Thursday, September 30, 2010


Composting is the decomposition of plant remains and other once-living materials to make an earthy, dark, crumbly substance that is excellent for enriching garden soil. It is one way to recycle your yard and kitchen wastes, reduce the volume of garbage you send to landfills and live a more sustainable life. When I lived in San Francisco, the city kindly collected food scraps (including meat and fat which really cannot be composted in your backyard) for composting. When I moved to the country in Virginia I had to rethink my approach to composting and recycling.

Your approach to composing to a large extent will be dictated by how large your yard is. If you live in a small lot suburban or urban environment that does not collect your kitchen scraps, then you will have to utilize a rodent proof and enclosed method of composting. There are basically three enclosed methods of composting which can be used for interior, garage or small yard/patio composting.

Bokashi is a method of intensive composting that can be used inside your home. Kitchen waste is placed into a container which can be sealed with an air tight lid to contain the smell. Kitchen scraps are layered with a Bokashi carrier which is usually wheat bran, rice hulls or saw dust that has been inoculated with composting micro-organisms. When using this method, it is best to have more than one container and to fill the second while the bacteria in the first are completing their work.

Vermiculture is the method of composting using worms. Worm composting typically uses a commercial worm bin (though you can always build your own shallow, sealed bin). Bedding material must be used, typically, shredded newspaper that has been moistened. A handful or two of soil, ground limestone, or well-crushed eggshells every couple of months is good for providing grit and calcium. You fill the bin with moistened bedding, toss in a few handfuls of soil, and add the worms and food scraps. Various species of worms can be used, but red worms are sold for the purpose (at least around here). They seem to survive well in these systems. Be sure to keep your worm composter at moderate temperatures, which basically requires keeping it in the garage.

The Sierra Club recommends a sealed drum composters if you have some outdoor space. These systems are rotating drums of various sizes. To achieve a good carbon to nitrogen ratio it is recommended that 50/50 balance of brown dry materials and green wet materials are added by weight. Brown materials include leaves, dry grass, shredded newspaper, and other natural products. Green materials include fruit and vegetable peels, egg shells, coffee grinds, and green plant trimmings. You simply rotate the drum three times a week during warm weather to ensure perfect mix and proper air circulation. When the weather is freezing do not turn the drum. You can watch the short composting video at this link.

Because I have acres of land and woods I have the luxury of utilizing the lazy girl’s methods of composting. The most basic and passive form of composting is backyard mulching. The largest amount of green waste generated at the suburban home is from the garden. Grass clippings should never be collected and sent to a landfill, your are just throwing away nutrients for your lawn. The first step in mulching is to take the grass clippings collector off of your lawnmower. By leaving the clippings on the ground, they will decompose and add nutrients to the soil, improving the quality of your yard. I combine mulching with not fertilizing my yard, since the grass clippings contain similar nutrients. This way I am being “green” and “sustainable” by doing less.

There are two ways to mulch leaves and this depends on the density of trees in your yard. You can either collect the leaves or spread them evenly on soil-exposed areas, to ultimately produce rich topsoil. If the layer of leaves is light, use the lawnmower to shred the leaves to help their decomposition and leave them. If leaves are collected and placed in a pile, make sure to moisten several layers of the pile to help them decompose more quickly.

Passive composting requires that you have both a carbon source and a nitrogen source and that bacteria develop. The bacteria develop naturally and the desired carbon to nitrogen ratio is about 30 to 1 that is approximated by a 50:50 mixture by weight according to some sources and 3 to 1 by weight according to the U.S. EPA. Composting is not an exact science and getting close enough will work. Good carbon sources are dried leaves, bark, shredded news paper or cardboard. Nitrogen sources are raw or cooked plant waste. The following is a list of compostable household waste; cardboard rolls, clean paper, coffee grounds and filters, cotton rags, dryer and vacuum cleaner lint (but only natural fibers), eggshells, fireplace ashes, fruits and vegetables, small amounts of grass clippings, hair and pet fur, hay and straw, houseplants, leaves, nut shells, sawdust, shredded newspaper, and tea bags (pull out the little staples and discard separately).

For your compost pile you need to layer carbon source with nitrogen source into a large pile. This pile can be left open or placed into a bin. It is then left to sit as the organic matter begins to rot. Over time (around 1 to 3 years depending on your carbon and nitrogen ratio, material size, temperature and aeration), the material will have decomposed into a rich compost material that is great for use as topsoil. Turning the pile is believed to speed up the decomposition, but certainly releases the stink. Modern composting guides suggest using smaller homogeneous sized bits of waste, shredded paper if enough dried leaves are not available to keep the carbon to nitrogen ratio (brown leaves, bark and paper to green moist waste) at 30 to 1 and monitoring the moisture level.

