Featured stories in this issue…

Toxic Lead in Synthetic Turf
 More and more, artificial turf is replacing grass on kids’ ball
 fields and playgrounds. Now new information suggests that these
 synthetic playing surfaces may be contaminated with, among other
 things, toxic lead.
Can Carbon Capture and Storage Pull Our Chestnuts Out of the Fire?
 A former U.S. energy official offers a dismal assessment of the
 prospect that burying carbon dioxide in the ground can make a real
 difference in solving the global warming problem.
Rising Acidity in the Ocean: The Other CO2 Problem
 The oceans quickly absorb 25 to 30 percent of humankind’s CO2
 emissions and about 85 percent in the long run, as water and air mix
 at the ocean’s surface. We have “disposed” of 530 billion tons of the
 gas in this way, and the rate worldwide is now one million tons per
 hour, faster than experienced on earth for tens of millions of years.
 How well marine life can adapt to rapid acidification remains an open
 question, but there is real reason for concern.
Over Half of Europe’s Amphibians Face Extinction by 2050
 “It’s horrifying to think that you can have a large group of
 organisms suffer such a catastrophic decline. Over 150 species may
 have gone extinct already in the past few decades and to me that is
 unacceptable,” said Trent Garner.
Passing the Recycling Buck
 Federal investigators find recyclers willing to ship hazardous
 electronic waste to the world’s poor illegally — an enormous “e-waste
 recycling” scam.
Radioactive Waste Has No Place To Go
 Tubes, capsules and pellets of used radioactive material are piling
 up in the basements and locked closets of hospitals and research
 installations around the country, stoking fears they could get lost
 or, worse, stolen by terrorists and turned into dirty bombs.
Tainted Waters
 In the 25 years since Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia signed a
 historic agreement to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, the three states
 and the federal government have spent several billion dollars on the
 effort. Yet, the bay in many respects is as bad as or worse than when
 they started.

From: Rachel’s Democracy & Health News #979 ……….[This story printer-friendly]
October 2, 2008


[Rachel’s introduction: More and more, artificial turf is replacing grass on kids’ ball fields and playgrounds. Now new information suggests that these synthetic playing surfaces may be contaminated with, among other things, toxic lead.]

By William Crain*

Synthetic turf playing fields are expanding at a rapid pace, but concerns about their health risks are growing as well. In recent months, the concerns have focused on the possibility that the turf contains toxic lead (Pb), which can have especially harmful effects on the cognitive functioning of children. When absorbed, lead can lower children’s IQs and cause attention deficits. [1]

Questions about lead have risen with respect to both the old style AstroTurf and the “new generation” turf. The old style turf is basically a carpet with nylon grass fibers. It lacks the springiness of the new generation turf, which typically uses polyethylene fibers and includes a rubber granule infill. Advertisers say that playing on the new turf is more like playing on natural grass.

Artificial Grass Fibers in Old Style Turf

The current concerns began with a routine state inspection. In the summer of 2007, the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) was investigating potential toxicants in a scrap metal yard in the city of Newark and decided to examine the adjacent, old style turf field as well. Laboratory tests revealed high levels of lead in the nylon turf fibers and in the dust resulting from the fibers’ deterioration. [2] The New Jersey DHSS concluded that the lead didn’t come from the scrap metal yard, but from the field itself. [3]

In follow up studies, the New Jersey DHSS also found high lead levels in two other old-style turf fields in the state, one in the city of Ewing and the other in the city of Hoboken. [4] The findings prompted the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to issue a June 18, 2008, health advisory, recommending precautions such as washing hands after playing on synthetic grass fields. [5]

The New Jersey DHSS also initiated laboratory simulations to evaluate the effects of ingesting the fibers or the fiber dust. The results suggested that a significant portion of the lead in the fibers and dust is dissolved in digestive fluids. Once dissolved, some of the lead might enter the blood and affect the central nervous system. [6]

The Synthetic Turf Council, which represents the synthetic turf industry, questioned the actual risk, but the findings were worrisome. [7]

Fibers in New Generation Turf

When the New Jersey findings were reported in the press, I was a consultant to a task force considering the installation of synthetic turf in Battery Park City in Manhattan. Some of the task force members had read about the New Jersey findings, but they weren’t concerned. Their fields would be the new generation turf, which tends to use polyethylene grass fibers — not nylon — and the New Jersey DHSS hadn’t found high levels of lead in the polyethylene fibers it tested. [4]

Subsequently, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) detected moderate concentrations of lead in a small number of samples of new generation turf fibers. These results pertained to green fibers, which are the most prevalent in synthetic turf products. But manufacturers use various colors to mark field boundaries, and the CPSC found extremely high concentrations of lead in yellow fibers. Guive Mirfendereski, who operates the website SynTurf.org, also had fibers tested and obtained similar results. [8] It is likely that the lead in the fibers primarily comes from the pigments.

Nevertheless, the CPSC also evaluated the risk of ingesting the lead in the fibers and gave the fields a clean bill of health. Specifically, the CPSC concluded that hand contact with the fibers, followed by hand-to-mouth contact, was unlikely to pose a danger. On July 30, 2008, it issued a press release titled, “CPSC Staff Finds Synthetic Turf Fields OK to install, OK to play on.” [9]

As Consumer Reports recently observed, the CPSC’s conclusion is premature. [10] For one thing, the CPSC didn’t consider alternative exposure routes such as direct swallowing or dust inhalation. In addition, the CPSC often relied on speculation instead of collecting relevant data. For example, it didn’t gather data on the fraction of lead in polyethylene fibers that is dissolved in the digestive tract and might enter the blood. Finally, the CPSC used safety standards that are probably too lax.

The question of safety standards is particularly vexing. Growing research indicates that even low levels of lead can cause neurocognitive damage in children. [11] It appears that no level of lead can be considered “safe” in children’s blood. But public health agencies such as the CPSC and CDC have not adjusted their safety standard in light of this finding. (For a fascinating account of the CDC’s refusal to adjust its standards, see Peter Montague’s article in the July 26, 2007 issue of Rachel’s Democracy and Health News (#917).)

In September, 2008, the California attorney general joined legal actions by the Center for Environmental Health (Oakland, Calif) against several synthetic turf companies. The plaintiffs have argued that their test results reveal high lead levels in some turf fields, although they haven’t made details of their results public. [12]

Rubber Granules in New Generation Turf

Most brands of synthetic turf include tons of tiny (0.5 to 3 mm) rubber granules that lie between the artificial grass fibers. The rubber granules, which are usually made from scrap tires, contribute to the spring one feels when running on the turf. This springiness is very popular, but the rubber granules, like the artificial grass fibers, might also contain lead and other toxic chemicals that can be absorbed into the body through exposure routes such as ingestion.

When considering ingestion — whether it’s the ingestion of fibers or rubber granules — I worry most about the infants and toddlers who play on the turf while their caretakers watch the games from the sidelines. Children this age are of special concern because they try to put almost everything they can pick up into their mouths. And while they might pick up some of the fibers that come loose as a field ages, the possibility of picking up rubber granules is greater. As soon as a new field is ready for play, the granules are loose and abundant. What’s more, the granules stick to athletes’ clothes and get into their shoes, often spilling onto the floor when they take off their shoes at home. So infants and toddlers are exposed to the granules when they play on the floor at home, too.

Several research groups, including the Rochesterians Against the Misuse of Pesticides and Jim Zhang’s team at Rutgers University, have gained information on the concentrations of lead in the rubber granules. The results have been very consistent; concentrations seem to range from about 3 to 67 mg/kg [milligrams per kilogram] lead. [13-16] Although these values are below the conventional 400 mg/kg safety standard for humans in residential environments, we should bear in mind that even low concentrations of lead can cause neurocognitive damage in children.


A key question at this point is, if new generation fibers or rubber granules are ingested, what fraction of the lead in them is bioaccessible? That is, what fraction of the lead dissolves in human digestive fluids, making it available for transport out of the digestive tract into to the blood and the rest of the body?

A recent small-scale study by Jim Zhang, I-K Han, Lin Zhang and W. Crain [16] simulated digestive tract absorption of lead in a sample of polyethylene fibers. Mimicking the digestive process, the study examined absorption in synthetic saliva, synthetic gastric (stomach) fluid, and synthetic intestinal fluid, in that order. No lead dissolved in the saliva, but 34.6% and 54.0% of the lead dissolved in the gastric and intestinal fluids, respectively. These are sizeable fractions. If replicated, the results suggest that ingestion of fiber material can have significant consequences.

The study also examined the bioacessibility of lead in rubber granules. In the two samples tested, 24.7% and 44.2% of the lead dissolved in synthetic gastric fluids. The researchers didn’t find additional dissolution of lead in synthetic intestinal fluids, but the fractions in the gastric fluids are substantial.


