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An accident waiting to happen

As oil trains derail across the United States, a windswept—and vulnerable—stretch of Montana’s Glacier National Park underscores the folly of transporting crude by rail

The trains roll throughout the day, running east and west along the snow-blanketed tracks of northwestern Montana, dipping low along the southern edge of Glacier National Park. Boxcars, intermodal freight containers, and bulk cargo clamber up and then down the Continental Divide. Night falls, and yet another train emerges from the east, accompanied by a thin metal-on-metal shriek. First to appear are two locomotives, their headlights tunneling through the darkness, then 103 tanker cars, dull black with hymenopteran stripes. Inside the tankers are two and a half million gallons of light, sweet crude, freshly pumped from North Dakota’s Bakken shale formation.

For more than a century railroads have hauled freight and people through this stretch of the Rockies. Glacier owes its existence, in fact, to the Great Northern Railway, which back in 1910 vigorously promoted the legislation that would establish a brand new national park, to which the railroad would soon be hauling wealthy visitors. Railroads, of course, are integral to U.S. commerce, and no one blinks when mile-long trains pass through small towns, big cities, and vast stretches of prairie, desert, and forests. Or at least they didn’t blink until recently, when shippers began to fill so many of those railcars with oil. In 2009, western crude filled a mere 8,000 tanker cars; in 2013, thanks to increased production in the Bakken, it filled 400,000.

The vast majority of America’s oil is still transported via pipeline, which is a significantly cheaper means of conveyance than rail. But building new pipelines to handle the glut of Bakken crude is expensive, time-consuming, and increasingly stymied by political opposition; by landowners unwilling to grant easements; and, if the pipeline crosses federal land, by heightened environmental review. Train tracks, on the other hand, already crisscross the nation, and freight railroads are now investing tens of billions of dollars on new locomotives, on the upgrading of track, and on so-called transloading facilities, where oil is either funneled into unit trains (which consist of 100 or more oil tankers) or pumped out of them and transferred to refineries, river barges, or ships. In 2013, 69 percent of Bakken oil traveled by rail; that percentage is expected to reach 90 percent this year.

But with that increase comes another—an increase in the risk of environmental catastrophe. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, at least one train, on average, slips off the tracks in this country every single day. Multiply the number of train cars carrying crude oil by 50, as we did between 2009 and 2013, and you multiply the odds of a leak, a major spill, or—worse—a massive explosion commensurately. And depending on where, when, and under what circumstances such an accident were to take place, the impact could range from manageable to utterly, epically devastating.

* * *

On a snowy day in January, I follow via automobile as the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway climbs west out of the plains near the small town of East Glacier, in a part of Montana known for its wicked winds. Gusts of over 100 miles an hour aren’t uncommon here. Driving with a local resident, I note the remains of a porch that has blown off a house and into a tree, several steel posts bent 90 degrees by westerly gales, and a railroad-erected windscreen covering the train bridge over Midvale Creek. No trains have fallen off the bridge, but high winds have been known to blow boxcars off their tracks in other exposed stretches.


Photo: Joel Sartore

Pushed and pulled by two locomotives at either end, the oil tankers depart East Glacier, attain an elevation of 5,272 feet at Marias Pass, then begin their long descent, contouring along steep mountainsides, snaking through a series of wooden avalanche sheds, and curving around wetlands until they emerge, 60 miles west, in the equally tiny town of West Glacier. It’s all incredibly scenic—snow-brindled conifers, distant peaks, granite outcrops—and Amtrak tries as hard as it can to take advantage of the scenery by routing its Empire Builder passenger train through this corridor during daylight hours. Alas, there’s so much competition for rail space from oil trains these days (and, increasingly, coal trains) that the Empire Builder now has an on-time rate of less than 50 percent. Oil trains have similarly stalled the transport of North Dakota grain, causing its price to spike 20 percent. But when there’s enough light, those eastward-bound Amtrak passengers get to see, on their left, the peaks of Glacier National Park; on their right are the splendors of the Flathead National Forest, a 2-million-acre tract, half of which has been officially designated as wilderness.

“This is a particularly sensitive part of the world,” Mark Jameson, of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), tells me, before ticking off its various designations: United Nations Biosphere Reserve; UNESCO World Heritage Site; hydrological apex of the North American continent; ancestral hunting grounds of the Kootenai, Salish, and Blackfeet tribes. “The park and the forest are major engines of the rural economy”—nonresidents spend more than $714 million in the region—“and these streams contain numerous species of concern, including the bull trout and the westslope cutthroat trout.”

