Category Archives: Barnard College

So, how do I comment on the SGEIS?

Courtesy: New York Department of Environmental Protection

Some simple tips on how to have your voice heard during the hydrofracking debate

While the comment period on the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) and draft fracking regulations, ends on Dec. 12, there is still time to comment and have your voice heard.

In order to become informed about the issues, download the following two documents provided by Riverkeeper:

Fact Sheet on DEC Fracking Proposal

New York’s Rush to Frack Presentation

If you feel that you cannot make a comment on the SGEIS or the draft fracking regulations, there is still the opportunity to attend a public hearing on fracking. While there are only two more hearings left, these hearings are a great way to learn more about the issues and voice your opinion.

Here is a list of the upcoming hearings:

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is required to read all of the comments they receive, you’re allowed to comment more than once but most comment before Dec. 12. While these two documents are extremely lengthy, environmental organizations that have read over both documents, such as Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club, have filed detailed comments. For guidelines on what to comment on, here is a document that details the top ten problems with fracking: ‘Top 10’ flaws with the fracking environmental impact statement.

According to Riverkeeper’s website this is how to submit comments:

How to submit comments:
Type out your comments. Whether you submit your comments online or send them in the mail, it will be easier if you type them ahead of time. (The DEC does not accept comments by phone, fax or email.)

Mail your comments to Attn: dSGEIS Comments, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, 625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233-6510. Include your name, address, and affiliation (if any).

Submit your comments online: If you prefer to comment online, visithttp://www.dec.ny.gov/energy/76838.html.

Looking at the DEC’s comment page, you’ll see that there are three proposals to comment on. The most important proposal to comment on is the revised draft environmental impact statement (called “2001 rdSGEIS”). You can also comment on the proposed regulations which are called, “Proposed HVHF Regulations.”

Hydrofracking in West Virginia

West Virginians upset about fracking on their farms

Image Courtesy: National Geographic, "Looking at Lives Affected by 'Fracking'"

In a Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) video, titled “Battle for Wetzel County,” two West Virginians explain why their believe it is unfair for large gas companies (such as Shell, Exxon, and Chesapeake Energy) to have mineral rights on their land. The only compensation these farm owners have is that gas companies must pay them for “damages.” These farm owners are outraged because not only are they losing valuable land, but they also claim they are exposed to dangerous chemicals that have contaminated their water supply. Furthermore, one farm owner believes that toxic waste was buried on his property. Even though hydrofracking is an impressive technology, it interrupts farmers not only during the extraction process,  but also with the equipment that remain on the “pad” (the site where the natural gas is extracted).

There is currently legislation in West Virginia to address the problems associated with hydrofracking, yet according to several sources, the legislation insufficiently addresses the problems associated with drilling. Last Wednesday, Nov. 16, a special House-Senate committee endorsed proposed drilling rules in the Marcellus Shale, but a top aide to West Virginia’s Governor Earl Ray Tomblin’s office says the bill isn’t ready for special session. Chief of Staff Rob Alsop told Business Week that his staff will work over the next few weeks with legislative leaders and stakeholders “to see what they’re comfortable with, and see what we’re comfortable work.” According to Alsop there are some issues that need to be worked out before the bill is presented during a special session.

Some of these issues include, the amount of leeway that is granted to the Department of Environmental Protection, the overseer of gas drilling. Advocating greater flexibility for DEP, industry groups have similar concerns. Surface owner and environmental groups, believe that there needs to be strong and detailed regulatory language in the books.

From Dec. 12-14 there will be a series of study meetings on the subject, during which time Governor Tomblin believes is a good time to convene a special session, if prior meetings can create a bill that could pass.

The draft of the bill includes many subjects which emerged from efforts to develop the natural gas reserve through hydrofracking, a controversial process which can potentially contaminate water supplies. Included in the bill are increased permit fees, which will fund more field inspectors and office staff; agreements between operators and surface property owners of drilling sites; lastly, buffer zones that would separate shale wells  from homes, livestock and drinking water. The bill would also allow the Department of Environmental Protection to hire their own inspectors.

