2009 December 01 Tuesday
Cities Pollute With Sewage

Hey, I do not want to write about sewage pollution. I'm sure most of my readers would rather be dreaming about space ships, genetically engineered pets, rejuvenation therapies with sexual performance enhancements, electric cars, or post-apocalyptic industrial civilization after a Carrington event. But water pollution is a serious problem that is going to get worse unless we fix the sources of pollution. First off, government-operated sewage plants get away with a whole lot of polluting.

One goal of the Clean Water Act of 1972 was to upgrade the nation’s sewer systems, many of them built more than a century ago, to handle growing populations and increasing runoff of rainwater and waste. During the 1970s and 1980s, Congress distributed more than $60 billion to cities to make sure that what goes into toilets, industrial drains and street grates would not endanger human health.

I know this might sound retro to some readers. But we need to finish what the early 1970s environmental pollution control laws set out to do: clean up all the sources of air and water pollution. The environmental movement has run out of steam and gotten distracted. Get back to the basics.

But despite those upgrades, many sewer systems are still frequently overwhelmed, according to a New York Times analysis of environmental data. As a result, sewage is spilling into waterways.

In the last three years alone, more than 9,400 of the nation’s 25,000 sewage systems — including those in major cities — have reported violating the law by dumping untreated or partly treated human waste, chemicals and other hazardous materials into rivers and lakes and elsewhere, according to data from state environmental agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Modest proposal: privatize sewage treatment plants so that governments won't hold back on going after polluters. It is politically much more acceptable to go after profit-making private sector polluters. Look at the USSR. The state let itself pollute on a massive scale. When the government doesn't own the capital assets it has a much easier time imposing costs on the asset operators to make them clean up.

Opposed to privatization? Okay, gotta go weirder to solve this problem. Got another idea: install remote control devices on all toilets. Any time a city sewage processing plant starts backing up the plant operators could just flip a switch and turn off the ability of people to flush. Tell them the only way this flush interrupt can be ended is to pass a new bond measure and raise sewage utility rates.

I'm really opposed to pollution. I think we should fix our pollution sources so they stop polluting.

By Randall Parker    2009 December 01 08:41 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (19)
2007 April 14 Saturday
New England States Push Mercury Emissions Reduction

The New England states are trying to force the US federal government to crack down harder on mercury polluters and FuturePundit cheers them on.

New York and six other Northeastern states announced yesterday that they have joined in a regional pact to try to force the federal government to enact tougher standards on mercury emissions.

New England can't get mercury pollution down far enough because much of its mercury is getting blown in from other states and presumably Canada as well. The Bush Administration has opposed more rapid reductions in emissions. SO the New England states are looking for ways to force changes in federal environmental policy.

Calculations of those maximum levels would recognize that the majority of mercury pollution in the region comes from other states.

Thus, for the Northeastern states to meet federal clean water standards, the other states would have to reduce the amount of mercury they put into the air.

The New England states want a reduction large enough to make their fish safe to eat.

According to the draft plan, reducing the amount of mercury contamination in the region by 86 percent to 98 percent would cause the amount of mercury in fish to decline to levels at which consumption advisories could be lifted.

This seems a reasonable goal. Our fish shouldn't contain toxic quantities of mercury. Mercury is bad, 'mmmmkay?

This move by New England states ends up targetting coal electric plants in other states..

Nationwide, power plants account for two thirds of all SO2, 22 percent of NOx, 40 percent of CO2, and a third of all mercury emissions."

Current regulations will not bring down mercury emissions from coal burners by the order of magnitude or more that the New England states seek.

Mercury: Emissions levels remain steady. Power plant mercury emissions remain steady as compared to previous years. EIP's report ranks plants based on 2004 data, which is the most recent publicly available information from EPA's Toxics Release Inventory. Roughly 400 plants emitted just over 47 tons of mercury. Many plants are installing scrubbers to control sulfur dioxide, and mercury emissions will decline with SO2 controls at these plants. But, EPA's new power plant mercury rule is unlikely to have any effect in the short-term. Power plant mercury emissions are expected to decline to roughly 24 tons in 2020 - significantly higher than EPA's so-called cap of 15 tons by 2018, as power plants "bank" pollution allowances in the early years of the rule's implementation. Widespread use of banked allowances means that EPA's cap of 15 tons will likely not be met until 2026 or beyond.

For all plants ranked for mercury, the top 50 plants with the highest emission rates together emitted 15 tons of mercury, just over 30 percent of all power plant mercury pollution, but generated only about 17 percent of the electricity. Plants in Texas and Pennsylvania topped the list for the nation's highest power plant mercury emission rates. AEP's Pirkey plant (Texas) and Reliant's Shawville plant (Pennsylvania) are the top two dirtiest plants based on mercury emission rates. The top 50 power plant mercury polluters accounted for more than 20 tons, or 43 percent of the industry's mercury emissions, and generated 33 percent of the electricity. TXU's Martin Lake (Texas) plant ranked number one, with more than 1,700 pounds of mercury emissions. Southern Company's Miller plant (Alabama) and Scherer plant (Georgia) came in second and third, emitting 1,544 and 1,465 pounds, respectively. Twenty-three plants in 13 states ranked in the top 50 for both emission rate and total pounds emitted. Two Texas power plants, TXU's Big Brown and American Electric Power's Pirkey, rank in the top 10 for both emission rate and total pounds.