As 2013 drew to a close, Jameson’s group began to ponder, for the first time, the repercussions of a nightmare scenario: What if a unit train were to derail here, spilling millions of gallons of oil into this unspoiled environment before bursting into flames and triggering a catastrophic explosion? Unfortunately, such a scenario isn’t so farfetched. Last July, 63 tankers filled with Bakken crude derailed and exploded in Lac Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and incinerating the center of the small town. Then, in November, 25 cars of Bakken oil derailed in an Alabama swamp: the ensuing explosion sent 300-foot flames into the sky and continued to burn for three days. In December a Bakken oil train collided with a derailed grain train in Casselton, North Dakota, spilling 400,000 gallons and burning for close to 24 hours while more than a thousand residents evacuated their homes in sub-zero temperatures. Since March of 2013, in fact, there have been 10 large rail-related spills of crude in the U.S. and Canada. Just two weeks ago, a southbound Canadian Pacific train leaked a trail of about 12,000 gallons of crude oil through nearly 70 miles of southeastern Minnesota.

Historically, crude oil has been placarded as a product with “low volatility,” the kind of oil that couldn’t be lit with a blowtorch. But in the wake of the Lac Megantic disaster, investigators determined that the crude coming out of North Dakota had a much lower flash point than other forms of crude, and posed a much more significant fire risk if released. (Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources is concerned enough about this risk, apparently, that the agency now requires the flaring of Bakken crude’s volatile compounds before it will allow barges to carry the stuff down the Mississippi River in that state.) The DOT-111 tankers that hold the oil are another problem entirely. Today, 85 percent of the 92,000 tank cars that haul flammable liquids around the nation are standard issue DOT-111s. For decades the National Transportation and Safety Board has been warning that this type of tanker car, in particular, punctures easily. Last fall, the Federal Railroad Administration told the Petroleum Manufacturers Institute that it had found “increasing cases of damage to tanker cars’ interior surfaces,” possibly caused by “contamination of crude by materials used in fracking.”

Earlier this year the American Association of Railroads petitioned the DOT to impose new standards on tanker cars, including thicker head shields and improved valve coverings. But retrofitting or redesigning tankers to resist corrosion and puncture would cost the industry around $3 billion, remove cars from service in an already tight market, and take several years. Lobbyists for Canadian and U.S. oil producers have asked regulators not to rush into rules that could hurt their profits, preferring that they focus instead on addressing “track defects and other root causes of train accidents.”

* * *

The derailment of a unit train along Glacier National Park’s U-shaped southern boundary is what one might deem a low-risk proposition that nevertheless carries a high-hazard potential. The cold, clear waters of this corridor—where Bear Creek, key trout-spawning territory, joins the wild and scenic Middle Fork of the Flathead River—are pristine, and they support a lucrative rafting, kayaking, and fishing industry. “Once oil gets into moving water, there’s no cleaning it up,” says Scott Bosse, the Northern Rockies director of the conservation group American Rivers. “We saw this with the Yellowstone River [pipeline] spill of July 2011, where less than 1 percent of the 63,000 gallons of crude was recovered.”

Residents of the canyon that runs between the park and the forest note that BNSF employees are a constant presence along the tracks, tweaking, upgrading, replacing, and surfacing the company’s investment. Despite their attentions, derailments along this stretch aren’t unknown: there have been 37 between 2000 and 2012—on the high end, compared with other Continental Divide railroad crossings. Some have involved strong winds; some are attributed to human error or equipment failure. According to one oil-train conductor based in North Dakota who asked to remain anonymous, BNSF pushes its employees hard. With so much traffic on the rails, he told me, “we’re working longer than the legal limit, and we’re sleep-deprived. Older and more experienced conductors and engineers are retiring, leaving us with young and inexperienced workers.” Another BNSF mechanic whom I met as he was ordering lunch at a roadhouse near Essex, Montana, told me that wet rails were a perennial problem. “Trains spin their wheels and dig holes in the track.” The grade, too, worried him. “It takes a lot to stop a train coming down from the Pass.”

* * *

So how would a worst-case scenario play out? Picture this: a unit train jumps the track just west of the Continental Divide. Cars tumble off the rail bed, bouncing and ricocheting off each other. Tankers puncture, oil spills and flows, and a spark detonates a massive explosion.

Then the phone rings in the Flathead County Office of Emergency Response, an hour and a half away in the town of Kalispell.


Photo: Loco Steve

Cindy Mullaney, deputy director of that office, explains what would happen next. “What we’d do is send the jurisdictional fire chief out to size up the situation: what have we got, where’s it going, which way is the wind blowing, and do we have ways to mitigate it,” she says. “If the spill is in the river, we have boom, absorbent pads, and sea curtains cached here in Kalispell. The road department has more of that stuff.”

When I ask her whether the geography of the corridor presents any specific challenges to emergency response, Mullaney replies matter-of-factly. “The biggest problem is that you’re on uneven ground,” she says. “A lot of it’s very steep and rocky. There’s a huge amount of snow in the winter. You throw a river in there, the avalanche danger, the limited communication capabilities, limited evacuation sites with a helicopter, the long distance from any type of resources, … it’s gonna be challenging, no doubt about it.”

