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Category — Waste

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

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

The Forgotten Rs: Repair and Refurbish and Reuse

Kristin Murphy spent two years listening to a portable radio that, thanks to a broken antenna, delivered only AM broadcasts. A Columbia University PhD student and a self-professed news junky, she refused to buy a new one, but she lacked the tools to fix the old. So when she learned this past spring that a pop-up repair shop would be opening in her northern Manhattan neighborhood, she was thrilled. “I thought the idea was brilliant,” she says. “I began collecting broken things in my head.”

When the store opened in June, sandwiched between a hair salon and a pizza joint in a former pharmacy, a line of customers stretched out the door. Soon the storefront, which started with the clean and organized look of an Apple Genius Bar, resembled a theater workshop on opening night. Spools of thread and wire, boxes of nuts and screws, glue guns, paint brushes, screwdrivers, vice grips, and clamps littered the counters. Customers milled around work benches and the sewing machine, eagerly sharing stories about their broken stuff, all under the gaze of a patron saint of handiness: MacGyver.

The first item Murphy dropped off was that radio: within days she was enjoying FM stations again. Next, she delivered a backpack with a torn seam, a broken window blind, an iPod that wouldn’t turn on, a broken headlamp, and a second radio. Each was handily fixed, for a total cost of less than $75, by Sandra Goldmark and Michael Banta, veteran professionals who teach and produce theater at Barnard College and between them can handle carpentry, electrical work, rigging, welding, drafting, painting, sewing, and model making.

For Goldmark and Banta, the Pop-Up Repair Shop was equal parts performance art, sustainability initiative, research project, and social activism.  “We were fed up with buying things and throwing them away, both in the theater and at home, and we wanted to see if others felt the same way,” Goldmark told me. Would people bring in their broken household goods? If so, why, and how much did they value such repairs? With a grant from Barnard, they conducted detailed surveys of their customers, tracking both the level of demand for, and the response to, a community repair shop.

Nationwide, repair businesses—except for those that handle computers—have been in decline for decades. Before World War II, for example, the country had more than 100,000 shoe repair shops; now there are roughly 7,000. The Bureau of Labor Statistics includes small-appliance repair on its list of disappearing jobs. “And I see no trend in them coming back,” says Neil Seldman, president of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, a nonprofit that advocates for environmentally sound and equitable community development. “Manufacturers make products unrepairable. They don’t sell parts because they don’t want people to repair their products.” They want them to buy new stuff.

Although it’s not part of the well-known triad, “repair” partners with “reuse” in the reduce, reuse, recycle hierarchy—and it’s a better option than recycle when it comes to the environment. Why? Because when we repair, we don’t buy new stuff. No matter how “green” it claims to be, manufacturing new stuff almost always requires more energy and materials, and has a greater impact on the environment, than continuing to use something that already exists. Repair also generates less air and water pollution than recycling, leaves behind less hazardous waste, and creates an affordable supply of high-quality goods for those unable to afford new things.

Still, communities trying to shrink the amount of garbage they pile up in landfills routinely give reuse and repair short shrift. They do far less public education on reuse and repair, a retail message, than on recycling, which addresses discards in a wholesale manner.

Consciously or not, Goldmark and Banta were joining thousands of others in urban pockets around the world who, empowered by repair cafes and collectives and downloadable fixer manuals, were reclaiming their stuff, jumping off the break-it-and-buy-it treadmill, and taking a quiet stand for the environment. “The number one thing we’re up against is the cheap price of new goods,” Goldmark told me. “They’re artificially cheap because they don’t include the environmental costs—air and water pollution, for example—of extracting raw materials, manufacturing, or distribution.”

Low wages in developing nations also keep prices low, as do government subsidies for extracting resources like wood, oil, and gas. People would be far less likely to buy new products if the price tags of those goods reflected their true cost. Consumers would also demand more from manufacturers whose products prematurely fail, and they might be more willing to pay repair people a living wage.

Over the course of four weeks, Goldmark and her colleagues were pleasantly surprised to serve roughly 200 people and repair more than 450 objects. The largest category was lamps, but the staff also worked its magic on vacuum cleaners, coffee makers, fans, jewelry, textiles, telephones, trophies, furniture, stuffed animals, and a cracked two-and-a-half-foot-long plastic ladle—a tchotchke nonpareil that Goldmark handily repaired with a small metal plate and a bolt. The couple’s only failures? A mini-fridge and some remote-controlled cars.

