August 31, 2009

I've been to the mountaintop

But now it's gone.

Never been to the Appalachian mountains? You'd better plan a trip soon. Mountain tops are disappearing, due to the contentious practice of "removing" them to get to the coal far underneath. Appalachian Voices newsletter states that "A summer of discontent is rapidly turning into an autumn of confrontation, as Congressional hearings and regional protests
increasingly pit environmental activists against coal industry employees."

See for one side of the argument. Or Applachian Voices at

I can't understand the other side of the issue--since destroying mountains just seems wrong, and unintelligent. I just got home from a trip to the Blue Ridge mountains, so perhaps I'm biased by the beautiful scenery we witnessed. The scene to the right is the alternate. Richmond-based Massey Energy continues its massive mountaintop removal operations on the controversial Coal River Mountain range in West Virginia.

Then there's the spoils that get dumped into nearby streams. That's a "no brainer" for sure.

So why did Verizon sponsor a pro–mountaintop removal rally on a strip-mine site this past weekend with "Friends of America"? Corporate response that was emailed to me: "The sponsorship you're concerned about was a local decision to support the community and sell our products at the event. It is not a statement of our policy on any public issue." So sponsorship = selling phones. Corporate America bamboozles us again!

Why do they do it? Primarily, mountaintop removal is occurring in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and VIRGINIA. Coal companies in Appalachia are increasingly using this method because it allows for almost complete recovery of coal seams while reducing the number of workers required to a fraction of what conventional methods require.

By the way. . . ever wonder what happened after that massive spill (1.1 BILLION gallons) of coal ash from a power plant in east Tennessee last December? The tons of toxic slurry that ended up in their local streams after the earthen dam collpased? Almost every day, a train now pulls into a rail yard in rural Alabama, hauling 8,500 tons from that disaster to a final resting place in a landfill 350 miles away in Perry County, which is very poor and almost 70 percent black. Three million cubic yards of coal ash in those Alabama residents' Christmas stockings!

And it could happen again. . . the EPA just announced that 19 more of the 28 coal-ash disposal sites also pose a hazard to environmental and human health. There's a significant amount of mercury, lead, chromium, and cadmium in that stuff. According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, 35 states have the dubious honor of "hosting" 584 coal-ash ponds.
September 11, 2009 UPDATE:
Today the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that The all 79 mountaintop-removal mining permits submitted to it for review by the Army Corps of Engineers would violate the Clean Water Act. But don't give out a big sigh of relief for those mountains yet.
Permits to bury streams with mining waste are initially issued by the Army Corps of Engineers, but EPA has ultimate oversight and may veto Corps-issued permits if they fail to comply with the Clean Water Act. The Army Corps now has 60 days to revise the permits and address EPA’s concerns.

Woo hoo . . . Another Green Label Coming Soon

Get ready for BioPreferred.

The USDA is proposing this label to identify the thousands of non-food products made with renewable plant, animal, and other bio-based materials. It's an outgrowth of the federal government's BioPreferred purchasing program, that expanded the 2002 Farm Bill in the 2008 Farm Bill.

The BioPreferred program aims to increase the purchase and use of renewable, environmentally friendly biobased products while providing "green" jobs and new markets for farmers, manufacturers, and vendors.

The proposal would set up a system in which companies could voluntarily apply the BioPreferred label to their products.

The USDA has set up a BioPreferred catalog that covers the following categories:

  • Building Materials

  • Construction and Road Maintenance

  • Furniture and Furnishings

  • Housewares and Cleaning

  • Kitchen and Break Room Supplies

  • Industrial Supplies

  • Landscaping and Agriculture

  • Office Supplies

  • Shipping and Packaging

  • Personal Care and Toiletries The Great Outdoors

August 21, 2009

Stormwater runoff in the news again

I'm "waxing poetic" for the Sixties this week. Joni Mitchell (or was it Bob Dylan) sang:

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot . . .
You don't know what you've got till it's gone? . . .
They took all the trees and put them in a tree museum.
And they charged all the people a dollar and a half just to see 'em.

That's the song that came to my mind as I read this week about local governments in the Hampton Roads area resisting the proposed changes regarding proposed "storm water runoff control" regulations. They object because they see how it might (Geez, I hope so.) limit the suburban sprawl occurring across our area. Requiring the construction industry to prevent runoff or filter the accompanying pollutants sounds like a no-brainer to me.

Regs that might add to housing costs are scaring these folks. The concept is not real popular at the moment, but then who should pay for the worsening health of the Chesapeake? The Chesapeake Bay Foundation filed suit against the EPA this year for not doing enough to enforce the laws that already exist to limit pollution.

