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Earth Quest: A game of Environmental Literacy

Earth Quest

Environmental Quizzes

High School Health Quiz Image

Coloring Sheets

Channel Catfish

Green Holidays Calendar

An introduction to Basic Environmental Issues

Water Quality and Watersheds

Climate Change

Energy

Biodiversity and Endangered Species

Recycling

Pollution and Toxic Materials

Air Pollution and Air Quality

Economics and Sustainability

Environmental Justice

Environmental Laws and Regulations

Environmental Education

 

Water Quality and Watersheds

Water - from MU Environmental Network News December 1998

In the water cycle, moisture is evaporated into the air from large bodies of water like lakes, reservoirs, and oceans. Sometime later, it condenses and falls as rain on land and sea. On land it drains into streams and then rivers, eventually to be carried out to the sea, or it percolates into the soil to underground channels where it may be stored for millions of years as 'fossil water' until it is tapped by wells. Or sometimes the underground water finds its way to the surface and emerges as a spring that feeds into the water flowing back to the ocean.

Along the way, water is taken up by plants, animals and humans to be used for maintenance and growth. Humans annually withdraw 8% of the water in this global water cycle. On average, 8% of that water is used domestically, for drinking, cooking, bathing, washing, disposing of wastes, watering lawns and filling swimming pools. Twenty three per cent is used for industry, and 69% is used for agriculture. Developed countries use a larger percentage of the withdrawals for domestic and industrial use than developing countries do, but the changes come from increasing withdrawals, not from reallocating available water. While the average annual flow of rivers and the recharge of ground water generated by rainfall equals about 7,000 cubic meters per person, the water is not distributed uniformly over the planet, so some countries have less than 100 cubic meters per person while others have over 100,000.

Water shortages are so serious in parts of the globe that some rivers no longer reach the ocean because of withdrawals. The Colorado river is so depleted at the US - Mexico border, that the US pumps ground water into the Colorado to refill the river in order to meet our treaty obligations with Mexico - which promptly withdraws the water to meet its needs. The Yellow River in China also runs dry before it reaches the sea most months of the year, so the farmers in Shandong Province no longer have a reliable flow of water to irrigate their crops. Bangladesh and India feud over how much water is left in the Ganges when it crosses the border, and the only flow from the Nile into the Mediterranean is recycled irrigation water.

As agriculture expands to feed growing populations, and industry expands to fuel economic growth, local water shortages are bound to become even more serious. The way water is used may aggravate shortages. In China, up to 11% of the rivers are so polluted by industry they are technically no longer suitable for irrigation. However, farmers may have no other water, so they use industrial waste water, and as a result rice and cabbage in some parts of China end up dangerously contaminated with lead and cadmium. Agriculture itself contributes to water pollution. Although banned or strictly regulated in developed countries, pesticides like DDT, lindane and toxaphene are manufactured and exported to developing countries for use in their agriculture, where they can contaminate local watersheds. And in developed countries, fertilizer and animal waste contaminate water with excess levels of nitrogen.

Domestic uses can also cause problems. Untreated or poorly treated human sewage discharged into streams or rivers may contain pathogens or parasites that cause dysentery, cholera, typhoid or other diseases. Not only is the water unsuitable for drinking, but in some cases, it may not even be safe for irrigating crops. Nevertheless, because of local shortages of water, sewage is used and has been associated with endemic infestations of parasitic worms and with outbreaks of cholera and typhoid. Thanks to the water cycle, there will never be a global shortage of fresh clean water, but the ways we use and abuse water will continue to affect the local availability of usable water for hundreds of millions of people.

Poop, Pathogens and the Future of Free Flowing Waters - from MU Environmental Network News June 2003

The average human produces about a quarter of a pound of feces each day. The state of Wisconsin has over 1.4 million camper days per year in its state parks.Ê Multiplied by 50 states, that comes to 70 million camper days per year.Ê Double it to account for campers in national parks and then divide by 4 and you get 35 million pounds of poop each year deposited in the less refined facilties typically provided by your average camp site.

Since feces are not simply the undigested remainder of our bran flakes, but also the repository of all sorts of intestinal microbes we carry around with us, we have been innoculating the wilderness with dozens of human microbes, some of them lethal. Prior to the 1970's it was quite common to assume headwaters and springs were reliable sources of safe drinking water. No more. The pathogenic protozoans Cryptosporidium parvum and Giardia lamblia are now widespread in U.S. surface waters and even in springs influenced by surface waters (if a spring is directly recharged by rainfall, there may not be enough time for the cysts of the protozoa to die).

These pathogens have two stages, an active growing stage that lives in the intestine and a cyst stage that is shed in the feces and which can persist for months under the right conditions. Furthermore, both can be found in animals, both domestic and wild.Ê This means that careless pooping in nature can lead to the rapid spread ofÊ Giardia or Cryptosporidium in animal populations. Once established in beavers or muskrats or rabbits or dozens of other animals, they can persist in an area indefinitely, even without infected humans.

Both protozoans can cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea, vomiting, headache and low-grade fever within a few to 10 days of infection. This may clear up or may settle into a chronic or relapsing condition resulting in severe debiliation and weight loss. For children, the elderly or immune compromised individuals there is even the possiblity of death. Some people can carry Giardia and Cryptosporidium without exhibiting any symptoms. So even symptom-free persons can contaminate water supplies.

