sustainability

A Sustainability Rendezvous

By Michael Slimak

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of joining some of my colleagues from the European Union at an event in Washington, DC to present information and share examples of how we are all making strides to better understand and assess the environment.

The gathering, A Sustainable Future for All: EU and US Efforts to Measure and Assess Progress Towards a Sustainable and Resource Efficient Economy, was an opportunity to explore how countries on both sides of the vast Atlantic Ocean see a pathway to cleaner, healthier communities and a more prosperous future for us, our grandchildren, and beyond.

One of the great aspects of the rendezvous was listening to the common themes emerge from different perspectives and across a diversity of organizations. EPA research is at the forefront of forging that confluence of thought.

EPA’s Sustainable and Healthy Communities research program was among the first explicitly organized to build bridges across traditional research disciplines—uniting ecologists, public health experts, toxicologists, and social scientists—to illuminate the connections between a healthy environment and specific, identifiable aspects of human well being. We work to connect natural ecosystems and the “services” they deliver such as climate stability, clean air, fertile soils, and watershed functions with critical aspects of livable communities: public health, environmental justice, economic opportunity, and long-term prosperity.

Simply put, we are working to empower communities and make things better for people.

EPA's Report on the Environment.

A section of EPA’s interactive Report on the Environment. Go to http://cfpub.epa.gov/roe/ to explore more.

An important way we do that is to develop the information, data, and tools that individuals and communities need to assess and monitor the environment. At the rendezvous, I shared one of our latest examples: EPA’s Report on the Environment. The European Environment Agency produced a similar effort in the European Environment, State and Outlook 2015 (SOER).

EPA’s report is an interactive resource that shows how the condition of the environment and human health in the United States is changing over time. It presents the best available indicators of national trends in five areas of interest to EPA: AirWaterLand, Human Exposure and Health, and Ecological Condition.

The Report on the Environment is an example of the kinds of scientific, environmental indicator-based resources EPA researchers are developing to provide transparent, open access to the information decision makers need.

Like our European counterparts, we are working together to embrace the concept of sustainability as a way to change the paradigm of environmental protection from something apart from traditional economic calculations to realizing opportunities in efficiencies and long-term solutions. Resources such as EPA’s Report on the Environment are helping us make that happen, and it was great to learn that we have committed partners to work with across the globe.

Portrait of Michael SlimakAbout the Author: Michael Slimak, Ph.D., is the national program director for EPA’s Sustainable and Healthy Communities research program. An ecologist by training, he has worked on issues ranging from strategic research planning to aquatic and terrestrial contamination and risk assessment.

 

 

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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We Must Work Together to Build Resilience in Communities Facing Climate Change 

By Kelly Overstreet

EPA brings in students every summer to work, learn practical environmental skills, and enhance their educational experience through our Pathways Intern Program. The Big Blue Thread is proud to feature several blogs written by these interns, focusing on what motivates them to work in the environmental sector and what attracted them to EPA. We’ve already posted blogs by Andrew Speckin and Sara Lamprise. Our third blog is by Kelly Overstreet, who continues to intern with our Program Operations and Integration staff.

151006 - CREAT logo

In August, I attended a fascinating Climate Change Workshop, sponsored by the Nebraska Silver Jackets, with my EPA colleague Robert Dunlevy. Silver Jacket groups partner with federal and state agencies to manage flood risk at the state level. Bob made a presentation on EPA’s Climate Resilience Evaluation and Awareness Tool (CREAT), a software tool to assist drinking water and wastewater utility owners and operators in understanding potential climate change threats and assessing the related risks at their individual utilities. As an intern, I went along to gain some valuable, direct experience in collaborative problem-solving.

Bob Dunlevy and Kelly Overstreet

Bob Dunlevy and Kelly Overstreet

As we drove north to the workshop at the Lewis and Clark Missouri River Visitors Center in Nebraska City, Bob used the trip as a teaching opportunity, noting sites of loess (windblown sediment), commenting on the heights of various rivers and streams, and discussing the variety of unique geological structures here in the Heartland. Many of these lessons were anecdotal, relating to his 25 years of experience working with communities as an EPA representative.

