Backyard Talk

How Real is Governor Cuomo’s Ban on Fracking?

By: Rachel Oest

The recent celebrations over New York Governor Cuomo’s ban on hydraulic fracking have come to an end. A group of farm families in Tioga County, NY have filed for a state permit for a natural gas well that uses gelled propane and sand instead of water mixed with chemicals. The process is still fracking, but it would skirt the state’s ban.

When announcing the ban, Cuomo recognized the emotionally charged nature over the debate and then stated, “I will be bound by what the experts say.” He then turned all attention to state health and environmental officials. The officials said the potential health and environmental impacts are too great to allow fracking to proceed in the state, and pointed to studies regarding the long-term safety of hydraulic fracturing. DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens explained that fracking in New York is “uncertain at best” and the economic benefits are “far lower than originally forecasted.” Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker revealed that in other states where fracking is happening, he found that state health commissioners were not even present when decisions about the process were being made. Based on these finding, Governor Cuomo announced “I think it’s our responsibility to develop an alternative … for safe, clean economic development.”

Shortly after these announcements though, a drilling application was filed with the state DEC by Tioga Energy Partners- a contracting company working with the Snyder Farm Group. The five families leasing their land for natural gas development claim to be outside of the state’s ban and want to tap in to the Utica Shale formation by developing a 53-acre natural gas well in the town of Barton. Since the process avoids the need for millions of gallons of fresh water and doesn’t result in the enormous volumes of polluted wastewater produced by hydraulic fracturing, proponents call propane fracking a more environmentally benign method. But there is no such thing as environmentally friendly fracking. All types of drilling inherently carry serious public health and environmental risks. Instead of entertaining the idea of workarounds, the focus should be on building a cleaner, healthier energy supply.

The DEC will review the application as required by law, but let’s hope Governor Cuomo is serious about this ban.

Backyard Talk

Are E-Cigarettes Truly Harmless?

By: Dylan Lenzen

In recent years, e-cigarettes, or vaporizers, have been increasingly marketed as a safe alternative to smoking. E-cigarettes are classified as electronic nicotine delivery systems and operate through the use of a heating element that heats fluid contained in the device and creates a vapor which is then inhaled by the user. While research has not yet been able to conclude for certain if using e-cigarettes is safer than smoking tobacco, there may be reason to believe that they pose a risk to public health.

For those using e-cigarettes as an alternative to smoking, or in an effort to quit smoking all together, there is some information that should be considered. While the nicotine-containing fluid that is converted to vapor contains far fewer toxic ingredients than tobacco products, e-cigarettes are not yet regulated by the FDA and much about the devices remain unknown. There may be less overall toxins in e-cigarette vapor, but the concentrations of certain dangerous compounds that users can be exposed to have caused concern among scientists. Just recently, a study showed that levels of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen generated by vaporizers at a high voltage greatly exceeds that contained in traditional cigarettes.

Beyond the chemicals produced through the use of e-cigarettes, the vapor particles they produce are similar to the size found in traditional cigarette smoke. This allows them to reach small, deep airways much like cigarette smoke. These particles could also pose a risk to those exposed to secondhand vapor. Exposure to secondhand vapor is also more likely than tobacco smoke as there is currently little regulation of e-cigarette use, allowing many to use them indoors where traditional smoking bans exist. One study has shown that among other nanoparticles, a high concentration of heavy metals has been observed in e-cigarette vapor. The same study suggested these concentrations were derived from the heating element that consists of nickel-chromium wire, coated in silver, and soldered with tin.

Another possible risk associated with e-cigarettes concerns the nicotine refill cartridges, which can be unintentionally consumed, particularly by children. The number of these unintentional consumption events has been increasing in recent years according to a study by tobacco control. The amount of nicotine in some refill solutions could potentially be lethal to children.

While e-cigarettes could potentially be safer than traditional cigarettes, they certainly deserve regulatory action in order to ensure that human health is protected. For those that are looking for a safe method to quit smoking, e-cigarettes should be avoided until definitive research concludes they are safe. Until that time, it is probably wise to utilize other methods that are FDA-approved.

