Unintended Consequences

Gold King Mine 1899

Gold King Mine 1899

When in the course of human events, intentional actions bring unintended consequences, it may be intelligent to notice that there exists an imbalance that needs adjustment. Therefore I did appreciate an editorial that was posted in the NY Times online Aug 20, 2015 “When a River Runs Orange” by Gwen Lachelt. This article makes the point that mining laws placed on the books back in 1872 are still in effect and having an impact on the circumstances related to abandoned mining operations in the United States.

She notes that “A study by the environmental group Earthworks estimated that approximately 500,000 abandoned and unreclaimed mines litter the country. The E.P.A. says that mining pollutes approximately 40 percent of the headwaters of Western watersheds and that cleaning up these mines may cost American taxpayers more than $50 billion.”

EarthWorks has a lot of information on the General Mining Law of 1872 and the need for reform. They note that it was signed into law by President Ulysses S Grant and that the mining law allows “mining interests to take valuable hardrock minerals including gold, silver, and uranium from public lands without royalty payment to the taxpayer unlike other mining industries that extract coal, oil or natural gas” and “to buy valuable mineral bearing public lands for no more than $5 per acre” which was the price set in 1872 and which has never been adjusted for inflation. The fact is that “19th century America wasn’t concerned with environmental protection. So the mining law doesn’t contain environmental protection provisions”.

Animas River Before and After

Animas River
Before and After

It’s just that when rivers run an Orange color it attracts attention . . . “The Mining Law has been historically interpreted to trump all other potential uses of public lands. If you hold a mining claim, that claim is treated as a right-to-mine by the federal government. The federal government is on record as saying that they cannot say no to mining proposals. Even if those proposals threaten some of America’s most special places. Even if those proposals pollute clean water.”

And who are some of the people currently impacted by the EPAs unintended consequences when their contractor was investigating the Gold King Mine near Silverton, CO because it was already seriously polluting the Animas River ? When that big “oops” of accidentally releasing 3 million gallons of toxic waste water into the river happened. The “problem” now directly impacts the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. The Navajo Farming Authority has had to “shut off public water intakes and irrigation canals”. Hundreds of Navajo farmers and ranchers must now drive long distances to water their crops and livestock. “This contamination brings up memories of other environmental disasters caused by the federal government. One in particular that Navajo people are talking about is uranium mine contamination — a decades-long legacy that still affects people on the reservation today. The EPA has only started in the last seven years to clean up those mines.”

Navajo Sheepherder

Navajo Sheepherder

There have been some small legal patches applied in recent decades as noted in a Bureau of Land Management assessment of the Madison Watershed in Montana which includes information about the impacts of mining and abandoned mine lands there. Federal policy details as outlined in this report are probably pretty consistent in perspective everywhere mining has been a part of any local region – “The Mining and Minerals Policy Act of 1970, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA), and the Natural Materials and Minerals Policy, Research and Development Act of 1980 direct that the public lands be managed in a manner that recognizes the nation’s needs for domestic sources of mineral production. Under the Mining Law of 1872, claimants have a statutory right to develop their mineral deposits consistent with applicable environmental laws. The mineralized areas of the watershed have seen extensive mineral development over the past 150 years. The BLM Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) program is responsible for cleaning up sites determined to be hazardous to human health, to the environment, or those which present physical safety hazards to the public. Early mining prior to 1981 did not require reclamation or bonding, many of these abandoned mines have legacy features such as eroding dumps, abandoned tailings, or open mine features. Reclamation will be prioritized by the magnitude of the environmental problem, the severity of the safety risk, funding available, and/or the partnerships available to conduct the work.”

North American Lead Co Fredericktown, MO

North American Lead Co
Fredericktown, MO

So why do we at Yemm & Hart care ? – apart from having environmentalist’s hearts in general. It is because we live and work in an area that has been contaminated by mining practices in the past. My region of Missouri was historically and heavily influenced by early lead mining and later on in more recent times cobalt mining as well. Mining here has left large tracts of “wasteland” locally. Lead mining in our region dates back to the very first French settlers before there was even a General Mining Law of 1872. The sad truth is that mining practices in our region resulted in us becoming “known” as a EPA SuperFund Site identified as the Missouri Mines Site. Before the local population knew “better” tailings from the mines were often used on residential yards, in sidewalk construction and on driveways. Children in the area have been widely tested for lead exposure and remediation has been accomplished locally by digging up yards and replacing top soil.

It is interesting to note that my husband comes from a long family line of coal miners beginning in the Gloucestershire area of the UK and immigrating into the coal fields of Illinois and Indiana in the US. Eventually, his family worked their way out of the mines and into other occupations but it is still interesting to note that we ended up on a farm in the Lead Belt mining region of Missouri – although thankfully there were no direct mining activities here on our land or anywhere nearby.

Lachelt notes at the end of her editorial that there is a comprehensive reform of the old law currently being attempted and that “Congress already has a bill before it that will do it: H.R. 963, the Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act of 2015, introduced by Representative Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona. The new law, currently bottled up in committee, would create a fund to clean up abandoned and inactive mines by establishing an 8 percent royalty on all new hard-rock mines on public lands, a 4 percent royalty on existing mines on public lands and reclamation fees on all hard-rock mines, including those that were ‘purchased’ for low prices under the 1872 Mining Law. A similar system is already in place for abandoned coal mines, so there’s no practical reason it can’t work for hard-rock mining too. The bill would also improve both reclamation standards and requirements that mining companies financially guarantee that taxpayers aren’t on the hook for cleaning up existing mines.”