And it is not just campers and backpackers that have to worry about filtering their water either. In Milwaukee in 1993, a Cryptosporidium contamination of the city water system sickened 400,000 people and killed 100. Many if not most public water systems have had to upgrade their treatment protocols specifically to handle Cryptosporidium, which is resistant to chlorine. This has placed a very expensive burden on small rural water supplies which now require special filtration systems.

Campers may have been responsible for the initial spread of these pathogens in nature, but unregulated treatment of animal waste from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) may pose a much larger threat in the future. Hogs and other livestock can also carry Girardia, Cryptosporidium and a host of other infectious pathogens that they shed in their feces, and some operations can produce as much sewage as Kansas City. In order to reduce the spread of pathogens, K.C.'s sewage is required to undergo settling, aerobic digestion and anaerobic digestion before the remaining sludge can be land applied. The manure from a CAFO, on the other hand, is stored in lagoons until it is sprayed on nearby fields. Depending on environmental conditions, the pathogens may or may not have died before the next rainfall carries them into the nearest watercourse and from there into a local water supply.

If the popularity of backpacking did contribute to the spread of human pathogens in the wild, it was an unintended consequence, one which Kathleen Meyer in her book "How to S**t in the Woods" and the outdoor travel industry are now trying to address by teaching backpackers how to dispose of their wastes responsibly. Maybe it's time for a similar book for CAFOs. More fundamental than the right to use one's property as one wishes, is the responsibility not to impair someone else's use and enjoyment of their property. Knowing what we know now about Giardia and Cryptosporidium, we won't be able to plead ignorance if the free-flowing waters that belong to all of us become not just undrinkable, but unsafe even for swimming or wading because of the burden of pathogens contributed by insufficiently treated animal waste.

 

Climate Change

The Physical Science Basis for Climate Change - from MU Environmental Network News March 2007

Conclusion 1: The evidence of global warming is unequivocal

Temperature: Global temperature increased from 13.60 °C [56.5 °F] to 14.36°C [57.8°F] or 0.76 °C between 1850 and 2005. Urban heat island effects are local and miniscule - 0.006° C on land and zero on the ocean. New analyses of satellite measurements show warming trends similar to the surface temperature measurements. [periods over which temperatures are compared are chosen based on available data - not to fit a preconceived hypothesis]

Rain : There is increased precipitation in eastern North and South America, northern Europe and northern and central Asia. There is decreased precipitation in the Sahel, the Mediterranean, southern Africa and parts of southern Asia. The frequency of heavy precipitation has increased over most land areas, and droughts are more intense and longer in the tropics and subtropics.

Wind: There is evidence for an increase in hurricane intensity in the North Atlantic since 1970, but no clear trends in frequency. Observed changes in the Northern Hemisphere circulation are larger than predicted by the models.

Sea: The global ocean to depths of 3000 meters is warmer than in the 1960s, because the ocean has absorbed more than 80% of the heat added to the climate system. Sea level has risen an average of 1.8 mm per year between 1961 and 2003, and 3.1 mm per year between 1993 and 2003. Total sea level rise over the last century is 171 mm.

Poles: The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have lost ice mass, though Antarctic sea ice shows no trend. Average Arctic temperatures are increasing at twice the rate of global temperatures, but they vary substantially from decade to decade. Arctic ice has shrunk by 2.7% per decade. Frozen ground has shrunk by 7% in the Northern hemisphere since 1900.

Paleoclimate: The warmth of the last 50 years is unusual relative to any other 50 year period in the last 1300 years. The last time the poles were this warm for an extended period, 125,000 years ago, sea level was 4 to 6 meters higher.

Conclusion 2: There is a 90% likelihood that this warmth is due to human produced greenhouse gases.

Six of the seven continents show patterns of warming over the last 50 years that match what is predicted when carbon dioxide and other green house gases are added together with natural forces. They do not match what is predicted when only natural factors are used. Antarctica's temperature has remained within previous ranges.

Without the cooling caused by pollution [especially between the 1950s and 1980s before Clean Air Act Regulations had an effect] and volcanoes, it would be even warmer.

For the next two decades, a warming of 0.2°C per decade is projected given current production of greenhouse gases. Even with greenhouse gases stabilized, because of time lags and feedback loops within the climate system, current trends are likely to continue and intensify for some time. Failure to reduce emissions is likely to result in temperature changes of 3.5°C over the next hundred years.

Who's Who on Climate Change

World Meteorological Organization - WMO - An intergovernmental organization with 188 member states and territories established in 1950, which became a specialized agency of the UN in 1951 dealing with meteorology (weather and climate), hydrology and related geophysical sciences.

United Nations Environment Program - UNEP - Provides leadership and encourages partnerships in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - IPCC - Established by the WMO and the UNEP in 1988 to assess on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to understanding the scientific basis of risk of human caused climate change, its impacts and options for adapting. The assessment is based on existing peer reviewed and published scientific papers. It is open to all UN and WMO members.

Real Climate - Climate Science Blog by Climate Scientists - includes responses to skeptics

Climate Change Impacts in the US - from the US Global Change Research Program

 

 

Energy

 

 

 

Biodiversity and Endangered Species

The Endangered Species Act - from MU Environmental Network News September 2004

The ESA was passed in 1973 with the goal of protecting species, subspecies and distinct populations of plants and animals (including invertebrates) from extinction. At the time, serious declines in large vertebrates like the Bald Eagle, focused strong public support on the need for national protection of the country's wildlife.

