Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Save Our Gulf

Many have seen the haunting photographs and news coverage. Every day pundits offer their perspective on what is now being called the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. Even satellites high above our atmosphere have captured images of the murky swirl spreading toward the Gulf coast like spilled black ink. For most people, these images tell a tragic story unfolding in a place far away. For folks in the Gulf region, the catastrophe plays out daily before their own eyes. That doesn’t mean, however, they are taking the effects of the disaster lying down.

Save Our Gulf is a project started by the Waterkeeper Alliance to combat the horrible effects of the Gulf oil spill. The Alliance is comprised of almost 200 Riverkeepers, Baykeepers, Coastkeepers, Soundkeeprs, and Bayoukeepers throughout the country who advocate for and protect local waterways. Each Waterkeeper assumes countless duties in defense of its waterway, from educating young students to taking high profile polluters to court. For example, our local affiliate is the St. Johns Riverkeeper, led by Neil Armingeon and Jimmy Orth. In essence, the Waterkeeper Alliance acts as a network connecting and supporting Waterkeepers nationwide and their respective communities.

In addition to fundraising, the Save Our Gulf program has created an advisory committee made up of veteran Waterkeepers with oil spill experience to support the affected Gulf Coast Waterkeepers, providing information, guidance, and communications support. Crises of this magnitude require the coordination of thousands of people, and the committee is taking the necessary steps to ensure that help gets where it’s needed in the most efficient, effective way possible. Issues taken up by the committee include public access to information, volunteer management, training, and legal and technical support.

Anyone interested in making a donation or providing support in any way should visit Additionally, the website provides information about the Waterkeeper Alliance, past projects, links to other organizations, and informative multimedia resources. Donations to the program go toward providing everything from cleanup supplies and gear to emergency office space and food for volunteers.

Those curious about the role of the St. Johns Riverkeeper in protecting our river can visit the organization’s website,, for more information.

-Kyle Johnson, Legal Intern

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Want Cleaner Soil? Plant a Tree.

You may know that the leaves of plants act as natural air purifiers, taking in carbon dioxide and emitting oxygen through a process called photosynthesis. You may not know that their roots can provide a similar function within contaminated soil. Through a process called phytoremediation, plants called hyperaccumulators naturally store (through bioaccumulation) or break down contaminants in soil, sediments, groundwater, and surface water. Plants with this ability can soak up metals, pesticides, solvents, explosives, crude oil, and other kinds of toxic wastes in an energy efficient and aesthetically pleasing process. They also prevent wind, rain, and groundwater from carrying the pollution elsewhere.

Phytoremediation has numerous advantages. First of all, it costs much less than traditional cleanup measures like soil replacement and groundwater pumping. Additionally, whereas these methods merely transport the problem to another location, phytoremediation allows the soil to be purified so that it may be used again. Furthermore, by allowing plants to do most of the work, remediation occurs without subjecting workers to the health hazards of toxic waste cleanup. Ultimately, it is much less disruptive to the environment than traditional methods at a much lower price. However, phytoremediation is not without its drawbacks.

The process is dependent on many different factors, such as depth of the roots and the concentration of the contaminant in the soil in relation to the tolerance of the plant absorbing it. Also, if the material is absorbed and held in the plant’s leaves, this could pose a danger to animals or humans who may harvest or eat the plant. It requires close monitoring. The biggest variable, however, may be time. As compared to some traditional measures of remediation, phytoremediation can take a long time. This depends on the type of plants used, number of plants used, the size and depth of the polluted area, and the type of soil among other factors. It often takes many years to clean up a site with phytoremediation.

Nevertheless, the disadvantages should not prevent phytoremediation from being considered a viable cleanup option. It can be a highly useful method, especially if time is not a factor. For instance, if land on which a lead paint factory once sat were targeted to build a park, phytoremediation would be an ideal solution if lead were found in the soil. Sunflowers have proven to be excellent hyperaccumulators, especially for lead. They are so effective that they were successfully used to clean up radioactive soil in Chernobyl after their nuclear disaster. Other potent hyperaccumulators include hydrangeas (aluminum), Blue Tongue (aluminum), water hyssop (lead, mercury, cadmium, and chromium), and willow trees (cadmium, zinc, copper), among many others.

Although phytoremediation, by itself, may not always prove to be the most practicable option, it should at least be considered as a compliment to traditional methods of hazardous waste cleanup. Many remediation projects use plants after soil replacement to eliminate remaining trace contaminants in the soil. All that remains then of the once polluted land are plants and trees. Much in the same way plants purify our atmosphere, they can be equally useful in cleaning up the earth under our feet.