I skimmed over the proposed regs and didn't notice any onerous limitations to builders, but then again, I'm biased. Instead, I saw flexibility in them, and encouragement to leave as many trees and green space as possible and to use permeable (or porous) concrete whenever feasible.

If you haven't seen permeable concrete, think "Snap, Crackle, Pop" and Rice Krispies Treats. Visit the Prime Outlets parking lot in James City County to see the largest expanse of it anywhere.

This week, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and about 60 other state and local environmental groups sent a letter to Governor Kaine in favor of these regulations and recommending speedy approval of them.

I don't remember algae blooms every August in the Sixties either. But runoff is a major factor. Our area of the southern Chesapeake is seeing a doozy of a "red tide" this week as the August temps affect the nitrogen and phosphorus that has washed into our tributaries with recent rains. Algae blooms not only look gunky to swimmers, but fish don't thrive in them either. One new species of toxic algae appears to be moving north into the Chesapeake Bay too.

The James City County Citizens’ Coalition (J4C) strongly endorses the state’s “new emphasis on treating stormwater as a resource and not merely a problem to be moved downstream as quickly as possible (where, of course, it becomes somebody else’s problem).”

How much mercury was in last night's dinner?

It's Hard to Believe . . .

The U.S. Geological Survey just got my attention. EVERY single fish they tested (from 300 streams and rivers across the country) contained at least a bit of mercury. So sport fishermen (and women), listen up.

What does it mean if your dinner was tainted with this well-known neurotoxin? If you eat fish from American rivers and streams quite frequently, you should be concerned about your nervous system being damaged. Remember the Mad Hatter? Mercury used to be used in hat manufacturing many years ago.

Mercury is very dangerous to fetuses. That's why the FDA and the EPA suggested in 2004 that women who are pregnant or plan to become pregnant avoid fish with the highest levels of mercury--swordfish, shark (not on my diet!), and tuna steaks. But catfish is popular in many places.

See the Virginia Department of Health's fish advisories (colorful maps) showing mercury, PCBs, and other "not good-for-you-stuff." Where does most of this mercury come from? Emissions from coal-fired power plants! Yes, those plants that the coal industry likes to describe with that oxymoron phrase, "clean coal." Yet I remember watching Trenton, NJ folks catching AND KEEPING the catfish they caught from the Delaware River downstream from the coal-fired power plant there.

True, only a fourth of the fish tested contained mercury above the EPA's safety threshold, but that stuff is cumulative in your body. It increases as you move up the food chain, from the tiny minnow to we humans.

Now before you get paranoid about including fish in your diet, check out NOAA's website to help you find safe fish.

Otherwise, a good practice might be catch and release!

August 16, 2009

Have You Been Bamboozled by Bamboo Fabrics?

an August 2009 "Consumer Alert" from the FTC (updated 8-30-09)

"Looking to be a more environmentally conscious shopper? You’ve probably heard about bamboo. Bamboo stands out for its ability to grow quickly with little or no need for pesticides, and it is used in a variety of products, from flooring to furniture. But when it comes to soft bamboo textiles, like shirts or sheets, there’s a catch: they’re actually rayon.

The Federal Trade Commission, the nation’s consumer protection agency, wants you to know that the soft “bamboo” fabrics on the market today are rayon. They are made using toxic chemicals in a process that releases pollutants into the air. Extracting bamboo fibers is expensive and time-consuming, and textiles made just from bamboo fiber don’t feel silky smooth.

There’s also no evidence that rayon made from bamboo retains the antimicrobial properties of the bamboo plant, as some sellers and manufacturers claim. Even when bamboo is the “plant source” used to create rayon, no traits of the original plant are left in the finished product.

Companies that claim a product is “bamboo” should have reliable evidence, like scientific tests and analyses, to show that it’s made of actual bamboo fiber.

8-30-09: The FTC charged four sellers of clothing and other textile products with deceptively labeling and advertising these items as made of bamboo fiber, when they are made of rayon. The complaints also charge the companies with making false and unsubstantiated “green” claims that their clothing and textile products are manufactured using an environmentally friendly process, that they retain the natural antimicrobial properties of the bamboo plant, and that they are biodegradable. Three of the companies – Sami Designs, LLC, doing business as (d/b/a) Jonäno; CSE, Inc., d/b/a Mad Mod; and Pure Bamboo, LLC – have settled the FTC’s complaints, agreeing to stop making the false claims and to abide by the Commission’s Textile Fiber Products Identification Act (Textile Act) and Rules. Litigation continues against The M Group, Inc., d/b/a Bamboosa, and its principals.