When a species is nominated for listing, only scientific information can be used to determine if it is threatened or endangered. Once it is listed, its critical habitat also has to be designated. Critical habitat is the geographic area with physical or biological features essential to a listed species. While the decision to list a species can only be based on scientific data, the designation of critical habitat can consider economic and social impacts. (So the ESA has always provided for a balance between the needs of species and of humans.)

Federal agencies, states and private land owners are enjoined from activities that could result in harming a listed species or in making its critical habitat unsuitable. The rationale is that species belong to the citizens of the U.S. and not to the owner or manager of the land, regardless of whether it is a federal agency, a state, or an individual. It is an extension of the idea that you have to have a permit to fish or hunt certain species, even if the animal is on your property. So really the conflicts, when they occur, are not between humans and some endangered species, they are between a group of people whose economic activity may be harmed by protection of a species and the rest of the people in the U.S. who have an interest in the continued existence of that species.

In 1978 the Tellico dam, a project of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), was halted by the presence of the snail darter, a rare minnow found (at the time) only in streams that would be flooded once the reservoir behind the dam began to fill. Because the Supreme Court ruled that filling the reservoir would violate the ESA, Congress passed an amendment establishing the Endangered Species Committee, which would have the authority to exempt specific projects from the Endangered Species Act. Because of their life and death power over listed species the Endangered Species Committee was nicknamed the God Squad.

The "God Squad" consists of the Secretary of Agriculture, the Secretary of the Interior, the Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, the Secretary of the Army, the head of the EPA, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a state representative. By a vote of 5 to 2, the God Squad, also known as the Endangered Species Committee (ESC), can decide to exempt a federal project, a state, or a federal licensee or permit holder from the provisions of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Ironically, in their first decision the God Squad ruled against the TVA. Not because the project didn't meet any of the necessary tests for exemption: being of regional or national significance, having a benefit that clearly outweighed the loss of species, and there being no reasonable or prudent alternatives; but because the project itself was not cost effective, regardless of its impact on the darter. Tennessee's congressional delegation saved the project by inserting an exemption as an amendment into a must pass piece of legislation. Fortunately for the darter, populations were later found in other streams.

Since then the God Squad has been called on two other times. In the case of Nebraska v. REA and Nebraska v. Ray, they ruled in favor of granting an exemption for the Grayrocks dam and reservoir, even though it would affect Platte River habitat critical to the Whooping Crane. However, they required changes in the project to help protect the crane. The third case was the Northern Spotted Owl. In the early 1990s the God Squad decided to exempt timber sales on thirteen tracts of Pacific northwest forest that the Fish and Wildlife Service had determined were critical habitat for the owl. However, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund sued claiming the God Squad had been unduly influenced by the Whitehouse (George Bush Sr). The Ninth Circuit Court ordered hearings of fact, but when Bush lost to Clinton the request for exemption was withdrawn.

Clearly the amended ESA and the "God Squad" provide a remedy for those times when protecting a species will have too great a cost in human terms. The fact that the remedy has only been applied for three times in 31 years suggests that very few cases meet the test of significance, benefit, and no alternative, required for exemption from the Endangered Species Act.

* A goal of the now defunct National Biological Survey was to identify all populations of endangered species, because better information about their populations might allow them to be taken off the list - allowing projects to go forward. Unfortunately it became a political hot potato (on both sides) and had to be abandoned.

 

Recycling

 

Is Recycling Garbage? from MU Environmental Network News January 1998

A Forbes (Nov 17, 1997) article by Dan Seligman, 'Why Recycling is Garbage' and an earlier article in the New York Times Magazine (June 30, 1996) by John Tierny, 'Recycling is Garbage' argued that recycling is a waste of time and money, and that it is a 'feel good' gimmick that addresses a problem that doesn't exist. So, what are their main points - and is there any truth in what they have to say?

There is no shortage of landfill space. This is literally correct. At current rates of garbage production, it would take all the U.S. garbage 1000 years to fill a hole 35 miles on a side and 100 yards deep. However, landfills are increasingly difficult to site because of public perception of the risk of living near a landfill. Whether modern landfills deserve this reputation or not, Nimbys (Not In My Backyard) don't want to live near them and Nimtos (Not In My Term of Office) don't want to waste political capital on them. In addition, a growing environmental justice movement has produced a crop of Bananas (Build Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone) and Nopes (Not On Planet Earth) who argue that paying other communities to take your garbage is economic blackmail.

There is no shortage of raw materials. The reasoning here is that if raw materials were in short supply, their inflation adjusted price would be going up. Instead prices are falling, therefore there is no shortage. But why exactly are raw material prices so low? Packaging is smaller, thinner and lighter. Whether inspired by the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle mantra, or by costs, packagers now use less material than they did even a decade ago. Also, much of the material they use is no longer 'raw', it is recycled. For example the renaissance in the U.S. steel industry came from the growth in mini-mills that process steel scrap instead of raw ore. Recycled materials in every respect but one (water used for deinking newsprint) use less energy and less water in their production than raw materials, which means they are less expensive to produce.

There are no markets for recycled materials. The volume of recyclables sold has increased steadily in domestic and foreign markets, even though prices have fluctuated. Scrap metal and used paper are the largest exports form the Port of New York, and U.S. pulp paper manufacturers are projected to spend $10 billion by the end of the decade to expand the capacity of their recycled paper mills.

