Guest Blog: Saving the Environment, One Local Pond at a Time

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Guest Blog By: Linda Grand

Linda Grand is an incoming senior at the University of Delaware majoring in Environmental and Resource Economics.  She is vice president of Students For the Environment on campus and is participating in undergraduate research at UD.  On 20-something Environmentalist, Linda writes about her experience educating folks on the water quality of her favorite pond growing up.

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People ask me all the time how I became the environmentalist that I am today. I would never know how to answer this question and would just ramble on about liking the outdoors and nature. However, now that some aspects of environmental activism have been closer to home, I have come up with a better response to this question.

I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey in a town called Hillsborough with a pond across from my house. Not only did I learn to ride my bike along the path that circumscribes this pond, I’ve walked around that pond more times than I can count, and in the winter, I would ice skate on it and sled around it. Therefore, this pond is very dear to me, and I think growing up next to it was what started to get me entranced with nature and protecting the environment.

A couple of months ago my neighbor, Katherine, reached out to me asking if I would be interested in helping her with a new project aiming to save the pond. She called the project “The Neighbors and Stakeholders Initiative.” The project has two key focuses: to create a broader close-knit neighborhood and to educate people about the stormwater pollution that is causing algal blooms to develop in our pond.

When rainwater goes on impervious surfaces such as driveways, streets, paths, and sidewalks, instead of seeping into the ground it is referred to as stormwater. Stormwater pollution occurs when that rainwater becomes polluted with litter and excess sediment that runs off of impervious surfaces. Polluted stormwater was running, untreated, into storm drains that lead straight into our local waterways, like the pond near my house!

The pond is currently suffering from algae blooms.  Excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus from lawn fertilizers and pesticides) flowing into the pond create algal blooms that deplete the dissolved oxygen on which the ecosystem depends.  The excess nutrients can be traced back to neighboring housing developments and Canada geese that feed on the mowed lawn areas that surround the pond.  The algal blooms are not only detrimental to fish and aquatic wildlife, but they tend to be smelly and are not aesthetically pleasing.

As soon as Katherine proposed the Neighbors and Stakeholders Initiative, I jumped on board. We worked together with a local non-profit organization called BoroGreen to plan a Family Fun Day to make the Neighbors and Stakeholders Initiative a reality. The goal of the Family Fun Day around the pond was to create an atmosphere where one could meet new people and learn about how they can take simple steps to help protect the pond. After months of planning this event, it was a huge success with over 30 people from all sides of the pond in attendance.

Activities during the day included: face painting, a gift giving game, hula hooping, music and more. One event that was a huge hit was learning how to make a window farm to plant herbs out of some tubing and used plastic water bottles. Then, while enjoying a potluck full of delicious food, we casually talked to people about the state of the pond and what they could do to protect this cherished public good.

People left the event with biodegradeable soap samples and fliers about how they can help the pond. Topics discussed included: rain barrels, lawn care tips, and how to prevent stormwater pollution. Rain barrels catch rainfall on rooftops, thus reducing runoff in heavily developed areas.  Water collected in the rain barrel can be used to water plants and lawn. In addition, we asked our neighbors to lower their lawn fertilizers use.  We advocated for them to do a soil test on their own lawn to help find out the appropriate amount of fertilizer to apply to their lawn.

Overall, the Family Fun day was a huge success. It was grassroot organizing to the core. I am excited to be working on the Neighbors and Stakeholders Initiative, and I am hopeful for it to expand and grow in years to come.

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Guest Blog: Electronic Waste, Where it Ends Up and What You Can Do About It

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Guest Blog by: Craig Dsouza

Craig Dsouza just graduted from the University of Delaware with a Masters degree in Environmental Policy.  Read his blog ‘People and the Planet: The Spotlight on India’ here. On 20-something environmentalist, Craig writes about a common environmental issue in his native country: e-waste in India.

A worn out old personal computer, the last of the 20th century, smudged gray with dirt of the years sits on a pile of similarly broken down devices in Guiyu, China. This gadget, once “magical” to the eyes of its owners, now finds itself awaiting its last days as a modern technological marvel. It won’t be long before its constituents are broken down rather crudely and go their separate ways.