~ Information Resources

“When a River Runs Orange” posted Aug 20, 2015 in the NY Times online – http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/20/opinion/when-a-river-runs-orange.html?ref=opinion&_r=1

General Mining Law of 1872 posted at EarthWorksAction.org – https://www.earthworksaction.org/issues/detail/general_mining_law_of_1872

“Navajo Nation Farmers Feel The Weight Of Colorado Mine Spill” story on NPR by Laurel Morales aired Aug 17, 2015 – http://www.npr.org/2015/08/17/432600254/navajo-nation-farmers-feel-the-weight-of-colorado-mine-spill

“‘Yellow Dirt’: The Legacy of Navajo Uranium Mines” aired Oct 22, 2010 on NPR and based on the book “Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed” by Judy Pasternak – http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130754093

Pgs 10 -11 and 58 – 59 – “Mining, Minerals and Abandoned Mine Lands” in the Madison Watershed of Montana, report published at Bureau of Land Management – http://www.blm.gov/pgdata/etc/medialib/blm/mt/field_offices/dillon/madison.Par.4414.File.dat/report.pdf

“Madison County Mines EPA Superfund Site” – http://www.epa.gov/Region7/cleanup/npl_files/mod098633415.pdf

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Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer

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Who Wouldn’t Want Clean Power ?

Einstein Quote w Tree

Judging by the flurry of articles in our local Democrat-News published on Aug 12, 2015 there are certainly some who don’t want to make the effort to have cleaner sources of powering our electricity in these parts of our country. They include not only our local rural electric co-op and the guiding National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) but our politicians as well. That our politicians are directly supportive of our electric utilities doesn’t surprise me. The monthly Rural Missouri co-operative publication has been carrying editorials against the EPAs initiatives for months, maybe a year or longer. So of course it doesn’t surprise me to see editorial pieces this week in our local newspaper by Congressman Jason Smith (R) or Sen Roy Blunt (R) against the EPA plan as well.

I’ve only seen ONE real argument against making any changes to how we get our electricity from any of these official sources – COST.

Sen Roy Blunt – “Electric service providers in Missouri have warned that the EPA’s so-called Clean Power Plan will raise energy costs for Missourians . . . ” and “Middle and low-income families are hit the hardest by bad energy policies resulting in higher utility bills, . . .”

Congressman Jason Smith – “. . . under the Clean Air Act . . . emission limits will raise the price of electricity, force the closure of coal plants in Missouri and cost people jobs . . .”

Jo Ann Emerson (former Missouri Congresswoman, now CEO for the NRECA) – “Any increase in the cost of electricity impacts those who can least afford it, . . .” and “While we appreciate the efforts . . . the Clean Air Act . . . will raise electricity rates . . .”

Barry Hart, CEO Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives – “We are focused on the affordability . . . of electricity” and “. . . the final rules make it far more likely electric rates will dramatically increase.”

Maybe we don’t pay enough for electricity here in Missouri. We love our right to pollute in order to keep our costs low. Certainly, the burden will be on the poorer segments of society. I’m certain that there will be no executives volunteering to cut their salary in order to keep the increased cost of electricity lower for the poorer segments of society !! I do worry that “enormously wealthy individuals and vastly powerful corporations are digging in their heels and allowing themselves to be willfully blinded to reality, all in the name of milking the last few dollars out of a dying economy based on fossil fuels”.

Missouri's Callaway Nuclear Generating Station

Missouri’s Callaway
Nuclear Generating Station

Jim Jura, CEO Associated Electric Cooperative notes that “Coal generation has been a significant factor in providing our members with reliable electricity at low rates.” He also complains that the EPAs new rules do not credit electric cooperatives for the 750 megawatts of renewable energy from wind farms nor the millions of dollars spent on energy efficiency measures to reduce demand. Yes, Missouri does have a serious problem with the new EPA regulations.

In 2013, coal supplied 83% of Missouri’s net electricity generation. The state had one nuclear power plant, the Callaway Nuclear Generating Station, which contributes 9% of the state’s net electricity generation. And renewable energy resources accounted for only about 3% of Missouri’s net electricity with most of this coming from conventional hydroelectric power and wind. Honestly, I’ve no idea where the other 5% comes from as that was not identified at the US Energy Information Administration’s website !! So while I’ll admit to being a bit disappointed in Sen Claire McCaskill’s (D) lack of a visionary energy perspective as well, I do think she does make an important point – Missouri won’t be able to make such extreme modifications to our energy delivery systems in only 5 years, and maybe not even in 15 years.

I am grateful for our electricity. I miss it when we don’t have it. Our lives are built around access to certain conveniences. I certainly don’t prefer having to use the gas powered generator that we are reduced to when we have an extended power outage usually because of some storm. Thankfully these don’t happen too often. Gas powered generators are noisy and I don’t think gas is the “cleanest” kind of energy.

Electricity Cost

It’s not that I really want my electric bill to cost us more. Currently we pay $372 + each month for our local electricity consumption. No one (including us) really wants to pay more for anything. I’ve been grateful to see gasoline prices falling (yes falling, which seems like a novel idea at the moment) over the last year or two. However, I must admit that my environmentalist heart is in conflict with my frugal heart at the moment on this whole issue. We can’t forever deny the atmospheric challenges that are affecting our weather, will likely affect our food crops and often affect the quality of air that people breathe leading to suffering and diseases.

So I see this Clean Power Plan as something similar to Obamacare – not the perfect solution, not the complete answer to one of the more vexing, complex and difficult to solve problems of our time but it’s a beginning, an attempt to right the balance that sustains life on this planet. I fear sometimes that we are already too late but throwing up our hands in despair and doing nothing certainly can’t help. Pretending there isn’t a serious imbalance in our environmental qualities, or being in such a state of denial that we think there really isn’t a “problem” at all, won’t help us arrive at cleaner sources of energy generation.

My partner says we need a new kind of energy. Yes, that is what we really need now !! And that happy circumstance is not in our view finders currently.

Current Energy Choices

In this blog I try to be a voice that is reasonable and practical about the complexity of our environmental choices. As I write this morning, I am gazing at a thorny thicket which is blocking the forward progress of humanity. How do we keep the environmental quality of this planet at the level of human sustainability ? The way is not clear. Einstein said “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” So we need an entirely different perspective on how to supply our energy needs. Not simple resistance, not blind denial, not optimistic sugar plums. I don’t personally have a creative vision of something that will solve this problem for us. But I do hope there are some humans out there who will yet find that opening into a brighter future. I believe there is no issue of more importance in our modern times than the resources we choose to supply our energy requirements and the ways in which our human behaviors affect the planet’s climate. There are so many ways that both of these are going to directly affect the quality of life for humans going into the future.

