Thursday, January 30, 2014

Tool to Esitmate Solar Panel Cost for DC

There are a growing number of companies out there that are creating easy to use platforms to utilize data that has been collected. One of the cool things floating around if you live in Washington DC is the Mapdwell Project. According to their website, the Mapdwell Project is about enabling communities with information that will drive sustainable practices, community awareness, energy efficiency, and smart development through the aggregate effort of individuals.

In partnership with the District Department of the Environment (DDOE), Mapdwell has created and released to the public a cool solar power tool that you can play with. So that if you live in the District you can see what the cost and return of a solar system on your building’s roof top would be. The solar system size used is based on the size of the roof and is effectively the maximum size solar array you could install. You of course could install a smaller array. I randomly picked a residence with a roof about the size of my solar PV array to show the information the Mapdwell project provides and apologize to whoever lives there at using their address.

The Mapdwell project serves the purpose for education and outreach to District building and homeowners to test the economics of solar power for their building. The stakeholders for solar power are residents, businesses, installers, and government in the Washington DC city limits. It aims to advance information on costs and benefits of solar power and promote solar adoption for distributed generation of solar energy from roof tops.

You will notice in the chart above that the installed cost of solar power is $4.32/ watt. That is a reasonable cost estimate in today’s market for midsize array of 10 KWatt, but may be a little low for the smallest sites. The cost of solar power is very dynamic and constantly changing and there are several components to the return of a solar system. The first cost is the cost of the system. The market cost of solar panels and installation has been falling for years and according to the Mapdwell system would cost $30,482 for the purchase and installation of a. For the next couple of years the 30% federal tax credit is still available. The net cost of the solar system below after the tax credits was $21,337 for a 7.1 kilowatt system.

The monthly energy savings from the power generated would be $85 per month. Without additional incentives that would be a return of under 1.5% on your investment. However, you will notice that according to the Mapdwell system this solar array will earn $261 each month in SRECs. That appears to boost the return on investment to 19%, but what is a SREC?

A SREC is a credit for each megawatt hours of electricity that is produced (and used by me). SRECs have value only because some states have solar set asides from their Renewable Portfolio Standards, RPS, which require that a portion of energy produced by a utility be produced by renewable power. Utilities in those states buy SRECs from solar installation producers. It is a way for states to ensure that the upfront cost of solar power is recovered from utility companies (and ultimately from the rate paying consumers). Most states at this point require their utilities to buy SRECs only from residents of their own states creating a closed market where the prices typically start off high until supply responds to that price. Other states, like Virginia, have no current solar RPS requirement and their RPS is voluntary.

The legislation creating SRECs and RPS in various markets creates a situation where most markets loose SREC value. Without minimum price support, markets like New Jersey where SREC prices were once over $600 become oversupplied and collapse. There is always price pressure as the market over builds and the next project is willing to accept a lower SREC price. Then either the market collapses or the state closes its SREC market to outside systems and accelerates the solar carve out.

In the District of Columbia, after the market price collapsed, the market was closed, and the RPS requirement was accelerated. For the 49.6 megawatts of required average capacity for next year, there are over 28.3 megawatts of solar photovoltaic systems currently registered and certified in DC that are eligible for the DC SREC market, but DC allows a three year life on SRECS so any saved SRECs from the previous oversupplied period can be sold. Only 8.8 MW of the 28.3 megawatts are actually located within the District the others were registered and grandfathered before the market was closed.

The SREC prices in DC are currently the highest in the nation and will encourage the installation of solar projects within the district, but peculiarities of the market may slow the installation of solar projects in the short run. The SACP is currently at $300 and set to begin stepping down in less than five years ultimately reaching $150. In 2017 when the SACP is cut the market price of SRECs should fall to reflect that even if there is no sudden surge in solar installations in DC.

Of the SREC markets only Washington DC and Massachusetts are not currently oversupplied or at near balance with price supports keeping the SREC market viable. Washington DC may remain stable for a few years because as a city it has no large capacity projects and is closed to outside systems. To meet the existing solar RPS the city would have to increase its current installed solar capacity by putting solar panels on single family and multifamily residential buildings, government buildings, University dorms and museums- a much slower build out and would explain the funding of the Mapdwell project to reach out to possible building owners. Remember, that the SRECS are only viable for a few years they step down in value even without the market overbuilding.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Rules for Septic Systems