The shell of plastic is pulled apart to get at the circuit board within. Therein lays the gold, literally gold, 220mg of it winding in and out of threads of other precious metals such as silver (Ag), Palladium (Pd). Quantities of these materials are seldom worth the effort to separate them, especially when a blowtorch is the worker’s best tool. Copper and steel from the PC however are extracted and set aside for later resale. Some mass of toxic heavy metals including lead, mercury, PCBs and other toxic chemicals enter into the air or leach into the bare ground below the wage laborer who sets apart her finds carefully in a sorted pile. She then moves on to the next machine and repeats the process. Later plastic is set aside for recycling. Unrecoverable junk from the rest of the heap is dumped out in the open.

The threat posed by such toxics to the health of workers and the environment is real. The lure of better wages however, has won out over the threat of ill health. Crackdowns on the illegal imports of e-waste into China ramped up in the wake of a 60 Minutes piece in 2008, which highlighted the prevalence of transboundary waste transfers from the U.S. to China. This cut down but did not eliminate imports completely. What will it take to achieve this?

What Comprises E-waste?

E-waste is comprised of discarded parts of any of a number of electrical devices we use in our daily lives. This includes television sets, computers, refrigerators, mobiles devices, air-conditioners, batteries and many more. Discarded devices can be repaired and put up for resale or broken up into its constituents, metals and plastic which are resold as primary commodities. The cost of repair and resale value dictates which alternative is picked. Some of the constituents of e-waste cannot be reused and must be disposed away safely.

Where is E-Waste Produced?

The world produces an estimated 40 million tons of e-waste each year, the U.S. leading the pack with 3 million tons followed by China at 2.3 million tons. This is set to change in the next few years with developing countries projected to leap ahead by 2016. This is cause for further worry with poor safeguards in the recycling process being a staple in developing countries.

Where does E-Waste End Up?

70% of the world’s e-waste finds its way to China where cheap labor and poor law enforcement allow for waste imports. Large quantities of e-waste are also taken to India, Pakistan and Nigeria.  This happens despite the presence of laws on either end prohibiting the trans-border transport of e-waste, through loopholes that allow for the transport of ‘used’ or ‘second hand’ electronics in an operating condition.

What is the Harm Anyway: Dangers Posed by E-Waste

In the unsophisticated waste recycling process in developing nations, smelting of plastics produces dioxins which are among the most toxic chemicals on earth. Ash laden residues with heavy metals contaminate the soil and water bodies. Children living in the vicinity of e-waste processing operations were found to have blood with dangerously high lead levels. Brain damage, kidney disease, mutations and cancer are among the other noted risks of unprotected waste handling.

Why Recycle?

Why recycle e-waste (Health and Jobs)

Photo Credit: Basel Action Network (BAN,2005)

Besides the health benefits to safe recycling there are also environmental benefits. The recycling of e-waste conserves large amounts of precious metals that can be reused thus alleviating the great strain that is placed on the environment for resources.

The recycling of metals results in significant energy savings ranging and CO2 savings as well. CFCs and HCFCs which are now banned still remain in older refrigeration devices and must be disposed of properly. E-recycling also has the potential to create thousands of local jobs.

What can you do?

For questions about any of the facts listed in this post, or for further reading, please contact Craig Dsouza at craigds@udel.edu.

A Seventh Grader’s Perspective on Plastic Pollution

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In mid-April, I spoke with a seventh grade about her thoughts on plastic pollution (See: In Case You Missed It: Disposable Plastic Still Sucks).  Sophie, from Silicon Valley, CA, believes that “we waste way too much plastic and it is really harming our environment.”

She has researched the effects of plastic on the environment as a whole, but is most concerned with the ocean.

Photo Credit: MNN

Photo Credit: MNN

Sophie said, “The ocean is an amazing place.  It brings together all of your senses: touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing.  You can feel the water that creeps over your toes, hear the rippling waves, taste the salt water, smell the fish, and see the beach everyone loves.  But it breaks my heart that this wonderful place might not be around for my grand kids to fully enjoy.  And we are slowly ruining our earth starting with the amount of plastic we use.”