Backyard Talk

Climate Science vs Public Education

By: Carmen Mann

The No Child Left Behind Act, a George W. Bush-era law that had been in place for the last 14 years, is currently being revised by the House and the Senate. This Act is the main law when considering K-12 education in the U.S., and efforts by Congress in the past to revise the Act have repeatedly failed. The House and the Senate recently passed their own perspective bills to revise No Child Left Behind, setting up a showdown between the two chambers of Congress once again and leaving the fate of a final revision in doubt.

During debate over legislation to replace No Child Left Behind, Edward Markey, a Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, proposed a program that would encourage schools to teach more about climate change and climate science. The proposal by Senator Markey would include a competitive grant program for public schools to apply for that would provide federal funds to help teach about climate change. Arguably, this program would help equip the next generation to deal with the effects of climate change, through improved scientific education.

However, many concerns were voiced over the idea that the federal government would have power over what schools would be required to teach concerning climate change. The most prominent concern was that the curricula would be vulnerable to the shifting politics of the federal government. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the co-author of the main bill to replace No Child Left Behind, articulated this when he said “Just image what the curriculum on climate change would be if we shifted from President Obama to President Cruz and then back to President Sanders and then to President Trump.”

Imagine having to re-write or change textbooks every time there was a presidential election. It would be a waste of paper and, ironically, bad for the environment. The proposal was ultimately defeated by the Senate in a 53-44 vote this past Wednesday.

The failure of this program to pass the Senate does not mean that schools are not allowed to teach the science of climate change, it means that the federal government will not provide incentives or extra financial support for those that do. What public schools can and cannot teach is usually decided upon by the states themselves.

So far, 13 states have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), meant to develop greater interest and provide students with an internationally benchmarked science education. These standards recommend climate change education beginning in middle school. However, other states have resisted efforts to include climate science in public school curricula. For example, Wyoming rejected the NGSS after the Board of Education chairman for the state said he did not accept that climate change was a fact.

Including climate science in public education can help a younger upcoming generation better understand and address the impact of climate change. Education could be an avenue to encourage and change attitudes to help the next generation become more environmentally aware and involved in climate-change related trends. The inclusion of climate change in public education will continue to be a hot spot of debate when considering American education in the future.

Backyard Talk

Will Roads Made of Recycled Plastic Be the Future?

By: Katie O’Brien
Earlier this week Dutch Construction Company, VolkerWessels, announced in partnership with the city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, their plan to replace roadways using recycled plastic in as soon as three years. While it is still in the conceptual phase, there is a possibility that plastic can be the future of building materials for streets.
There are many benefits for the new plastic design. The design, known as PlasticRoad, is greener, stronger, easier to maintain, and less vulnerable to temperature extremes than asphalt. It will also help reduce our carbon footprint. According to Science Alert, the process of creating asphalt produces 1.45 million tons of global carbon dioxide emissions yearly. Switching to recycled plastic to “pave” roadways can greatly reduce our green house gas emissions.
PlasticRoad can also have a large impact on traffic patterns. Since the road can be constructed in an off- site location and easily delivered, there will be much less time needed to install the new infrastructure. This will result in less traffic, as installing and maintaining it will take significantly less time. The roadway is also designed to be hollow to allow for utility cables to be installed. Future plans are to develop integrated heating within the roadways to help melt snow during snowstorms, resulting in safer roads and less potholes. The hollow center can also be used as a rainwater displacement system, potentially keeping roads drier.
There is still a long way to go before PlasticRoad is implemented. There are a slew of tests that must deem the roadway safe to drive on. Prototypes are going to begin being created once VolkerWessels finds more partners in the project. This can be a game changer for plastic waste. Currently the United States alone generated more than 33 million tons of plastic waste in 2013, of that, only 9% of it was recycled. Recycled plastic roadways can make a big difference in our landfills. While it is still “just an idea on paper”, PlasticRoad can change the way we construct our roadways for the better.