My septic tanks
A lot of the rule of thumb advice on septic systems available in brochures from various government entities was developed for basic or “typical” septic systems that are the most common systems out there. These rules assume typical systems and average household water use. Really, you can’t go wrong following the sensible and conservative rules of septic management generally offered up. These days there are vast differences in system design and sizing, the age of systems as well as how systems are used to make many of the old rules of living with a septic system not applicable to all systems and all households. However, if all you want is the basic rules, then here you go:
  1. Have a traditional septic system inspected at least every 3 years by a professional and your tank pumped as recommended by the inspector. This requires that the access to your tank and inspection ports not be buried. If the bottom of the scum layer is within 6-8 inches of the bottom of the outlet tee or the top of the sludge layer is within 12 inches of the outlet tee, your tank needs to be pumped. How often you really need to pump your septic tank depends primarily on the size of your tank, the number of people in the household, the volume of solids in your wastewater and whether you use a garbage disposal or have a water treatment system and of course local regulations. 
  2. Manage your household water use. The septic system does not have unlimited capacity. Practice mindful water use. Doing all the household laundry in one day might over load your septic system. With an alternative system that has a timed pump and level alarms you will get a high water alarm. Doing load after load of laundry or excessive water use (all the relatives are staying with you) does not allow your septic tank time to adequately treat wastes. In an older system the waste will simply flow into the drainfield in a newer system, the system will alarm and then back up into the house (unless you force it to pump). 
  3. Dispose of hazardous household wastes at an appropriate waste disposal facility or drop-off. Most landfills and city trash programs have these drop-offs. Do not put hazardous household wastes down the drain or in the toilet EVER. Do not wash paint brushes or containers in the sink they can destroy the biological treatment system. Minimize the use of bleach, chemical disinfectants and antibacterial agents. 
  4. Most septic system 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. There is no additive on the market that will eliminate the need to pump a tank and some products can damage septic systems, interfere with treatment of wastewater, and contaminate groundwater.
  5. Your septic system is not a trash can. Do not flush dental floss, feminine hygiene products, condoms, diapers, cotton swabs, cigarette butts, coffee grounds, cat litter, paper towels, and other kitchen and bathroom items down the drain. At best they accumulate in the bottom of the tank and shorten the time between pump outs, but they can also damage your septic system. Items that float and are carried over to clog the distribution ports. 
  6. Know where your drainfield is. Plant only grass over and near your septic system. Roots from nearby trees or shrubs might clog and damage the drainfield. Also, pay attention to your drainfield, a muddy drainfield is a sign of failure. Septic drainfields and alternative secondary treatments like peat tanks and sand mounds also have a limited life. The life of a septic drainfield is dependent on how the system is managed, the frequency of septic tank pump outs, and the number of people living in a house, but 20-30 years may be the life of those systems- even when well managed.
  7. Don’t drive or park vehicles on any part of your septic system. The weight of the equipment will compact the soil in your drainfield or damage the pipes. 
  8. Pumping your tank regularly is the single most important thing you can do. The newest rule of thumb from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is to pump every three years. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed many homes are within areas designated resource protected areas that requires pump out at least every five years, but that may not be frequent enough depending primarily on the size of your tank, the number of people in the household contributing to the volume of your wastewater, the volume of solids in your wastewater and whether you use a garbage disposal or have a water treatment system. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Keystone III Begins Operations

from TransCanada
On Wednesday, January 22, 2014 TransCanada began operation of the Gulf Coast Project. The pipeline also known as Keystone III has begun delivering crude oil from Cushing, Okla., to the oil refineries in Texas. This pipeline cost $2.3-billion and provides a direct connection between the Cushing, Oklahoma oil hub and the refineries on the Gulf Coast. This project also added of 2.25 million barrels of crude oil storage capacity at Cushing and will ultimately carry 1.3 million barrels of oil a day between Oklahoma and Texas. In 2012, TransCanada announced their intension to build the Cushing Oklahoma to the Nederland, Texas portion of the Keystone XL pipeline, and to extend that pipeline 435 miles to Port Arthur and Houston. The Keystone Phase III Project (Oklahoma to Texas) began construction during the summer of 2012 and began opeations at 700,000 barrels a day yesterday.

One year ago, January 22nd 2013, Governor Dave Heineman of Nebraska signed the recommendation to the U.S. Department of State for a Presidential Permit for the Keystone XL pipeline to cross the international border. The recommendation is in support of the TransCanada’s second application for a Presidential Permit to build the northern most section of the Keystone XL pipeline (Phase IV) from the Canadian Border from where Saskatchewan meets Nebraska along this new route through Nebraska that would join up with the Keystone Phase II which runs from Steel City, Nebraska to Cushing, Oklahoma. The route avoids many of the fragile soils in northern Nebraska and the shallowest areas of the Ogallala Aquifer, but still overlies portions of the aquifer, which covers most of the state. The State Department has taken no action on the Keystone request in the past year.

There is currently an existing Keystone pipeline that runs east from Hardesty Saskatchewan to Manitoba and then south through the Dakotas to Steel City, Nebraska. It is a less direct route and is a lower volume pipeline. The existing Keystone Pipeline is known as Phase I and run from Hardesty, Canada to Steel City, Nebraska near the Kansas and Nebraska border. Keystone Phase II runs from Steel City to Cushing, Oklahoma where the Canadian crude oil and U.S. domestic production of light sweet crude from North Dakota can now be transported to the refineries on the Gulf Coast.  Keystone is not the only pipeline from Cushing, OK to Texas. Enbridge Inc. and Enterprise Products Partners owners of the Seaway pipeline that runs from the gulf coast area to Cushing, Oklahoma, reversed the flow in their gas pipeline to move crude from Cushing to the gulf coast refineries in mid-2012 with the addition of pump stations and other.  The capacity of the reversed Seaway Pipeline is up to 150,000 barrels of oil per day, a fraction of the new Keystone III Pipeline.