Even as far back as 1957, Admiral Hyman Rickover (a visionary with the gift of great insight and clear thinking) had this to say –

“The earth is finite. Fossil fuels are not renewable. In this respect our energy base differs from that of all earlier civilizations. They could have maintained their energy supply by careful cultivation. We cannot. Fuel that has been burned is gone forever. Fuel is even more evanescent than metals. Metals, too, are non-renewable resources threatened with ultimate extinction, but something can be salvaged from scrap. Fuel leaves no scrap and there is nothing man can do to rebuild exhausted fossil fuel reserves. They were created by solar energy 500 million years ago and took eons to grow to their present volume. In the face of the basic fact that fossil fuel reserves are finite, the exact length of time these reserves will last is important in only one respect: the longer they last, the more time do we have, to invent ways of living off renewable or substitute energy sources and to adjust our economy to the vast changes which we can expect from such a shift.”

“Fossil fuels resemble capital in the bank. A prudent and responsible parent will use his capital sparingly in order to pass on to his children as much as possible of his inheritance. A selfish and irresponsible parent will squander it in riotous living and care not one whit how his offspring will fare.”

Unfortunately, current energy strategies are at present based on unsustainable thinking. When it comes to public policies and strategic planning, a complete rethinking must take place in order to step away from self-destructing behavior. While it is understandable for us to focus on novel ways of obtaining energy (wind, solar, geothermal or nuclear power sources), it has long been recognized that simply reducing demand is cost effective and can help sustain us in the short term at least. Realistically there will be inefficiencies in our attempts at converting to alternate energy sources. Our dependence on complex systems means that we will need time to find a way. Using less energy in general, recycling most of the resources we do use (hopefully approaching even as high as 90-95% recycled) will keep enough material in the cycle to also help keep restocking demands from as yet untapped resources low.

Conserve Energy

~ Information Resources
(please note that this week you may not find ALL of the information resources below quoted or used in my blog but these are all good sources of information on this topic which I have located while doing my own research that may help you to form opinions and perspectives for your own self about this important issue. ~ Deborah Hart Yemm)

On New EPA Rule—McCaskill Leads Colleagues in Pursuing Commonsense Adjustments to Protect Consumers – posted on Sen McCaskill’s website Dec 10, 2014 – http://www.mccaskill.senate.gov/media-center/news-releases/on-new-epa-rulemccaskill-leads-colleagues-in_pursuing-commonsense-adjustments-to-protect-consumers

How Obama’s Clean Power Plan actually works — a step-by-step guide posted Aug 5, 2015 by Brad Plumer at Vox – http://www.vox.com/2015/8/4/9096903/clean-power-plan-explained

Clean Power Plan puts children ahead of polluters posted July 14, 2015 at Clean Air Missouri from the Columbia Daily Tribune – http://www.cleanairmissouri.org/clean-power-plan-puts-children-ahead-of-polluters/

Affordable Electricity Rural America’s Economic Lifeline – http://www.nreca.coop/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Affordable-Electricity-Rural-Americas-Economic-Lifeline.pdf

Clean Power Plan posted at the EPA website – http://www2.epa.gov/cleanpowerplan

6 Things Every American Should Know About the Clean Power Plan posted Aug 3, 2015 by Gina McCarthy, EPA Administrator – https://blog.epa.gov/blog/2015/08/6-things-clean-power-plan/

Elon Musk: Burning Fossil Fuels “Dumbest Experiment In History” posted Mar 30, 2015 by Steve Hanley at Gas2.org – http://gas2.org/2015/03/30/musk-burning-fossil-fuels-dumbest-experiment-ever/

Sustainable Cities and Military Installations pg 238 as edited by Igor Linkov and published Nov 12, 2013 is posted at Google Books – https://goo.gl/5RXRae

Missouri State Profile and Energy Estimates – posted at the US Energy Information Administration website – http://www.eia.gov/state/?sid=MO

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Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer

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What Happened to Good Intentions ?

2001-2014 EPA Chemical Assessments Graph

What happened to President Obama’s promise to divorce politics from science ? More specifically, what happened to those good intentions to assess dangerous chemicals more quickly at the EPA ? When Lisa Jackson came on board as the new EPA administrator in 2009 during the first Obama term, she was fully supportive of the president’s promise. She knew the EPA needed to assess 50 chemicals a year to do its job properly. Jackson quickly rolled out a plan to break through the logjam of the Bush years when the EPA was only averaging five assessments per year. Jackson’s plan seemed easily achievable and needed only a little tweaking regarding the inner workings of bureaucracy. It required no congressional approval and the Republican party never passed any legislation to block it.

It seemed like a great start for Jackson who is educated as a chemical engineer. It is interesting to note that she attended Tulane University on a scholarship from Shell Oil Company. She graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering in 1983 and earned her Master of Science degree, also in chemical engineering, from Princeton University in 1986. Jackson had some valid environmental experience from working in a variety of positions beginning at the EPA involved in toxic waste clean-up issues and moving into the top position as Commissioner at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection before being nominated to head the EPA for Obama. Even so, New Jersey environmental activists when asked were divided in their opinion of her work at the NJ Dept of Environmental Protection agency and the split seemed to be between those who work on energy and climate policy in the state’s capital (who were supportive of her) and those who work on toxic cleanups at the local level who were critical of her.

Environment is Foundational

In spite of all the good intentions, since 2012, the EPA has assessed fewer chemicals than ever. Last year it completed only one assessment. More worrisome is the indication that the agency has now embraced measures sought by the chemical industry that have led to endless delays. I learn a lot about the chemical industry in reading Plastics News. I know that they have had impacts on LEED v4 as well. Though chemicals are important in our business and in everyday life, I can’t shake the feeling that the industry as a whole can’t be entirely trusted to consider the people’s health and welfare over profits when making decisions.

There are more than 80,000 chemicals on the market today. You might think that the government tests each chemical to assure that it’s safe. However, that is NOT true in the United States. Unlike the European Union, in the US, chemicals are assumed to pose no health risk unless the EPA proves otherwise. This task is left to a small program within the EPA called the Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS. Jackson wanted to drastically cut the time spent on each chemical assessment from an average of seven years to less than two years. Yet almost immediately the chemical industry found ways to thwart Jackson’s plan with the help of certain Republicans in Congress. Although the GOP didn’t control either chamber in Obama’s first two years, some Republican lawmakers still found ways to delay the application of science at the EPA in favor of insignificant details.