After high levels of lead were detected in an old synthetic turf field in Newark, New Jersey, further research suggested that high levels of lead were present in other old style artificial turf fields. Researchers have sometimes found lead in new generation turf fibers as well. These concentrations have been extremely high in yellow fibers that mark field boundaries, but lead has sometimes showed up in the more common green fibers, too. In addition, low-to-moderate levels of lead have consistently been detected in the new generation turf’s rubber granules.

Because even low levels of lead can harm children’s neurocognitive development, it’s important to know the lead’s bioaccessibility — the fractions of lead in turf materials that can be dissolved in digestive fluids. Initial studies suggest that the lead in the old style turf fibers, as well as the lead in the new generation turf fibers and rubber granules, does dissolve in synthetic digestive fluids. The results suggest that researchers take a closer look at the possibility that children and athletes might ingest synthetic turf materials and that the lead in the materials is absorbed in the digestive tract and enters the blood.


* William Crain is a professor of psychology at The City College of New York. Billcrain@aol.com Through earlier articles in Rachel’s Democracy & Health News (#873 & #902) Dr. Crain was among the first to alert the U.S public to possible toxicants in synthetic turf.


[1] Landrigan, P. J. Environmental Threats to Children’s Health in America’s Schools: The Case for Prevention. Testimony to the Committee on Environment and Public Works, United States Senate, Oct. 1, 2002.

[2] New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services. Updated Lead and Artificial Turf Fact Sheet, August 2008.

[3] New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services. New Jersey Investigation of Artificial Turf and Human Health Concerns, April 2008.

[4] New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services. DHSS Calls for Federal Action on Potential Lead Health Hazard Posed by Artificial Turf, April 14, 2008. http://www.state.nj.us/cgi-bin/dhss/njnewsline/view_article.pl?id=3174%7D

[5] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC Health Advisory: Potential Exposure to Lead in Artificial Turf: Public Health Issues, Actions, and Recommendations, June 18, 2008. http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/artificialturf.htm

[6] NBC. N.J. Agency Releases Toxic Turf Report, June 3, 2008. ht tp://www.nbc10.com/health/16477245/detail.html

[7] Synthetic Turf Council. Safety of Synthetic Turf Validated by NJ Test Results, June 5, 2008. http://www.syntheticturfcouncil.org/

[8] Mirfendereski, G. Turf Fibers from Five Venues in Boston Area Contained Excessive Amounts of Lead. SynTurf.org, Lead, No. 16, September, 2008.

[9] U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. CPSC Staff Finds Synthetic Turf Fields OK to Install, OK to Play on, July 30, 2008. ht tp://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/prerel/prhtml08/08348.html

[10] Federal Agencies at Odds over Artificial Turf Recommendations, Consumer Reports.org September 5, 2008. http://blogs.consumerreports.org/safety/2008/09/lead-in-turf.html

[11] Canfield, R.L., Henderson, C.R., Cory-Slechta, D.A., Cox, C.,Jusko, T.A., and Lanphear, B.P. Intellectual Impairment in Children with Blood Lead concentrations Below 10 Micrograms per Deciliter. New England Journal of Medicine, 348, 2003, pp. 1417-1526.

[12] Center for Environmental Health. More Artificial Turf Found with Lead, as California Attorney files lawsuits, Sept. 2, 2008.

[13] Plesser, T. S. W., and O. J. Lund. Potential Health and Environmental Effects Linked to Artificial Turf Systems — Final Report. Norwegian Building Research Institute (report to the Norwegian Football Association), 2004.

[14] Rochesterians Against the Misuse of Pesticides. Synthetic Turf Chemicals, 2007.

[15] The City of New York, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Report: Lead Hazard Risk Assessment of Synthetic Turf Playing Fields, April 15, 2008.

[16] Zhang, J., I-K Han, L. Zhang, and W. Crain. Hazardous Chemicals in Synthetic Turf Materials and their Bioaccessibility in Digestive Fluids. Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology, Vol. 18, No. 6, November/December 2008. Published by the journal online August 27, 2008.


From: Gristmill ……………………………………[This story printer-friendly]
September 30, 2008


[Rachel’s introduction: A former U.S. energy official offers a dismal assessment of the prospect that burying carbon dioxide in the ground can make a real difference in solving the global warming problem.]

By Joseph Romm

The goal of carbon capture and storage (CCS), also called carbon sequestration, is to take carbon dioxide that would have been emitted into the atmosphere from new or existing power plants (usually coal) and instead store it someplace, hopefully forever. It is an attractive idea across the political spectrum because it might allow us to continue using a major fossil fuel, but in a way that does not destroy the climate.

Unfortunately, CCS has four fundamental problems that have reduced enthusiasm for it recently and limited its likely role:

Cost: Coal plants with CCS are very expensive today. The total extra cost for this process, including geological storage in sealed underground sites, is currently quite high, $30 to $80 a ton of carbon dioxide, according to the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy, “Carbon Sequestration R&D Overview.” And that is on top of the cost of new coal plants, which have become very expensive. In the future, it seems rather unlikely that CCS would be a low-cost solution. The modeling work done for the California Public Utility Commission on how to comply with the AB32 law (California’s Global Warming Solutions Act), online here, puts the cost of coal gasification with carbon capture and storage at a staggering 16.9 cents per kWh. Energy efficiency along with lots of low-carbon generation sources beat that easily now or will very soon.

Timing: The world does not even have a single large-scale (300+ MW) coal plant with CCS anywhere in the world. The first moderate-sized (30 MW) pilot plant with CCS just started up this month in Germany.

Earlier this year, President Bush dropped the mismanaged “NeverGen” clean coal project. In the past year, most governments and most U.S. utilities have scaled back, delayed, or cancel their planned CCS projects (see below). As Howard Herzog of MIT’s Laboratory for Energy and the Environment said in February, “How can we expect to build hundreds of these plants when we’re having so much trouble building the first one?”

Scale: We need to put in place a dozen or so clean energy “stabilization wedges” by mid-century to avoid catastrophic climate outcomes. For CCS to be even one of those would require a flow of CO2 into the ground equal to the current flow of oil out of the ground.

That would require, by itself, re-creating the equivalent of the planet’s entire oil delivery infrastructure, no mean feat.

Permanence and transparency: If Putin’s Russia said it was sequestering 100 million tons of CO2 in the ground permanently, and wanted other countries to pay it billions of dollars to do so, would anyone trust them? No. The potential for fraud and bribery are simply too enormous. But would anyone trust China? Would anyone trust a U.S. utility, for that matter? We need to set up some sort of international regime for certifying, monitoring, verifying, and inspecting geologic repositories of carbon — like the U.N. weapons inspections systems.

The problem is, this country hasn’t been able to certify a single storage facility for a high-level radioactive waste after two decades of trying and nobody knows how to monitor and verify underground CO2 storage. It could take a decade just to set up this system.

The bottom line is that we should continue to pursue CCS research, development, and demonstration in a serious effort to turn this long- term strategy into a medium-term one. But efficiency, wind, solar PV, and baseload solar are where we should be placing the big deployment dollars right now.

For those who want to become more knowledgeable on CCS, the rest of this post will cite and excerpt a dozen or so of the recent articles and studies on the subject below.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology published a very thorough, interdisciplinary report on “The Future of Coal” in March 2007. This study was quite skeptical about the near-term possibility of CCS, mocked the notion of “capture ready” coal plants, and harshly criticized U.S. government CCS policy — a key reason that many, including journalists, became more pessimistic about CCS. Findings include:

** A significant charge on carbon emissions is needed in the relatively near term to increase the economic attractiveness of new technologies that avoid carbon emissions and specifically to lead to large-scale CCS in the coming decades. We need large-scale demonstration projects of the technical, economic and environmental performance of an integrated CCS system.

** Congress should remove any expectation that construction of new coal plants without CO2 capture will be “grandfathered” and granted emission allowances in the event of future regulation. This is a perverse incentive to build coal plants without CO2 capture today.

** Coal plants will not be cheap to retrofit for CO2 capture. Our analysis confirms that the cost to retrofit an air-driven SCPC plant for significant CO2 capture, say 90 percent, will be greater than the cost to retrofit an Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle plant. However, as stressed in Chapter 3, the modifications needed to retrofit an IGCC plant for appreciable CCS are extensive and not a matter of simply adding a single simple and inexpensive process step to an existing IGCC plant.

** The concept of a “capture ready” IGCC or pulverized coal plant is as yet unproven and unlikely to be fruitful.

In May 2007, the Center for American Progress released an excellent report on “Global Warming and the Future of Coal,” by Ken Berlin and Robert Sussman. It looked at a variety of policy measures that might allow new coal to contribute to our energy mix without destroying the climate and recommended the crucial policy:

Requiring all new coal power plants to meet an “emission performance” standard that limits CO2 emissions to levels achievable with CCS systems.