The Keystone XL Pipeline has been very controversial. Most of the environmental controversy has focused on the porous soils of the Sandhills and fears of a possible oil leak into one of the nation's most important agricultural aquifers. Moving the pipeline away from the aquifer should mitigate that concern. However, many who oppose the Keystone XL pipeline want to prevent the development of the oil sands resources in Canada to prevent the acceleration of global warming. The Canadian oil sands have been known for decades, but until oil prices rose and technology improved these oil deposits were too expensive to exploit beyond the limited scope of surface mining. Advances in technology in both oil sand extraction and refining techniques and rising oil prices altered the economics and have made the extraction of oil sand possible. While the advances in extraction techniques have quadrupled recoverable oil reserves and moved Canada into second place in proved world oil reserves, it requires more energy to produce the oil and increases the carbon footprint of the crude as compared to oil from the Middle East or Brazil.

The current method of mining the Canadian oil sands increases the CO2 released in every gallon of gas adding to man’s carbon footprint. In addition, older methods of mining the oil sands left open pits that still need to be reclaimed, thought today groups of wells are typically drilled off a central pad and like fracking wells and can extend for miles in all directions. This reduces surface disturbances of the land and the footprint of the area to be reclaimed.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Drought Emergency Declared in California

California before the drought
After three consecutive years of below-normal rainfall, California looks to be facing its most severe drought in decades. Governor Jerry Brown has declared a drought emergency and called for voluntarily water conservation. If the rains and snow do not come these voluntary measures will be followed by mandatory rationing. Declaring a drought emergency allows the governor to change the water allocations and sustain some of the water allocations to agriculture based on politics and connections.

California’s climate is dominated by the Pacific storm track. The mountain ranges cause precipitation to fall mostly on the western slopes. During a wet winter, these storms also leave tremendous accumulations of snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Californians obsessively track the snow pack and rainfall because they live on the edge of running out of water. It has not been a wet winter for several years; the high pressure front that delivered snow and cold to the rest of the United States has prevented rains and snow from falling in California. The Sierra Snowpack the source of much of the spring runoff is at 19% of normal with no rain or snow in the immediate forecast. When the rain comes it falls primarily in the northwestern part of California and the State and uses water transportation and storage to deliver water where it’s used.

California has the largest water storage and transportation system in the world. With 1,200 miles of canals and nearly 50 reservoirs, in an “average” year the system captures enough water to irrigate about four million acres and provide water to 30 million people. Without this extensive management system that moves water from the north to the south and delivers water from the Colorado and Klamath Rivers, California’s limited rainfall and diminishing groundwater reserves could not meet as much of the demand for water. However, without rain and snow in the Sierra mountains there is simply not enough water.

Irrigated agricultural consumes over 75% of the delivered water in California, which produces about half of U.S. grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables. As farmers have shifted to higher value horticultural and orchard crops, they have adopted more efficient irrigation technologies to stretch their water allocations, but there is still some progress that can be made in net water use. In California they have used the various complicated and hidden subsidies within the various water rights and subsidy programs to complicate and obscure the true costs agriculture and prevent the complete and rational implementation of drip irrigation and other water saving technologies. The basic laws and regulations governing water and water rights have not been updated to account for today’s water realities, and groups fight to maintain the status quo.

Californians pride themselves on being environmentally conscious and mindful of conserving natural resources. California local water agencies have invested in water recycling, conservation, groundwater storage and other strategies to stretch supplies. Nonetheless, water demand within the state has never been greater and the available water resources have not changed and may be decreasing as our climate changes. Year round agriculture has been made possible by water used for irrigation. California produces nearly half of the nation's fruits, nuts and vegetables. Fruit and nut trees must be watered all year they cannot lie dormant for several years during a drought. The limit to California’s agricultural bounty is water availability. Water available is a combination of surface water diversions and groundwater pumping. In 2006 before the beginning of the last drought, California used almost 31 billion gallons of water a day for irrigation. This is 351 gallons of water a day for each agricultural dollar earned each year.

California water problems fundamentally result from having a vibrant economy and society in an arid climate. The demand for cheap water exceeds supply and the current drought, the worst since the 1970’s has once more brought water to the forefront. There is simply not enough water to go around. Almost all of the water in California comes from precipitation in the northern portion of the state and inflows from the Colorado and Klamath Rivers and no amount of political influence, legislation and wishful thinking is going to increase the water available to the state as a whole.

In terms of national agricultural output, California accounted for 17.6 % of U. S. crops, and 7 % of the U.S. revenue for livestock and livestock products. Not only does California produce about half of U.S. grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables, but several of these crops are currently produced only in California. In the central valley of California where three crops a year can be grown and crop production is only limited by the amount of water delivered for irrigation, the groundwater is used to increase irrigation waters making up an estimated of 30% of water for irrigation from an aquifer that is predominately non-renewable. So much water has been pumped that the land above the aquifer has subsided and can never recover. The water level in these aquifers has fallen hundreds of feet in the past few generations.