The vegetative waste management and yard waste composting regulations in Virginia allow composting of leaves, grass, brush and other collected material, but not composting of land-clearing debris. For an individual homeowner, Virginia pretty much leaves you alone unless you become a nuisance to your neighbors or a health hazard.

If you have a large enough yard you can either follow the traditional methods or the slightly more active approach of the early organic movement (the writings of Howard and Balfour are recommended if you are interested), suggesting that a layered pile in a temperate damp climate will do just fine with minimal effort and if you are willing to wait a couple of years and have lots of land to spare you can take my approach and build layered compost pile in edge of the woods each year and then leave it and start a new one. Time will ultimately take care of missing the ideal ratio, cold weather, failure to toss regularly with a pitch fork and most other failings.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Cap and Trade in California and Unemployment

Based on sheer size and population, California produces a significant volume of greenhouse gas emissions. If California were a country, it would be the 19th largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. However, on a per capita basis, California ranks 46th among the 50 states in greenhouse gas emission rates. While per capita electricity consumption nationwide has increased almost 50 percent since the mid-1970s, due to successful conservation efforts, California’s per capita electricity consumption has been relatively flat. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the average household in California uses only 587 kilowatt hours per month.

California has been at the forefront of legislation to prevent global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. AB 32, California’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, establishes a comprehensive program of regulatory and market mechanisms to achieve real, quantifiable, reductions of greenhouse gases that were intended to be cost effective. This law establishes a statewide greenhouse gas emissions cap for 2020, based on 1990 emissions (a year when California had entered a recession), and grants to regulators broad authority to regulate to achieve these goals.

Under an executive order from Governor Schwarzenegger, the California Air Resource Board, CARB, will require utilities to produce a third of their power from renewable sources within a decade. California already has a rule that utilities obtain 20% of their energy from renewable energy sources by this year’s end, though it is not anticipated that goal will be reached. If fully implemented, the 33% renewable energy standard will remove between 12 million and 13 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, along with other pollutants, according to CARB. It also will be a major step towards meeting the targets of California's greenhouse gas reduction law, AB32. CARB estimates cost of implementing this regulation to be $2.5 billion, which would increase energy costs by about one cent per kilowatt hour, but cost over $200 per metric ton of carbon removed.

AB 32 allows CARB great latitude in developing approaches and regulations. The first round of regulations have already been implemented. They include CARB’s low-carbon fuel standard, restrictions on some refrigerants, increased landfill methane capture, truck efficiency programs, tire pressure program, reduction of greenhouse gases in consumer products, ship electrification at ports, reduction of perfluorocarbon from the semiconductor industry, and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) reductions in non-utility and non-semiconductor applications. CARB is, also, allowed and encouraged to create a market-based “cap-and-trade” program which would be implemented by 2012. The proposed cap-and-trade program would cover the 600 largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the state, and is well under way towards implementation.

If you recall, the "American Clean Energy and Security Act,” also know as the Waxman-Markley energy bill, which was passed by the House and then stalled, modeled itself on the California plan. AB 32 serves as an experimental laboratory to the nation of the concerns and problems and possibly the results from attempting to prevent climate change by controlling CO2 emissions in this way. Under AB 32, CARB must determine how to achieve these reductions, within the deadlines. In 2008, CARB released a scoping plan outlining the measures that it would take in order to meet the 2020 emissions reduction requirement. As California unemployment climbed past 12% a movement began to suspend the enactment of AB 32. This legislation passed during better economic times has costs and impacts on business and is vulnerable to this kind of action.

Proposition 23, on California’s November 2010 general election ballot, would suspend the implementation and operation of AB 32, California’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, until state unemployment rates remain at or below 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters. That level has been reached three times since the state began compiling these statistics in 1976. Proposition 23 would suspend regulations already adopted under AB 32 and would also prohibit state agencies from continuing their adoption of new implementing regulations and related directives. This would punish any business or person who had already implemented technology and/or procedures to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and create confusion.