That is the best way to maintain coal’s viability in a carbon- constrained world.

The U.K. Guardian reported in February 2008, “Firms will act on CO2 only if its cost triples,” says oil giant Royal Dutch/Shell:

“A carbon price close to $100 per tonne of CO2 — more than three times higher than it is today — is needed before industry will invest in the thousands of carbon-capture-and-storage (CCS) schemes needed for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Shell warned yesterday.”

In April, a major article in Environmental Science & Technology, “Regulating the Geological Sequestration [GS] of CO2,” argued

“As greenhouse gas emissions rise and the impacts of climate change grow, the need for safe and effective CO2 capture and sequestration becomes ever more urgent…

“For countries such as the U.S. and Germany, which today produce more than half of their electricity from coal, or China and India, where a large majority of the electricity is generated from coal, it is difficult to see how cost-effective and politically viable emission reductions can be achieved during the next several decades without at least some continued use of coal…

“Governments worldwide should provide incentives for initial large- scale GS projects to help build the knowledge base for a mature, internationally harmonized GS regulatory framework. Health, safety, and environmental risks of these early projects can be managed through modifications of existing regulations in the EU, Australia, Canada, and the U.S. An institutional mechanism, such as the proposed Federal Carbon Sequestration Commission in the U.S., should gather data from these early projects and combine them with factors such as GS industrial organization and climate regime requirements to create an efficient and adaptive regulatory framework suited to large-scale deployment. Mechanisms to structure long-term liability and fund long- term postclosure care must be developed, most likely at the national level, to equitably balance the risks and benefits of this important climate change mitigation technology.

“We need to do this right. During the initial field experiences, a single major accident, resulting from inadequate regulatory oversight, anywhere in the world, could seriously endanger the future viability of GS. That, in turn, could make it next to impossible to achieve the needed dramatic global reductions in CO2 emissions over the next several decades. We also need to do it quickly. Emissions are going up, the climate is changing, and impacts are growing. The need for safe and effective CO2 capture with deep GS is urgent.”

In April, Reuters reported:

“Governments and the private sector are balking at the expense of kick- starting a technology to bury planet-warming gases underground, casting doubts on ‘clean coal’ plans seen vital to help fight climate change.”

In May, Matt Wald wrote in the NYT, “Mounting Costs Slow the Push for Clean Coal,”

“… It has become clear in recent months that the nation’s effort to develop the technique is lagging badly.

“In January, the government canceled its support for what was supposed to be a showcase project, a plant at a carefully chosen site in Illinois where there was coal, access to the power grid, and soil underfoot that backers said could hold the carbon dioxide for eons.

“Perhaps worse, in the last few months, utility projects in Florida, West Virginia, Ohio, Minnesota and Washington State that would have made it easier to capture carbon dioxide have all been canceled or thrown into regulatory limbo.

“Coal is abundant and cheap, assuring that it will continue to be used.

“But the failure to start building, testing, tweaking and perfecting carbon capture and storage means that developing the technology may come too late to make coal compatible with limiting global warming.

“‘It’s a total mess,’ said Daniel M. Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.

“… it remains an open question whether techniques for capturing and storing carbon dioxide will be available by the time they are critically needed.

“The Electric Power Research Institute, a utility consortium, estimated that it would take as long as 15 years to go from starting a pilot plant to proving the technology will work. The institute has set a goal of having large-scale tests completed by 2020.

“‘A year ago, that was an aggressive target,’ said Steven R. Specker, the president of the institute. ‘A year has gone by, and now it’s a very aggressive target.'”

The Australian reported in May, “Chimneys sweep BP clean coal plan away”:

“What was touted as Australia’s biggest contribution to developing clean coal technology for use around the world in reducing greenhouse gas emissions has been scrapped even before it got to first base.

“BP confirmed yesterday the $2 billion ‘hydrogen energy’ coal-to-gas plant at Kwinana, south of Perth, would not proceed …

“But after more than two years of investigations and several million dollars of research, BP has now admitted that the geological formations off Perth contain gas ‘chimneys’ that mean it is next to impossible to establish a seal in the strata that could contain the CO2.”

In May, Greenpeace issued a report, “False Hope: Why carbon capture and storage won’t save the climate” that argued “the technology is largely unproven and will not be ready in time to save the climate.”

And Matt Wald again in June, “Running in Circles Over Carbon”:

“… A recent decision by the Virginia State Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities, to turn down an application by the Appalachian Power Company to build a plant that would have captured 90 percent of its carbon and deposited it nearly two miles underground, at a well that it dug in 2003. The applicant’s parent was American Electric Power, one of the nation’s largest coal users, and perhaps the most technically able. But the company is a regulated utility and spends money only when it can be reimbursed.

“The Virginia commission said that it was ‘neither reasonable nor prudent’ for the company to build the plant, and the risks for ratepayers were too great, because costs were uncertain, perhaps double that of a standard coal plant. And in a Catch-22 that plagues the whole effort, the commission said A.E.P. should not build a commercial-scale plant because no one had demonstrated the technology on a commercial scale.”

Vaclav Smil, wrote in “Energy at the Crossroads” [PDF]:

“A key comparison illustrates the daunting scale of the challenge. In 2005 worldwide CO2 emissions amounted to nearly 28 Gt; even if were to set out only a modest goal of sequestering just 10% of this volume we would have to put away annually about 6 Gm3 [billion cubic meters] (assuming that all of the gas is compressed at least to its critical point where its density is 0.47 g/mL). The current extraction of crude oil (nearly 4 Gt in 2005) translates to less than 5 Gm3 [billion cubic meters]. Sequestering a mere 1/10 of today’s global CO2 emissions (less than 3 Gt [billion metric tonnes] CO2) would thus call for putting in place an industry that would have to force underground every year the volume of compressed gas larger than or (with higher compression) equal to the volume of crude oil extracted globally by petroleum industry whose infrastructures and capacities have been put in place over a century of development. Needless to say, such a technical feat could not be accomplished within a single generation.”

(Note to Smil: Well of course it “could” be accomplished within a single generation if we had a WWII mentality for dealing with the climate problem. But since we don’t, my point is moot.)

In June, BusinessWeek’s “The Dirty Truth About Clean Coal” concluded:

“The catch is that for now — and for years to come — ‘clean coal’ will remain more a catchphrase than a reality …

“Corporations and the federal government have tried for years to accomplish ‘carbon capture and sequestration.’ So far they haven’t had much luck. The method is widely viewed as being decades away from commercial viability. Even then, the cost could be prohibitive: by a conservative estimate, several trillion dollars to switch to clean coal in the U.S. alone.

“Then there are the safety questions. One large, coal-fired plant generates the equivalent of 3 billion barrels of CO2 over a 60-year lifetime. That would require a space the size of a major oil field to contain. The pressure could cause leaks or earthquakes, says Curt M. White, who ran the U.S. Energy Dept.’s carbon sequestration group until 2005 and served as an adviser until earlier this year. ‘Red flags should be going up everywhere when you talk about this amount of liquid being put underground.'”

E&E News reported in June, “Carbon storage technology is far from ready, utility execs warn”:

“Efforts to characterize carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology as a viable short-term ‘cure-all’ for coal-burning power plants’ greenhouse emissions have been ‘way overblown,’ the outgoing chairman of the leading utility industry group said today.

“‘It is a technology that [scientists] are comfortable can work,’ said Jeff Sterba, the Edison Electric Institute’s outgoing chairman and chief executive of Albuquerque-based PNM Resources. ‘But is it commercially deployable in 10 years? No.’

“… Added Jim Rogers, Duke Energy’s CEO and a former institute chairman, ‘CCS as a magical technology that solves the carbon problem for coal plants is oversold… I think there is a lot to learn, and it is going to take us a lot longer for us to figure it out than a lot of us think.'”

Ben Yamagata, director of the Coal Utilization Research Council, was interviewed by E&E News in June and said:

“I think there is a tendency for both sides to over-exaggerate what’s possible from a technical perspective. Our view is that it’s important for political leaders to think about technology about development as a process of crawling, then walking, then running. And on the one side, I think in context of what Jim Rogers has said, there’s too much focus on the running at this point. And we really need to think about taking the first baby steps before we lope into a full-charge gallop on this stuff. And so I would say, yeah, I would agree that at least certain elements of it who want to have this happen very quickly have overblown the possibility of when all of this can happen, not can it happen, which is an important distinction here, but when it’s going to happen…

“We have a plan that is a two-part program and it says we should have a much, much more robust, research, development, demonstration program, really on the order of magnitude of $17 to $20 billion dollars over the next 18 or 19 years.”

In July, Coal journalist Jeff Goodell wrote in “Coal’s New Technology: Panacea or Risky Gamble?”:

“Unfortunately, CCS is more fantasy than reality at the moment…

“…given how quickly the price of renewable energy is falling (wind and large-scale concentrated solar power are already competitive with coal in some parts of the country), you have to wonder why anyone would go to the trouble of building a coal plant at all.”