Here are some excerpts from her school project on plastic pollution:

“The world has gotten bigger.  People are getting married, having kids, and then later, their kids are having kids.  But with each additional person, 4.6 pounds more of plastic are being wasted every day.  Plastic is an amazing material.  We use it for all aspects of life: whether it be for sandwich bags, bottled water, school supplies or even credit cards.  The problem is, it is a harmful material.  Plastic fills landfills when it isn’t recycled and emits toxic chemicals just in everyday use.  I walked into my parents’ office one day and saw plastic bottles lying everywhere.  Some of them still had water in them, but they had gone to waste because no one bothered to remember which bottle was theirs.  That’s when it hit me.  That’s when I knew plastic was a problem. Plastic can be used in moderation, but too much of it can cause serious problems.”

“Recycling Infographic says that worldwide we use one trillion plastic materials every year.  That’s almost three billion plastics every day.

Photo Credit: Flickr

Photo Credit: Flickr: Steven Wilson

“Plastic exists in more ways than one.  Plastic is everywhere. Pollution started in the ocean and now it is expanding rapidly. There is plastic in the desert, every neighborhood, and every home.  A recent study claimed that 90% of the ocean floor is plastic.  At least 267 marine animals are getting caught in our garbage each year.  Landfills are made simply for waste disposal. They have liner systems (a thin layer block that keeps trash from seeping into the earth) and other blocks that try to prevent waste from polluting the water.  The amount of plastic we use has overpowered the liners, however.  An article from National Geographic claimed that in the ocean alone, plastic outweighs the amount of plankton by 6:1.  This just goes to show how much we use. It seems that the ocean has turned into our own personal plastic dumpster.  Around 30,000 gallons of waste end up in the ocean each day and don’t even go through the landfill.  Yet 25% of that number is plastic.”

What does Sophie think we can do about it?

“Each of us can do little actions everyday that make a huge impact on plastic waste.   People have gotten wasteful and taken the environment as their own personal garbage bins lately.   We don’t have to take on the plastic problem by ourselves.  I, personally, can hand out fliers making people aware of the plastic problem, or even start a pledge asking people to reduce their plastic waste. However, reducing plastic isn’t as hard as one might think.  When we go to the store we can bring canvas bags, reuse bottles and use a BRITA pitcher to reduce the use of plastic cups.  But plastic isn’t the only material that can fill your “everyday household needs”.  Aluminum can be reused and reused and reused for decades over again.  Each one of us can make an effort to use more aluminum in our households.  Not using as much plastic isn’t difficult – we just have to put in the effort to reduce our waste.”

Keeping an Eye on Plastic Pollution

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Plastic art by Mary Ellen Croteau

Plastic art by Mary Ellen Croteau

After posting about plastic pollution earlier this week (In Case You Missed It: Disposable Plastic Still Sucks), I realized that it is important to clarify where plastic pollution that ends up in the ocean comes from.  It seems that most people assume plastic pollution comes from beach goers who litter, but that is often not the case.

Plastic pollution, like cigarette filters, tampon applicators and condoms, are signs of a different problem: nonpoint source pollution.  Nonpoint source cannot be traced back to one point (like air pollution from a smoke stack or water pollution from a chemical company can), it instead comes from a combination of sources.

When rain or melted snow travels over the ground through a watershed, the runoff picks up and moves pollution, flowing through waterways and ultimately into the ocean.  Bringing cigarette filters and other pieces of litter that were tossed out the windows of cars upstream, downstream.

When condoms and tampon applicators are found on a beach, they become indicators for a different type of problem: combined sewage overflows (CSOs).  CSOs occur when sewage and stormwater systems are combined.

Stormwater systems are the network of piping, systems and facilities that manage runoff from paved surfaces and roofs.  These systems were designed to move water as fast as possible, but as paved surface area (and development) continues to increase, and the infrastructure is not updated, not as much water can be held in the pipes.  This water flows directly into waterways.

When stormwater systems are combined with sewer systems, and a heavy rain occurs, the water and sewage releases directly into waterways and into the ocean.  When a CSO event happens, whatever people have flushed down their toilets (like tampon applicators, condoms, etc.) show up on our shores.

It is therefore important to remember that even those of us who do not live close to the ocean have an impact on it and the marine ecosystems it supports.  We must all be mindful of our daily habits and encourage others to realize that we are all downstream and we should all keep an eye on plastic pollution.