Bob reminded me of the unique position EPA plays as a U.S. regulatory agency. We have a broad mission to ensure that “all Americans are protected from significant risks to human health and the environment where they live, learn and work.” In achieving that mission, we as federal employees must focus on our individual contributions to help achieve EPA’s overall goal.

In economics, there is the phenomena of “agglomeration economies.” While the concept can get quite technical very quickly, the general idea is that businesses are most successful when they exist in proximity to each other. This allows for the exchange of tacit knowledge between businesses that provide goods and services both laterally across sectors and vertically within.

However, such knowledge doesn’t only exist in the private sector. Upon arriving at Nebraska City, I had the opportunity to witness the power of tacit knowledge firsthand. The workshop offered a series of lectures and talks from several federal, state, and local agencies directly involved in flood resiliency and adaptation measures.

View from Lewis and Clark Missouri River Visitors Center

View from Lewis and Clark Missouri River Visitors Center

Not surprisingly, we joined representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, all with different missions and different sets of tools for accomplishing their goals. And yet, through the collaborative process of sharing knowledge and asking questions, I left with a much stronger sense of the challenges we face in coping with extreme weather events.

Sometimes our role in EPA’s mission can feel piecemeal, but to best achieve our mission, we must form partnerships and foster relationships. Each of us has a different focus and knowledge set, but as long as we continue to have conversations, like at the Silver Jackets training, we don’t have to be limited by the specific priorities that shape our service.

About the Author: Kelly Overstreet is a Student Intern at EPA Region 7, who worked full-time this summer and will continue part-time during the school year. She is a graduate student at the University of Kansas, earning master’s degrees in urban planning and human geography. Kelly’s graduate research focuses on how municipal climate planning can address issues of environmental justice and social equity. She’s a cat lady, and proud to show off her pet photos.

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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EPA Works Toward ‘Making a Visible Difference’ in Omaha and Council Bluffs Communities

By Kathleen L. Fenton

From left: Bill Lukash, Toni Gargas and Dave Williams

From left: Bill Lukash, Toni Gargas and Dave Williams

An eager EPA team, Toni Gargas, Dave Williams and I, came together to begin a new chapter last week in our work with communities. We’ll be working in a focused way with the cities of Omaha, Neb., and Council Bluffs, Iowa. EPA has an exciting new initiative called Making a Visible Difference in Communities. It’s a tall order but the three of us are up to the challenge.

We started our work with our Acting Regional Administrator, Mark Hague, reaching out to the two cities’ mayors and city planning administrations. Last week, between the two cities, our team met with many community service and public health providers, city planners, and neighborhood leaders.

As an initial step, we will listen to determine what is needed. Then we’ll find out where EPA Region 7 staff can best help with our current resources and technical assistance.

Our Omaha visit was initiated by an invitation from David Thomas, Assistant Director of the Omaha City Planning Department, to attend a community planning meeting at Prospect Village. There we met with over 30 community service partners who have worked with neighbors, organizations, and faith community to help move and build up this neighborhood for the past two years. The city plans on focusing their efforts on a number of established neighborhoods that are interested in enhancing their sustainability and quality of life.

Theresa Gilreath tends the urban garden

Theresa Gilreath tends the urban garden

Bill Lukash, Omaha City Planner, gave us a short but informative tour of the neighborhood and the various city efforts underway in northeastern Omaha. One example of the current work supported by the city is the placement and growth of many urban gardens throughout neighborhoods, senior living complexes, and schools.

We also ran into Theresa Gilreath, who lives at Village East Senior Apartments. With the help of many in the community – especially her friend, Ginger Thomas, and the Omaha City Planning Department and local development organizations – Theresa, Ginger and others in the community have maintained one of the most beautiful and prolific urban gardens I have ever seen. This senior living complex and its urban garden, now in its fall harvest, feeds over 42 families with fruits, vegetables and herbs. It is also a restful meeting place for members to use for outdoor visits.