Jeff Goodell on Coal-is-Dirty.com,”How Clean Coal Cooks Your Brain”:

“Clean coal” is not an actual invention, a physical thing — it is an advertising slogan. Like ‘fat-free donuts’ or ‘interest-free loans.’

“… mining and burning coal remains one of the most destructive things human beings do on this earth. It destroys mountains, poisons water, pollutes the air, and warms the atmosphere. True, if you look at it strictly from the point of view smog-producing chemicals like sulfur dioxide, new coal plants are cleaner than the old coal burners of yore. But going from four bottles of whiskey a week down to three does not make you clean and sober.”

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy resources on Carbon Capture Research can be found here.

Finally, I have been assuming one wedge of CCS by 2050 in my full climate solution, but I think the next version will likely drop that down to half a wedge, or perhaps 0.5 +/- 0.5 — 0 to 1 wedge for CCS.

This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.


From: Scientific American ……………………………[This story printer-friendly]
October 7, 2008


[Rachel’s introduction: The oceans quickly absorb 25 to 30 percent of humankind’s CO2 emissions and about 85 percent in the long run, as water and air mix at the ocean’s surface. We have “disposed” of 530 billion tons of the gas in this way, and the rate worldwide is now one million tons per hour, faster than experienced on earth for tens of millions of years. How well marine life can adapt to rapid acidification remains an open question, but there is real reason for concern.]

By Peter G. Brewer and James Barry

Climate change caused by rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) is now widely recognized. But the other side of the equation — the massive absorption of CO2 by the ocean — has received far less attention. The planet’s seas quickly absorb 25 to 30 percent of humankind’s CO2 emissions and about 85 percent in the long run, as water and air mix at the ocean’s surface. We have “disposed” of 530 billion tons of the gas in this way, and the rate worldwide is now one million tons per hour, faster than experienced on earth for tens of millions of years. We are acidifying the ocean and fundamentally changing its remarkably delicate geochemical balance. Scientists are only beginning to investigate the consequences, but comparable natural changes in our geologic history have caused several mass extinctions throughout the earth’s waters.

That careful balance has survived over time because of a near equilibrium among the acids emitted by volcanoes and the bases liberated by the weathering of rock. The pH of seawater has remained steady for millions of years. Before the industrial era began, the average pH at the ocean surface was about 8.2 (slightly basic; 7.0 is neutral). Today it is about 8.1.

Although the change may seem small, similar natural shifts have taken 5,000 to 10,000 years. We have done it in 50 to 80 years. Ocean life survived the long, gradual change, but the current speed of acidification is very worrisome. Emissions could reduce surface pH by another 0.4 unit in this century alone and by as much as 0.7 unit beyond 2100. We are hurtling toward an ocean different than the earth has known for more than 25 million years.

About 89 percent of the carbon dioxide dissolved in seawater takes the form of bicarbonate ion, about 10 percent as carbonate ion, and 1 percent as dissolved gas. Modern marine life has evolved to live in this chemistry. A wide variety of organisms use carbonate ion to manufacture their skeletons: snails, urchins, clams, crabs and lobsters. And notably, it forms the calcified plates of microscopic phytoplankton that are so abundant and crucial to the entire marine food chain. Meanwhile carbon dioxide levels influence the physiology of water-breathing organisms of all kinds, which for most creatures has been optimized to operate in a narrow range of dissolved CO2 and ocean pH.

We are now carrying out an extraordinary chemical experiment on a global scale. Our fossil-fuel emissions raise the dissolved CO2 levels in the ocean, which reduces carbonate ion concentrations and lowers pH. The ocean’s sunlit surface layer (the top 100 yards or so) could easily lose 50 percent of its carbonate ion by the end of this century unless we reduce emissions dramatically. Marine animals will find it harder to build skeletons, construct reefs, or simply to grow and breathe. Compared with past geologic events, the speed and scale of this conversion is astonishing.

We therefore have a dilemma. The ocean’s absorption of CO2 helps to keep atmospheric change in check. For decades, climate scientists described the uptake as a blessing for society, and ocean chemists hoped that calcium carbonate sediments on the seafloor would dissolve in sufficient quantities to offset a drop in pH. But research has shown that the rate at which sediments dissolve cannot possibly keep pace with the far faster rate of acidification. Society can continue to depend on the ocean for help, but the cost is a rising threat to all marine life.

Although our understanding remains murky, the fossil record shows that ocean life has suffered massive extinctions during periods of rapidly rising carbon dioxide levels. Marine animals’ metabolic functions are typically tuned to narrow, internal pH ranges. In addition to reducing the calcification of skeletons, more acidic water will acidify body fluids, likely raising respiratory stress and depressing metabolism.

Some organisms may tolerate a certain amount of change, but thinner shells will make others more vulnerable to damage or predators. Some organisms might also tolerate acidification of internal fluids to a point, yet even so many will expend more energy to maintain their optimal acid-base balance or will struggle to supply their body with oxygen and to sustain cellular functions vital to life. The extra expense of coping with acidification may make them more prone to dying. These stresses will be particularly severe for deep-sea animals, which have adapted to an extremely stable environment. And even if animals survive, the stresses will sap energy they would otherwise use for growth and reproduction.

We would probably see the effects of ocean acidification first in animal groups that have finely tuned environmental ranges, particularly those already “living on the edge” such as coral reefs, which have already suffered widespread bleaching and death from warming ocean temperatures. Less appreciated are effects on massive communities of tiny animals that live in the ocean’s midlevels. These creatures migrate en masse to the surface layer at night to feed yet sink to deep water during the daytime to avoid predators. In so doing, they form a critical link between the warm, oxygenated surface layer and the cold, oxygen-depleted waters of the deep, as well as a critical link in the oceanwide food chain.

Increased acidity and expanding zones of low oxygen in some regions may force these midwater organisms into shallower waters where they would be more exposed to predators. And if, as expected, the zones of low oxygen expand and intensify, many of these migrators could die. Together these effects could slice through this daily, migratory lifeline between shallow and deep waters — an outcome that could impact society’s ocean fisheries.

How well marine life can adapt to rapid acidification remains an open question, but there is real reason for concern. Ocean life has weathered large environmental perturbations during the earth’s history, just barely; some 250 million years ago massive volcanism is thought to have caused ocean acidification and other factors that left 90 percent of marine species dead.

Although man-made climate change will be much milder, strong and immediate action to stabilize CO2 levels is essential to minimize our disruption of ocean chemistry and ecosystems. We can no longer deny our role in global climate change. Now is the time for serious discussion among science, business and political leaders about ways to minimize our impact on our air and water, to set limits on the effects of our fossil-fuel use, and to plan how to adapt to coming change.


From: The Guardian (Manchester, U.K.) …………………[This story printer-friendly]
September 26 2008


[Rachel’s introduction: “It’s horrifying to think that you can have a large group of organisms suffer such a catastrophic decline. Over 150 species may have gone extinct already in the past few decades and to me that is unacceptable,” said Trent Garner.]

By Ian Sample, science correspondent

More than half of all frogs, toads and newts living in Europe could be driven to extinction within 40 years as climate change, diseases and habitat destruction take their toll, scientists warned last night.

The majority of the most threatened species live in Mediterranean regions, which are expected to become warmer and drier. Island species, such as the Mallorcan midwife toad and Sardinian brook newt, are especially at risk because they are unable to move to cooler climates.

In Britain, where viruses are already wiping out many hundreds of amphibians a year, conservationists fear for the future of the common toad, natterjack toad and crested newt.

Researchers described the bleak outlook for Europe’s amphibians at a meeting of the Zoological Society of London last night. Sir David Attenborough, who was due to attend the symposium, said: “Amphibians are the lifeblood of many environments, playing key roles in the function of ecosystems, and it is both extraordinary and terrifying that in just a few decades the world could lose half of all these species.”

One in three of the world’s amphibians are already on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s red list of endangered species, with some estimates suggesting 150 species have already become extinct since the 1980s.

The expansion of towns and cities into natural habitats is chiefly to blame for the amphibians’ precarious future, but many scientists believe climate change and diseases are acting together as a double whammy. “A lot of European amphibians, especially those found in the Mediterranean, cannot move to find more suitable habitats, because they are surrounded by sea water, which they can’t tolerate, or they are blocked off by mountain ranges,” said Trent Garner, research scientist at the Zoological Society of London.

Snakes, fish and birds that prey on the amphibians are already showing some signs of decline as the staple of their diet dies out. The disappearance of some amphibians is also expected to lead to a rise in insects and other creatures that amphibians feed on. “Given that many of the things that amphibians eat are the things that destroy our crops or bite us and suck our blood, we might be feeling some of the effects a bit more directly than we’ve expected,” said Garner.

