Frank Carini

Frank Carini: Time for municipal renewable-energy-based utilities?

solar3.jpg

Via ecoRI News (ecori.org)

More than a decade ago, Rock Port, a small farming community in northwest Missouri, reportedly became the first U.S. municipality to be powered almost exclusively by renewable energy. Four large wind turbines are connected to the power grid and provide the town’s nearly 1,400 residents with most of the power they need. The turbines produce about 16 million kilowatt-hours of electricity annually.

When the wind isn’t blowing, residents buy power from the grid. But on most days, the turbines generate enough wind power for the town to get paid to export energy.

Members of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats of America are hoping to create a similar energy situation in Cranston. The group is raising money to have a study done to determine if a municipal renewable-energy utility would work in Rhode Island’s second-largest city.

The group’s broader idea is to create an energy plan that would transform the Ocean State into a sizable producer of solar, tidal, and onshore wind power. The group’s aim is to generate 200 percent of the power that the state needs and to return energy profits to Rhode Island as citizen dividends and municipal funding.

ecoRI News recently spoke with Nate Carpenter, the group’s state coordinator, and Wil Gregersen, its environmental co-coordinator, about Rhode Island’s renewable-energy potential and its ability to address climate change. While they admitted that the project, which is in its infancy stage, is ambitious, they also noted that it’s an excellent way to fight climate change.

Gregersen said the idea is to “build a pressure from underneath” to move legislators to address the issue.

“We really want to sell this to every person who lives here,” he said. “We know that all the pieces for doing this kind of thing exist … renewable-energy technology, models for setting up a municipal utility, all these pieces are out there they just need to be assembled.”

“We want to make switching to renewable energy an attractive offer,” Carpenter added. “We want to incentivize people to make this change.”

Rhode Island currently spends about $3 billion annually on energy, most of it from outside sources and most of it from fossil fuels. As an energy producer, Gregersen said, Rhode Island could keep that money in the local economy.

The Rhode Island chapter of the Progressive Democrats of America are partnering with Ocean State Community Energy, a collaborative of Massachusetts-based ReVenture Investments and 4E Energy, to develop a plan to build municipal utilities across Rhode Island, starting with a scalable design for a utility in Cranston. The design will use existing city infrastructure, will avoid green space, and will employ the latest innovations in renewable technology, they said.

With a well-researched plan that shows what such a utility would look like and how it would work, Gregersen and Carpenter say they will be able to start large-scale fundraising for a statewide plan and to advocate for similar projects across Rhode Island. The idea is strong, but they noted proof of concept is needed before any additional steps can be taken. The study will cost $26,000.

Gregersen said the study will determine how much renewable energy Cranston could produce and the amount of profit that could be generated. He said Cranston is a good model, because it has both urban and suburban areas.

“Rhode Island, the Blackstone valley, was the site of the Industrial Revolution and this was an incredibly powerful and wealthy place,” Gregersen said. “We’d like to do that again for our state by creating an energy revolution.”

Both Gregersen and Carpenter noted that they are disheartened by the time and effort that has been wasted dealing ineffectively with climate change. They said the issue needs to be addressed immediately. To address the ongoing lack of urgency, Carpenter said the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats of America has elevated addressing climate change/reducing fossil-fuel emissions as its core issue. He noted that worsening climate events will overstretch vulnerable communities and tear societies apart.

“We see with absolute clarity that if we don’t solve climate change we won’t solve anything we care about,” he said. “Everything that progressives are fighting for will come to nothing if climate change is allowed to continue. We’re not here to scare people. These things are real but we do have the ability to fix this, or at least mitigate the effects of climate change.”

Frank Carini is editor of ecoRI News.

Frank Carini: Microplastic pollution imperils corals

A recent study found that northern star coral polyps routinely consumed microplastics, shown above in blue, over brine shrimp eggs, shown in yellow.    — Photo by    Rotjan Marine Ecology Lab    at Boston University

A recent study found that northern star coral polyps routinely consumed microplastics, shown above in blue, over brine shrimp eggs, shown in yellow.

— Photo by Rotjan Marine Ecology Lab at Boston University

From ecoRI News

Coral reefs form the most biodiverse habitats in the ocean, and their health is essential to the survival of thousands of other marine species. Unfortunately, these vital underwater ecosystems are beginning to get a taste for plastic.