Montana has six highly trained and well-supplied hazmat teams spread out around the state. The nearest to the Continental Divide, however, is 90 minutes away. Closer to the corridor are a handful of local fire departments that can respond more quickly but that must nevertheless rely on volunteers—most of whom lack up-to-date (or in some cases, any) turn-out gear, advanced training, and the right tools for containing spills or combating fires borne of hazardous materials.

Depending on where it happened and how high the winds were blowing, Charles Farmer, director of emergency services for Glacier County (just east of the Continental Divide), says that an accident in his area could be “devastating, catastrophic. We’d have no capabilities to handle it. We would organize an evacuation.” Ben Steele, East Glacier’s fire chief, answers in much the same way. “We’re not even close to having enough people to respond if there’s a spill,” he tells me. “We typically get only six or seven volunteers to respond. We haven’t had any training on hazardous materials.”

We talk about the Casselton and Lac Megantic unit train fires, which burned so intensely that responders couldn’t even count the number of cars that were going up in flames, right before their eyes, for more than a day. I ask Steele how he and his volunteers would manage such a situation. “We’d use the rule of thumb,” he tells me. “You hold up your thumb in front of your eye and you back away until the fire is completely hidden.” Meanwhile, a conflagration in the steep, windy canyon could rapidly spread over hundreds of acres. And a spill in the river, especially during the spring runoff season, “could pollute 1,000 miles of shoreline.”

* * *

Jeffery Mow has been the supervisor of Glacier National Park for fewer than six months, but he has special reason to worry about oil-related accidents. A lean man with a cheery, eager manner, he began his Parks Department career more than two decades ago in Alaska as a ranger, and then later a supervisor, in Kenai Fjords National Park. After the Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989, Mow investigated the 11-million-gallon oil spill for the Park Service and the Department of Justice. (Oil washed onto the shores of both Kenai and Katmai National Parks.) Then, when the Deepwater Horizon gushed more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2011, the U.S. Department of the Interior sent Mow to Louisiana to act as its incident commander. Despite massive billion-dollar cleanup operations in both locations, he says from behind his desk in the park’s West Glacier headquarters, “the legacy continues. The oil is still out there.”

Shortly after arriving at Glacier, Mow recalls, “several people brought it to my attention that, gosh, these are really long trains coming through here. That piqued my interest.” Soon afterward, he sat down with officials from BNSF, from whom he learned that he’d be seeing a minimum of one unit train a day—containing 3 million gallons of oil—and up to 10 unit trains a week. Mow also learned, to his dismay, that BNSF’s contingency plan for that oil was “their contingency plan for any other hazardous material they transport, which usually comes along in mixed loads.”


Photo: Loco Steve

But as Mow well understands, Bakken crude is no ordinary hazmat. BNSF recently hired a consultant to forge a detailed response plan specific to hauling crude through this region. Matt Jones, a railroad spokesperson, said it would include highly detailed maps of the entire route and strategies on how to deploy containment booms in the Middle Fork of the Flathead River or any other nearby body of water. For his part, Mow says he hopes that whatever form the new approach takes, it will entail simulations such as field and tabletop exercises that will allow local officials to rehearse their responses. “We want to have a robust ability to respond, and not try to figure out what we’re doing when we’re in the middle of it,” he says.

Park officials are also eager to learn if the railroad—which is already planning to spend $5 billion to expand capacity, maintain track, and buy locomotives and equipment in 2014—will be building any more avalanche sheds. Currently, eight of these structures have been erected to protect trains from the snow that regularly plummets down 40 separate avalanche paths within a 9-mile stretch. In 2004, three avalanches derailed 119 empty rail cars and struck a commercial truck on the highway; a fourth narrowly missed cleanup crews. Between them, these avalanches shut down the tracks for 29 hours, creating a 70-mile backup of freight traffic.

Concerned with the ongoing potential for financial and human carnage, in 2005 BNSF requested permission from Glacier National Park to control avalanches using explosive charges and military artillery. But before the park could complete its own environmental impact study, the railroad withdrew its request. The environmental impact study went forward, however, and in the end rejected the use of explosives in favor of building new snow sheds. The cost: $5.4 million, amortized over a 50-year period. The railroad, “which had been concerned enough about train safety to propose bombing the national park,” according to the NPCA’s Michael Jameson, declined to build.

Regarding their decision, Mow simply sighs. “It’s not something we can force them to do,” he tells me.

* * *

I glance out the window of Mow’s office and take in the primeval forest of Douglas fir, aspen, birch, and lodgepole pine. A pair of bald eagles spirals over the southern end of Lake McDonald. Perhaps moved by the elemental beauty of the scene, Denise Germann, the park’s management assistant, jumps into the conversation. “This isn’t just a track moving to a destination,” she says, with some passion. “It’s a track moving through public land, going through pristine country. It’s going through land that has many different [values]—whether it’s recreation or economic or scenery or wilderness.”

She’s recapping, essentially, all that we’ve been discussing so far. And yet it bears repeating, since no plan of anyone’s devising can possibly guarantee safe passage through a high-risk corridor of a hundred or more oil-filled tanker cars a day.