For more information visit:

Backyard Talk

Red Meat and Climate Change

By: Amelia Meyer
Climate change is a serious issue for the health and the future of our ecosystems and society. Most of the focus from politicians, media, and scientists is on pollution from coal, cars, and sources of energy. Also the focus for the future is on renewable energy, conserving water, sea level rise and electric cars. But a significant contributor to climate change and the future of our food resources is the consumption of red meat. Red meat contributes a significant amount of more CO2 than vegetables, chicken, and pork.
One way to make a large difference is to actually involve society in making a change towards climate change. People are not educated about how the raising of cattle destroys forests worldwide. Including being the leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon destroying over 700 thousand km2 so far. The amount of manure produced and resources needed to care for cattle is enormous as you can see in the graphic below it emits almost four times the amount of greenhouse gasses than chicken does and over thirteen times the amount that broccoli does. Producing one ¼ pound hamburger uses about a hundred and ten gallons of water. People are informed that showering for a less amount of time is good for the environment and water supply but eating less red meat would make a larger impact.
The consumption of red meat worldwide is excessive but in America alone we eat three times more than the global amount of meat intake a day. This is not only negative for the environment but also for the health of our society. Research has proven that red meat can lead to breast cancer, heart issues, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. A way to make a significant difference would be to become a vegetarian. However I know this would be a hard switch for a lot of people. Another way to make an impact is to eliminate your meat intake besides chicken because as you can see chicken is significantly lower on the amount of CO2 that it emits. In addition even a small change such as reducing the amount of red meat that you eat every week from four times to two times can help the environment significantly and the health of yourself and society.
Food shortage is already a serious issue worldwide and it will be a more significant problem by 2050. By that time in order to provide food for the projected population at that time our food production needs to increase 40 percent from what we currently have right now. This is not an easy goal to reach because of changes in landscapes, climate change, and agriculture that are occurring now and will continue to happen for the next fifty years.

Backyard Talk

President Obama’s Solar Plan for Low-Income Households

By: Rachel Oest

Last week, President Obama announced his plan to increase the affordability of solar power in communities across the United States. This is in recognition that our country has serious challenges when it comes to environmental justice. Low-income households are faced with a variety of barriers in their attempts for solar energy. They’re less likely to own their own roof, less able to access loans or other financing options for solar, and more likely to have subsidized utility bills that don’t transfer the financial benefits of solar to the homeowner. But as White House climate advisor Brian Deese told reporters, this initiative “…is aimed at taking directly on those challenges and making it easier and straightforward to deploy low-cost solar energy in every community in the country.”

America’s low-income households stand to benefit the most from producing their own solar energy. As of now, the proportion of poor income spent on energy is four times greater than the national average. Yet these households tend to use less electricity overall and would allow a typical solar setup to cover more of their needs. A report from George Washington University Solar Institute showed that of the roughly 645,000 homes and businesses with rooftop solar panels in the US, less than 5 percent are households with earnings less than $40,000. The same GW study noted that a 4 kilowatt solar system, about the average size for a home, would cover more than half a typical low-income households energy needs. If all low-income households went solar, they would collectively save up to $23.3 billion each year.

President Obama’s plan comes with many steps, including a new solar target for federally subsidized housing and an effort to increase the availability of federally insured loans for solar systems. The Department of Housing and Urban Development will provide technical guidance for state and local housing authorities on how to successfully go solar. With the initiative, came the announcement of more than $520 million in commitments from private companies, investors, NGOs, and varying levels of government to pay for energy efficiency and solar projects for low-income households.

This solar plan is a step in the right direction towards President Obama’s objective to reduce the nation’s energy-related carbon emissions. His plan is working to improve our countries quality of life as a whole, but also targets those that would not have this opportunity any other way. Most low-income households would not be able to consider solar energy without such subsidizes and loans. President Obama has suggested a plan that helps the climate concerned citizens as well as the low-income families looking for a cheaper solution to their energy bills. This is an opportunity that benefits everyone.

Backyard Talk

Waste: Then and Now

By Michelle Atkin

“They just don’t make things the way they used to!” I’ve said it before, you’ve said it before, you’ve heard it before, and it is true. Devastatingly, it was not an accident. Product quality started to diminish in the 1950s when the editor of Modern Packaging Inc. said, “The future of plastics is in the trash can.” Products were designed durable, easy to fix, and limited in variation (such as color or style), so opportunities for growth and profit were declining when society focused on preservation, reuse, and frugality. Prior to 1917, a communal tin cup was used for water in train stations and before the 1920s, women used cloth and reusable pads before disposable sanitary pads were available.

