Monthly Archives: January 2009

What Next?

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

About the Author: Aaron Ferster is the science writer-editor in EPA’s Office of Research and Development, and the Science Wednesday Editor.

A few weeks ago I noticed the crosswalk I traverse to get from the office to the local coffee joint had a fresh coat of deep red paint. Then its dingy, frayed stripes were replaced with new ones, screaming white and perhaps twice as wide as the originals. It was shortly after that that grandstands and a big viewing platform along Pennsylvania Avenue outside my downtown office building began to appear. And yesterday, a million porta-potties were installed along the cross streets.

Image of the Capitol from the corner of 13th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue

Washington, DC is bracing for a big party.

Preparations for the Presidential Inaugural parade and other festivities are in full swing. It’s an exciting time to be working here. Clearly, that excitement is also being felt in other places, because I’ve been getting lots e-mails from out-of-town friends asking me what’s going on around town.

They also ask how much different I expect my job to be once the up-coming “changing of the guard” is complete. Good question. But as this is my first Presidential transition while here at EPA, I can’t really predict.

It’s easier to be certain about what I know won’t change. As a science writer, I fully expect to continue to work with lots of busy scientists and engineers to communicate what they do, and why it’s important. Science and research play a critical role in helping EPA meet its primary mission: protecting the natural environment and safeguarding human health.

Lisa P. Jackson, President Obama’s choice for EPA Administrator, said “science must be the backbone of what EPA does” during her confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate. Exciting stuff, and I’m eager to help tell the EPA science story. But first I’ll be meeting a few million of my closest friends at a parade.

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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My Farewell

Official portrait of EPA Deputy Administrator Marcus PeacockMarcus Peacock is EPA’s Deputy Administrator. This speech was written a year ago to be delivered next week. It didn’t need to be changed one whit.

A teacher once asked her third grade class if any of the students had heard of Julius Caesar. “Yes,” said one girl in the back of the classroom. “What do you know about him?” the teacher asked. “Well, I know he lived a long time ago and he was really important.” “Anything else?” the teacher prodded. “Yeah, he gave really long speeches . . . and they killed him.”

(pause)

I don’t intend to talk for long.

For over three years I’ve been in charge of making EPA run better. I think it’s the best job I’ll ever have. It’s tough to say ‘good-bye.’

It’s been an exciting 42 months. First we set up a system for governing at the ‘corporate’ level by creating quarterly management reports and meetings. Building off this I believe we have become the best-managed Agency in the Cabinet. Look at what we did in 2008 alone. We were:

  • the second Agency to achieve, and keep, the highest possible score on the President’s Management Agenda
  • the only Agency to create a new organization, the Program Analysis Division, whose full-time job is to look for ways to improve operations and outcomes.
  • one of a few agencies to systematically capture, disseminate, and validate best practices;
  • the first Agency to internally broadcast, live, regular senior management progress meetings;
  • the only Agency I know of to have our senior career managers regularly meet to make decisions regarding improving our operations and management systems;
  • and the first federal Agency to win the President’s Quality Award for overall management back-to-back.

Part of this success is due to the fact we used measures to manage rather than just using them to report. Since 2005 we’ve reduced the number of measures by 20 percent making those that remain more vital. In 2008:

  • EPA, for the first time, corralled all our performance measures into one central repository;
  • all EPA offices were able to access all our measures electronically and some offices were able to create tailored electronic dashboards; and
  • managers were not slaves to measures but constantly asked the key question, “What are the outcomes we are really trying to achieve?”

We accomplished these things because hundreds of people at this Agency understand that when EPA works better, public health and the environment improve faster. Management initiatives are gobbledygook unless they lead to cleaner air, water, and/or land. It’s that simple.

I’ll miss working on EPA’s operations and on EPA’s mission. But most of all, I’ll miss working with people who get up every morning, look themselves in the mirror and ask, “How can I improve what we do today?”

Thanks and farewell.

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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On Change

Marcus Peacock is EPA’s Deputy Administrator.

My mother was born two weeks before Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic. She has witnessed amazing changes in her life: the advent of air transportation, the proliferation of television, the near eradication of scourges like small pox and polio, men walking on the moon, the internet. Yet when I asked her how she felt about these changes, I did not get the response I expected. She shrugged. “Yes, things have improved a lot.” That was it.

Deep in middle age, I now understand that answer. The time scale our brains work with is easily swamped by the broader march of technology. After a dash of initial wonder, we just assimilate advances and move on. A few decades ago, every Christmas Day my family would crowd around a phone in our house and have hurried static-filled ‘long distance’ conversations with relatives in other lands. Two weeks ago one of my kids got a call from a friend. My daughter was walking in the woods. Her friend was sitting in a cafe in Florence, Italy. This does not amaze them. It no longer amazes me. In fact, I can’t really remember how we got to this place. It just happened.