For more information here is a report directly from the West Virginia Legislature.

What goes in to the fracking fluid?

Image Courtesy Halliburton

Halliburton executive becomes the first person to drink fracking fluid.

According to many news sources, in Aug. a Halliburton executive drank fracking fluid at a keynote speech at conference presented by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. Halliburton’s CEO Dave Lesar, raised a glass of fracking fluid, made from materials from the food industry, he then asked a fellow executive to show how safe the fluid was by drinking it. What this executive apparently drank is a fluid called CleanStim, which was created by Halliburton this past year.

According to Halliburton’s website, CleanStim includes an enzyme, exthoxylated sugar-based fatty acid ester, inorganic acid, inorganic salt, maltodextrin, organic acid, organic ester, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, polysaccharide polymer, and sulfonated alochol… yes these are big words. The table below better explains what each of these chemicals are, and puts them in terms we can all understand.

Image Courtesy Halliburton

In keeping with their mission to make fracking fluid more environmentally friendly, Halliburton did in fact choose common household ingredients, which seem fairly harmless. The catch is that this is not in fact the case. As a Scientific American article titled “What’s in This Fracking Water?”, points out “the CleanStim fluid system should not be considered edible.”

While Halliburton has given a general list of what’s included in fracking fluid, a study on the Department of Energy’s (DOE) website has a more comprehensive list of chemicals included in fracking fluid. These chemicals include: a friction reducer (KCl or petroleum distillate), a biocide (glutaraldehyde), an oxygen scavenger (ammonium bisulfide) or stabilizer (N,n-dimethyl formamide), to prevent corrosion of metal pipes, a surfactant, a scale inhibitor (ethylene glycol), HCl acid to remove drilling-mud damage near the borehole, a breaker (sodium chloride, a little salt never hurts), a gel (guar gum or hydroxyethyl cellulose), and an iron controller (2-hydroxy 1, 2, 3-propanetricaboxylic acid). These chemicals are harmful to humans, so it is good that gas companies are trying to make fracking fluid with better chemicals.

The most comprehensive list though, is in a report issue in April by the Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The report describes 750 chemicals that are used by 14 leading oil and gas service companies. According to the committee though, the report is incomplete because: “in many instances, the oil and gas service companies were unable to provide the Committee with a complete chemical makeup of the hydraulic fracturing fluids they used … [in] 279 products that contained at least one chemical or component that the manufacturers deemed proprietary or a trade secret.”

While it has been a practice to keep the contents of the fracking fluid a secret, things are slowly changing. Wyoming, Michigan, Texas, Pennsylvania and Arkansas have fracking-fluid disclosure rule. Other states, as well as Congress have proposed rules that are waiting for legislative action. More companies are also disclosing information about their fracking fluid. This website, created by the industry allows users to search for a particular well in a given country or state. While things are moving in the right direction, until the industry can do away with dangerous chemicals, hydrofracking will continue to present serious environmental problems.

Building a Better Future

As the 7 billionth person was born this week (or so we think), our planet continues moving closer to the point where it will no longer be able to sustain us. We are running out of room and resources. Pollution is causing global warming and freak snow storms. One way to address these issues is to change our interaction with our environment quite literally, through biomimetic architecture.

Mick Pearce

Pearce was born in Harare, Zimbabwe. In 2003 he was awarded the Prince Claus Award for his work in creating sustainable and low-energy buildings. One of his most famous buildings is Eastgate Centre, a shopping center in Zimbabwe that utilizes a cooling system inspired by a termite mound.

A Termite Mound; CCizauskas/Flickr Creative Commons

Termites in Zimbabwe farm their own food. The fungus that they grow can only survive at a temperature between 86.0 and 89.6° F, but the temperatures in Zimbabwe can fluctuate between 37.4 °F and 107.6 °F degrees every day. Over time, termites have developed a remarkable passive cooling system that maintains the temperature right around 87 °F with very few fluctuations. The termites build a system of heating and cooling vents to funnel air through the mound effectively allowing air currents to act as air conditioning.