To change the fundamental water equation in the state the Pacific Institute recommends that of 1.3 million acres of impaired lands in the Central Valley be removed from irrigation and agricultural use. This land represents less than 5% of the agricultural land in California, but would save 3.9 million acre-feet of water per year, while also reducing polluted surface water runoff and impacts to groundwater. This water savings represents 9% of the water used in California and is equal to two thirds of the total water used for urban residential use. This could solve the water issues for decades, but California has so far refused to face water reality and the hard choices that go with it. Taking away water rights and land use rights even with compensation is very difficult- seemingly impossible in California. Instead, Californians engage in magical thinking that some political action or state construction project will create more water. Maybe this drought will be different.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Drinking Water is Restored to Charleston West Virginia

For almost a week Charleston (and the surrounding communities) has been without drinking water. A week ago a leak was discovered in a former fuel storage tank that was being used to store MCHM. By all accounts about 7,500 gallons of MCHM was released into the Elk River a mile and a half up river from the water intake for the drinking water supply for Charleston, West Virginia. The water company originally believed that the plant filter could remove the MCHM which is actually the acronym for 4-methylcyclohexane methanol a modestly water soluble octanol used in air freshener and for washing coal, but the water treatment plant’s filtration is not effective in removing the chemical and they were forced to issue a do not use for drinking, cooking or bathing warning to their water customers.

The chemical storage facility is owned by a private company, Freedom Industries, Inc. that primarily appears to distribute chemicals. The site of the leak was once a Pennzoil-Quaker State gasoline and diesel storage terminal that was sold in 2001. These old tanks (reportedly installed around 1938) were apparently put to new use storing chemicals.Though it was common in the past to have fuel storage tanks on rivers, it was not the safest of ideas; however, the fuel arrived by barge. When Pennzoil-Quaker State closed the facility and sold it, the new owners though it was okay to store solvent in an old 35,000 gallon above ground riveted storage tank that clearly had inadequate secondary containment to prevent a spill into the river. This was all legal. There are very limited requirements for secondary containment on ASTs and no lifetime limits on equipment age . This has been a known problem for decades.

Back in January 1988 about 800,000 gallons of diesel fuel escaped from an Ashland Oil company storage tank that ruptured 20 miles upriver from downtown Pittsburgh. The 40-year-old tank was within a containment dike that reportedly held 2.5 million gallons but failed to stop the overspill from running into the river. The oil spill shut down drinking water for days. The problem then and now is that the secondary containment that was historically used for fuel storage was motivated to prevent fires, not prevent leakage into the river. Diesel and gasoline float and are easier to capture that an octanol, but that is secondary. In many places (and apparently still in West Virginia) the secondary containment was earthen berms without a liner.

Despite the striking reminder from the Pittsburgh incident and others, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate most aboveground fuel storage tanks (AST) and there are no national standards for secondary containment and spill prevention. In addtion, tanks have no maximum life and there are tanks more than 75 years old that continue to be used. This endangers our rivers and groundwater. Unless you have a permit to discharge to surface waters you are not required to have a spill prevention plan. All fuel and chemical storage tanks whether aboveground or underground should be required to have adequate secondary containment and spill prevention plans. There are two types of ASTs: vertical  and horizontal. Horizontal ASTs typically hold from a few hundred gallons up to 20,000 gallons, while the storage capacity of vertical ASTs ranges from several thousand gallons to over 10 million gallons. Nothing is fail safe and these tanks pose a risk to our water supplies that needs to be addressed.

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and it various amendments have increased the number of chemicals that they must test for and tightened the standards they must meet, but those have typically addressed chemicals that appear in river water as runoff and from water discharged from waste water treatment plants. Drinking water supplies for cities are typically drawn from rivers which are highly vulnerable to upstream spills and pollution. We need to protect our water resources and drinking water supplies by preventing pollution not just beefing up the water treatment process.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Stormwater Regulation and the Virginia General Assembly

On Wednesday the Virginia General Assembly opened its 2014 session. Paying attention to what happens in the Commonwealth of Virginia is a good way to understand the forces that are shaping our nation. Among the many items expected to come before the Assembly are several bills to delay the implementation of the Virginia Stormwater Management Program that was planned to finally go into effect on July 1, 2014. On that date local governments were scheduled to become the Virginia Stormwater Management Program (VSMP) authorities and the more stringent stormwater management regulations of the Virginia Stormwater Management Act were scheduled to be implemented. Previously, a less comprehensive set of regulations was managed by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. Recently, oversight for all water programs has been transferred to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

As it stands now, on July 1, 2014 every County, City and Town with a municipal separate stormwater system permit (from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) in Virginia needs to implement a Stormwater Management Ordinance that complies with the requirements of Virginia’s stormwater regulations and ensure that any land disturbing activities like construction are incompliance with that Stormwater Management Ordinance, the Virginia Stormwater Management Act and associated regulations. These regulations have been in the pipeline for a while and  until recently, I did not fully appreciate that the regulations would require additional staff and skills to develop and implement and that the regulations require user fees to make the program self-supporting. These regulations mean that the each county would have to have employees with the skills and knowledge to understand and manage stormwater, and the DEQ would have to have a data  and tracking system developed to issue permits and additional bureaucracy to perform its portions of the program such as training, maintaining computer systems, developing handbooks etc. The user fees are supposed to pay for the costs, so the cost of construction in the state will increase. Construction is to a large extent dependent on economic development and growth. In recessions there is and low growth economies there is less construction and without construction there are no fees, but the state needs to pay the employees and maintain the computer systems in good times and bad.

