February 25, 2010

Virginians, hold your breath


Dirty air is just fine
The EPA (under Lisa Jackson) finally seemed to understand the words “enforcement” and “regulation,” and ruled in December that they should regulate six types of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane). However, Virginia’s Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli, threw a monkey wrench into any initiatives to clean up Virginia’s air. He filed a petition a few weeks ago with the EPA asking the agency to reconsider its decision to regulate these gases, and filed a challenge of EPA’s decision with the D.C. federal appeals court. Texas jumped on the “No, let’s wait” bandwagon with Virginia, sounding the “it’s bad for business, the economy, and job creation” mantra.

Now I admit that our air is not as bad as it was a while back, before the EPA insisted on “cap and trade” regs to reduce sulfur dioxide. You do member acid rain, don’t you? When was the last time you saw it in the headlines? Yes, that was a clean up success story, and we might have had another one reducing carbon dioxide.

But I hate to see this issue reduced to a choice between our health and our economy. First of all, that’s not the case. And even if it was, I don’t want a new job if I’m having an asthma attack.

But dear AJ Ken (and new governor, Bob McDonnell) don’t see the need to reduce our greenhouse gases and say the studies (from the International Panel on Climate Control) were erroneous. I do see an error, but it’s in Cuccinelli’s thinking. How can anyone doubt that the emissions from cars, factories, and coal plants are good for our health? How can anyone, bureaucrat or not, believe that industry will regulate itself and not worry about the bottom line?

Virginia’s Sierra Club is frothing at the mouth, but I haven’t seen much reaction from anyone else. Did everyone forget VIMS’ studies that show our Hampton Roads shorelines are vulnerable to rising seas more than anywhere in the U.S.? Or were they “faulty studies” too? Gimme a break. I’ve watched my James River lapping closer to my home during the seven years I’ve lived here, and I'm none too happy watching the coal burning power plant across the river in Surry coming closer to fruition. I was hoping that the EPA would really get serious and put the kabosh on ANY new coal plants until (and IF) clean coal really exists.

FYI: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are pollutants under the Clean Air Act, and that the EPA SHALL (not might) enforce that Act. Whether you accept climate change or not is beside the point. It’s our health that also suffers if these pollutants are not regulated.

The EPA is likely to begin by addressing emissions from motor vehicles, then move on to factories and power plants. Congress needs to get involved too in developing clean energy policies, and we see how they are working so well together in a bipartisan fashion to accomplish ANYthing.

The Chamber of commerce, at the same time, is crying “Unfair to businesses,” while no one has mentioned regulating any emitters other than the BIGGIES.

February 22, 2010

Electric cars are on the way (plus debunking some electric car myths)

Take charge to drive green

Is America’s century-old love affair with the automobile coming to an end as we grapple with ways to reduce our dependency on foreign oil? The number of cars on U.S. roads dropped by 2 percent in 2009 as the U.S. auto industry held on for dear life.

Using his executive authority and the power of the Clean Air Act, President Obama mandated that cars get much cleaner and achieve 35.5 miles per gallon by the end of 2016. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson says that will save 1.8 billion barrels of oil and prevent 950 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. The driver of a 2016 model car will supposedly save $3000 in fuel costs over the car's lifespan, more than recovering the extra $1100 to manufacture it.

Get ready for plug-in electric vehicles (EVs) from major automakers before the end of 2010. The Chevy Volt, what they call an extended-range electric vehicle (EREV), and the fully electric zero-emissions Nissan Leaf will probably be the first mainstream electric vehicles to hit U.S. streets in late 2010—and not just in California.

Williamsburg’s Hudgins Holiday Chevrolet Sales Manager, John Bell, told me “We are getting calls about the Chevy Volt and the website (www.chevrolet.com/volt) is drawing lots of interest which is a good sign.” Nissan of Newport News sales manager, James Bland, said, “We are really excited about getting the Leaf in. It will be the first major 100 percent electric car in America. That means no tailpipe.” When will the Volt and Leaf  arrive in the Williamsburg area? Both sales managers said that they anticipate availability here in the fall.

BETCHA DIDN'T KNOW . . . that electric cars are actually a return to yesteryear and that there were more than 30,000 electric vehicles on our roads in the early 1900s? What happened to send them the way of the horse and buggy? Henry “Call-Me-the-Gas-Man” Ford, the invention of the electric starter, and the discovery of cheap crude oil in Texas brought us the "curse" of the gas-powered internal combustion engine.

WHAT WILL THE DEMAND FOR ELECTRIC CARS BE?  That’s hard to predict, even if motorists remember that gas prices can climb to $4 a gallon. President Obama has called for 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015, but that’s only 0.5 percent of the entire U.S. fleet.