Eastgate Centre, Harare Zimbabwe; GBembridge/Flickr Creative Commons

Pearce, inspired by this system, decided to apply it to the complex he was designing in order to save costs. During the heat of the day, the material of the building itself absorbs the heat from the sun, machines, and people allowing the temperature inside to only increase minutely. As the day cools, the warm air rises and is vented out through the top of the building (this movement is assisted by fans though it does happen naturally). At night, the cool breezes are “caught” at the base of the building (through spaces in the floor) until the building has reached the ideal temperature to begin the next day. Thus, the building mimics the termite mound’s natural air conditioning.

Because of Mick Pearce’s innovations, the Eastgate Centre uses 10% less energy than a comparable building and the owners have saved over $3.5 million just because an air conditioning plant did not have to be imported. This allows them to rent space to tenants for 20 percent less than in a neighboring building that is newer.

Michael Pawlyn and Magnus Larsson

There are too many biomimetic architects to mention them all, but both Michael Pawlyn and Magnus Larsson have fascinating TED talks that express how important it is for architects to look at the world around them for inspiration.

Pawlyn was one of the architects that designed the Eden Project in Cornwall, UK. These domes, which are in effect large greenhouses whose elaborate structures are inspired by nature, have completely transformed horticultural architecture. He has strong beliefs that if architects look at how in nature processes are efficient with their resources, utilize closed loops, and gain energy from the sun a better, more sustainable world can be built.

Larsson works with sand. Desertification is a major problem in today’s society, but Larsson is trying to look at this problem as an opportunity. He is working on using a bacteria, bacillus pasteurii, to turn sand into a solid building material. Not only would this provide more support to plants, but it could also potentially allow for living spaces to be carved into sand dunes. This would be in stark contrast to life in the desert today where people are often evacuated due to sand dune movement. This project is also cost efficient. As Larsson notes in his TED talk “for a cubic meter of concrete we would have to pay in the region of 90 dollars. And, after an initial cost of 60 bucks to buy the bacteria, which you’ll never have to pay again, one cubic meter of bacterial sand would be about 11 dollars.” (7:37-7:53) Larsson is embracing sand as a new building material and using bacteria as an inspiration for a better future.

Remember Context

Pearce, Pawlyn and Larsson are all architects who bring nature into their work on a grand scale, but architecture is an art form that is always taking into account its surroundings. Todd Rouhe, cofounder of common room and a professor of architecture at Barnard College, points out that in architecture, “context…is one of the most important things…Environment is everything, whether or not it’s even environmental. And I think that one thing that architects can do to acknowledge the environment…is to pay attention to that context and respond to it…That response can heighten the…sense of the environment.” Just as architects must keep in mind context, both natural and urban, when designing projects, so too must people remember our world and our surroundings as we build and grow.

Ultimately, regardless of scale, biomimetic architecture is a crucial way to continue working towards a sustainable future where nature is more than just an inspiration, but also a lifestyle.

Polls on Hydrofracking in New York Released

New York State residents express their opinions on this controversial issue

Image courtesy: http://freethegreenmonster.com/environment/sign-stop-fracking-karoo-petition

New York State residents are divided on whether they approve of hydrofracking in the Catskills region.  According to a Sept. 21, Quinnipiac University Poll, “New York State voters support by a thin 45 – 41 percent margin drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale because they think economic benefits outweigh the environmental concerns.” Voters in upstate New York City, however, are divided on the issue with 47 percent opposed because they are more worried about the environment and 43 percent support hydrofracking.