Stormwater regulations ensure the control of stormwater from development sites to slow down the flow of rainwater and snowmelt both during construction and in perpetuity after construction is completed. The collective force of unmanaged stormwater scours streams and erodes stream banks, resulting in large quantities of sediment and other pollutants entering streams, rivers, estuaries and bays every time it rains or snow melts. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) believes that sediment and nutrient pollution contained in runoff from urban/suburban areas is the largest source of water quality impairments to estuaries (areas near the coast where seawater mixes with freshwater) in the United States and has turned its water quality focus on these areas starting with the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and the pollution diet the EPA has imposed on Virginia and the other Chesapeake Bay states.

To reduce the damage caused by stormwater and reduce the contamination carried to our rivers and streams and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia developed the Virginia Stormwater Management Act and associated regulations to improve stormwater management often using natural processes. These natural processes manage storm water runoff in a way that maintains or restores the site’s natural hydrology, allowing groundwater to recharge. Low Impact Development, LID, is the term for the site level actions and strategies to do this. LID is a strategy of stormwater management emphasizing conservation and natural features combined with small scale stormwater controls to mimic as closely as possible the natural hydraulic properties of a site. The idea is to move water slowly through open conveyance systems and use distributed stormwater retention in open unpaved areas to allow infiltration of rain water into the earth. This reduces the quantity and velocity of stormwater as it leaves a site reducing the damage that uncontrolled stormwater runoff can cause. The stormwater management program is a key portion of the plan Virginia submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to meet the mandated reductions in pollution under the Chesapeake Bay TMDL imposed on the state by the EPA.

Under the new regulations the counties or cities are required to:
  1. Review and approve Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plans (SWPPP) for all construction and land disturbance of more than an acre within the county. These plans need to contain an Erosion and Sediment Control Plan, a Stormwater Management Plan, any additional control measures necessary to address requirements under the TMDL  and appropriate management and control of any on-site chemicals and fuels. 
  2. Review and approve registration statement, to obtain the VSMP permit from the state DEQ.
  3. Inspect construction sites to ensure activities conform to the approved SWPPP and permit.
  4. Enforce the stormwater regulations by having specific violation criteria and a process for the imposition of penalties.
  5. Oversee a maintenance program that ensures the ongoing functioning of stormwater management control.
It is likely that the regulations will be delayed because at the last meeting of the Virginia Association of Counties  in the fall, it became apparent that the smaller and more rural counties were not ready to implement the regulation. In addition, many counties were not fully embracing the need or importance of the required stormwater fees that were intended to fund the training and staffing necessary to review plans and ensure that stormwater management strategies work and remain in operation forever. A significant portion of the stormwater fee is intended to go to the state to track data, develop and deliver training both on the basics of the regulations and enforcement of the regulations as well as maintain handbooks and operate the program.

Some of the counties out and out rejected the fee for the state services. Clearly, these communities were not embracing or fully understanding the regulations or simply did not feel that regulatory schemes intended for urban areas should apply to them. Compliance with regulations designed for communities with hundreds of thousands or more than a million residents do not fit well into communities with tens of thousands of residents and is a fundamental problem in the regulated world we live in. In addition, the DEQ itself is not ready, they have not completed the handbook nor completed developing all the training necessary for implementation of the programs. At this time it appears as if a delay of one year will be put into the legislative package.

Until I examined the requirements of the Virginia Stormwater Management Act and associated regulations I did not appreciate how large a challenge it was going to be to meet the current timeline or what the true demands on our communities were going to be from this regulation. Not all areas of the state are Fairfax, Loudoun or Prince William counties and the smallest communities do not have technical expertise to develop and operate these programs or even know how to go about it.
Though regulatory development, oversight and enforcement are costly, they also generate benefits. Regulations protect our health and safety. They preserve the quality of the environment and facilitate efficient operation of markets (real estate, natural resource, financial, commodity- all competitive markets). They protect ownership rights and enforce contractual agreements. We need to be diligent in determining and constantly reevaluating the right balance of regulation, reporting and oversight that produces the desired benefits for society while limiting costs to all of us. Determining the right balance between regulatory cost and benefit is largely based on values and world view. Let your state representatives know your values and views.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Saving What’s Left of the Rural Crescent

The Backyard I want to save
If developers have their way, soon the entire Rural Crescent will look like the "Villages of Piedmont at Leopold's Preserve" over 400 homes and townhomes clustered in the center of 490 acres. Farming will disappear from the area. According to Prince William County official records the Rural Crescent, established in 1998, encompasses almost 116,000 acres, but little of that total is still agricultural land. The Rural Crescent includes about 23,000 acres of federal land in the forest and Manassas Battlefield, 55,100 acres that are already developed including Quantico and existing developments (including all the homes built on 10 acres allowed under the A-1 zoning during the last housing boom), about 2,600 acres that are permanently protected*(though permanently protected land can be seized for public use by eminent domain), 8,200 acres that have development plans already approved and almost 28,000 acres that are undeveloped and unprotected and could be preserved as open space and farmland. Preserving the 28,000 acres as farmland and possibly preventing the development of the 8,200 acres that have approved development plans in place could preserve the rural nature and feel of the county and is the goal of the proposed program.

