Monthly Archives: June 2009

Science Wednesday: Sensor Field Day-Humans Still Needed

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

On June 15, I joined about a dozen colleagues from state and federal environmental agencies, academic institutions, and private industry aboard the Research Vessel Rachel Carson .  We were joined by an AAAS Fellow working at EPA, along with her daughter, a middle school student, to learn about environmental sensor technologies used to monitor the Potomac River.

The field trip included a “show and tell” of high-tech equipment, such as automated, solar-powered, web-enabled, sensors moored to research buoys that collect a host of data on water quality and environmental conditions. There was even a demonstration of a radio-controlled mini-submarine fitted with water quality and bathymetry monitors and side-scan sonar.

As impressive as all the high-tech equipment was, I was reminded of some of the lessons I learned from one of my first jobs, working in the environmental health unit of the City Health Department in Madison, Wisconsin: the importance of cooperation and remembering to use our “human” sensors.

Cooperation
While on board the Rachel Carson, I was struck by the exemplary cooperation among VA and MD environmental agencies. They have collaborated across political boundaries to standardize water monitoring methods and capabilities on a huge aquatic ecosystem, feeding real-time monitoring data—collected, processed, quality-assured, and visually displayed—to a vast range of eager eyes. This cooperation is helping them tackle complex watershed problems in times of lean budgets and staff shortages.

Human Sensors
Everyone on board used their own human ‘sensors’ to appreciate the river and the importance of healthy aquatic ecosystems. The gathering also provided an opportunity to share data by one of the easiest ways I know: swapping stories.

When the team demonstrating how to use the mini-sub realized they needed to adjust the buoyancy to match the Potomac’s lower salinity, scientist Dr. Walter Boynton shared the story of a colleague who could test salinity by tasting a drop of water. His tongue was sometimes more accurate than the sensors.

Another story involved the sunken WW II submarine Black Panther. It was “misplaced” for decades until a team of divers searching for it suspected the coordinates for its location had been transposed. They switched the numbers and sure enough, they “rediscovered” the Black Panther submarine in 1989!

image of author looking out at water over the side of the shipA great day on the Potomac reinforced lessons I think we need to remember as we work to solve the enormously complex problem of managing water quality throughout the huge Chesapeake Bay watershed: all the new technologies and databases still need humans to make the connections and keep it all calibrated.

About the Author: Ed Washburn has covered “multimedia” topics in the Office of Research and Development since joining EPA in 1998.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Climate for Action: Save Some Money…and the Planet

image of the inside of a library with tables, chairs and shelves of booksIn almost every neighborhood there are local libraries and these libraries provide a great wealth of information. They provide books on many different subjects and also supply daily newspapers, magazines, movies and CDs—everything you could possibly need to keep you up to date. And, the best part about all the information you can get at a library is that it is all free to borrow.

The next time you want to purchase a popular book or CD, go to your local library and chances are they will have it and will lend it out to you for no cost. Borrowing books, CDs, movies and papers is a great way to save money. Borrowing these items could also help protect the environment in a big way. You can save a lot of resources by reusing items instead of purchasing them. By reusing books and CDs at a library, you can save energy, water, trees and metals, etc. thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Libraries are one place we can all go to borrow items for no cost. Can you think of any other places? Please let us know so we can all help reduce the amount of resources we use!

Michelle Gugger graduated from Rutgers University in 2008. She is currently spending a year of service at EPA’s Region 3 Office in Philadelphia, PA as an AmeriCorps VISTA.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Green Chemistry – Chemistry Done Right

While I was in graduate school, I ran into someone collecting signatures in protest of the nearby construction of a hazardous waste incinerator. When I asked him what should be done with the hazardous waste, he said “They just shouldn’t make it.” I dismissed him as oversimplifying a complex situation—that chemicals are a vital part of our lives and we just can’t not have the industry. I suspected his real motives were that he didn’t want it near to where he lived. However, after I began working at EPA and learned about green chemistry, I realized that, whatever his motives, he was essentially right. To an ever-increasing extent, we’re discovering that we can have a vital, innovative, competitive chemicals industry with less—or even no hazardous waste.

image of green chemistry logoThis year marks my 12th year working with EPA’s Green Chemistry Program and those dozen years have clearly shown me how effective green chemistry can be in preventing pollution.