While Proposition 23 would suspend AB 32 and its existing regulations, it does not push back or otherwise delay the 2020 aggregate greenhouse gas reduction target contained in AB 32. If Proposition 23 were to pass, the binding target of achieving 1990 greenhouse gas emissions levels by 2020 would become effective again once the suspension is removed. So, the minute the economy booms, all the regulations would become effective immediately. The incentive would be for California businesses to keep unemployment above 5.5%. Both candidates for governor have come out against the proposition, but I believe for different reasons. Suspending the legislation in this way would create an untenable regulatory and compliance environment. Perhaps the more direct path of taxing oil and other sources of greenhouse gasses would have been simpler to moderate during times of economic duress by simply reducing the tax to stimulate the economy. Stay tuned to California for more adventures in the economic and political impacts of greenhouse gas regulation.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Backyard Best Management Practices

It is reported by the Department of Agriculture that 70% of all land in the United States is privately owned and the majority of that land is managed by farmers and ranchers. A small fraction of the privately owned land (under 100 million acres) is associated with private homes. Farmers and ranchers use conservation plans and best management practices (BMPs) to meet their production objectives and protect soil, water, air, plant, and animal resources. Though, they represent a small fraction of total land in the nation, in suburban areas homes, neighborhoods and small commercial properties represent a significant portion of the land area and sources of nutrient and sediment run off impacting our water resources. In densely populated areas BMPs must be applied to homes and small commercial developments to protect our water resources.

Riparian buffers are the forested and vegetated areas adjacent to streams and wetlands that prevent erosion and sediment run off. These riparian buffers represent a basic BMP for preventing run off containing nutrients and sediment from flowing into streams, rivers and lakes. BMPs are the name given to these effective, practical, methods which prevent or reduce the movement of sediment, nutrients, pesticides and other pollutants from the land to surface or ground water.

The most basic BMPs is a forested buffer or backyard wetland that performs many ecological functions, that go well beyond clean water, erosion control and control of runoff. The presence of properly vegetated buffers provides biologically diverse habitats both in the water and on land. I maintain a seven acre forested buffer beyond my mowed yard. Watching the wildlife on the edge of the forested zone has provided hours of peaceful pleasure. The buffers are complex ecological systems that connect the upland areas with surface waters providing a transitional area through which both the surface and ground water flow.

These forested buffers are noted for their ability to protect and enhance water quality. A properly planted and healthy riparian zone can trap sediment, and reduce or remove nutrients and sediment from precipitation, surface waters and ground waters. Once sediment has entered the system it can be continually re-suspended as it travels downstream and should be prevented from washing into storm sewers and streams. However, one need not have acres of land to have a backyard BMP. Many yards can support a backyard wetland that benefits you and your community. Letting runoff from your roof, driveway, and lot slowly filter through a mini-wetland helps prevent pollution of neighboring creeks and may help prevent flooding.

Although it is unrealistic to expect that all nonpoint source pollution can be eliminated, BMPs and common sense can be used to minimize the impact of suburban homes on water quality and the environment and create a natural Eden around your home. Simple reasonable and cost effective steps can make your backyard home to many different types of birds, butterflies, beneficial insects, bats, and other wildlife. Trees, shrubs, and other plants provide both food and shelter for wildlife. The types of plants you use for food and cover will help determine the wildlife species attracted to your backyard. Windbreaks and tree plantings slow the wind and provide shelter and food for wildlife. Native plants will thrive with the least effort.

The flowers and lavender in my garden have clouds of butterflies, humming birds and bees. However, butterflies, birds, bees, and all wildlife are very vulnerable to many pesticides and other chemicals. Probably the best single thing you can do for wildlife is to minimize or eliminate chemical use. Pesticides, including herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and rodenticides, used to simply prevent blemishes and other imperfections on private and public lands are merely for cosmetic (or ornamental) purposes and truly pointless. The time has come to question the use of pesticides cosmetically. Our desire for yards containing uniform green carpets and perfect flowers needs to be questioned. Having come to live in a house late in life, I have never felt this compulsion.

Another blemish to the immaculate and synthetic garden is natural plant succession. Many people are not aware of the value of dead, dying, and hollow trees, as well as logs on the ground, for wildlife. Dead trees provide homes to over 400 species of birds, mammals, and amphibians. Fish, insects, plants, and fungi also benefit from dead and dying trees. Consider leaving standing dead and dying trees in your yard unless they pose a human safety or property hazard, and use downed woody materials in gardens and landscaping.

Clean, fresh water is as important to birds, bats, and other wildlife as it is for people. I am fortunate in having plentiful, natural flowing water on my land. Water in a saucer, bird bath, or backyard pond gives wildlife the water they need. Remember to change the water every few days to keep it fresh. In hot weather, it may be necessary to refill the container every day. Logs and rocks in the water provide drinking and basking habitat for turtles, butterflies, and songbirds. Stones with depressions that collect water will help attract butterflies. Saving the world and sustainable living begin in your garden.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Do Septic Tank Additives Work?

According to the US EPA septic system additives also sold as septic system cleaners, degraders, decomposers, deodorizers, organic digesters, or enhancers have not been demonstrated as effective and beneficial. Some of these products can do significant harm, actually interfere with treatment processes, affect biological decomposition of wastes, contribute to system clogging, and contaminate ground water. According to Washington State department of health most additives do not have a positive effect on the operation of a septic system, and can contaminate groundwater aquifers, render septic drainfields dysfunctional, and result in costly repairs to homeowners.