Formaldehyde Warning Label

Here is one example –

In the early days of our contract furniture business the collateral furniture pieces we made had a foundation of particle board that was then covered with plastic laminate or wood veneer. One good thing about particle board is that it is made with 100 percent recycled materials. The tiny wood chunks and sawdust that go into it are usually reclaimed waste from sawmills and lumber yards. That means that some manufacturers are now using wood that would otherwise end up in a landfill.

However, particleboard isn’t part of the green-building pantheon. The reason is that the resin glue that binds the wood fibers and provides structural strength contains formaldehyde which emits carcinogenic gases into the air from the finished boards. At surprisingly low levels these formaldehyde emissions produce a pungent odor and they can pose a health risk. For decades, formaldehyde (which turns up in many other building and consumer products including automobiles and even no-iron shirts) emissions have been known to cause eye, nose and respiratory irritations in sensitive people. The World Health Organization has classified formaldehyde as a carcinogen. EPA scientists began evaluating the chemical in 1998 and determined that it was linked to nasal cancers and leukemia. To be honest, all wood naturally emits minute amounts of formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde Particleboard

Particleboard inevitably became part of discussions regarding how far beyond “minute” it is safe to go because the fabricated material is one of the primary sources of indoor formaldehyde emissions. In lab tests, formaldehyde emissions from particleboard average about 0.2 parts per million. Greenguard Environmental Institute was a nonprofit group that tested and certified formaldehyde emission levels in building-products and furnishings. According to Marilyn Black, an environmental chemist and the original founder of Greenguard, above 0.3 parts per million almost everyone will notice their eyes watering and nose and throat becoming irritated. In 2011, UL Environment acquired ownership of Greenguard and as such is no longer a non-profit.

Georgia-Pacific makes particleboard with formaldehyde. It is owned by Koch Industries’ whose billionaire owners Charles and David Koch financially influence politics. The American Chemistry Council, a trade association and lobby group for the chemical industry, said in a statement in defense of the formaldehyde industry – “The scientific literature is clear that there is no increased health risk from low-level exposures normally found in home or work environments.” Who do you want to believe ? I certainly have a preference.

Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana blocked the EPA appointee who would oversee the IRIS program until the agency agreed to get a second opinion on its formaldehyde assessment. The EPA agreed to have the National Academy of Sciences review its formaldehyde draft. The academy is considered the preferred scientific adviser at the national level but the panel reviewing the formaldehyde assessment didn’t focus on whether the EPA was right about the science. Instead it criticized the formaldehyde draft for being confusing and made suggestions on how to make future IRIS reports clearer. This seemingly valid perspective actually made the chemical industry very happy.

What Happened to Good Intentions ?

What Happened to Good Intentions ?

So back to what happened . . . What put the brakes on the EPA’s intention to complete chemical assessments in a timely manner ? The short answer – the chemical industry’s lobbyist and former EPA official Charlie Grizzle. By leveraging the National Academy’s criticisms about the clarity of the formaldehyde assessment, Grizzle and others got language inserted into legislation that delayed all 47 chemical assessments that were in progress at the time. They did this by instructing the EPA to adopt the academy’s recommendations and explain to Congress how it was going to implement those regulations for ongoing and new assessments.

William Ruckelshaus, who ran the EPA for presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, said getting the National Academy to review the EPA’s scientific findings is a common delay tactic used by industry that endangers the public health. He said that delaying the publication of adverse findings is an unconscionable act on behalf of the industry that manufactures the chemicals and derives economic benefit from that activity. Ironically, last year the National Academy subsequently released its own assessment of formaldehyde. I’ll bet you guessed it already !! It agreed with the EPA’s findings that formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. Regrettably it has been 17 long years that the EPA has been trying to get its formaldehyde assessment completed and even now, it is still mired in delays.

Formaldehyde Danger

And the situation remains worrisome because in July 2012, Dr. Kenneth Olden took charge of the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment, which is who oversees IRIS. While a director at the National Institutes of Health, Olden raised eyebrows by collaborating with the American Chemistry Council to fund scientific research. It should not be surprisingly then that his appointment has won praise from the chemical industry and certain Republicans for his embrace of the procedural changes to assessment reports as suggested by the National Academy of Sciences.

Companies in the particleboard industry say that they HAVE voluntarily reduced formaldehyde emissions from their products by 80 percent in 20 years. I believe it but Yikes !! Certainly, we can all be thankful for that much. The particleboard industry could bring its formaldehyde emissions down simply by using a different glue – phenol formaldehyde resin. Emissions from particleboard made with that glue are so low that some green rating systems give points to home builders for using it. According to Healthy House Institute, Urea-formaldehyde (UF) glue off-gasses considerably more formaldehyde than Phenol-formaldehyde (PF) glue. Georgia-Pacific Chemicals does manufacture and offer a Phenol-formaldehyde glue under the tradename LEAF®. The product is considered by them to be a low-emission resin for use in particleboard and MDF. LEAF GB resins may be melamine-formaldehyde, melamine-urea-formaldehyde or phenol-formaldehyde based and GP believes they may meet some green building standards.

As often happens, what California demands serves all of the citizens of the United States because their influence in the marketplace is that strong. The California Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Resources Board has established low emission standards for the off-gassing of formaldehyde that should result in safer substrate products becoming more common in the marketplace nationwide. The first emission standards were implemented on January 1, 2009. The latest update on this issue was posted at their website on May 23, 2014 (see my information resources below for that link).