Recycling shouldn't be subsidized. 1) Ok, but no subsidies for other industries. In the northwest, the U.S. Forest Service spends $91 million more maintaining roads than it makes from selling trees to the timber companies that use the roads. Energy subsidies for aluminum smelting cost northwest homeowners an extra $2 a month. Federal compensation for mining on public land in the west is governed by an 1872 act that allows a company to mine for $5 an acre. 2) Why not? We subsidize landfills and incinerators. 3) In many communities, particularly on the east coast, where suitable space for landfills is scarce, or on the west coast where foreign markets for recyclables are strong, recycling more than pays for itself. Even in the Midwest, avoided landfill costs make recycling a money saver.

Recycling wastes time. Tierny estimated that recycling took 8 minutes per week and a square foot of kitchen space, but made no comparison with the time required to deal with an equivalent amount of garbage. For example, recyclables may only have to be taken out a few times a month instead of weekly like wet garbage.

Pollution and Toxic Materials

Nitrogen Fertilizer - from MU Environmental Network News October 1997

Every living thing needs these four elements in large quantities: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. While nitrogen isn't needed in the same amounts that the others are, it is essential for DNA, the molecule that stores genetic information, and for proteins, the molecules that make up the muscles and catalysts that give our bodies their shape and that allow them to function in real time. Unfortunately, 99.9% of the nitrogen on this planet is locked up as nitrogen gas (N2) in the atmosphere. The remaining 0.1-0.2% is available to living organisms as ammonia (NH3), and ammonium (NH4-), nitrite (NO2-), or nitrate (NO3-) ions, or is tied up in biological molecules.

Atmospheric nitrogen is converted to the usable forms by lightning or by the action of nitrogen fixing bacteria in the soil or in plants. Nitrogen in living matter is converted back to ammonia by decomposition. Some nitrogen is released by the erosion of nitrate-rich rocks. At the same time, bacteria in anaerobic conditions (without oxygen) in bogs, lakes, and at the bottom of oceans, returns nitrogen to the atmosphere as N2. This biogeochemical cycle dictates the amount of nitrogen available in soil for plants. This movement of nitrogen between the atmosphere and soil, water, and living things is a biogeochemical cycle, and the rates of movement dictate the amount of nitrogen available to plants.

Until the turn of the century, the nitrogen actually available for plant growth limited farm productivity to an amount sufficient to feed 5 people per hectare. Then Fritz Haber and Carl Bosh invented a method of converting N2 to NH3 by combining nitrogen and hydrogen gases at a pressure of 200 atmospheres and a temperature of 500¡ C. Between the 1940s and the 1990s consumption of ammonia fertilizer increased from 10 million to nearly 80 million tons per year. This artificial fertilizer doubled the amount of nitrogen available to plants, and significantly increased the productivity of the average farm. Countries whose population densities had been relatively stable for 100 years (Netherlands, Java, China, Egypt) tripled their populations. And of course, once populations increased, so did our dependence on nitrogen. Presently one third of the protein in our diets comes from the Haber-Bosch process.

Unfortunately, only about half of the fertilizer applied to fields is actually taken up by plants. The remainder is wreaking havoc on the planetary ecosystem. The most well known effect is algal blooms in rivers and lakes. When fertilizer is not taken up by plants, it is washed off of fields into waterways where it increases the growth of algae. When the nitrogen is used up, the algae die, and their decomposition uses up the oxygen in the water, leading to the suffocation of fish and crustaceans. The effect is not just local either. The Gulf of Mexico has a dead zone of 18,200 square km which appears to be linked to the thousands of tons of nitrate flowing in daily from the Mississippi. Fertilizers can also migrate into water wells and make the water undrinkable, they can acidify the soil so that it actually becomes less productive, and they can be converted to nitrous oxides (NO, NO2) that destroy ozone and are 200 times as potent as carbon dioxide in trapping heat.

Barring stabilization of population growth and mass conversion to a vegetarian diet, the most promising way to deal with our nitrogen dependence appears to be using it more efficiently. When farmers monitor soil nitrogen to find the optimal time for fertilizer applications, runoff is significantly reduced. So, could farmers save the planet -- and save money and time -- by reducing fertilizer applications?

  • Global Population and the Nitrogen Cycle. Vaclav Smil. Scientific American July 1997

     

A Brief History of Lead - from MU Environmental Network News June 2002

Lead is a silvery metallic element that is soft, dense, malleable, and resistant to corrosion, making it ideal for a number of uses. Its primary use (70%) is in lead acid storage batteries like those in cars. It is also used extensively in lining or covering less corrosion resistant surfaces on roofs, in acid baths, on power cables, or in pipes carrying corrosive materials. It is used extensively in industrial paints for its anti-corrosive qualities and its ability to provide an optically bright white. Its high density means that it blocks sound and high energy radiation, so it is used for sound proofing in industrial situations, in lead aprons, as shielding around radioactive components, and even in the cathode ray tubes (CRTs) in TV and computer monitors to block X-rays.

Lead has been known since ancient times and reached the pinnacle of its use in preindustrial times with the elaborate plumbing systems built by the Romans. Also known since ancient times, were lead's toxic effects. It acts by inhibiting oxygen and calcium transport, and by altering nerve transmission. In modest doses ~ 10 mg/dL (micrograms per deciliter blood levels) it causes stomach cramping and vomiting. Higher doses in adults can lead to stroke, and can damage the heart, reproductive system, liver and kidney. Very high levels (70 mg/dL) can cause seizures, coma and death. In fetuses and children, lead has severe neurological effects and has been shown, even at doses lower than the 10 mg/dL federal standard, to be associated with mental retardation, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, hearing loss, and a tendency to violence. Lead can be taken up from the environment by breathing or by ingestion and then be accumulated in soft tissues like kidneys, liver, bone marrow and brain, and in hard tissues like teeth and bones. Adults may take up 10-15 % of ingested or inhaled lead, but children can take up as much as 50% of the lead they are exposed to.Ê And, since lead accumulates, every new exposure adds to the risk.