Washington State bans the use, sale, and distribution of additives that contain any ingredient likely to damage a septic system or contaminate groundwater. Approval for sale in Washington does not guarantee that an additive will have any positive effect; just that it is unlikely to cause harm. So, if you are bound and determined to use a septic additive no matter what, at least use one from the Washington State list. It is not likely to help, but it is also not likely to hurt.

The septic tank/soil absorption field system is the most commonly used onsite wastewater treatment system in the United States. It is relatively low in cost, has no moving parts, and requires only that you pump the tank every three to five years, maintain any moving parts and treat the system kindly and not use it for trash and chemical disposal. The septic tank is a buried, watertight container typically made of concrete, fiberglass, or polyethylene. It holds the wastewater long enough to allow solids to settle out (forming sludge) and oil and grease to float to the surface (as scum). It also allows partial decomposition of the solid fecal materials. Compartments and a T-shaped outlet in the septic tank are intended to prevent the sludge and scum from leaving the tank and traveling into the leach field area. Some newer systems have screens and filters to keep solids from entering the leach field.

The basic design of a septic tank will only work if the sludge is not too thick on the bottom and the grease and scum is not too thick on top, and if the flow to the tank is not excessive. If there is too much waste on the bottom of the tank or too much water flowing to the tank, there will not be enough time for the solids and liquids to settle out before the tank starts releasing waste. Water containing large amounts of fecal waste will be released to the drain field. Also, if there is too much grease and scum floating on top, the scum will be released to the leach field.

On first glance septic system additives may seem like a cheap way to avoid pumping a septic tank. However, additives do not eliminate the need to pump a tank and some products can damage septic systems, interfere with treatment of wastewater, and contaminate groundwater. There are three basic categories of substances sold as septic tank additives: inorganic compounds, organic solvents, and biological additives.

Inorganic additives are generally strong acids or alkalis, similar ingredients similar to the ingredients used in popular drain cleaners. These products can destroy the biological function of your septic tank, killing off all the bacteria and allowing raw sewage to flow directly into your drainfield, potentially clogging pipes and soil pores. These types of products can also corrode concrete tanks and distribution boxes, causing them to leak and potentially break apart. None of these types of substances are allowed in Washington State. In addition, you should not use these types of drain cleaners if you have a septic system because very small quantities will cause bacterial “die off.”

Enzymatic products can be beneficial if the appropriate product is used in the right quantity. There is some indication that, enzymatic products might have the ability to reduce the amount of oil and grease in the septic tank. Second, under septic tank bacterial “die-off” conditions, slight reductions in the amount of effluent solids have been achieved by using additives. Die-off conditions were observed when adding a concentration of 1.85 gallons of liquid bleach, 5.0 gallons of liquid Lysol cleaner, or 11.3 grams of Drano drain cleaner to a standard 1,000-gallon septic tank. Other factors that can cause die-off include the use of anti-bacterial agents, and, in certain cases, medications taken by household members. However, some biological additives may increase the biological activity to the point where anaerobic decomposition of solids causes the formation of methane gas. This gas could create a hazard; push solids up from the settled portion of the septic tank. Ultimately, this may lead to solids “carryover” to the soil absorption system and clogging of the drainfield. In addition one study of 48 septic tanks found no difference in sludge level between tanks that used bacterial additives and those that did not (McKenzie, 1999). So with bacterial “die-off” pumping the tank and starting again may be your best option.

Many products are sold to remedy a failing drainfield. It was proposed that hydrogen peroxide could be used to restore the infiltrative capacity of a clogged drainfield, however, research found hydrogen peroxide degrades soil structure in a drainfield, reducing its ability to treat and absorb wastewater effluent by agitating soils containing fines (clayey and loamy soil). Organic chemicals used in additives include organic solvents or surfactants that have been reformulated to make the product safer for the environment. Even at “safe” levels, napthalenes, alkanes, and benzenes easily pass through soil systems and into the groundwater, contaminating nearby wells. These substances should never be added to a septic system.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

More on Virginia’s Watershed Implementation Plan

“The Chesapeake Bay is truly a national treasure and an ecological wonder. As Virginians, we have an obligation to protect this incredible resource, and we are all committed to ensuring a clean and vibrant Chesapeake Bay for future generations to enjoy and cherish.” Thus begins the introduction of Virginia’s Watershed Implementation Plan, WIP, to the Environmental Protection Agency. The Chesapeake Bay watershed is more than that, it is our water and our life. Unless the Chesapeake Bay watershed is protected our groundwater and all our drinking water are at risk.