Green chemistry is “the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances.” It applies to what chemists make, what they make it from, and how they make it. It encourages scientists to think as broadly as possible about the potential impacts of the chemistry choices they make and to minimize the hazard associated with those choices. It’s a significant departure from traditional environmental protection, which focused on protecting people and the environment by minimizing exposure to hazardous substances. Instead, green chemistry protects by focusing on minimizing the intrinsic hazard of chemicals.

Fortunately, we can have the high-performing chemical products that our economy depends on—stuff used in health care, safety, building, transportation, electronics, food and agriculture, entertainment, and nearly every other industry—at a competitive price AND with a lower environmental footprint. There is no fundamental scientific reason that the chemistry has to be hazardous. The fact is that much of the chemistry that the industry currently uses is decades old and from a time that environmental protection was an afterthought, if it was a thought at all. What green chemistry espouses, and the winners of the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge demonstrate, is that you can have “cleaner, cheaper, smarter chemistry” if you include reduced hazard as one of the design criteria.

My dream is that one day, we won’t need a Green Chemistry Program—it will be as natural a part of the way that chemists practice their science as the Periodic Table of the Elements. You can read more at www.epa.gov/greenchemistry.

About the author: Rich Engler is a chemist in the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics and is currently the Program Manager for EPA’s Green Chemistry Program. Before he joined EPA, he taught Organic Chemistry at the University of San Diego.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Memories of the Cuyahoga River

This month is the 40th anniversary of the Cuyahoga River catching on fire. I was born and grew up in Cleveland on the east side. The 1969 river fire occurred between my junior and senior years of high school. I remember being embarrassed that this could happen in my home town. I remember the beaches near the city being closed and traveling all the way out to Mentor to go swimming. While in college, during the early 1970’s I worked on an ore boat that occasionally docked on the river and in the Republic Steel mill. The river was a place to work.

After working in Chicago briefly, I returned to Cleveland in 1976. I moved to the west side of Cleveland , which for an eastsider was another world. The Cuyahoga River and the Flats became a meeting area for me, as I traveled between the west side and my east side roots. In the later 1970’s and early 1980’s I remember the Flats became the entertainment hotspot. Outdoor concerts were held on Fridays after work and it seemed as though everyone was there. I meet my wife at Fagans, the old east side bar, when it still had that shot and a beer feel. The river still looked dirty but oil slicks were rare and it didn’t catch fire anymore.

image of boat that looks like a duck and is made from milk cartons. This milk carton boat was built and raced by some of the EPA staff here in the Cleveland office during the Krazy Kraft Race which was part of the Flats Fest in July 1991.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s I was busy working and raising a family. Although I had settled in Bay Village , my family and I continued to come to the river. Shooters, the Powerhouse, Goodtime cruises, river festivals with milk carton boat races and concerts brought my family and I back to the river. Upstream the Cuyahoga Valley National Park became a biking destination. Now the bike trails go from Akron to the lake.

I’ve noticed the river has begun to look scenic. When did it become a place to take people visiting from out of town instead of a punch line for a Cleveland joke? I don’t know, but I’m happy it did.

If you have photos or memories of the Cuyahoga River either today or way back when, please share them with the rest of us along with your stories either by commenting directly on our blog, or posting your photos to our Flickr page at http://www.flickr.com/groups/epa-cuyahoga40th/

Mark Moloney works in EPA’s Cleveland Office and is an environmental engineer who has been with the agency since 1974. He does multimedia investigations and other projects for the Enforcement Compliance Assurance Team and in the early 90s became the EPA’s to the Cuyahoga River RAP Organization.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Question of the Week: What do you remember about the Cuyahoga River burning?

Forty years ago, debris on the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire and news reports helped spur greater awareness of environmental protection.  Share memories you have of this event.

What do you remember about the Cuyahoga River burning?

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.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Pregunta de la Semana: ¿Acaso se acuerda del Río Cuyahoga en llamas?

Hace cuarenta años atrás, los desechos en el Río Cuyahoga en Ohio se incendiarion e informes noticiosos ayudaron a crear mayor consciencia sobre la protección ambiental.  Comparta sus recuerdos acerca de este evento.