There has been continual pressure on the Office of Planning, the Planning Commission and the County Board of Supervisors by developers and landowners interested in maximizing the value of property to amend the zoning to increase development density for parcels in the Rural Crescent. However, increased density development in the Rural Crescent is inconsistent with the social objectives of maintaining a wildlife habitat, preservation of farmland, preservation of groundwater and surface water supplies and the Occoquan Reservoir, protection of historically significant areas and scenic views, and prevention of development on fractured rock systems highly susceptible to contamination. The basic zoning that exists now in the Rural Crescent is A1- one house per 10 acres, much more money could be made by building at an increased density, but more dense suburban developments would not improve the quality of life of county residents, and would damage the ecology or the region and quality of life of all county residents.

Combining the 8,200 acres within the Rural Crescent with approved development plans and the 28,000 acres undeveloped and unprotected land, under the current A1 zoning there is a potential for 3,700 additional residences to be built in the Rural Crescent if it were to be entirely carved up into 10 acre parcels. Carving up the Rural Crescent in this way would destroy the rural nature of the area and negatively impact the local ecology. In the survey that hundreds of Prince William residents took, there was strong support for maintaining the open rural nature of the Rural Crescent. The challenge that faces the county is how to preserve what is left of the Rural Crescent as truly rural land.

It is often believed that when you own land you can do what you want with the land, but that is not true. We have zoning and the county has a comprehensive plan to guide land use and development decisions that are made by the Planning Commission and the Board of County Supervisors. It is not in the public interest to allow anyone to put a hazardous waste dump in their backyard, build a manufacturing plant along the Occoquan, mine uranium next to the water supply for the county or other publically undesirable activities. As a matter of fact, Virginia law requires every governing body to adopt a comprehensive plan for the development of the lands within its jurisdiction. So each county and city has a comprehensive plan. These plans are reviewed every five years, to ensure that they continue to be responsive to current circumstances and that the citizens of the county continue to support the goals of the plan. Exceptions to the existing plan are granted based on politics, influence or other reasons.

Within the framework of the comprehensive plan, land ownership is a series of rights and the ability to use those rights. For example there are mineral rights, there are water rights, and there are air rights. If all these right are still attached to the surface rights it is called fee simple ownership. It is common to separate these rights. In regions where mining and drilling have taken place, the mineral rights for land were often sold separately from the surface rights. In cities, air rights are often bought and sold to maintain views and sunlight. Water rights have been sold for generations in the arid west. In addition, zoning and other restrictions may hinder the ways in which land can be used or developed. So, it should come as no surprise that the right to develop land have also been bought and sold.

A system of transferable development rights, TDRs, allows ownership of the development rights on a privately owned parcel of land to be separated from ownership of the parcel itself. These rights can then be transferred from that property to another property in a different location that has been designated as a receiving area. Having transferred the development rights, the landowner is restricted from developing his land by a conservation easement or deed restriction. The buyer of the development rights uses them to develop another piece of property with more density than allowed by its comprehensive plan zoning.

In the past twenty years Montgomery County, Maryland and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (to name just two successful programs) have had county programs to give landowners in areas that the county wanted to preserve development rights that could be transferred. There already exists in Virginia enabling legislation for a county program to transfer development rights from the Rural Crescent to areas of the county that the Planning Commission, the Board of Supervisors and the Planning Department would want to see more densely developed.

Plans for TDR programs sound very straightforward; development is transferred from one location to another. However, in practice they have often been difficult to implement and have languished. It was reported by a Cornell University study in 2007 that there were 140 TDR programs in the United States. Program designs and results have spanned the entire spectrum from virtually no transfers at all (and thus no land protected from development to preservation of 49,000 acres in Montgomery County. Prince William County is coming late to the game. Most of the TDRs in Montgomery County were sold in the 1980s, and there has been less demand recently. In 1980, the county downzoned this entire area to a maximum of 1 dwelling unit per 25 acres, to discourage residential development. It can be argued that the preservation that did occur is a result of the downzoning and not the TDR program. The TDR program granted the landowners transferable development rights for building at the previous zoning of one unit on 5 acres to compensate them for the lost development value.

The idea that a TDR program would, by itself, protect open space, and preserve farming while helping to create appealing village centers in other parts of the county by simply offering a mechanism for moving development around is not realistic. According to the Lincoln Land Institute TDR programs work only when they are part of a comprehensive plan that has the commitment and political will of the community behind it. This commitment to the larger goals of the comprehensive plan and to the particular resources being protected is essential to overcome other challenges. TDR programs must be tailored to the specific political, economic and geographic circumstances of their location.

TDR markets work as a land preservation tool when landowners are willing and able to sell development rights, and developers are interested in buying those rights. The relative strength of the supply and demand sides of the market will determine the prices at which TDRs are sold. The willingness of suppliers to provide TDRs and of developers to buy those rights depends on the design features of the TDR program, local zoning rules, and the underlying housing and land market conditions in the region.

