June 24, 2010

Stormwater Management 101

"Raindrops keep fallin' on my head."

"Stormwater management" is not a usual topic around the water-cooler. But James City County (JCC) residents may want to discuss it at cocktail parties soon. You see, the feds and the state mandate that locals deal with their stormwater runoff. Why? Too much of it (and in the wrong places) can flood us out of our homes or wash a lot of pollutants into our streams where it meanders into our rivers, and ultimately into the Chesapeake. Lots of crabs, oysters, and fish then get cranky. Then the watermen get cranky. Then we get cranky when we can't enjoy roast oyster or a crabcake.

How do we handle this over-supply of rainwater? We can restore streams to limit the amount of erosion, build more retention ponds to let the water slowly ebb out of our neighborhoods, and come up with other creative ways to deal with drainage. Less construction, whether residential, retail, or commercial, would of course simplify matters. Impervious parking lots and more streets are a major challenge to rainwater looking to go somewhere.

How much will this cost? JCC supervisors tell us they have about $30.8 million worth of projects that need to be done within the next decade. Maryland residents bit the bullet last year and swallowed a "flush tax" to fund their needed projects. A "rain tax" passed by JCC supervisors in 2008 became a political football and was overturned shortly after adopted.

Speaking of football, our elected JCC supervisors are probably going to pass the decision on to the voters instead of funding it through fees. We lucky voters will most likely get to vote on this important issue in the November elections as a $30 million referendum to borrow the funds through bonds. Of course, we'll be paying an additioanl $2.4 million back for that "privilege," which translates into a tax increase. The issue is on hold at the moment as the JCC supervisrors weigh the options and figure out how to best inform the voters of the dreaded "T" word. One way or the other, we'll pay now or pay later.

Our elected folks in the Virginia Assembly had a good opportunity to deal with this issue last session--as well as to fund it on the front end by asking more from the developers--but were scared off by "constuction lobbyists." One easy solution is pervious concreate that allows rain water to soak through, instead of running off in torrents during a heavy rain. Another, of course, is less development.

But our JCC supervisors opted this week to blow off the recommendations of both their planning staff and the planning commission to deep six the Courthouse Commons proposal. Just what we need here--another shopping center, just across the street from vacant buildings and empty lots.

June 19, 2010

What do you know about "fracking"?

"Fracking" chemicals (pronounce that carefully)

Drilling for natural gas [450,000 gas wells in the U.S.] relies on a process of special concern known as hydraulic fracturing or "fracking." In fracking, companies like Halliburton inject, at high pressure, into each well up to 8 million gallons of water and toxic chemicals (like kerosene and diesel fuel). This fluid fractures underground formations, unlocking natural gas that had been trapped. But is it worth the risk? Small communities in New York state may not think so, after they heard from other small Colorado towns. They cannot now drink their local water.

There's a big debate in Congress today over whether to repeal the provision of the Safte Drinking Water Act that allows gas companies to conceal which chemicals they inject into the ground as "trade secrets." Each well requires the high-pressure injection of a cocktail of nearly 600 chemicals, including known carcinogens and neurotoxins, diluted in 1 million to 7 million gallons of water.

"Gasland," an HBO documentary, will air on Monday, June 21 ( 9 p.m. ET/PT) and again on June 24, 26 and 30, and July 5. It traces hydraulic fracturing across 34 states from California to Louisiana to Pennsylvania. The exposé by filmmaker Josh Fox, alternately chilling and darkly humorous, won the 2010 Sundance Film Festival’s special jury prize for documentary. It details how former Vice President Dick Cheney, in partnership with the energy industry and drilling companies such as his former employer, Halliburton Corp., successfully pressured Congress in 2005 to exempt fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act and other environmental laws.

Gas companies are seeking drilling rights to the humongous Marcellus Shale Field, dubbed “the Saudia Arabia of natural gas” below New York and Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, the field sits beneath the last unfiltered watershed in the U.S. and serves tens of millions of residents of New York City, Philadelphia, and the surrounding area. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, roughly 10,000 gas wells supposedly spew more pollution into the air than all the cars and trucks in the region, the film reports.

Last March, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it will conduct a comprehensive $1.9-million study on the “potential adverse impact that hydraulic fracturing may have on water quality and public health.”