To cleanup of the Chesapeake the EPA has determined that nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment from waste water plants, septic, agriculture, urban/ suburban runoff and forest land runoff will have to be reduced. The EPA has divided the Chesapeake Bay Watershed into 92 geographical segments and assigned maximum loads for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment to each segment. Although the Chesapeake Bay total maximum daily load, TMDL, is often discussed and thought of conceptually as a single TMDL, it is comprised of 92 separate segments with different sources of contamination and different TMDLs. Virginia lands drain into 39 of these segments within the watershed. All 39 segments are listed as impaired for excessive nutrients and sediments and thus each area within Virginia that is part of the Chesapeake Bay water shed needs to reduce the amount of sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus that is released to the Chesapeake from urban/ suburban run off, waste treatment plants, industrial plants, agricultural runoff, forest lands, and septic.

The WIP that Virginia submitted is fairly generic because it does not confer any additional regulatory or legal authority to governmental agencies nor does it propose to make any specific changes beyond expanding the Virginia nutrient credit program to allow the most cost effective pollution reduction strategies to be implemented statewide. However, the WIP does talk about future regulatory expansions. Any programs or strategies that are not currently authorized by state law may be pursued through the legislative process or through the Virginia Administrative Process Act, but those decisions are left for the future. Virginia is also bound by the provisions of state law that require cost evaluations along with a benefit analysis for implementation plans.

The Department of Natural Resources formed an advisory group last winter that seemed to include every regulator, business interest and environmental group, but failed to include representation for the Virginia homeowner. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation half of Virginia is drained by Chesapeake Bay watershed rivers, and two-thirds of the state's population lives within the Bay watershed. In addition there are 536,000 homes with septic systems within the Bay watershed. The WIP will control building, remodeling of homes, road construction, lawn maintenance, possibly increase requirements on homeowners with septic systems or require neighborhoods to install storm water management systems. Restoring the Chesapeake Bay and protecting the water for fishing recreation and water supply will cost money and impact our lives and the value of our property. Two thirds of the homeowners in Virginia live within the Chesapeake Bay watershed and they should have the most powerful say in how the TMDL is implemented in our neighborhoods.

The EPA will be having a series of public meetings and webinars attend one of the meetings. You need to be informed and look out for your interests because no one else is. The Virginia meetings are October 4th from 6-8 p.m. at the Grafton Theatre, James Madison University, 281 Warren Service Drive, Harrisonburg, VA.
October 5th - from 6-8 p.m. Northern Virginia Community College, Annandale Campus, Ernst Community Cultural Center, 8333 Little River Turnpike, Annandale VA
October 7th from 6-8 p.m. Crowne Plaza Hampton Marina Hotel, 700 Settlers Landing Road, Hampton, VA. There is also a webinar on October 7th from 1-3 pm

Monday, September 13, 2010

Virginia’s Watershed Implementation Plan

Virginia's secretary of natural resources, Doug Domenech, submitted Virginia's Watershed Implementation Plan to the Environmental Protection Agency on Sept. 3, 2010, two days later than requested. There may be some political message in that action beyond a tendency to procrastinate, who knows, maybe his dog ate it. The plan begins with the simple acknowledgement that:
“The Chesapeake Bay is truly a national treasure and an ecological wonder. As Virginians, we have an obligation to protect this incredible resource, and we are all committed to ensuring a clean and vibrant Chesapeake Bay for future generations to enjoy and cherish.”

In his cover letter, Secretary Domenech said: “Having only received our nitrogen and phosphorous allocations July 1, and sediment allocation August 13, it is difficult to develop a comprehensive plan such as this that may have an impact through 2025.” In addition, to meet reductions in non-point source pollution, pollution from agriculture, urban and suburban run off and septic systems, will require changes in regulations and laws and funding for implementation and enforcement. These changes could have tremendous economic and autonomy impacts on business and individuals in Virginia and need to be addressed by the state legislature and impacted communities.

According to the US EPA and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation suburban and urban spread is the fastest growing land use and that suburban and urban storm water run off and septic waste water are the only major source of pollution in the watershed that continue to increase. The experts believe that this has been caused by the increase in impervious cover (pavement, buildings and roadways) that is associated with development and increased density of septic systems as population increases and lots become smaller.