~ Information Resources

“Obama’s EPA breaks pledge to divorce politics from science on toxic chemicals” posted by David Heath on Jan 23, 2015 – http://www.publicintegrity.org/2015/01/23/16641/obamas-epa-breaks-pledge-divorce-politics-science-toxic-chemicals

Environmental Protection Agency’s Integrated Risk Information System – http://www.epa.gov/iris/

Lisa P Jackson, EPA Administrator 2009-2013 posted at Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lisa_P._Jackson

“A Solution to the Particleboard Problem?” by Katherine Salant posted May 31, 2008 at the Washington Post – http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/30/AR2008053001485.html

Greenguard Certification from UL Environment – http://greenguard.org/en/index.aspx

“Formaldehyde-Based Glues” posted at Healthy House Institute – http://www.healthyhouseinstitute.com/hhip-780-Formaldehyde-Based-Glues

Adhesives/Binder Resins offered by Georgia-Pacific Chemicals – http://www.gp-chemicals.com/Adhesives_Binder_Resins_Product_Category

Composite Wood Products ATCM (airborne toxic control measure) – http://www.arb.ca.gov/toxics/compwood/compwood.htm

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Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer

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Carbon Can Be Beautiful But Often is Not

Diamond in Coal

Diamond in Coal

The slogan is “Diamonds are Forever”. Yes, when coal becomes a diamond, it is beautiful but the extraction of diamonds mostly is not. Diamonds can be beautiful or useful industrially.

The carbon family consists of the five elements that make up Group 14 of the periodic table: carbon, silicon, germanium, tin, and lead. The family is particularly interesting because it consists of one nonmetal (carbon), two metals (tin and lead), and two metalloids (silicon and germanium). (A metalloid is an element that has some of the properties of both metals and nonmetals.)

Carbon is one of the most remarkable of all chemical elements. It occurs in all living organisms. In fact, the field of organic chemistry, which began as the study of the chemistry of plants and animals, can also be called the chemistry of carbon compounds. In addition, carbon and its compounds are of critical importance to the world as sources of energy. Coal, oil, and natural gas—the so-called fossil fuels—all consist of pure carbon or carbon compounds. Finally, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, along with gem-quality diamonds in Kimberlite.

Carbon occurs both as an element and in combined forms. As an element, it exists in at least three different allotropic forms. (Allotropes are forms of an element that differ from each other in physical and, sometimes, chemical properties.) The two best known allotropes of carbon are graphite and diamond.

The second common allotrope of carbon is diamond. In striking contrast with graphite, diamond is the world’s hardest natural material. Its ability to bend and spread light produces the spectacular rainbow “fire” that is often associated with diamond jewelry. Skillful gem cutters are able to cut and polish diamonds in a way that maximizes the effect of this natural property.

In 1985, a third allotropic form of carbon was discovered. It is a 60-atom structure called buckminsterfullerene that looks like a soccer ball when viewed under a microscope. A geodesic dome, like the new molecule, is a sphere made of many plane (flat) figures like the hexagon. Because of this similarity, the new molecule was given the name buckminsterfullerene or, more briefly, fullerene. Less formally, the molecules are also known as bucky-balls.

Coal Miner in China

Coal Miner in China

Then, there are the “black diamonds”, Coal (from the Old English term col, which has meant “mineral of fossilized carbon” since the 13th century) is a combustible black or brownish-black sedimentary rock usually occurring in rock strata in layers or veins called coal beds or coal seams. The harder forms, such as anthracite coal, can be regarded as metamorphic rock because of later exposure to elevated temperature and pressure. Coal is composed primarily of carbon along with variable quantities of other elements, chiefly hydrogen, sulfur, oxygen, and nitrogen.

Throughout history, coal has been used as an energy resource, primarily burned for the production of electricity and/or heat, and is also used for industrial purposes, such as refining metals. A fossil fuel, coal forms when dead plant matter is converted into peat, which in turn is converted into lignite, then sub-bituminous coal, after that bituminous coal, and lastly anthracite. This involves biological and geological processes that take place over a long period.

Coal-Fired Power Plant

Coal-Fired Power Plant

Coal is the largest source of energy for the generation of electricity worldwide, as well as one of the largest worldwide anthropogenic sources of carbon dioxide releases. In 1999, world gross carbon dioxide emissions from coal usage were 8,666 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. In 2011, world gross emissions from coal usage were 14,416 million tonnes. Coal-fired electric power generation emits around 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide for every megawatt-hour generated, which is almost double the approximately 1100 pounds of carbon dioxide released by a natural gas-fired electric plant per megawatt-hour generated. Because of this higher carbon efficiency of natural gas generation, as the market in the United States has changed to reduce coal and increase natural gas generation, carbon dioxide emissions have fallen. Those measured in the first quarter of 2012 were the lowest of any recorded for the first quarter of any year since 1992. In 2013, the head of the UN climate agency advised that most of the world’s coal reserves should be left in the ground to avoid catastrophic global warming.

Coal is extracted from the ground by coal mining, either underground by shaft mining, or at ground level by open pit mining extraction. Since 1983 the world top coal producer has been China. In 2011 China produced 3,520 millions of tonnes of coal – 49.5% of 7,695 millions tonnes world coal production. In 2011 other large producers were United States (993 millions tonnes), India (589), European Union (576) and Australia (416). In 2010 the largest exporters were Australia with 328 million tonnes (27.1% of world coal export) and Indonesia with 316 millions tonnes (26.1%), while the largest importers were Japan with 207 million tonnes (17.5% of world coal import), China with 195 million tonnes (16.6%) and South Korea with 126 million tonnes (10.7%).

Both the mining for “white” Diamonds and the mining for Coal are replete with horror stories. Our family, the Yemms come from a long-line of coal miners, beginning in the Gloucestershire area of England, and arriving in the United States to work the coal mines in Pennsylvania and Illinois primarily, later migrating into Indiana doing the same work. Thankfully, our ancestors found better and healthier ways to make a living. We live and work in rural Missouri. Our energy is provided by a Rural Electric Cooperative. While the blessings of electricity helped to improve the quality of life for all rural peoples in the state of Missouri, we are not proud of our rural electric cooperative’s stance regarding the pressing issue of climate change. For a very long time now, the rural electric cooperative’s management has encouraged us to resist efforts to reform the usage of coal to generate our electricity mostly depending on the fear of higher electric rates and the dislike of “big” government telling local folks what to do.

