Monday, May 31, 2010

The Worst Oil Spill in US History

On the night of April 20th, 2010 a rush of methane gas up the well pipe to the sea surface occurred and the Deepwater Horizon Oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers and injuring 17. The oil well head, almost a mile deep, began gushing oil. For 40 days oil has gushed into the Gulf of Mexico. Initially it was reported that the oil was being released at a rate of 1.000 barrels a day. That estimate was shortly upped to 5,000 barrels a day. On May 27th the US Geological Survey estimated that the well was actually leaking 12,000-19,000 barrels of oil a day (between 504,000 and more than 1,000,000 gallons a day) making this the largest oil spill in US history. However, it may be even worse. The Marin e Science Institute at UC Santa Barbara which participated in creating the estimate issued a separate statement from their participating scientist, Dr. Ira Leifer, stating that the rate at which oil was spilling into the Gulf of Mexico was significantly larger than the 12,000-19,000 barrel a day estimate. There's almost as much uncertainty about what is happening to the oil already in the water. The oil slick observed so far has covered as much 28,958 square miles, with the exact size and location of the slick fluctuating from day to day depending on weather conditions. Scientists have also discovered underwater plumes of oil not visible from the surface.The extent of the plume is not fully known at this point and the impact from the chemicals being used to break up the oil so it degrades more easily is not known. These chemicals are being used in amounts and at water depths never before tried and the impact on the marine environment is unknown. This is an ecological disaster.

On April 20th the Deepwater Horizon Oil rig exploded. On April 22nd the Navy and Coast Guard were sent to fight the fire from the explosion. Since then, BP was left to respond to the spill and for days on end the oil catching booms sat idle. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 mandates a National Response Team. Currently that consists of Homeland Security Secretary, a National Incident Commander and the on-site coordinator, the Coast Guard. For 40 days oil has flowed into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of at least 500,000-1,000,000 gallons a day. For 40 days Louisiana officials have argued that keeping oil away from the coastline, protecting the estuaries, marshlands and beaches to protect not only the ecology of the area, but also the fishing and tourist industries was of first importance. For 40 days BP bumbled along trying different ideas to staunch the flow. The federal government has had more than a dozen congressional hearings and scores of hours of witness testimony but failed to deploy the military, the coast guard and call up the National Guard to protect Louisiana’s coastline. Great, we now have a federal government that is so bloated and inefficient that all they can do is have hearing to allot blame. The Director of the Minerals Management Service of the Federal Land Management Bureau was pushed to resign after 38 days of oil flowing into the Gulf.

BP and regulators widely believed that because there had never been such a catastrophic blowout in the Gulf, it would not happen. We were not prepared; we did not have an emergency plan or procedures to mitigate the impact from a catastrophic blowout. Inappropriate risk management took place and was compounded by inappropriate emergency response. Though BP has systematically tried to stop the flow by first an attempt to activate the blowout preventer valves, then by trying to dome the flow, then by trying to divert and capture the flow with an insertion tube, now by trying to plug the hold with mud and debris so they can once more try to dome the well head, they have made little if any progress and have wasted valuable time trying to figure out what to do. These plans should have already been in place for measures to stem the flow. These actions were always temporary emergency measures, an emergency response to prevent an ecological and economic catastrophe which is befalling Louisiana and the adjacent states. A permanent solution was and always will be to drill relief wells ahead of this well. On May 2, 2010, BP began drilling the first deep-water intercept relief well, which is located one-half mile from the Deepwater Horizon well, in a water depth of over a mile. A second relief well was begun on May 16. These wells are estimated to take 90 days to complete. This blowout required three prong actions, stemming the flow, capturing the released oil to protect the environment and ecological balance and the permanent solution of drilling a relief well. BP was left to putz around with no strategic plan of action, and piecemeal deploying of resources while our government kept “our foot on the neck of BP” whatever that means. We do; however, have a lovely government sponsored website with cool video clips and everything.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Protecting the Chesapeake Bay Watershed with Best Management Practices

