August 30, 2011

Hurricane Irene affected Chesapeake Bay shellfish

The news about Hurricane Irene's torrential rains overwhelming sewage systems and releasing millions of gallons of nasty stuff into Chesapeake Bay tributaries was big on the "EWWWW Factor." And just in time for our long-delayed ten day sail up the Bay.

Many of Maryland's sewage treatment plants are still antiquated, mixing sewage and rain water in the same pipes. In Baltimore County, 12 pumping stations overflowed last weekend, releasing more than 13 million gallons of yucky stuff. Because of a 1997 lawsuit filed against the city of Baltimore by EPA and Maryland regulators, that city is now spending about $1.5 billion dollars replacing or fixing about 250 miles of its decaying pipes.

Virginia has done a bit better upgrading our wastewater systems, but this remains a regional problem because numerous tributaries from four states feed the Chesapeake.

In advance of Hurricane Irene, the Maryland Department of the Environment banned all harvesting of oysters and other shellfish until September 3 because of the likelihood that heavy rains flushed sewage and contaminated storm water (e.g. animal and farm waste) into the Chesapeake Bay.

Virginia also halted shellfish harvesting until September 3 in our portion of the Chesapeake Bay and along parts of the Eastern Shore after Hurricane Irene, although crabs and fin fish are "unaffected."

No crabcakes this weekend for me, just to be on the safe side. And we'll still need to dodge all those crabtraps.

All the news that's fit to print--AND BURN?

Irene knocked out our power for two days, and I just now read some exciting news from Tulane University scientists. They discovered a bacterial strain, called "TU-103," that can produce the biofuel butanol from newspaper. Probably any old office paper could work, but they experimented with their local paper, The Times-Picayune.

Tulane has applied for a patent for this promising method to produce bio-butanol directly from cellulose. Butanol is better than ethanol as a biofuel because it requires no modifications to engines, is less corrosive, and has more energy. Plus, we Americans throw away 323 million tons of cellulose materials each year, so we'd save landfill space as well.

August 24, 2011

Hurricane Irene is poised for a visit to Virginia

An earthquake yesterday? A swarm of locusts tomorrow?????

As Ocracoke Island residents begin to evacuate today, Tidewater Virginia residents are keeping our eyes peeled on the Weather Channel's regular updates on Hurricane Irene. Is she strengthening? Better yet, is she heading farther east and out to sea?

Many folks breathe a sigh of relief as past hurricanes changed their course and we dodged that weather bullet. But I always ask, "What about the new folks now in their paths?" Bermuda sits out there in the Atlantic as a sitting duck. And there's always a few unlucky (and sometimes unwise) folks out in small boats. As a sailor, we read about these boaters much more frequently that we'd like. Taking out any boat in "hurricane season" is a risky venture, and our insurance company does not even offer coverage if we'd stayed in southern coastal US waters.

Thankfully, insurance does cover most of the haul-out charges for named storms. So our boat was hauled out in Deltaville yesterday.

A deluge of rain may put a literal damper on the Great Dismal Swamp Refuge fire (sure hope so), but heavy rains in these parts will dump a lot of "stuff" (as in "stuff happens") into the Chesapeake Bay. More nitrogen and phosphorus pollutants from runoff are NOT what our bay needs. 

So once again, we'll pray for a break from Mother Nature. But she sure showed a lot of us some of her fury yesterday. That 5.9 earthquake certainly got my attention. Do you think that she's tired of the oil and gas industry fracking her rocks?  Hmmm.

August 21, 2011

Great Dismal Swamp fire is dismal indeed

We should not SEE our air.

Smoke from the still-burning fire in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge continues to invade the Tidewater Virginia area. It's been dense smoke in recent days, but a haze reappeared again this morning. Glad I mowed the lawn and did my weeding in the last two days during a brief respite. Code Orange alerts from Virginia's Department of Environmental Quality will keep me inside today.

photo by M.A. Moxon
We motored through this amazing wilderness in 2010 in our sailboat on our way back from the Florida Keys. This is what this portion of the Intracoastal Waterway looked like then.

More than 6000 acres have already burned in this remote area of Virginia and North Carolina. Hundreds of firemen are trying to contain the fire, as hopes for enough rain to douse it continue.