Stop EPA

Our cooperative maintains a grassroots effort via Action.Coop (the Cooperative Action Network) to send a message to our elected officials via their website “NRECA” (National Rural Electric Cooperative Association) – saying “MAKE YOUR VOICE HEARD TODAY – America Needs a Common Sense Solution – Americans count on affordable and reliable energy to power our communities, promote job and economic growth, and keep costs in line for the basic necessities in our family budgets. The recently proposed EPA regulations that target existing power plants could add to the price of electricity, and have serious consequences for our communities. Join the more than half a million supporters of electric cooperatives who have asked the EPA to stop implementing costly new regulations. Speak out now and make your voice heard.” I’ve been reading Elizabeth Warren’s new book “A Fighting Chance” and it is an eye-opener about how government functions and about how hard it is for concerned citizens to actually win against the well-funded lobbyists in Washington DC.

Just like with the effort to reform health care, President Obama can only get his foot into heavily barred doors, in order to make any future progress possible. Michael Grunwald writes about “New Energy” for Time magazine and in the June 30, 2014 issue he says that he believes that our current president has done MORE to address climate change than any other president to date. His stimulus bill launched a clean-energy boom, his fuel-efficiency rules have racheted down greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks and his new regulations on soot, mercury and other stuff coming out of power plants has helped to accelerate the shift away from carbon. Coal continues to produce 3/4s of our emissions from electricity but it generates just 1/3 of our electricity. One could easily believe that President Obama has been conducting a tiny but plausibly denied “war on coal” and our rural electric cooperative has certainly responded as though they are under attack !! Just the week before, Grunwald noted that Americans trail 5 other countries in our belief in climate change and our willingness to do anything about it. (See “The (Slow) Greening of America” in the Information Resources below.)

Jo Ann Emerson’s replacement, Rep Jason Smith, is in lock-step saying – “The EPA is once again declaring war on rural American with these new regulations. The carbon capture technology the EPA wants to mandate is not even commercially viable. If these proposed regulations go into effect, utility rates will sky rocket for families in Missouri’s Eighth Congressional District. These regulations would halt all construction on new coal-fired power plants. Over 80 percent of families in my district rely on coal to power their homes, businesses, schools and farms. Bureaucrats at the EPA do not understand or appreciate our rural way of life here in Missouri. I plan to fight these regulations that would raise utility rates on folks who are struggling to makes ends meet.” Let us hope that the regulations DO halt new construction of coal-fired power plants !!

It is embarrassing to be dependent upon such mindsets as we encounter among our rural electric cooperative administrators and local politicians. The Yemms do hope to eventually go off the grid, if or when we ever are able to afford to build a new place in which to live. We have a site and when the local rural electric cooperative representatives visited us there, they wanted to take their lines straight up the most environmentally sensitive aspect of our landscape, the perennial stream with rocky shut-ins to provide us with their electricity. We said, “no thanks”, and will find another way – most likely a mix of solar, wind and water generation. But that remains as yet unreachable and in the future.

Today, we are proud of our President Obama for trying to do something – anything – about the emissions from coal-fired electric plants because we know that without being forced into it, our rural electric cooperative will continue to do nothing. Just this month of June 2014, in the Rural Missouri Magazine the guest editorial by Jo Ann Emerson states (formerly our US 8th District Congresswomen, who dumped us one month after re-election to take the position of CEO for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association) “The EPA regulations to curb carbon dioxide emissions from power plants only stand to increase those energy bills. Even though not-for-profit electric cooperatives work each day to provide affordable and reliable electricity to the more than 42 million Americans we serve, the latest red tape out of Washington could present a serious challenge.” She states that “Electric co-ops already have reduced emissions rates from power plants by 10% and carbon dioxide emissions specifically over the past seven years.” She adds that “Any additional emissions reductions we achieve would be offset rapidly by emissions increases in China, India and other developing economies.” Is that any reason to continue to insist on using Coal to generate electricity ?

XPRIZE logo

I can certainly appreciate the initiative known as the Tri-State Carbon XPRIZE, which seeks to turn carbon dioxide from a liability into an asset by finding ways to convert it from a waste into useful fuels, chemicals and other products that will have market value. But I also agree with Michael Grunwald – “If we’re still getting over 30% of our power from coal in 2030, the EPA’s plan will be a huge disappointment. It will represent defeat in the Obama Administration’s crucial (though undeclared) war on coal. So it’s encouraging that the plan’s architect (EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy – a certified climate hawk) doesn’t seem to think it adds up either.” Actually, enacting any carbon rules will send a powerful signal to the market about dirty power (amplified by the Administration continuing to crack down on coal ash, ozone and other pollutants). McCarthy believes that “This will set expectations and things will just take off” from there. The Administration had to craft a plan that could withstand the certain legal and political challenges that any effort would face.

It’s a start and a start is better than not trying at all. Currently, my own optimism lies in the new High Concentration PhotoVoltaic Thermal System (HCPVT) under development capable of concentrating solar radiation 2,000 times and converting 80 percent of the incoming radiation into useful energy. The system can also provide desalinated water and cool air in sunny, remote locations where they are often in short supply. There is always HOPE !!

High Concentration PhotoVoltaic Thermal System (HCPVT)

High Concentration PhotoVoltaic Thermal System (HCPVT)

~ Information Resources

Carbon Family – http://www.scienceclarified.com/Ca-Ch/Carbon-Family.html

Coal – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal

Guest Editoral “Time to turn the lights on in Washington” by Jo Ann Emerson – http://www.ruralmissouri.org/harttoheart.php

“Make Your Voice Heard Today” – http://www.nreca.coop/political-action/cooperative-action-network/epa/

“Carbon Rules Show Bad Arithmetic” by Michael Grunwald posted June 19, 2014 at Time.com – http://time.com/topic/new-energy-reality/

“The (Slow) Greening of America” by Michael Grunwalk posted June 12, 2014 at Time.com – http://time.com/2863213/the-slow-greening-of-america/

“Congressman Jason Smith: New EPA Regulations Will Raise Utility Rates” posted May 12, 2014 at News & Events from the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives – http://www.amec.org/content/new-epa-regulations-will-raise-utility-rates

XPRIZE “Making The Impossible Possible” Energy & Environment Prize Group – http://www.xprize.org/prize-development/energy-and-environment

“Made in IBM Labs: Collaboration Aims to Harness the Energy of 2,000 Suns” – http://www-03.ibm.com/press/us/en/pressrelease/40912.wss

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Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer

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Green Washing

Green Eggs and Ham

Products (and claims of their “green” attributes) may not always be what they “appear” on the surface. Greenpeace notes that “These days, green is the new black.” (with a recognition here, that some might dispute that claim, since Netflix claims that “orange” is – honestly, I prefer “green” thank you !!!) According to Earth911 – “Greenwashing is a term used for companies that claim to be — but in reality are not — acting in an environmentally responsible way. It was first used in print by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986 in reference to hotels that encouraged guests to reuse towels to benefit the Earth but that in turn didn’t recycle if it didn’t save money.”