For information about the artist who created the plastic eye pictured above, click here.

In Case You Missed It: Disposable Plastic Still Sucks

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“I am in 7th grade and my school is doing a project where each student has to research and try and solve one problem in the world.  I have chosen plastic pollution.  We waste way too much plastic and it is really harming our environment.”

I received the e-mail above earlier this week.  At first, I was overjoyed to receive such an e-mail.  A strange thing to say, since it speaks on the harmful effects of plastic in our environment, but it is from a 7th grader.  Children showing an interest in the environment gives me hope for the future.  It is so important that we teach our children well (cue CSNY) and teach them the value of the ecosystems around them.

Once I got past my initial excitement over being able to speak with a middle schooler about  plastic pollution, I got to thinking about why plastic is “really harming our environment.”

Over and over again throughout college my classmates and I tried to convince our peers to stop drinking bottled water.  I have written a number of posts about my bottled water crusade (click here to read more), if you are curious.  I have written on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and about how plastic ends up in huge concentrations in the ocean, but I hadn’t seen the ocean pollution problem first hand…until I started working for Clean Ocean Action.

Clean Ocean Action is an environmental nonprofit based in Sandy Hook, NJ.  Our goal is to “improve the degraded water quality of the marine waters off the New Jersey/New York coast.”  COA has a number of different pollution prevention programs, one of which being our Beach Sweeps program.

Beach Sweeps has been around for 28 years and has grown each and every year.  It is a New Jersey statewide beach clean up, where volunteers head out to over 60 different beaches (rivers and bays, too) with a bag for trash and a bag for recyclables and pick up trash for a few hours. The volunteers also collect data on what they find.

Beach Sweeps happens twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall. The data that we collect comes from a few thousand volunteers over the course of 7 hours.

In only 7 hours (during 2012), Beach Sweep volunteers  removed over 350,000 pieces of debris from NJ’s shoreline.  The majority of the debris removed was disposable plastics – representing 82.7% of the total waste found.  To see what else volunteers found, check out COA’s 2012 Beach Sweeps Report.

The majority of the debris removed was disposable plastics including:

  • 49,362 cigarette filters
  • 22,308 straws and stirrers
  • 38,349 caps and lids

In just SEVEN HOURS.  Imagine how much goes in and out with the tide EACH DAY.  The number of plastic in the ocean must be incredible. To see what else ended up in the ocean, click here.

But why worry?

TrashFound

Photo Credit: Joe Sapia

Plastics do not biodegrade – they photodegrade, meaning they break down into smaller and smaller pieces, but never truly go away.  As they break down, they release toxic chemicals into the ocean.  These toxic chemicals are absorbed by the marine life that accidentally eat the plastic pieces.  The animals often mistake plastic bags or pieces of bags as prey.

For example, sea turtles feed on jellyfish, and often mistake floating plastic bags in the ocean for them.  Other pieces of plastic, like 6-pack rings, can entangle marine life and hurt them or even kill them.

So what can we do?

  • Stop using single-use plastic bags.  I often see people bringing reusable canvas bags to the grocery store, but not as much in retail stores.  Bring reusable bags for ALL shopping!
  • Use a Brita pitcher – or better yet, drink tap water – to avoid buying plastic bottles.
  • Avoid buying items in individual wrapped packages, which generate more waste, try to buy in bulk.
  • Educate others on the dangers of plastic in the ocean.
  • Participate in beach clean ups like the Beach Sweeps on Saturday, April 27!

Together, we can try like the 7th grader who e-mailed me and solve one problem in the world; plastic pollution.

Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) Part III: Ecology

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According to the Hidden Risk Report, a publication from the Biodiversity Research Institute in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, “invertivores” are greatly affected by mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.  Songbirds and bats are referred to as invertivores because they eat a variety of invertebrate species like spiders, snails and worms; not just insects.  Invertivores are an integral part of healthy ecosystems, functioning as seed dispersers and insect controllers.  Mercury emissions are threatening their chances for survival and therefore the health of ecosystems throughout the nation.  There are large declines in reproductive success and developmental issues in some species.  For example, Common Loons have to spend roughly 98% of their time on their nest incubating eggs in order for the eggs to successfully hatch.  After over 5,000 hours of observation, it has been determined that Loons with high mercury levels spend only 85% of their time incubating eggs.  The eggs do not hatch and the species reproductive success decreases (Evers, et al.).