In addition to economic factors other program rules can affect the success or failure of the TDR market. The Cornell study reports that for a program to be successful a TDR use needs to be “by right” for developers. In addition, it is important that higher density not be given away “for free,” by the Board of Supervisors or Planning Commission outside the TDR program. Finally, how the market actually functions is important. The Cornell study found that local government needs facilitate making the market work by providing information, providing a clearinghouse or registry for the market, and collecting and analyzing data from the program.
Looking back at my house from the creek

Monday, January 6, 2014

EPA Continues to Save the World- Regulating Wood Stoves and Fireplaces

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing new standards for the amount of air pollution that can be emitted by residential wood stoves and heaters, beginning in 2015. There will be a public hearing Feb. 26, 2014 in Boston. EPA expects to issue a final wood stove rule in 2015, the full 354 pages of the proposed regulation can be read at this link if you are interested.

The EPA’s proposal covers wood stoves, fireplace inserts, indoor and outdoor wood boilers (also called hydronic heaters), forced air furnaces and masonry heaters, and is intended to make the next generation of wood stoves, fireplaces and heaters 80% cleaner than those manufactured or built today. The current proposal would not affect heaters, fireplaces and stoves already in use in homes today.

These regulations are intended to reduce the health impacts of fine particle pollution, of which wood smoke is a contributing factor in some areas. Residential wood smoke contains fine particles with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less, carbon monoxide, toxic air pollutants such as benzene and formaldehyde, and what the EPA calls climate-forcing emissions– greenhouse gases resulting from combustion and incomplete combustion. According to the EPA, smoke from wood stoves and fireplaces contributes hundreds of thousands of tons of fine particles during the winter months, which I suppose is not surprising given the sheer number of households in the nation.

Particle pollution has been linked to a wide range of serious health effects, including heart attacks, strokes and asthma attacks. In some areas, residential wood smoke makes up a significant portion of the fine particle pollution problem. According to the proposed regulations, residential wood combustion accounts for 44% of the total remaining stationary and mobile polycyclic organic matter (POM) emissions, nearly 25% of the remaining air toxics cancer risks and 15 % of non-cancer respiratory such as irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breathing and aggravated asthma.

Health effects can result from both short-term and long-term exposure to particulate pollution. People most sensitive to particulate pollution include infants and children, the elderly, and people with existing heart and lung disease. The smallest particles can penetrate deepest, causing the greatest harm. Researchers are still trying to identify which types and sources of particles are most hazardous to human health. Though, particles created from combustion soot tend to be fine particles with diameters smaller than 2.5 microns (PM 2.5) which are the most dangerous because it lodges in the lungs.

Reportedly, residential wood smoke causes many counties in the U.S. to exceed the US EPA annual PM2.5 air quality standard which was lowered in 2012 (thought states have until 2020 to meet the tighter standard). The annual standard for the smallest particles is 12 ug/m3 and 24-hr standard is 35 ug/m3. In 2012 when EPA promulgated the revised standard, they projected that 99% of U.S. counties with monitoring stations would meet the standard with only 7 counties in California failing to meet the Annual Fine Particle Health Standard of 12 μg/m3. Now the EPA states “residential wood smoke causes many counties in the U.S. to either exceed the EPA’s ... national ambient air quality standards... for fine particles or places them on the cusp of exceeding those standards.” So now to continue down the road on their quest for continual reductions in pollution levels despite growing population, EPA must increase regulation on residential fireplaces and wood stoves. The EPA states that they “continue to encourage state, local, tribal, and consumer efforts to replace older heaters with newer, cleaner, more efficient heaters, but that is not part of this federal rulemaking.” Wait until next year.

Below is the list of air quality rules that have resulted in the tremendous improvement in air quality from 2000-2010. The next level in clean air will have to regulate every home and individual behavior and choices.
  • Heavy Duty Diesel Rule (U.S. EPA, 2000)
  • Clean Air Non-road Diesel Rule (U.S. EPA, 2004)
  • Regional Haze Regulations and Guidelines for Best Available Retrofit Technology Determinations (U.S. EPA, 2005b)
  • NOx Emission Standard for New Commercial Aircraft Engines (U.S. EPA, 2005)
  • Emissions Standards for Locomotives and Marine Compression-Ignition Engines (U.S. EPA, 2008)
  • Control of Emissions for Non-road Spark Ignition Engines and Equipment (U.S. EPA, 2008)
  • C3 Oceangoing Vessels (U.S. EPA, 2010)
  • Hospital/Medical/Infectious Waste Incinerators: New Source Performance Standards and Emission Guidelines: Final Rule Amendments (U.S. EPA, 2009)
  • Reciprocating Internal Combustion Engines (RICE) NESHAPs (U.S. EPA, 2010)
  • Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (U.S. EPA, 2011)
  • Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (U.S. EPA, 2011)
  • National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for fine particles (U.S. EPA, 2012)
  • Carbon Dioxide Standard for Power Plants (U.S. EPA, 2012 and 2013)

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Food Safety is Not Assured-Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria found in 50 % of Chicken Breasts

data from Consumer Reports
About 48 million get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die each year from food borne diseases, according to 2007 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you live in the United States you have a 1 in 6 chance to get sick (each year) from food and yet the United States has one of the safest food supplies in the world. The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed into law by President Obama on January 4, 2011. Its goal was to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus of the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulators from responding to contamination to preventing it.