Ten years ago, scientists raised the alarm after finding vast numbers of amphibians were being wiped out by chytrid fungus, which infects the skin through which many of the animals drink and breathe. Scientists in Australia now suspect they have lost nine species to the infection.

In recent decades chytrid fungus has spread rapidly, appearing almost everywhere there are amphibians. Some scientists believe the fungus has become more deadly as a result of climate change. One alarming case has been seen in the Penalara national park near Madrid, where the climate has become more humid and the fungus has caused mass mortality among amphibians.

Garner and his colleagues based their assessment on published research into the effects of climate change on amphibian habitats, and believe more than 40 species could be extinct by 2050. One study showed that as global warming alters the climate in Europe, almost every amphibian habitat would be affected. “It’s horrifying to think that you can have a large group of organisms suffer such a catastrophic decline. Over 150 species may have gone extinct already in the past few decades and to me that is unacceptable,” said Garner.

In Britain, infections caused by a family of pathogens called ranaviruses, which emerged in the 1980s, are causing widespread deaths among some of the most common amphibians. “When people find frogs in their gardens that look emaciated with sores all over their bodies, and quite often with toes missing, that is probably ranavirus,” said Garner.

Scientists at the meeting will emphasise the need to reduce the effects of climate change by reining in greenhouse gas emissions, but for many species that will come too late. In the short term, conservationists are urging zoos to set up captive breeding programmes for the most threatened amphibians.


From: Chemical & Engineering News ………………..[This story printer-friendly]
September 29, 2008


[Rachel’s introduction: Federal investigators find recyclers willing to ship hazardous electronic waste to the world’s poor illegally — an enormous “e-waste recycling” scam.]

By Jeff Johnson

When Americans haul their junk computers, TVs, and other electronic gear to local collection centers, they get that pleasant rush that comes with recycling and doing a small part to ensure waste containing hazardous materials is properly treated. However, that feel-good feeling may be mostly wishful thinking.

A government report and several recycling experts say it is likely that much of that hazardous electronic waste is going to wind up in developing countries where the poorest people in the world will pull the products apart under crude and dangerous conditions — the exact scenario that those conscientious consumers were hoping to avoid.

“There are about five of us doing it right for every 100 recyclers in the business,” said Robert Houghton, chief executive officer of Redemtech, an international electronics recycler based in Ohio. Houghton was speaking at a Sept. 17 press conference just hours before the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a damning report on U.S. recycling companies to a congressional subcommittee.

Posing as waste buyers from developing countries, GAO investigators made deals with U.S. recyclers, who were quite willing to circumvent the single U.S. regulation that restricts the export of one type of e- waste — cathode ray tubes. The regulation allows export of CRTs, but only with prior approval by the Environmental Protection Agency, the agency tasked with policing such exports, and the importing country.

According to the GAO report, out of 52 recyclers who responded to GAO’s make-believe offer, 43 were willing to illegally sell junk CRTs for export without seeking the necessary prior approval from EPA.

Adding insult to criminality, GAO says many of the scofflaw companies actively cultivated an environmentally responsible image on websites and in advertisements. At least three of them held Earth Day 2008 electronics recycling events to gather the e-waste they would dispose of illegally. For instance, a Colorado recycler whose CRTs wound up in China specifically derided the practice of exporting waste to developing regions in its advertisements. “Your e-waste is recycled properly, right here in the U.S., not simply dumped on somebody else,” the ads proclaimed.

The amount of waste is huge: EPA waste surveys find that Americans removed more than 300 million electronic devices from their homes in 2006. The equipment contains lead, mercury, copper, gold, cadmium, and other materials that have value if removed and resold but can be dangerous and labor-intensive to extract.

GAO’s report blasts EPA enforcement, as did members of the House of Representatives during a hearing before a subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs Committee on Sept. 17.

Lead’s Round trip Material salvaged in developing countries from U.S. electronic junk may be finding its way back into the U.S. A recent study in the journal Chemosphere finds evidence showing that recycled material is returning in the form of children’s jewelry (69, 2007, 1111).

Chemistry professor Jeff D. Weidenhamer of Ashland University, in Ohio, had his class analyze the makeup of children’s jewelry that was purchased at a local dollar store and that was made in China.

One analysis revealed a trinket to be 90% lead with about 5% antimony, he says, making it likely to be from lead in automobile batteries.

In another study, he found jewelry made from lead, tin, and small amounts of copper.

“The presence of a low percentage of copper was a clue that the jewelry could be derived from scrap that included recycled solder,” he says. “That is because copper from printed wiring boards dissolves when heated along with lead-tin solder. Electronic solders typically have very low copper.” FOR EXAMPLE, GAO says 26 shipping containers with used CRT monitors were blocked by Hong Kong port inspectors and shipped back to the U.S. because they violated Hong Kong import laws. However, GAO found that three of the containers were reshipped back to Hong Kong due to lax U.S. enforcement. Indeed, according to the report, the reputation of Hong Kong’s enforcement officials is so superior to that of EPA officials that one of the recyclers warned GAO’s fictitious buyers not to worry about U.S. laws, saying, “It’s the laws at [the port of Hong Kong] that you have to worry about.”

GAO found a thriving international market in trade of used electronics material, describing a buzz of shipments from industrial nations, primarily the U.S., to developing countries. Monitoring one Internet commerce site, GAO found 2,234 requests to purchase liquid-crystal display monitors and hundreds of requests for used computers. Over three months, GAO found that brokers in developing countries sought 7.5 million CRTs. More than 75% of the requests stipulated prices of under $10 per CRT and almost half were under $5.00, signaling to GAO that it was likely these CRTs would be unsafely pirated for their lead and glass and disposed of dangerously.

Its report, the investigators say, corroborated past claims by environmental groups of “crude and inefficient” disassembly methods using “open-air burning of wire to recover copper and open acid baths for separating metals, exposing people to lead and other hazardous materials.”

It doesn’t have to be this way, GAO says, pointing to Samsung Corning’s CRT recycling operation in Malaysia. Some 250 shipping containers totaling 4,000 tons of CRT glass leave the U.S. each month for the center where the glass is safely recycled, according to GAO.

Calling EPA “an accomplice rather than an enforcer,” Ted Smith, chair of the nonprofit Electronics TakeBack Coalition, urged Congress to pass legislation to quash the more common and hazardous recycling going on in developing countries. GAO’s report is the latest salvo in a long-running battle to control, if not ban, the export of e-waste to opportunists in developing countries who want to cheaply extract the potential raw material without having to worry about regulatory oversight (C&EN, Jan. 2, 2006, page 18).

In 2001, members of the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based nonprofit group, traveled to China. At one town, Guiyu, they found “a cyber-age horror show,” said Jim Puckett, BAN executive director, at the press conference. “We saw thousands of laborers — men, women, and children making a dollar a day smashing, cracking, melting, and cooking our old computers. The sheer volume coming in by truck each day was stunning. Whole villages made their living cooking printed circuit board and burning the tiny wires pulled out of computers to extract metals.”

Puckett said he returned this year and found little had changed. “If anything, the waste has grown, and it mostly still comes from the U.S.,” he said.

BAN’s report was backed up by studies published in the National Institute of Environmental Health Science journal Environmental Health Perspectives and recent surveys by the United Nations Environment Programme, the GAO report notes.

There is an international treaty on exports of hazardous materials, the Basel Convention, and it requires agreement from a receiving country before hazardous wastes can be exported. Since 1989, the treaty has been ratified by 170 countries but not the U.S., GAO says. The U.S.’s sole e-waste regulation went into effect in January 2007, due to concerns over lead in the CRTs’ glass.

SINCE THEN, the GAO report says, EPA has issued only one administrative penalty, and that was due to GAO’s investigation.

GAO wants EPA to broaden the electronic material covered by hazardous waste regulations and to develop basic components of a compliance strategy to enforce the CRT provisions. It also urges the agency to prepare a legislative package to bring to Congress and to encourage U.S. ratification of the Basel Convention.

In a written response to the report, EPA said it does not believe development of an e-waste regulatory program is appropriate. It also charges that GAO was overemphasizing the size of the problem and that only 15 to 20% of e-waste by weight is recycled, the rest winding up in a landfill.

Timothy Lyons, EPA deputy press secretary, tells C&EN that EPA now has 20 investigations under way, along with the penalty cited in the report. He stresses, however, that EPA’s role is best served in educating the regulated community and the public. He would not comment on the status of the 20 investigations, saying they are ongoing.

Congress is preparing to fill this regulatory void, according to Reps. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) and Gene Green (D-Texas). They promised to begin meeting next year with the electronics industry, recyclers, and environmental groups to draw up comprehensive e-waste legislation.