The shop—which charged between $20 and $40 for most jobs—lost money because Goldmark and Banta kept prices artificially low to lure in customers. They wanted to get across an idea, not make a profit. In fact, they were experimenting with pricing, asking the first 25 customers to pay what they thought was right. If Kristin Murphy had come in toward the end of the shop’s tenure, she likely would have paid $40 to have her blinds repaired and more than $15 for the radio.

“If we did this again,” Goldmark said, “we’d trim our staff and charge more, but not too much. We still want to keep it affordable.” She would also ask customers to take another crucial step: “I’d give them a piece of paper so they can write to the manufacturer of the broken coffee pot” to express their dissatisfaction. After all, if we don’t let companies know we’re unhappy—and unlikely to buy their products in the future—we can’t blame them for continuing to turn out crap.

Perhaps the most valuable—if subversive—lesson of the pop-up shop is that we, as consumers, have options: when something breaks, we don’t have to throw it away. By this measure alone, the shop was hugely successful. It kept more than a ton of stuff out of the landfill, and it encouraged customers to get involved not only with repair, but with other like-minded people.

Some of those folks hung around for hours—Goldmark told me with admiration in her voice—learning new skills and gaining the confidence to try them out. Then, under the spell of MacGyver, they went home and tackled their own repairs.

 

Photos: Alyssa Vine/Barnard College

October 21, 2013   No Comments

You buy it, you break it, you fix it

Last week I wrote a piece in OnEarth about a pop-up repair shop in Manhattan, a quasi-environmental, quasi-social month-long experiment intended to not only fix household goods (a lot of lamps, as it turns out) but to suss how folks felt about the value of repair. I mentioned the website ifixit.com, which offers free repair manuals for cars, trucks, appliances and small electronics, including things made by Apple.

Kyle Wiens, an ifixit co-founder, had a great turn on CBS This Morning, this morning, in which he talks about empowerment and the rights of consumers to get at the innards of their goods (but not replace the battery in their iphone).  Check it out, and my apologies for the ad that precedes it:

 

 

 

September 20, 2013   No Comments

Caffeine and consequences

 

Vanessa Rancano writes in the East Bay Express a fascinating mini-history of the single-serve coffee pod and its unintended environmental consequences. The piece, titled “Waste: The Dark Side of the New Coffee Craze,” hits many important themes: the fundamental un-recyclability of these objects (whether they’re made of plastic or aluminum or both); what actually happens to these pods or capsules in a recycling facility (short story: they don’t actually get recycled); how a few grams of waste from individual households adds up to massive amounts of trash in our landfills (Rancano conservatively estimates that Americans annually trash 966 million pounds of coffee-pod rejectamenta –the weight of about 150,000 Hummer H2s). She briefly looks upstream at the health effects of producing plastic coffee capsules and then downstream, again, at why incineration isn’t a great way to handle this waste. In between is a brief history of modern packaging, including the shift from glass to plastic, the globalization of consumer goods, and producer’s economic incentive to sell small portions at relatively high cost to both the affluent (who can afford the luxury of convenience) and the poor (who can’t afford larger serving sizes). Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, summarizes the essential problem with single-cup pods: “they’re an unsustainable way of delivering coffee to people.”

Photo by Guido Krzikowski / Bloomberg / Getty Images

 

August 22, 2013   No Comments

Seeking closure in a bottle

When my phone rang two months ago, a nice-sounding stranger invited me to visit a Portuguese cork-oak forest. I’d never seen one, so I was intrigued. My caller, Patrick Spencer, executive director of an Oregon-based nonprofit called the Cork Forest Conservation Alliance, explained why seeing and understanding this landscape was so important: the forests are fragile, among the most biodiverse in Europe, and threatened by people who buy wine closed with screw caps and plastic. That’s me, I thought, beginning to feel a little defensive.

Spencer went on: choose wine with a cork, and you help preserve a unique ecosystem, habitat for endangered endemics like Iberian lynx—of which only 150 remain—and imperial Iberian eagles. And don’t forget the adorable and threatened Barbary deer, wild boar, skinks, spade-foot toads, genets, and more than 160 bird species that reside or annually alight in these woodlands.

I heard Spencer out, told him I’d consider his proposition, then walked down the street to my wine store.

 
To read what I learned about wine closures — aluminum screw caps, plastic stoppers and wooden corks — read my post at OnEarth.org

July 26, 2013   No Comments

Colbert kicks Nestle’s butt

The media had a lot of fun with the roll-out for Nestle’s new hydration product, Resource water, aimed at “stylish, higher income” women. But no one hit all the marks the way Steven Colbert did in this segment, covering the demonization of tap water (“commie water”), the cravenness of marketers targeting a specific demographic (in this case,”carbon-based life forms from age zero to anything”), the privatization of public water sources, and the oceans of plastic waste left behind by bottled-water drinkers. Enjoy.