A Roger Williams University professor, working with a team of researchers, recently published a study that found corals will choose to eat plastic over natural food sources. Unsurprisingly, it’s not good for their health, as it can lead to illness and death from pathogenic microbes attached to microscopic plastics. It also adds to the stress already being applied to coral reefs worldwide, by acidifying and warming oceans, other pollution sources, development, and harmful fishing practices, such as dynamiting and bleaching to capture fish for aquariums.

The project grew from concern about the 6,350 million to 245,000 million metric tons of plastic in the world’s oceans, and the 4.8 million to 12.7 million metric tons of new plastic that enter annually.

Photographs and news reports have documented dead whales and seabirds found with stomachs full of plastic and of sea turtles suffocating from plastic straws clogging their nostrils. At least two-thirds of the world’s fish stocks are suffering from plastic ingestion, according to estimates, as much of the planet’s plastic pollution eventually makes its way into the ocean.

Roger Williams University associate professor of marine biology Koty Sharp recently told ecoRI News that plastic pollution presents a growing problem for both water- and land-based ecosystems.

“It’s a huge problem,” she said. “There’s really nowhere left on the planet that hasn’t been touched by plastics. We’re finding plastics in every organism we study.”

As much as plastic proliferation is a problem, Sharp is even more concerned about the impacts of a changing climate and how humans are using natural resources. She pointed to the manmade damage being done to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef as an example.

“We need to quickly and dramatically decrease our dependency on plastics and fossil fuels,” the microbiologist said. “This isn’t a problem a few people can fix.”

The study that Sharp helped author was published recently in London’s science journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. It is the first of its kind to identify that corals inhabiting the East Coast of the United States are “consuming a staggering amount of microplastics,” which alters their feeding behavior and has the potential to deliver fatal pathogenic bacteria.

In their samples of northern star coral, collected off the coast of Jamestown, R.I., each coral polyp — about the size of a pin head — contained more than 100 particles of microplastics, according to the collaborative research team that included Sharp, Randi Rotjan, a research assistant professor of biology at Boston University, and colleagues from UMass Boston, Boston Children’s Hospital Division of Gastroenterology, Harvard Medical School, and the New England Aquarium.

Northern star coral can be found from Buzzards Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. Since it can be found along the coast of most East Coast urban areas, Sharp said it is a “powerful tool” in helping to understand microplastic pollution.

Although this study is the first to document microplastics in wild corals, previous research had found that this same coral species consumed plastic in a laboratory setting. A 2018 study found plastic pollution can promote microbial colonization by pathogens implicated in outbreaks of disease in the ocean.

The study co-authored by Rotjan and Sharp produced similar lab results. When the researchers conducted experiments of feeding microbeads to the corals in their labs, Sharp said they found that the coral would more often choose the fossil-fuel derivative when given the choice between plastic and food of similar sizes and shapes, such as brine shrimp eggs.

In fact, every single polyp, or mouth, that was given the choice ate almost twice as many microbeads as brine shrimp eggs. After the polyps had filled their stomachs with plastic junk food with no nutritional value, they stopped eating the shrimp eggs altogether.

The study showed that bacteria can “ride in” on the microbeads. In the case of the bacteria they used in the lab — the intestinal bacterium E. coli — the microplastic-delivered bacteria killed the polyps that ingested them and their neighboring polyps within weeks, even though the polyps spit the microbeads out after about 48 hours. The E. coli bacterium persisted inside their digestive cavity.

“Research has shown that there are virtually no marine habitats that are untouched by plastics,” said Sharp, noting that research abounds demonstrating that nearly all ocean water contains plastic pollution. “Because of that, it’s critical that we understand the impact of plastics pollution. Microplastics pollution is a matter of global health — ecosystem health and human health.”

She noted that the problem of plastic pollution extends far beyond what can be seen. Plastics never fully degrade in seawater, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. Invisible to the naked eye, microplastics remain suspended in the water column, and this is what corals and other filter-feeding animals take in to get their food, she said.

The researchers had anticipated they would find microplastics in wild corals, but they were shocked by the volume present in their samples, according to Sharp.

