Monthly Archives: May 2009

EPA’s Presidential Environmental Youth Awards Program

About the author: Megan Gavin currently works as the environmental education coordinator in the Chicago office of EPA. She started working at EPA just out of college as a volunteer and stayed on to become a paid intern and eventually a permanent employee. She is in charge of administering a grants program and a youth award program. She leads the environmental education web workgroup which oversees the design and content of the kids, students, high school and teachers web sites.

On May 11, 2009, I flew from Chicago, IL to Washington, DC to take part in the President’s Environmental Youth Award celebration. Winning students from across the country came to our nation’s capitol to be recognized for completing environmental projects. It was inspiring to see elementary, middle and high school students who have taken the initiative to get involved with an environmental issue that interests them. This year’s award winners were interested in the environment and instead of sitting back and watching others do something, they decided to get involved. Whether it was starting an anti smoking campaign or raising awareness about damage being done to rivers they got involved. One high school student from Nebraska went above and beyond a class assignment and hosted the largest recycling rally her community has ever seen. Another student addressed the challenges of using bio-ethanol and came up with a way to make it more practically used in commercial processes. Yet another winner persuaded his entire community to switch to energy efficient light bulbs. Many of the winners had to raise money and get support for their projects. Others were featured in stories in local and national newspapers and on the radio. It’s amazing to see the attention that kids can bring to an issue. The President’s Environmental Youth Award competition is offered every year and is open to kids in grades K-12. You can apply for a regional certificate or the regional award. If you apply for the regional award you need to tell us what the benefits of your project were. You also need to tell us what your goals were and if you were able to accomplish them. Many past winners started a project as a one time activity and had so much fun that they got their friends involved and work on it all year.  When I was in high school I remember volunteering at a nature center clearing buckthorn which is an invasive species. It was hard work but I felt good after I saw the big pile at the end. I didn’t know about the President’s Environmental Youth Award program.

Why don’t you tell us about some projects you completed that increase environmental awareness or community involvement? In addition to applying for EPA’s President’s Environmental Youth Award program, there are plenty of other environmental award programs too. Check them out at:epa.gov/highschool/awards.htm or epa.gov/peya.

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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Love Food, Hate Waste

About the author: Cara Peck is an Environmental Scientist in EPA Region 9. For the past three years she has worked on the recycling of organic materials, but is now working on reducing the climate change and energy implications from the Agriculture Industry.

I love food. At various points along the day, it is a safe bet that I’m thinking about what to eat for my next meal. This could be the product of growing up in Northern California where we have amazing food, or it could be because I love to cook and eating logically follows cooking. Whatever the reason, I’m a huge fan of food.

While many share my love of the culinary world, there is an ugly and harmful side to the delicacies we enjoy- food waste. Organic waste, which includes food, currently makes up 25% of what is going to landfills. In addition to a host of other problems, landfills emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas. In an effort to try to get this food waste out of landfills, I started researching the anaerobic digestion of food waste. Basically, in an atmosphere without oxygen, bacteria feed on the food waste, break it down, and produce biogas in the process. Amazingly, biogas is an energy source, so in the process of reducing waste, energy is produced!

To further explore this project, I managed a few projects that investigated using this technology at wastewater treatment facilities. Many wastewater treatment facilities already use anaerobic digesters to break down sewage sludge. In addition, most of these digesters have excess capacity for something like… food waste!

Here’s a snapshot of how the process works: food scraps are collected at nearby restaurants. Then are sent to a local wastewater treatment facility, processed and injected into the anaerobic digesters. The bacteria go to work, break down the waste and produce biogas. The biogas is captured and used on site to power the facility, or even sent back to the grid. The residual that is left after the bugs have done their job is reduced, making it much easier to truck to the compost facility. Upon further composting, the material can be used as a soil amendment to grow more food. It’s a true closed-loop, sustainable system.

This technology has national applicability and I’m excited to see it more widely adopted in an effort to reduce waste and to combat climate change.

Since I do love food so much, I must admit that there isn’t often much waste left on my plate. However, I feel a little better about my love affair with food knowing that the waste that is left is going to a higher use and not contributing to climate change.

