Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Invisible Perpetrators of Environmental Crimes

The Lange and Revere Street Canals in St. Clair Shores, MI
In 2007, the EPA spent $10 million cleaning up PCBs in two canals next to Lake St. Clair. Meetings were held, reports were written. Fantastic. Onto the next problem site, right? Well, Wayne State University researchers took some samples from the same canals just three years later and concluded, according to my family’s local paper, that “contamination [had] returned to levels high as they were prior to… the EPA cleanup effort”. All this begs the question: where the hell is this stuff coming from? Does it make sense to clean up a contaminated site if the source of the pollution hasn’t been identified or stopped? An EPA/MDEQ report identified PCBs in the larger 10-Mile drainage system that feeds the canals, the drain site of which is located here:

“This investigation resulted in the discovery of the PCBs located in the soils adjacent to the drain and in some surficial soils in the area of Bon Brae and Harper Avenue.”
(Surficial, by the way, is just a fancy way of saying the contamination is coming from the surface, although the site is also contaminated with long-buried waste of yore). Then, employing somewhat circular logic, the report says:
Due to the nature of the Site having contaminated soils impacted by migration of contaminants from an unknown source or sources, there is no information on the operational history. Since there is no currently known facility or facilities that the contamination can be attributed to, there is no way to document the operations that likely caused these contaminants to be released into the environment.
The report, while providing generous information on testing activities, the geology of the site, and acronyms for various laws, never manages to answer the responsibility question. Surely an examination of zoning records, interviewing locals and other less “sciency” methods would uncover the source? The pollution comes from humans, after all, not a particular sediment structure. It also fails to illuminate why the contamination would remain after clean up. Maybe I’m counting too much on the importance of responsibility? Major environmental crimes are often treated like they have no perpetrator.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Family's First Vegetable Garden

Before Weeding
I’m in Michigan for two weeks and while I’m here, my sister and I are planting a vegetable garden beside my parents’ house. My grandparents are no longer around, but when they lived with us my grandpa protectively tended all the flowers in our yard, erecting a fence near his section when we got a dog and trapping chipmunks (humanely) and setting them free at the local school. Grandpa raised plants the post-war way: with copious amounts of fertilizer. I remember him mixing mysterious aquamarine liquids in white buckets (unsurprising considering the gardening books he read compared gardening to warfare).

Ready to Plant
A few of his plants still remain years later in the plot my sister and I worked this afternoon. We had to uproot some of them (along with a greater number of weeds), but think he’d be happy to know we were making good use of the space. Along with the plants, we disturbed a great variety of critters, centipedes and spiders carrying egg sacs, pillbugs, ants and many worms -- some of which are documented in one of my favorite books, Teaming with Microbes. The soil in our area contains a lot of clay which can be tricky to grow in, but we’ll take our chances on lettuce, onions, carrots, yellow squash, cukes, beans, tomatoes and spinach. Or rather, Emma will take a chance. She'll be the caretaker of our family’s inaugural vegetable garden.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Bike Week

Last week I was infected with bike fever, starting on Monday with a trip to the League of American Bicyclists HQ in downtown DC (always makes me think of the "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen"). LAB, of course, is the organization behind the increasingly popular “Bike to Work” month/week/day, also taking place at the time. I lounged on a bench outside their offices at Farragut Square before the meeting while the crisply-dressed workers of DC rented and returned CaBi bikes from a busy station nearby. At LAB, I learned about their “Bike Friendly America” program and took home a bunch of brochures, a “bumper sticker” for my bike, and a pin. Swag!

Nonprofits advertise on bike racks
I’ve been riding my bike pretty much everywhere lately (to the dentist, a Spanish lesson, volunteering, grocery store), partly because I moved to a town with better bike trails, partly because I don’t have a job to go to. On Friday morning, I rode to the Reston pit stop of Bike to Work Day and milled around taking pictures and eating a free cinnamon scone and coffee. More brochures were acquired. I met a potential new hiking buddy who also didn’t have to work on Friday but was enjoying the vibe and the excuse to pull the bike out.

Despite a derailleur and hanger adjustment, my bike is still having some shifting issues (at the very least, I’ve learned what “derailleurs” and “hangers” are) and I’ve had a few dicey moments involving glass and tree branches, but I’m digging this new freedom. I like that you can send a friendly “good morning” to your fellow commuters and that you can hear all the nature noises while you’re riding the W&OD.