Before the 1920's there was relatively little human generated lead in the environment (though still much more than background levels).However, at the beginning of the automobile age, GM, DuPont and Standard Oil (now Exxon) formed Ethyl Corporation for the express purpose of producing tetraethyl lead (TEL) as a gasoline additive to reduce knocking in car engines. Although their own research had shown that ethanol was a cheaper, safer and more effective additive, and their British subsidiaries marketed it as such, these corporations aggressively marketed TEL because it could be patented. At about the same time, paint manufacturers were actively promoting leaded paint for residential uses because of its superior aesthetic and preservative qualities.

Leaded paint was banned in 1978 and leaded gasoline was banned in 1986, but decades of use left a thin layer of lead contaminated soil, dust and paint chips that affects children's health even 25 years later. Herbert Needleman, who pioneered studies of lead's sub-lethal effects on children, estimates that 1 in 30 children are still affected and that even children with blood lead levels less than 10 mg/dL score 11 points lower on the Stanford-Binet IQ test than children with no lead. The good news is that average blood lead levels in U.S. children have dropped from 16 mg/dL to 2 mg/dL, primarily as the result of keeping lead out of gasoline. As long as children don't come in contact with old paint or live near a smelter, blood lead levels should continue to go down.

The bad news is that as older sources of lead exposure are identified and dealt with, new ones appear. The EPA estimates that the cathode ray tubes in discarded computers and TVs contribute 13 million lbs of lead to landfills every year. Because this leadÊ and other hazardous materials in computers can migrate into the water supply, California and Massachusetts have banned them from land fills.Ê Fortunately monitors can be recycled. The CRT can be crushed and smelted just like a car battery to recover the lead and other materials.However, the U.S., alone among developed countries, allows hazardous materials like these to be exported for recycling. The problem with this is that countries accepting them for recycling don't necessarily have the resources to do it safely. In Guiyu, China (PRC) workers "recycle" computers by smashing them with hammers, burning and washing the pieces in acid to recover valuable metals and then dumping the busted components in the nearest low spot. The water is so polluted that drinking water must be trucked in. Hopefully the lessons learned in protecting our own children from lead will be applied to protecting other people's children. And hopefully, we won't wait 60 years to take action.

Air Pollution and Air Quality

Economics and Sustainability

Lies, Damn Lies and Accounting - from MU Environmental Network News July 2002

With apologies to Mark Twain/ Benjamin Disraeli, there are lies, damn lies, and accounting. Anyone who has followed the fortunes of Enron and World Com and their accounting firm Arthur Andersen knows that how things are accounted for can dramatically alter the apparent costs and benefits of a particular choice. The recent proposal to add wind power to a community's energy mix can be used to illustrate how the cost/benefit ratio of wind power changes when environmental accounting is used.

Environmental accounting has three guiding principles. Benefit/Cost evaluations should consider: 1) indirect as well as direct costs; 2) long-term as well as short-term time frames; and 3) non-local as well as local impacts.

Traditionally accounted for, the direct cost of adding 5 megawatts of wind power to a community's energy sources will add 1% to each household bill or $36 a year for a bill averaging $300 a month. However, there are indirect costs that could also be considered. Nuclear power and fossil fuels have received federal subsidies of over $100 billion since 1948, dwarfing any subsidies for alternatives like wind. Taxpayer watchdog groups estimate taxes are up to 16% higher because of these and other subsidies. Even a family with a modest income may be paying $60 to $100 a year for energy subsidies for nuclear and fossil fuels alone.

Another indirect cost is air pollution. Burning coal produces sulfur and nitrogen compounds, particulate matter (PM) and mercury. The sulfur, nitrogen, and PM can increase cases of asthma and hospital admissions due to respiratory and/or cardiac distress, cause lung tissue damage, and promote cancer. For the province of Ontario, the local Medical Association estimates that there are 1900 premature deaths, 23,000 hospital visits and 46 million illnesses annually due to air pollution. All of this adds up to $10 billion in economic losses from decreased worker productivity and health care costs or a cost of $869 per person. The mercury, which occurs naturally in coal and is released when it burns, can cause damage to the brain, kidneys and to developing fetuses.

Long -term time frames would include costs of disposal of the radioactive waste and decommissioning of the nuclear plants at the end of their useful lives (at an average cost of $300 to $400 million). Companies must set aside money in a trust fund to pay for decommissioning; however, the estimates depend on the federal government assuming responsibility for the spent reactor fuel and transporting it to a facility like Yucca Mountain. Even if Yucca Mountain is approved - and DOE has not demonstrated the radioactive material can be safely stored for 10,000 years as required by EPA, plus Nevada has challenged the decision to store the waste at Yucca Mountain - it is not designed to handle all current waste and waste that will continue to be generated over the next 20 years. Therefore, we should plan on additional federal subsidies for nuclear power to build another Yucca Mountain.