With the expansion of suburbia, the nature of the Prince William County has changed. There are fewer and fewer truly agricultural properties and an increasing number of suburban developments and hobby farms. We are, nonetheless, still in the “Hunt Country.” Horse farms here are typically small in size often just five to ten acre properties with only a portion of that dedicated to horses. My own neighborhood consists of 10 acre properties which allow 6 horses each under the HOA rules. According to the Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District, PWSWCD, horses will naturally graze 18 hours each day if allowed free access to pastures. Too many horses on too few acres can quickly denude green meadows and threaten the health of the horses and the environment and straining relationships among neighbors. Our neighborhood has a very small on-site horse population so our problems are limited.
In the most recent rainstorms exposed soil, horse manure, and whatever else was there wash across the neighborhood. I was digging sediment, leaves, plastic and all manner of odd things out of the drainage ditch at the end of the road this morning after watching the ditch flow brown to the river yesterday. I am still trying to figure out where some of the wash waste came from. There were plastic milk jugs dated 6 months ago, where have they been hiding? I walk the two miles of road next to the ditch regularly and collect trash and trust me much of the waste that appeared in the rain was not evident last weekend. Chestnut Lick is directly down hill from the drainage ditch and in turn runs right into Bull Run and finally onto the Bay. The wooded hillside generally protects Chestnut Lick from the drainage ditch muck and trash, but requires that I clean the trash out of the woods, I rather clean the muck out of the ditch, I’m much less likely to get Lyme disease.
Where the river and streams are not as well protected the run off containing soil sediment and excess nutrients from fertilizers and animal manure contribute to the high nitrate, potassium and sediment concentration in the Chesapeake Bay. To prevent these problem Horse farms can use basic principals called Best Management Practices (BMPs) so that they don't damage the environment. The PWSWCD created a model horse farm to demonstrate these principals include the installation of fencing to exclude the horses from a 25 foot buffer/filter area alongside the stream, waterlines and troughs to provide an alternate source of drinking water for the horses, pasture seeding and renovation to discourage weed growth, interior fencing to allow for rotational grazing, manure storage that allows for properly timed application or removal for off-farm use, and the installation of confinement paddocks for non-pasture turnout.
The ‘Big Reveal’ of the Chesapeake Bay-Friendly Horse Farm project in Gainesville, VA on is on Friday June 11 from 11am-1pm, and well worth the trip for anyone involved with horses. Check with the PWSCD website for other scheduled tours. The project was developed by the PWSWCD with a grant from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation for $125,000. An equal amount was contributed by PWSWCD and its' more than 20 partners in direct funding, staff and volunteer time, products, and services. The model farm was in poor condition at the start, so many of the ideas can be incorporated into less stressed properties cost effectively. Check out the PWSWCD web site for more information.
In addition, the PWSWCD has free metal signs that indicate a property’s commitment to protecting the Chesapeake Bay Watershed by becoming a SWCD "Cooperator." Just like a Hybrid in the driveway they could become the status symbol for the environmentally conscious horse-keeper. BMPs could also become required under the new Strategy for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Call the District if you've cooperated in the past, if you've been doing the right thing all along, or if you're interested in implementing BMPs at your property. Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District is in Nokesville, VA (703) 594-3621.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Chesapeake Bay Watershed

The “Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Chesapeake Bay Watershed” was developed under President Obama’s Executive Order 13508 issued in May 2009. The Strategy was released in May 2010 and outlines actions that will be taken by each federal agency to control pollution, restore habitat and wildlife, conserve land, and increase public awareness and accountability in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. EPA Administrator Jackson stated in her announcement that the EPA will implement broad conservation and restoration efforts and prevents pollution from the urban, suburban and rural areas that feed into the Bay. The new federal strategy for the Chesapeake Bay region of the 64,000-square-mile watershed includes using federal regulations to restore clean water, implement new conservation practices on four-million acres of farms, conserve an additional two-million acres of undeveloped land, and restore the habitat for key species such as oysters, black ducks, and brook trout. The combined agencies and states will be held accountable to achieve specific milestones every two years to ensure measurable progress.

