Like a poor nation, Americans again consume their own waste
Honeybees abandon hives, sewage overflows -- how’s our environment?
How’s our environment doing? How can we reduce our impact? We trim, blend, and append three 2008 articles: (1) “Survey shows rise in US honeybee deaths” by the AP, May 7; (2) “Aging systems releasing sewage into rivers, streams” by USA Today, May 8; and (3) “A ‘Green’ Rx to save carbon: City Density + Transit” by Neal Peirce of the Washington Post Writers Group, May 5.
AP: Since last year, 36.1% of the nation's commercially managed hives have died. Last year, 32% died. Bees are succumbing to pesticide drift, new diseases, and old enemies like the parasitic varroa mite.
While two years are not a trend, the situation is not improving. Imagine if one out of every three rivers or herds or cities were wiped out in just one year. People might leap to fix the problem.
JJS: We’re losing what’s beautiful and gaining what’s ugly.
USA Today: About 850 billion gallons of storm water mixed with raw sewage pours from US sewers -- designed to release overflow during heavy rains -- into rivers and lakes each year. The sewage systems -- some of which are more than 100 years old -- snake under America for 1.2 million miles. An additional 3 billion to 10 billion gallons of raw sewage spill accidentally every year.
Causes of these spills include improper connections, clogs from debris, construction accidents, and cracks in aging pipes.
• In March, 700,000 to 1.3 million gallons of human feces and other waste spilled from a damaged pipe into Grand Lagoon at Panama City Beach, Fla.
• In January, about 20 million gallons of sewage flowed into Pennsylvania's Schuylkill River after a 42-inch pipe ruptured near Reading.
• Also in January, heavy rain, deteriorating pipes, and operator error sent about 5 million gallons of sewage into Northern California's Richardson and San Francisco bays.
Legislation that would require sewer authorities to notify the public of overflows and spills is pending in Congress. As many as 5,500 people get sick every year from direct exposure to sewer overflows near beaches.
At least one-third of the nation's large, publicly owned sewage treatment systems were the subject of enforcement actions by the EPA or state regulators for violations. Those enforcements included fines as well as orders to fix problems or expand treatment capacity. Cities with the largest fines included San Diego ($6.2 million), New York ($3 million) and Los Angeles ($1.6 million).
The cost to upgrade the nation's municipal sewers ranges from $350 billion to $500 billion for the next 20 years.
JJS: Once we accept sewage as a resource, as a natural fertilizer, part of the natural cycle, we won’t waste waste. Now we’re pumping topsoil through our bodies then into the ocean. We can do better than that, and the fish will thank us.
The way to pay for building or expanding a sewage system is to recover the increase in nearby land values, since clean water makes nearby land more valuable to residents. The way to pay for operating the system is by charging users a fee big enough to cover ongoing (not “capital”) costs. This financing method works for any large public works project, including mass transit.
Peirce: A century ago we were celebrating streetcars and subways. Today, to reduce gasoline consumption and spare the environment, people must take trains, buses, mini-buses, plus bikepaths and sidewalks. For people to conveniently switch from driving to riding, point A and point B need to be closer; a higher density of offices and residences is necessary. But be careful; replacing old smaller buildings with new larger ones could reduce efficiency.
Cars, trucks, and airplanes account for 27% of US greenhouse gas emissions, construction and operation of buildings for 48%, almost twice as much. Instead of replacing heat-leaking buildings, if we rehabilitate them we’d save energy. Even if a new project includes 40% recycled materials, it takes some 65 years for a “green-energy-efficient office building” to recover the energy lost in demolishing and replacing an existing building.
To finance energy savings, several major lenders are developing ways to let office building owners upgrade to efficient furnaces, windows, insulation, etc with virtually zero up-front expense. The costs are automatically paid through subsequent energy savings. Homeowners could use a parallel plan.
But how do we afford public transit expansion? Is the answer a massive war-to-peace transition? Some basic truths require our careful attention. In decades to come, we could be mourning the wholesome environment we could have had.
JJS: Already I’m mourning a third of the honeybees who abandon their hives to die. Pay careful attention to this basic truth: to spare Earth’s beauty, we must share her bounty, to care for her health, we must share her worth.
Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics.
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