¿Acaso se acuerda del Río Cuyahoga en llamas?

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.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

A Tale of Two Phases

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

Phase 1 of the Hudson River dredging project provides a chance to evaluate whether the equipment and methods being used are adequate to meet the project’s cleanup goals. This phase is underway and will continue until the beginning of November. So far, dredging has removed more than 16,000 cubic yards of the river bottom. You can follow the project’s productivity at the following website: www.hudsondredgingdata.com/

That website also provides information about the various types of monitoring being done to ensure the project is performed in a way that is protective of human health and the environment.

The design elements to be scrutinized during Phase 1 include the equipment selected for dredging sediment and transporting dredged materials to the sediment processing facility, PCB resuspension control and monitoring equipment, the processes and equipment used for dewatering and stabilizing the dredged material and for treating water generated during sediment processing, the rail infrastructure designed for transport of processed dredged materials to the final disposal location in Texas, and the methods and equipment used to backfill dredged areas and, in certain areas, to reconstruct habitat. EPA will be watching all of these project components closely.

At the end of Phase 1 dredging and prior to the start of Phase 2 dredging, EPA and an independent scientific panel will separately evaluate the project to determine whether the dredging design or dredging operations should be modified for the final phase. If all goes according to plan the entire project will be complete by November of 2015.

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.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Monumental Environmental Protection Efforts in the Marianas Islands

Sometimes I wonder what impact a single person or even a small group can have on preserving the environment. How much am I really contributing to environmental protection by taking public transportation to work, carrying around my own coffee mug, and taking advantage of the great composting and recycling programs we have in San Francisco? While struggling with my own impact on environmental protection, I met Ignacio Cabrera and Angelo Villagomez, representing Friends of the Monument at the EPA Pacific Southwest Regional environmental awards ceremony.

These two men from Saipan described their organization’s goal of preserving and protecting the Marianas Trench in the waters around three islands of the Northern Mariana Islands. The Marianas Trench is the deepest ocean trench with some of the greatest biological diversity in the world. The Friends of the Monument engaged in activities to help educate the community–distributing leaflets, conducting meetings, participating in television and radio public service announcements, and coordinating with teachers for classroom presentations. They took advantage of Web 2.0 and developed a blog, Myspace and Facebook groups, and even have their own YouTube Channel.

image of students putting letters in a box held by a park rangerStudents turning over some of their over 500 letters to President Bush to the rangers at American Memorial National Park.

The Friends of the Monument gathered several thousand signatures in support of the designation of the Monument, including over 500 from school children, and traveled over 8,000 miles to Washington D.C. to meet with White House officials.

The designation of the monument was not politically popular on the islands and at times, the members of the Friends of the Monument were singled out for criticism and targeted by opponents in letters and press releases. The organization helped keep support strong by unity, with strength in numbers, and a positive focus on its goal.

image of five people at official signingFriends of the Monument’s Ignacio Cabrera, Angelo Villagomez, and Agnes McPhetres pose with Sylvia Earl and Jean Michel Cousteau at the signing of the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument.

As a direct result of the Friends of the Monument’s grassroots efforts, in early 2009, the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument was created. Within the first year after the organization was born, this small group of people were key in creating the largest marine monument and they became leaders in worldwide oceanic protection in the process. I am inspired! Now I know what a monumental impact a few motivated people can have on environmental protection.

I’d love to hear more stories of how the efforts of a few individuals have snowballed into significant environmental progress. Stories like these help spark my imagination about the possibilities to personally impact environmental change.

Sara Jacobs usually can be found in the EPA Region 9 Drinking Water Office. However, she is currently on a detail to the Navajo Nation EPA Superfund Program where she spends much of her time out in the field helping to identify contaminated structures which are a legacy of uranium mining.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Before the Storm Hits

When I was growing up in Puerto Rico, I remember the stories my great grandmother and great aunt used to tell me about hurricanes past– San Ciriaco, San Ciprián, San Felipe–are just some of the names I remember. I wondered why hurricanes in Spanish always had the names of saints. I found out that hurricanes used to acquire their names according to the day they hit in accordance to the Catholic calendar. Each day commemorates the birth day of one or more saints according to the calendar. Not a very scientific system, I must add. As of 1960, the naming process in the US was standardized. In times past, these storms were so newsworthy that many other events, such as births, were described as “having happened before or after a given hurricane”. For example, I was born on the year of the Santa Clara hurricane (AKA Betsy on the US Mainland), which was a relatively mild hurricane by Puerto Rican standards at the time.