While there is overlap between the recently announced settlement agreement and Strategy, they are not the same. The settlement agreement resolves the lawsuit brought by former Maryland State Senator Bernard Fowler, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Maryland and Virginia watermen’s associations, and others filed against the EPA in January 2009 alleging the Agency failed to fulfill its duties under the Clean Water Act (CWA) and the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement. EPA settled the lawsuit with the “settlement agreement,” which requires EPA to:
Establish and implement a Chesapeake Bay total maximum daily load, TMDL, for nutrients and sediments. This will include reviewing watershed implementation plans (WIPs) by the Chesapeake Bay watershed states and the District of Columbia to ensure those jurisdictions achieve the nutrient and sediment allocations under the TMDL.
Review state-issued permits, including proposed construction general permits and NPDES permits for “significant point source discharges of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment” in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Develop new storm water regulations by 2012 and concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) regulations by 2014.
Issue guidance on permitting for municipal separate storm sewer systems.

The Strategy is far more sweeping in its goals as outlined in the full muti-color 173 page text available at: http://executiveorder.chesapeakebay.net/file.axd?file=2010%2f5%2fChesapeake+EO+Strategy%20.pdf .

The Strategy sets four main goals for Bay restoration and identifies “key environmental outcomes” and “supporting strategies” that are intended to help accomplish these goals and complement the multi agency efforts to restore and protect the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The goals are to: restore clean water; recover habitat; sustain fish and wildlife; and conserve land and increase public access.
Among the federal actions identified in the Strategy, EPA must establish and implement the Chesapeake Bay TMDL and an associated “accountability framework.”

The Executive Order established the Federal Leadership Committee (FLC) for the Chesapeake Bay, which is chaired by the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and includes senior representatives from the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Homeland Security, Interior and Transportation. The Executive Order charged the FLC with developing and implementing a new strategy for protection and restoration of the Chesapeake region. The FLC is intended to support and guide the local efforts. The strategy is intended to support the restoration activities of state and local governments, watershed groups, county conservation districts, landowners and citizens.

The FLC is also charged with developing “key environmental outcomes” that include: Expand Citizen Stewardship. Respond to Climate Change. Develop Environmental Markets and Strengthen Science. Apparently, creating environmental markets is the current darling of the regulatory movement. Selling water release rights and creating a market for these rights is will make non-point source reduction possible and quantifiable.
The Executive Order directs the FLC to expand its role beyond just producing the strategy, to: “Oversee development, coordination and implementation of new federal programs and activities for Chesapeake Bay restoration. Collaborate with state partners to ensure that federal actions are closely coordinated with actions by state and local agencies and resources are used efficiently. Consult with stakeholder groups and the general public. Define milestones for meeting goals. Track and report on restoration activities and spending. Publish an annual Action Plan describing how federal funding will be used. Publish an annual Progress Report on environmental health and restoration efforts. Utilize independent evaluation to strengthen accountability. Make all reports available to the public by posting on a web site. Describe and carry out a process for adaptive management. Federal agencies will join the states in establishing two-year milestones with many federal efforts designed to support the states and District in meeting their current and future water quality milestones.” Buried in this mind numbing list of bureaucratic meetings, spending and report writing is an expansion of federal regulatory control of non-point source pollution.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Revisions to the Clean Water Act

Recently Congressman James Oberstar introduced H.R. 5088, America’s Commitment to Clean Water Act (formerly known as the Clean Water Restoration Act). Congressman Oberstar has been trying to get a version of this bill through congress for years. This is a revision to the current federal regulation that deletes the term “navigable waters” from the Clean Water Act (CWA) and replaces it with “waters of the United States”. The National Association of Conservation Districts, NACD, is not supporting this bill because it is concerned about rural agricultural areas that may be impacted by changes in the law and subsequent changes in jurisdiction over drainage ditches, dry creek beds and other areas that occasionally convey water. These seasonal creeks, wetlands and drainage ditches should not be regulated on a federal basis, but should be overseen locally since water management is really a local issue. A federal regulation that would adequately and appropriately regulate the creek in my back yard would not be the appropriate tool for the 1,200 miles of canals in the California water distribution system. The central command and control model is inappropriate for the diverse issues associated with regulating and permitting water. Nor should the method the EPA proposes for the Chesapeake Bay States, presenting numeric target and mandating a regulatory scheme be put in place, be expanded to all the waters of the United States for all the chemicals of concern.