Non-local impacts are environmental and health costs born by populations that are out of proportion to the benefit they receive. For example, to reduce costs, coal companies mining in West Virginia want to remove the top of mountains to reach the coal, and then dispose of the mountain tops in the streams draining the mountains. The people benefiting from the reduced cost of coal do not have to live with mountain top removal or with the pollution of local streams and rivers. Likewise, the money local electric utilities have saved by not fixing pollution problems when plants were modernized, ends up costing communities downwind of plants in terms of increased sulfur, nitrogen, PM and mercury. That is why the Justice department was suing 25 utility companies in seven states for failing to install pollution controls when the plants were upgraded.

(Other concerns about wind are that it is unreliable and that the blades may harm birds. Wind currently supplies 3.5% of Germany's power needs and over 10% of Denmark's, and is the fastest growing - 15% - energy technology world wide. The global market doesn't appear to be concerned about wind's reliability. Furthermore, new technology in batteries and fuel cells should make wind power even more viable.Most bird studies have shown that birds adjust fairly quickly to wind turbines, especially the newer models with larger, slower blades. Actually, many more birds are killed now by existing transmission lines, cats and collisions with cars.)

So Missourians can choose wind power for possibly an extra $36 a year, or we can continue with "cheaper" coal and nuclear for up to $100 in annual federal subsidies, increased health costs of nearly $900 per person per year, unknown long-term costs of nuclear waste disposal, and unknown liabilities for environmental and health damage for down wind states - not to mention what coal mining is doing to the communities that have to live with it.Ê If the extra 1% is that much of a drawback, maybe the city can partner wind power with encouraging people to take advantage of its energy conservation program to reduce their energy use by 1%.Ê The individual consumer will break even, the city willÊ need less power and the "impractical" environmentalists will finally get to use wind power.

 

Environmental Justice

NNIMBY to NOPE: A Clean Healthy Environment for All- from MU Environmental Network News February 2007

In 1987 the United Church of Christ released a study of five variables related to the siting of hazardous waste sites - 1) per cent minority population, 2) mean household income, 3) mean value of owner-occupied homes, 4) number of uncontrolled hazardous waste sites per 1000 persons, and 5) pounds of hazardous waste generated per person. Of the five factors, the single most predictive factor was per cent minority population, followed by income and value of homes. Neither the number of uncontrolled waste sites - used to assess geographic or historical factors affecting siting, and waste generated - used to assess importance of proximity to the waste producers, were significant. What mattered was race and class, and race mattered more.

In response to the revelation that minorities and low income communities were bearing an unfair share of the burden of hazardous waste produced in the U.S., President Clinton issued Executive Order 12898 on February 11, 1994: Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations. As defined by the EPA, Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies. Fair treatment means that no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences of industrial, municipal, and commercial operations, or the execution of federal, state, local and tribal programs and policies.

So how is that working? Hard to tell. In 1991, two years before Executive Order 12898, Louisiana Energy Services (LES) applied for a permit to build a uranium enrichment facility in Homer Louisiana, 49% African American. Only, it wasn't exactly going to be in Homer, Homer officials nominated two tiny communities five miles away for the actual site of the plant, Center Springs and Forest Grove, both almost entirely African American. Aside from all the other issues with nuclear enrichment, the low level radioactive waste, mainly uranium hexafluoride, would have been stored on-site. It would come to 400 14 ton canisters a year of stuff that turns into hydrofluoric acid if it gets exposed to moisture. So you would have an acid that eats through almost anything paired with low level nuclear waste for at least the life of the plant. And where would this waste eventually go? Louisiana Energy Services said that the Department of Energy would have to take it, but that begs the question of where DOE would put it, since DOE still doesn't have a site for its own waste.

Once the Environmental Justice order kicked in, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was required to consider racial and economic factors in the selection of the plant site and a fierce legal battle over the site selection criteria ensued, including the fact that Homer nominated Center Springs and Forest Grove. Eventually, LES withdrew the application and went looking elsewhere, to....Trousdale County Tennessee.

In 2003, LES, now a subsidiary of URENCO, a European consortium, tried to get the facility built in Trousdale County. The county is 89% white, more white than Tennessee, so a charge of racial bias could be clearly avoided. However, per capita income was $15,838, about $3,500 less than the average for Tennessee, only 9% of its residents had bachelor's degrees, half the average for the state, and non-farm employment had dropped 18.5% between 2000 and 2004. (for comparison, the U.S. is 25% minority, per capita income is $21,587, and 24% have bachelor's degrees). From one perspective, the billion dollar plant providing 200 permanent jobs might be a huge boon to an economically desperate county, but it might not (see Port Gibson below). So, as insurance the county commission required that LES remove the nuclear waste every 90 days so that Trousdale would not become a defacto nuclear waste facility. With that deal breaker, LES withdrew the application and went looking elsewhere to ... Eunice, New Mexico.

In 2006, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission finally gave LES permission to build a facility in Eunice. The town's population is 40% Hispanic, per captia income is $14,373, and 9% have bachelor's degrees. What sealed the deal for the community was a requirement negotiated by the State Attorney General that LES limit its storage to 5,000 cylinders, and that they be disposed of outside of New Mexico. You just have to wonder how bad off a community has to be before it will willingly accept becoming a dump site for someone else's nuclear waste.

When environmentalists and civil rights activists fight the location of things like nuclear plants in minority and low income neighborhoods, some folks argue that outside groups are denying poor minorities the opportunity to make a decent living. It would be instructive to see if poor minorities automatically benefit from having these projects located in their communities.