Greenpeace traces the term to – “around 1990 when some of America’s worst polluters (including DuPont, Chevron, Bechtel, the American Nuclear Society, and the Society of Plastics Industry) tried to pass themselves off as eco-friendly at a trade fair taking place in Washington, DC.” It is interesting to note, that if that was the “same” EPA trade fair our company was invited to, and did attend, we didn’t have a clue of any ulterior purposes behind that. The companies we came in contact with were small like us and by bootstrap efforts, trying to do a good thing for the environment by way of pursuing their business interests. Maybe we were put into different rooms ?, or perhaps we were just that “new” at it ourselves.

Good Bye Greenwash UL Soap

UL Environmental is a division of Underwriters Laboratories that is offering “independent green claims validation”. They made quite a splash at Neocon in 2010 by giving out the bars of soap in the photo above.

BuildingProductMarketing.com had some interesting observations about these bars of soap. They noted that “the slogan and the soap create a strong and memorable image that explains the benefit of the company’s services”. The author of that article notes that, “they missed valuable opportunities to ‘walk the talk’:
•The packaging does not list products ingredients, place of manufacturer, or whether sustainable paper and printing were used — important information that can help a consumer assess the environmental impact of the product.
•More, the fragrance in the soap, while pleasant enough, could irritate show attendees with chemical sensitivities, and does not support environmental goals for indoor air quality.”

Penny Bonda, in Interior Design’s Neocon publication for that year, noted – “Remember, as you engage with showroom personnel, to ask the right questions: Where did this product come from? What is it made of? How is it made? How is it maintained? How does it affect the well-being of the building occupants? How much energy does it use? How do I know you’re telling me the truth? Knowing whom to trust in this era of greenwash is a huge challenge, sorting out the science is difficult for those not schooled in technical matters.”

Michael Chusid, in that BuildingProductMarketing.com article, did note that – “On the positive side, the soap is one piece of trade show swag that I will probably use, unlike the plastic gizmos that will sit on my desk for a week and then wind up in a recycling bin or trash can.” Anyone who has ever walked a trade show “understands”.

Honest environmental claims

But seriously . . . knowing “who” to trust is VERY important. Since finding our “business calling”, we have been seeking to walk the walk, that our talk indicates (not only as a business, but in our personal lives as well, respecting the movement deeply). Admittedly, it is a process; and we are constantly learning new or better ways in which to live and regarding how we produce our product, that may be only a tiny step “better”, than the alternatives. We don’t claim to be the end all and be all for “saving the Earth”. I don’t think every company with any acknowledged environmental “edge” is trying to cheat the system or deceive their customers, many are doing the best that they can, to be a good “alternative” choice. But with some companies and regarding some claims, the activity is not so innocent nor benign.

Greenpeace points out that “Sometimes, not even the intentions are genuine. Some companies, when forced by legislation or a court decision to improve their environmental track record, promote the resulting changes as if they had taken the step voluntarily. And at the same time that many corporations are touting their new green image (and their CEOs are giving lectures on corporate ecological ethics), their lobbyists are working night and day in Washington to gut environmental protections.”

Unfortunately, while “green” certifications may be useful in determining the truth of some claims, the cynic in me also wonders if they can’t also be “bought”. I would certainly hope not. Our firm has enough skepticism about the plethora of firms claiming to offer “certification at a price”, that we don’t want good money chasing after a bad practice. As the efforts to be more environmental improve within the business world, maybe certain confirmations will become truly “trusted” over time and be worth exploring. For the time being, we stand simply on our integrity, born of a long history as genuinely, environmentally-concerned citizens and business owners.

HDPE bottle bales

An aspect of “green washing” that we run into with our competitors comes down to the difference between “post-industrial” and “post-consumer”, and why it matters at all. The truth is – industry produces a larger volume of waste than any individual – so, on an “entity” basis, it is admittedly, a “bigger” problem. However, the federal government, LEED requirements and die-hard environmentalists often focus, as does our own business due to our own environmental hearts, on post-consumer because in that realm, we are talking about changing a whole lotta behaviors, in a large mass of people. The challenge is greater; and individuals lack the economic and financial motivations that often move industry in a more “environmentally friendly” direction.

It is important to find out – “Does the manufacturer truly know the actual source of their feedstocks ?” If the source of a manufacturer’s “recycled content” comes from a broker, it’s anyone’s guess. We used to be the only company offering “recycled content” restroom partitions, that just happened to be 100% post-consumer sourced in their origin. Now, we find we have “competition”. In our own investigations, we doubt that the claims accomplish what the intention in using “recycled content” is meant to achieve. We work closely with a company whose entire business focus is taking post-consumer HDPE bottles and sorting, washing, grinding or otherwise processing them into a useful form. In our earliest days, we used to do this baseline processing directly our selves; but eventually, we lacked adequate equipment resources to meet the rapidly growing demand to produce more volume. At that point, we came in contact with respected experts, in that field.

The issue of “greenwashing” is much larger than my blog space can explore at one sitting; but we have experienced some competition that seeks to deceive our potential customers that their “recycled content” has equal value to our own. So far, as we investigate such claims, we don’t see any truth in that possibility. Dealing with post-consumer feedstock is a complex matter that most companies really don’t want to get involved in. We have a quarter century of experience at making sure our post-consumer content has enough quality, to simply stand on it’s own useful merits as a material choice – before we even begin to point out, that it also is a more environmentally-sound choice for its utilization of existing waste.