Congressman Oberstar’s bill has drawn support from environmental and conservation groups including Clean Water Action, the National Wildlife Federation and Trout Unlimited. Other groups including the NACD, American Farm Bureau Federation and the Waters Advocacy Coalition, which includes farming, cattle, building and manufacturing groups, oppose the bill. Various versions of this bill have been offered by Congressman Oberstar over the years. The current version of the bill has the same basic goal as previous versions, to protect all of the nation's waters using federal regulations. During the news conference in support of the bill it was high lighted that is different from prior versions. To try and get this bill through congress, this version grandfathers prior converted croplands, exempts waste treatment systems and excludes groundwater from the definition of “waters of the United States.” These changes were intended to overcome the objections to the 2007 version of the bill, HR 2421, federal regulation of ground water and reclaimed water, which are regulated by the States if at all. This regulation would ignore the importance of groundwater and protecting that valuable resource while regulating seasonal streams. About 21% of the freshwater used in the United States in 2000 came from groundwater sources; the other 79% came from surface water. Ground water is an important natural resource, especially in those parts of the country that don't have ample surface-water sources, such as the arid West. This regulation would ignore the more than one fifth of the fresh water supply that comes from groundwater while regulating all surface water.

Although the intent of these bills, to protect wetlands and the water resources of the United States is a laudable one, the current legislation will still have unintended consequences, including extending the enforcement of federal “numeric water quality limits” upstream and controlling on a federal level local land use decision making. The current bill’s exemptions do not exclude local drains, streets, curbs and gutters from federal pollutant limits. This would result in federal regulation of rural, urban and suburban runoff, eliminating local control of decisions on land use and water supply to the States and may possibly interfere with water rights. No longer will the Clean Water Act be limited to the historic federal concern with navigable waters and Commerce Clause authority under the Constitution. Instead, this proposal will expand federal control over, puddle, moist land area, man-made waterway, storage facility, conveyance system, holding facility, or re-regulating reservoirs.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Cleanup Agreement

The Chesapeake Bay Commission was created in 1980 to coordinate Bay-related policy across state lines and to develop shared solutions for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. The catalyst for their creation was the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) seven-year study (1976-1983) on the decline of the Chesapeake Bay. The six Bay watershed states are Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, and Delaware and the District of Columbia and are all parties to the Chesapeake Bay Agreement.

Despite more than 25 years of effort, the Bay’s waters remain seriously degraded as measured by the agreed upon criteria and considerably short of attaining the 2010 water quality goals set forth in the Chesapeake 2000 agreement. As a result US EPA was under a court order to draft a new Bay-wide cleanup plan by May 2011. Because of the region’s failure to meet the 2010 deadline for water quality in the Bay, EPA is now developing a new federally mandated Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plan to establish and apportion an allowable pollution budget among the states.

On Tuesday, May 11th 2010 the EPA announced that it will mandate that the six states and the District of Columbia who are parties to the Chesapeake Bay Agreement limit their nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment flow into the bay in compliance with an overall daily maximum being formulated by the federal agency. On Wednesday, the administration laid out their initiative to purify (as measured by nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment) 60 percent of the Chesapeake Bay's waters within 15 years, combining federal resources with a mandate that requires the six Bay watershed states (Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, and Delaware) and the District of Columbia to develop the regulatory blueprint.