Another example of EPA’s intended efforts, and the topic of some of our meetings with Omaha and Council Bluffs, was discussing a resource EPA can bring to the table: training sessions for schools. Our grantee, Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., will bring Healthy Schools training to those who work on school maintenance and children’s health, like school nurses and the county health departments. We hope to deliver a number of Healthy Schools training sessions to the two cities, each by 2016.

EPA will support what the two cities need most from EPA, and “connecting these dots” through information, technical assistance, and hard work will be our primary focus in Omaha and Council Bluffs. The cities have welcomed our initiative. Toni, Dave and I look forward to meeting some thoughtful and dedicated elected officials, city government staff, and citizens who are continuing to build their communities one step at a time to make a visible difference. Stay tuned for the next steps in these partnerships as we work together for the Heartland!

About the Author: Kathleen L. Fenton serves as the Environmental Education Program Coordinator and the Lead Strategic Planner in EPA Region 7’s Office of Public Affairs. She has worked with communities on environmental health issues, environmental education, and Healthy Schools projects for over 20 years.

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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Work That Matters to Me: Building Trust, Greener Communities

Introduction by Kathleen L. Fenton

David Doyle is a public servant’s public servant. I’ve known Dave for 24 years and if you have a “federal agency” question, Dave will either know the answer or the person to call to help you. He has mentored many of us at EPA about the intricacies of community work, and has truly “woven straw into gold” for many communities with the limited, complicated funding and layers of federal and state resources applicable to them. Dave turns over every stone and has left in his wake a sustainable legacy.

By David Doyle

A tornado devastated Greensburg, Kan. on May 4, 2007.

Aftermath of Greensburg tornado

It’s June 2007, and I’m sitting under a large red-and-white tent in Greensburg, Kan., feeling a little disoriented and anxious. I was told a week before that I had been assigned to work with the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) on developing a long-term recovery plan for the community that was wiped out by a tornado a month earlier. Once I drove to Greensburg and located the FEMA trailer, their recovery staff directed me to a community meeting.

It must have been 100 degrees under that tent. With huge fans trying to cool the place and only adding to the noise and confusion, I suddenly heard the speaker on the platform say, “EPA’s here to help.” I wasn’t sure what kind of reaction I would get from the audience in southwestern Kansas, but as I stood up and meekly waved, I got nothing but cheers and applause. I was relieved by that reaction, but I sat down wondering what I was going to do next.

Emergency response personnel make plans in the aftermath of the tornado that devastated Greensburg, Kan., on May 4, 2007.

Greensburg community meeting 

What I had learned up to then in working with communities is that building trust is by far the most important thing to do. I also understood that being patient with people, listening to their concerns, and being honest and responsive to their needs are key things to keep in mind. Work I had done in Stella, a southwestern Missouri town with a population of 150, prepared me to some extent for what I was asked to do in Greensburg.

EPA had performed a “miracle” in Stella, as described by some of the residents, by demolishing an abandoned hospital that sat in the middle of their downtown, using our authority under the Superfund law. We then brought in architectural students from Kansas State University to design reuse plans for the site and later developed a master plan for the community. The local officials recognized my work, along with other EPA staff, by presenting us with award plaques hand-carved from local walnut trees during the annual Stella Days Fair.

In Greensburg, we decided to form a “Green Team” that came up with recommendations for turning it into the greenest community in the country. The team had representatives from the business community, school district, and a number of local citizens, along with representatives from several state and federal agencies. We met on a regular basis to bounce ideas off each other. Our recommendations were incorporated into FEMA’s Long-Term Community Recovery Plan, and all of them were eventually adopted by the city council and implemented.

The redeveloped Greensburg, Kan., now has more LEED Platinum buildings than any other community in America.

Redevelopment in Greensburg, the greenest community in America

The most important recommendation adopted was that all new municipal buildings over a certain size had to be built to meet Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum standards, the highest certification level for new buildings. As a result, Greensburg (population 800) now has more LEED Platinum buildings than any other community in the United States.