Today the Administrator signed a proposed rule modifying how EPA determines the Air Quality Index for fine particle pollution. As proposals go, it is not terribly notable. And yet . . . this will be the first proposed rule issued by a federal agency that will allow the public to comment on the rule using a blog. The blog will be open from March 2 to March 11 which corresponds to public hearings on the proposal. Stay tuned to Greenversations for more information on how to participate. Mark it as a small step on the way to what I believe will be a dramatic change in the way the federal government crafts rules and regulations. A small step, but one that, with others, will accumulate to the point where the government will be able to produce better quality rules much more quickly than in the past.

We live in the Information Age. It is sweeping over us like advancing waves on a beach. Federal agencies can either seize the tools that are coming from this change or just let the tide pick us up and deposit us in a new place. EPA is choosing to seize the day. We are not doing this because we want to amaze people with whiz-bang Web 2.0 technology. We do this because when someone in the future is asked about the changes they have seen in the environment, they will just shrug their shoulders and say, “Yes, things have improved a lot.”

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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Saving the Environment, Part 2

About the author: Brenda Reyes Tomassini joined EPA in 2002. She is a public affairs specialist in the San Juan, Puerto Rico office and also handles community relations for the Caribbean Environmental Protection Division.

In my previous post, I provided tips that everyone can incorporate into their daily routines. Today you will find the last 26 for a total of 52 changes you can make during 2009 to protect the environment and reduce your carbon footprint.

When Traveling:
27.  Take it on the road – even when traveling, don’t leave the sink running unnecessarily and turn off the lights when you leave your hotel room.
28. Fly direct – it saves fuel and reduces your carbon footprint.
29. Pick a destination where you can walk, bike or use public transportation.
30. Choose a destination with activities related to environmental protection or enjoying nature.

At Work:
31. If you need to attend an off-site meeting, consider videoconferencing.
32. Bring your own reusable cup to your local coffee shop.
33. Think before your print. Go paperless when you can.

At Home:
34. A WaterSense labeled bathroom sink faucet or aerator will help you reduce water use and save money.
35. Don’t let your car idle while waiting. Turn off the engine after 30 seconds.
36. Check the air in your car’s tires to improve your gas mileage.
37. Consider walking, biking, public transportation or carpooling. Combine multiple errands when driving.
38. Consider natural pesticides. For example. boiling hot water with phosphate-free detergent can eliminate an infestation of mole crickets.
39. Choose natural and machine washable fabrics when purchasing clothes.
40. If clothes must be dry-cleaned, try hanging them to air out after each use to extend time between cleaning.
41. Use rechargeable batteries and recycle them properly
42. When purchasing gifts, consider environmentally friendly alternatives such as movie-tickets, memberships or donations to a favorite charity.
43. In the summertime, save on electricity by closing blinds early in the day to keep the hot sun out.
44. Don’t throw prescriptions down the drain. For guidance, visit the Proper Disposal of Prescription Drugs site.
45. Avoid toys for outside play that require a constant flow of water.
46. Wash your car with a bucket, instead of the hose, or use a commercial car wash that recycles water.
47. Detect and repair all water leaks around the house and garden.
48. Wash full loads of laundry and use the appropriate water level.
49. Repair and caulk windows during winter months.
50. Repurpose old things or refurbish worn/slightly damaged but favorite items.

In the classroom:
51. For “back to school,” swap books and uniforms with other parents
52. If you are a teacher, take the lesson outside the classroom. Let students experience nature.

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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Protegiendo el Medioambiente, parte 2

Sobre la autor: Brenda Reyes Tomassini se unió a la EPA en el 2002. Labora como especialista de relaciones públicas en la oficina de EPA en San Juan, Puerto Rico donde también maneja asuntos comunitarios para la División de Protección Ambiental del Caribe.

En mi pasado blog, detallé 26 cambios que cualquier persona puede hacer en su rutina diaria para proteger el medioambiente y reducir su huella de carbon.  Adjunto incluyo los 26 restantes para un total de 52 cambios, uno por cada semana del año.

Al viajar:
27. No deje el agua corriendo y evite el encendido innecesario de luces cuando se hospede en un hotel.
28. Vuele directo-ahorra combustible y reduce su huella de carbono.
29. Escoja un destino donde pueda caminar, usar bicicleta o transportación pública.
30. Escoja un destino dónde pueda realizar actividades enfocadas a la protección ambiental o ecoturismo.

En el trabajo:
31. Si necesita asistir a una reunión fuera de su lugar de trabajo considere realizarla a través de videoconferencia.
32. Lleve su propia taza reusable al lugar dónde compra el café
33. Piense si es necesario imprimir documentos.  Trate de evitar el uso de papel.