Mow acknowledges her statement with a somber nod. And as he does, I can’t help but recall what Larry Timchak, the president of the Flathead Valley chapter of Trout Unlimited, told me at an earlier point during my trip to Montana.

“The probability of an accident over time,” he said, “ is 1.”

This piece originally appeared at OnEarth.org; top photo by Mike Danneman/Getty.

February 21, 2014   2 Comments

He speaks for the trees: “cork forests suffer from under use, not over use.”

Cork Lorax Patrick Spencer (he’s actually the executive director of the Cork Forest Conservation Alliance) brought me to Portugal last summer to show me some oak trees and hammer home a few points about wine closures –aluminum, plastic, and cork. I wrote about this amazing trip for OnEarth. You can muddle through that story, or you can go straight to the source and hear Patrick make a compelling case for the natural option (cork, that is) in less than fourteen minutes in this TEDx video.

It’s a nice talk, and it succinctly maps out the negative cascade effects of switching to noncork wine closures. But I’ve got to say: Patrick is a lot more exciting in person, minus the suit jacket. He’s a delightful and hugely knowledgeable traveling companion, which I mention here because he’s organizing tiny eco-tours to three Spanish cork regions during harvest season, 2015. Travelers will learn and watch how cork is harvested, visit wineries, sleep in agritourismos, drink a lot of vinho verde, and avoid all contact with cork-company PR professionals.  If you are interested, follow the CFCA link and tell Patrick I sent you.

February 13, 2014   No Comments

NPR on my coattails: More commodity farmers growing non-GMO crops

NPR’s Dan Charles did a piece yesterday for The Salt on farmers growing non-GMO corn and soy. This piece builds on my story, in Modern Farmer, about commodity growers planting conventional seed. Why? They can save money on the seeds (genetically modified corn seed can cost up to $150 a bag more than non-GM seed) and earn more on the back end by selling to buyers willing to pay a little extra ($1 a bushel for corn, more for soy) for grain uncontaminated with GMOs. Like the farmers in my story, The Salt’s farmers plant conventional seeds for non-ideological reasons: it’s what their customers want and will pay extra for. Note that most of them live near the river systems — Illinois, Missouri, Ohio –that send barges of grain out into the non-GMO consuming world.

Lynn Clarkson, founder of Clarkson Grain, which sells conventional and organic corn and soybeans, sees the market for conventionals expanding, thanks in large part to demand from animal feed companies. That’s what my reporting turned up as well: small farmers who sell at greenmarkets and to natural grocers don’t want GMO feeds, nor do producers who sell meat or dairy products to institutions like colleges and to Whole Foods (which plans to label all its foods containing genetically engineered ingredients by 2018).

But what will happen to the premium – which incentivizes farmers to keep their conventional grain separate from GM grain all the way from planting through harvest, storage and transportation — if more farmers get on board? Chris Huegerich, the farmer I profiled, used to receive a 50-cent premium on every bushel he sold to Cargill, in Blair, Nebraska. But this past year, the premium disappeared, thanks to a plethora of farmers planting conventional corn in that area. That’s good for Cargill: for Huegerich, not so much. But he’s not giving up on non-GMOs. In fact, he’s planting even more of them this spring.

February 5, 2014   No Comments

The Remains of the Night: Sex, trash and nature in the city

Back before my knees began to ache, I ran in my neighborhood park, a 585-acre swath of meadows streaked through and bounded by mostly deciduous forest. Unlike most urban runners, I avoided the paved ring road and stuck to the interior, seeking out sketchy paths and abandoned viaducts, crumbling stone staircases and piney glades. I was looking for soft footing, and I was looking for that experience of exploration, of seeing-for-the-first-time, that every devoted woodland visitor wants. I chose my routes by impulse, never deciding which way to turn until a decision, like a fallen branch, rose up to smack me in the face. In this manner, I became familiar with parts of the park that most visitors never see.

Now that my running days are over, I shuffle through a tract of the park’s interior, called the Midwood, with eyes cast down, mostly oblivious to the solitary men who stroll past with backpacks slung casually over one shoulder. This is a special area, dimly lit and damp. It contains the park’s oldest trees—mostly tulips and oaks—and its highest canopy. In the summer, white flowering goutweed, a showy invasive, brightens the forest floor. In the fall, it’s blue wood asters. Birders come through during the migratory season in search of flycatchers and other transients, but my quarry is more prosaic.

In my right hand is a yellow-shafted grabbing tool and in my left a large plastic bag, which I slowly but steadily fill with things that aren’t supposed to be in the woods: malt liquor bottles, crack baggies, chip wrappers. But those items are ancillary to my main target, the specialized detritus of sexual congress: lube tubes, soiled tissues, amyl nitrate poppers, and, of course, used condoms. I had often seen men—young and middle-aged, white, brown, and black—loitering on these forest paths, some of which are paved in mulch and some of which are informal, like deer trails. In my running days, I assumed that the men, who held cell phones and carried small bags, were selling drugs. Only later did I realize their business was almost exclusively sexual; the drug sellers stuck closer to the ring road. …

Read the rest of my rumination on plucking condoms from the woods–illustrated with super-glossy photographs by litter mob founder Marie Viljoen - at Medium.