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Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer

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Plastics – Under Eco Pressure

McDonald's Polystyrene Coffee Cup

McDonald’s Polystyrene Coffee Cup

We follow the plastics industry news closely. Our first recycled materials came from plastics feedstocks. We did not cause it to exist, so in an interesting way, we are not closely aligned with the plastics industry but it is because of them, that we can perform the service that is the foundation of our business. Plastics are not the only material we produce – there is also rubber and most recently cork (and the fact that it is a naturally growing tree, has been one of it’s deepest appeals to us personally).

The first plastics were derived from organic cellulose materials in the mid 1800s and made possible the first flexible photographic film used for still photography and motion pictures. Formaldehyde and milk protein combinations were explored next. Humanity has had a long love-hate relationship with plastics.

Tucker Tunnel / VersaTech Geofoam

Tucker Tunnel / VersaTech Geofoam

Polystyrene was first discovered in 1839. Generally, I have considered it a “problem” because it wasn’t easy to recycle it. However, large scale polystyrene recycling has been occurring in my own community in recent times. Only the very white and non-printed kinds can be recycled here but that includes those big bulky pieces often arriving with new computers for their protection in shipping. VersaTech of Fredericktown, MO supplied over 3,300 blocks at 38” x 50.75” x 192” each for just the first phase of a project to fill the Tucker Tunnel in St Louis MO. The tunnel was constructed in 1931 by the Illinois Terminal Railroad to alleviate traffic congestion and facilitate the transportation of goods and materials. The walls of the tunnel had become so unstable that they threatened a collapse of the roadway and tall buildings above it. The tunnel had also become a base for some of St Louis’ homeless population. VersaTech’s blocks are filling and stabilizing the tunnel and as a result, the spaces above it.

McDonald's Clamshell

McDonald’s Clamshell

In the late 1980s, led by the efforts of the Environmental Defense Fund, McDonald’s phased out the use of it’s clamshells, which were the packaging for it’s sandwich products. Under public pressures, McDonald’s switched from the polystyrene clamshells to paper-based wraps for its sandwich packaging, providing a 70-90% reduction in sandwich packaging volume, reducing landfill space consumed, energy used and pollutant releases over the lifecycle of the package. However, making environmentally sound choices is neither simple, clear-cut nor certain. There are always trade-offs – the cloth vs disposable diaper dispute, or the paper vs plastic grocery bag choice. When paper is involved, we’re talking trees, or in the best case recycled paper, but the FDA does not allow recycled content to touch food products directly. Still, innovative methods of embedding recycled content, and enveloping these in virgin materials, are evolving in response, as a solution.

Now, thanks to efforts by the “As You Sow” organization started in 2011, McDonald’s will switch the hot beverage cups in all of their restaurants to double-walled fiber alternatives. With more than 14,000 locations in the United States alone, its impact is likely to extend globally to all major McDonald’s markets. Yet, the choice is a sobering reflection that 58 billion paper cups are thrown away every year. This equates to 20 million trees being cut down and 12 billion gallons of precious water used in processing. Styrofoam cups degrade at a glacial pace. Even 500 years from now, the foam coffee cup you used this morning will still be sitting in a landfill. And polystyrene has become a large problem for marine environments. The material breaks down into small pellets that are mistaken for food by some marine life, such as birds and fish, often causing death. So, for environmentalists wondering about a better yet choice, try relying on a reusable, washable mug every day for a whole year.

Still, waste and such obvious issues are not the only problem with polystyrene. The EPA released a draft rule looking for safer alternatives to the flame-retardant chemical HBCD (hexabromocyclododecane) used in polystyrene production for building insulation. The EPA is exploring a more proactive response than simply listing chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act, indicating that they may pose a concern. Recently, with news of some dispute between the US Green Building Council’s proposed LEED modifications (that would have offered credits for avoiding PVC) and the plastics industry as a whole (especially the significant players in PVC pipe and Vinyl Window interests), the EPA is also taking a look at a standard, even if justified by business competition concerns, obstructionist argument of limiting the release of what is termed as “confidential business information”. Environmentalists have a good reason to be concerned that CBI claims could hide chemicals that might cause deep concerns.

The EPA is tightening policies for CBI claims and declassifying unwarranted confidentiality claims, challenging companies to review their existing CBI claims to ensure that they are still valid and providing easier and enhanced access to a wider array of information. These decisions on the part of the EPA are friendly to the intentions of the USGBCs requests for more transparency regarding the content of certain building materials, when considered for LEED points. It is not surprising that the EPA has felt intense opposition and lobbying efforts from the chemical and plastics industries, as has the USGBC.

A report on the concerns regarding HBCD in polystyrene insulation production has found 2 viable flame-retardant alternatives to HBCD for use in expanded and extruded PS foam insulation, applicable with currently used manufacturing processes. The EPA has been motivated by indications of persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic characteristics associated with the chemical, HBCD. One alternative, a butadiene styrene brominated copolymer is already in commercial production in the US. Even though its long-term behavior in the environment isn’t entirely known, its characteristics indicate a strong reason to view it as having a low impact on any health or environmental concerns. Specifiers generally seek to avoid a known potential for undesirable consequences with the decisions that they make for the built environment.

Our company has struggled with our own concerns regarding one of the recycled plastics products that we offer known as Flexisurf. We pulled it entirely off the market, shortly after producing a large batch of samples for our market, because of our growing concern about this plastic in general, but mostly due to the impacts of its initial production. We have returned it to our product offerings because it is a positive response to the currently unavoidable presence of PVC materials in the form of high-volume production waste (from roofing membranes and automotive upholstery scraps), since we did not the cause the actual manufacture of the PVC material. Flexisurf creates a very durable and easy to maintain flooring and surfacing material, while keeping PVC out of landfills and away from the potential of entering groundwater. Sometimes, even the most environmentally aware, make difficult choices with no clear-cut “best” alternative. We seek to do the best that we know how, with the knowledge that we have, at the present time – and we never stop learning as much as we can. We are learning all the time and have no expectation of that necessity ending because the issues are always complex.

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Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer
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