Looking for $30 million to finish thorium cleanup in West Chicago

The decades-long fight over thorium cleanup in West Chicago may be nearing an end – if the federal government provides the needed final $30 million:

After officials spent decades and roughly $1.2 billion cleaning area sites polluted with radioactive thorium waste from the former factory, the environmental response trust overseeing the work is in jeopardy of running out of money because it hasn’t received federal funding since fiscal 2008…

So while bulldozers were moving soil Tuesday on the roughly 60-acre property, part of the site remains contaminated. Officials estimate it will cost $30 million to clean it.

The hope is to get the money from the Department of Energy’s Title X program, which provided reimbursements to West Chicago for previous work…

All that remains is to remediate one residential property and part of the old factory site. The cleanup of the residential property will be completed this year, officials said.

This has been a long saga from the functioning facility that built items in the mid 1900s but then made contaminated dirt available to property owners throughout the city, officially discovering the radioactivity in the 1970s, to extensive cleanup of properties and lots of dirt shipped to Utah. While one could celebrate the persistence of local residents and leaders, it is also a cautionary tale about how many resources it takes to rectify such pollution. It isn’t just about the money but also about the time (several decades involving recognizing the problem, securing funding, and then the time for actual cleanup) and reputation (imagine considering West Chicago as a potential community to move to knowing that there is radioactivity in the community). It is this long view that is often missing in public discussions of the environment – and pollution seems like it has clear consequences, particularlly compared to other topics like the rancor about global warming – though it is admittedly difficult to foresee some of these dangers at the time.

Traffic deaths predicted to be 5th leading cause of death in the developing world

Even as the conversation about safer autonomous cars picks up in the United States, traffic deaths are an increasing problem in the developing world:

It has a global death toll of 1.24 million per year and is on course to triple to 3.6 million per year by 2030.

In the developing world, it will become the fifth leading cause of death, leapfrogging past HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other familiar killers, according to the most recent Global Burden of Disease study.

The victims tend to be poor, young and male.

In one country — Indonesia — the toll is now nearly 120 dead per day; in Nigeria, it is claiming 140 lives each day…

In 2010, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for a “Decade of Action for Road Safety.” The goal is to stabilize and eventually reverse the upward trend in road fatalities, saving an estimated 5 million lives during the period. The World Bank and other regional development banks have made road safety a priority, but according to Irigoyen, donor funding lags “very far below” the $24 billion that has been pledged to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

It sounds like while diseases are well known and relatively well-funded, not many people have caught on to the problems of traffic deaths. This is all about social construction: where are the Bill Gates of the world to come in and tackle traffic problems in poorer nations?

Perhaps this gets less attention it is because cars are viewed as things that may help developing countries improve: owning them means citizens have more economic power and have more independence to get around as well as help their own economic chances (can carry things around, etc.). Particularly from an American point of view, cars are generally good things. But, of course, cars bring other problems in addition to safety concerns: pollution (a huge problem in many large cities), clogged streets, and an infrastructure that may not be able to handle lots of new cars on the roads (maintaining roads, having enough police, driver training, cities that have to redevelop areas to accommodate wider roads).

It will be interesting to see if this gets more attention in the coming years. It is one thing to discuss longer-term consequences of cars like increasing pollution but it is another to ignore large numbers of deaths each day.

A new way to fight pollution in Chicago: cement that absorbs smog

Chicago is the first American city to lay concrete that absorbs smog:

There are many sustainable technologies designers can utilize these days to make a project more Earth- and people-friendly, but smog-eating cement isn’t the most talked-about – until now. The City of Chicago is pioneering the use of a revolutionary type of cement that is capable of eradicating the air around it of pollution, potentially reducing the levels of certain common pollutants by 20 – 70% depending on local conditions and the amount of exposed surface area.

Photocatalytic cement isn’t exactly news – it was developed by the leading Italian cement maker Italcementi for the Vatican in honor of the 2,000th anniversary of the Christian faith. The Seat of the Catholic Church commissioned the construction of a new church to commemorate the event and wanted surface material that would retain its new appearance despite Rome‘s high levels of air pollution.

The cement that Italcementi developed uses titanium oxide that, when exposed to natural sunlight, triggers a chemical reaction that catalyses the decomposition of dirt or grime on the cement’s surface; thus, it is self-cleaning. What further research in Europe uncovered, however, was that this cement possessed pollution reduction properties that not even Italcementi could have foreseen, capable of cleaning up smog in adjacent air – up to 2.5 meters away – by breaking down the nitrogen oxides which are the result of burning fossil fuels.