January 16, 2014   No Comments

Welcome, new fountains!

Went down the other day to see the new Whole Foods at 3rd Avenue and 3rd Street, hard by the ol’ Gowane. Nice to see the company installed several drinking water fountains –frost resistant, too — in the park that surrounds their permeably paved parking lot. Sip and savor as the smell of CSOs (which dump raw sewage into the canal following as little as 1/2 inch of rain) wafts off the turn-around basin to the south (that’s the Harvest Dome 2.0 in the background). So happy to see new fountains springing up, and looking forward to seeing more as Canal cleanup and development proceeds.

December 22, 2013   No Comments

The Post-GMO Economy: One mainstream farmer is returning to conventional seed — and he’s not alone

rootworm

 

“As an invulnerable tween, Chris Huegerich, the child of a prosperous farming family, wiped out on his motorcycle in tiny Breda, Iowa. Forty years on, folks still call Huegerich “Crash.” And though he eventually went down a conventional path (married, divorced) and bought out his parents’ farm, Huegerich has recently reverted to his daredevil ways — at least when it comes to choosing what kind of corn to plant.”

And so begins my story about commodity corn and soy growers reverting to conventional (nope, not organic and not genetically modified – just good old-fashioned hybrids) seeds. You can read all about how (it’s not so hard) and why (basically, money) at Modern Farmer. Please do!

 

Photo of adult northern corn rootworms by Marlin E. Rice

December 8, 2013   No Comments

Why do rain barrels matter if water isn’t scarce?

The greenest commercial building in the world sits on a slope near Seattle’s Capitol Hill district, topped by what looks like a high-tech wimple—the Flying Nun meets an attractive cube of glass and concrete. The ecclesiastical headgear is, in fact, a canted array of 575 high-efficiency photovoltaic solar panels. Combined with 26 geothermal wells, the panels will make the six-story Bullitt Center a net-zero energy user—that is, it will produce as much energy as it uses over the course of a year. And by harvesting and purifying the drizzle that falls from the Pacific Northwestern sky, the Center is also a net-zero user of water.

Photo: Bullitt Center

Many residential and commercial buildings collect and store rainwater in barrels, to be used for landscaping and gardening. In an era of diminished freshwater supply, that’s smart, but nothing new. The Bullitt Center’s commitment to net-zero water, however, is the equivalent of rain barrels on steroids. The roof shunts rain to a 56,000-gallon cistern in the basement. From there, the screened and filtered water will be used for irrigation and cleaning and to “flush” composting toilets. These appliances use about a tablespoon of water to create a foamy transport medium, which sends human waste to the basement, where it’s mixed with sawdust and breaks down in enclosed (no smell!) vessels. Another portion of the rain water will be made potable by running it through a series of filters, then disinfecting it with ultraviolet light. Activated charcoal filters will strip chlorine, added to keep water bacteria-free while it’s in the pipes, at the spigot. At last, this water will be ready for use in sinks, showers, and water fountains. Presumably it will make excellent espresso.

But that’s not all. Gray water, collected from the building’s sinks and showers, will be pumped to the third floor, where it will trickle slowly through a constructed wetland before it sinks, through street-level plantings, into Seattle’s aquifer. “We’ll be infiltrating about 65 percent of what we collect,” Brad Kahn, the Bullitt Center’s communications director, says. “That’s the amount of rain water that used to be returned to the earth before Europeans settled here, back when this was a Douglas fir forest.”

Owned by the environmentally oriented Bullitt Foundation, the Bullitt Center is undeniably modern. But it’s also delightfully retrograde, eschewing both the electrical and water grids and relying, instead, on its own powers of creation, transformation, and degradation—much as small pre-industrial villages did. Of course, those villages were far smaller, and less demanding of resources, than today’s communities, and therein lies the challenge. If the Bullitt Center can rigorously document its hyper-local sufficiency over a one-year period, it will become the first commercial building to earn certification from the Living Building Challenge, a performance-based standard for sustainability that goes well beyond the demands of the better known Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard.

* * *

Saving rainwater for residential or commercial use makes sense in arid regions: it shrinks the demand on municipal water supplies and saves property owners money. Without further treatment, rainwater can be used for flushing toilets, washing clothes and cars, and watering lawns and gardens. Rain barrels and their historical antecedent, cisterns (big underground vaults), can also reduce energy use and the carbon emissions associated with pumping, treating, and distributing water in a centralized system. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, reducing the demand for treated tap water by 10 percent could save the nation enough energy to meet its entire residential, commercial, and industrial demand for 30 days.