The law provided the FDA with new powers intended to achieve higher compliance with prevention and risk-based food safety standards, and to better respond to and contain problems when they do occur. The law also gave the FDA tools to hold imported foods to the same standards as domestic foods and directs FDA to build an integrated national food safety system in partnership with state and local authorities. Now as we approach the third anniversary of the law, Consumer Reports has released their latest study on the safety of chicken sold in supermarkets.

Consumer Reports bought chicken breasts from major national grocery chains, big box stores like Costco, and regional markets in 26 states. In all they tested 316 samples of chicken breasts. Of those samples, 252 samples were from conventionally produced chicken, 40 samples that were antibiotic free and 24 samples that were certified organic. The analysis found that chicken from the four largest brands (Perdue, Pilgrim's, Sanderson Farms, Tyson) "contained worrisome amounts of bacteria." Consumer reports states that “almost none of the brands were free of bacteria,” and they found “no significant difference in the average number of types of bacteria” between conventional and organic. Their tests did not find any brands or types of chicken breast that had fewer bacteria than the rest.

Consumer Reports testing found E. coli , enterococcus, campylobacter, klebsiella pneumonia, salmonella and staphylococcus aureus. More than half the chicken breasts were tainted with fecal contaminants that can cause blood and urinary-tract infections. Enterococcus was the most common bacterium found appearing in almost 80% of samples. E. coli, was found in over 65% of the chicken breasts; campylobacter, 43 %; klebsiella pneumoniae, in almost 14%; salmonella in nearly 11% of samples, and staphylococcus aureus, in over 9% of chicken samples.

In addition, almost 50% of the chicken breasts tested positive for at least one multidrug-­resistant bacterium, and 11.5%­ carried two or more types of multidrug-­resistant bacteria. In a newly released paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Adian Hollis and co-author Ziana Ahmed state that in the United States 80 % of the antibiotics used in the country are consumed in agriculture and aquaculture for the purpose of increasing food production. "Modern medicine relies on antibiotics to kill off bacterial infections," explains Hollis. "This is incredibly important. Without effective antibiotics, any surgery – even minor ones – will become extremely risky. Cancer therapies, similarly, are dependent on the availability of effective antimicrobials. Ordinary infections will kill otherwise healthy people." Bacteria that can effectively resist antibiotics will thrive, reproduce rapidly and spread in various ways including through the food supply as seen last summer with the Tysons chicken antibiotic resistant and virulent salmonella strain that sent almost 40% of sickened people to the hospital.

Salmonella Enteritidis may be found in the intestinal tracts of livestock, poultry, dogs, cats, and other warm-blooded animals. This strain is only 1 of about 2,000 kinds of Salmonella bacteria; it is often associated with poultry and shell eggs. Staphylococcus aureus can be carried on human hands, in nasal passages, or in throats. The bacteria are typically found in foods made by hand and then improperly refrigerated, but clearly are found where raw chicken meat is processed into breasts. One of the staphylococcus aureus found in the Consumer Reports testing was a methicillin-resistant staph aureus better known as MRSA the antibiotic resistant hospital infection. Campylobacter jejuni is one of the most common causes of diarrheal illness in humans. Preventing cross-contamination and using proper cooking methods reduces infection by this bacterium.

E. coli is an indicator organism for fecal matter, but does not necessarily mean the product is, in fact, contaminated by feces. E. coli that is present in feathers, or environmental contaminants, like dust, can also contaminate a poultry carcass. Klebsiella is a type of Gram-negative bacteria that can cause different types of healthcare-associated infections, including pneumonia, bloodstream infections, wound or surgical site infections, and meningitis. Klebsiella bacteria are normally found in the human intestines (where they do not cause disease). They are also found in human stool (feces) and were found in the chicken tested.

The Consumer Report test results found increased and more widespread contamination than previous tests. Half the bacterium found was drug resistant. This is a symptom that our food supply is becoming less safe. Precautions must be taken when handling and preparing food. The US Department of Agriculture recommends four food safety steps in their Food Safe Families campaign.
  1. Clean: Wash hands and surfaces often.
  2. Separate: Separate raw meats and poultry from other foods.
  3. Cook: Cook all poultry to an internal temperature of 165 °F (73.9 °C).
  4. Chill: Refrigerate promptly.
Washing raw poultry before cooking it is not recommended despite what my mother and probably your grandmother recommended. Bacteria in raw meat and poultry juices can be spread to other foods, utensils, and surfaces. This is called cross-contamination. Rinsing or soaking chicken does not destroy bacteria. Only cooking will destroy any bacteria that might be present on fresh chicken.

Another option that has not been very popular with environmentalists and may have other concerns is irradiation. In 1992, the USDA approved a rule to permit the irradiation of raw, fresh, or frozen packaged poultry to control bacteria on raw poultry that can cause illness when poultry is under-cooked or otherwise mishandled. Irradiation at 1.5 to 3.0 kilo Gray, the smallest, most practical “dose,” would eliminate more than 99 % of Salmonellae organisms on the treated poultry. Right now that is sounding pretty good and you might want to consider that if you are not meticulous in your handling of food in your kitchen. Packages of irradiated chicken are easily recognizable at the store because they must carry the international radura symbol along with the statement, “treated with irradiation” or “treated by irradiation.”