And just to keep the eye on the prize, GOOD magazine tips us to this video of yet another enlightened Dutch bike amenity. Drool.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Profile: Environmental Resource Supervisor Patricia Greenberg

Patricia Greenberg stopped in her tracks when she saw the yellow archangel her parents had planted in their yard. They wouldn’t like it, but she had to give them the bad news: the plant had to go. Like other exotic invasives, the plant has a tendency to choke out native plants and disrupt the local food web. As Reston Association’s (RA) Environmental Resource Supervisor, Greenberg spends much of her time educating Reston residents on invasive plants and her parents were no exception.

“A lot of my job is the education part of it,” Greenberg says, producing a small stack of RA brochures on yard debris, natural landscaping and Reston’s unique forested common areas. She’s just arrived to the interview from a meeting with a new resident who had asked RA about the location of his property line. Greenberg took the opportunity to enlighten him on the habitat around his house which he mistakenly thought needed to be mowed. While she spends a good portion of time in the field ripping out English ivy and fragrant garlic mustard from RA property, the most valuable work arguably occurs in that tricky terrain of human behavior. “It’s about planting that seed in people’s heads,” she says. “The key is getting people to talk to each other about these things.”

That “seed” sometimes involves encouraging people to fundamentally rethink what their property should look like. Americans are used to their cookie-cutter yards filled with Technicolor green lawns and exotic plants purchased from the local nursery, few of which do much to support local wildlife, if not harm it outright. Douglas Tallamy’s 2007 book Bringing Nature Home encapsulates Greenberg’s philosophy on the issue. It’s a simple one but surprisingly difficult to implement: get people to garden with and appreciate native plants.

Greenberg has been with RA for four years, but she’s always been interested in human impacts on nature (an interest that prompted her young classmates to sardonically christen her with the nickname “Save the Whales”). One long “ah-ha” moment occurred while she was living on the Virgin Islands for six years as a kid. Her family frequented the region’s stunning beaches and over the course of several years Greenberg noticed how run down they were becoming. “We would find trash all over the beach and even in the water. At ‘local’ beaches, people would leave their charcoal on the beach and the trees started to look damaged due to the crowds and the parties,“ she says. “And tourists would stand out there in their scuba gear right on top the coral reefs.”

After earning her BA in Environmental Studies from Eckerd College, Greenberg interned with the nonprofit American Forests before heading off to the Peace Corps in San Pedro, Panama for 2 ½ years. There she received a crash-course in environmental education by working with local groups on community-based conservation. In this rural community, farmers earned much of their income by growing coffee. Those areas of land that weren’t farmed for coffee were routinely burned. Greenberg worked to show how preserving the trees, especially at the summit of mountains, prevented valuable topsoil from washing away. “Coffee [farming] is what saves Panama’s forests, and probably a lot of other forests in Central America too,” she says. One of her most treasured projects was working with the community’s youth to implement a trash-collecting service and educational program on composting and trash sorting.

Learning to walk that fine line between respecting people’s perspectives and concerns and gently coaxing them to change behaviors was a skill Greenberg has found useful in her work for RA too. “A lot of work in the Peace Corps is improvising,” she says. “I feel like I use a lot of those same skills now.” That sometimes means accepting that certain people won’t change and focusing your efforts on existing and potential allies.

English ivy quickly engulfs everything in its path
“We accidentally removed an invasive plant from someone’s property once and he was really upset at first,” Greenberg says. “But after we explained why we remove these plants, he actually became a big advocate and made changes to the rest of his property. It’s so exciting to get people turned around like that.” Greenberg educates not only residents but local nurseries to encourage them to stock more native plants and avoid the eight exotics on RA’s “prohibited” list (flowering pears, bamboo, burning bush, oriental bittersweet, Chinese and Japanese wisteria, bush honeysuckle, Japanese barberry and the ubiquitous English ivy). “It’s difficult because [the nurseries] make money off the invasives,” she says.

Greenberg continues to explore the best ways to communicate environmental issues to the public. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in Environmental Science and Policy from George Mason University, taking classes on climate change communications and environmental law, among others. She’d love to continue to help people learn how to reduce their negative impact on the planet, possibly through community-based environmental outreach programs. In the meantime, you’ll find Greenberg out in the woods in her trusty hiking boots, cultivating relationships with residents and planting some positive ideas of her own.