Early research on mercury and wildlife focused primarily on fish-eating birds and mammals, but now it is clear that mercury affects a wider range of species at varying trophic levels.  A simple food chain: a spider eats a fly, and a bird like a Northern Water Thrush or sparrow eats the spider, the song bird will have more mercury in its blood than a Bald Eagle.  While blood samples are taken from humans to determine mercury exposure, feather samples are taken from birds.  The average level of mercury for all sampled individuals was 20 ppm, while the maximum level detected was 40 ppm.  Mercury exposure is dependent on species characteristics, like trophic level, and habitat.  Wetlands, especially estuaries, bogs and beaver ponds, allow for a high rate of methylation, producing high mercury levels in organisms that live there (Evers, et al.).

While wetlands are mostly threatened by mercury pollution, point-source mercury has been shown to persist in rivers more than 80 miles from its original source.  This makes mercury a danger to species far beyond wetland areas.  Methylmercury has been connected with organic soil and leaf litter, so even forest species are at risk of exposure.  Songbirds that feed primarily on forest floor by moving around leaf are affected, as are the invertebrates on the forest floor (Evers, et al.).

Mercury exposure also causes physiological rarities in songbirds, impacting their migration patterns.  If a bird’s left wing is five percent different in shape than its right wing, the bird has to fly in an odd way to compensate for the difference.  This requires more energy and affects survival rates of song bird species when migration already accounts for 75% of all annual mortality rates in some songbirds.  Mercury exposure becomes an added burden on the species (Evers, et al.).

Saltmarsh Sparrow

Many invertivores are already at risk because of pollution, loss of habitat and invasive species.  In combination with environmental stressors like acid rain and climate change, wildlife species are suffering from a synergistic reaction of all of these threats acting together.  Mercury exposure adds another “ecological burden” on songbird and bat populations.  Bats with high levels of mercury often experience compromised immune systems, making it difficult to fight infections like White-Nose Syndrome.  The saltmarsh sparrow has a “very high mercury risk,” according to The Hidden Report, because it is endemic to estuaries, spends its entire life cycle in saltmarsh habitats, and eats high in the food chain.  The saltmarsh sparrow is also especially vulnerable to sea level rise as a result of climate changes, piling one “ecological burden” on top of another (Evers, et al.).

Standardized monitoring of invertivores is needed to show how the new MATS affect changes in mercury emissions because these species offer valuable ecosystems services.  A single colony of big brown bats eats nearly 1.3 million pest insects each year. Pest suppression services provided by native bats in US agricultural landscapes is valued at $22.9 billion per year.  A bluebird family of two parents and five nestlings requires 124 g of insects per day.  The presence of nesting birds in vineyards reduces the amount of pesticides that are required to maintain healthy crops (Evers, et al.).

While standardized monitoring of wildlife, laws and regulations like Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), and scientific health studies help to address some environmental problems, other means could be used.  Social media has played a large role in the environmental movement in 2012.  Facebook and Twitter has helped to spread the word about fracking throughout the United States and the development of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline in the Great Plains.  Greenpeace used Facebook as part of their clean energy campaign.  The organization urged citizens to “defriend coal.”  The Unfriend Coal campaign showed Facebook’s new data centers that draw energy from coal-powered plants.  After this blitz, Facebook announced that finding renewable energy sources would a priority in future data centers and agreed to lobby utilities powering their existing centers to increase their reliance renewable energy.  Facebook also allows organizations to expand their membership into new countries (Kaufman).

Mercury and Air Toxics Standards are similar to other environmental policies in many ways.  There has been criticism from economists, claiming that MATS will contribute to unemployment and negatively affect the economy of the United States.  MATS will be subjected to gutting by conservation politicians and vague language and claims protecting the privileged few.  The risk of mercury emissions to wildlife, such as invertivores like bats and songbirds, will be examined at length by wildlife conservationists.  New age environmentalists will stay informed and advocate for MATS through social media.  MATS, however, will stand out among other environmental policies because of its clear, scientific connection to public health and the strong lobby of mothers that will fight for their children’s health.