Just the facts on oil please! (updated 6-23-10)

Following President Obama's address to the nation this week, Factcheck.org clarified some of the President's remarks. This group (from the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center) are my trusted source for "just the facts" in addition to http://www.snopes.com/
  • Net oil imports for the U.S. in March were 9,480,000 barrels per day and the average cost per barrel was $75. Total cost: $711 million per day. Not a billion, but still a hefty amount!
  • According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), world petroleum production averaged 84,158,559 barrels per day in 2009. And U.S. petroleum consumption averaged 18,686,223 barrels per day. So we use 22.2 percent of the world's daily oil production. 
  • Obama was correct about our low percentage of the world’s oil reserves. The EIA stated that the U.S. has 21.317 billion barrels of "proved reserves" while the global total is 1,342.207 billion barrels. That figures to just under 1.6 percent.
  • The six-month deepwater drilling moratorium only applied to new permits for deepwater drilling, and halted 33 exploratory drilling projects, but did not affect roduction from existing deepwater well platforms. So why are we hearing loud complaints from gulf coast oil industry workers who complain that they can't survive a six-month moratorium? A Department of Interior press release on June 8 explained that “shallow water drilling operations and production activity in both deep and shallow waters are not under a moratorium and will continue, provided they are in compliance with the new safety requirements."  [6-23-10 comments: After a federal judge yesterday blocked this moratorium, Interior Secretary Salazar announced today that he'll issue a NEW moratorium asap "based on new information." Hmmm. Could it be that the federal judge had a conflict of interest? This saga continues! Will jobs trump the environment?]
More oil facts & figures:
  • Virginia's potential offshore supply of oil (according to Minerals Managment Service) is 130 million barrels--about seven days of U.S. 20 billion barrel per day use
  • The oil industry is using about 18-20 percent of the leases it already has access to.
  • Worldwide deepwater oil production will increase by two-thirds within the next five years, according to Cambridge Energy Research Associates. That's as much crude oil as Saudi Arabia already produces. So we're tracking in the wrong direction if clean energy is indeed our goal.

June 15, 2010

"Better living through chemistry?"

Really? I think the green jury is still out.

"Better Living Through Chemistry" is a variant of the DuPont company's advertising slogan, "Better Things for Better Living...Through Chemistry." But today, we now ask “Is it worth the risk?” I’m not talking about  the questionable safety of the chemicals used to break up the oil spill in the gulf, although I certainly could.

I’m referring to the plethora of chemicals and toxic stuff in most of today’s foods and household products. I don’t want to sound paranoid, but we most likely have traces of more than 200 chemicals in us right now, and we have no idea how they interact or how much we absorb over the long haul. Some stay inside us for a short time and others are cumulative. Some folks have already learned that they suffer from "Multiple Chemical Sensitivities" (MCS) or are very sensitive to a lot of chemicals such as those in perfumes.

Can you avoid them? An alphabet soup of chemicals, many of which did not exist 50 years ago, is present in almost every room of our homes and in our bodies. BPA from those nifty insulating plastic tumblers; PFOA in those handy nonstick pans; BHA to preserve food; and PBDE fire retardant join the better known phthalates in Rubber Duckies, formaldehyde, and asbestos. The EPA has an interesting term, “chemicals of concern,” for these. I’d prefer oversight and regulation to mere concern.

As part of EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s commitment to increase public access to information on chemicals, the EPA added more than 6,300 chemicals and 3,800 chemical facilities regulated under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to a public database called Envirofacts in May 2010.

The Envirofacts database is EPA’s “single point of access on the Internet for information about environmental activities that may affect air, water and land in the U.S and provides tools for analyzing the data. It includes facility name and address information, aerial image of the facility and surrounding area, map location of the facility, and links to other EPA information on the facility, such as EPA’s inspection and compliance reports.” Check out Envirofacts at http://www.epa.gov/enviro/index.html

Testing toxic ABCs? The scariest thing is that the EPA has tested only about 200 of the 83,000+ chemicals out there, and when it is done, it’s usually “short term.” They are presumed safe unless proven otherwise—with information provided by the manufacturer. That’s a big leap of faith. Setting safe standards—and then enforcing them—remains a big challenge. Sound familiar?

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has been busy lately also with the toxic metal cadmium, as McDonalds recalled 12 million American-made Shrek glasses. Cadmium is linked to cancer in humans, as well as kidney problems and soft bones.

The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) doesn’t have really big enforcement teeth. Even if Senator Lautenberg’s “Safe Chemicals Act” passes in Congress, the EPA has its hand full right now with the spill.

WHAT CAN YOU DO TO AVOID THESE CHEMICALS? The Environmental Working Group has these tips to help you (and your children) avoid some of these chemicals.

Bug off!

Get ready for summer bugs.

The EPA regulates insect repellents and they offer an "everything you ever wanted to know about insect repellents" website at http://cfpub.epa.gov/oppref/insect/

It provides up-to-date listings of mosquito and tick repellents as well as tips for choosing the right product to meet your needs. One of the key features of the revamped Web page is easy access to information about protection time. It will help people choose the right product for the length of time they will be outdoors.

