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Solar mirror project goes on line.

14 Feb

ku-xlargeNow this looks like something out of Star Trek.  Back in 2011, I blogged about this project which was being constructed in the California desert. It is supposedly the largest solar installation in the world and it has just gone on line. Wow.

Of polar vortices and Great Lakes

30 Jan

Photo courtesy of Space Science And Engineering Center- University of Wisconsin - Madison

Provided courtesy of Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC), University of Wisconsin-Madison

A recent report tells us that evaporation isn’t well understood and that we may see more of it in the fall and early winter than in the summer.  According to the report, the relative humidity plays a bigger role than the temperature and as we know, it’s awfully dry in the winter. One quote from that report is staggering – “a 1-day loss of 0.5 inches of water from the total surface area of the Great Lakes represents a volumetric flow rate of 820 billion gallons per day – nearly 20 times the flow rate of Niagara Falls.”

The repeated polar vortices we have been experiencing have provided greater ice cover and, thus, there should be a later start to the evaporation season this year.  The Great Lakes are reportedly 62% covered in ice, which already ranks this winter as 17th most coverage in the last 40 years. 1979 had the highest ice cover at 94.7 percent.

Weatherwise, this high ice cover may mean less lake effect snow, colder days, less runoff when the snow melt comes (although it’s been a very snowy January) but again, less evaporation.

It’s certainly better (waterwise) to be here than, say, California, where Governor Brown declared a drought emergency which likely will have significant impacts on farming and the foods eaten across the United States.  This could be good for Michigan farmers.  2014 is already shaping up to be an interesting year for water and the Great Lakes.

What will be the top green stories of 2014?

8 Jan

greatlakesAs this new year kicks off, we thought we’d look ahead at what we think may be the big stories of 2014 at MichiganGreenLaw.com, in no particular order:

Wetlands – Will EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers finalize guidance regarding the scope of waters regulated under the Clean Water Act? Or will there be new rules or even new legislation?  There are members of Congress on  both sides of this issue and it is unclear which way this issue will go, although the federal trend is to try and govern as many bodies of water no matter what. This fall, EPA published a draft connectivity analysis which many view as a prelude to new regulations attempting to vest the federal government with broad jurisdictional over virtually every drop of water in the country. It will be interesting if the federal government tries to delete the “significant” portion of the Rapanos “significant nexus” test.

• Hydraulic Fracturing -  this continues to be a lightning rod for controversy.  At the end of 2013, the Associated Press reported on both alleged and confirmed environmental problems in 4 states including Ohio and Pennsylvania.  Michigan looks to beef up its oversight of, and its communications regarding, fracking proposals and operations.  The University of Michigan continues to study the technical issues.  The focus on this issue seems to be shifting toward the volumes of water used in fracturing and monitoring withdrawals used for oil and gas production. It appears that the 2012 U.S. Department of the Interior draft rules for fracking on federal and Indian lands remain draft – will they ever be finalized?

• MDEQ Brownfield Process Streamlining.  MDEQ has promised to convene a short-term task force to work on harmonizing, improving and streamlining the various funding mechanisms currently used to incentivize brownfield redevelopment. This can only be a plus.

• MDEQ Cleanup Rules – as required by the Legislature, MDEQ proposed adopting its previously informal standards as formal cleanup rules late in 2013.  The MDEQ will continue to work on improving and in some cases broadening its cleanup rules and criteria – we expect more work on the assumptions of exposure underpinning the standards, more work on vapor intrusion standards and more work on standards and processes applicable to groundwater venting into surface waters.  MDEQ also continues to discuss more rules and standards defining what constitutes “due care” which is an issue for property owners who are not liable pursuant to a BEA and for other reasons.

• Keystone Pipeline.  As we predicted, President Obama and Congress continue to be locked in a politically charged dispute over the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed 1,700-mile oil pipeline from Canada to Texas.  The President deferred it and lately the pundits have argued that pipelines are safer than transporting shale oil by truck and train.

• Energy Policy In Michigan – at the end of the year, and after a year of “listening” sessions and collecting information, Governor Snyder indicated that he intends to seek legislation improving Michigan’s energy policies, focusing on lowering costs, improving reliability and minimizing environmental impacts.  This will be interesting.

Go to jail; go directly to jail. Do not defraud the EPA.

18 Dec

jailWell, this is hard to believe.  John Beale, a high ranking EPA official was sentenced to 32 months in prison Wednesday for defrauding the US government.  This story seems like something out of Seinfeld – this guy reportedly took premium travel for personal reasons and charged the government. He also took months off (he claimed he was in the CIA) and continued to collect his pay!  Over almost 13 years (which is why this won’t be painted as tied to any particular administration), he bilked the government out of more than $1 Million (much of which he has already repaid).  Beale, who was a former Senior Policy Advisor at the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation (OAR), reportedly admitted his guilt when confronted.

What’s really amazing is that he was only caught after Gina McCarthy, (now the EPA administrator) his former boss, noted that he was still drawing a salary after he had retired!  One report I read quoted the EPA Assistant Inspector General as saying that “There’s a certain culture here at the EPA where the mission is the most important thing,” and “They don’t think like criminal investigators. They tend to be very trusting and accepting.”  Again, I have this image of George Constanza sleeping under his custom made desk and no one noticing!