While this poll was conducted by an independent organization, some polls are more biased.  In areas where hydrofracking is most likely to occur, there is an opposition of about two-thirds or more to horizontal hydraulic fracturing, due to the injection of chemicals and massive amounts of water into shale to extract natural gas. An Oct. 20, Pulse Opinion Research poll, shows that 72% of Delaware County residents and 69% of Sullivan County residents are against hydrofracking in their town.

In a New York Times blog post, “The Fracking Divide: Who Will Prevail in N.Y.?,” Ken Jaffe of Slope Farms Beef of Meredith, NY, commented on the Pulse Opinion Research poll saying, “The story is the overwhelming local opposition, and the plan of the governor to ally with the gas companies to act against local voters and their governments, and attempt to eviscerate local land use regulation that is guaranteed by the N.Y. State Constitution.”

By looking at more Pulse Opinion Research Data, Jaffe’s comment certainly holds true. When asked “Would you support your town enacting zoning ordinances to restrict natural gas extraction by means of hydraulic fracturing,” 69% of both Delaware and Sullivan counties said yes.

Some New Yorkers are so fed up with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s stance on fracking that they’ve signed petitions which state, “I pledge that I will never vote for Andrew Cuomo for any public office, ever, if he tries to force us to exist with hydrofracking in New York.” While this may seem harsh, many New Yorkers fully support this point of view. One Change.org petition, titled “Cuomo Pledge” takes on this position with 473 out of their goal of 10,000 signatures. On this website, those who sign the petition can explain their reasoning. One particularly troubled New Yorker, Mary Sweeney, stated her very strong opinion:

Gov. Cuomo says he wants to base the fracking decision on science, not emotion or politics. But there has been no study of the cumulative environmental and economic effects of drilling and fracking the tens of thousands of shale gas wells that are projected to be constructed in NY. Even more shocking, despite reports of numerous health problems at drilling and fracking sites around the country, there has been no comprehensive study of the health effects of shale gas extraction. So if Gov. Cuomo allows hydrofracking in NY, he will be making guinea pigs of everyone who lives in a fracking area or downwind of a fracking area or who drinks water from a fracking area. Is this the sort of leadership we want? Please, Gov. Cuomo–stay true to your word and base this decision on science, not politics.

With these opinions in mind, it is no wonder that this is hotly debated issue in New York State.

Water contamination due to hydrofracking in Pennsylvania

According to Environmental Protection Agency study, dangers to environmental and public health caused by hydrofracking wastewater are greater than previously expected

Marcellus Shale Gas Drilling Tower: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

While hydrofracking using the horizontal drilling method, is currently banned in New York, other states, including Pennsylvania, currently use this method to drill for natural gas. Hydrofracking can create major environmental and health problems. These known risks provide a justification to the fears of environmentalists in New York.

Scientists believe that natural gas is better for the environment than burning coal and oil, yet they fear that this new technique for natural gas drilling will harm public health and the environment.  During the process of of hydrofracking, millions of gallons of water laced with dangerous chemicals are injected into rock formations. This creates chemically infused wastewater, which environmentalists believe will eventually contaminate drinking water.

The New York Times uncovered confidential Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) documents, which show that the wastewater being brought to plants has a higher radioactivity than federal regulators believe is safe for these plants to treat effectively. These same documents also show that treatment plants, discharge tainted wastewater into rivers that supply drinking water.

Studies were also found by The New York Times that show that the radioactivity in waste discharged by treatment plants, will never fully dilute in waterways. This water is radioactive because many plants fail to test for radioactivity before discharging the wastewater. The EPA knows this is happening, but hasn’t done anything to fix this problem. With about 71,000 active gas wells, wastewater contamination is a major problem in Pennsylvania. Tests have shown, that the radioactivity in the discharged wastewater can be between hundreds or thousands of times the maximum allowed federal standard for drinking water.

Gas Wells in Colorado Photo Courtesy The New York Times article, "Regulation Lax as Gas Wells' Tainted Water Hits Rivers"

In 2008 and 2009, about half of the waste created by hydrofracking was taken to sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania. Additionally, some of the untreated wastewater has been sent to other states including New York and West Virginia to be treated. Due to the treatment plants’ inability to remove radioactive substances in wastewater before the water is discharged into rivers, which eventually flow to other states and can cause their water to become contaminated.