The plan is to develop a top down regulation model. EPA will dictate numeric pollution values for every surface water of the regions and force the states to develop an acceptable (to the federal government) regulatory framework to achieve those goals. This will avoid direct federal regulation of rural, urban and suburban runoff only in the most technical sense, eliminate local control of decisions on land use and water supply. Each state will be required to propose its own regulations for developers, farmers, homeowners, and other sources of non-point source pollution to be approved by the federal government. The EPA is trying to determine how much reduction is necessary to meet the targets. Then, under the agreement it signed this week, it will require the six watershed states and the District to come up with pollutant reductions that bring them into compliance with those goals. Some of the ideas being tossed about are the imposition of a ban on pesticides for ornamental use in at least some areas of the watershed, limitations on farming, developing incentives or requirements for farmers to utilize best practices.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Cancer and Organic Food

In an op-ed piece called New Alarm Bells About Chemicals and Cancer, Nicholas D. Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times discusses the report released on Thursday by The President’s Cancer Panel. (Full text of The President’s Cancer Panel 2008-29009 report can be found here http://deainfo.nci.nih.gov/advisory/pcp/pcp08-09rpt/PCP_Report_08-09_508.pdf). The report is based on research from 25 experts, and calls for increased regulation of chemicals and more action by individuals to cut the risk of cancer posed by environmental factors.

After the poorly argued debate held at Skirball Center of NYU between agricultural analyst Dennis Avery; farmer and freelance writer Blake Hurst,; former Food Standards Agency chairman John Krebs; Vogue food critic Jeffrey Steingarten; Consumer Unions director Urvashi Rangan; and former executive director of the board on agriculture of the National Academy of Sciences Charles Benbrook "Organic Food is Marketing Hype," I was very interested in reading a scientific support for organic food. I had assumed the President’s Cancer Panel would present the scientific evidence since one of the primary recommendations for individuals is to reduce their exposure to pesticides by choosing whenever possible food grown and raised without chemicals and washing conventionally grown products. So I downloaded the report.

Unfortunately, I was to be disappointed. The report states that efforts to identify, and quantify environmental exposures that raise cancer risk, including both single agents and combinations of exposures, have been compromised by a lack of effective measurement methods; inadequate computational models; and weak, flawed, or uncorroborated studies. Only a few hundred of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the United States have been fully tested for safety, but many of these chemicals have found their way into soil, air, water and many consumer products. Many believe there is cause for concern, but there is no easy way to test and determine. There is no proof in the report and it recommendations run counter to the principals of toxicology.

The science of toxicology is based on the principle that there is a relationship between a toxic reaction (the response) and the amount of poison received (the dose). An important assumption in this relationship is that there is almost always a dose below which no response occurs or can be measured. This assumption combined with the detection limits of the analytical work has hindered the serious investigation of low level environmental exposures. The President’s Cancer Panel states that response may be impacted by when the dose occurs, for example in utero or during childhood and there may be a cumulative impact. This is only supported by common sense, not scientific studies. The 2008-2009 report does a good job of identifying the paths of exposure for thousands of chemicals, and states: “At this time, we do not know how much environmental exposures influence cancer risk and related immune and endocrine dysfunction. Environmental contamination varies greatly by type and magnitude across the nation, and the lifetime effects of exposure to combinations of chemicals and other agents are largely unstudied. Similarly, the cancer impact of exposures during key “windows of vulnerability” such as the prenatal period, early life, and puberty are not well understood. …Environmental health, including cancer risk, has been largely excluded from overall national policy on protecting and improving the health of Americans.” I am left to make my purchasing and lifestyle decisions based on common sense, experience as an environmental engineer and beliefs, not on scientific evidence.

Monday, May 10, 2010

CALGreen and LEEDS

I do not know if CALGreen is adding fuel to the fire that is currently the AB 32 debate in California, but back in January 2010 the California Building Standard Commission passed an amendment to the building code to create a state wide green building code in California to go into effect in January 2011. This green building code is known as CALGreen. The CALGREEN Code applies to all residential, commercial, hospital and school buildings, ensuring that every new building in California is built using environmentally advanced construction practices. While a mandatory code will allow California’s builders to build to a certifiable green standard without having to pay fees for third-party programs, compliance with the new standards will add to the cost of construction and difficulty in getting new housing permitted. This will increase both the volatility and ultimately cost of housing in California.