For more information, download RA publications:
"Invasive Exotic Plants: From our Yards to our Forests"

Reston has managed to retain so much of its natural spaces due to its unique history as one of the country's first planned communities. Read more about that history here.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Tambo: Life Inside a Rice Field

Tambo in Magome, Japan
NHK World aired a 2-hour special on Sunday examining a year in the life of an organic rice field in Japan. Through hypnotic time-lapse sequences and patient cameras, the show captured the incredible diversity of plants and animals that make up the "rice ecosystem" as well as the steady growth of the rice plants. I had no idea rice "flowered" or that some spiders build their nests at the tips of the stalks. Sure, there are "pests" too, the locusts and chinch bugs, but the frogs and spiders and other creatures take care of them without the aid of chemicals. Through the lens, the harvest seems a miraculous blessing and the family uses winnowing machines passed down by generations. A must-see if NHK happens to re-air it.

Morning View: W&OD in Vienna

Thanks to the blog Joe.My.God for the "Morning View" idea...

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Repurposing in New Orleans

My friend M. is in New Orleans this week on an environmental learning/volunteer trip. Obviously a pretty interesting time to be there considering the Mississippi's relentless floods (tangent: OnEarth magazine asks whether the precipitation that's lead to the floods has anything to do with climate change, but doesn't provide a definite answer). Today, she worked with other volunteers at The Green Project, a nonprofit warehouse and education center that repurposes old building materials for resale and prevents them from going to landfills. Here's a video from another volunteer group:

The Building Materials Reuse Association also keeps a list of similar organizations around the country.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Spring's Herbicides

Ah, spring, the sweet smell of... herbicide. And next to the kids' playground no less. They applied this stuff all around my neighborhood last week. The smell was weird - an anti-smell really. Kind of burning, metallic. It's amazing how hard it is to avoid a truck filled with noxious green fluid in the springtime. In related news, the EPA is reviewing the safety of the chemical glyphosate in the popular pesticide Roundup. They've given themselves a 2015 deadline to make a decision. Glyphosate has become increasingly less effective over time. Is anyone really surprised by this?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Movie Review: Waste Land

Before artist Vik Muniz travels to Rio de Janeiro to work on a new project at one of the world’s largest landfills, he expects to find a rough crowd working there, drug addicts surely. His wife, supportive but visibly anxious about the idea, asks him pointed questions. “This is the end of the line,” he says, pointing to a satellite shot of Jardim Gramacho, implying that society’s “garbage”, at least in the eyes of Rio’s middle class, probably ends up there too. Not only are the recyclable pickers (catadores) that Muniz finds when he arrives very normal people though, they have warmth and wisdom and tremendous dignity. Garbage is revealing and these folks have a penetrating view of humanity because of their work with it.

Muniz employs a handful of the catadores to help him construct huge portraits of the pickers themselves, made from the very materials they collect. The proceeds from the work are then donated back to the picker’s “union”. Along the way, Muniz befriends the catadores and reflects on how little it would have taken for him to end up in the same situation as a relatively poor kid growing up in Rio.

Viewers will come away from the film with great respect for the catadores who must confront daily, with great personal danger, the detritus of everyone else’s wasteful lives. The landfill itself is a fascinating, post-apocalyptic setting for the story. Muniz is perhaps a little too self-righteous about his ability to make a difference in the lives of these people through his particular vision (and he’s challenged on it by his friends halfway through the film). But overall the film is respectful and does a great job illuminating the lives of the catadores (and the relationship they have with our trash) for the rest of us.

For a more complete summary of the movie, visit Street News Service.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Organic for the Sake of Farm Workers

The Washington Post hosted an event entitled “The Future of Food” last week at Georgetown University. Speakers included all the big names in sustainable ag – Eric Schlosser (who just published an article defending "foodies" from calls of elitism), Wendell Berry, Marion Nestle, Vandana Shiva, and… the Prince of Wales?! (who knew? And fresh from his son’s wedding). I watched part of a panel that included Wes Jackson and some businessmen that felt a bit scattered. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition noted that USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack stuck to his script when pressed on his organization’s decision to deregulate genetically engineered alfalfa earlier this year. I like this exchange:
Likening conventional agriculture and sustainable agriculture to two sons, Vilsack asserted that he loves both of his sons equally. “One of your sons is a bully,” Koons Garcia responded, noting that GE crops can contaminate non-GE crops, but that contamination is not a concern in the other direction.
Also check out Schlosser’s piece about how pesticides affect more than just consumers and the environment:

After I wrote this post, I called the Safeway customer service line to request that they stock organic bread in my local store (where there currently don't carry any). The CSR was a friendly guy from Oklahoma who, coincidentally, grew up on a wheat farm. He didn't know much about organic food though and I filled him in. He said his old farm didn't use pesticides (there wasn't much need to), but they did use petroleum-based fertilizer. It was an interesting conversation.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The King's Short Reign: Salmon's Rise and Fall in Lake Huron

Cross-posted at the Sierra Club Great Lakes Program blog on May 5.

