Monthly Archives: April 2008

Question of the Week: What is the best way to reduce fossil fuel use?

Each week we ask a question related to the environment. Please let us know your thoughts as comments. Feel free to respond to earlier comments or post new ideas. Previous questions.

Many energy alternatives to fossil fuels have been suggested – nuclear, solar, wind, geothermal, biofuels, conservation, etc. Each source of energy has benefits and challenges.

What is the best way to reduce fossil fuel use?

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Green is the new dot-com!

Photo of staff cleaning up C&O Canal Park carrying a large log

About the author: Tim Lyons is EPA’s Deputy Press Secretary.

From green ballparks and green toilet paper to Wally the Green Monster and Green Power Partnerships, green is the new rage these days and, quite unexpectedly, I’ve even caught this green wave and I hope you will too, if you haven’t already.

Green is everywhere. The question is where do you want to be? Do you want to be one of EPA’s world-class scientists or a high school science teacher? Do you want to be in the public or private sector? Regardless of where you want to be and what you want to do, we can all chip in and improve the environment.

Growing up in New Hampshire, a state which makes the environment one of its top priorities, and having worked on environmental issues in my previous job, I gradually learned what steps people could take to preserve the environment. Those experiences translated into a growing interest in this whole “green” rage and, now, here I am at EPA.

Cleanup crew member with an abandoned tire and a dead fish.In the spirit of Earth Week (April 20-26) and National Volunteer Week (April 27-May 3), it is important to understand that we can all “catch the green wave” – and it doesn’t take much of an effort. My office, EPA’s Office of Public Affairs, tackled a project on Friday, April 25, at the Boathouse at Fletcher’s Cove along the C&O Canal in Georgetown. In coordination with the C&O Canal Trust, we removed tons of trash and debris (i.e. massive logs) to help clean up the park area. We returned home with scrapes and pulled back muscles, but we accomplished a lot and, hopefully, we made a difference.

If we all do our part, we can change the world and do something good for the environment. Whether it involves moving heavy debris or picking up trash like we did, I encourage everyone to grab a board and hop on the green wave. There are countless environmental volunteers out there who are riding this wave and making a difference in our lives, so we should take a moment to thank them and think about becoming volunteers ourselves.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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If We Were 5 Years Old, We Would Know How to Protect the Environment

About the author: Viccy Salazar joined EPA in 1995. She works in our Seattle office on waste reduction, resource conservation and stewardship issues.

Everyday, I try to teach my kids not to waste, to share, to do unto others, to pick up after themselves, to take only what they really need… you get the picture. The great thing about kids is that they really want to do those things and they want to be nice and fair about how they interact with their friends. kids As I was thinking on Earth Day, I was thinking how these are the exact same lessons that we need for environmental protection. We can protect the earth if we just obey the basic rules we all learned when we were 3 years old. Here are the rules as I see them:

Share. We need to share the resources and not hoard for ourselves. The resources available to us need to be allocated among many communities and species. I think, in particular, of water and food distribution where some have so much and others have so little. We don’t have a choice but to share the earth so we must learn to share the earth’s resources so all of us can survive together.

Don’t waste. Don’t waste means to make the best use of the resources we have. It obviously relates to things like recycling and turning off lights but was I was thinking about it, I realized it also means don’t use resources if you don’t have to. Take a bus, buy a smaller house, have a high gas mileage car, don’t buy things you don’t need, borrow instead of buy. I find I need to remind myself of this lesson a lot.

Pick up after yourself. To me this mean don’t pollute. When we pollute, we are leaving our mess for someone else. Our environmental laws like RCRA, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act are all basically trying to say, if you make the mess, clean it up or only make a little mess. Then I think, but if all of us make just a little mess, it turns into a really big mess which isn’t sustainable. So, we are looking into new solutions like Product Stewardship. Product Stewardship requires companies taking responsibility for the end-of-life management of the products they make and sell. The same lesson we teach our children, you are responsible for your own messes. Don’t put it on anyone else. We still have a long way to go.

I know there are a few more rules but I need to go and practice the rules at home. I’ll check back next week. While I’m gone, let’s all think about how the rules apply to us and our daily activities.

I invite you to leave a comment with your own rules and share them with others in your life to spread the environmental word.

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Environmental Conservation Within and Outside EPA

About the author: Sandy Raimondo is a research ecologist in the Office of Research and Development in Gulf Breeze, FL, where she models potential effects of toxicants on organisms and populations. Sandy has been with the agency since 2003.