Naturally, this makes the photocatalytic cement a perfect paving material as it successfully reduces the amount of toxins expelled by vehicles and inhaled by pedestrians. Italy and other areas of Europe have already paved many of their roads with the revolutionary material, but Chicago is reportedly the first city in America to adopt it, laying down a thin, permeable pavement for the bicycle and parking lanes on Blue Island Avenue and Cermak Road.

There might be a few issues associated with this:

1. What is the relative cost of laying down this kind of cement compared to other road surfacing material? In Illinois, I’ve read before that laying asphalt is cheaper in the short term compared to concrete but more expensive in the long term because it has to be replaced more frequently.

2. Some may not like this news because if the cement can help fight pollution, people may pay less attention to the effect of cars.

Here is more information on this concrete from an article last October:

According to Nguyen, the titanium dioxide on the cement surface absorbs UV light and uses this energy to react with water vapor in the surrounding air.

The result of this reaction is a highly reactive particle known as a hydroxyl radical.

It is these unstable hydroxyl radicals that in turn decompose a host of other compounds in the surrounding air, including nitrous oxide, a harmful greenhouse gas released in car exhaust…

David Leopold, project manager for the Chicago Department of Transportation, did say the photocatalytic cement is more expensive than regular pavement, but the city expects to see considerable improvement in street-level air quality as a result…

Based on pre-installation estimates, “on a windless day up to about eight feet from the pavement’s surface, you can see demonstrated improvements in air quality,” said Leopold. “Coincidentally, that’s about the height of a person on a bike.”

We’ll see what happens if this concrete is used more widely.

More evidence for having IRBs: sociologist finds that US Army released toxic cadmium into St. Louis air in the 1950s and 1960s

A sociologist in St. Louis says she has discovered an unknown story involving the US Army releasing cadmium into the air in the 1950s.

The aerosol was sprayed from blowers installed on rooftops and mounted on vehicles. ”The Army claims that they were spraying a quote ‘harmless’ zinc cadmium sulfide,” says Dr. Lisa Martino-Taylor, Professor of Sociology, St. Louis Community College. Yet Martino-Taylor points out, cadmium was a known toxin at the time of the spraying in the mid 50?s and mid 60?s. Worse, she says the aerosol was laced with a fluorescent additive – a suspected radiological compound – produced by U.S. Radium, a company linked to the deaths of workers at a watch factory decades before.

Martino-Taylor says thousands upon thousands of St. Louis residents likely inhaled the spray. ”The powder was milled to a very, very fine particulate level.  This stuff traveled for up to 40 miles.  So really all of the city of St. Louis was ultimately inundated by  the stuff.”

Martino-Taylor says she’s obtained documents from multiple federal agencies showing the government concocted an elaborate story to keep the testing secret. “There was a reason this was kept secret.  They knew that the people of St. Louis would not tolerate it.” She says part of the deception came from false news reports planted by government agencies.  “And they told local officials and media that they were going to test clouds under which to hide the city in the event of aerial attack.” Martino-Taylor says some of the key players in the cover-up were also members of the Manhattan Atomic Bomb Project and involved in other radiological testing across the United States at the time. “This was against all military guidelines of the day, against all ethical guidelines, against all international codes such as the Nuremberg Code.”

She says the spraying occurred between 1953 and 54 and again from 1963 to 65 in areas of North St. Louis and eventually in parts of South St. Louis. Martino-Taylor launched her research after hearing independent reports of cancers among city residents living in those areas at the time.

When students ask why we have Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) and why it may seem they have researchers jump through a series of hoops, I remind them of stories like this. This experiment even took place after the establishment of the beginnings of the modern ethical guidelines for science  through the Nuremberg Code. It is not too long ago when the government and other organizations undertook silent experiments and violated two of the primary ethical principles sociologists and others hold to: do not harm participants and ensure that they are participating on a voluntary basis.

Another note: it sounds like these experiments were justified in the name of safety. The tests were conducted under the cover that the city needed to prepare for a possible bombing, presumably by Russia.

A dark and polluted Pittsburgh in the early 1940s

This gallery of pictures of a dark and polluted Pittsburgh in the early 1940s is fascinating:

In 1941, influenced by a similar policy introduced in St. Louis four years earlier, the city of Pittsburgh passed a law designed to reduce coal production in pursuit of cleaner air. Not willing to cripple such an important part of the local economy, it promised to clean the air by using treated local coal. The new policy ended up not being fully enacted until after World War II.

While the idea was a small step in the right direction, other factors ultimately helped improve Pittsburgh’s notorious air quality. Natural gas was piped into the city. Regional railroad companies switched from coal to diesel locomotives. And, ultimately, the collapse of the iron and steel production industries in the 1980s led to rapidly improved air quality leading into the 21st century.