Sources:

Evers, D.C., A.K. Jackson, T.H. Tear and C.E. Osborne. 2012. Hidden Risk: Mercury in Terrestrial Ecosystems of the Northeast. Biodiversity Research Institute. Gorham, Maine. BRI Report 2012-07. 33 pages.

Kaufman, Leslie. “For Green Groups, a Shift in Tactics.” Green Blog. New York Times, 19 Dec. 2011. Web. 15 May 2012. <http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/19/for-green-groups-a-shift-in-tactics/?src=tp&gt;.

Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) Part II: Air Pollution Victims

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Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) called air pollution victims “unidentified and imaginary” (Browning).  In reality, air pollution victims are quite real.

Coal combustion in the nation releases approximately 48 tons of mercury each year.  Mercury is a neurotoxin causing mental retardation and lost productivity (in terms of IQ decline).  According to Trasande et. al, direct costs of mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants is estimated at $361.2 million from mental retardation and $1.625 billion from lost productivity (Epstein 87).  One study estimates that for each part per million of mercury found in a mother’s hair, her child loses approximately 0.18 IQ points (Hudson).  Methylmercury, mercury’s most toxic form, is bioaccumulated in fin and shell-fish and then consumed by humans.  Methylmercury, either through diet or in utero through maternal consumption, is associated with neurological effects in infants and children.  These effects being delayed achievement of developmental milestones and poor results on neurobehavorial tests like, attention, fine motor function, language, visual-spatial abilities, and memory (Epstein 87).

Air pollution victims have been identified most often as communities of low income and/or color, therefore causing MATS regulations to encompass environmental justice and environmental racism.  Environmental justice has been defined as “the right of all people to share equally in the benefits bestowed by a healthy environment,” environment being where people “live, work, play and worship.”  There is a disproportionate incidence of environmental contamination in communities of low income and/or color.  Environmental justice movements look to correct this occurrence and secure the right for all people to live unthreatened by risks posed from environmental degradation and contamination.  Environmental justice perfectly depicts the intersection between ecological and social justice concerns.  When speaking specifically related to race, environmental racism applies.  Reverend Benjamin Chavis, past Executive Director of United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice (UCC-CRJ) coined the term “environmental racism” and defined it as “ racial discrimination in the environmental policy-making and the enforcement regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of people of color communities for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and history of excluding people of color from leadership in the environmental movement” (Adamson, et al.).

Mercury and other air pollutants affect African American populations at an overwhelmingly higher rate than white populations.  In 2008, African Americans had a 35% rate of asthma than Caucasians.  One-quarter of the children in New York City’s Harlem have asthma. African American children have a 260% higher emergency room visit rate, 250% higher hospitalization rate and 500% higher death rate from asthma, compared with white children.  The most logical rational for the air pollution assault on Black communities is tied to where they live.  Sixty-eight percent of African-Americans (compared to 56% of whites) live within 30 miles (distance of maximum adverse effects from smokestack emissions) of a coal-fired power plant (Browning).

No matter the race, mothers and mothers-to-be across the nation are joining forces to ensure that their children are not air pollution victims.  Mothers and women of “childbearing age” are focused on a clean environment because it directly impacts the health of their children.  Mothers are a force to be reckoned with in the environmental arena.  Big Industry will respond to mothers on toxic chemical exposure because it has to (Jenkins).  Through the use of social media and emerging information technologies, large coalitions of concerned mothers are forming and taking a stand for the environment.  The blog Hip Moms Go Green is “the hip moms guide to living and eating green” (http://www.hipmomsgogreen.com/).  These hip moms are “dedicated to empowering you to simultaneously affect a healthful difference in the lives of your children and planet.”  The website boasts of green home improvement tips, creative ways to get children involved in environmental and social responsibility, and incorporating nutrient-dense foods into any family’s diet.  Hip Moms Go Green “bring all of your favorite eco-topics and products to the table to make going green part of your everyday life.”

Sources:

“Going Green – The Hip Moms Guide to Living and Eating Green by Hip Moms Go Green.” Going Green – The Hip Moms Guide to Living and Eating Green by Hip Moms Go Green. Web. 15 May 2012. <http://www.hipmomsgogreen.com/&gt;.