But wetter cities are also encouraging rainwater collection these days—mostly to protect their waterways from the ravages of something known as “combined sewer overflows.” CSO events occur during rainstorms, when wastewater treatment plants reach capacity and dump raw sewage directly into nearby creeks, lakes, and harbors. Joining the sewage is rainwater that sluices off parking lots and roads polluted with heavy metals, oil, and street litter. The combined insult jeopardizes human health, degrades ecosystems, and repulses waterfront visitors.

To address these issues, cities are loosening their building codes and offering rebates and technical assistance for so-called green infrastructure that retains storm water and releases it slowly to the earth. Rain barrels—like their hydrophilic cousins bioswales, rain gardens, and green roofs—not only  protect rivers, lakes, and harbors from polluted deluges, they also restore local aquifers, mitigate floods, and reduce the amount of water headed to centralized wastewater plants.

* * *

With its closed-loop water system, the Bullitt Center sends nothing to Seattle’s wastewater treatment plant or into its harbor. That’s helpful, because in 2012, Seattle discharged 154 million gallons of raw sewage and polluted runoff into local waterways. But the building is also reducing its pull on city reservoirs by rendering its rainwater potable.

And now you may ask: why, in a city that gets a decent 35 inches of rain a year, does this even matter? Because Seattle’s population, currently about 635,000, is expected to rise by one to two million people in the next 20 years, and because the climate is changing. The city is likely to see more frequent and longer periods of drought, while warmer winter temperatures mean precipitation will more likely fall as rain, instead of snow. Rain will immediately increase the flow of rivers: that water will run to the sea if not captured.

And so Seattle is considering its options. The city could hang onto that influx by building a new reservoir—considered unlikely, as all the good spots for water storage are already inhabited. Or, according to some visionary planners, it could build a distributed system of catchment cisterns, on a neighborhood or district scale, to capture water, treat it to the appropriate level for use, then reuse and recycle it on site.

If harvesting and purifying rainwater is such a great idea, why aren’t other urban buildings, or even neighborhoods and cities, doing it? A few, in fact, are: a development in the Netherlands, with 250 housing units and commercial space, is net-zero water, as are buildings on numerous campuses in the United States (at U.C. Davis, at Pittsburgh’s Phipps Conservancy, and at Google’s new Bayview complex, for example). Approximately 140 projects in eight countries are currently working to meet the Living Building Challenge.

But obstacles, as one may guess, abound. Existing buildings tend to be on the grid already—hooked up to community water systems that provide good, cheap water (the United States has among the cheapest water rates in the world). There are also federal, state, and local regulatory hurdles to leap, permits or variances to obtain, and employees to train. (If you form your own “water district,” no matter how small, you’ve got to meet Safe Drinking Water Act standards, which means someone needs to be certified to run the system.) And then there’s the price tag: the Bullitt Center’s construction costs were 20 percent higher than those for a comparably sized conventional building. (On the upside: it will have no electric or water bills, and it was designed to last 250 years.)

Kahn admits that distributed water systems that rely on rain aren’t for everyone. It would be tough to do net-zero water in the desert. Nor would net-zero water work in places where downstream cities depend on the flow that upstream cities return to rivers from their centralized wastewater treatment plants. But such systems could work, in many locations, at the scale of a city block or district.

* * *

I have to admit, I have a hard time imagining cisterns working in a place like New York City, my home town, which gets 48 inches of rain a year, houses 8 million people, and runs through more than a billion gallons of water a day. Ninety percent of our water comes to us from the upstate Catskill Mountains region, via shared pipes, tunnels, and aqueducts, and most of the system is gravity fed. Why mess with a good thing?

Because—wait for it—the population is growing, and the climate is changing. It doesn’t take a catastrophist to recognize that a densely populated city that relies on water imported from 100 miles away is neither self-sufficient nor resilient. The system, parts of which are more than a century old, has many potential failure points and already leaks up to 35 million gallons a day, enough to slake half of Pittsburgh’s daily thirst. As the world warms, New York City, which is already leading on climate adaptation, needs to look at backup systems. “Rainwater is a great untapped resource,” says Cecil Scheib, director of advocacy for the New York chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, “and fostering resiliency is a huge issue post Sandy.”

New York isn’t likely to meet all its needs with rooftop water: the ratio of roof to people doesn’t pencil out (costs and current regulations aside). But a distributed network of rainwater catchment, in conjunction with the existing grid, is worth considering, especially in the case of new construction. It doesn’t have to be an either-or scenario. Such systems can help extend existing infrastructure without drawing down aquifers or streams, and simply collecting rain in barrels or cisterns—even if one has no intention of drinking it—can help reduce flooding.

The Bullitt Center, which opened on Earth Day of 2013, is a demonstration of what’s possible and an inspiration for overcoming the substantial financial, regulatory, and cultural barriers to sustainable design. Planners and lenders, architects and builders, regulators and code enforcement officers are watching closely to see how things shake out. Can these systems be emulated elsewhere? Will the building eventually earn out its additional costs? The answers might not all be yes, but at least the Bullitt Center has dared to stick its neck out and to very publicly investigate. Anyone concerned with the future of design—with the future, period—should be grateful.