For the urban and suburban storm water to meet the federal mandated pollution diet, new developments will be subject to storm water management, urban nutrient management and erosion and sediment controls that have recently be implemented. In addition, a nutrient exchange program will be developed to encourage implementation of BMPs (best management practices). However, the new storm water regulations will not address the sediment and nutrient loads associated with existing development and the mandated TMDL (total maximum daily load of pollutants) will require reductions from the existing pollution load. EPA is mandating the acceptable nutrient and sediment reductions, not on a statewide basis but on a segment by segment basis. Virginia is proposing that the Commonwealth meet the goals on a statewide basis. Simply looking at an aerial map of northern Virginia demonstrates the problem. The predominant form of development is existing housing, neighborhoods, and roads. Without having to create storm water management for every existing neighborhood, there are few options. Even with statewide compliance and the new storm water management regulation the WIP talks of restrictions on lawn and turf fertilizers, increasing regulation on both traditional and alternative septic systems.

The preliminary response from the Chesapeake Bay Foundations was: “Upon initial examination, we have serious concerns about the WIPs lack of details. Absent dramatic changes, we ask EPA to consider, now, what actions it must take to ensure Virginia will accomplish its share of needed pollution reductions…While there are some good proposals in the WIP—to offset pollution from future growth, to offer tax incentives to farmers to use conservation practices—the document is stunningly deficient on how the Commonwealth will implement many of these proposals. In particular, the WIP does not specify how Virginia will reduce non-point runoff pollution from farms and urban areas.” The reaction by EPA to these comments and the WIP in general will tell us if the federal regulators intend to regulate down to the suburban backyard or if they will allow the Commonwealth to have the local communities address how to reduce their contributions to pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

The EPA will be having a series of public meetings and webinars. The Virginia meetings are: October 4th from 6-8 p.m. at the Grafton Theatre, James Madison University, 281 Warren Service Drive, Harrisonburg, VA.
October 5th - from 6-8 p.m. Northern Virginia Community College, Annandale Campus, Ernst Community Cultural Center, 8333 Little River Turnpike, Annandale VA
October 7th from 6-8 p.m. Crowne Plaza Hampton Marina Hotel, 700 Settlers Landing Road, Hampton, VA. There is also a webinar on October 7th from 1-3 pm

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Living With A Septic System

Septic system failure is unpleasant, unsanitary, could be a source of serious disease and cost thousands to tens of thousands of dollars to resolve. Septic failure can result in contamination of the groundwater and nearby drinking water wells or you could find septic tanks sludge backed up into your house or on the surface of your yard. These are routine failures that are easily predicted and prevented. Less predictable is the catastrophic failure of a septic system component.

A typical septic system has four main components: a pipe from the home, a septic tank, a leach field (alternative systems might have drip fields, sand mounds or peat tanks where a leach field is not possible or has failed), and the soil. Microbes in the soil digest or remove most contaminants from wastewater before it eventually reaches groundwater. Many systems also have pumps to move the liquids from the home to the septic tank or from the septic tank to the drain field. There are also Alternative systems that have additional components such as; float switches, pumps, and other electrical or mechanical components including additional treatment tanks.

The septic tank is a buried, watertight container typically made of concrete, fiberglass, or polyethylene. It holds the wastewater long enough to allow solids to settle out (forming sludge) and oil and grease to float to the surface (as scum). It also allows partial decomposition of the solid fecal materials. Compartments and a T-shaped outlet in the septic tank are intended to prevent the sludge and scum from leaving the tank and traveling into the leach field area. Some newer systems have screens and filters to keep solids from entering the leach field. These filters and screens become clogged and need to be cleaned out regularly to prevent septic sludge from backing up into the house.

The basic design of a septic tank will only work if the sludge is not too thick on the bottom and the grease and scum is not too thick on top, and if the flow to the tank is not excessive. If there is too much waste on the bottom of the tank or too much water flowing to the tank, there will not be enough time for the solids and liquids to settle out before the tank starts releasing waste. Water containing large amounts of fecal waste will be released to the drain field. Also, if there is too much grease and scum floating on top, the scum will be released to the leach field. A septic system is not a trash can. Don’t put dental floss, feminine hygiene products, condoms, diapers, cotton swabs, cigarette butts, coffee grounds, cat litter, paper towels, latex paint, pesticides, or other hazardous chemicals into your system. Commercial septic tank additives may assist in the breakdown of fecal waste, but do not eliminate the need for periodic pumping and can be harmful to the system.

Septic tank wastewater flows to the leach field, where it percolates into the soil, which provides final treatment by removing harmful bacteria, viruses, and nutrients. Suitable soil is necessary for successful wastewater treatment. Also, the waste can not contain too much solid material or scum. High quantities of solids in the waste stream will overwhelm the leach field. Initially, nitrogen and fecal bacteria will be released to the groundwater as the soil becomes saturated with solids and scum. Eventually the perforations in the pipes to the leach field through which waste water flows become clogged and the waste backs through the system into your home.