While the EPA has certainly been concerned about the water quality, they aren’t the only environmental group that’s worried. Experts in Pennsylvania believe that natural gas is cleaner than coal and oil, but would like to see it harvested in a more environmentally friendly and healthier way. In a New York Times article titled, “Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers,” John H. Quigley, former Secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conversation and Natural Resources, stated, “In shifting away from coal and toward natural gas, we’re trying for cleaner air, but we’re producing massive amounts of toxic wastewater with salts and naturally occurring radioactive materials, and it’s not clear we have a plan for properly handling this waste.”

It’s Not Easy Being Green

At my urban university where students are informed when they are allowed to sit on the lawn and when they are not, it is often difficult to remember nature. However nature, particularly in the form of trees, is never far. From pop culture (Grandmother Willow in Disney’s Pocahontas) to folklore (Johnny Appleseed) trees are deeply embedded in our society.

Johnny Appleseed Surrounded by Trees SVadilfari/Flickr Creative Commons

Trees have become a symbol of nature at large, and an emblem for the green and environmental movements. Not only that, but trees have been of great inspiration for scientists who are looking to nature for solutions to environmental problems. This inspiration can be used to help us bring more sustainable and green technology to the Big Apple itself.

Returning to our Roots

Researchers at SolarBotanic have gone even further than being inspired by trees, they have created artificial trees that, among other things, harness solar, heat and wind energy and filter the air just as trees do. These biomimetic energy sources can be “planted” anywhere from the desert to urban environments and their realistic designs bring nature’s beauty along with nature’s power. SolarBotanic trees utilize nanoleaves that effectively absorb light waves in both the visible and invisible spectrum. This means that the nanoleaves cannot only transform light into energy like other solar cells, but they can also transform infrared rays (in other words, heat) into energy. This way electricity can be provided to a home or a car straight from a “tree” in your front yard.

SolarBotanic Trees, Rebuildingdemocracy/Flickr Creative Commons, Photo Courtesy of Solar Botanic

Nanoleaves are thin, like actual leaves, so they can blow in the wind while remaining attached to the tree. The movement of the leaf flapping back and forth is mechanical energy, which is harnessed by the SolarBotanic tree, providing even more energy and electricity.

Trees do not merely capture light as energy, they also provide us with cleaner air. The SolarBotanic tree does something similar by using a facilitated transport system modeled after our lungs, another inspiration from nature. In the tree there is an “agent” that separates out the CO2, effectively removing it from the air. SolarBotanic is truly paying homage to the tree, and using an already perfect design to provide a beautiful (and effective) form of alternative energy.

Mother Nature Knows Best

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and global warming are an extremely serious issue in the modern world. We need CO2 for everything from oil drilling to blood banks, but too much CO2 in our atmosphere is poisoning our planet at an alarming rate. The government is seriously looking at carbon sequestration, which involves collecting CO2 from the air (mostly from smoke stacks) and injecting it underground, as a method to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

ZScott-Singley/Flickr Creative Commons

However, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report on Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage, even if the carbon capture and storage (CCS) techniques that are being explored today are 90% efficient, about half of the world’s carbon CO2 emissions will still be released into the environment. Therefore, it is extremely important to find other approaches as well.  Dr. Klaus Lackner and Dr. Allen Wright, researchers at Columbia University’s Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy, have come up with a remarkable, biomimetic alterative—recycling CO2. They have developed a “tree” made of plastic that absorbs CO2, just as trees do, but 1000 times more efficiently. In addition to its efficiency, the plastic resin that absorbs CO2 when it is dry, releases that same CO2 when it is wet. This means that the industries that need CO2 (for oil drilling or carbonated drinks) can purchase recycled CO2. It is also a possibility that recycled CO2 can be converted into gasoline and then the gasoline emissions can be recollected as CO2. This would allow us to still use our cars but ensure that the net level of CO2 in the atmosphere stops rising so drastically.