Since my time in Greensburg, I have provided assistance to many other communities here in the Heartland. These collaborative efforts resulted in a new medical clinic surrounded by new businesses in Ogden, Iowa; plans for a new sustainable downtown in Sutherland, Neb.; redevelopment of former gas stations in south St. Louis; new, complete streetscapes in Lincoln, Neb.; plans for a mixed-use neighborhood in Iowa City, Iowa; and improvements in other communities.

I still remember those hot, windy and dusty days in Greensburg when a local citizen named Jack would often come up to me with a big smile on his face, shake my hand, and say how much he appreciated EPA being there and helping out.

About the Introducer: Kathleen Fenton has worked with communities on environmental health issues, environmental education grants, and Healthy Schools projects for over 20 years.

About the Author: David Doyle serves as the Sustainable Communities Coordinator at EPA Region 7. David has a Bachelor of Science in environmental engineering from Syracuse University, and a Master of Science in environmental health engineering from the University of Kansas.

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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Lessons from an Avocado: Making Food Recovery an Everyday Activity 

By Lisa Thresher

It’s lunchtime on a Saturday and my stomach guides me to the kitchen. I notice an avocado sitting on the counter. Perfect, it’ll be a nice addition to a salad! Then I notice grey fuzz protruding from the top of it. My avocado went bad, and is moldy through and through! This is not good – in more ways than one.

Since I’m a new hire in EPA’s Resource Conservation and Pollution Prevention program, one of my main responsibilities is to foster increased food recovery here in the Heartland. So having food spoil is unacceptable to me. Not on my watch! Fortunately, I know of a resource to help me prevent more food from spoiling.

Lisa (center) as EPA coordinator at first food waste audit at Haskell University in Lawrence, Kan.

Lisa (center) as EPA coordinator at first food waste audit at Haskell University in Lawrence, Kan.

EPA has partnered with the West Coast Climate and Materials Management Forum on a toolkit called Food: Too Good to Waste. This resource is designed specifically to help household consumers buy what they need, use what they have, and minimize waste as much as possible. Usually, the toolkit is utilized on a community-wide scale, where a neighborhood signs up to use the toolkit for a few weeks and tracks its progress.

One of the toolkit’s strategies and tools that is directly applicable to my current situation is the Fruit and Vegetable Storage Guide. Following the case of my avocado, I’d have known to refrigerate it once it ripened. Thankfully, this convenient guide is available online, or I might’ve panicked and stuffed all my fruits and vegetables into the refrigerator to prevent them from spoiling.

Another unfortunate result of wasting my avocado is the loss of time and resources that went into producing it. I’m not just referring to the money I spent to buy it, but the natural resources, energy, time, and labor as well. When pondering the entire life cycle of the avocado, I think about the land, pesticides and fertilizers used, the farm equipment likely powered by fossil fuels, the time and effort spent by the farmer, and other farm-related operations.

My avocado’s journey on2015-9-11 Thresher Food Recovery 2 a farm is only one part of its life cycle. Considering all the steps involved in getting it from the farm to the store where I bought it, I’m amazed that all of that went into one piece of fruit. It’s not easy to make the connection between the complex process that brought the avocado to me as a consumer and the money that I paid for it.

This blog is about my unfortunate avocado, but the story of sustainable food management is a much bigger one – not only a national concern, but a global one. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 2011, about one-third of all food products – equivalent to 1.3 billion tons – are lost or wasted in food production and consumption systems worldwide every year. This is a monumental loss that impacts people, the economy, and the planet.

I’ve learned my lesson about food spoilage and will continue to refine my food purchasing, storage, and consumption habits. We’re fortunate that EPA and other agencies have plenty of resources to help us prevent the loss of food. Pair them with focused daily efforts, and throwing food in the trash will be a thing of the past.

Well, I‘m off to compost this avocado so it can at least go into the soil – instead of my lunch!

About the Author: Lisa Thresher is a Life Scientist with EPA Region 7’s Air and Waste Management Division. She recently graduated from Philadelphia University with a degree in environmental sustainability and a minor in law and society. Lisa is a Philadelphia native and has an affinity for the arts and staying active.