Another invisible factor is the presence of microbes that hitch rides with plastics floating in the ocean, winding up in the stomachs of many creatures. These plastic-riding microbes are growing in number and upending the delicate balance of ecosystems.

Sharp said the problem is being made worse by human-induced climate change, which is helping bacteria to proliferate. She noted that microplastics in the ocean are coated with microbes.

“We know that plastic particles provide an enriching habitat for bacteria that are not usually in very high numbers in seawater,” Sharp said. “The microbial aspect of microplastics pollution is largely underexplored — it’s critical that we learn more about how plastics can affect the dynamics, abundance, and transport of microbes through our ecosystems and food webs. Alteration of microbiomes in our marine ecosystems by human-induced threats like plastics pollution and climate change holds great potential to impact marine environments on a global scale.”

To help mitigate the problem of plastic pollution, Sharp offered some tips:

Minimize single-use plastics. Use reusable bags and mugs. Buy groceries in bulk. Decline a straw if you don’t need one.

Take a day to count. How many times in one day do you use single-use plastics. What is unnecessary and what can be eliminated or replaced with more sustainable products?

Demand lower-impact packaging and support products with sustainable packaging.

Support and advocate for legislation and lawmakers that promote innovative solutions and alternatives for sustainable packaging.

“Given that plastics pollution is an ongoing threat co-occurring with climate change, it’s critical that we do more research to understand how they impact marine ecosystems together,” Sharp said, “and take immediate actions to minimize human impacts on the world’s oceans.”

Frank Carini is editor of ecoRI News.

Frank Carini: The uncertain future of 'the Yellowstone of the North Atlantic'

Kelp forest on Cashes Ledge    — Conservation Law Foundation photo

Kelp forest on Cashes Ledge

— Conservation Law Foundation photo

From ecoRI News (ecori.org)

Robert Lamb, as a Ph.D. student at Brown University, saw firsthand the “incredible diversity, breathtaking plant life, and healthy fish populations” that call Cashes Ledge home.

Lamb recently told ecoRI News that this pristine ecosystem is unlike anything else in the Gulf of Maine. That’s why he was part of a team that worked to permanently protect the 550-square-mile area that is 80 miles off the coast of Gloucester, Mass.

Led by Brown University Prof. Jon Witman, a team of divers from the Providence university, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the University of New Hampshire, and the National Park Service worked with the Conservation Law Foundation to document the bounty of marine life that exists at Cashes Ledge — a 22-mile-long underwater mountain range with average depths of 90 to 130 feet — and assess its vulnerability. This 4-minute video highlights some of that work.

The team’s efforts of four years ago, including holding roundtables and giving talks across the region, were undertaken in hopes that Cashes Ledge would be awarded a monument designation. The effort failed, but it did play a part in the creation, three years ago, of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, the only national monument in the Atlantic Ocean.

Lamb, who now works with the Witman Lab and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on various marine issues, believes that Cashes Ledge deserves the same protection, especially since the Gulf of Maine is one of the fastest-warming bodies of salt water in the world. He said the destruction of such an important underwater habitat would be devastating.

During the many dives the researchers and scientists took, censuses they conducted, and comparisons they made between Cashes Ledge and exploited coastal areas, such as the Isles of Shoals and Star Island, they found that fish biomass was about 500 times greater there than anywhere in the near shore and kelp biomass was also significantly greater, according to Lamb.

He noted that Cashes Ledge’s dense kelp forest is the most productive one in the North Atlantic.

The peaks and canyons of Cashes Ledge create nutrient- and oxygen-rich currents that support diverse habitats. The area is home to Atlantic wolffish, cod, cusk, sea stars, sea squirts, sea pens, horse mussels, anemones, rare sponges, and the largest continuous kelp forest along the Atlantic Seaboard. It also acts as a migratory pass for blue and porbeagle sharks, humpback and right whales, and bluefin tuna.

The value of Cashes Ledge has been recognized by the New England Fishery Management Council, as it has designated a large swath of the area as “essential fish habitat” for American plaice, Atlantic cod, haddock, halibut, monkfish, pollock, white hake, and witch flounder. The area is currently restricted, meaning most forms of fishing are prohibited.

Those protections, however, are “too little,” according to Lamb.