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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Creating Change, One Tree at a Time: Million Trees Los Angeles

Go to EPA's Science Month pageGary Riley is an environmental engineer at EPA’s Pacific Southwest Regional Office, Superfund Division. He works to investigate and clean up sites on EPA’s National Priorities List of abandoned hazardous waste sites.

image of authorMany of us (myself included) see a lot of pavement and very few trees as we commute to work and go about our lives. When I was a kid, heading into the woods and exploring the trails was pretty much my favorite thing to do. That’s not so easy to do for those of us living in cities; we just don’t see very many trees. But trees also do many things that are much less visible: they cool our neighborhoods, clean the air, and reduce stormwater runoff.

That’s why I was excited to hear about Million Trees Los Angeles, one of this year’s Environmental Awards winners chosen by EPA’s Pacific Southwest Regional Office to recognize individuals and groups outside of the EPA who are working to protect public health and the environment. Let’s face it: when I think about Los Angeles, the first things in my mind are the airport, Sunset Boulevard, and the skyline; not a lush cover of green. Million Trees has an ambitious goal to plant one million trees throughout the city and use this to leverage even greater environmental change in the future.

image of students planting trees along a sidewalk next to a highway

In 2008, Million Trees increased tree planting in Los Angles tenfold, and one of the most important ways it’s doing this is by encouraging children to learn about the benefits of a healthy urban forest. Last year’s “Get Your Green On” Environmental Youth Conference attracted over 5,000 youth participants and their parents, teachers, and others. Anyone can join tree planting efforts in neighborhoods around the city. Lisa Sarno, Executive Director of Million Trees LA, tells me kids might not even notice the trees in their urban environment until they’ve planted one themselves, but then suddenly feel a connection from this simple act.

EPA’s job is to protect human health and the environment, but it’s everyone helping out in their own communities that can really create change. It can even be something as easy as planting a tree! Learn more about planting trees in your community at the Arbor Day Foundation.

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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Have Fun With Science This Summer

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.

Summer vacation is fast approaching and many parents are looking for activities to entertain their children during the summer months. Now is the best time to plan ahead so you and your children can find fun ways to explore the environment and learn about science at summer camps and children’s museums throughout the country. In the Washington area, there are many museum-related science enrichment opportunities for children. Organizations like 4-H, the Boys and Girls Scouts of America also offer fun and hands-on activities during the summer and year round. In fact, these organizations were engaging youth in environmental protection even before going green became the latest fad.

EPA’s website offers a variety of fun facts and projects for students and educators to learn more about the environment and the importance of science in our daily lives. For example, the Water Science and Technology Office, provides interesting activities, science projects and games. The Agency’s Office of Environmental Education offers educational resources, grants opportunities and fellowships to encourage individuals to learn more about how their actions affect the environment. This knowledge is essential to enable them to make better informed decisions to protect the world we live in.

In speaking with many of my colleagues at EPA and other federal agencies such as NASANOAAUSGS, there is one common theme in their motivation to pursue a career in the sciences. In the majority of the cases, their love of science did not start in the classroom. It started with personal experiences at home, a trip to the park, a visit to the beach, a fishing trip, a starry spring evening… These simple experiences helped awaken their sense of wonder and awe at an early age. This sense of exploration for the world around us is essential for any researcher or scientist. Why do we see lightning before hearing thunder? Why do certain elements react the way they do? What are the impacts of human activities on the environment?

We don’t have to have Ph.D’s to teach our children to explore their surroundings. There are simple steps we can take to protect our environment. And when you come to think about it, at the heart of many of these activities, you will find science. So let the fun begin!

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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Diviértase con las ciencias este verano

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.

Las vacaciones de verano se avecinan rápidamente y muchos padres están buscando actividades para entretener a sus hijos durante esos meses de ocio. Ahora es el momento de planificar con anticipación para encontrar maneras divertidas en las cuales usted y sus hijos pueden explorar el medio ambiente y aprender sobre las ciencias en campamentos de verano y museos de niños en todo el país. En el área de Washington, DC, hay muchas oportunidades para niños de enriquecimiento científico afiliados a museosOrganizaciones como los 4-H, los Niños y Niñas Exploradores de América también ofrecen una variedad de actividades durante el verano y todo el año. En efecto, estas organizaciones han estado fomentando el civismo ambiental mucho antes de que el movimiento ecológico verde se convirtiera en el último grito de la moda.