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 a Parking Lot, Stormwater Runoff and A Rain Garden Have In Common? Happy Plants and Healthy Streams

 

By Andre Bowser

Display explaining the rain garden at EPA’s Edison, NJ facility.

Display explaining the rain garden at EPA’s Edison, NJ facility.

On the surface, it appeared like an ordinary parking lot to me. But off to the sides, a lush wellspring of plants and flowers were bowing in the summer breeze.

Little did I know that it was the stage of a Rain Garden Demonstration Site at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Edison, N.J. installation. This of course is no secret; the EPA touts similar urban ecological models as a matter of good business, just as the Edison site had been oft-touted. But it was news to me – a newbie at EPA in New York.

During a recent summer business trip to Edison from my office in the Big Apple, I literally stumbled on a display that explained why a veritable garden surrounded the parking lot behind me. After tripping on the curb, I reached out and steadied myself on the fixture. I thought it odd that a museum-quality display would be positioned next to a nondescript parking lot.

The display detailed the multi-layered story of the parking lot behind me: how water runoff from rain is routed to nearby plants; how the gravel is waterproof to assist in efficiently shepherding the vital resource; and how the water ultimately ends up in our groundwater, underground wells and springs.   And then there’s the myriad technical benefits, such as helping EPA study “how rain gardens help mimic natural drainage processes” and how they reduce the amount of stormwater runoff that enters the storm sewage systems, according to the display. The site demonstrates how, by reducing the amount of stormwater through a natural filtration process, we reduce the amount of pollutants in our water.

Above all, it’s just plain beautiful. And that such an industrially driven edifice as a parking lot could act as a buoy for plant life – through a symbiotic relationship with nature – is ecological-poetic justice.

Rain water runoff is routed to nearby plants.

Rain water runoff is routed to nearby plants.

For the ingenuity and vision behind the site, the display gives the credit to “research efforts between EPA’s Office of Administration and Resources Management, Region 2, and the Office of Research and Development.” But let’s also give it up to the beautiful plant life at the site, including Red Maple and Dogwood trees; Switchgrass and Common Rush; Highbush, Blueberry and Beach Plum shrubs; Blue Flag, Sunflower and Golden Zizia herbs, among many others, which are all native to Mid-Atlantic rain gardens.

States like New York and New Jersey have long lauded the positive ecological effects of rain gardens. According to EPA’s New York-state counterpart, the Department of Environmental Conservation, “stormwater running off rooftops, sidewalks, driveways, and streets washes pollutants into nearby streams. As if that weren’t bad enough, as stormwater rushes over these hard-or impervious-surfaces, it picks up speed and force, causing local flooding and erosion.”  (Click on the link above to learn how to make a miniature rain garden.)

Back in Edison, N.J., the parking lot, stormwater runoff and rain garden are contributing to healthy plants, and that’s just the positive effect happening on the surface. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find healthy groundwater finding its way to underground wells, and eventually streams.

About the Author: Andre Bowser is the director of the Public Affairs Division in EPA’s Region 2. Contact him by e-mailing bowser.andre@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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In My Grandfather’s Footsteps: A Worthwhile Summer Spent at EPA 

Every summer, EPA brings in students to work, learn practical environmental skills, and enhance their educational experience through our Pathways Intern Program. The Big Blue Thread is proud to feature several blogs written by these interns, focusing on what motivates them to work in the environmental sector and what attracted them to EPA. Andrew Speckin’s blog launched this series. Our second blog is by Sara Lamprise, who has worked in our Drinking Water, Water Quality, Wastewater, and Pesticides programs.

By Sara Lamprise

My grandfather and I share the same spirit. He is what I think of as a practical idealist. Softhearted, with a deep love of nature, he is not one to turn a blind eye to struggles. As ever, he continues to shape my sense of ethics and accountability.

When I was younger, he told me that idle worry is a way of avoiding responsibility. I never heard him say, “I wish someone would …” If he thought it needed doing, he did it, which meant he was usually busy.

lamprisegrandfather

Sara’s grandfather, Paul Deshotel, on 70th birthday

As an adult, I’ve wanted to be someone my grandfather would respect. I’ve stayed busy, but not always with things I found worth doing. Countless times I thought, “I wish I could …” or “I wish I was qualified to do something else.” Idle thoughts.

