Author: st2128

EPA issues Water Discharge Rules Impacting the Energy Industry

EPA released one of two major water rules late Friday, April 19. It’s called the Effluent Limitations Guidelines, which means limits on discharges of pollutants from power plants into US waterways. Some folks in the energy industry think this is another backdoor to regulate and eventually kill coal by making coal plants costly to run. It’s not enough that air regulations require plants to install air pollution controls, but water rules then regulate the waste streams that come from pollution controls and spill into US waters.

What of plants are at risk? Mainly fossil plants and primarily coal. Even plants that may have spent hundreds of millions installing a wet scrubber are at risk. As the name suggests, wet scrubbers use water and end up catching pollutants from the air which then get discharged as a sludge or slurry waste stream, which is subject to a limit.

I have not had a chance to delve into this rule in detail. I have worked for the past six years as an “air head,” a label in industry that signifies you focus on air pollution. I am excited to explore a water rule and will report back on my read of the rule. To find out more on your own, I found EPA’s factsheet helpful and the proposed rule is here:

EPA mentions in their factsheet that they analyzed the economic impact from the rule: “Electricity rates are projected to stay well within normal historical fluctuations. Additionally, no coal plants are projected to close as a result of this rule.”  In a low-gas price environment, I assume that coal plants may not close but they could suffer disadvantages. How many more coal plants will be mothballed-or temporarily shut off–if they have to spend to limit their discharges while gas plants may not experience similar costs?


Will Taxing Water Lead to Reduced Consumption?

A global Fortune 500 chemical company mentioned to me today that they found it hard to conserve water because water is too cheap. It’s a hard sell and not economic to invest in water conservation.

If America needs to conserve water, what’s the best way to do this? I argue to put a price signal–aka a tax–on water. Perhaps, I will bite my own tongue when I see my water bill and rethink a tax. But let’s think about this. Every time a driver fuels their car, the $4/gallon–or $6/gallon in California–compels him or her to think about driving efficiently, perhaps one day purchasing an electric car or hybrid, or alternative ways of transportation. When things get expensive, we change our behavior, and we need to apply this thinking to our use of water. The problem with water in the U.S. is that it is relatively cheap. Coming from the Northeast where we have rain and snow, freshwater is cheap and plentiful, keeping water cheap. The conditions and cost of water may vary in the Western and Southern U.S. states suffering from a drought, lower river levels, and lack of fresh drinking water. Still, America needs a wake-up call to start realizing that water is a long-term global sustainability issue. Making water expensive is a strong mechanism–albeit it may be difficult legally–to encourage conservation.

If water is cheap, who cares? Forrest Wilder, a reporter for the Texas Observer, said it best when he mentions that his editor “stifles a yawn every time I broach the subject of water.” Even a publication covering a state impacted by drought and water issues finds water unexciting.

Nevertheless, water is a commodity, and the supply of water is a growing risk. America has to stop yawning and start thinking about water as a security issue. Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General, announced,” Water holds the key to sustainable development. We need it for health, food security and economic progress. … One-in-three people already lives in a country with moderate to high water stress, and by 2030 nearly half the global population could be facing water scarcity, with demand outstripping supply by 40 per cent.” Ok, yawn, I know what you are thinking, reader. These are the same warnings I hear every year, and I still have water coming from my tap. And 2030? Who thinks of 2030 when I need to live today?

We, as a country, are disjointed in how we value water. The “have-nots”–states lacking freshwater–care, track their water use, and are advanced in their water management. Other states-the “have” states–care less about lack of water but more about quality of water. Is there lead, mercury, sewage, arsenic, or other pollutants that get into the drinking water? Is the water of the right quality for farms to grow our food? Water, in some form of another, will matter to readers, and we need to stop yawning. Sure, not everyone lives in a state that sees drought outside their window, but in some form or another, our food or raw materials come from countries like China that are water stressed. Lack of water could  mean disruptions in food production, energy, and basic needs of life.

How does a company sell water conservation projects? If big global companies with the capital find water conservation a hard sell, how is anyone to make change? Unlike energy conservation, the economics are just not there to invest in saving water. What are American supposed to do when we hear about rivers running dry and US states fighting over water availability? I say cut the crap and make water expensive. With water regulators and rate limits, it’s not easy to do. If water is expensive, it would be economic for anyone to conserve just as turning lights and the AC off cuts your electric bill. It makes common sense, and water conservation needs to make common sense.

Water Shortage in Texas Impacts Endangered Whooping Cranes


Some of our fellow U.S. states are in a drought. One of them is the second largest state in terms of population, Texas. The New York Times reported that Texas has been in a drought for two years. Various types of policy mechanisms can push the state to act and conserve water. Though I will not go into the various ways the State has already conserved, I will highlight an update from March 11, 2013 in which policymakers used a federal law, the Endangered Species Act, as a backdoor to regulate the state’s consumption of water.

In the case, The Aransas Project v. Shaw et al., a public interest and environmental group called the Aransas project sued the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), Texas’ state EPA. They argued if the TCEQ allows for continued use of freshwater from the Guadalupe River, the freshwater falls low enough, causing harm to the ecosystem and endangered species like the whooping crane. Violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA) gets you into murky waters between states versus the federal government because the ESA is a federal law. The Southern District Court of Texas sided with the plaintiffs, a decision that arrested TCEQ’s ability to grant any new water permits to projects that need water from the San Antonio River or Guadalupe River Basins. Plus, in 30 days, the TCEQ must require existing users  to get “Incidental Take Permits” and issue Habitat Conservation Plans. Long and short, water is limited in Texas, and large users of water-particularly industry-need permits called water rights that give them permission to use the water. With The Aransas Project v. Shaw et al. decision, it will be more work for users to get water from the Guadalupe River and San Antonio River Basins.