Grand Gulf Nuclear Power Plant went on-line in 1984 in Port Gibson, Mississippi. The per capita income in 2000 averaged $13,000 for the community as a whole, and $10,000 for African Americans. The opening of the plant coincided with a population decrease, mainly due to one third of the whites moving out of the county (taking their $23,700 percapita incomes with them). With the decline in the tax base, the county lacks the infrastructure to deal with a nuclear event, having only one fire station and 9 officers in the sheriff's department. On top of the community's loss of wealth, and its inadequate resources to deal with an accident or a terrorist attack, the current plant is slated to run out of storage space for its waste this year, and there is still no facility up and running to accept the waste for long term storage.

Louisiana Enrichment Services just wanted to build an enrichment facility. If the country turns towards nuclear power as a way to deal with global warming, the problem of where to put power plants that make high level waste will be even more contentious. So far many of the new plants that have been proposed have been proposed for communities that already have nuclear plants (the defacto waste site thing), and so Port Gibson is proposed as the site of second nuclear power plant.

The modern environmental movement sprang from a concern about the effects of pollutants on our own individual health, and for years the rallying cry has been NIMBY - Not In My Back Yard. The logical consequence of this, in the absence of major efforts to reduce the total amount of hazardous waste, was that the pollution was just shifted into someone else's back yard. And like all things undesirable, the back yards belonged to those with the least power - minority and low income neighborhoods. Depending on your political or social orientation, this is either unjust or it is stupid. That is because nothing guarantees hazardous waste will stay where you put it. Thanks to hubris, a systematic failure to commit resources to long term maintenance and the operation of the laws of physics, chemistry and biology, all stuff, including hazardous stuff, eventually finds its way to your back yard or your plate no matter where you live.

We need to be aiming for NOPE - Not On Planet Earth. To achieve safety and health for every human, minority as well as majority, poor as well as rich, we have to stop creating hazardous waste. We do not lack the technical expertise and wealth to figure out how to make stuff in ways that minimizes or eliminates hazardous waste. We lack the political will. We can wait until the quantities of hazardous waste are so vast that they permeate the air, water and food of even the wealthiest and most insulated communities, or we can decide now to direct our minds and our wealth to the protection of every citizen.

Environmental Laws and Regulations

A Primer on Environmental Laws: NEPA, CEQ, EPA - from MU Environmental Network News February 2001

NEPA - National Environmental Policy Act. Passed in 1969 and signed into law in 1970, the purpose of NEPA was "...to declare a national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation; and to establish a Council on Environmental Quality." It required Federal agencies to use all the means at their disposal, consistent with other important considerations of national policy, to:

      1) ensure a safe, healthful and productive environment for all Americans;

      2) develop the widest range of beneficial uses of the environment without degrading it;

      3) preserve historical, cultural and natural aspects of the environment;

      4) seek a balance between population growth and resource use that permitted a high standard of living;

      5) enhance the quality of renewable resources (like water) and maximize recycling of non-renewables.

The act promoted an interdisciplinary approach, sought the development of methods for considering currently unquantifiable environmental amenities, established the requirement for Federal agencies to develop Environmental Impact Statements for all actions that might affect the environment, and set up the Council on Environmental Quality.

CEQ - Council on Environmental Quality. The CEQ was established in 1969 with the passage of NEPA. CEQ was a three person council (+ staff) reporting to the President, that would help prepare an annual report on the environmental state of the nation. The report would:

      1) evaluate status and condition of natural, manmade and altered environments (air, water, land, etc.);

      2) evaluate current and forseeable trends and effect of those trends;

      3) evaluate adequacy of current resources;

      4) review Federal, State and local programs and their effect on the environment;

      5) develop a program for remedying impacts on the environment.

While the EPA took over the research and standard setting responsibilities of CEQ with respect to pollution, CEQ was envisioned as a top level advisory group on all aspects of environmental quality.

EPA - Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA was established on December 2, 1970 on the recommendation of the President's Advisory Council on Executive Organization. The CEO argued that because of the cross-media (air, water, land) impacts of pollution that the executive branch should establish an agency to bring together all the information on pollutants under one roof with the authority to research, establish and enforce standards to protect human health and safeguard the natural environment. Furthermore, it had to be a new agency to avoid the natural conflicts of interest that would arise if such a department were housed in the Interior, Commerce or Agriculture Departments.

Fifteen components from five agencies were moved to EPA to administer a host of laws passed in the 1970's and 1980's. These included the Clean Water Act (CWA), Clean Air Act (CAA), Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA - also known as Superfund), Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA-Recycling), Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), and Pollution Prevention Act (PPA)

 

Environmental Education

Notes on From Last Child in the Woods - From MU Environmental Network News April 2007

In his recent book, Last Child in the Woods (2005), Richard Louv describes a new syndrome that has been affecting kids since the mid-century: Nature Deficit Disorder. Because of changes in American society, our kids are not getting outside enough and there are serious costs to their physical, intellectual, emotional and even spiritual development. The book has gained a lot of attention among those who teach about the outdoors, animals, plants, nature and the environment. But concerns about Nature Deficit Disorder should not be limited to those folks. If you are starting to worry about the impacts of the 21st century lifestyle on children - obesity, lack of initiative, disappearance of creativity, social isolation, etc. and if you want some ideas of what to do about it, you should read this book. The summary below outlines the main sections and chapters of the book, just to get you started.