En casa:
34. Una llave de baño con el sello de Watersense o un aireador puede ayudarle a reducir su consumo de agua y ahorrarle dinero.
35. Evite el encendido innecesario. Apague el motor de su auto si va a estar parado por más de 30 segundos.
36. Verifique el aire de las gomas de su auto.  La presión correcta le ayuda a gastar menos gasolina.
37. Considere caminar, tomar transportación pública, montar en bicicleta o compartir el viaje en auto cuando pueda.  También puede combinar sus diligencias en un solo viaje.
38. Utilice plaguicidas naturales.  En nuestra casa eliminamos una plaga en el césped vertiendo agua caliente con detergente libre de fosfato.
39. Al comprar ropa escoja aquellas piezas hechas de fibras naturales y que puedan ser lavadas a máquina.
40. Si tiene que enviar ropa a la tintorería extienda el tiempo entre visitas colgando la ropa para airearla.
41. Use baterías recargables y recicle las que no lo son.
42. Cuando compre regalos considere alternativas amigables para el medioambiente como boletos para el cine, membresías o donar a una entidad benéfica.
43. Ahorre electricidad en el verano cerrando las cortinas temprano en la tarde para refrescar la casa.
44. No tire medicamentos por el inodoro
45. Evite juegos que requieran un constante flujo de agua.
46. Lave su auto con un cubo, en vez de la manguera o en un lavado de autos comercial que recicle agua.
47. Detecte y repare cualquier fuga de agua en la casa y el jardín.
48. Lave tandas llenas de ropa y utilice el nivel apropiado de agua.
49. Repare y selle las ventanas en invierno
50. Busque un nuevo uso o arregle sus artículos favoritos.

En la escuela:
51. Para el regreso a clases intercambie libros y uniformes con otros padres.
52. Si es maestro lleve a sus estudiantes fuera del salón de clases y convierta la lección en una “verde”.

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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Dawn Chorus

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

photo of author, Karl Berg, in the field About the Author: Karl Berg is currently a Ph.D. student at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, and is looking forward to a career that will combine his interests in animal behavior and conservation. His master’s research was funded by an EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Graduate Research Fellowship.

Bird populations have long been viewed as “canaries in the coal mine” for indicating changes in environmental health. As EPA’s Report on the Environment states, “changes in bird populations reflect changes in landscape and habitat, food availability and quality, toxic exposure, and climate.” Because this is so important, annual bird counts to document population changes are conducted by the North American Breeding Bird Survey.

If the timing of the species’ calls is staggered, birds could be undercounted, which is why I wanted to find an improved method to monitor bird populations to better understand how they are changing and why.

closeup photo of colorful bird with blue rings around the eye In my quest to understand the “dawn chorus,”—why different bird species chime in at different times—I chose my research site in the tropical forests of Ecuador where hundreds of bird species occur together. Tropical forests are the most threatened terrestrial ecosystems on Earth and have large and diverse bird populations. As more forests are cut one immediate change that takes place in remaining forests is the quantity and quality of forest light.

My study showed that common communicative and reproductive behaviors of forest birds are synchronized or have co-evolved with seemingly tiny changes in forest light.

My wife and I spent several months trudging up muddy, forested mountains in a tropical rainforest of Ecuador at 4:00 AM to make over 100 hours of recordings, synchronized with twilight, to determine if the birds had a singing schedule.

closeup picture of birds headBack at Florida International University, we identified 130 bird species from the recordings and logged the times of 25,000 songs. My research showed that tropical birds began to sing only when they saw light. Big-eyed birds that foraged high in the forest canopy sang earlier. The late risers were birds with small eyes in the dark, dense underbrush. The control mechanism then, was a combination of ecological and morphological traits synchronized with an atmospheric one.

In the future, I believe that automated birdsong monitoring, supplemented by the sophisticated understanding of birdsong timing, will help EPA and others better understand our changing environment.

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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Watts Up With School Energy?

About the author: Kelly Leovic manages EPA’s Environmental and Community Outreach Program in Research Triangle Park. Kelly has worked at EPA for 21 years and has three children, one of whom needs regular reminders to “turn the lights off when you leave the room.”

“Raise your hand if you recycle,” I said to 15 students at Lowes Grove Middle School in Durham, NC. It was my first apprenticeship class at Citizen Schools, a national program that partners with middle schools to expand the learning day for low-income children.

The goal of my 10-week Environmental Awareness Apprenticeship was to guide the students in developing an environmental project. No hands were raised in response to my recycling question, so I launched into my “Trash Talk” lesson which, in addition to REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE, includes a trash sort activity. The students sorted through bags of “trash” to discover what could be reused, composted, or recycled. They quickly applied their new knowledge of the three R’s and were on their way to environmental awareness.