I sat this weekend to finish the latest edition of Green News, the Gulf Ecology Division’s environmental newsletter that keeps us in touch with conservation activities within our division and throughout our community. I was inspired to start Green News two years ago when I read the “Green Gauge Report”, an independent poll of environmental attitudes intended to be a representative cross-section of Americans. I was stunned to see that the Environmental Protection Agency was ranked fifth by the general public as the government agency they believed was the most protective of the environment. I came to work for the EPA because I couldn’t imagine spending my life working toward anything other than environmental protection, and a part of me couldn’t help but take that rating personally. I know that was an irrational emotion, but it motivated me to initiate a forum intended to keep our environmental perspectives moving forward, both inside and outside of the EPA.

Sandy RaimondoFor the past two years, three of my coworkers and I (electronically) published Green News, which reports on the conservation activities and accomplishments that make our division a better place, as well as keeping us involved in community-level conservation. For example, we highlight events such as our local earth day celebration and regional hazardous waste round-ups in which we can participate. When Green News started, I expected the contributors would spend a lot of time scooping out and tracking down stories to fill the pages. I actually spend more time trying to fit in all the topics I receive from everyone at the division, excited to share their discoveries and inquiries with the rest of us.

As far as reporting our accomplishments as a division, there has yet to be an issue that does not highlight a new step forward. Over the past two years I’ve seen my division come together to help the environment not only in their research, but also in their participation in local environmental protection, and it was easy to put the findings of Green Gauge Report behind me. The conservation efforts and environmental stewardship of the people who make up the EPA may not be tallied in public polls, but perhaps they should be.

Meet the Gulf Ecology Division.
More information on the Green Gauge Report.Exit EPA Disclaimer

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Have Respirator, Will Travel

About the author: Dan Heister is an on-scene coordinator with Superfund in Region 10 for 8 years. Dan’s responses have ranged from fifty gallon oil spills on a small creek to spending 7 weeks in a FEMA trailer helping with the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Dan HeisterI’m an on-scene coordinator (OSC) in Region 10 (AK, ID, OR and WA) and it is my considered opinion that I have the best job in the Agency. I should know, in 21 years of service with EPA I’ve worked as a program analyst at HQ, been a state grants project officer, a pesticide, PCB, Confined Animal Feed Operation (CAFO) and SPCC inspector. I’ve done details with the Oregon Department of Ag and the City of Portland’s Brownfields program, but for the past eight years I’ve done emergency response and time critical removal actions and consider myself very fortunate.

Some of the upsides of the job are that I get to see a lot of scenery around the region and the country, albeit on very short notice and the scenery smells like diesel or whatever happened to have been spilled. I rarely wear a tie and can usually wear blue jeans. Some downsides are long days, stressful circumstances, bad coffee, greasy food, and cold port-a-potties. The toughest part is being away from my family for extended periods. Fortunately my wife and daughter know how much satisfaction I get from my work and they accommodate within reason.

On-scene cleanup technicians in full-body moonsuits.As an OSC I get to meet lots of people. In most cases they have a preconceived notion of what an EPA bureaucrat is and their initial expectations are set accordingly. Most of my reward comes at the end of an emergency response or removal action when some one tells me, “you’re not what I expected”, or “thanks for your: help, caring, honesty, humor, listening”. This happens exactly 7.847% of the time, but it’s like playing golf: one good shot out of fifty puts the spring back in your step. Alternately, I have been sworn at, threatened and even had a bullet shot through the federal plate on a government car, but those things happen very infrequently. People for the most part usually extend a modicum of trust with a desire to give more if warranted.

The OSC position is an obscure one to many within and outside the EPA. I hope over time I can make the OSC’s role in the Agency’s larger mission a bit clearer. Here’s a description of what an on-scene coordinator does.

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Seeking Solutions from a New Perspective

photo of site with collection lagoon and large white tanks

About the author: Rob Lawrence joined EPA in 1990 and is Senior Policy Advisor on Energy Issues in the Dallas, TX regional office. As an economist, he works to insure that both supply and demand components are addressed as the Region develops its Clean Energy and Climate Change Strategy.

About 5 years ago, I had the opportunity to change jobs within our Dallas regional office. The Region recognized that we were facing new environmental challenges that did not fit entirely within one media division. Sure, aspects of an issue would be adequately addressed by a traditional media program, but no one had the larger view that included cross-program policies and requirements. In my case, the job was monitoring and coordinating energy issues in Region 6. Almost everyday, I get tasked to look at a situation that is not just about air emissions or water discharges or waste handling concerns. It is usually some of each and other factors like community views and economics thrown in as well.