I can't vouch for the safety of the chemicals in these products, but I don't want Lyme Disease either. Avon's "Skin So Soft" has its fans, and there are "natural" products out there on the shelves that claim to be effective too.

Deer fliesthose pesky insects with the disposition of a junkyard dog, are a major nuisance (and uncomfortable too) in many Virginia areas. They buzz annoyingly past your ears, neck, and head as you walk the woods, weed your yard,  or play golf, and seem to be wielding an ice pick when they bite. They’re close cousins of horse flies, but smaller—only about ½ inch long—and horse flies usually bite ankles and legs. Deer flies are generally ambush predators, and wait on hot summer days along the edge of moist, wooded areas until a potential food source passes by—Bambi or YOU. They are highly attracted to movement. The bites can produce a variety of reactions ranging from little or no irritation to considerable irritation and swelling. Only one generation develops each year, so it could be worse. The deer fly season is usually early June through the end of July

Deer flies are frequently confused with the larger May flies that also appear here at about the same time. May flies also have transparent wings, but only live for about 24 hours and have no mouth parts.

Even though deer flies appear to fly fast, they’re slow and easy to swat compared with other insects. But that swat is usually-post-bite! My green solution, a full head net, makes me look a bit dorky (or like a beekeeper), but it works on these insects on steroids! You’ll still hear them dive-bomb you, and you may be looking at them cross-eyed through the net, but they won’t be biting you. The nets are sold in most camping sections of local stores.

Nuclear power plant "advice"

Are you prepared for a nuclear "accident"?

Many folks living within ten miles of Dominion Virginia Power's Surry Nuclear Power Plant are in the dark when it comes to a very basic form of protection in the event of a nuclear plant "event" that would release radioactive iodine. So the Virginia Department of Health is asking families to discard any potassium iodide pills (also called KI) distributed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission around 2002 because they expired. We got ours from a local pharmacy when we moved here in 2003. They say it's safe to discard them in your garbage can.

So what happens now? In the event of an accident at the power plant, the Department of Health will recommend and distribute new KI pills at "Evacuation Assembly Centers" outside of the evacuated areas, when "the projected radiation dose to the thyroid gland exceeds 5 rem." That sounds fine, except they don't tell us where these centers will be. I can just imagine humongous roadblocks.

IMPORTANT INFO: "Potassium iodide protects the thyroid gland against internal uptake of radioiodines that may be released in the unlikely event of a nuclear reactor accident." Of course, after you pop that dandy little tablet in your mouth, you gotta get the heck outta town becasue "Evacuation is the most effective protective measure in the event of a radiological emergency because it protects the whole body (including the thyroid gland and other organs) from all radionuclides and all exposure pathways."  (VA Dept. of Health)

The Surry power plant, operational since 1972, has two nuclear reactors. One was shut down in early June, 2010 after a 120-volt power supply failed, resulting in a reduced supply of water to the steam generators. That steam from the cooling towers is the ominous, yet harmless "plume" you see over operating nuclear plants. It is designed to shut down automatically as a safety precaution, and operated as expected. Too bad that the blowout prevention doodad in the Gulf didn't work as well.

June 1, 2010

Still worried about drilling off Virginia's coast?

You should be--after the gulf' spill of national significance--according to the Hands Across the Sand folks at http://www.handsacrossthesand.com/virginia/ So they are still planning a protest event at 11 a.m. on Virginia Beach on Saturday, June 26.

At the very least, you can get some fresh air and meet some folks who think like you do about offshore drilling off Virginia.

FYI: One claim I've read is that there is only enough untapped oil off the Virginia coast to provide just 6 to 24 days' worth of U.S. demand.

Over a barrel? The oil spill has concentrated our attention on energy policy and the problem of oil imports, but there is still no agreement on how to address it. Legislation that ramps up production of electric vehicles and advanced biofuels, sets higher fuel economy standards for cars, shifts more heavy trucks to natural gas, and reduces the use of heating oil in homes through stricter efficiency standards on buildings stands a chance of passing.

Green Summer Travel

EPA Encourages Ways to Travel Green

Want to check into an Energy Star labeled Hotel? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is encouraging people to travel green this summer and choose hotels that have earned EPA’s Energy Star label. That means that these hotels "perform in the top 25 percent of hotels nationwide, use at least 35 percent less energy, and emit at least 35 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than their peers." Find these hotels at http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?fuseaction=labeled_buildings.locator. The list is updated daily.

ALSO, remember to turn off the lights and TV when leaving the hotel room; adjust the thermostat to an energy-saving setting so it doesn’t heat or cool the room while empty; unplug electronics such as cell phones chargers and laptops when not in use; open curtains to take advantage of daylight when possible; and re-use linens to save both water and energy.