Now Dixie Cups and Solo Cups are everywhere. Instead of reusing glassware, the marketing companies of the industrialized world have capitalized on a society of convenience. The disposability of cheap, single-use items have led us to the landfill capacity problems we have today. North Americans use 130 billion disposable paper coffee cups alone, which come from the loss of millions of trees and lead to 253 million pounds of waste. If we were able to exist in a reusable way before, we should be able to again, but the culture has changed and now you have everyone trying to keep up with the Jonses with the latest iPhone even though their old one still works perfectly.

This concept contributes to our ever growing amount of trash and is called planned obsolescence. Instead of building high quality cars, appliances, televisions and toys, inferior materials are often used in critical areas to limit the amount of time a product will be operable. Manufacturers then make repair costs so similar to replacement costs that it often makes more sense from a consumer’s perspective to buy a new product, regardless of how much space the television or refrigerator will take up at the dump.

The fashion cycle is another way customers are driven to buy more despite their perfectly functioning current wardrobe. The decrease in the perceived desirability of unfashionable pieces can be a powerful marketing ploy.

There is hope for the future of the environment with the extended product responsibility approach. This holds producers responsible for the environmental effects over the entire product life cycle – the cost of compliance cannot be shifted to a third party and therefore may be incorporated into product prices. As far as our clothing goes, hopefully reuse can be promoted through donations, yard sales and hand-me-downs.

To learn more about the historical roots of modern waste or what you can do to improve the future outlook, visit:

Backyard Talk

American Health Still Protected Despite Ruling on Mercury Regulation

By Dylan Lenzen

In the wake of some truly momentous Supreme Court decisions regarding the Affordable Care Act and marriage equality, a small battle was lost for public health when the Supreme Court decided to reject the EPA’s regulation of hazardous air pollutants, including mercury. These regulations were enacted in 2012 under the Clean Air Act and have significant implications for coal-fired power plants. Following the June 29 ruling, industry groups and congressional opponents of the regulation claimed significant victory, freeing power plants from costly regulation. While it may appear as such on the surface, a careful reading of the decision implies that this will be but a small bump in the road for the EPA’s effort to protect Americans from the toxic effects of mercury and other hazardous air pollutants. The decision is also unlikely to have any effect on the more ambitious efforts to regulate other pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions that are expected to be released later this year.

When the EPA made the initial decision to regulate emissions of hazardous air pollutants, it did not take into account the costs that would be imposed on industry. Like other regulations, the exact emission limits were not established until later on in the implementation and it was not until the establishment of these exact limits that the EPA considered the full costs of the regulation. This is essentially what the ruling was concerned with. Justice Scalia, representing the majority, deemed that it was unreasonable for the EPA to fail consider the costs before making the initial decision to regulate emissions as opposed to later on in the process. Luckily, for citizens concerned for their future health, the rejection will not eliminate the important regulations on hazardous emissions. Instead, implementation of the regulation is likely to continue while the standards are sent back to the D.C. Circuit Court where the EPA will be forced to reassess the costs and benefits of the program. Since the standards were enacted back in 2012, most power plants have actually already established compliance under the regulation.

Public health will likely not be threatened with the loss of important protections from hazardous air pollutants. The EPA determined that these Mercury Air Toxics standards would prevent 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, and 130,000 asthma attacks each year. While the EPA did not assess the costs and benefits when proposing the standards, they were assessed later on and show that the overall benefits far outweigh the costs felt by industry. Because power plants would be forced to install methods to control mercury emissions that simultaneously reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and other pollutants, these co-benefits could result in almost $90 billion per year in savings. This figure compares to the estimated costs of compliance of $9.6 billion. Because these benefits vastly outweigh costs, the regulations are likely to remain in place.

It is also important to note that this recent Supreme Court decision will have no impact on President Obama’s Clean Power Plan that is expected to be finalized by the end of the summer. This plan will seek to limit greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. As EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy stated, “making a connection between the Mercury Air Toxics standards and the Clean Power Plan is comparing apples to oranges,” and went on to say in reference to the Clean Power Plan, “last week’s ruling will not affect our efforts.”