El sitio Web de EPA ofrece una variedad de datos y proyectos divertidos para que estudiantes y educadores aprendan más sobre el medio ambiental y el papel importante que desempeñan las ciencias en nuestras vidas cotidianas. Por ejemplo, la Oficina de las Ciencias y Tecnología de Agua brinda actividades interesantes, proyectos de ciencia y juegos. La Oficina de Educación Ambiental de la agencia ofrece recursos educativos, subvenciones y oportunidades para becas de investigación para alentar a los individuos a aprender más sobre cómo sus acciones afectan el medio ambiente. Este conocimiento es esencial para facilitar que tomen decisiones mejor informadas para proteger el mundo donde viven.

Al hablar con muchos de mis colegas en EPA y otras agencias federales tales como la NASA, NOAA, USGS, hay un tema común en su motivación para buscar una carrera en las ciencias. En la mayoría de los casos, su amor por las ciencias no comienzó en el salón de clases. Se despertó a raíz de vivencias personales en el hogar, una excursión al parque, una visita a la playa, un viaje de pesca, una noche estrellada de primavera….Estas experiencias sencillas ayudaron a despertar un sentir de curiosidad y admiración a temprana edad. El sentir de exploración del mundo a nuestro alrededor es esencial para cualquier investigador o científico. ¿Por qué vemos los rayos antes de los truenos? ¿Por qué ciertos elementos reaccionan de cierta manera? ¿Cuáles son los impactos de actividades humanas en el medio ambiente?

No tenemos que tener grandes títulos ni doctorados para enseñar a nuestros hijos a que exploren sus alrededores. Hay pasos sencillos que podemos tomar para proteger nuestro medio ambiente. Y cuando lo pensamos realmente, al centro de muchas de estas actividades encontrarán las ciencias. ¡Diviértanse!

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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Science Wednesday: What do you for a living? SCIENCE!

Go to EPA's Science Month pageAbout the author: Jeffery Robichaud is a second generation scientist with EPA who started in 1998. He serves as Chief of the Environmental Assessment and Monitoring Branch in Kansas City.

I struggle with chit-chat at social gatherings when the inevitable, “What do you do?” question is asked. It is easy to say I work for the EPA. But if the party-goer probes further, my answer is usually, “Well I work with a group of scientists and engineers who do lots and lots of different complicated sciency things in the laboratory and in the field to protect public health and the environment.” Usually at this point they ignore me and turn to my wife, the professional photographer, in an effort to avoid being blinded with science.

Joking aside, science is at the very core of everything we do as an Agency. In a Regional office, most of the Science we perform is Applied Science…taking all of the data and conclusions of basic science research, national studies, and Agency policies and translating them into decisions that affect the public and the environment in a very real way, often in their own backyards. Here in Kansas City, I’m lucky to have a team of professionals that has received numerous top national awards and recognition in an ill-understood but extremely important scientific field, risk assessment. In fact, when I searched Greenversations it wasn’t even mentioned.

Risk Assessment is a scientific process used to characterize the nature and magnitude of health risks to humans, fish and wildlife from exposures to chemical contaminants and other stressors. It brings together many scientific disciplines including chemistry, biology, toxicology, geology, statistics and ecology, all with the goal of providing the scientific support behind the Agency’s decisions. Risk Assessment is the science behind the establishment of fish advisories, cleanup levels at hazardous waste sites, evaluating health risks associated with toxic air pollutants, and registration of pesticides.

Beyond the obvious ability to affect decisions regarding human health and the environment, those of us involved with risk assessment enjoy the discipline since it is constantly evolving. Updated information on the toxicity of chemicals continually emerges, new exposure pathways come to the forefront such as vapor intrusion and exciting activities are always around the corner such as the field as computational toxicology. It is both challenging and rewarding to ensure that the best science is brought to bear as we meet tough challenges in the coming years. We’ll be hard at work performing the science behind the scenes; however don’t be afraid to talk to one of us at a cocktail party. Scientists are people too.

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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The Greening of Cooling

About the Author: Kristen Taddonio is a program analyst in the EPA Office of Air and Radiation’s Climate Protection Partnerships Division specializing in technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Kristen was recently selected as a finalist for the Partnership for Public Service’s “Call to Service” Medal, honoring outstanding young federal employees.