Rob LawrenceAnd just what happens when no one takes a broader view? A fine example comes from my prior state service in Louisiana. A waste oil recycler had gone bankrupt and abandoned the operations, including a waste lagoon. After a heavy rain, the neighbors became concerned about the lagoon overflowing and the waste oil reaching their properties. The state water division sent inspectors to the site, determined that additional capacity in the lagoon was needed and issued a compliance order to draw down the water. Soon after some of the water was removed, the neighbors complained about odors coming from the lagoon. The state air division sent inspectors, determined that the exposed oily waste in the lagoon was the cause, and issued a compliance order to put water into the lagoon to serve as a cap on the odors. The next day the site manager called to say that he was in a Catch-22 situation: he could not meet the requirements of one compliance order without violating the terms of the other one. Clearly, addressing the particular needs of one program would not really address the broader environmental concerns presented by the site. Both media programs did the right thing from their perspective, but the situation was more complex than that.

More and more of today’s environmental challenges are calling for solutions with a multimedia or cross program perspective. How can we expect to address climate change and similar complex concerns without taking a broad view? We need to make sure that fixing one problem doesn’t lead to unintended consequences. One approach EPA is taking is with its environmental innovations program. Check out our website to learn more about how EPA is facing these issues from a different perspective.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Say What?

About the author: Marcus Peacock is EPA’s Deputy Administrator.

Last week Pope Benedict XVI visited the White House. This reminded me of an encounter a friend of mine, Neil, had with Pope John Paul II several years ago. Neil and his boss entered the meeting room and approached His Holiness. A cleric standing behind the Pope quietly said, “Kneel.” “Hello,” answered Neil. “Kneel!” said his boss, shooting a glance at my friend. “What?” exclaimed Neil, shooting a glance back at his boss.

Sometimes we mean to say something but people hear something different. Sometimes that can get us into trouble.

As a young manager I occasionally asked job applicants if they were married or had kids. It seemed a good way to get to know the applicants better. After doing a joint interview with a colleague, she strongly objected to this. “That has nothing to do with their qualifications for the job,” she said, “Try putting yourself in their place.” It took me a long time to figure out she was right. The question I thought I was asking was not always the question people heard.

To do our job well, we need a comfortable, welcoming workplace. One way we measure whether EPA has such a workplace is by counting the number of EEO complaints employees file each year. “EEO” stands for Equal Employment Opportunity. Any EPA employee who feels they have been discriminated against because of their gender, race, age, religion, sexual orientation, disability, etc. can seek corrective action by filing an EEO complaint. Of course, not all complaints are bona fide and not everyone who could file a complaint does, but the change in the number of complaints is a crude measure of how well people are being treated in the workplace.

Here is our record over the past several years:

chart showing Number of Equal Employment Opportunity Complaints: 2001, 85; 2002, 104; 2003, 74; 2004, 71; 2005, 69; 2006, 76; 2007, 64.

First, you should know that EPA has one of the lowest “complaints per employee” rates in government (it appears only NASA is lower), although we think we can do better. Second, we have a low rate due to a significant drop in EEO complaints between 2002 and 2003 that we’ve been able to sustain, although it’s been pretty flat since then. When I examined this data a year ago with the Office of Civil Rights our questions were, “What caused the drop?” and “How could we make it happen again?”

We believe that drop happened because in 2002 every EPA senior manager attended mandatory EEO training. We also believe that if we repeat the mandatory EEO training, it will drop again. So the Administrator has determined that every senior manager at EPA will take two days of mandatory EEO training this year.

I went through the course two weeks ago. The many questions and lively interaction in the classroom showed me that the training was needed. I learned a lot and I wasn’t alone. The #1 lesson: you can’t have a good working environment without mutual respect. That doesn’t mean you need to kneel in front of anyone, but it does mean you may need to try on their shoes.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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What Do Light bulbs and the Shenandoah Valley Have in Common?

About the author: Molly O’Neill is EPA’s Assistant Administrator for the Office of Environmental Information and Chief Information Officer.

Portrait of Molly O'NeillAs the Agency’s CIO, people ask me questions all the time. And some of the time they are questions that any good steward of the environment should know the answer to. Or at least, know how to find the answer.

Recently a friend of mine asks, “Molly, I wanted to support Earth Day, so I got some of those energy efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs. What happens if it breaks? It’s got mercury in there!”

