers. Oops, look closer.

Virginia's Sierra Club points out that Dominion's "Green Power" program purchases solar and wind produced power predominately from outside of Virginia and that they charge a 50 percent "overhead" charge as well. So half of the money their customers contribute for renewable energy certificates goes to education and overhead? That sounds like a lighter shade of pale green to me. Millions of dollars given to Dominion in good faith has resulted in no windor solar facilities in Virginia. So Sierra Club has teamed up with Community Power Network to challenge this award and ask EPA to revoke it. The only achievement by Dominion is that have signed up more customers for this dubious practice than other utility programs. That, my friends, is an award in marketing!

Meanwhile, back at headquarters, Dominion's latest "integrated resource plan" focuses on more fossil fuel consumption over the next fifteen years. That is adding insult to injury.

And there is more. Dominion's "solar purchase program" allows them to buy solar power from homeowners or businesses and resell it to their Green Power Program, adding to the actual cost of that program. Sounds like a dicey business practice to me, but the State Corporation Commission approved it. 

And I will never comprehend the rational behind Dominion charging customers who "net meter" a standby charge because they are energy efficient.

What to do? Consider the actions below:

The Virginia Center for Wind Energy at James Madison University accepts donations to its Wind for Schools program, which helps public schools across the commonwealth install wind turbines for educational purposes. A new non-profit, Three Birds Foundation, is working to put solar on public schools that serve low-income children in Virginia and elsewhere.

November 16, 2013

EPA proposing less ethanol in gasoline?

Damned if you do; damned if you don't. 

The EPA has a tough job. The agency pushed for a higher ratio of ethanol in gasoline a few years back when fuel economy wasn't so great. Farmers liked that decision because it meant more money in their pockets. Most environmentalists praised the decision too because biofuels seemed like the wave of the future and less money to Mideast countries that hated us.

But, even with flex fuel cars, drivers were not buying the higher ethanol stuff. Change is hard to accomplish. And boaters really hated the 10 percent ethanol stuff because it gummed up their engines which were not designed for it.

But the EPA is now proposing 3 billion fewer gallons of biofuels go into gasoline in 2014 than the current law demands because a glut of ethanol seems to be looming. Of course, the oil industry is thrilled. They have lobbied hard for this change. Farmers, not surprisingly, are not smiling. 

November 3, 2013

Fracking in Virginia, part 2

The name, Virginia Outdoors Federation, sounds so green. But these folks might have a conflict of interest. They recently announced that drilling for gas and oil and conservation easements are not mutually exclusive. WHAT, you ask! Is is simply a coincidence that VOF holds 144 conservation easement acres in an area of Virginia east of Interstate 95, part of which runs through the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula? That is getting darn close to Tidewater Virginia and one of my favorite sailing areas.

The jury is still out on just how much damage fracking might do to the land and drinking water in the numerous areas in which it already takes place, but let us please hit the PAUSE button. 

Something called a "pooling law" in Virginia exists. It supposedly prevents landowners from conveying a conservation easement that prohibits oil or gas being extracted by horizontal drilling conducted from well sites on nearby properties. I just re-watched THERE WILL BE BLOOD and the villain in that fictional movie used that rationale too. The infamous "drinking straw argument" again? Daniel Day Lewis might win again.

Millions to clean up the Chesapeake Bay

The good news of the past week for Chesapeake Bay fans was the announcement of about $9.2 million in federal grants to clean up the 64,000 square miles of this once pristine estuary. Virginia will get only $1.8 million of that, but those dollars could go a long way in reducing the runoff from farms and re-establishing oyster beds.

The folks at the Virginia Marine Resources Commission also announced that they will crack down on oyster poachers who have blatantly been reaping a good harvest of oysters in recent years. Oysters alone could clean up the bay if they were allowed to return to their historic highs. I won't live long enough to see clear water in our tributaries but I hope that future generations might.

October 25, 2013

Sustainable booze?

Just in case you ponder the effect of spirits on the environment, I have some interesting tidbits, thanks to Grist's Deena Shanker..

In their June 2012 Research on the Carbon Footprint of Spirits report, the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER), the average 750-milliliter bottle of liquor produces about 6.3 pounds of CO2.

Yikes. Is that a reason to quit drinking? According to the BIER report (I love that acronym), distillation is the number one contributor to a spirit’s carbon footprint--more than a third of its emissions--because distillation. creates a lot of waste in the form of spent mash, wastewater, and liquor "goop" such as tequila’s pulp and rum’s fibrous leftovers.

But a number of distilleries are now following the lead of the beer industry and converting spent grain into livestock feed. Do you conjure up visions of happy smiling swine and swooning cows?