“It’s one of those places that is so unique and so beautiful … a treasure,” he said. “It merits protection for that reason alone, if not for the fisheries benefits. If you have a place where fish are allowed to grow unchecked and unimpeded by fishing, that creates a surplus of individuals that will swim, or disperses larvae, to other places that then can he caught, so it indirectly benefits fisheries.”

The partially protected area is also home to Ammen Rock, a peak so tall that it disrupts the Gulf of Maine current and creates upwellings of cold, nutrient-rich water which sustains the ledge’s vast variety of life.

Noted marine biologist Sylvia Earle has called Cashes Ledge “the Yellowstone of the North Atlantic.”

Modern commercial fishing technologies, however, make Cashes Ledge susceptible to damage. A bottom trawl, for example, could strip clear the kelp forest on Ammen Rock and completely alter the ecosystem, according to the Conservation Law Foundation. The Boston-based environmental advocacy organization has noted that some anemone populations could take up to 230 years to recover from a single drag of a bottom trawl.

Protected areas also have been shown to be more resilient to climate change, and provide sea life places to adapt to warming and acidifying waters.

See this video about Cashes Ledge.

Frank Carini is editor of ecoRI News.

Frank Carini: N.E. coastal-property values don't reflect threat of rising waters

Coastal flooding in Marblehead, Mass., on Oct. 29, 2012 during Superstorm Sandy.

Coastal flooding in Marblehead, Mass., on Oct. 29, 2012 during Superstorm Sandy.

From ecoRI News (ecori.org)

Along the nearly 13,000 miles of coastline of the contiguous United States, hundreds of thousands of buildings lie in the path of rising waters. Long before these properties and accompanying infrastructure are underwater, though, millions living in coastal communities will face more frequent flooding, as the tides inch higher and reach further inland.

Property values in most coastal real-estate markets, including in southern New England, however, don’t reflect this risk. These properties are routinely more expensive, even though their future is likely to be wet.

Accelerating sea-level rise, primarily driven by human activity, is projected to worsen tidal flooding in the United States, putting as many as 311,000 coastal homes in the lower 48 states, with a collective market value of nearly $118 billion, at risk of chronic flooding within the length of a typical mortgage, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Those 300,000-plus homes generate some $1.5 billion annually in property-tax revenue.

Another 14,000 or so coastal commercial properties assessed at a value of nearly $18.5 billion also are at risk during the next 30 years.

Although the Industrial Revolution began more than two and a half centuries ago, some 60 percent of industrial carbon dioxide emissions have been released since 1980, according to the Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit. Emissions from the extraction, manufacturing, and burning of products produced by 90 corporate cement manufacturers and fossil-fuel goliaths, such as Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell, contributed to nearly half of the global rise in surface temperature and about 30 percent of the rise in global sea level between 1880 and 2010.

By the end of this century, thanks in large part to decades of unrelenting climate emissions, 2.4 million homes and 107,000 commercial properties currently worth more than a combined $1 trillion could be underwater, according to UCS projections.

Many of the at-risk waterfront communities in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, most notably underserved and marginalized communities — the South Providence and Washington Park neighborhoods in Providence, for example — are underprepared to deal with the many challenges climate change presents.

Currently, according to a 2018 UCS report, 940 properties in Connecticut, 2,405 in Massachusetts, and 278 in Rhode Island are at risk. By 2030, under the organization’s high scenario, those numbers jump to 2,540, 3,303, and 419. The high scenario is where climate change is trending.

The UCS analysis combined property data from the online real-estate company Zillow with peer-reviewed methodology developed by the nonprofit for assessing areas at risk of frequent flooding. Using three sea-level-rise scenarios developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and localized for this analysis, UCS determined how many residential and commercial properties along the entire lower 48 coastline are at risk of becoming chronically inundated from high tides — flooding on average 26 times annually or more, or the equivalent of once every other week — in the coming decades even in the absence of major storms.

Shana Udvardy, a climate resilience analyst with the UCS who co-authored last year’s report, recently spoke with ecoRI News about sea-level rise and the growing risks of chronic inundation.

“We put this together because a lot of potential homebuyers don’t necessarily know that their home is at risk of tidal flooding,” she said. “Or that things like home insurance doesn’t cover flooding, so you need flood insurance.”