Section 1. Third Frontier

The book begins with an introduction to America's Frontiers. The first was the settling of the nation, formally closed in 1893 by historian Frederick Turner. The second frontier romanticized the pioneers of the first, but closed in 1993 when the Census Bureau stopped counting farmers. We are in the third frontier, characterized by: severance from food's origins; blurring of the line between humans and machines; intellectualization of our relationship with animals; creation of synthetic nature experiences; and invasion of suburbs by wildlife.

Section 2. Why Kids Need Nature

1. Body - Kids need self activated autonomous play to develop the body/brain connection. Unstructured time in nature provides that stimulation as kids climb trees, explore creeks, skip stones, build forts.

2. Mind - Nature stimulates observation, and then because they need to know which trees are good for climbing, which stones are good for skipping, and which logs good for forts, kids begin categorizing and pattern finding - higher order thinking skills.

3. Creativity - The degree of inventiveness and creativity stimulated in children is directly proportional to the loose parts available for them to play with, and nature is the absolute biggest box of loose parts. (Not only that, nature is scalable, so that a two year old can move seamlessly from acorns to seedlings to trees to forests as she grows in comprehension and understanding)

4. Restoration - Most of the things we do require voluntary attention, where we have to keep reminding ourselves to pay attention to reading a report, working problems, listening to lectures, following directions, etc. This is really exhausting, for kids as well as adults. Nature, on the other hand, demands involuntary attention because of its fascination. We don't have to work at it. It allows us to give voluntary attention a rest, it refreshes and restores us. As a result, workers, inmates, patients and kids benefit from being in and around nature. Research shows: less frustration, more enthusiasm in office workers who have a view of nature; improved performance on fatiguing tests when people take a nature break; 24% improvement in mental health measures in prison inmates who can see nature from their cells; faster recovery after surgery for patients with a view of nature; reduced symptoms in ADD kids who get to play outside in a natural setting; and higher self worth ratings and 2x the friends in kids who get to play outside.

Section 3. Why Aren't Kids Outside?

1. Time - More families rely on two incomes, and both parents are working longer hours. As a result, kids engage in more structured activities and more activities that are indoors (easier to structure the time)

2. Commercialization of Play - Moving from pick up games to organized sports has been a mixed blessing. While more kids may be attending more games, the amount of time actually spent running, jumping, catching and kicking for the average kid may be down, especially if the team's focus is on winning. Another problem is that adults are making and enforcing the rules and schedules, so that kids don't get the practice in negotiating social conflict or playing times that they once got when getting together on their own.

3. Loss of Play Space - With the rise of the suburbs, there are fewer vacant lots within walking distance and more manicured back yards. Add concerns about liability and lawsuits, and there are just fewer places for kids to play outside.

4. Fear - The relentless media focus on child abduction has increased generalized fear of leaving kids unsupervised, there is more and faster car traffic through neighborhoods so riding bikes and crossing streets really is riskier, and then if you add in cougars, mosquitoes and ticks, parents are really anxious about letting children play in the neighborhood without constant supervision, and with the time squeeze, parents are just not available to provide that supervision.

5. Education - No one likes bad news, and kids are no different. Education that focuses on the damage humans do to nature, especially with children younger than Jr. High, makes kids depressed and passive, inspiring ecophobia or fear of nature. (It is bad practice to focus on a problem without providing doable solutions - so no telling five year olds that global warming is going to wipe out the penguins!). A lot of curricula ignores place, focusing on learning about rain forests and coral reefs instead of ensuring kids know the species and habitats of their own communities. The preoccupation with math and reading in the abstract, without relation to content, results in a focus on made-up stuff. This is really vexing, because there are so many interesting stories and math problems that involve local nature and history. Silicon faith is a myopic focus on the ability of technology to save education. Like the preoccupation with math and reading in the abstract, there is way too much attention being paid to the tools without applying them to real life issues. Finally, with the shift in biological sciences towards molecular biology and genetics, natural history courses are disappearing. College students end up knowing a lot about gene expression, but don't grasp the concept that water flows downhill.

Sections 4-5-6-7. What We Can Do About It? The Fourth Frontier

Families are the first front. Parents have to be enthusiastic about getting kids outside and stop worrying about getting it right. The kids, even two year olds, will be able to figure out what to do once they get turned loose in nature. Allow the kids to be bored so that their imaginations can start working. Manage the hazards so that kids can develop their own judgement about what is safe and what is dangerous so that they can be safe once you are gone. Model moral behavior - rescue turtles from the road, pick up litter, collect and scatter seeds of native plants, show concern for nature and action to preserve and restore it.

Schools and camps are next. Incorporate nature play into schools on a regular basis. Paradoxically, taking some time away from voluntary attention on math and reading and letting kids interact physically with real things can help with understanding. Add more real world learning - use the local environment to teach social studies, language, math - this has been shown to improve scores in a variety of subjects. Ideas include: the square kilometer (or mile) around your school, adopting a space, trout in the classroom, square foot gardening, schoolyard habitat (National Wildlife Federation), Projects WET, WILD, Learning Tree, butterfly gardens, bird baths, trails, streams, ponds, plants for picking, dirt to dig in. Higher education should get natural history back into the curriculum. And camps should get back in the nature business, instead of being in the computer, art, music, or sports business.

Cities should rewild themselves with forests, discovery gardens and adventure play grounds where kids can dig and climb, and design for people instead of cars, using new urbanism, clustered housing and local service areas to guide development.

Religion has to reconnect to nature, separating concerns about other liberal social agendas (gay rights, abortion etc.) from the responsibility to care for creation because it is the creation.