 

This column originally appeared at OnEarth.org

December 8, 2013   No Comments

Attention NYers with broken stuff: Pop Up Repair Shop is back!

This coming week (December 7 – 14), just in time for you know what, Sandra Goldmark and Michael Banta are reopening their Pop Up Repair shop. (See my post below on its first iteration.) This time the shop will materialize at the UpstART Gallery, at 93 Cooper Street, between Isham and 207th Street in waaaay upper Manhattan. Besides fixing your broken lamps and jewelry and tchotchkes, and replacing the batteries in phones branded with a bitten apple, Banta and Goldmark are offering one of the coolest I-will-not-participate-in-escalating-techno-fashion-madness services ever: stitching conductive material onto your perfectly good pre-existing gloves, thus converting them into touch-sensitive distal thermoregulators. No need to buy new gloves simply because you want to make a phone call in cold weather. (Yes, you can do this yourself with just a few stitches of conductive thread, but Sandra, Michael and the repair team are great folk to visit, and you probably have other stuff in need of repair, right?)

The shop will also be selling repair kits for jewelry and lamps, which were among the most common items brought in during the Pop Up Shop’s first incarnation. For more information about the shop, which plans to open in other locations soonish, go to www.popuprepair.com.

December 5, 2013   No Comments

From melons to megawatts?

Beginning next summer, landfill-bound garbage trucks in Massachusetts might smell a little less putrid than usual, thanks to a new regulation that would prohibit any generator of more than a ton of food scraps per week from hauling those scraps to the dump. As the state finally gets serious about diverting food waste, it expects to be sending much of it elsewhere: to hungry people, animal-feed producers, commercial composters, and the high-tech contraptions known as anaerobic digesters, which convert waste to energy and fertilizer.

With the passage of the new regulation, Massachusetts will join its neighbors Vermont and Connecticut in requiring that large amounts of organic waste go somewhere other than landfills. (New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has expressed his wish to enact a similar requirement before he leaves office at the beginning of next year.) Should these regulations have their intended effect, the Northeast will likely see a major surge in the technology of anaerobic digestion (AD)

The AD process starts when organic material is dumped into an enclosed tank and seeded with hungry bacteria. As microbes devour this nutrient-rich material, they produce sugars, fatty acids, and amino acids. Successive waves of bacteria then convert these products into carbon dioxide, hydrogen, ammonia, organic acids, and methane. The biogases generated by the process can be captured and used to produce fuel, electricity, and heat; left behind are crumbly dregs known as digestate, which has some value as fertilizer.

Across the United States, nearly 200 farms and a handful of industrial food-service operators already use small AD systems to turn slurries of animal waste or food scraps into power. Wastewater treatment plants, of course, have long enlisted microbes to digest the organic solids in human sewage, but increasingly they have been using AD technology to generate their own energy and offset electricity costs. To further boost power production, plants with excess digester capacity are starting to chase food scraps—which generate 10 to 35 times more gas than does animal or human waste.

“This is a great opportunity for economic growth,” says Patrick Serfass, executive director of the American Biogas Council. “We can recycle the organic waste that makes up 20 to 40 percent of our garbage and turn it into renewable energy.” Digesting 50 percent of the food Americans waste, says the Environmental Protection Agency, would generate enough electricity to power 2.5 million homes.

Some worry that government subsidies could create an oversize AD industry with an insatiable appetite for food. Already there is concern in the European Union, where subsidies are a powerful incentive, about the possibility that crops will be grown solely for AD purposes. Others caution that centralized industrial digestion could undermine community composting operations, which not only produce valuable fertilizer for local gardeners and landscapers but also “foster community engagement and commitment to sustainable practices,” according to David Buckel, a New York–based community composting consultant. “We need both scales. But we should do as much local composting as possible.”

However the options shake out, it’s clear that the days of long-hauling massive amounts of methane-generating organics to landfills are numbered. Let the food fight—over the energy and nutrients stored in peanut shells and potato peels—begin.

Photo:jfeuchter/Flickr

This post originally appeared in the winter 2013/2013 issue of OnEarth Magazine

November 26, 2013   No Comments

From China it comes, and to China it’s likely to return

As you dutifully deliver your recyclable soda bottles and soup cans to the curb each week, you’re probably not thinking they’ll soon be embarking on an intercontinental voyage. But there’s a good chance that they are. The United States ships 50 to 75 percent of the material collected from curbside recycling programs to China each year, along with such scrapyard staples as junked cars, wire cables, broken motors, and other industrial and commercial castoffs. Add it all up, and that’s 46 million metric tons—enough to fill 4.6 million garbage trucks—of scrap metal, paper, rubber, and plastic, valued at roughly $11 billion.

In 2012, scrap was the nation’s No. 2 export to China, right after soybeans.