I sat on them. And I definitely didn’t tell my grandfather about them.

Meanwhile, I pestered my friends about plastics in the ocean and the erosion of the Gulf coast and fish that change from male to female. It seems pretty obvious in retrospect, but I think my friends caught on before I did. Long story short, I decided to change fields. To do that, I needed to go back to school.

I see a need for skilled people who care about others and the environment. So I’m developing the skills to fill that need. I could have spent my summer learning to fetch coffee … probably. But I wanted a worthwhile experience in a positive environment. EPA was my top choice.

Sara Lamprise at Myrtle Beach, S.C., summer 2012

Sara Lamprise at Myrtle Beach, S.C., summer 2012

I heard that this was a great program, that even as an intern, my work would be relevant and meaningful. I also heard many times that I would be working with great people. Check and check.

Plus, I respect EPA’s strategy. From my perspective, a critical role of EPA is providing the information to make sound environmental decisions. Information can spur action. It can bring about voluntary changes that are enduring and contagious. I know it doesn’t always work that way, and that’s where enforcement comes in. But information is a good Plan A.

Also, I heard tales of a fish grinder that I really want to see in action. Major selling point.

Anyway, I’m stoked. I figure whatever I work on will be time well spent, and something my grandfather will be happy to hear about.

About the Author: Sara Lamprise is working as a Student Intern at EPA Region 7. She is a senior at the University of Missouri-Kansas City majoring in environmental science. Sara loves board games, hiking, and any excuse to travel.

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 Last Year of an Environmental Educator’s Career: Reflections on Sustainability

Introduction by Kathleen L. Fenton

I’m fortunate to manage EPA Region 7’s Environmental Education Program. I get to meet folks like Dr. Michael Hotz, who work tirelessly to ensure today’s students understand, value and enjoy learning. Dr. Hotz is one of those exceptional teachers who students remember long after they’ve graduated, an educator who makes a lasting impression. Most importantly, he’s influenced students to realize that science, technology, engineering and math are subjects they can understand and have fun doing, while actually learning – and it’s knowledge they can keep and use for years to come.

Dr. Hotz is a model teacher and representative of many fine teachers across the Heartland. I had the honor of watching him receive his Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators. I wish him well on his career’s final year, and hope the teaching profession can employ more teachers like him. Thank you, Dr. Hotz, for an impressive 31-year run!

By Dr. Michael Hotz

As I begin the last of 31 years of teaching young people, I reflect on sustainability. Through the last 19 years in the Kansas City, Kan., Public School District, I’ve had the opportunity to create a school garden/outdoor classroom, conduct long-term watershed studies, create an aquaponic system where tilapia grow and greenhouse plants are nourished, and conduct energy audits to save more than $100,000 in utility costs.

Dr. Hotz and his wife, Catherine, at PIAEE award ceremony

Dr. Hotz and his wife, Catherine, at PIAEE award ceremony

It’s been a great experience, and I have an EPA employee to thank for, as she says, “planting the seed of ideas.” Roberta Vogel-Luetung sat with me as we brainstormed ideas over 15 years ago at an in-service meeting conducted by EPA. We discussed how an empty, unused courtyard at Wyandotte High School could be used for teaching environmental content. Since that meeting, the courtyard has been turned into a school garden and outdoor classroom with 20 raised beds, an automated sprinkler system, all-weather walkways, flower gardens, a water feature, and composting facilities.

Students were challenged and stepped up to the task of designing, building, and financing this area, which they also help plant and maintain. These students, as well as others, have reaped the fruits of their labors. Joanne Postawait has taken over the responsibility of planting and harvesting this area, while I continue to help with its hardscape maintenance.

School garden/outdoor classroom

School garden/outdoor classroom

The EPA video “After the Storm” inspired me to create a “challenge-based” learning experience for the Small Learning Community in which I teach at Wyandotte High School. Through collaboration with my fellow educators Ms. Hornberger (Math), Mr. Willard (English), and Mr. Zak (Engineering), we created a long-term project around Big Eleven Lake in Kansas City, Kan.