Wastewater can be recycled as well and grey water can return to the soil. Bacardi has used an anaerobic digester system since 1992 to turn 1.2 million gallons of still bottoms, unfermented molasses, and water into 7 million cubic meters of biogas, which is then used to distill more rum. That almost excuses them facing a 2001 EPA lawsuit when it was accused of violating the Clean Water Act with a 3,000-gallon discharge of industrial waste near the San Juan Bay in Puerto Rico. They settled in 2008 with a $550,000 fine and a $1 million land preservation donation.

Whiskey producers also find it easy to source their grain locally. Maker’s Mark claims that all its grains come from within a 30-mile radius. Most American sugarcane is grown in Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Hawaii but growing sugarcane can be tough on the environment if soil erosion and water pollution are not mitigated.

On the other hand, tequila is never going to be locally sourced because international law requires that anything calling itself “tequila” be produced in certain areas of Mexico.

What about organic ingredients? Even if they can’t find certified organic ingredients, most small distillers prefer to steer clear of GMOs. So support your local small producer if possible.

Not surprisingly, 20 percent of a distillery’s carbon footprint comes from packaging. Everything from the bottles to the labels to the glue holding the two together and the boxes carrying them to the liquor store has an environmental impact. Some are turning to glass that is 25 percent lighter than average, 35 percent post-consumer waste cardboard, 100 percent post-consumer waste recycled paper labels, and even soy-based inks. Some are producing their own bottles instead of importing them. And SF Vodka goes the milkman route, trading empties for discounts on a bar or restaurant’s next round.

But buyer beware: If a company touts how “sustainable” or “green” its liquor is, look carefully. They may be green-washing their product.

October 23, 2013

Recycle your old sneakers

Want to recycle your old gardening sneakers? Or the ones that are way too weathered to donate to Goodwill, but you want to keep them out of the landfill? You can “upcycle” them by dropping them off at most Nike Outlets or stores.

Nike Reuse-a-Shoe takes worn out athletic shoes and grinds them down to create a new material, Nike Grind, used in high-quality sports surfaces including courts, turf fields and tracks. Since 1990, Nike has transformed 28 million pairs of shoes and 36,000 tons of scrap material into Nike Grind in more than 450,000 locations around the world—covering approximately 632,000,000 square feet.  That is nearly enough to cover the entire island of Manhattan (23 square miles).

When you look at the rest of our clothing, we’re shamelessly wasteful too. According to the Council for Textile Recycling, the average American tosses 70 pounds of clothing per year. Of that, only 15 percent finds new life as industrial rags, insulation, carpet padding, seat stuffing, and even paper. The other 85 percent? Landfilled.

October 22, 2013

Flood insurance problem

Rising sea levels are not yet at Biblical proportions, but those near Tidewater Virginia shores need to know the true costs and risks of where we live. Those with mortgages still need to have flood insurance, the cost of which is rising as well.

Why? The federal National Flood Insurance Program has been underwater (pun intended) since 2005 when Hurricane Katrina called for big bucks to rebuild in flood prone area. Then Superstorm Sandy one year ago brought about a huge rebuilding program in New Jersey and New York. The program is now $24 billion in debt to the U.S. Treasury. So Congress raised the flood insurance rates for about 280,000 policy holders last year--many of them in Virginia.

Noah did it, but it is a tough decision to retreat from rising waters, and not rebuild. But why should all of us foot the bill for those who were allowed to build a home in low lying areas? I live only 12 feet above normal high tide and 4 feet above the 100 year flood line, so I am not saying this lightly. But pumping sand onto shrinking shorelines is only a temporary fix. Mother Nature will realign our shorelines over the coming decades.

October 13, 2013

Blue crabs in trouble?

I am feeling crabby after reading the latest news from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation folks. It seems that the number of juvenile crabs is 80 percent less than in the prior survey. What happened to them? Especially since the watermen have been telling us that their catches were way down both in 2012 and this year.

Predators may be the likely culprit. Those large catfish love the little guys. But it may also be due to pollutants, especially fertilizer and farm runoff.

For more info, check out http://cbf.typepad.com/bay_daily/2013/10/trouble-brewing-for-blue-crabs.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+BayDaily+%28Bay+Daily%29

UPDATE (10-23-13): The Virginia Marine Resources Commission just voted 7-0 to NOT reopen winter dredging for crabs. Maryland has not allowed it for years. Let's give those pregnant females a fighting chance!

Sell by dates are hooey

How many of us have tossed out perfectly good food because it was past that SELL BY date or the USE BY date? You are not alone. But the folks at the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic now tell us that those labels might be very misleading.

Since the average household tosses about $300 to $400 worth of food each year, that is good news. But which labels might still be valid? Use your nose to determine if milk is sour. And those yucky molds are a definite clue. Cheese should not be green and fuzzy.