June 21, 2013   No Comments

This Is Your Town on Fracking

Williston train station

Not long ago I found myself stranded in Williston, North Dakota. You might have heard of it. Despite being the eighth-largest city in the 48th most-populous state, Williston has won some infamy in recent years. It’s at the center of an oil boom that’s likely to make the United States a net exporter of fossil fuels in just a few short years, something that was unthinkable as recently as half a decade ago. North Dakota now produces more oil than any state except Texas, thanks to technical advances that let drillers hydraulically fracture (or frack) the Bakken shale formation two miles beneath the region’s surface.

The boom has introduced tens of thousands of newcomers to the area around Williston, jammed the dirt and gravel roads with heavy trucks, littered those byways with windshield-shattering debris, and clouded the air with dust. (Which also chokes livestock, smothers crops, and complicates dinner preparation. “I have to wash my dishes after taking them from the cupboard, they’re so coated in dust,” a local rancher told me.)

I was stuck in Williston because a small rock had punched a hole in the gas tank of my rental car. My plane was leaving Minot  – two hours to the east — early the next morning. Every repair shop in town was booked solid for a week, and there wasn’t a single car, truck, or minivan available for hire. Fortunately, there was Amtrak. The Empire Builder, bound for Chicago from Seattle, was due into Williston at 7:09 p.m. and would deliver me to Minot in a little more than two hours — for just $28. Delightful, I thought, and settled down in the small brick train station to wait.

The first bad news came at 6:30. The train would be delayed. For how long? “I have no information,” the stationmaster said as she decamped for the sidewalk, where she would kibitz with the locals and chain smoke for the next several hours. I tried to read but was distracted by the steady stream of young ladies moving in and out of the station bathroom, dressed in low-cut tops, high heels, and slinky leggings. Prostitutes returning to Minneapolis, a fellow traveler informed me sotto voce.

An hour passed, and I went outside to pace. The sidewalk was smoky, of course, and music wafted from the two strip clubs uphill from the train station, which sat on a rotary at the dead end of Main Street. In this merry atmosphere I chatted with itinerant oilfield workers and locals, visiting grandmothers, and the loquacious stationmaster, who told me the Empire Builder’s on-time rate, the previous month, was 0 percent. There was track work, of course, and conflicts with freight trains, but also collisions with trucks carrying oil, gravel, sand, water, and chemicals. The trucks were driven by exhausted young men servicing drill sites and fracking operations. (Developing a single fracking well involves forcing millions of gallons of water, laced with chemicals and sand, down boreholes that stretch for miles. The pressure cracks the shale, releasing oil and chemically polluted water. The liquids and other equipment are hauled in and out in trucks — thousands a day for every well under development.)

A racket up the street drew my attention. The stationmaster and I watched, slightly amused, as a drunk staggered from one of the strip clubs to his jacked-up truck. Screaming obscenities at an invisible enemy, he flopped backward out his pick-up door onto the pavement, and tried again to mount his own cab. After three attempts, he achieved the driver’s seat and began furiously revving his V-8 engine.

“Watch out if he gets it in gear,” the stationmaster said. “Sometimes the drunks don’t make it around this turn” — meaning the rotary in front of her station.

Almost as if on cue, the truck lurched, its tires squealed, and the sidewalk loiterers, including me, scattered like chickens. The pickup hurtled down Main Street, gathered speed, jumped the curb, and smashed head-on into the Amtrak building. “What did I tell you?” the stationmaster said, flinging her cigarette to the street in disgust. “Now I’ve gotta fill out a police report.”

* * *

The oil and gas industry employs more than 40,000 people in North Dakota, and in 2011 it generated $2.24 billion in state and local taxes. In Williston, where the population has more than doubled in the last decade, unemployment is less than 1 percent, and even fast-food employees can make $15 an hour. But every boom has an underbelly, and in the Bakken it’s no different. (See “Growing Pains: Scenes from the North Dakota Drilling Boom” and “In North Dakota and Nationwide, A Boom in Health Problems Accompanies Fracking” for previous OnEarth reporting on the subject.) If you can get a hotel room in Williston, it will set you back $200 a night; apartments that used to rent for $300 a month now command $2,000. Traffic has increased, along with air pollution, job-site accidents, highway accidents, sexual assaults, bar fights, prostitution, and drunken driving. Municipalities have more litter and garbage to haul away, and more sewage to treat. Police and other emergency workers are burning out; the new hires — who get promoted quickly — have almost zero experience on the job.