Jenkins, McKay. What’s Gotten into Us?: Staying Healthy in a Toxic World. New York: Random House, 2011. Print.

Adamson, Joni, Mei Mei. Evans, and Rachel Stein. The Environmental Justice Reader: Politics, Poetics & Pedagogy. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona, 2002. Print.

Browning, Dominique. “The Racial Politics of Asthma.” TIME.com. 29 Mar. 2012. Web. 15 May 2012. <http://ideas.time.com/2012/03/29/the-racial-politics-of-asthma/&gt;.

Epstein, Paul R., Jonathan J. Buonocore, Kevin Eckerle, Michael Hendryx, Benjamin M. Stout III, Richard Heinberg, Richard W. Clapp, Beverly May, Nancy L. Reinhart, Melissa M. Ahern, Samir K. Doshi, and Leslie Glustrom. “Full Cost Accounting for the Life Cycle of Coal.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1219.1 (2011): 73-98. Print.

Adamson, Joni, Mei Mei. Evans, and Rachel Stein. The Environmental Justice Reader: Politics, Poetics & Pedagogy. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona, 2002. Print.

Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) Series Part I: Overview

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Environmental policies are systemically intertwined with science, politics, economics and history.  Effective environmental policies improve public health, environmental justice concerns and take flora and fauna into consideration.  Beyond law and regulation, there is a feedback loop between environmental policy and environmental advocacy.  Advocates may push for new legislation or new legislation may empower advocates.  In 2011, through a combination of advocacy and political will, Mercury and Air Toxics Standards were developed and implemented.  Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) are the first federal standards that require power plants to limit their emissions of toxic air pollutants like mercury, arsenic and other heavy metals (“Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for Power Plants”).  MATS can serve as a lens to view contemporary issues with environmental policy in the United States.

The new MATS policy shares systematic features of other environmental policies, with complex ties to economics, politics and history, but has a distinguishing feature that makes it a stand alone, necessary piece of environmental legislation.  Beyond the generic issues with environmental policy, MATS are eminent because of their clear connection to public health.  The scientific connection between air pollution and health conditions like asthma is firm and widely accepted.  There is scientific certainty that people will lose their lives if MATS are not implemented.  The public health component of MATS sets it apart from other environmental policies because mothers and women of childbearing age stand behind MATS to protect the health of their children.

Infants and children are not old enough to consent to the risk of air pollution, so a lobby of strong mothers speaks for them.  When these children grew, they should not believe that they have consented to lesser health and the mothers are there to prevent that from happening.  While other environmental policies may examine the costs and benefits of implementation of the regulation by monetization, substituting the value of the life of a child for however many tons of air pollution does not sit well with the general public.  Children cannot relate to an amount of money being equlivalent to their time spent outside, therefore contributing to their risk of air pollution.  Although MATS fit the mold of generic issues with environmental policy, they are distinguished as necessary regulation because of the problems with substituting monetary values for children’s health.

MATS mark the first time that United States coal and oil-fired power plant operators are required to limit emissions of mercury and other air pollutants.  There are federal limits on mercury emissions from waste incinerators and other sources, but until 2012, there had been no limits on coal-fired power plants, the single largest source of mercury emissions, according to the EPA.  The agency received more than 900,000 comments from industry and the general public to help decide what the standard should be (Hudson).  The emission standards are federal air pollution limits that individual facilities must meet by a set date.  For existing facilities, EPA must set emissions standards that are at least as stringent as the emission reductions achieved by the average of the top 12 percent of best controlled facilities (“Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for Power Plants”).

The Clean Air Act of 1990 signed by President George H.W. Bush called for the EPA to conduct studies to determine whether regulating mercury and other air pollutants from power plants was “appropriate and necessary.”  The EPA found that it was, in fact, “appropriate and necessary” to regulate air pollution emissions from power plants.  Under the George W. Bush administration, the EPA reversed its decision and deemed power plants unregulated.  The George W. Bush-era EPA instead proposed a cap-and-trade system for mercury emissions.  Emissions were not restricted, but polluters would pay a fee that was given to companies whose power plants polluted less (“Regulatory Actions”).