Yet, most homeowners wait until a system fails to take action or even think about maintaining their septic system. The functional lifetime of a traditional septic system is limited. The system is designed so that with proper maintenance it will last 20 to 30 years, under the best conditions. Many other factors besides how much and what you put into your system can cause early failure of a septic system. Pipes blocked by roots, soils saturated by storm water, compacting of the drain field by parking vehicles or heavy objects on the top of the field, improper location, poor original design or poor installation can all lead to major problems.

However, it is more likely that septic systems fail because they are abused, improperly maintained or just old. Remember that the entire functioning of a traditional septic system is based on natural ecological cycles. It needs to be treated kindly and kept in balance. When a system is poorly maintained and not pumped out on a regular basis, sludge (solid material) builds up inside the septic tank, and then flows into the leach (absorption) field, clogging it beyond repair. Excessive load from toilets and garbage disposal, putting grease, coffee grinds, kitty litter or any kind of trash down the drain will effectively decrease the size of the tank and the time that the solids have to settle out. This will decrease the life of and potentially overload the system. Even with proper use and maintenance the system will wear out. A garbage disposal adds solids and increases the biological load on a septic system.

If the amount of wastewater entering the system is more than the system can handle, then wastewater either backs up into the house or the yard or both. Doing load after load of laundry on a single day could overwhelm the system. A leaking toilet or sink will overwhelm the system. If you have a septic system you cannot ignore even small leaks. Emptying a hot tub or draining a water bed down a drain into your septic system stirs the solids in the tank and pushes them out into the leach field, causing it to clog and fail. A sump pump should never be pumped to a drain. Some freshwater purification systems, including reverse osmosis systems and water softeners, unnecessarily pump large quantities of water into the septic system. This can contribute a hundred gallons of water or more to the septic tank each day, causing agitation of solids and excess flow to the leach field.

To prevent problems, only put reasonable amounts of grey water, human waste and a limited amount of TP into your system and have your septic system inspected and pumped regularly. In the past decade EPA has shortened the recommended time between tank pump outs. EPA is now recommending pumping the tank every three years. Many towns and counties have no requirements for pump outs or use the older every five year recommendation. Remember, the most likely time for your septic system to back up is when you have a lot of guests at your home using the bathrooms. This is one holiday “gift” you might want to avoid.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Chesapeake Clean Water and Ecosystem Restoration Act- Managing an Ecosystem by Brute Force

On October 20, 2009, Senator Cardin of Maryland introduced, S. 1816, the “Chesapeake Clean Water and Ecosystem Restoration Act,” on behalf of himself and Senators Mikulski, Carper and Kaufman. The legislation reappeared from Senator Boxer’s Committee on June 30th 2010 with all 64 plus pages stricken and with a 98 page amendment. Expanding federal authority even beyond that of the original bill to determine what science is acceptable and funded.

The Chesapeake Bay Act is an amendment to the Clean Water Act that serves to expand federal authority down to the smallest potential source of pollution. In the findings section the Chesapeake Bay Act states that the largest land use and largest source of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment within the Chesapeake Basin is agriculture. It also states that air pollution of nitrogen oxides and ammonia from air pollution contributes 1/3 of nitrogen loadings to the Bay. Significantly, the legislation states that suburban and urban spread is the fastest growing land use and that suburban and urban storm water run off is the only major source of pollution in the watershed that continues to increase. The Chesapeake Bay Act goes on to state this has been caused by the impervious cover (pavement, buildings and roadways) increasing by 250,000 acres between 1990 and 2000. Finally, the Chesapeake Bay Act states that 58% of the watershed is undeveloped and mostly forested, but that 100 acres of forest are lost to development each day. These claims have been determined by modeling, confirmation sampling and interpretation of data. In other words by the federal government and universities and experts.

This new legislation grants sweeping new authority to promulgate any regulation and issue any permit needed to control pollution from any source (including your back yard) to meet water quality goals set by the EPA, notwithstanding any other provision of the Clean Water Act. Thus, the Clean Water Act exemptions for agricultural storm water or irrigation return flows, or residential storm water flows are voided. This provides authority for the EPA to issue section 402 permits to all minor sources of pollution including your home, certainly your neighborhood. States are given authority to issue permits for any pollution source that the Chesapeake Bay State deems necessary. In addition, it requires that the EPA establish standards relating to site planning, design, construction and maintenance for project resulting in impervious development (concrete, roads, buildings, patios, increasing building footprints), essentially any development. The federal government is granted the right to control building and developments within Chesapeake Basin of the six states.