September 15, 2013

Waxed fruit?

I saw a small label on some recently purchased fruit: "protected by food grade wax." Quickly lost my appetite for that fruit. So a recent article in Science Daily caught my eye. There is more to know about edible films than I was aware of, now that ready-to-eat fruits and veggies have become popular with many consumers.

Apples, bananas and cucumbers already have a handy God-made covering, but mankind wanted more. Browned apples and bananas don't look very appetizing. So a thin layer of carnauba wax from the leaves of palm trees did the trick. Other common coatings include starch, carrageenan, gluten, whey and beeswax. Yum.

But there's something unnatural about sliced apples that last 2-3 weeks without turning brown, even with the newer process of coating them with Vitamin C. Coating foods has been done since the 1100s when Chinese merchants shipped oranges to Europe. They used melted fat from hogs. Yum again.

Definitely don't need bacteria to enter our food, but waxed fruit is still not my thing. My grandson agrees. Note the teeth marks above.

September 9, 2013

Recycling highway

Recycling occurred via Interstate 95 this weekend as we hauled a huge bag of #3-7 plastics to our son's home in Philly. That might seem ridiculous unless you knew that our county no longer accepts them at our dropoff recycling centers. And they never wanted them in our curbside program. ONLY plastic bottles with necks, please! But Philadelphia has a market for them.

Then we drove a huge bag of beloved son's castoff clothing back here to Virginia to drop off at a local Goodwill store. I call this green trafficking at its best.

Fracking in Virginia?

Yikes! We are heading to the western portion of Virginia, the Skyline Drive area, next week. And just in time.

Fracking, the questionable practice of horizontal drilling for shale gas, may occur in Virginia's portion of the George Washington National Forest soon if the U.S. Forest Service gives the go-ahead. The jury is still out on whether this process and the millions of gallons of water used during the drilling contaminates nearby underground water. Or even worse, causes earthquakes.

And in this particular forest are the headwaters of the James and Potomac rivers. That brings this decision close to me. I live along the James and sail on the Potomac. Even more important, millions of folks get their drinking water from these waters. Just ask the folks in Pennsylvania who can light the water coming out of their faucets if methane is a nice additive to their water.

Half of this forest sits on top of the Marcellus shale deposit, so it is a likely target in the near future as our energy hungry country keeps up its appetite for natural gas. Wind turbines in this mountainous area would wreck havoc on these forests as well. So there is no easy answer.

September 7, 2013

Dominion Power towers still pending

17 towers, some as high as 300 feet, may soon be coming to the James River if Dominion Power gets its final approval. To focus more on numbers, that translates to 550 pilings affecting at least 1000 square feet of river bottom to support those towers. All to provide a 500 kilovolt line from the Surry Nuclear Power Station. That line crosses 2 navigation channels, many private oyster lease areas and a dredge spoil area. The scenery suffers too if power lines are not your thing when sailing this historic river.

And here are the amazing words that might mean no mitigation to make amends for any waterfowl or wetlands affected or digging up the river bottom and dispersing the kepones hiding below:
"Direct impacts to aquatic resources are minimal and have been avoided and minimized to the maximum extent practicable. As such the applicant in proposing no compensatory mitigation."
At the very least, the Corps of Engineers should require some major mitigation measures for Dominion Power to undertake. Of course we the customers would absorb those costs, since Dominion's bottom line is sacred. Profit rules the day again.

September 4, 2013

Blowin' in the wind UPDATED

Before Virginians can begin to receive any wind-generated energy, almost 113,000 acres off our coast need to be auctioned off for wind farm development rights. Eight companies (including Dominion Virginia) were pre-qualified to bid on them. [Dominion won with a $1.6 million bid.]

Last July 165,000 acres off Massachusetts and Rhode Island were similarly auctioned.

Our offshore land, nearly 24 miles off Virginia Beach, could someday generate enough power for 700,000 homes. The process is somewhat complicated, and it will not be generating electricity until 2028 at the earliest. So coal plants will be with us for some years.

Solar power is another option of course, but that is also moving slowly. I saw this home off Carter Creek, near Tides Inn, last weekend that had a huge portion of its roof covered with solar panels. Hurrah for them!

Red tide rising

With cooler recent nights, I had hoped that the Chesapeake Bay would not see major red tide blooms this summer. But alas, this news from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation got my attention. The VIMS photo below, taken on August 30, by the Monitor Merrimack bridge also says it all.

This huge algae bloom was fed by large amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen, most of that from fertilizers and storm water runoff. And it most likely a harmful species of algae to boot! Probably a marine dinoflagellate called red tide that kills fish.