Various municipalities, such as San Francisco and Berkeley have mandated that new construction be LEED certified or in other ways “green” this is the first state wide standard for green building. If you recall, under AB32, California must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020, returning them to 1990 levels. The mandatory CALGREEN code provisions will be inspected and verified by local and state building departments, who will have to be trained in the new standards (no doubt under stimulus funds for green jobs). This initiative is designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and conserve water, by incorporating a set of environmental standards into the existing building code. Buildings in California account for one-quarter of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. The California Air Resources Board estimates that CALGREEN will avoid 3 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents in 2020 which is 5.6% of the reduction necessary to meet the goal. It will also reduce water use by 20% and divert 50% of construction waste to landfills. CALGreen requires:

20% mandatory reduction in indoor water use, with voluntary goal standards for 30%, 35% and 40% reductions;
Separate water meters for nonresidential buildings’ indoor and outdoor water use, with a requirement for moisture-sensing irrigation systems for larger landscape projects;
Diversion of 50% of construction waste from landfills, increasing voluntarily to 65% and75% for new homes and 80% for commercial projects;
Mandatory inspections of energy systems (i.e. heat furnace, air conditioner, mechanical equipment) for nonresidential buildings over 10,000 square feet to ensure that all are working at their maximum capacity according to their design efficiencies;
Low-pollutant emitting interior finish materials such as paints, carpet, vinyl flooring and particle board.

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) currently offers a set of voluntary green building standards known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) by far the most popular and well-known green building certification program in the nation. LEED operates as a point-based certification system, where building developers can reach the Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum levels of ‘greenness’ in different ways hopefully appropriate to the local conditions. While the LEEDS point-based system allows flexibility for building developers, it has been criticized for allowing too much freedom in choice. Also, LEED certification requires an investment of money to pay for third party verification and periodic verifications. The CALGreen standards will be part of the building inspection process, the cost to train and implement born by the taxpayer instead of the builder and buyer. California could well end up like Europe, with laws to prevent new construction and expansion of existing home footprints.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Will Unemployment Stop AB 32

Yesterday, it was announced that California voters will decide the fate of the state's global warming and cap and trade bill, AB 32. Under AB32, California must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020, returning them to 1990 levels. AB32's proponents call it a vital step in efforts to curb greenhouse gases and create green jobs that will serve as a model for other states of what the costs and benefits of a cap and trade/ climate change bill. Many groups have weighed in on the projected costs and benefits, but now, in true California fashion, the variously funded political action groups are bringing it to the ballot. The measure expected to be on November's ballot would suspend AB32 until California's unemployment rate, currently at 12.5 percent, stays at 5.5 percent or below for four consecutive quarters, which is a very aggressive employment target. The unemployed, energy companies and economic fears will be pitted against global warming fears and environmental activists.

High unemployment in California which has been hard hit during the recent recession combined with a report by Sanjay Varshney and Dennis H. Tootelian, Ph.D. of California State University, Sacramento that concluded when the program is fully implemented, the average annual loss in gross state output from small businesses alone would be $182.6 billion, approximately a 10% loss in total gross state output. This will translate into nearly 1.1 million lost jobs in California. Lost labor income is estimated to be $76.8 billion, with nearly $5.8 billion lost in indirect taxes. The increased costs generated by the AB 32 program, would force cuts in discretionary spending by 26.2%. The study’s cost analysis was based on the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) findings, which revealed significant cost increases. The study found that the California Resource Board had significantly underestimated these costs. Unemployment in California is now 12.5% which translates to 2,303,000 people before the implementation of AB 32. If another 1,100,000 people are added to that total unemployment would reach 3,403,000 or 18.6%.

Circulating on cable is the NOVA program on AB 32. In a well produced program NOVA conducts interviews with Governor Schwarzenegger, skeptics and supporters of the plan, and ordinary citizens and businesspeople whose lives will change significantly when the new regulations take effect. The sense of urgency expressed by the Governor is acute, because he fully believes in the Global Warming models that project that California is particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change. The recently ended drought touted as a harbinger of things to come resulted in devastating wildfires and chronic water shortages in large sections of the state and fueled those concerns. While high unemployment has fuels the concerns for economic devastation resulting from the law. So the lines are drawn and now we get science and facts by popular vote. Reality in California.