My dad has a way of making friends with everyone and it was certainly true of the charter boat fishermen at the harbor in Harrisville, on Lake Huron. When I was a kid, he spent many a summer charming his way onto fishing trips with assorted colorful captains (and subsequently producing dull, wave-pitched videotapes of the outing). He would sometimes bring us along and though I can’t say I actually learned how to fish in big-lake style, the vocabulary of these lives became familiar to me: the white, sticky coolers filled with the day’s catch floating in a red slosh, the monitors that calculated the depth of schools of fish using electronic pictographs, the trash talking and inside jokes on walkie talkies to fellow captains, the early mornings, the sound of fiberglass hulls bumping gently against wooden piers. And the cleaning ritual afterward in a bloody room my sister once fainted in on a hot summer afternoon: the buckets of fish eggs, the clean knife slices made through the soft white bellies, the moist fish eyes staring blankly skyward.

The prize fish was the king salmon and if you caught one, your companion would take a smiling photo of you holding it aloft. An hour or more of rocking waves and false starts was suddenly punctuated by the frantic whizzing of fishing line being drawn out by this unseen leviathan. Its strength was shocking to my skinny kid arms as I attempted to reel it in. Eventually it broke the surface in fits and starts, still struggling, but halfheartedly. After bringing her into the boat, she joined her sisters and brothers in the cooler. Later mom would marinate its remains in lemon juice and we’d rediscover it, steaming and pink and wrapped in foil.

I was surprised to hear on NPR recently that the salmon fishery in Lake Huron all but disappeared seven years ago after the fish essentially ran out of things to eat. I was also surprised to learn that those prize fish were part a carefully orchestrated stocking program by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and that they aren’t native to Lake Huron at all. Like so many things, our experience of “the wild” was manufactured. Such stocking programs are profuse in Northern Michigan’s lakes and rivers where sport tourism is such a boon to local economies.

The charter boat captains probably didn’t care that the fish were non-native, but stocking programs have always raised red flags for me. Having heard so much about the dangers of exotic species in an ecosystem, I was always puzzled that dumping masses of fish into a body of water for the purpose of pleasing fishermen (and to control another invasive species of fish, the alewife, in this case) was a practice sanctioned and encouraged by the state. Wouldn’t such a blunt force disrupt the existing food web? Turns out, it can. One study conducted in the lakes of the Sierra Nevada found that stocked trout had damaging effects on native frog and benthic invertebrate populations. Another article on fish stocking practices in Sweden argues that these programs have failed to adapt to changing scientific understandings of introduced species. One DNR rep interviewed for the NPR story, Jim Dexter, provided a confusing quote that seems to illustrate the disconnect between natural resources management and ecology:
“It's not a happy place. I mean, the lake is very perturbed. It's certainly not a stable, quality ecosystem. I mean, it's working right now. It's producing a fishery. People are happy, but it's tenuous.” [emphasis added]
Since when does a quality ecosystem have anything to do with people’s (ahem, fishermen’s) happiness? Can the health of an ecosystem be measured by the success of a species that doesn’t really belong there? Dave Reid, the Lake Huron Management Supervisor for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, in contrast, cuts right to the heart of the issue:
“Previous fish community objectives did try to be everything to everybody, but I think we are coming to realize that we can’t sustain a fishery with those native species and non-natives living in harmony. We really haven’t come to grips with that.”
My dad stopped fishing with his friends on Lake Huron about ten years ago. I assumed he had grown tired of fishing or that the tackle shops in town closed for inexplicable management reasons. It never occurred to me that both were the result of the salmon’s disappearance. I talked to my dad about the story, expecting that he might bemoan the loss of the fish he once coveted but he accepted that Lake Huron didn’t really belong to the salmon. It belongs to the native walleye, the perch and the whitefish, among others. Such fish might not make as impressive a trophy photo, but they’re Lake Huron’s own unique legacy.