Control of coal smoke made it possible to clean soot-covered buildings and to re-plant hillsides, helping provide the city a look it could hardly envision in the depths of its industrial heyday.

I’ve seen some of these pictures before and they are hard to believe: how did people survive in a city that looked like this? Despite some of the debate over environmental regulations today, I think everyone could agree that Pittsburgh and other cities have benefited from having cleaner air.

This is also a reminder of how far some communities will go for their signature industries. Industry may bring in money and provide jobs but it is often not without downsides.

Septic tanks and McMansions

A commentator in southern Maryland discusses how the construction of McMansions in more rural areas is related to septic tanks and social class:

Public sewer might have caught up to the suburbs, but now the suburbs are leapfrogging public sewer. Although it has been slowed by the national housing crisis, the trend has been toward rural ridge tops bristling with “McMansions” like plates on the spine of a stegosaurus. These homes have problems that transcend septic. They generally gobble up land 5 acres at a time, not to mention their associated energy and transportation inefficiencies. It is indeed hard to feel sorry for these developments when cracking down on septic systems.

But at the same time big and rich developments are being scrubbed, it would be a mistake to throw country people out with the wastewater. In rural counties, lawmakers have been merciless in their attacks on anti-septic proposals, which they view as a job killer and an assault on private property rights. One Frederick County, Md., delegate called the proposed Maryland ban the worst bill he’d seen in 25 years.

There is hyperbole involved, naturally, but the danger is that septic bans, if too harsh, could make country life unaffordable for people of limited means. That’s the economics of reduced supply. Land prices in many areas have already made it difficult for people raised in rural locations to stay there. It’s proper that all sources of pollution, including septic systems, be controlled. It’s also proper that country life be protected at. The goal should be inclusive of both ideals.

Sounds like a case of competing interests: being greener (and the story suggests that a quarter of the homes in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have septic tanks leading to a pollution issue) versus keeping more rural homes affordable.

This discussion reminds me of Adam Rome’s book The Bulldozer in the Countryside which addresses the history of septic tanks in suburbia. In the suburban boom after World War II, it was often cheaper for builders to include septic tanks as suburban communities struggled to provide sewers and sewage treatment plants. In my own research into the development of local suburbs, it wasn’t until the early 1960s that communities began to see the importance of sewers and treatment plants. Eventually, many communities found ways to help pass the costs on to developers and builders through sewer hook-up fees but these were originally contentious.

Claim: Obama wants higher gas prices. Is this necessarily bad?

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour (a rumored Republican presidential candidate) suggested today that Obama wants higher gas prices:

Barbour…accused the Obama administration Wednesday of favoring a run-up in gas prices to prod consumers to buy more fuel-efficient cars…

Barbour cited 2008 comments from Steven Chu, now President Barack Obama’s energy secretary, that a gradual increase in gasoline taxes could coax consumers into dumping their gas-guzzlers and finding homes closer to where they work. Chu, then a Nobel Prize-winning professor, argued that higher costs per gallon could force investments in alternative fuels and spur cleaner energy sources.

Barbour said Obama’s energy team wouldn’t be happy until gas prices reached $9 a gallon.

Barbour goes on to say that there are two primary negative consequences of higher gas prices: it hurts workers and it hurts the larger economy. In a troubled economic period, Barbour is suggesting that Obama is willing to risk a prolonged economic crisis in order to promote things like electric cars and clean energy.

But this is really a larger issue and affects multiple dimensions of American life. Let’s assume that raising gas prices cuts down on driving and gas consumption overall – and there is evidence to back this up. There could be some benefits to this:

1. This would limit our dependence on foreign nations for  oil. What has happened in the Middle East in recent weeks can have an impact on our economy because we import so much oil. Some have gone so far as to say that this is a “national security issue.”

2. Using less gasoline would lead to lower levels of pollution.

3. Having more expensive gasoline may reign in sprawl, or at least make living in denser areas (cities or denser suburbs) more attractive. (See an example of this argument here.) In the long run, higher gas prices could be viewed by some as a threat (or by some as a welcome deterrent) to the sprawling suburban lifestyle that many Americans have adopted  since the end of World War II. Higher fuel prices would likely impact driving trips, fast-food restaurants, and trucking costs, all key pieces to the typical suburban lifestyle. One could argue that the American lifestyle of the last 65 years has been made possible by relatively cheap gasoline – and life would change if it was consistently at European price levels.

There could be other impacts as well including more walking and bicycling (cheaper, less pollution, better for health) and less time wasted due to traffic and congestion.

It bears watching how this rhetoric over gas prices continues. Is it simply a matter of a short-term (lower prices to help the economy) vs. a long-term perspective (higher prices help limit some negative consequences of driving) or could this turn into a debate about how driving (and cheap gasoline) is closely linked to the essence of American life?