Sony is among a handful of electronics manufacturers that are establishing a national system to collect and recycle old electronic products, said Mark Small, Sony Electronics vice president for environment, safety, and health. “We don’t allow recyclers to export to developing countries,” he explained. “We do our own audits, but we need the help of the federal government. We can’t have a system in which 50 states and untold numbers of cities pass an array of recycling regulations. This makes it almost impossible for us to carry out our program.”

Redemtech’s Houghton noted his firm recycles products for corporate clients in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. He describes a thorough tracking system that fully accounts for every item Redemtech receives.

Most recyclers, Houghton said, operate under a ” ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ type of relationship and are all too happy to agree on paper to behave responsibly. But the vast majority of people in my industry turn around and choose to export e-waste for the economic advantages that it offers.

“Recyclers that cheat know they are very unlikely to get caught, and corporate customers who suspect their recycling vendors are guilty don’t worry about it because there is very little risk there will be public disclosure that could damage their brand,” Houghton continued.

“Corporate clients enjoy a lower price to handle their recycling needs when they work with these exporters,” Houghton said. “Right now, there is no downside. We have to replace this with a system that requires audits and enforcement of regulations.”

Copyright 2008 American Chemical Society


From: Courier-Post (Cherry Hill, N.J.) ……………….[This story printer-friendly]
September 26, 2008


[Rachel’s introduction: Tubes, capsules and pellets of used radioactive material are piling up in the basements and locked closets of hospitals and research installations around the country, stoking fears they could get lost or, worse, stolen by terrorists and turned into dirty bombs.]

By Seanna Adcox, Associated Press

Barnwell, S.C. — Tubes, capsules and pellets of used radioactive material are piling up in the basements and locked closets of hospitals and research installations around the country, stoking fears they could get lost or, worse, stolen by terrorists and turned into dirty bombs.

For years, truckloads of low-level nuclear waste from most of the U.S. were taken to a rural South Carolina landfill. There, items such as the rice-size radioactive seeds for treating cancer and pencil-thin nuclear tubes used in industrial gauges were sealed in concrete and buried.

But a South Carolina law that took effect July 1 ended nearly all disposal of radioactive material at the landfill, leaving 36 states with no place to throw out some of the stuff. So labs, universities, hospitals and manufacturers are storing more and more of it on their own property.

“Instead of safely secured in one place, it’s stored in thousands of places in urban locations all over the United States,” said Rick Jacobi, a nuclear waste consultant and former head of a Texas agency that unsuccessfully tried to create a disposal site for that state.

State and federal authorities say the waste is being monitored, but they acknowledge that it is difficult to track and inspected as little as once every five years. Government documents and dozens of Associated Press interviews with nuclear waste generators, experts, watchdogs and officials show that thousands of these small radioactive items have already been lost, and that worries are growing.

“They’ll end up offered up on eBay and flea markets and sent to landfills, or metal recycling plants — places where you don’t want them to be,” said Stephen Browne, radiation control officer at Troxler Electronic Laboratories, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of industrial gauges that use radioactive material.

There are millions of radioactive devices in use for which there is no long-term disposal plan. These include tiny capsules of radioactive cesium isotopes implanted to kill cancerous cells; cobalt-60 pellets that power helmet-like machines used to focus radioactive beams on diseased brain tissue; and cobalt and powdered cesium inside irradiation machines that sterilize medical equipment and blood.

Most medical waste can simply be stored until its radioactivity subsides within a few years, then safely thrown out with the regular trash. Some institutions store their radioactive material in lead- lined safes, behind doors fitted with alarms and covered with yellow- and-black radiation warning signs.

Over the past decade, however, 4,363 radioactive sources have been lost, stolen or abandoned, according to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission report released in February. Though none of the material lost was rated “extremely dangerous” — meaning unshielded, up-close exposure can cause permanent injury within a few minutes and death within an hour — more than half the radioactive items were never recovered, the NRC said.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, owners of dangerous amounts of radioactivity have been told by the government to take greater precautions, such as having 24-hour surveillance, erecting barriers and fingerprinting employees, regardless of whether the devices are in use or stored as waste.

Yet in 2003, the federal Government Accountability Office reported there wasn’t even a record of how many radioactive sources existed nationwide. In June, the GAO concluded that while there has been progress, more must be done to track radioactive material to prevent it from falling into terrorists’ hands and ending up in a dirty bomb, or one that uses conventional explosives to scatter radiation.

“I don’t think we’re yet in crisis, but certainly there’s information out there to suggest we may be closer to that than is comfortable for me,” said Gregory Jaczko, a commissioner with the NRC, one of the agencies charged with tracking the material.

In 1987, four people died and hundreds fell ill after looters in Brazil found a cancer-therapy machine in an abandoned medical clinic and sold it as scrap metal. More recently, 19 small vials of cesium-137, implanted for cervical cancer treatments, disappeared in 1998 from a locked safe at Moses Cone Memorial Hospital in Greensboro, N.C. The tubes were never found and were believed stolen.

A terrorist would need to gather far more of those vitamin-sized capsules to create a dirty bomb capable of killing anyone within one city block, said Kelly Classic, a health physicist at Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

For decades, the government urged states to build low-level nuclear waste landfills, either on their own or in cooperation with nearby states. But those efforts have run into strong not-in-my-backyard resistance of the sort that led South Carolina lawmakers to close the Barnwell County landfill to all but three states. Only one low-level landfill, in Utah, has opened in the past 30 years. One more could open in Texas by the end of next year, but it would accept trash from only Vermont and the Lone Star State.

The government never set up penalties for states that failed to build landfills.

“Congress should have gotten involved a long time ago,” said Richard Gallego, vice president of Thomas Gray and Associates Inc., a California company that prepares low-level waste for disposal.

Rich Janati, chief of nuclear safety for Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, said: “It’s a national issue, and we should look at it as a national problem and come up with a solution.”

The government this week did move to shore up security by requiring hospitals and labs to better secure machines used to irradiate blood. Also, dirty-bomb fears have prompted the National Research Council to urge replacing the roughly 1,300 such machines in the U.S. with less hazardous but more expensive equipment.


From: Baltimore Sun ………………………………..[This story printer-friendly]
September 28, 2008


[Rachel’s introduction: In the 25 years since Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia signed a historic agreement to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, the three states and the federal government have spent several billion dollars on the effort. Yet, the bay in many respects is as bad as or worse than when they started.]

By Rona Kobell

Walter Boynton knows all there is to know about the Patuxent River – how to find its guts and marshes, where it shifts from suburban stream into bay-like vastness, when the tide is slack and when it rises.

But you don’t need to be a University of Maryland biologist to see that the river is in trouble. As Boynton steers his boat underneath the Route 231 bridge near this Charles County town, a thin white film covers the water — part of a miles-long algae bloom.

He lifts a dredge from the water to examine a sample of the bottom. His crew recoils at the stench, like that of rotten eggs. Nothing is living in this muck — none of the small clams, crabs or oysters that used to make the river their home. It is the deadest part of a dead zone, with oxygen levels far below what’s needed to sustain life.

“Frankly, in all my years, I don’t ever remember seeing the oxygen that low here,” said Boynton, 61, a researcher at the university’s Center for Environmental Science. Nitrogen pollution is feeding the noxious algae, which suck oxygen from the water and suffocate creatures below.

In the 25 years since Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia signed a historic agreement to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, the three states and the federal government have spent several billion dollars on the effort. Yet, the bay in many respects is as bad as or worse than when they started. Maryland researchers give its water quality a score of 40 out of 100 — a far poorer grade than the 55 it got for 1986.

The degradation of Maryland’s rivers is a main reason for this decline. In Anne Arundel County, bacteria and nitrogen from human waste pour into the Severn River from thousands of septic tanks. In Southern Maryland, development now lines the shores of the Patuxent, sending nitrogen-laden runoff into the river. On the Eastern Shore, fertilizer from farms continues its assault on the Choptank.

Maryland’s leaders have long blamed other states for the Chesapeake’s problems. They point out that much of the bay’s pollution flows in from the Susquehanna River, largely from Pennsylvania farms. Another source is the Potomac, which meanders through Virginia, West Virginia and Washington.

But several of the bay’s most impaired rivers are almost entirely within Maryland. And the blame for their precarious health, scientists say, rests squarely on the shoulders of state and local politicians who have allowed harmful land-use practices to flourish.

“I’m not worried about the pace of the cleanup. I’m worried that we’re not even moving in the right direction,” said William Dennison, a vice president at the Center for Environmental Science.

In 1985, the Patuxent was taking on about 14,000 pounds of sediment. By 2006, that figure had shot up to nearly 40,000 pounds, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The nitrogen flowing into the Choptank totaled about 200,000 pounds in 1985. In 2006, the river had more than twice that amount.

The Severn and its sister rivers in Anne Arundel have fared no better. University of Maryland researchers estimate their water clarity would have scored 38 out of 100 in 1986. Twenty years later, that grade dropped to a 23.