Dr. Allen Wright, the Senior Staff Associate at the Lenfest Center, pointed out to me that “observing that plants do in fact perform ‘air capture’ did prove at the outset that it was possible” however he also says that the “pine branch shape” of the resin is “purely coincidence.” As he says, “A pine branch shape worked well for that because the ‘needles’ would compress nicely.  It is not a particularly useful geometry for many reasons.  The term ‘artificial tree’ is use to help people understand what we are doing.  A practical device deployed in the field for air capture will not likely look like anything found in nature…more perhaps like a carousel sitting on top of a shipping container.”

The Carbon Cycle timmeko/Flickr Creative Commons

Recycling carbon is exactly how nature works. CO2 is produced as a byproduct but it is recycled throughout nature (through the carbon cycle). This technology takes nature’s foolproof method or “recycling” carbon dioxide and applies it to the excess CO2 in our atmosphere. As Dr. Wright explained to me, “the goal of air capture is to remove roughly 10-30% of the CO2 in the air passing through the collector, not to produce CO­2 free air. That would put the air exiting collector at a pre-industrial level of CO2.” Therefore plants can still grow and participate in the carbon cycle without being affected by the CO2 emissions people are producing.

This video elaborates on how this plastic “tree” could dramatically change our world.

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/27163710[/vimeo]

With sustainable technology like this we can continue to live our city lives while still changing how we interact with the environment.

Biomimicry in the City

New York is a large city with the majority of its greenery confined to parks. Yet the city is making an effort to incorporate green energy and biomimicry into its urban ways and Clean Energy Connections is making an effort to help provide the network to make this transformation possible. On November 3rd, there will be a fascinating panel called Biomimicry in the Big City: Can Nature Inspire Cleantech Solutions?

It is not always easy to remember the trees when you are surrounded by the bright lights and steel of New York City (or any urban environment). But the innovations and inspiration trees provide us can keep our cities—and our world—cleaner, more energy efficient and more sustainable.

Organizations believe hydrofracking regulation is rushed

Riverkeeper opposed to state’s process

Photo courtesy: Riverkeeper, http://www.riverkeeper.org


Although hydrofracking has proven to be a controversial issue, New York State is undergoing the process to legalize it. As a result, the state must regulate the new industry. The way in which New York is engaging in this process is being criticized and opposed by a number of environmental organizations. One such group is Riverkeeper; founded in 1966,  Riverkeeper advocates for clean water in New York City.

While hydrofracking itself is controversial, the process under which New York is considering it has also proven contentious. On July 1, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo sent a memo to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) ordering them to release this draft, even though it was incomplete. “That draft was not available for public comment and it was missing the community and economic impact sections,” noted Mackenzie Schoonmaker, a staff attorney at Riverkeeper. On Sept. 7, the DEC released a fully revised Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) for public comment, which will end on Dec. 12. In the midst of this controversy, the DEC has also decided to create hydrofracking regulations. The DEC didn’t anticipate having to release these regulations on Sept. 28. Even though environmental groups wanted them to release the regulations, they did not want them released until after the SGEIS was complete. The comment period for these regulations will also end on Dec. 12.

They’ve identified the problem as: “the state’s rush to frack.” The organization has used this name because of the short public comment period (96 days) on a 1600 page document, and because of the concurrent 75-day comment period on the draft regulations. Schoonmaker said, “[Riverkeeper believes that] by putting out the regulations before the Environmental Impact Statement is complete we feel that DEC is really robbing the public of an opportunity to have their comments on the Environmental Impact Statement and inform the regulations.” In the July 1 version of the SGEIS, the DEC acknowledged that this is a problem. Schoonmaker stated, “They essentially deleted this language entirely from the September version and decided they were taking the all at once approach instead.” She continued, “In addition to not being what the law intended, it’s problematic because it puts a pretty heavy burden on the public, [which] is now forced to comment on the Environmental Impact Statement and regulations, which are lengthy documents, at the same time.”