The legislation creates a nutrient trading program throughout the Chesapeake Basin based on imperfect modeling of the effectiveness of agricultural best management practices, storm water management plans. To development essentially a cap and trade program to attempt to accelerate the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay by creating nutrient credits based on federal government blessed “Big Science and Expert” approved model and best management practices (BMPs) that can be bought and sold to meet nutrient reduction goals. One unintended consequence will be in exploitation of know inefficiencies and errors in the models to game the system. In addition, BMPs need to be adopted then maintained year in and year out, so they need to be tracked. It is not like buying a more efficient filter or machine, but maintaining plantings and drainage patterns, composting animal waste, rotating pastures. So the legislation requires EPA to maintain a database with comprehensive information on best management practices.

Many of the other things covered by the legislation codifies as law the requirements for states to adopt and submit to EPA for approval watershed implementation plans for each segment of the Chesapeake Basin within their states. Codifies the total maximum daily load TMDL limits for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment and the methods for implementing enforcing the programs. These regulations are currently being implemented without this act which serves to place land use control into federal hands. With one piece of legislation we deliver into federal hands the authority to engage in social, economic and environmental engineering in the six state region.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Leviathan in the Chesapeake Clean Water Act

Each year, hundreds of millions of pounds of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment reaches the Chesapeake Bay. The majority of this pollution comes from sewage treatment plants, large-scale animal operations, agriculture, and air pollution from vehicle exhaust and power plants and other industrial sources. Other sources of pollution include septic systems, runoff from roadways, runoff from commercial development, residential and commercial lawn fertilizers, and small scale animal and agricultural sources (the keeping of horses, poultry, and other animals and growing vegetables in predominately suburban or exurban locations. Solutions to this pollution include upgrading sewage treatment plants, proper operation of septic systems, using nitrogen removal technologies on septic systems, decreasing fertilizer applications to and agriculture, controlling suburban and exurban animal waste, and controlling storm water run off from urban, suburban and agricultural sources.

Over the past quarter century the excess nutrient and sediment contamination to the Chesapeake Bay has decreased in total, but the Bay’s waters remain seriously degraded and considerably short of attaining the 2010 water quality goals set forth in the Chesapeake 2000 agreement. During this time agricultural and industrial sources of pollution have been significantly reduced while urban runoff and suburban sources have increased significantly. As a result US EPA is developing a new federally mandated Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plan to establish and apportion an allowable pollution budget among the states. However, S.1816/H.R. 3852, the Chesapeake Clean Water and Ecosystem Restoration Act (known as the Chesapeake Clean Water Act), represents a radical change in the regulatory approach and an expanse of federal power. Congress will vote on this act to control “non-point” source pollution and delegate to the federal control of every backyard in the six state area of the Chesapeake Bay basin. This legislation would take regulation down to every drop of water and every household activity, uniformly across the region.

The federal government will decide across the six state region whether you can have dogs, cats or other pets, how many if you can let them out in your yard or if you need to gather their waste. There will be regulations for maintaining a horse in hunt country, if you can fertilize your lawn, the types and quantities of plants, if you can wash your car, wash or even build a patio or deck, and acceptable materials of construction for these items. The allocation of the pollution budget will be based on the negotiating power and influence of the federally recognized “stakeholders,” which has never included the American homeowner. In addition, the legislation changes the definition of waters regulated under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act beyond navigable water of the United States down to all the waters, every storm sewer, creek and puddle in the Chesapeake Basin. This is a fundamental increase in power for the federal government.

While it is necessary to put the states on a pollution diet by mandating the TMDL, the determination of how to achieve those goals should be left to local control and homeowner within the region need to have strong representation. As it stands now homeowners are not invited to the table with the other stakeholders. EPA has determined the TMDL allocations based on models of the Chesapeake basin. These models are evolving and improving, but still are only approximations of the ecology of the watershed. EPA has found the modeled results tend to show more attainment from implementation than the monitored results, the cause of this difference has not been fully determined. While the states are insisting they have not been given full credit for agricultural mitigations called “best management practices or BMPs,” the EPA reduced the allocations by an arbitrarily applied margin of safety of about 20-25%. However, now this legislation proposes to use these models to create monetary value from installing mitigations that need to be maintained and that can be bought and sold instead of using monitoring results. This creates the possibility of large scale operations exploiting any flaw in the model to game the system for profit. When there is money involved, there will be someone to find them.

Furthermore the legislation enables the EPA to control growth through pollution allocations, pollution offsets and acceptance of methods of control. Federal power to regulate my backyard is not granted by the constitution under any interpretation of the interstate commerce clause. The federal government exists to serve the individual, and the family not rule it. The Federal government is not the highest expression of moral good and has never been granted the kinds of power assumed here.