The impact of this pollution is not simply a matter of environmental righteousness, a sense that residents of the watershed must save the bay because it’s the right thing to do. A bay on the brink is a bay where people cannot swim, where boaters won’t sail, where no one wants to catch the few fish still alive.

Already in the Chesapeake, watermen are pulling up pots of dead crabs from fouled water. Many kinds of fish, such as yellow perch, are largely gone from the rivers where they once spawned. Nearly every major species that once made the bay a great protein factory has dwindled — costing the region at least $135 million in lost catch alone, according to University of Maryland economist Doug Lipton.

It is clear, scientists say, what steps should be taken to improve the bay’s health. But the proposals rarely get serious consideration in Annapolis.

Environmentalists have pushed for limits on how and where new houses can be built, but home-builder groups and local governments are loath to give up control. Some lawmakers pushed for mandatory limits on farm pollution, but lobbyists and rural legislators gutted the bill. And a measure to require nitrogen-removal technology for new septic systems was dead on arrival in the Capitol.

Some in Annapolis say government is doing what it can to protect the Chesapeake. “We all treasure the bay. We all want to do the best we can to stop its deterioration. But it’s difficult because all of these things cost money,” said Jim Peck, director of research at the Maryland Municipal League.

Gov. Martin O’Malley argues that realistically, measures to stem pollution require consensus-building and compromise, that change takes time and is accomplished in stages that span administrations.

“It’s like building a cathedral,” O’Malley said in an interview, citing as part of the work several measures he has pushed. “Each of us tries to build our piece of this activity.”

But Gerald Winegrad, a former state senator who has pushed for pollution-control reforms, argues that state officials have roundly failed to take forceful action to rescue the bay. “We haven’t done the bold things yet,” Winegrad said. “How bad does it have to get before we get bold?”

The Severn: septic tanks

Valerie Washington comes to Bonaparte Beach every week looking for litter, pet droppings, pools of muddy runoff — anything that could influence how much bacteria is reaching the Severn River.

Gingerly, she lowers a small glass jar into the river, fills it with greenish-brown water and quickly closes the lid.

The flight-attendant-turned-biology-student will repeat this procedure at different beaches about a dozen times before noon — when the samples must be in a closet-sized lab at Anne Arundel Community College.

There, microbiologist Sally Hornor will analyze the bacteria counts and post the results on the Web. And thousands of people who live along the Severn will know whether it’s safe to swim in the river.

Two days after a summer rain, the answer is a definite no. At Bonaparte Beach, the level of enterococci bacteria — sickening germs typically found in human waste — is nearly twice the amount that Anne Arundel County has declared safe. At Riverside Drive Beach, the count is three times higher than the safe threshold.

These bacteria have made the Severn — a bucolic river that was the soul of summer for a generation of Marylanders — off-limits to swimmers during certain times of the year. But they are not the only force hurting the river.

Enterococci is a close cousin of nitrogen, the bay’s major polluter. Both are excreted in human waste — which flows into the Severn through the thousands of septic tanks along its banks.

In Anne Arundel County, more than 40,000 homes rely on septics, a waste management method nearly as primitive as the outhouse. The number is higher than in any other county in the state. And nearly a third of Anne Arundel’s septics are along the Severn.

“We’ve been dumping our waste for years in this water,” said Thomas H. Miller, a regional director for the University of Maryland’s Cooperative Extension Service. “Our hair should be up on our back, and we should be looking at this.”

In some parts of the state, septics have become a major source of water pollution. Overall, they account for only about 5 percent of the nitrogen in the Chesapeake, far less than what comes from farms and development.

But in once-rural areas such as Crownsville and Severna Park, septics are a big part of the story. They deliver more than a quarter of the nitrogen entering the Severn.

The problem isn’t the flushed solids. They remain in a holding tank. But the wastewater does not. It flows — untreated — into a drain field, where it is absorbed into the groundwater and then seeps into the river. One gallon of septic waste delivers about 15 times as much nitrogen to a river as a gallon of treated sewage.

The reliance on septics along the Severn stems from the area’s history as a resort community. As recently as 30 years ago, families from Baltimore and Washington summered at riverside cottages, crabbing and swimming. But when Route 97 shortened the drive, the area became a suburb. The cottages came down. In their place, newcomers put up fancy homes to live in year-round.

“The new people built a huge new house,” Hornor said, “but they kept the septic system.”

As whole new developments were built, they too had to rely on septics, because sewer service was never extended to them.

Anne Arundel officials didn’t know how many septic systems the county had, or where they were, until about three years ago, when they began charging homeowners $2.50 a month under the state’s new flush tax.

What they found, said county public works director Ronald Bowen, was “a real eye-opener.” Officials counted more than 40,000 septics. Countywide, those systems delivered an estimated 881,000 pounds of nitrogen to waterways in 2005 — compared to 747,865 pounds from treatment plants.

Bowen is convinced that all septics, whether they work properly or not, ultimately fail the rivers. He wants to extend sewage service to neighborhoods that rely on septic systems. But the county can’t force existing communities to accept the service.

“We’re not in a position right now to go to a community and tell them, ‘We’re going to make you pay. We’re going to make you connect,'” Bowen said.

“But now that we have a better understanding, I think we should be looking more closely at all of our new growth. We need to recognize that, if we’re going to approve new communities on septics, at the very least, they should be nitrogen-removing systems.”

The Maryland Department of the Environment will cover the roughly $10,000 cost of adding a nitrogen-removal device to septic systems, with priority given to waterfront homes. That technology would cut the pollution in half. There is funding for 600 upgrades a year. Out of 420,000 septic systems throughout the state, just 230 homeowners have used the program.

In 1999, Miller and others pushed a bill that would have required the de-nitrification systems for septics serving new homes. The measure failed amid opposition from builders and Realtors, who argued it would add too much to the cost of a new home. Since then, more than 70,000 new septic tanks have been installed in the state.

MDE officials say they don’t plan to seek such legislation again. “It’s our hope that there are plenty of people out there who want to do this voluntarily,” said water management director Jay Sakai.

Frederick Kelly, who patrols the Severn as its “riverkeeper,” believes the county and the state need to take a hard look at the septic problem. And he says that’s not the only area where government is falling down on the job.

Waterfront construction continues unabated along the Severn, allowing sediment to wash into the river despite laws designed to guard against such pollution. Like algae, the chocolate-brown dirt blocks the light that bay grasses need and ultimately kills marine life.

“They’re selling these houses for $1 million, and they’re destroying the very attribute that makes them desirable,” Kelly said. “The people will move here, and they’ll realize there are no fish, no life.”

The Choptank: farms

Tom Simpson steers his Chevrolet Suburban over the Kent Narrows bridge, then heads north of the U.S. 50-Route 301 split. Within a few miles, all trace of waterfront is gone, all the condos and golf courses left behind.

This is not the Eastern Shore the tourists come to see, with lighthouses and boutiques. This is Chicken Country, with long squat houses filled with thousands of growing birds behind waves of wheat.

Here, corn fields sit on one side of the winding lanes, green peas poke out of the soil on the other. It’s a miniature Iowa, transplanted whole onto a ragged peninsula just a two-hour drive from Washington and Baltimore.

Simpson, who recently retired from the University of Maryland’s agriculture college, has spent a lifetime wending his way through these lands. From his window, it’s hard to believe something so lovely could be so destructive.

Yet, agriculture remains the single largest source of bay pollution.

When it rains, nitrogen and phosphorus — two of the main ingredients in both store-bought fertilizer and chicken manure — run off the fields and into creeks. Some of that pollution will reach the Chesapeake via the Choptank River, a 68-mile tributary that twists through Queen Anne’s, Talbot, Caroline and Dorchester counties.

More of that pollution is reaching the Choptank now than when the bay cleanup started. Since 1985, the nitrogen flowing into the Choptank has doubled. Phosphorus and sediments have nearly tripled, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, which monitors the river near Greensboro.

Some of that can be attributed to all the new pavement and sewage treatment plants that have come with the Delmarva Peninsula’s growth. But much of it still comes from farms.

“The farmers are shooting for the best yield they can get, and in the process, they leak nitrogen,” Simpson said. “It’s frustrating to me, because these are good people. But they’re dealing with the expectation of the market.”

Unlike septic tanks, farm pollution has been the subject of much discussion in Annapolis over the years. But no one seems eager to regulate farmers, who are seen as salt-of-the-earth good guys. Aesthetically, many people would rather see a farm by the side of the road than the townhouses that could come if the owner sold the land. The O’Malley administration has proposed new rules to govern the storage and handling of manure by Maryland’s largest chicken growers, but the regulations would not affect most farmers who use manure as fertilizer.

“You can take chicken manure and agricultural waste and drop it with impunity,” said Winegrad, the former state senator.

