Monday, January 24, 2011

Alma Mater Goes Green!

I admit, I perused the cover article of my latest alumni magazine with a mixture of excitement and envy. The feature story championed all the ways the University has "gone green" in the decade since my graduation, outlining both the big and little steps they are taking toward environmental sustainability.

While the seeds of environmental change had already been planted during my time there, the fruits of these labors did not materialize until after I had left; the University began offering a minor in environmental studies my senior year (but by then it was too late for me to add the program and still graduate on schedule) and it was offered as a major in 2005. The LEED-certified Welcome Center opened in 2008, and the GREENetwork, a task force that formed the year after I graduated, meets monthly to oversee the many environmental initiatives that are taking place campus wide.

Those are the biggies, but there are plenty of smaller and equally innovative practices taking place in nearly every aspect of campus life. Student volunteers run a second-hand clothing store from one of the residence halls; the cafeteria has gone trayless and has installed a "Hydration Station" of filtered and flavored waters, meant to encourage students to carry reusable water bottles; and prospective students and their families sip beverages from ceramic mugs that encourage their users to "Think Green", referring both to the environment and to the school's colors.

Even the University's staff are doing their part: the grounds crew has abandoned the practice of blanketing the lawn with pesticides, opting instead to spot-treat areas when necessary; custodial workers have switched to machines and cleaners that use both less water and fewer chemicals; and 65 pairs of aging laundry machines have been replaced with energy efficient models that use much less water and less energy.

Although I did take one environmental science class during my undergrad years, I would certainly have taken more had they been offered. I might have even taken more science classes if the ones that most interested me didn't have crazy prerequisites (like surviving the infamous Bio 101). That this liberal arts school is now taking a liberal arts approach to the environmental sciences-- encouraging students in the program to complete coursework in biology, chemistry, political science, and anthropology-- pleases me to no end; I only wish I could have gotten in on the fun!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Alderman Wants Brockovich at Water Testing

Well, I'll be. Alderman Ed Burke has invited renowned environmental lawyer, Erin Brockovich, to the soon-to-be-held public hearings on the level of hexavalent chromium recently discovered in the city's water supply from Lake Michigan. This is the same pollutant found in the now groundbreaking case of the residents of Hinkley, California, vs. the Pacific Gas and Energy company, a case that Brockovich researched, launched, and championed all the way up to the highest courts, which ended in a $330 million victory for the plaintiffs and fame and good fortune for Brockovich. What's more, according to Burke, Brockovich's people say she is "available". So an environmental rock star may be coming to Chicago! I am beyond excited about this.

The level of chromium-6 found in Chicago's water supply last month was 0.18 parts per billion, which is now nine times higher than the acceptable 0.02 ppb adopted by California officials just this month. Although nothing has been said about limiting the amount of Cr-6 in our local water supply, officials vow to begin quarterly testing for the substance, and to report their findings online. The EPA has also agreed to review it's current chromium limits, and to consider separating the villified chromium-6 from its cousin chromium-3, which is an essential nutrient.

While chromium levels can knowingly be reduced through fancy water filtration systems, carbon filters (like the one in my fridge) have not yet been proven to separate this chemical out of the tap water (yikes!)

Sunday, January 9, 2011


Is the sudden flurry of recent news reports on the "aflockalypse" keeping anyone else awake at night? My eco-insomnia started on New Year's Day with a chilling story of 5,000 blackbirds falling from the Arkansas sky, and it seems like every time I turn on my TV nowadays, there's another report of mysterious mass wildlife deaths. We're barely a week into this new year, and already we've got reports of species turning up dead in Kentucky and Arkansas and Sweden, in numbers of Biblical proportions. And it's not just birds; dead fish have washed up on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, dead crabs were found littering a beach in Britain... what (or who!) is next?

So what's going on here? Is our civilization being punished once more with a series of plagues? Did the Mayans correctly predict the coming of the end of days? Or is there something to the many conspiracy theories floating around, warning of covert government operations and chemical/biological warfare testing and the like?

Even though I'm exhausted, my judgement isn't clouded enough to buy into any of these crazy conspiracy theories, and I suspect that the day after the Mayans say the Earth will end will be remarkably similar to January 1st, 2000 (judgement day for Y2K); surprisingly uneventful despite all the hype. Nor do I entirely believe the reports that are telling us not to worry because scientists have decided that the blackbirds in Arkansas were literally scared to death by New Year's Eve fireworks the night before. I am worried, and I don't think the real answer is as simple as the (sometimes conflicting) news reports would lead us to believe!

I resolved not to spend another sleepless night speculating about the disturbing events of recent days, but to instead try and find a more logical explanation. So I turned on the Internet, set my common sense filter to "high", and started searching reputable biological and environmental sites. And here is what I found: sudden mass wildlife deaths are nothing new, nor are they uncommon. The U.S. Geological survey actually keeps a running tally of all reported die-offs here. In fact, scientists believe the species-specific deaths are more common than even this chart shows (as they think most die-offs go unreported) and that the media coverage (not the deaths themselves) is the only thing that has changed in recent days.

In reading through this chart, I see that most of the species on this list are birds, but that the suspected causes of death vary. While trauma is listed quite frequently, so are a number of various diseases. And I know (even from my limited training in biology and ecology) that toxins/pollutants and loss of habitat are other contributing factors. That in itself should give us plenty to worry about; I read somewhere else that as many as one in six species of birds are in danger of becoming extinct!

What's more, animals often succumb to disease, pollution, and other environmental factors long before humans. Some scientists suspect that these dead animals are the "canaries" in our proverbial coal mine, and it's high time we stop and listen. Just as animals can predict and detect severe weather and instinctively know when to take cover, many human diseases start in wildlife populations (bird flu, swine flu... these aren't just cute names!). If we want to stop their problems from becoming our problems down the road, we need to work to protect the environment we all share; humans are not immune!

The beauty of biodiversity is that every creature plays a vital role. We may not know what purpose each species serves in relation to our own existence, but we don't want to find out after they're gone... Sweet dreams!