How many things are wrong with this?  Well, the lack of internal controls is disturbing to me as a tax payer and as someone whose clients are cited often for lacking controls (glass houses, anyone?).  Certainly, the statement that the EPA doesn’t think like a criminal investigator is intriguing as the EPA is charged with enforcing the nation’s environmental laws – and often seeks both civil and criminal sanctions!  And then there’s the biggest one – the undercutting of the agency’s positions on climate change and a host of other issues.  There is a legal doctrine that agency interpretations of laws and rules are entitled to significant deference.  This has rankled me and many in the regulated community for years as it seems that the EPA gets too much deference.  Now, when agency personnel stake out a position – will the Courts defer or will they wonder (as humans are often so inclined) “why should I trust this agency representative, if they can’t police their own house, why should they be policing anyone else’s?”  This is yet another kick in the teeth for an agency charged with ensuring our air and water are safe.

Energy creativity – thinking outside the box

31 Jul

Has inspiration struck?

Can we produce “clean” energy to: (1) cost effectively enough to put into use, (2) reduce dependance on foreign oil and US coal; and (3) reduce carbon emissions?

Despite a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal discussing Europe’s experience with higher cost, less dependable solar and wind power, the creativity of academia never ceases to amaze me. I recently came across an article about this publication, Environmental Science & Technology Letters and a paper in it about utilizing CO2 emissions from power plants in fluids, where the CO2 was split into positive and negative ions. The ions were then used to create a flow of electrons that could be captured by an electrode, creating electricity. While this proof-of-concept is not yet efficient (i.e., it uses more energy than it generates), the researchers believe that they may be able to turn that around and make it cost-effective. While this wouldn’t reduce CO2 emissions, it could double the amount of energy associated with the same emissions, effectively cutting CO2 emissions in half per kilowatt generated.  If this works (and there’s no guarantee that it will), it would also enable us to continue to use the current grid system.

Just as interesting, and farther along, are the University of Michigan’s experiments, described here, with capturing energy from low flow water bodies.  The concept of hydroelectric energy is not new but UM apparently thinks that they may have found an efficiency that others may have missed allowing energy to be generated without dams and using natural flow rates.

Whether these technologies will turn out to be cost-effective remains to be seen but the ingenuity of mankind certainly gives me hope that we can protect the planet, be efficient and not have to become luddites.

Invasive Species and Unintended Consequences

12 Jul

One action begets a reaction and another and another

Before I took off for vacation, I decided to finish reading 1493 which may be the most thought provoking book on invasive species I’ve ever read.  Author Thomas Mann takes a look at the last 500+ years of world history, economics, anthropology and environment and explains using interesting vignettes how the world we live in is not anything like the world of 1491.

He discusses topics like:

  • malaria and its relationship to the US slave trade;
  • sugar, silver and trade with the far east;
  • how South American potatoes and fertilizer revolutionized Europe and;
  • once the “eggs were all in the basket,” how European farming practices made almost inevitable the potato blight that virtually depopulated Ireland in the mid 1800′s.

He raises many interesting questions, some of which are still being asked today, as in this article regarding the popularity of the “superfood” quinoa as “gentrifying” or changing the South American farmers who used to eat it as a subsistance food.

A fascinating book which raises almost as many questions as it answers and shows how human actions – sometimes on purpose and sometimes not, have resulted in ecosystems (as well as economic systems) which are entirely foreign to the lands they occupy today.  We’ve blogged about Asian Carp and many of us are aware of invasive species like kudzu and purple loosestrife. But I never thought of wheat, onions, earthworms, potatoes, sugar, bananas and horses as invasive species.  I highly recommend this book.

Vapor intrusion in the spotlight

10 Jul

How clean is “clean enough” is a significant question faced as part of most brownfield redevelopment and cleanup projects. For many years, the answer to that question was driven by whether water at the site was clean enough to be consumed safely. In the last few years, the issue of vapor intrusion (as well as surface water bodies impacted by venting groundwater and their more sensitive wildlife) has begun to drive the “how clean is clean” question.

Vapor intrusion is explained in this link but, basically, it is the threat that some contaminants may migrate upward from soils and groundwater into buildings at unsafe levels.

The MDEQ has issued both generic baseline standards and guidance on the subject.  The MDEQ’s guidance applies when some previously adopted generic standards are exceeded and when there are pathways which might be outside the MDEQ generic baseline assumptions – such as when impacted groundwater may be shallow and near foundations and basements.  The guidance includes the following steps:

1. Evaluating existing information to determine if the vapor pathway is of concern;
2. If it is, and there are buildings nearby assess the risk and whether response actions are needed;
3. In some cases, conduct a building-specific investigation to evaluate the risks posed by the contaminants;
4. Conduct response actions, if necessary, which may include remedial actions or other mitigation measures.

In some cases, the MDEQ guidance has levels far more stringent than were previously the case.

The EPA has also issued draft guidance which is more complex and requires more than MDEQ’s guidance – including more vapor intrusion assessment; building mitigation and subsurface remediation; preemptive mitigation (“Early Action”); and community outreach and involvement.

While there are some creative and inexpensive measures to deal with vapor intrusion, this is a relatively new concern – particularly for residential developments.  This is a new layer of complexity which may make closures and brownfield redevelopments much harder to pursue.