Plug In America at www.pluginamerica.org/vehicles  is a great source of info on the 60 plus plug-in electric cars in the works right now.

True, more than half of our electricity comes from coal burning power plants. So you could look at Chevy’s Volt and Nissan’s Leaf as coal burning cars. On the plus side, however, will be reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. While electricity is getting cleaner and more renewable every year, even the cleanest gasoline car remains polluting. So electric cars just get cleaner over time as the grid gets cleaner.

THE PRICE? Not yet known, but both the Volt and Leaf will probably sell in the mid to upper $30s range, but a $7500 federal tax incentive will reduce that to the low $30s. Sounds a bit high, but remember that EVs require almost no maintenance or repair: no oil or filter changes, no tune ups, no smog checks. One factor is the cost of the batteries, but some industry experts predict that will fall sharply over the next decade.

That brings me to two more environmental myths that need debunking.

Myth #1: America’s power grid will crash if millions of electric cars charge at once.
NOT TRUE according to a 2007 study by Pacific Northwest, a Department of Energy research lab. They contend that we could replace 73 percent of our cars, trucks, and SUVs (about 217 million vehicles) with plug-in hybrids without building new generating plants or transmission lines. Oil consumption would fall by 6.2 million barrels a day, eliminating nearly 53 percent of our current oil imports.

Consider too that about 40 percent of our electricity capacity in the U.S. sits idle at night when most plug-in cars would be charging.

Myth #2 : Electric vehicles (EVs) don’t have enough range; you'll be stranded when you run out of electricity. NOT TRUE since many of the newest electric cars can travel up to 120 miles on a single charge, and the average American drives 40 miles per day, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The Chevy Volt is designed to drive up to 40 miles on electricity alone, after which a range-extending generator kicks in to extend the total driving range to about 350 miles. Just plan accordingly. It's not different from checking your gas gauge to avoid running out of gas.

Most electric cars can charge in five or six hours on a 220-volt home current, overnight on 110-volt, and in 15-30 minutes at a fast charging (480 volts) public station. San Francisco, Boulder, and Denver have shown their belief in electric cars by making fast charging stations available.

What else can YOU do? Are you among the 77 percent of Americans who drive to work alone? Car sharing programs such as Zipcar are worth investigating. Plan your trips to avoid traffic and stop lights—not so easy along Monticello Avenue. Accelerate slowly. Limit use of air conditioning and heated seats. Walk or bicycle when you can.

February 12, 2010

Navy Tests Say Waller Mill Fish Not Toxic to Humans

Does that sound "fishy" to you?

Love might not last forever for a lot of couples, but you can't say that about PCBs. These dandy little chemicals, manufactured in the U.S. by the Monsanto Company from 1929 to 1977 under the trade name Aroclor, don't last long in water but instead settle to the bottom and persist in the fish. The manufacturing of PCBs (officially called polychlorinated biphenyls) was finally banned in 1979.

So that's 50 years worth of nasty stuff, some of which migrated through a drainage swale from an abandoned pool at Camp Peary toward Waller Mill Reservoir. Several water quality tests show the chemical is no longer in the water, but that doesn't mean the stuff isn't in the mud under the surface. Last February, analysis of soil and sediment samples taken outside of Camp Peary revealed PCBs in the drainage system. So that soil and debris (1500 tons of it!) was carted away.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality is also reviewing the draft report that states that PCB concentrations in Waller Mill Reservoir fish are within acceptable risk limits to humans. This report is from third party chemists hired by the Navy

"PCB concentrations in Waller Mill Reservoir that are attributable to releases from Site 49F do not pose an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment," the statement said. Plus no additional remediation for the site is mentioned.

Want to know more? The Navy will hold a Community Open House on Wednesday, Feb. 17 from 6 to 8 pm. at the Williamsburg Community Building.

Wouldn't it be a nice touch if they served fish and chips, with some of Monsanto's famous PCB tartar sauce on the side?

Speaking of fish:
Look at the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico where the fish "sleep with the fishies."

Wonder why? LOTS of fertilizer runoff and sediment from the farms--more than 7.8 million pounds of it a day, if you accept the findings of the Environmental Working Group--flow down the mighty Mississsippi especially during spring rains.. The United States Geological Society has identified Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi as the primary contributors. These states are responsible for more than 75 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus that enters the gulf.

Why does it continue? Billions of dollars in federal farm subsidies that reward production rather than impact on the environment. The Clean Water Act, that was supposed to improve the nation’s waters so that natural chemical, physical, and biological conditions could be sustained, sits on a nearby shelf. This legislation determined that pollution from point and nonpoint sources should be minimized. Too bad it hasn't been enforced.