Chlorine plants which use the chlor-alkali process are another big source of mercury pollution.

Two of the biggest sources of mercury pollution are chlorine chemical plants and coal-fired power plants. Chlorine plants, which use massive quantities of mercury to extract chlorine from salt, "lose" dozens of tons of mercury each year; power plants emit around 50 tons of mercury pollution annually. Facilities that recycle auto scrap are another big source of mercury pollution, pouring 10 to 12 tons of mercury into the air every year. The most common way Americans are exposed to mercury is through tuna fish.

The auto scrap yards do not try hard enough to remove mercury switches from old cars before they crush and melt them. They shouldn't be allowed to get away with that. The chlorine plants emit about as much as the coal electric plants. But that understates the contribution from coal since industrial coal-fired boilers are big mercury emitters.

Mercury is a neurotoxin. We shouldn't let mercury polluters turn fresh water fish into health hazards. First off, the pollutants violate our rights. Second, anything that reduces cognitive function imposes huge costs. Our brains matter far more than the cost of any capital equipment in determining how much economic output we'll produce in the future. Fish bestow brain benefits due to omega 3 fatty acids. We shouldn't let mercury polluters take away that benefit.

Tougher emissions regulations on coal use will reduce coal usage and increase usage of substitutes. The emissions regulations will increase the cost of coal electric and coal heat. That'll improve the competitiveness of nuclear, wind, and technologies that increase energy efficiency. Increased demand for the competitors will provide incentives to develop cheaper technologies for delivering energy from nuclear, solar, wind, geothermal, and other non-fossil fuel energy sources.

If you are concerned about greenhouse gas emissions then take note: to the extent that restrictions on conventional pollutant emissions make non-fossil fuel energy sources more attractive those emissions restrictions reduce greenhouse gases. Conventional emissions restrictions do not clearly reduce greenhouse gases. Some of the scrubber technologies used in coal plants take energy to run and therefore increase the amount of coal used per amount of electricity generated. But severe restrictions on conventional emissions would so raise the price of coal electric that nuclear electric might become cost competitive.

By Randall Parker    2007 April 14 10:50 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2007 February 20 Tuesday
Livestock Do More Global Warming Than Transportation

Move aside much reviled SUVs. Time to blame environmental destruction on the cows and the people who eat them.

Livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions as measured in carbon dioxide equivalent, reports the FAO. This includes 9 percent of all CO2 emissions, 37 percent of methane, and 65 percent of nitrous oxide. Altogether, that's more than the emissions caused by transportation.

The latter two gases are particularly troubling – even though they represent far smaller concentrations in atmosphere than CO2, which remains the main global warming culprit. But methane has 23 times the global warming potential (GWP) of CO2 and nitrous oxide has 296 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide.

Some of the methane could get captured from livestock that are in buildings. Also, the types of compounds found in grasses and other feeds affect how much methane gets generated. Feed genetically engineered for easier digestion would lower methane emissions.

Rising living standards in some developing countries are pushing up meat consumption.

Between 1970 and 2002, annual per capita meat consumption in developing countries rose from 11 kilograms (24 lbs.) to 29 kilograms (64 lbs.), according to the FAO. (In developed countries, the comparable figures were 65 kilos and 80 kilos.) As population increased, total meat consumption in the developing world grew nearly five-fold over that period.

Think about the land involved too. The more people demand meat the more grain will get planted. Brazil has 40% of the world's remaining rainforests. How much of those rainforests will get cut down to provide grazing areas and livestock grain crop areas to feed the growing ranks of hundreds of millions of affluent Asians?

Continued world economic development is going to push global meat consumption much higher.

Beyond that, annual global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tons at the beginning of the decade to 465 million tons in 2050.

My guess is this is an underestimate. Robots, nanotechnology, and other advances will spur much more global economic growth. Can these technologies also reduce the ecological footprint of livestock production?

The impact of China still seems underappreciated in projections I see about the future. China has over 4 times the population of the United States and its rapid economic growth is going to make it into a larger source of demand for most goods than the United States. I get the sense that we've become so accustomed to seeing the US as the biggest energy user, biggest user of raw materials, biggest consumer of meat, and top in so many other categories that China's emergence just doesn't seem real yet to most people. Get your mind around the idea that US consumption will rise but China's consumption will rise far more.

The rise of China to the top position is already starting to happen in many categories, For example, China's CO2 emissions may surpass those of the US as early as 2009. This poses two problems from an environmental perspective. First off, Chinese consumption and emissions come on top of US consumption and emissions. Second, the desire to reduce pollution increases as living standards rise. But since China has over 4 times as many people as the US the Chinese will feel less desire to reduce pollution and reduce ecological impact when they have the same total GDP. Why? At the same total GDP they'll have less than a 4th of per capita GDP and, since they've accumulated less stuff, even lower living standards than the per capita GDP difference suggests.

My concern is that a much larger fraction of the human race is going to become huge consumers of resources and huge generators of pollutants. We need to make huge technological strides to cut down the impacts of this development. I'm skeptical that we'll succeed. Affluent people will want bigger houses no larger tracts of manicured lawns. Plus, they'll want more livestock and wood. Habitat destruction in the tropics looks set to continue.

By Randall Parker    2007 February 20 11:13 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (5)
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