Have you ever sat in a car with a broken air conditioner on a hot summer day? If so, you might wonder how anyone ever drove a car without it. These days, car A/C is nearly universal – and in rapidly developing countries like India and China, it is among the first luxuries people are buying. The irony to all this is that even though A/C cools us down, it’s warming the planet up. Refrigerants are powerful greenhouse gases. CFC-12, the ozone-depleting refrigerant that used to be used in our cars’ A/C before 1994, was a greenhouse gas 8,500 times more potent than carbon dioxide! Thankfully, our current refrigerant, HFC-134a, is safe for the ozone layer. However, it is still a potent global warming gas: one pound of HFC-134a is equivalent to over 1,400 pounds of carbon dioxide. As more and more people buy cars with A/C, the global warming impacts are increasing.

The good news is that alterative refrigerants are available that can drastically reduce the impact our air conditioners have on the environment, and car makers are set to pick a replacement for HFC-134a in the near future. By switching away from HFC-134a in cars, the United States will save the equivalent of 30-50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year! See EPA’s Mobile Air Conditioning website.

However, this good news story could have had a very different ending. We’ve all heard stories about great new technologies that for one reason or the other, just didn’t work out. In each case, there is a show-stopper: either they were too expensive, undercut by competitors, or not marketed well enough. For new refrigerants, the show-stopper was outdated laws that would have forced automakers to stay with the old refrigerant. For the last three years, I’ve been working with an international consortium of environmental, automotive and engineering experts to fix the problem, and I’m happy to say we’ve had great success. Through our outreach and education, we’ve been able to help clear the way for cleaner refrigerants, and a cleaner future.

Until the new refrigerants arrive, I’ll still be using my car A/C. But it feels good to know that in the near future, I will be able to keep my car cool, and the planet too!

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’s one scientific fact you learned as a youngster that still affects your environmental decisions as an adult?

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.

A salt marsh is an important fishery breeding ground. Coal and oil deposits formed from plants that lived millions of years ago. So many seemingly small facts reflect just a part of the larger environment in which we live.

What’s one scientific fact you learned as a youngster that still affects your environmental decisions as an adult?

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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Pregunta de la Semana: ¿Díganos un dato científico que aprendió de niño que aún afecta sus decisiones medioambientales como adultos?

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.

Un pantano de agua salada, un marisma es un terreno fértil para muchas especies importantes de peces. Los depósitos de carbono y petróleo se formaron de plantas que vivieron millones de años atrás. Por lo tanto lo que parecen pequeños hechos reflejan sólo una parte de un medio ambiente más grande donde vivimos.

¿Díganos un dato científico que aprendió de niño que aún afecta sus decisiones medioambientales como adultos?

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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An Historic Day for the Hudson

About the author: Kristen Skopeck is originally from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She is an 11-year Air Force veteran and was stationed in California, Ohio, Texas, Portugal, and New York. After working for the USDA for three years, Kristen joined EPA in 2007 and moved to Glens Falls, NY to be a member of the Hudson River PCB dredging project team. She likes to spend her time reading, writing, watching movies, walking, and meeting new people.

go to EPA's Hudson cleanup site
In 2009 dredging began in the Upper Hudson River to remove sediments with PCBs. Read more.

Thousands of hours of planning and investigation culminated in the first dredge bucket being lowered into the Upper Hudson River on May 15, 2009. I was there to watch a diverse crowd, many with Cheshire Cat grins and some more dubious, take in the scene, as a bright blue dredge bucket slowly lowered into the water and pulled up a bucketful of PCB-laden muck. Also watching were reporters from many media outlets, and even a group of journalism students, all armed with cameras and itching for interviews. Everyone there was reminded of the 30-plus years of wrangling between EPA, General Electric, environmental groups, and citizens that led up to this historic day.

The 40-miles of the Upper Hudson between Fort Edward and Troy, New York contain thousands of pounds of a potentially cancer-causing chemical called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. The entire dredging project targets the removal of about 248,600 pounds of PCBs that EPA scientists know are situated in the river in a way that is having a toxic impact on fish. They know because they have studied more than 50,000 sediment samples taken in a polka dot pattern across the 40 miles. Incidentally, they found some pockets of PCBs are buried deeply and shouldn’t be disturbed, but the places being targeted are relatively shallow (many between six inches and three feet) and have to come out.

As the Community Involvement Coordinator on the project, I am the affected peoples’ advocate. It is important to me that people understand how the project is being orchestrated and that EPA’s oversight will ensure it is done in a safe and efficient manner. One of the tools I’ll be using to do so is this blog. I’ll update it regularly, and I’ll invite other project members to join in the dialogue, so we can relate what is happening on the project in a timely, unfiltered way. If you have any specific questions please email me at skopeck.kristen@epa.gov.

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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