For years, western North Dakota counties have complained that not enough of the state’s oil and gas production taxes ($3.4 billion in 2011-2013) were filtering down to the places that have borne the brunt of this activity since the fracking boom began in 2006. But in early May, Governor Jack Dalrymple signed a bill to distribute $1.1 billion over two years — a tripling of the previous allocation — to counties impacted by fracking. The money will pay to fix roads damaged by heavy truck traffic, build infrastructure like schools and affordable housing for tens of thousands of temporary residents, and provide law enforcement to protect and police the population.

The money also will be disbursed to hospitals, which face increasing debt from uninsured, transient patients; to centers for the elderly and disabled, which have trouble retaining employees tempted by better-paying jobs in the oilfields; to fire districts, which need more equipment, training, and manpower to address oil-related calls; and to emergency medical technicians, who, as one might expect, are busier than ever. (North Dakota ranks last on a recent nationwide survey of worker safety, with 12.4 fatalities per 100,000 workers in 2011, versus a national average of 3.5.)

Bakken towns are desperate for relief and say they’re grateful for the millions headed their way. But it isn’t enough, many county officials say. Fixing the 500 miles of gravel roads damaged by heavy truck traffic in McKenzie County will cost $100,000 a mile, according to county commissioner Ron Anderson; other projects will have to be put off to pay the tab, he told the Bismarck Tribune. Watford City will get $10 million from the fund, says county auditor Linda Svihovec, but it “has identified $190 million worth of projects that need to take place,” she told the McKenzie County Farmer. And the situation, as regards infrastructure and manpower, is bound to get worse. In April, the U.S. Geological Survey doubled its estimate of the amount of oil available in the Bakken shale and its underlying Three Forks formation. The North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources expects the total number of wells to increase from the current 8,500 to more than 20,000 in the next decade or two.

Williston is far from the only small town, in North Dakota or nationwide, to face energy-related growing pains. Pennsylvania communities that have been heavily fracked for oil and gas from the Marcellus shale report more crime and traffic, and towns in Michigan (the Antrim shale), Ohio (the Utica shale), eastern Montana, and South Dakota (also the Bakken formation) are bracing for similar impacts. Drilling technology continues to advance, increasing government estimates of recoverable oil and gas reserves, while demand from other nations keeps climbing. California is currently debating whether to expand fracking in the Monterey shale, which lies partly beneath the Central Valley, an area already plagued with air and water (quality and quantity) problems (see my OnEarth report “Not a Drop to Drink”). Illinois recently passed what have been described as some of the toughest environmental regulations in the nation to govern drilling in its shale formations. (Editor’s note: NRDC, which publishes OnEarth, pushed for a moratorium on fracking in Illinois and, when it failed, was involved in negotiating for the safeguards, which it still believes are insufficient for fracking to begin in the state.) Though the rules may help protect Illinois’s water, they’ll do nothing to protect civil society from an influx of transient workers and their attendant consequences. Should Governor Cuomo lift New York State’s current moratorium on high-volume horizontal hydrofracking, forested and agricultural lands in the state could see 50,000 to 100,000 wells, according to some projections.

The Empire Builder eventually pulled into Williston, four hours late. The toilets were by then overflowing with sewage, and the café car had run out of food (perhaps a blessing in disguise). The prostitutes found seats and almost immediately fell asleep, heads resting on candy-colored sweaters. I stared out the window at the landscape to the south, black and empty but for the regular march of methane flares. With little economic incentive to collect this gas — it’s worth a fraction of what the oil is worth – the industry burns more than 100 million cubic feet of methane every day in North Dakota, enough to heat half a million homes. (Flaring converts methane to carbon dioxide — about 2 million tons of it each year in North Dakota, equivalent to what a medium-size coal-fired power plant emits annually.)

As the train rolled across the prairie, I considered the price that North Dakotans were paying to help America achieve “energy independence.” It’s a dream that sounds grand only if you can ignore the global warming pollution created by burning all this fuel, or the fact that we’re tapping a finite resource, or the many remaining technical challenges involved in drilling every possible reserve left on the planet. Based on my evening at the Amtrak station, though, even that dream threatens to leave us waking in a cold sweat.

Image: Karen Desuyo

This story originally appeared at OnEarth.org.

June 17, 2013   1 Comment