Though the EPA has moved away from George W. Bush-like environmental policies, there is still a potential for MATS to be gutted and for power plants to be granted exemptions from the rule.  Under MATS, power plant operators have three years to comply with the new standards, but they may be granted additional time to install the necessary technologies if they are able to show a “valid need.”  It should be interesting to see how many power plants comply within the first three years as the law states and how many are given extra time due to various “valid needs” (Hudson).

Sources:

“Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for Power Plants.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 10 Apr. 2012. Web. 15 May 2012. <http://www.epa.gov/mats/basic.html&gt;.

Hudson, William. “Protecting Babies from Neurotoxins – CNN.com.” CNN. Cable News Network, 03 Jan. 2012. Web. 15 May 2012. <http://www.cnn.com/2011/12/29/health/protecting-babies-neurotoxins/index.html&gt;.

“Regulatory Actions | Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for Power Plants.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 10 Apr. 2012. Web. 15 May 2012. <http://www.epa.gov/mats/actions.html&gt;.

Brownfields and Environmental Justice in New Jersey

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I do not have to go as far as the mountains of West Virginia or shale country in Pennsylvania to see environmental classism.  Back home in New Jersey, after it rains, all of the lower areas that are quick to flood out are all inhabited by low income and often minority communities.  The rich, white people live at higher elevation, where the fertilizer and pesticides from their lawns run off into the water that is flooding out the poorer regions.  Often times, the water overflowing in the streets is not just stormwater, but combined sewage overflow (CSO), from all of the outdated septic tanks not being able to handle the extra influx of water.  Up in Newark and down in Camden especially are rows and rows of dump sites.

Individuals that make up lower tax brackets have no choice to be surrounded by filth.  Just like the incidents in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, whether it is poor urban blacks or poor rural whites; these people have no money and no political clout, and the politicians take advantage of that.  The rich white folks in Suburbia shout “Not in my backyard!” and back that up with their tax dollars and campaign contributions.  The poorer individuals have no voice.  I bought a shirt from a West Virginia non-profit against mountaintop removal, Coal River Mountain Watch, which says “Stop Mountaintop Removal” on the front and “Save the Endangered Hillbilly” on the back.  While the shirt is pretty funny, it’s also pretty sad.  The Lorax speaks for the trees, but who will speak for these people?  They should still be proud of where they live, have access to clean and healthy resources (like water), and have some standard of living.  It is not just to make someone suffer because they are not as relatively wealthy as someone else.  It is even more unjust to completely ignore and turn a blind eye to a tragic situation, all because the people cannot pay their way out of it.

After interning with the NJ Department of Environmental Protection last winter break, I have been exposed to a lot of environmental justice and environmental classism.  I worked under the Site Remediation Program in the Office of Brownfield Reuse.  The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) defines Brownfields as “properties that are abandoned or underutilized because of either real or perceived contamination.”  My internship focused on the environmental policy; I worked with data from the Hazardous Discharge Site Remediation Fund (HDSRF), a fund where applicants can apply for grants to remediate Brownfield sites.  There are about 10,000 Brownfield sites in New Jersey, land of the Superfund.  I noticed when compiling data that are large majority of these sites where in low income areas.  I even saw the sites myself on a field trip to Camden with my internship supervisor.  Going through Camden, we saw just pure industrial grime on every corner.  Camden serves as the garbage can for the state of New Jersey, all because the state can get away with it, based on the demographics of the region.

When I was asked to do a final project for Geographic Information Systems last spring, I decided to call up my internship supervisors from the NJDEP and get some data from them.  After my internship I had developed a strong interest in Brownfields, the socioeconomic areas they surround, and the implications of environmental injustice that results. For my final project, I explored the relationship between Brownfield sites and demographics in Camden County, New Jersey. I thought aspects of environmental injustice to be found would be best represented in Camden County, as the City of Camden is one of the poorest cities in the United States. I divided Camden County by Census Tract. I focused specifically on median household income as they relate to Brownfield site locations. I was looking for a correlation between Brownfields site location and socioeconomic factors.  I found that the large cluster of Brownfield sites was in an area of lowest median household income, excellently displaying the environmental injustice of Brownfield site location.