Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day 2009

I happened to be home this morning to catch Oprah's Earth Day special. I'll admit I tuned in more for the environmental aspect than the "O factor", as I'm still a little bitter about the tapings I was subjected to a few years back... which is a whole other story... but I actually learned something! So, I never thought I'd say this, but thanks, Oprah! I was devastated by the opening segment with Jacques Cousteau's grandson, Fabien, about the largest garbage dump in the world, the swirling patch of trash in the Pacific Ocean. Estimated to be twice the size of Texas, and up to 90-feet deep in places, marine animals big and small are ingesting, getting entangled in, and dying from OUR TRASH. They showed picture after heartbreaking picture of a turtle whose shell had grown grotesquely around a plastic ring it must have gotten stuck in as a baby, a bird who was trapped and dying under layers of plastic, and an entire cigarette lighter in the belly of a dead albatross.

I know we're a long way from the Pacific Ocean, but there's a mass of trash in all of the world's oceans, and whether we realize it or not, we're contributing to the growing problem. Trash dumped in area lakes and rivers is washed downstream to bigger rivers, and is eventually carried out to sea. So this Earth Day, consider joining forces with other city dwellers and spend an afternoon this spring cleaning up a vacant lot or fishing trash out of the Chicago River. The city's "Clean and Green" initiative has several events coming up in May, and the Park District and Forest Preserves offer similar volunteering opportunities. Just think, a plastic bag that is plucked from a river in Chicago could potentially save a fish that would have otherwise been suffocated by unwittingly swimming into it! Just go to the City of Chicago web site or be on the lookout for volunteer opportunities in your area. We can all help to make this Earth Day a happy one!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Crestwood's Conatmination Concerns

I was stunned to see an explosion of investigative reports and articles in the news today, stating that village officials in suburban Crestwood had knowingly pumped contaminated water from a tainted well into their municipal water supply. And continued to do so for more than two decades after the U.S. EPA alerted them to the contamination! According to the article in today's Tribune, the EPA warned Crestwood officials back in 1986 about the dangerously high levels of perchloroethylene in their main water supply. Officials reportedly placated the EPA by agreeing to pipe in their drinking water from Lake Michigan, and the well was downgraded to an emergency-only, back-up water source, which eased state requirements for regular testing.

The article goes on to say that the Village of Crestwood continued to draw up to 20% of it's monthly water supply from the tainted well until 2007, when the EPA finally shut it down altogether. It took a vigilant mother of a child with cancer to get the attention of the EPA, and now the whole town is outraged. A segment on this evening's news focused Crestwood residents with (or in remission from) a myriad of cancers, suggesting that these illnesses could be chronic health effects of, or the possible result of long-term exposure to, a drinking water contaminant.

Is this possible in this day and age? You betcha-- have you ever watched Erin Brokovitch?!? Was it shady for Crestwood officials to tout low water prices while drawing drinking water from a contaminated well? Most definitely. Is it illegal? Well.... not exactly.

Under the SDWA, the EPA has set National Primary Drinking Water Standards, which identifies and classifies 86 known water contaminants, along with health risks and likely contamination sources for each. The EPA has studied these contaminants and set a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) and goal levels (MCLG) for each. While perchloroethylene, a commonly used dry-cleaning solvent, is not on the list, the two organic chemicals that form when PCE mixes with and breaks down in groundwater, dichloroethylene and vinyl chloride, are. Dichloroethylene, which can cause liver problems, has a MCL that ranges from 0.007 to 0.1 mg/L. Vinyl chloride, which increases cancer risk and is also a suspected cause of autism, has a MCL for just 0.002 mg/L and a MCLG of 0. This is some bad stuff! The October, 2007, test revealed vinyl chloride in an amount that was more than twice the legal MCL for that chemical.

However, this water was diluted with treated water from Lake Michigan, which likely reduced contaminant levels enough to pass the MCL tests, which are performed daily by all water treatment centers. However, saying that "dilution is the solution to pollution" is like advocating the withdrawl method of birth control; a crap shoot at best. If any of these contaminates exceed the MCLs, the local public water system (PWS) is required to notify their customers under the Public Notification requirements outlined within the SDWA. A tier-one notice requires notification within 24 hours if the contamination poses an immediate threat to human health, while a tier-two notice gives the PWS 30 days to report excess contaminant levels or improperly treated water. Crestwood only ever sent out tier-three notices, which were little more than cheery updates sent out with the annual water-quality reports.

The State of Illinois also has a right-to-know act that was passed in 2005, which would require either state officials or the Department of Public Health to notify residents when their soil or groundwater had been contaminated, even if the public water system failed to do so. Even the best technology available cannot remove all contaminants from the drinking water, so we are all drinking a chemical cocktail of sorts, regardless of where we live. It is the job of the EPA and our PWS to ensure that the contaminants we ingest are in such miniscule amounts that they pose the least possible threat to human health.

Although a statement was reportedly issued to Crestwood residents by the Health Department in August of last year, it was released nearly a year after the well was capped for good... and some may argue that the notice came nearly a quarter-century too late.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Giant Piles of Garbage

I hate to break it to you all, but waste management in this country is just that-- the management of waste. It's been likened to a shell game; we move piles of garbage from one place to another. Every year, the garbage trucks have to drive a little farther out to find a place to pile up all the trash we generate; in fact, the EPA estimates that all the landfills in the Chicago area will be full within the next 5-7 years. Cities like New York are already facing the space crunch; they sent out a "garbage barge" a few years back, with the intent of making their garbage someone else's problem. The barge circumnavigated the globe, and since no one was willing to take New York's trash, it wound up right back in New York.

According to the 2006 EPA report on the subject, of the 251 million tons of waste we generate each year (that's roughly 4 1/2 pounds of garbage per person per day), a full 55% of that was discarded. Only 32.5% was recovered (recycled), and a mere 12.5% was burned and the byproducts of combustion recovered as energy. We used to burn a lot of our garbage, but the gases and fumes that resulted were not properly filtered or recaptured, and the air pollution levels forced us to find another way. Many of the old incinerators in this city are now used as sorting facilities for our single-stream recycling program; city workers separate the materials that have been designated for recycling.

Our current method of waste management is to dump garbage into what they call "sanitary landfills". It sounds like an oxymoron, but basically all it means is that, once the landfill is full, it is covered with dirt. Out of sight, out of mind, right? Not necessarily. Old sanitary landfills are everywhere-- even if they no longer look or smell like landfills, it's hard for me not to call them what they are-- giant piles of garbage.

For example: those "mountains" along the Bishop Ford freeway into Indiana? They're not hills-- this is Illinois!-- they're covered mounds of trash. Ditto for the hilly landscape around Calumet City. The Brickyard Mall was built over a filled-in garbage pit, a large clay pit that was originally used in the making of bricks, hence the name. While that sounds like a good use for a former landfill site, the mall had to be closed down a few years back and was ultimately rebuilt, because the trash upon which the foundation was laid settled and compromised the structural integrity of the building. I'm not sure, but I suspect that the massive hill in the park across the street from me-- the one cross country runners dread-- was also created from garbage. And the popular sledding hill in the ritzy community of Evanston? The locals who remember call it "Mount Trashmore"-- it is aptly named.

We've become an undeniably "throwaway" society, but how do we reverse the waste and recovery percentages and slow the formation of these giant piles of garbage? There's not a single answer to that question; it will require a multi-faceted approach and the full cooperation of the American people to turn those numbers around. It will undoubtedly take time, but the effort is becoming increasingly necessary. Can you imagine what future civilizations will think of us when they excavate mound after mound of trash? I shudder at the thought.