-Kyle Johnson, Legal Intern

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Is Natural Gas a Bunch of Hot Air?

The Horizon Oil Rig Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is a solemn reminder of mankind’s love-hate relationship with crude oil. It also begs the question – is there a better option on the horizon? Some folks in Pennsylvania say yes. Pennsylvania is home to the Marcellus Shale, a massive formation of marine sedimentary rock thought to contain vast amounts of untapped natural gas. Although it actually stretches well into New York, Ohio, and West Virginia, the section of rock situated in Pennsylvania is thought to contain the largest deposit of the resource. But before we go head over heels for natural gas, it is worth taking a closer look at its current uses and environmental impact, as well as considering the future of energy production in America.

Why natural gas? Natural gas is a source of electricity generation in utility turbines and power plants, emitting about 45% less greenhouse gas than coal. It is used in the home as well, in stoves and ovens, clothes dryers, and central heating. Natural gas is also used in fertilizer, municipal buses, and the manufacture of glass, steel, and plastics. Many companies around the world are also looking to build gas-powered aircraft.

Despite its claim as the cleanest fossil fuel, natural gas still contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. It is composed mostly of methane, which traps about twenty times more radiation in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Although carbon dioxide is released in much larger quantities, natural gas emissions are expectedly to dramatically climb in the future, thanks in part to discoveries of large deposits like the Marcellus Shale.

Another problem with natural gas is that it is a fossil fuel, meaning that it is only a matter of time before it is used up and we have to look elsewhere for a fuel source. Before we get swept away by the economic potential of natural gas and the Marcellus Shale, now is a good time to ask – what kind of energy economy do we want? Ideally the production of energy on a grand scale would come from a renewable resource, i.e. wind or the sun. These are both clean, infinite sources of energy. Mass production of energy from these sources is not viable yet, but much of that has to do with a lack of research into solo-voltaic (solar electricity) and windpower technology.

Given the state of flux in the oil industry and mankind’s increasing awareness of the catastrophic effects of oil production, now is an opportune time for a Manhattan Project with respect to energy. The U.S. government spent vast amounts of research to build the atomic bomb and to get to the moon. We now need to attack energy production the same way.

-Kyle Johnson, Legal Intern

Chris Williams from GreenWater Labs Meets with the Public Trust

If you have lived in the St. John’s River area long enough, you have probably heard about algal blooms. The massive colonies of blue-green algae emit a foul odor and can often be seen on the surface of the river like swirls of paint. The problem with algal blooms, other than the stench, is that algae produce toxins. Because the health risks to humans are relatively unknown, more research is needed to determine what these health risks are and what causes spikes in algal populations. GreenWater Laboratories, a Palatka-based company, is taking up the challenge. GreenWater Laboratories, created in 2001, is the only private full-service laboratory in the United States that specializes in monitoring freshwater algal blooms and toxin production. The company provides its clients with testing, analyses, monitoring, and research capabilities.

Chris Williams, an aquatic toxicologist and president of GreenWater Laboratories, stopped by the Public Trust Environmental Legal Institute office last week to discuss the problems associated with algal blooms. Williams said that the physical characteristics of the St. John’s, a slow-moving river in a hot, humid climate, make for an ideal habitat for blue-green algae. Combine that with a lack of state regulation requiring businesses and utility companies to test for algae in their discharge water, and the potential for algal-related problems becomes apparent.

Because the banks of the river are lined with private landowners, in addition to businesses and public utilities, pinpointing a manmade source of the bloom is a difficult task. Anything from fertilizer runoff to chemicals present in wastewater could potentially be responsible. Additionally, toxic compounds that have been discharged into the river in years past have now settled on the riverbed, waiting to be churned up and accelerate algal growth. One interesting note – Williams revealed that most blooms seem to start near the Shands Bridge area, although he conceded that he is not sure why.

Despite the problems mentioned above, here are a few things to consider. Not all algae produce toxins, and many forms of algae are necessary parts of a healthy ecosystem. Blue-green algae do not tend to bioaccumulate, meaning that they don’t accumulate inside smaller organisms and work their way up the food chain.

However, a recent wave of redfish deaths in the St. John’s River has raised suspicions. Although officials do not know exactly what is causing the rash of redfish deaths in the last few weeks, they suspect algae to be the cause. Williams admitted that this could be an algae-related problem. This situation is worth monitoring throughout the summer, as health officials still are unsure as to how algal toxins affect human health. Neil Armingeon, from the St. Johns Riverkeeper, has encouraged boaters and others on the river to report fish kills if they see them.

-Kyle Johnson, Legal Intern