Monday, May 3, 2010

LEED and Your Home


The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) are the people who created and maintain the LEED standards, the familiar Certified (used to be Green), Silver, Gold or Platinum rated buildings. LEED is the leading green building certification system, intended to verify that a building or community was designed and built using accepted generalized strategies aimed at: energy savings, water efficiency, CO2 emissions reduction, improved indoor environmental quality, and stewardship of resources. The standards tend to be fairly generalized and not region specific, but should be appropriately applied to produce an environmentally responsible building. LEED provides building owners, operators and buyers a concise and measurable framework for identifying, implementing and comparing green building design, construction, operations and maintenance. The USGBC has expanded these basic standards from commercial construction to operations to single family homes and now have created REGREEN Residential Remodeling Guidelines. Not all of us can rush out and buy a LEEDS certified home. There is a tremendous amount of existing housing in the United States and the REGREEN guidelines can offer a roadmap to improving the environmental performance of our existing homes. Green remodeling also reduces the environmental impacts of remodeling, including energy, water, and materials consumption; waste generation; and harmful emissions, both indoors and out. If you want to take a look at some of the things you could do to improve the environmental performance of your home, follow this link and explore the ideas and recommendations. An example is “Reflective (high-albedo) roofing materials and pavement surfaces as well as vegetative plantings can help minimize this heat island effect.”

There are eight areas of consideration in a LEEDS home. How these aspects are actually measured and quantified is the basis of the LEED scoring system. The first area is indoor air quality, a LEED home is designed to maximize fresh air indoors and minimize exposure to toxins and pollutants. This involves addresses air circulation, mixing and off gassing from building materials and furnishings. The second area is energy efficiency. In general LEED homes are built to use 20-30% less energy than the standard size typical home. Larger homes and homes that do not meet the goals in other areas can up their score by reducing the energy footprint of the home with energy generation. Most of the glamorous LEEDS homes you see need to meet a very strict home energy rating index because their footprint exceeds the reference size. An expensive, but quick way to neutralize size in LEEDS score is to shoot for a net zero home.
The next area is water efficiency; here is one of many areas where the standards lean towards urban and suburban issues. According to the USBGC wasteful water use is both costly and risky and tied to wasteful energy use: According to the U.S. Department of Energy, as much as ¼ - ½ of the electricity used by most U.S. cities is consumed at municipal water and wastewater treatment facilities. The LEED home standards encourage limiting water use and encouraging water reuse with grey water systems. In reality, water availability is a local issue. My water is supplied by a private well drilled into an incredibly productive aquifer. My wastewater is treated on site by an alternative on-site septic system. Thus my water is directly recycled back into the watershed. Water shed protection is the issue I worry about not water efficiency, though two decades in California has left me incapable of wasting water and our household water use is actually very low. Site Selection is another area where the standards judge based on old preconceptions. LEED encourages homes that are close to schools, shopping, work and transit. However, my husband and I live, work, and relax from home. Access to high speed internet, cable, and food supply sources were the important location issues we considered. In truth, I leave the house on average, three times a week. Coming from California, I worried about water availability, water quality and protection of the water shed.

The other areas of the LEED scoring system are site development, materials selection, resident awareness and innovation. It is essential that building a home and living in it not cause erosion, interfere with natural habitats and pollute waterways through storm water runoff and other actions. How you live in your house is just as important as how the house was built. At the end of the process, a home is awarded points in each area. Based on the number of points it receives, the home can be certified at one of the four levels: Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum. LEED certification is both cool and desirable; however, it is not enough to ensure an environmentally responsible and sustainable existence. That is the result of all the elements of your life. The LEEDS tools especially the REGREEN guidelines are great tools for knowing what choices we have for our homes, but the sustainability and environmental impact of our lives is based on the total of all our choices.