Comparing pollution in cities versus suburbs

The Infrastructurist sums up a new study that compares pollution generated in cities versus that produced in the suburbs:

To illustrate this point, the authors of the new report examine per capita emissions rates in three locales in the greater Toronto region. The lowest per capita emissions rate (1.31 tons of carbon) belonged to the inner-city neighborhood of East York, home to dense apartments within walking distance of a commercial center and public transit. The highest rate (13.02) was found in Whitby — pictured at the top of this post — a sprawling suburb whose residents rely on automobiles to reach the shopping districts. Splitting the difference was Etobicoke (6.62), an area full of single-family homes but still accessible to the downtown core via public transportation.

The authors conclude:

The most important observation is that there is no single factor that can explain variations in per capita emissions across cities … .

An equally important observation, I might contend, is that the conversation about reducing emissions shouldn’t stop at the city limits.

It would be interesting to know what the authors then recommend.

But the larger issue still seems to be how to convince suburbanites that this pollution and emissions issue is a big enough one that they should change their behavior. Is some more pollution worth it to have the personal freedom and autonomy of living in a suburban, single-family home where you can drive in your car from place to place?

The wood-burning fireplace is on the way out, not green enough

Wood-burning fireplaces are more decoration than heating apparatuses in modern homes. But the New York Times reports that even its decorative or symbolic value may not be enough to counter the arguments against their use:

Hard as it may be to believe, the fireplace — long considered a trophy, particularly in a city like New York — is acquiring a social stigma. Among those who aspire to be environmentally responsible, it is joining the ranks of bottled water and big houses…

Organizations like the American Lung Association are issuing warnings as well: the group recommends that consumers avoid wood fires altogether, citing research that names wood stoves and fireplaces as major contributors to particulate-matter air pollution in much of the United States.

Wood smoke contains some of the same particulates as cigarette smoke, said Dr. Norman H. Edelman, the chief medical officer for the American Lung Association, as well as known carcinogens like aldehydes; it has also been linked to respiratory problems in young children…

Perhaps not coincidentally, sales of wood-burning appliances dropped to 235,000 in 2009 from 800,000 in 1999, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association.

Fireplaces are akin to McMansions? I would be curious to know how much effect a wood-burning fireplace has on the average person or how much pollution wood-burning fireplaces across the US release into the air. Then some comparisons could be made between the polluting effect of fireplaces and other objects (like McMansions or bottled water). In addition to the pollution, we could also consider how much wood is burned yearly in fireplaces and where this wood typically comes from.

Beyond the ideas about health and being green, the article fails to discuss several ways to keep a fireplace without burning wood. One option: have a gas fireplace. This may not be too green as well – it does burn gas. But you wouldn’t then have the release of particles into the air. The second option, which seems to be gaining in popularity: purchase an electric heater that looks like a fireplace. I see numerous advertisements for these all the time. Lots of benefits here: you still get the heat, nothing is burning (wood or gas), they are relatively cheap, you don’t have to worry about a chimney and keeping that clean, and you can move the “fireplace” around fairly easily depending on where you want it. There are some electricity costs but you can still retain the decorative or symbolic value without burning wood.

Polluting power plants and municipal boundaries

Many people do not want to live near facilities like power plants, sewage treatment plants, and landfills. However, if the facility is outside municipal boundaries, there may be little citizens can do. The Chicago Tribune presents a classic example – a power plant emitting heavy pollution that draws less attention because it is just outside Chicago city limits:

From a plane, it would be easy to think one of the nation’s dirtiest power plants is within the Chicago city limits.

But the aging State Line Power Station, a major contributor to the city’s chronically dirty air, sits just a few hundred feet over the state border in Indiana, leaving it largely unnoticed and untouched during a decades-long effort to transform the Chicago area’s smog-choked history.

Protesters regularly march in front of two other coal-fired power plants in Pilsen and Little Village, demanding an end to noxious pollution that wafts into the Chicago neighborhoods. Federal and state prosecutors are suing the owner of the plants to force significant cuts in smog- and soot-forming emissions.

Yet a Tribune analysis reveals that the State Line plant, built along Lake Michigan by ComEd in 1929 and bought by Virginia-based Dominion Resources in 2002, is far dirtier than either of the Chicago plants. It emits more lung-damaging nitrogen oxide than the Pilsen and Little Village plants combined, and churns more sulfur dioxide and toxic mercury into the air than either plant.

The article goes on to say that there are efforts to force this plant to clean up. Considering the attention these kinds of plants tend to draw when located in more populated areas, its interesting that this one has received less notice than other facilities.

A note: this plant can be seen easily from the Chicago Skyway.