The fire has affected communities 400 miles away, depending on which way the wind blows. Roads have even been closed for short durations until the super smoke cleared out. Outdoor activities have been curtailed as well. Asthamtics and the elderly have been warned to stay indoors.

I really can't complain since we just returned from two weeks in the Pacific Northwest area where the air was just very cool, and NOT visible. So we missed the worst of the smoke and particulates from this fire that began on August 4, when lightning struck an area of the wildlife refuge that had been burned in the 2008 swamp fire. This year's drought dried out the new growth in that "burn scar" and the dead trees there are fueling the current fire. Scientists explain that the burning soil (marsh peat) is the source of most of the smoke and particulate matter. In some areas the fire is burning a foot and a half underground which causes trees to topple.

Click here to view a video and more from the Virginia Pilot.

The truth about fracking

Who do we believe? Or trust? The debate continues. . .

The oil industry touts the safety of fracking (fracturing shale rock with huge amounts of sand, chemicals and water to drive the gas to the surface), yet some folks in Pennsylvania can ignite the methane now in their drinking water at the faucet (as seen in the Gasland documentary).

An ExxonMobil ad promises an estimated 2500 trillion cubic feet in natural gas, enough to meet our energy needs for more than 100 years, as "an amazing resource for Americans" and describes the fracking process as a "responsible way to produce it." Their reassuring graphic depicts a natural gas well with groundwater just under the surface and a VERY deep (1.5 miles) pipeline, with "multiple steel and cement barriers" surrounding it. Surely no reason to worry--if you trust the mining engineers, drilling equipment and regulatory powers. Texas Governor Rick Perry trusts them, what about you?

Many environmental groups have demanded a nationwide moratorium on more fracking. While in New York state's Finger Lakes region this summer, I saw anti-fracking signs in many front yards.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu's expert panel agrees that natural gas is an abundant and increasingly important fuel that emits only half the carbon dioxide emitted by coal. This panel also warns that hydraulic fracturing presents real risks to the air, water and land that must be addressed by energy companies and federal and state regulators. The risks to water quality are real, as well as the challenge of safely disposing of the water used in the fracking (called "flowback"). Is it better to store that water, along with the accompanying chemicals, in onsite retention ponds? Or inject it back into the earth?

Gas companies now extract 30 percent of our natural gas through this process, so these concerns are growing. The public is getting wary, after watching the oil industry's recent spills. We are not now so trusting--of either industry or government.

Then there's the air quality issue. Can we afford to allow any escaping methane in the gas to join the existing greenhouses gases?  Let's hope the industry can prevent leaks better than BP's "preventer" did in the Gulf a year ago.

Stay tuned as this becomes a bigger campaign issue.

August 14, 2011

Bad, bad, Leroy Brown and BROWN PINES

I've seen a LOT of brown pines in our summer travels along the East Coast and had wondered if the extreme heat or drought had claimed some more victims. Then I read about the herbicide, Imprelis, the newest "wonder" herbicide from DuPont.

OOPS! Big Oops. . . The Environmental Protection Agency just banned the sale of Imprelis. Landscapers linked it to thousands of tree deaths around the country, especially Norway spruce, balsam firs, and white pines. DuPontsuspended sales of the product last week and announced plans for a refund program. The company already faces lawsuits from property owners who lost numerous trees after landscapers began applying Imprelis to lawns and golf courses this spring. It seems that DuPont may have known about this predisposition of their latest herbide to kill trees under stress.

Now I am stressed! The good news is that only turf and landscaping professionals were allowed to buy or apply Imprelis. And this product may take years to break down in the soil.

August 3, 2011

Water shortage in 30 years???

Don't waste water, little guy!
In 30 years, I'll be 90ish, but I might be thirsty too. So the recent prognostication from Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, about water demand exceeding supply, caught my eye.

Then I read that in my area (James City County), that shortage might hit in only 22 years. I might be even thirstier in my 80s.

As I read further, I learned that water desalinization might be the hope for our future--plus buying water from across the James River. Desalinization has its pros and cons, plus the salinity range of our local rivers varies depending on the tides and rainfall.

Lawn irrigation continues to drain our aquifers. Rain sensors prevent sprinklers from operating when there's been adequate rain. So why do I see so many sprinklers on after a heavy rain? Guess some folks have money to burn.