According to the Commission’s complaints, the companies falsely claim that their rayon clothing and other textile products are “100% bamboo fiber.” They market them under such names as “ecoKashmere,” “Pure Bamboo,” “Bamboo Comfort,” and “BambooBaby.” Rayon is a man-made fiber created from the cellulose found in plants and trees and processed with a harsh chemical that releases hazardous air pollutants. Any plant or tree could be used as the cellulose source – including bamboo – but the fiber that is created is rayon.

The complaints also allege that these four companies make a number of other “green” claims about their clothing and textile products, none of which are true or substantiated. All four companies claim their products retain the bamboo plant’s antimicrobial properties. The settling companies – Jonäno, Mad Mod, and Pure Bamboo – also claim that their products are made using environmentally-friendly manufacturing processes, and both Pure Bamboo and Bamboosa make unqualified claims that their products are biodegradable, and that they will completely break down and return to the elements found in nature in a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal.

As the Commission charges, even if the rayon used in the companies’ clothing and textile products is manufactured using bamboo as the cellulose source, rayon does not retain any natural antimicrobial properties of the bamboo plant. The rayon manufacturing process, which involves dissolving the plant source in harsh chemicals, eliminates any such natural properties of the bamboo plant. Similarly, the Commission charges that the companies’ clothing and textiles are not made using an environmentally friendly process.

The rayon manufacturing process uses toxic chemicals and results in the emission of hazardous air pollutants. And, despite the claims of Pure Bamboo and Bamboosa, the Commission charges that these rayon products are not biodegradable because they will not break down in a reasonably short time after customary disposal. Most clothing and textiles are disposed of either by recycling or sending to a landfill. Neither method results in quick biodegradation.

The FTC also charges three of the companies – Jonäno, Mad Mod, and Pure Bamboo – with violating the Textile Act and Rules by advertising or labeling their products without disclosing where the products were manufactured.

The proposed orders do allow the companies to describe their products as “rayon made from bamboo,” as long as this is true and can be substantiated.

So . . . caveat emptor.

August 12, 2009

The Constant Tide Is Promising Energy Source

The wind does not always blow, and the sun does not always shine. So they're considered "fickle" energy sources.

But ocean tides are constant and dependable--twice a day, like clockwork.

Underwater turbines to generate power sure sound promising. They are out of sight too, so those wind farm skeptics who worry about their pristine views can't complain. But this source of power is still in its infancy. There are only five or so test sites worldwide, and they receive only a small amount of the funding needed for research.

There's a new pilot program in Puget Sound run by the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center, a partnership between the University of Washington and Oregon State University. If it works, dozens of turbines lining the ocean floor are in the future.

I read about a test program in the East River a few years ago. After a few failed attempts, a test aluminum alloy turbine was installed at the bottom of this river--the first of 300 which New York city hopes to install in the waterway. Unlike the typical river which flows in a constant direction, the East River is a tidal straight with strong, fluctuating currents which allow for more efficient power generation. Once in place, the system could provide electricity to 10,000 households.

The media has provided very little info, but you can follow its status at

August 10, 2009

Having Children Sends your Carbon Footprint Soaring

according to a new study from statisticians at Oregon State University.

When the hypothetical woman who drives a fuel-efficient car, recycles, buys Energy Star appliances, and switches to CFL bulbs has a baby, not only her waistline grows. Having two children increases her carbon footprint 40 times--especially in the U.S.

A change in lifestyle that involves children is hard not only on your wallet, but on your planet. The calculations take into account that each child is likely to have more children. So it's really population growth that's the big factor here. So I'm not advocating zero population growth here. Those grandkids are just too darn cute.

August 9, 2009

Let there be NIGHT.

The quality of our night sky is under siege.
Energy efficiency wasn’t on my mind as we drove down Monticello Avenue late one night, but I suddenly sounded like Andy Rooney. “Do you ever wonder why the bank is dark at midnight and the mattress store across the street is lit up like Times Square? Does anyone but me see the irony in that?” I asked.

Excessive lighting to catch your eye? High wattage advertising? Perhaps. But we’ve lost the night sky—even in the suburbs. Mankind has created “light pollution” a little more than 100 years after Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb. We are addicted to artificial light and now have “24 hour days.”

One estimate indicates that about 30 percent of all light generated in the United States illuminates the sky, wasting $2.2 billion each year. Most of the wasted light in cities comes from poorly designed streetlights. Billboards, gas stations, sports fields, parking lots, and poorly shielded security lights are part of the problem too.

But homeowners are not guilt free. The EPA website says that lighting accounts for almost 20 percent of the average home’s electric bill. Collectively that’s more than $37 billion annually (about $130 per person). Yet many of our homes are lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree. We are doing very little to combat this, which is like all of us walking past a $50 dollar bill on the sidewalk and not picking it up.