This decision also calls into question TCEQ’s authority to act on water. In Texas, finding out who owns the water is a complicated matter, but it is important  in figuring out who is obligated to protect the water. In Texas, it seems like the State and property owners point fingers at each other. If water is in the ground underneath your house, you own the property and, thus, you own the water as well. The State cannot restrict your use. Endangered Species Law and Policy mentions, “The court rejected this argument, holding that TCEQ has the authority, power, and responsibility to manage water diversions, and that the ESA requires that such management take into account the health and survival of whooping cranes.” It means TCEQ should have limited freshwater use and therefore protected cranes.

When it comes down to the meat of the issue, it is my belief that the lack of water is the issue, not the endangerment of whooping cranes. The cranes just helped draw water shortage to the limelight.

U.S. EPA Gets Tech-Savvy

The U.S. EPA has employed user-friendly tools to help the public access environmental data. For example, EPA released their 2011 federal greenhouse gas emission data today. This data gives the public access to the greenhouse gas footprint of 1,594 power plants, 1,880 petroleum and natural gas systems, 1,593 waste-related companies, 145 refineries, 458 chemical companies, and other industries. Why these industries? Well, they emit the most greenhouse gases out of all other industries in the U.S., and they are the upstream sources that directly emit greenhouse gases from fuel consumption.

Click on the, and the public can create very telling maps. Use the drop down to select your state or the state in which you are interested. EPA then provides icons in the top right of a map, a list, a bar graph, and a pie chart that depict the data by source type and ranks the footprints. Once you select the state, EPA also has another drop down that allows you to select by county.

I found some areas difficult about EPA’s tools. Firstly, it is not clear how to unfilter a state. I had to refresh the entire tool. Second, there is no export capability for the bar or pie charts. If you hit the “Download” button, it refers the user to a page where he/she can download all the GHG data in excel and recreate charts manually. Allowing export capability will allow EPA’s professional looking charts and graphs to be readily accessible and usable.

Sculptor Leo Sewell Turns Philadelphia’s Junk into Art

West Philadelphia Artist Turns Junk into Sculptures
by Stephanie Tsao


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Got junk? Artist Leo Sewell will gladly take it off your hands.  He lives near Drexel University and turns junk into sculptures that sell for $2,000 to $100,000.  Twenty-five of Sewell’s sculptures were exhibited through January 27 at The Rosenfeld Gallery in Old City Philadelphia.

Look closely at the spine of a bison sculpture and you realize that it is made from an old tennis racket.  The muscular, curved body and horns are shaped from broken jewelry, old toys, and voter pins nailed together. “[Sewell] captures the gestalt of the animal.  He makes a bull really look like a bull,” says Richard Rosenfeld, 72, who has owned the Rosenfeld Gallery for 36 years.

Out of the 25 pieces exhibited, many are animals–dogs, cats, ducks, and an elephant. A collage of junk forms the shape of a fish. From afar, the viewer notices an Atlantic salmon, but a closer look reveals a blue metal New Jersey license plate, an old-fashioned wooden nutcracker, a gold pin that reads “Those who care Teach,” a dime-sized red heart, and other paraphernalia.  The sculptures become time capsules for vintage leftovers.  Sewell built a grandmother clock, selling for $7000, that is made from Lincoln Logs, a vintage toy from the early 1900s.

Though anyone can have junk, Sewell surprisingly has to find, search, and even beg for his materials. “I will go to flea markets.  I beg my friends not to forget me.  My favorite is just cleaning out a building,” Sewell describes.

Sewell grew up near a dump in Maryland and only took one sculpture class in his lifetime.  Surprisingly, a hobby became a forty-year career.  He got a bachelor’s degree in Economics and originally intended to be a chemist before getting a master’s in Art History and turning full-time to art. He later sold pieces to actors Sylvestor Stallone and Demi Moore and Ripley’s Entertainment, which owns museums and attractions in ten countries.  At 67, he now supports himself through his artwork.  “I am no star but I’m not starving,” he says.

“I started before Earth Day started,” he remembers, but his sculptures have deferred tons of trash per year from landfills.  He also repurposes plywood and screws to make the ten-pound crates with which he ships the sculptures to buyers.

Some of his artwork captures places or icons in Philadelphia.  He has made large replicas of the Statue of Liberty’s torch and the Liberty Bell.  In the last two years, Sewell has tried restricted palette, or using junk of only one color for a sculpture.  Now, his exhibition has a red apple, a black raven, and a white dog.  The white dog, made of all white pieces, is the icon of the White Dog Café, a restaurant located in University City since 1983.  “There is something stylized about [Sewell’s] work.  His cats and dogs are almost Egyptian in the way they look.  The rest of his work is fun and tactile,” says Linda Richter, a retired professor of the University of Pennsylvania.  She picks up a duck sculpture and shakes it to hear the pieces inside.

The next time you think about spring clean up, think of the junk man. Contact him through his Web site, and explore creative ways to get of rid of junk, help the environment, and support the artistic community.