As the apprenticeship progressed, we learned about water pollution, conservation, and energy. (A few students even admitted taking over 1 hour showers, so we had a little talk about that one!) One day we used Watts meters to measure and compare the energy use of regular light bulbs and compact fluorescents. Equating energy use to money piqued their interest, and the students decided to do their project on measuring the energy use of various school equipment.

image of student sitting at his desk with a calculatorMy “apprentices” used a Watts meter to measure computers, printers, microwaves, pencil sharpeners, and projectors during use and when they were turned off but plugged in. Next, the students calculated the estimated annual cost of using the equipment based on 9.86 cents per Kilowatt/hour and multiplied this by the number of each and estimated time used.
 
What suprised us the most was that, based on estimated usage time, the 37 printers at the school actually use more energy when they are plugged in but turned off ($117 annually) than when they are in use ($75 annually). This is because some appliances, e.g., think of a microwave clock, still consume energy just by being plugged in.

I truly enjoyed teaching these kids because they didn’t begin with much environmental knowledge, so I felt I could make a difference in their behaviors and choices. Being a Citizen Teacher also gave me the opportunity to work with the same group of students throughout the semester and to get to know them individually. One of the highlights for the students was their field trip to our EPA Building where they could see EPA’s energy conservation efforts in practice.

In addition to learning about ways to conserve energy at school, the students had an opportunity to “teach” their Principal about what they learned, presenting their results and recommendations for school energy savings at a staff meeting. This is one visit to the Principal’s office that I can feel good about!

Epilogue: On December 9, the students presented their recommendations to over 200 attendees at the Citizen Schools final program. The Principal, the Superintendent of Schools, and a State Senator were there and are excited about implementing the energy saving tips from our middle school citizens.

 

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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Question of the Week: What have you done to protect your home against radon?

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.

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas, but it can build up inside homes and cause lung cancer (it’s number 2, after smoking). You can buy radon test kits to check for radon, improve home ventilation, and other things. January is National Radon Action Month.

What have you done to protect your home against radon?

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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Question of the Week: Qué ha hecho usted para protejer su hogar del radón?

En español: Cada semana hacemos una pregunta relacionada al medio ambiente. Por favor comparta con nosotros sus pensamientos y comentarios. Siéntase en libertad de responder a comentarios anteriores o plantear nuevas ideas. Preguntas previas.

El radón es un gas radiactivo que se encuentra en la naturaleza. Este se puede concentrar en el interior de los hogares y causar cáncer del pulmón (es la segunda causa de cáncer despúes de fumar). Usted puede comprar kits para la detección del radón, aumentar la ventilación de la casa, entre otros. Enero es el mes de consientización sobre radón.

¿Qué ha hecho usted para protejer su hogar del radón?

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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Brown 2 Green

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.

I want to relate an exciting initiative upon which EPA Region 6 has embarked. We are working with state and federal agencies, land owners, renewable energy financiers and developers to advocate the use of previously contaminated sites as potential locations for renewable energy production. Together with the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources and the New Mexico Environment departments, Region 6 hosted the conference – Brown to Green: Make the Connection to Renewable Energy.

What might be a previously contaminated site? It could be a Brownfields designated property, a former military installation, a closed municipal landfill or a previously worked mining site. Really, almost any industrial facility could be prepared for a renewable energy use.

What are the merits of these types of sites? In most cases, the properties are less expensive to acquire than a greenfield development. The basic infrastructure – power grid access, water availability and highway arteries are nearby. In some cases, the costs associated in developing a greenfield site, including adding transmission lines could run into the millions of dollars. From an economic standpoint, reuse of a property means that it will be returned to local and state tax rolls for future assessments. And by using a previously developed property, acres of undisturbed lands will remain in their virgin state.

What type of renewable energy is applicable to these sites? As with most real estate developments, the answer to that question is “Location, Location, Location!” EPA and the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory have mapped the thousands of locations of closed facilities and cross-referenced them with solar and wind capabilities. In the near future, geothermal production capabilities will be added. To get an idea of the potential for properties in your state, and see the state financial incentives for renewable energy, check out: http://www.epa.gov/renewableenergyland/ for more information.

What has EPA done to facilitate this initiative? For the last 6 months, I have led a group working with the City of Houston to assess the regulatory, technical and economic considerations for the development of a 10 MWatt solar farm on a portion of the closed Holmes Road Landfill. With the abundance of sunshine in the Houston area year-round, it would be feasible to use about 100 acres of the 300 acres at the closed landfill for a solar farm. The City is examining its contract options and hopes to make a decision in early 2009 about using the site.

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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