Schoonmaker summed up the organization’s position on hydrofracking, “Riverkeeper’s position is we’re demanding fracking regulations that are promulgated the proper way that is after the SGEIS is finalized. We want [the DEC] to fully prevent any potential harm to human health and the environment. And [we] are prepared to stop any fracking before such regulations are [in place] and backed by regulatory enforcement personnel.”

Burying the Problem: Waste Management in the U.S.

What does waste management look like in the United States and how does composting fit into the bigger picture?

Do you operate on the blissful “out of sight, out of mind” principle, believing that to throw something “away” is to vaporize it?  It’s difficult not to, considering how simple waste disposal seems to be – all the average American has to do is haul their garbage outside and wait for it to disappear.  If you carry your thoughts out to the curb with you, however, and allow them to be carted off, following the path of the pizza boxes and the Styrofoam cups, you will quickly realize that all that waste must end up somewhere.  That somewhere – for all refuse that does not make it into the recycling or the yard waste – is usually either a landfill or an incinerator.

Photo courtesy of sepponet/Flickr Creative Commons

Landfills are essentially gigantic repositories of waste where it’s compacted and buried, day after day, until no more will fit and the site is retired.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are 3,091 active landfills in the U.S. and more than 10,000 no longer in use.  The average American is responsible for about 4.6 pounds of waste per day, about 55% of which ends up in a landfill.  Though landfills are usually lined with many layers – such as clay and heavy plastic – meant to protect the surrounding environment from waste and any liquid that may leach from it (known as leachate), the EPA has acknowledged that “even the best liner and leachate collection systems will ultimately fail due to natural deterioration.”  In other words, the waste – which when compacted is almost entirely cut off from oxygen and the microorganisms necessary for decomposition – isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and eventually – whether in 30 years or in 300 – the protection systems will fail and the toxins within will seep into the environment.  Even if we discount future pollution, the Earth does not possess unlimited acreage for us to transform into graveyards for the dregs of our material life, so the less waste that ends up in landfills, the better.

Garbage incinerator in Newark, NJ. Built in 1990, it runs 24/7 and can burn up to 2,300 tons of garbage a day. Photo courtesy of Genista/Flickr Creative Commons

Another 12.5% of our waste is incinerated.  While recently European countries like Denmark have taken advantage of improved waste burning technology to reduce pollution while generating heat and electricity from the combustion of waste, the U.S.’s 87 waste-to-energy incinerators are all more than 15 years old and do not match up in either efficiency or safety.  While health effects stemming from incinerators have not been widely investigated, it is known that the combustion of certain materials found in the waste stream can lead to the release of toxic chemicals like dioxin, which according to the World Heath Organization “can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.”  The Committee on Health Effects of Waste Incineration, in their book Waste Incineration & Public Health, admits to having “a substantial degree of concern for the incremental contribution to dioxins emissions from all incinerators on a regional level and beyond.”  Though incineration has the potential to generate significant amounts of energy safely, the U.S. system would need to be revamped in order for it to become an attractive option.

According to the EPA, the U.S. produces upwards of 34 million tons of food waste per year, which constitutes over 14% of the entire waste stream.  In 2009, less than 3% of that food waste was recycled, meaning that compostable waste “now represents the single largest component of M[unicipal] S[olid] W[aste] reaching landfills and incinerators.”  Composting efforts – aside from returning nutrients integral to plant life to the soil – divert mass from the waste stream, reducing the overall amount that ends up in landfills and incinerators.  New York City’s Barnard College has already taken the first step towards reducing its waste, its on-campus BioX composting machine taking leftover food from the dining hall and “eliminat[ing] the need for putting it into the waste stream,” says Waste Management professor Peter Bower.  However, if we want to make a real dent in the waste stream – both on the small scale of the college and the large scale of the country – we will need to amplify efforts to recycle food scraps and raise awareness, encouraging people to reduce refuse at the source.