Each year, students study their watershed in my science classes. We bring the studies down to the local level of what the students can do themselves to help the watershed. They’ve been taught how to conduct water testing, and then go into the field and test Big Eleven Lake, Kaw Point (at the convergence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers), and other lakes in the area. Comparisons are made and reported to the Kansas Health Department. All of the curriculums are tied into this experience. Standardized test scores demonstrate that significant gains have been made because of this program.

I was also a member of the EPA Urban Lake Testing Group where EPA provided water testing techniques and equipment, and samples were sent to EPA laboratories for analysis. I was then able to train residents of the Big Eleven Lake area, who belong to the Struggler’s Hill/Roots Neighborhood Association, to do the water testing. These neighborhood association members were helpful in sharing their lives and experiences around the lake, and the EPA employees were just as helpful with the testing and field work.

Aquaponics system

Aquaponic system

We developed a pilot aquaponics program where tilapia are grown. The water from these tanks is sent to trays where plants are grown, establishing a symbiotic relationship between the fish and plants. Wastes from the tilapia nourish tomatoes, herbs, squash, and other plants in our greenhouse. This type of organic, non-polluting growing system is 10 times more efficient than traditional methods and saves water.

I initiated energy audits and plans to save on utility costs. Students use testing equipment to monitor lights, electricity, and temperature and then develop plans to reduce usage. More than $100,000 was saved in a single year. A recycling program also is in place, which is operated by our Environmental Club and is part of the Green Schools Program of the Kansas Association for Conservation and Environmental Education.

Aquaponic system

Aquaponic system

These programs helped me to be recognized as a proud winner of the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators (PIAEE). EPA and its employees have been instrumental in the development and teaching of these programs.

I am honored that my former student and 2015 graduate, Karina Macias Leyva, wrote the following in her letter of recommendation for the award: “When Dr. Hotz teaches anything that is part of the environmental education field, even with the smallest projects, he inspires students to gain awareness of their environment and acquire knowledge, skills, values, experiences and also determination, which will enable students to act individually and collectively that will lead to solving present and future environmental problems.”

I’m currently working with Towson University, investigating how environmental education happens in and out of the classroom and what impacts student understanding and attitudes about the environment and environmental science.

As I plan for this final year of teaching, my major concern is sustaining these programs. I’m training and encouraging other teachers at Wyandotte High School to keep them going. Our environmental future depends upon the teaching of young minds here in the Heartland and across the nation.

I have enjoyed and am thankful for the relationships that have been made with EPA, and I look forward to working with all of you at EPA during this final year.

About the Introducer: Kathleen Fenton has worked with communities on environmental health issues, environmental education grants, and Healthy Schools projects for over 20 years.

About the Author: Dr. Michael Hotz has been a teacher at Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kan., for the past 19 years, as part of his 31-year teaching career. He was awarded the PIAEE in 2015.

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.

Student Intern Looks to Make a Big Difference at EPA This Summer

Every summer, EPA brings in students to work, learn practical environmental skills, and enhance their educational experience through our Pathways Intern Program. The Big Blue Thread is proud to feature several blogs written by these summer interns, focusing on what motivates them to work in the environmental sector and what attracted them to EPA. Our first blog is by Andrew Speckin, who is lending his skills in our Clean Water Program.

By Andrew Speckin

I’m moving into my junior year at the University of Kansas, pursuing a double major in accounting and information systems technology, which is simply a term to describe the use of analytics for business purposes. In today’s workplace, there is a new phenomenon called “Big Data.” It seems that every company or organization is using some form of Big Data, including EPA.

The Agency uses data in many areas: to compare water or air quality assessments from different time periods and regions, to spot trends in ever-changing river levels, to have a better understanding of the precursors that lead to flooding, to determine how temperature affects our ecosystem, and for countless other challenges.

There’s always room for improvement. Some of the projects I’m working on this summer involve updating and enhancing the data systems currently in place. Improving those systems will allow for better decision making and, in turn, better protection of our environment.