Without China as a market for our recycling and scrap, U.S. landfills would fill up a lot more quickly, and this country’s recycling industry would lose a key source of revenue as hauling companies instead routed our bottles, cans, and newspapers to dumps and incinerators. The U.S. actually got a taste of what that would be like earlier this year, when China began rejecting scrap material at its ports.

What’s wrong with our waste? America and other nations have been exporting scrap to China for more than a decade. After laborers sort and clean the material, processors sell it to manufacturers (most of which are located overseas) who use it to make new appliances, packaging, computer clamshells, stop signs, engine parts, and other durable goods. But in recent years, the amount of unrecyclable material—stuff like food, concrete blocks, poop, and medical debris—cocktailed in with legitimate scrap has been creeping ever upward.

For years, importers were lenient, tolerating as much as 40 percent contamination per bale.  But last February, the Chinese government—under increasing public pressure to clean up its air and water pollution—cracked down. All of that extraneous or poorly sorted material was proving costly to Chinese buyers. Anything they couldn’t use, they would burn or bury, fouling China’s environment.

Under the new directive, called Operation Green Fence, Chinese port inspectors allow no more than 1.5 percent contamination per bale of scrap. By September, China had suspended nearly 250 companies’ import licenses and rejected thousands of scrap containers. Some of them were delivered to more permissive ports in Vietnam and Malaysia, which also covet raw materials for manufacturing. Other ships headed for Hong Kong, where workers cleaned the loads of contaminants, re-baled them, and sent them back to China. Still other containers never left the U.S.: vast tonnages of plastics and paper went straight from materials recycling facilities (known as MRFs, pronounced “murf”)—which sort and bale metals, plastics, and paper collected through curbside recycling programs—to landfills and incinerators in this country.

But what sounds like a disaster for community recycling programs, and for landfills running out of space, may ultimately prove to have many benefits.

* * *

China first started importing scrap in large quantities after 2001, when it joined the World Trade Organization. Almost immediately, importers began to pay more for scrap than some U.S. industries were offering. It was also cheaper, much of the time, for American sellers to ship their material to Asian buyers than to send it overland to U.S. manufacturing or processing plants, thanks to discounted rates on ships that would otherwise be sailing for China empty. In 2012, for example, shipping a container from Los Angeles to China cost around $600, while sending the same container to Chicago via rail cost four times as much.

There are other reasons that U.S. scrap migrated overseas: Chinese labor is far cheaper than American, and Chinese handwork—unwinding copper wires from motors, for example, or extracting steel screws from aluminum chair frames—wrings more value from scrap material than our automated systems can. And then there’s supply and demand, the single most important driver of recycling. The United States, which manufactures comparatively little, generates far more recyclable material than it can incorporate into new products.

“Exports have been a relief valve for scores of years,” says Scott Horne, vice president of government affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries, a lobbying group. Without China, our junked cars and old motors would pile up, and our water bottles and soup cans would be landfilled.

Now, with Operation Green Fence reducing the demand for U.S. scrap and recycling, prices for those materials have dropped. Before the Green Fence went up, reports Adam Clark, of the Northeast Resource Recovery Association, a bale of mixed plastics in his region could fetch upwards of eight cents per pound; after, it brought 2 cents, or less, per pound. Paper, pre-fence, netted $80 to $90 per ton; post-fence, it dropped to between $40 and $50. That’s not so great for MRFs, but it’s good for domestic mills and processors eager to manufacture new goods from old. (Until now, with all of the scrap going to China, processors haven’t been operating at full capacity because they couldn’t get enough material.) Now it’s a buyer’s market.

Even better, tighter Chinese inspections and the threat of severely limited markets have forced some U.S. MRFs to clean up their acts, hiring extra labor, slowing down their sorting belts, or buying optical sorters, which use lights, lenses, and cameras to differentiate among different types of plastic, and then air guns to blast them into separate chutes. The result is cleaner bales of material that can make it through the Green Fence. Domestic processing facilities, which buy material from MRFs, also have more, and better, material to choose from, says Jerry Powell, publisher of Resource Recycling magazine.

* * *

To be sure, China still wants the world’s scrap. Clean scrap is the feedstock for many of those shiny new goods that China manufactures and exports to the rest of the world. It’s also the feedstock for China’s own rapid industrialization: you can’t build cities and the systems that run them without an abundance of metals and plastics.

Operation Green Fence has temporarily altered the scrap landscape in China, but it’s been a game changer for the U.S. recycling industry, which relies on exports for profit and had grown sloppy over the years. If its central lesson holds—“Don’t send us garbage”—everyone will be better off.

Yes, improving bales of recyclable material will cost more time and money, but there’s a great deal riding on the integrity of the process. Not only will the Chinese villages that break open and sort these bales be cleaner, but more metals will remain unmined; more oil will stay in the ground; and more Americans will believe that the system that keeps these materials cycling actually does some good.

Photo: Tony Hisgett

November 1, 2013   No Comments