Coral Reef Ecosystems

From Bright and Bio-diverse to Blighted and Bleached. What are Coral Reefs, and why are they in Danger?

Coral Reefs are among the most productive ecosystems on the planet.  These wondrous undersea worlds are often referred to as ‘rain forests of the sea,’ a name that expresses their ecological complexity, their beauty, and their vulnerability.  But what exactly is a coral reef, and why are they in danger of destruction?

Coral Reef. Photo Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr

The first time I saw a coral reef ‘up-close and personal,’ was on a snorkeling trip in the Florida Keys. The beauty of what I saw amazed me. I was eager to explore its nooks and crannies, and I was curious to know how it all got there.  My first question was: What exactly is a coral reef, and what exactly are corals?

I would soon get my answer.  I would also get a lot more information about coral reefs than I had asked. Through an impassioned, impromptu speech from a man who had grown up in the Caribbean, I learned of the destruction of the once beautiful coral reefs off the shores of his hometown. Solemnly, he told me of the remains of a reef that he used to swim at as a teenager.  The reef had once thrived, but now it sat seemingly life-less and abandoned on the seafloor.

In the past three decades, the world’s coral reefs have experienced unprecedented decline.  The trend is continuing.  Decline in coral reef health and coverage is caused by a number of factors; many of them inflicted by humankind.  Overfishing strips reefs of species that keep the ecosystem in balance; pollution from agricultural runoff brings toxins that can kill the coral; and hurricanes ravage and crumble the reef structure. On top of all of this, rising levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, may be the most significant threat of all. Rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification, both of which are linked to increasing carbon emissions, can have serious impacts on coral reefs.

The video below describes some of the most significant threats to coral reefs.

Coral reefs are extremely complex ecosystems: conglomerations of animals, minerals, algae, and other organisms, breaming with life and ecological productivity. What most of us see underwater and identify as ‘coral,’ is actually a colony of thousands upon thousands of tiny invertebrate animals (coral polyps) nestled together and built up upon the calcium carbonate (limestone) ‘skeletons’ of sometimes thousands of years worth of old coral colonies. Mollusks, young fish, sea turtles, and many others, seek food and refuge within the reef, so when coral reefs are destroyed, so are the habitats for all these other living things. But with this complexity and productivity comes vulnerability.

Even small changes in water temperature leave coral reefs vulnerable to a phenomenon called coral bleaching. Bleaching occurs when coral polyps under stress expel the algae that live symbiotically within them. When the algae are gone, the coral appears white, or “bleached,” because algae gives coral reefs their vibrant color.  Bleaching also leaves coral without a significant source of energy, energy from algal photosynthesis.  The stressed, bleached coral may become more susceptible to disease.

Coral Bleaching. Photo by Mark Spalding Courtesy of World Resources Institute/Flick

In their study, Coral Reefs & Global Climate Change, Robert Buddemeier et al., link the bleaching phenomenon to global climate change. They write, “Increases in ocean temperatures associated with global climate change will increase the number of coral bleaching episodes…While coral species have some capacity to recover from bleaching events, this ability is diminished with greater frequency or severity of bleaching. As a result, climate change is likely to reduce local and regional coral biodiversity, as sensitive species are eliminated.”

Ocean acidification, associated with increased atmospheric CO2 levels, may also seriously harm coral reefs. Acidification of the ocean will lessen the availability of carbonate ions in the water, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  Corals need to be able to extract carbonate ions from the seawater in order to build their skeletons.

Sadly, coral reefs, with all their beauty and biodiversity, are among the first of many ecosystems to suffer the effects of climate change and increased carbon dioxide emissions. However, all hope is not lost. Efforts to protect and restore the world’s coral reefs are underway. Future blogs will discuss some of these efforts, in hopes of inspiring readers towards action.