Off hand I didn’t know the answer, but figured a quick search on epa.gov would get me the answer. After I popped in the search field “flourescent light bulb” my results started with the question, “Did you mean: fluorescent light bulb?” Why yes, I did… thanks for catching that typo! I clicked on the link epa.gov/mercury/spills and pretty quickly found the info my friend was looking for.

The good news is there’s a lot of information out there. Navigating through that information is the challenge. Thanks to some new search capabilities on epa.gov, finding information has become easier. But we can do more.

And what if the “how do I” question isn’t so straightforward? I had a recent inquiry from a Shenandoah Valley community group leader asking how to find comprehensive environmental information to better assess their ecosystem. That question is a bit tougher and you’re not going to find the answer with a simple search engine inquiry.

I pointed my colleague to EPA’s Window to My Environment, Envirofacts, and the Toxic Release Inventory web sites; all great tools to help them get started with assessing the Shenandoah Valley. Also, I mentioned that states are important partners in our mission to protect human health and the environment.

Providing the resources to answer these complex questions is something I’m striving to do better with the Office of Environmental Information. For several weeks now, we have led a campaign called the National Dialogue for Access to Environmental Information to hear from stakeholders and our own employees about ways we can improve. Through this effort – and I’m inviting all readers of this blog to participate – we will be addressing ways to make information more readily available.

Also, come chat with me this afternoon from 2-3, where I’ll be taking your questions live in Ask EPA, our online forum where you can talk to senior officials.

I look forward to hearing your ideas!

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Song of the Coquí

About the author: Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and chairs EPA’s Multilingual Communications Task Force. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

Lea la versión en español a continuación de esta entrada en inglés.

As we celebrate the 38th anniversary of Earth Day, I remember when I studied at the Academia San José in Puerto Rico and the events that inspired me to strive for greater environmental protection.

In the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, a beautiful Caribbean island, one enjoys good weather all year round. Beautiful beaches, a colorful scenery, the melodious nocturnal songs of the coquí* Link to EPA's External Link Disclaimer, the Yunque Rainforest Link to EPA's External Link Disclaimer, the Camuy Caverns Link to EPA's External Link Disclaimer– these are some of the images and sounds that live in my memories of my island. In spite of these beautiful surroundings, Puerto Rico faces great environmental challenges-excess of solid waste, lack of landfills, trash along its beaches, problems with the quality of drinking water-these are only some of the factors that undermine its natural beauty.

Academia San JoséWhen I was the president of the ASJ Science Club more than three decades ago, we were decorating an enormous bulletin board for Earth Day. We also planted a tree, I think it was an oak, in the front garden of the school. Today, 34 years later, the tree still stands-a testimony of what some students interested in sciences did one beautiful spring afternoon.

That brings me back to today’s subject – my interest in environmental awareness. That is the seedling that I seek to plant for children and adults so that they may understand that our actions, be it at home, in school, in the community or our workplace, have an impact in our surroundings and above all in our environment. From putting aluminum cans in a recycling bin, buying green products or conserving energy, all these actions enable us to leave the world better for future generations.

Let’s celebrate Earth Day every day anywhere in the world!

*The coquí is a small frog that lives in the tropical trees and shrubs in Puerto Rico. It has been the inspiration for many songs and poetry on the Island.

Cantar del Coquí

Sobre la autor: Lina M. F. Younes ha trabajado en la EPA desde el 2002 y está a cargo del Grupo de Trabajo sobre Comunicaciones Multilingües. Como periodista, dirigió la oficina en Washington de dos periódicos puertorriqueños y ha laborado en varias agencias gubernamentales.

Mientras celebramos el 38vo aniversario del Día del Planeta Tierra, recuerdo cuando estudiaba en la Academia San José en Puerto Rico y los eventos que me inspiraron a dedicarme a la educación sobre la protección ambiental.

En el territorio estadounidense de Puerto Rico, una bella isla caribeña, se disfruta una temperatura cálida todo el año. Hermosas playas, bellos paisajes de vivos coloridos, el melodioso cantar nocturno del coquí* Link to EPA's External Link Disclaimer el Bosque Nacional Pluvial del Yunque Link to EPA's External Link Disclaimer y las Cuevas de Camuy Link to EPA's External Link Disclaimer–son algunas de las imágenes y sonidos que viven en mis recuerdos de mi Isla. A pesar de esos bellos alrededores, Puerto Rico enfrenta grandes retos ambientales-exceso de desechos sólidos, escasez de vertederos, la basura en las playas, problemas de calidad del agua potable–son tan solo algunos de factores que minan esa belleza natural.