Skyglow over populated areas is causing the Milky Way galaxy to fade, even in our local suburban areas. Can you remember the first time your “astronomy gene” kicked in as you looked up at a starry sky far away from city lights? Now more than two-thirds of the U.S. population cannot see the stars in our Milky Way from their backyard.
The United Nations declared 2009 the International Year of Astronomy to commemorate the 400 years since Galileo turned his telescope upward. However, it’s goodbye to Orion as many lights project skyward. Under a dark, unpolluted sky, more than 5000 stars should be visible. Yet only a few hundred remain visible from suburban locations with moderate light pollution—fewer in large cities.

NASA has an attention-grabbing website about wasted light at

Dark as the inside of a cow — Is how my husband described darkness to our children. Current estimates are that a child born today has less than a 1 in 10 chance of ever experiencing a truly dark sky. That child's best chance to see a natural night is likely to be in a national park. Yet even a remote national park like Yosemite is not immune from stray artificial light. A drive down the Colonial Parkway can show you how Historic Jamestowne and Yorktown national parks offer far from pristine dark skies.

Did You Know?--Mega-lighting can provide a false sense of security and help criminals see what they are doing. Lights triggered by motion sensors are much more effective in indicating the pres­ence of an intruder.

--99% of the population live in an area that scientists consider light polluted. The rate at which light pollution is increasing will leave almost no dark skies in the contiguous U.S. by 2025.
--The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that if Americans replaced the five most frequently used light bulbs/fixtures with energy-efficient alternatives, every homeowner would save as much as $65 each year, resulting in annual energy cost savings of $8 billion. That would also prevent the greenhouse gases equivalent to emissions from nearly 10 million cars. In addition more than $2 billion would be saved if all lights were shielded or pointed downward.

--President Obama estimates that the new lighting standards would cut 594 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions between 2012 and 2042 and save American energy users $1 billion to $4 billion each year over that period—conserving enough energy to eliminate the need for as many as 14 new coal-fired power plants.

Who Is Taking Notice?--Scientists and medical experts now recognize the darker aspects (pun intended) of lighting the night, including harm to wildlife (especially sea turtles and migrating birds) and human health—not to mention wasteful energy use. Some bird species depend on stars for navigation. Light pollution interferes with their migration and reproduction.
--The American Medical Association recognized the impact of light pollution to our health and now advocates that all future outdoor lighting be energy-efficient to reduce energy waste and the resulting greenhouse gases.

--Some of the last dark skies in the country can be found in our national parks, and the National Park Service has aggressively seeks to reduce or eliminate the adverse impacts of light pollution. Throughout 2009, many national parks will hold special programs in celebration of the International Year of Astronomy.
--U.S. Congress is also taking up the issue of light pollution in recent hearings.
--Flagstaff has tightened its light regulations to protect the view from nearby Lowell Observatory. In 2001 it was declared the first International Dark Sky City.
--In September of 2009, New Hampshire’s “dark skies policy” will take effect and encourage efficient outdoor lighting. The policy encourages municipalities to enact local ordinances and regulations to conserve energy from outdoor lighting, to minimize light pollution and glare, and to preserve dark skies as a rural feature.

What can YOU do? Make it a point to notice the light clutter on your local streets as you drive at night in the coming weeks. Poorly designed streetlights and brightly lit advertising can cause accidents as they distract your eyes from true obstacles. Depending on the motives of those who installed the lights, their placement and design may even be intended to distract drivers.

Complain to a store manager or car sales lot if you think it’s light pollution. Are parking lots near you projecting light up as well as down?
Install motion sensors on your essential outdoor lighting or timers or dimmers. Accept that more is not better. Minimize over-illumination by buying energy-efficient and intelligently designed low-glare outdoor lighting. Best, of course, use solar powered lights along sidewalks and at the beginning of your driveway. Unless you’re a pilot and used to the look of runways, avoid lining up numerous lights along the entire edge of your driveway.
Did you know there is a certification body, the International Dark-Sky Association, that evaluates sky-friendly outdoor lighting with low glare and high efficiency? Look for the IDA seal of approval on fixtures that do not emit any light above a 90 degree angle. See the IDA Web site at for a list of approved fixtures and manufacturers, as well as vendors who distribute dark sky friendly fixtures or seek out a company such as Starry Night Lights, which specializes in low pollution lighting. They also have a blog on light pollution and related issues.

Street light on 24 hours per day in your neighborhood? Report it to Dominion Virginia Power at 1-888-667-3000.

Shed some light by eliminating upward-pointing outdoor lights and “de-lamping” or turning off lights. What were we thinking? We installed far too many can lights in our kitchen when we built our home. Some are never used.

Lower the glow of those stray lumens by installing shields or cutoffs to reflect useful light downward rather than into the atmosphere.