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Helping can hurt: Complications and consequences of remediation strategies

Environmental remediation often involves a) moving large amounts of contaminated material from one place to another, b) treating the polluted material with chemical compounds, or c) both. The Interstate Technology and Regulatory Council says it best in their guideline document on managing risks during remediation: “Investigation and remediation activities have their own set of risks, apart from the risks associated with chemical contamination.” These risks range from spending time and resources on an ineffective remedy, to the chance of causing adverse ecosystem and health impacts through the cleanup process.

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Project risks - from ITRC document

I recently read a report from a site where engineers were pumping methanol into the groundwater to aid in breaking down the compound of interest, TCE. They soon found that their shipment of methanol was contaminated by PCE – another toxic compound with which they were effectively re-polluting their treatment area. Introducing further contamination through remediation may be less common, but dealing with large amounts of polluted material can potentially cause existing contaminants to become more mobile. Especially when remediation projects deal with contaminated sediments, a question of critical importance is whether to remove the offending substance or to leave it in place. Dredging of contaminated sediment underwater must be done very carefully so as to avoid remobilizing contaminants into the water column.  There are surprises, too; sometimes, the EPA says,  “dredging uncovers unexpectedly high concentrations of contaminants beneath surface sediments.”

When contaminated materials are left in place, or before they are removed, the remediation process often involves introducing new chemical compounds to the polluted material. These “additives” help cause reactions that break down toxic chemicals into less toxic forms. However, Lisa Alexander of the Massachusetts Department of the Environment writes that these additives can cause contaminants to migrate into water, or release potentially harmful gases.

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Gulf Coast cleanup worker - from CNN

The complexities of remediation have been especially apparent in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon spill. Dispersants were released to break down oil in the Gulf, but years later the substances are still being found in tar balls washing up on the beach. The combination of oil and the dispersant Corexit has also proven to be more toxic to marine organisms than oil alone. Corexit, encountered primarily by cleanup workers after the tragedy, is also potentially toxic to humans, and its longterm health effects are unknown.

Cleaning up contaminated sites involves taking calculated risks of disrupting or polluting an already-damaged ecosystem. When even our most practiced remediation methods carry with them uncertain outcomes, how can we strike a balance between trying innovative treatment methods for contamination and avoiding unreasonable risk? I’ll explore one case in particular in my next entry: nanomaterials.


Backyard Talk

We Are Together & Together We’ll Make Change

As fracking bans and moratoriums or local ordinances become a reality across the country, it would be so powerful for those who are advocating change to one piece of the problem or solution, to include the other parts of the gas and oil industry’s problems, processes, etc. as well. Working together on alternatives, disposal, rights to know, exports and more will provide the holistic approach to the public. That can really make a bigger – deeper difference in how people respond to efforts that go beyond a backyard struggle towards a sustainable communities. It might even bring clarity to the public that is getting so many different messages and become confused.

At CHEJ we just celebrated the next step toward a ban in New York on fracking, but Obama is still pushing regulations. We’ve seen pipelines stopped, at least temporarily and ordinances passed. Most recently two counties in Ohio have passed local moratoriums on injection wells that will force the industry to find other ways to dispose of their wastes. Two other Ohio counties are in the mist of deciding to ban injection wells that activist say have a good chance of passing.

It appears from the “wide view” that our staff and Board can see as a national group, as we look across the country that there are serious efforts and real wins by ordinary people. What isn’t as obvious is a strong message that we are together and supporting other groups who have taken on different parts of the problems, are encouraged and inspired by the wins and share the vision of what could be. It’s not that people aren’t mentioning other segments of the struggle locally or at a higher level of government, but it’s not coming through as a unified struggle for a unified goal. No there will never be absolute agreement on goals but maybe we could get agreement on a unified message that works. At CHEJ we came up with Preventing Fracking Harms to address the different goals around wells, infrastructure and such. That won’t work in the bigger message but I think there are words that might.

As groups join together this fall at events like the one planned for October in Colorado it would be great to find an opportunity on or off the agenda to figure out how all the extraordinary work folks are doing can include a message – not a list serve – not a petition – but a message that gets tagged on everyone’s everything before they close their news release, blog, signs and more. Or maybe we have a massive e-mail conversation. Let me know what you think.