Academia San JoséCuando era la presidenta del Club de Ciencia en la Academia San José más de tres décadas atrás, estábamos preparando un enorme tablón de anuncios con carteles alusivos a la protección del Planeta Tierra. También sembramos un árbol, creo que era un roble, en el jardín al frente del colegio. Hoy, 34 años más tarde, el árbol sigue allí-un testimonio de lo que hicieron unas estudiantes interesadas en las ciencias una bella tarde de primavera.

Eso me lleva otra vez al tema de hoy-mi interés en crear consciencia a favor de la protección ambiental. Esa es la semilla que quisiera sembrar para que tanto niños como adultos puedan comprender que las acciones que nosotros tomamos, sea en el hogar, en la escuela, en la comunidad o nuestro lugar de trabajo, tienen un impacto en nuestros alrededores y sobre todo en nuestro ambiente. Desde echar las latas de aluminio en la cesta de reciclaje, comprar productos “verdes” o conservar energía, todas estas acciones nos permitirán dejar un mundo mejor para futuras generaciones.

¡Celebremos el Día del Planeta Tierra todos los días en cualquier parte del mundo!

*El coquí es una pequeña rana que vive en la arboleda y flora tropicales de Puerto Rico. El coquí ha sido inspiración para muchas canciones y poesía en la Isla.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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What Is a Healthy Ecosystem?

About the author: Dr. Robert Lackey is a 27-year veteran senior scientist in EPA’s Office of Research and Development’s Corvallis, Oregon research laboratory.

Bob LackeyVery young children have a habit of asking innocent, but thorny questions. My grandson, however, has reached an age where innocence no longer passes for an excuse for his questions; he knows enough now that his questions reflect the traits of a budding intellectual troublemaker.

A case in point: here is my answer to his question about the increasingly popular term: ecosystem health.

“Grandpa, in school today in my science class, we talked about healthy ecosystems. My teacher says that when we are not feeling well, we go to a doctor to find out how to get healthy. If I have a sick ecosystem, she says that I should go to a scientist find out how to make the ecosystem healthy. Dad says you are a scientist, so what is a healthy ecosystem?”

It is a good question and one that I, as a research scientist who has worked on such issues for over 40 years, should be able to answer with ease.

This seemingly straightforward question, however, does not have a simple answer. Further, the answer requires a clear understanding of the proper role of science in a democracy (PDF) (7 pp., 39K) Link to EPA's External Link Disclaimer.

First, how is a person to recognize a healthy ecosystem? Many might identify the healthiest ecosystems as those that are pristine. But what is the pristine state of an ecosystem? Is it the condition of North America prior to alterations caused by European immigrants, say 1491? Or perhaps it is the condition of the land sometime well after the arrival of immigrants who came by way of the Bering land bridge, say 1,000 years ago? Or maybe it is the state of North America prior to the arrival of any humans, say more than 15,000 years ago?

Ultimately it is a policy decision (PDF) (16 pp., 173K) Link to EPA's External Link Disclaimer that will specify the desired state of an ecosystem. It is a choice, a preference, a goal.

Scientists can provide options, alternatives, and possibilities, but ultimately in a democracy it is society that chooses from among the possible goals (PDF) (6 pp., 157K) Link to EPA's External Link Disclaimer.

A malarial infested swamp in its natural state could be defined as a healthy ecosystem, as could the same land converted to an intensively managed rice paddy. Neither the swamp nor the rice paddy can be seen as a “healthy” ecosystem except through the lens of a person’s values or policy goals.

Once the desired state of an ecosystem is specified by someone, or by society overall through laws and regulation, scientists can determine how close we are to achieving that goal. They might even offer some approaches that might better achieve the goal. Ultimately, though, it is society (PDF) (5 pp., 21K) Link to EPA's External Link Disclaimer that defines the goal, not scientists. One person’s sick ecosystem is another person’s healthy ecosystem.

So the answer to my grandson’s provocative question is that human health is not an appropriate metaphor for ecosystem health. There is no inherently “healthy” state of ecosystems except when viewed from the perspective of societal values.

Pristine ecosystems (wilderness watersheds, Antarctica, uninhabited tundra) are certainly very different than highly altered ecosystems (farms, city parks, harbors) but neither a pristine ecosystem nor a highly altered ecosystem is scientifically better or worse — just different.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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