The problem is that farming and conservation are fundamentally at odds. Farmers want to plant — and thus fertilize — every acre of land because that is how they make money. The bay is better served if they leave some fallow, particularly near water.

Government programs have tried to close the gap by paying farmers to plant buffers and cover crops to soak up excess fertilizer. But often, the funds aren’t enough, said Jeffrey Lape, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, the federal-state agency overseeing bay cleanup.

“It’s tough to walk out to a farmer struggling to get by and say, ‘You know, I think you need a bigger buffer,'” Lape said. “He’ll look at me and say, ‘You have just killed my profit margin.'”

Maryland’s approach has been to urge farmers to voluntarily use conservation practices and, as an incentive, to pay them for taking certain steps. The successes — and limits — of this approach are evident on John Hammer’s 362-acre farm in Greensboro.

From a scientist’s perspective, Hammer is doing a lot right. He doesn’t till his soil. He’s planted a grass strip between his chicken houses to absorb runoff, as well as a tree buffer to protect the river. He pays a consultant to help write a “nutrient management plan” to calibrate just how much fertilizer he will need. He says he follows the plan to the letter.

Despite the care he takes, Hammer, like many farmers these days, is depending more on chicken manure to fertilize his beans and corn. He gets the manure for free from the chickens he raises, making it far cheaper than buying fertilizer.

Manure has a hidden cost, however. It is loaded with phosphorus, a chemical that has proved toxic to bay life. To get the nitrogen they need from the manure, farmers end up applying more phosphorus than the soil can ever absorb.

Less pollution would run off Hammer’s fields if he planted cover crops – crops intended solely for the purpose of absorbing nutrients left in a field after the cash crop is harvested. But Hammer says he needs to keep his fields planted with a fertilized cash crop, green beans. A state program would reimburse him for part of the cost of planting cover; it would not compensate for lost profit.

This year, the state will pay farmers $18 million to plant cover crops – more than three times what it spent two years ago. The extra money is meant both to reach more farmers and to pay them more.

Some environmental groups say more money is not enough. They say the state needs a tough new law on nutrient management plans, enforced by the Maryland Department of the Environment instead of the farm- friendly agriculture department, to force farmers to limit fertilizer use. Environmental inspectors could visit a farm, test the soil, and determine if a farmer was applying more phosphorus than his plan dictated. That way, they could force a farmer to get in compliance and issue stiff fines if he didn’t.

But farmers, who often teeter on the edge of profitability, say they need flexibility to manage their land. Many have threatened to sell to developers if tough new mandates come to pass.

Winegrad, at least, is willing to take that chance.

“I have challenged people to show me a major achievement in the history of the United States through a voluntary program,” Winegrad said, “and no one has ever found one.”

The Patuxent: growth For a time, the Patuxent River looked like it would be the bay cleanup movement’s success story — a river rescued from certain death by a band of Southern Maryland activists.

Three decades ago, they sued to force the state and federal governments to stop allowing pollution to be dumped into their river by sewage plants serving Baltimore and Washington. Eventually, the plants were fixed — and the Patuxent rebounded. Bay grasses were so plentiful that children pulled them up to make wigs. When the locust blooms came in spring, the crabs ran once again.

Bernie Fowler couldn’t believe it. The genteel fellow who made his living renting out rowboats on tiny Broomes Island was witnessing the rebirth he had dreamed about. “I was just so happy, I was jumping up and down for joy,” said Fowler, now 84, who as a county commissioner helped lead the lawsuit. “I figured we had turned the corner.”

Today, the Patuxent is tied with the Severn and other Anne Arundel rivers for the most polluted in the Chesapeake Bay. Algae blooms, like the one Boynton found near the Route 231 bridge, are common. Large portions of the river are a muddy brown, the result of sediments pouring in from development. Even in rural parts, there are no grasses left and hardly any crabs.

The river is dying. And this time, Patuxent activists can’t blame the urban counties upstream. Southern Maryland has become part of the problem.

Tens of thousands of people have moved to Calvert County alone. Its miles of beautiful shoreline have become home for people like Burt Lahn, a career Coast Guard employee who rises at 4 a.m. each day to catch a bus to Washington. The former Howard County resident says his three-hour commute is worth it. “This is the paradise I was looking for,” said Lahn, who lives in one of Broomes Island’s new homes.

Lahn’s neighbor, Bruce Pitt, bought a lot on a one-time strawberry field when his family outgrew their house in Virginia. The IT consultant says he likes being within driving distance of the Washington area, where he has many clients.

“The people are nice down here,” he said. “I’ve got six kids, and this is a great place for them.”

Thirty years ago, Calvert County had 20,000 residents. Today, it has nearly five times as many. Traffic has tripled on Route 4, the county’s spine. Residents are not only driving to Washington. Many go south to the Patuxent Naval Air Station, which now employs more than 17,000 people.

The problem isn’t just that the county grew, but how it grew. In the 1980s, Calvert zoning rules limited builders to one house per 5 acres in rural areas. Contractors rushed to carve up farms and forests into developments that — because of the big lots — destroyed huge swaths of open space.

“The way they were building, they were consuming a tremendous amount of land,” said Karen Edgecombe of the Chestnut Trails Land Trust, a local land conservation group.

Along the water, new residents sheared away trees to build mansions, piers and decks — violating the spirit, if not the letter, of Maryland’s 1984 Critical Area Law. The law does not prohibit building along the shoreline, but it does limit how close to the water and how much of a footprint a house can have.

Calvert County now has dozens of shopping centers, too, filled with Chinese restaurants and Curves gyms. They have risen from the forests where Fowler and his friends used to hunt for quail, and the river is the poorer for it.

The forest acted as a sponge to absorb nitrogen. The newly paved surfaces are more like a chute, carrying what runs off the land into waterways. Rain picks up fertilizer from lawns, as well as nitrogen from exhaust pipes and deposits it into the Patuxent and, later, the bay.

During the past couple of years, Calvert County officials decided they needed to slow the onslaught. They have changed rural zoning to one house per 20 acres — a standard so stringent officials say they hope it will channel development to town centers, as Smart Growth principles suggest.

Calvert is the only Maryland county to announce that it will cap growth, allowing no more than 37,000 homes to be built. With just fewer than 31,000 now, planning director Gregory Bowen expects to approach the cap by 2030.

Bowen cautions that the policies will lead to change only over time. New laws “don’t affect the development you see today. They affect the development you see some time from now,” he said.

Patuxent activist Jennifer Bevan-Dangel said the early sprawl persuaded Calvert residents that they needed growth controls. Though developers dislike the cap, she applauds it.

“Everyone’s watching Calvert County and wondering, ‘Will this work?'” she said.

The rest of the area, she said, hasn’t followed suit. Sprawl continues to spread in St. Mary’s and Charles counties.

Even if Calvert’s new policies help the river, old-timers know they can never bring back the ambience of villages like Broomes Island – places where everyone knew each other by the sound of their boat motors.

From his porch, Hezekiah “Duck” Elliott can still see the locust blossoms in the spring. They no longer signal that the crabs are running; even if they did, hardly any watermen are left to notice. Elliott, 81, works only part time. Most others have long since retired.

He is doubtful that decades of damage can be undone. “If you get the grasses back, you’ll get the crabs back, and the minnows back,” Elliott said. “But how are you going to get anything back?”

The bay: ‘bad water’

All that pollution from Maryland’s rivers eventually makes its way to the Chesapeake. Pat Norris knows that all too well. This summer, the veteran waterman steered his workboat to a spot off Point Lookout, near Maryland’s southern tip, where he had set his crab pots. He pulled them up to find they were filled with dead crabs.

Norris has worked the bay for nearly 20 years, and he has long known about “bad water” — oxygen-deprived swaths where little can live. But this was the first week in July. He had never seen bad water so early, or in so many places.

“It’s disheartening,” he said, “to say the least.”

During the past 25 years, several billion dollars in state and federal funds have gone to bay cleanup programs. A large chunk of that – including money from Maryland’s landmark flush tax — has paid for improvements to sewage treatment plants. Other money has gone to farmers to plant cover crops and conserve land.

Environmental experts say those steps have helped to hold the line – that the bay would be in even worse shape without them. But it has not gotten better.

Population growth is bringing increased pavement to the landscape, as well as increased loads to treatment plants. Treated wastewater is cleaner than it was a decade ago, but there’s more of it. Farms remain the bay’s single biggest polluter.

No one is suggesting that governments halt development or outlaw farming. But many environmentalists say that officials in the six- state watershed — especially Maryland — could do much more to stop pollution from development and farms, not just pay to clean it up.

“Every politician will say, ‘I’m for the Chesapeake Bay.’ But when it comes time to vote, they won’t protect it,” said Kelly, the Severn riverkeeper. “It’s just not a high enough priority. There’s no political will.”

Copyright 2008, The Baltimore Sun


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