When the National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane warning, I recall that the entire preparation process usually revolved around buying batteries, flashlights, collecting water, and cooking plenty of food and perhaps boarding windows. That was it. Since we were pretty luck from 1960 to about 1989, the hurricane preparations basically were associated with party time. These were opportunities for great family gatherings with a lot of food where everyone sat around the TV or radio depending upon whether you had electricity or not—not well thought out emergency preparedness techniques.

It’s wise to prepare a kit of supplies in preparation for potential disasters. Hurricane season is a good time to start. It’s best to stock up on food that is not easily perishable or that does not require refrigeration in the event you are without electricity for extended periods of time. Stock up on water and drinking water. Keep a three day supply of drinking water for the family if possible. Stocking up on your prescription medications is also a good idea. In terms of your property, you should also check around your home to minimize debris as much as possible. It’s also a good idea to clear rain gutters and down spouts in advance. Keep a full tank of gas in your car in the event that you might be ordered to evacuate.

For additional tips, before and after the storm, visit our web pages for information in English, Spanish, Chinese, and Vietnamese.

And if the whole naming process caught your interest, visit the National Hurricane Center for the lists of hurricanes names planned years in advance for both Atlantic and Pacific storms.

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.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Antes de que la tormenta azote

Durante mi niñez en Puerto Rico, me acuerdo de las historias de mi bisabuela y tía abuela sobre los huracanes de antaño—San Ciriaco, San Ciprián, San Felipe—eran algunos nombres que recuerdo. Siempre me preguntaba el por qué los huracanes tenían nombres de santos. Encontré que bautizaban los huracanes con los nombres conforme al día del santo cuando tocaba tierra. No es una metodología muy científica que digamos. Desde el 1960, el proceso de nombrar los huracanes se formalizó. Cabe señalar que en el pasado muchas de estas tormentas eran acontecimientos de tal envergadura que otros eventos como nacimientos se describían por haber sucedido antes o después de tal huracán. Por ejemplo, yo nací el año del huracán Santa Clara (también conocido como Betsy en el continente EE.UU.), que fue un huracán de poco impacto en comparación con otros huracanes que pasaron por la Isla en aquella época.

Cuando el Centro Nacional de Huracanes emitía un aviso de tormenta, me acuerdo que los preparativos normalmente giraban alrededor de la compra de baterías, linternas, la colección de agua, el cocinar grandes cantidades de comida y clavar planchas de madera sobre las ventanas. Eso era todo. Como tuvimos bastante suerte entre los años 1960 al 1989, los preparativos de huracanes casi estaban asociados con un espíritu festivo. Eran oportunidades para grandes reuniones familiares donde había mucha comida y la gente se arremolinaba alrededor del televisor o la radio dependiendo si había electricidad o no. Estas no eran necesariamente técnicas de preparación para emergencias bien planificadas.

Es prudente preparar un conjunto de provisiones en preparación para posibles desastres naturales. La temporada de huracanes es un buen momento para empezar. Es buena idea almacenar alimentos que no se deterioren con facilidad o que no requieran refrigeración en el evento de que se quede sin electricidad por largos periodos de tiempo. También hay que almacenar agua para el aseo personal y agua potable. El mantener un suministro de tres días de agua potable para toda la familia, si es posible, es ventajoso. También mantenga los medicamentos con receta necesarios a mano. En términos de su propiedad, trate de minimizar en la manera posible todo lo que se podría convertir en escombros tras una tormenta. También es buena idea verificar que los desagües de la casa no estén tapados con anticipación al paso del huracán. También llene el tanque de gasolina de su auto para estar listo en caso de que venga una orden de evacuar el lugar.

Para consejos adicionales sobre las medidas a tomar antes y después de la tormenta, visite nuestras páginas Web para información en inglés, español, chino, y vietnamita.

Y si está interesado en conocer cuáles son los nombres que el Centro Nacional de Huracanes ha designado para las tormentas en el Atlántico y el Pacífico, puede consultar la lista de huracanes.

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.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.