December 26, 2011

Green "huzzahs" in 2011

As New Years Eve approaches, it's the ideal time to look back at some green highs and lows in the greater Williamsburg, VA area during 2011.

Super green huzzahs to the folks at the Williamsburg Land Conservancy for adding almost 1000 acres of conservation easements in the lower James and York Rivers watersheds in 2011—more than 850 rural acres in one fell swoop. Thank you, landowners, for helping the health of the Chesapeake Bay by preserving these acres along the Pamunkey River from development. The parcel had been approved for a 110-lot subdivision.

This year’s additional easements brought the total number of the Conservancy’s protected acres to more than 4,000—quite an accomplishment during their 20 years.

Green cheers ─ To the City of Williamsburg for their expanded and remodeled Municipal Building. One of the most sustainable things they did was to renovate instead of building a new edifice, reducing the burden on local landfills. Of the original building’s exterior walls, floors, and roof, more than 75 percent was retained.

Their parking lot is pervious concrete paving that allows rainwater to soak through during storms, reducing the stormwater runoff and pollutants flowing into the Bay. This Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified project deserves additional kudos for the careful design and placement of outdoor lighting that greatly reduces light pollution.

The project included bicycle storage racks and employee shower facilities to encourage use of alternative means of transportation; improved air quality through the use of low-emitting materials; native landscaping to minimize the need for irrigation water; high-efficiency plumbing fixtures using 40 percent less water consumption; occupancy sensors to shut off lighting when rooms are not in use; improved insulation and geothermal heat pumps using almost 25 percent less energy.

Speaking of geothermal — Green huzzahs to Eve Otmar and other homeowners who replaced old heating and cooling systems with super efficient geothermal ones, taking advantage of the constant year-round temperature of about 50°F that is just a few feet below the ground’s surface. Eve’s decision was prompted by the death of 29 coal miners in a West Virginia mine disaster. Generating clean renewable energy was important to her. Eve told me that “it was time to do the better thing, and definitely worth the effort and expense.” Extreme Climates, a Yorktown HVAC company, dug a 250 foot “well” to replace her totally electric heating with a closed loop geothermal one. Tax credits and other incentives can reduce the payback period to 5 years or less.

JCC Supes ─ Earned some green grades recently by approving an EcoDiscovery Park in the near future in the Jamestown Marina area adjacent to Jamestown Settlement. This idea was floated and pursued by Steve Rose, owner of Williamsburg Event Rentals. Will a water permeable parking lot (similar to Premium Outlets’ parking spaces) be part of this green educational project? Or will more stormwater runoff degrade the health of the James River?

Any opportunity to give green huzzahs to our board of supervisors is a good thing. These are the same folks who believe that a buffer of trees can be as narrow as the one surrounding the new Fresh Market on Monticello. Perhaps they need a visit to Sea Pines in Hilton Head to see how stores can be tucked behind a true stand of trees and still be visible.

Academic green huzzahs — go to WJCC schools for earning a “Certified Green School Division” status from the Virginia School Boards Association in October. Their many energy efficiency and waste management initiatives saved $1.2 million over the last two years.

William and Mary’s Career Center earned LEED gold certification as well, the third campus building to do so since 2010. Looks like they truly believe in sustainability, although that word and concept seem to offend quite a few people in our area.

Dirty air ─ was in the news and in our lungs this summer for almost four months as the fire in the Great Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge gave us unhealthy air quality advisories. More than 6500 acres out of the 111,000 acre refuge were scorched. A major loss for birds and trees.

Coal ─ is still a dirty fuel, especially when it’s burned in 50 year old power plants. So Dominion Virginia Power’s decision to retire the Yorktown and Chesapeake coal plants, two of Virginia's oldest and dirtiest coal plants, in 2015 gave them some green huzzahs. Both burn about 6700 tons of coal every day, so that’s a lot less mercury getting into our air and water. Switching power plants to biomass or natural gas is the latest trend although fracking (fracturing) the earth to reach this gas is still controversial.

Dominion still has opportunities to invest in clean, renewable energy like wind and solar as part of their long-range energy plan. You may see them install solar panels on large commercial rooftops and look into off-shore and on-shore wind generation.

Other good news is that Dominion plans no new coal-fired plants. The bad news is that consumers may foot a higher Dominion bill and ODEC’s proposed new coal-fired plant in Dendron is still in the works.

Green kudos ─ To JC4 (James City County Citizens Coalition) for weighing in on St. Bede’s controversial six proposed mausoleums and addressing the scale of the project. The 2009 Comprehensive Plan included this area as a “Community Character Corridor” where development should preserve the original character of the road. Only new berms with many trees could maintain that character.

Stormwater management issues are a major challenge in this proposal as well. If ever approved, the project should include pervious paving to assure that adjacent creeks, streams and residences are not negatively impacted by runoff.

Water quality ─ Got a good bit of help from the volunteers who built an impressive “living shoreline” breakwater along the James River near the ferry dock. The spartina cordgrass plantings will help bind the new sand and control the erosion from waves.

But the Chesapeake Bay continues to plead for help with its pollution diet and the James River Association downgraded the health of the James River from “C+” to “C.” The record-setting year of 2011 dealt a major blow to the bay as oxygen-choking nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment continued to be a perpetual plague.

A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council says that at least 64 weather records were broken in Virginia in 2011. That includes 32 rainfall records. Hurricane Irene rain dumped tons of sediment into the Susquehanna River which flows into the bay. You could see the brown plume in a NASA photo. Cows still graze in streams and many farmers do not use “no till” farming practices.

Yes, our economy faces major challenges, but the cost of doing nothing is high. Loses to the fishing and tourism industries will be high.

Local roads ─ Qualified for a lot of green complaints this year. First, Route 199 went through a lengthy repaving project with questionable materials and a lot of debris hauled off to landfills. The Ironbound Road widening continues with an elusive finish date.

Finally, the neighborhoods of Season’s Trace, The Colony, Kingswood and also some secondary streets such as Neck-O-Land Road were resurfaced with an unattractive asphalt aggregate last fall. The material had a lot of excess gravel and sheds like a Labrador retriever. That’s most likely not so good for an area so integral to the nearby watershed. So JCC is now asking VDOT to stop using the material in the future.

Nuclear power — Remains on the table in spite of cost and safety worries. The nearby Surrey nuclear plant came through last August’s earthquake unscathed, although it was built to withstand a smaller quake than we experienced. See other blog postings about the 30 year moratorium on mining uranium in Virginia.