Working for EPA gives me the chance to help safeguard the environment in which I spent so much time growing up as a kid. Being outdoors started at an early age; my father signed me up for the Boy Scouts while I was in kindergarten. I stayed with the Scouts all the way up to my senior year of high school, and eventually was presented the Eagle Scout Award.

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Andrew’s 10-day campsite at Bartle Scout Reservation

During those 12 years, I was able to partake in many diverse outdoor adventures here in the Heartland, such as spelunking in Missouri caves, canoeing down small Missouri Rivers, and participating in a 10-day summer camp at the H. Roe Bartle Scout Reservation. I also went white water rafting in Colorado. Going through Boy Scouts gave me a perspective on how truly complex our ecosystem is, and an understanding that the environment needs to be protected for the health of future generations.

One of the lessons I learned in Boy Scouts was to leave the campground in a better condition than which I found it. If everyone followed that rule in the environment, EPA would have less work to do. Sadly, that is not the case. There’s a lot of work to be done and I’m ready to get started, while hopefully making a difference in the fight to conserve our precious resources.

About the Author: Andrew Speckin is working as a Student Intern this summer at EPA Region 7. One of his main goals in life is to shoot under 100 on 18 holes of golf. Knowing Andrew, we’re sure he’ll achieve that goal, among many others in his life.

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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Home Energy Audits are Easy and Worth Your Time

By Curt Spalding, Regional Administrator

I had a great visit recently with a couple of eager young energy consultants sent by my electric utility, and I’m feeling rather good about the results. I learned that all in all, my 2,500-square-foot colonial home is reasonably energy efficient. And I learned that I can invest just $1,000 to make improvements that will more than pay me back in three years.

Since EPA New England is encouraging residents across the region to take advantage of home energy audits, I asked my utility, National Grid, to audit my house. I wanted to find out first-hand what happens in these audits, which, by the way, are often offered for free.

Even though I am the regional administrator at EPA’s New England office, my experience was pretty much what any homeowner could expect – if you ignore the two suited, but very polite executives that trailed me and the consulting engineers eagerly checking on everything from my boiler, insulation and wiring to my refrigerators, stoves and windows.

The entire visit was actually quite fun, but then, I love this kind of stuff. And in just two to three hours I found out that the areas where I thought I was doing well with energy efficiency were not always that great. I learned that my 93-year-old four-bedroom colonial could use a bit more insulation, and that it hosts an attic fan that turns on when it shouldn’t. I was also surprised to hear that the high-priced, energy-efficient air conditioner I so proudly purchased was installed wrong. The installers hadn’t connected the duct work correctly, so I’ve been cooling a 100-degree attic, in addition to our living space.

If I correct these issues, about 60 percent of the $2,500 cost of improvements will be paid for by tax credits and government subsidies, leaving me with just a $1,000 bill. Oh and, they also gave us 10 free LED light bulbs to replace less efficient ones.

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Subsidies and programs already in place in New England put us ahead of the curve of national policy. The US Clean Power Plan, which EPA expects to finalize this summer, will require all states to draft a plan to help cut carbon pollution from the power sector by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. EPA suggests states look at using less fossil fuel, using fossil fuel more efficiently, cutting back on demand and increasing the use of low emission, no–emission or renewable resources. Every state can tailor its own best plan based on their needs.

Each state has its own incentives, and many provide free audits. EPA also offers the ENERGY STAR Home Advisor, an online tool to help consumers save money and improve their homes’ energy efficiency through recommended home-improvement projects. Simple actions, like upgrading a bathroom showerhead, can save thousands of gallons of water a year, which translate to lower water and energy bills.

I asked for a utility audit because I wanted to take part in a program EPA encourages. I wanted to see what is was like to have a home energy audit. It was so satisfying I felt compelled to wander over to neighbors, utility folks trailing behind me, and share with them the lessons I had learned from my audit. I know the improvements I make may only be a tiny difference in the nation’s emissions, but if each of us makes a few recommended changes, it quickly adds up to a big deal.

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.