The core results in the 2018 report are from the high sea-level-rise scenario — an appropriately conservative projection to use when estimating risk to homes, according to Udvardy. This scenario projects an average of 1.9 feet of sea-level rise for Massachusetts in 2045 and 6.9 feet in 2100. The analysis also projects how many properties might avoid such flooding if sea-level rise is constrained through the achievement of the long-term temperature goals of the Paris Agreement and if ice loss is limited.

The results for Massachusetts, in particular, are sobering. The analysis found that without additional measures to adapt to rising seas that:

By 2045, about 7,000 of today’s residential properties, currently home to roughly 14,000 people, are at risk of chronic inundation. The total number of at-risk residential properties jumps to nearly 90,000 — home to about 178,000 people — by 2100. While Massachusetts has a network of shoreline stabilization structures along its coast, few of these are designed to keep out higher tides.

By 2045, more than $4 billion worth of residential property — based on today’s values — is at risk of chronic flooding. The homes that would face this flooding at the end of the century are currently worth roughly $63 billion — an amount that would rank the state fifth nationally in 2100 for value of residential properties at risk.

The Massachusetts homes at risk in 2045 currently contribute about $37 million in annual property-tax revenue. The homes at risk by 2100 currently contribute roughly $413 million collectively in annual property-tax revenue.

By 2045, five Massachusetts communities are projected to have 600 or more at-risk homes: Revere, Marshfield, Quincy, Hull, and Salisbury. In Salisbury and Hull, these homes represent more than 10 percent of the local property-tax base.

Homes valued below the state median are disproportionately at risk of chronic inundation in the next 30 years. Revere, Saugus, and Winthrop — all working-class suburbs of Boston — have large clusters of at-risk homes.

Massachusetts ranks fourth in the nation for the most commercial properties at risk by the end of the century. By 2045, nearly 500 of today’s commercial properties in Massachusetts, currently assessed at more than $1 billion, would experience chronic inundation. In 2100, this number jumps to roughly 8,000 properties — assessed at about $35 billion today.

Coastal flooding, as seen here in March 2014 on Main Street in Warren, R.I., is being caused by more frequent and intense rains and storms. (ecoRI News)

Market crash

Once market risk perceptions catch up with reality, the potential drop in coastal property values could have reverberations throughout the economy, according to the UCS, and could potentially trigger regional housing market crises.

Homeowners whose properties become chronically inundated may find themselves with mortgages that exceed the value of their homes, or face steeply rising flood insurance premiums. Lenders carrying large numbers of these risky mortgages could lose money or even become insolvent, with smaller banks concentrated in areas with high-flood risk being especially exposed. Coastal real-estate investors and developers may similarly experience financial losses in some coastal areas.

Udvardy noted that there are many federal, state, and local policies that, while originally well intentioned, mask risk and create incentives that reinforce the status quo or expose more people and property to risk. The market’s bias toward short-term decision-making and profits can also perpetuate risky development and investment choices. These flawed policies and incentives include incomplete or outdated flood-risk information, subsidized insurance, lax zoning and building codes, and incentives for business-as-usual development and rebuilding.

Identifying and improving the best policies and market drivers of risky coastal development is necessary to better protect communities, Udvardy said. She noted the importance of “climate-safe infrastructure.”

To use the UCS’s interactive mapping tool, click here. The map allows you to learn more about the impact of chronic inundation on properties, people, home values, and the tax base in specific states, communities, or ZIP codes. When you zoom in, the maps become more detailed. You can also click on a specific state or community for more details about it.

Udvardy encouraged municipal and state officials to use the report and UCS website as a climate-change tool.

“The need for action is now,” she said.

Frank Carini is ecoRI News's editor. Joanna Detz, an ecoRI journalist, contributed to this report.

Frank Carini: Dogfish is as tasty as cod

Dogfish    — Photo by Doug Costa of NOAA

Dogfish

— Photo by Doug Costa of NOAA

From ecoRI News (ecori.org)

Dogfish doesn’t have an appetizing ring to it. The name for this member of the shark family has kept it off dinner plates, at least in the United States. In Britain, dogfish is often the key ingredient in fish and chips.

A few years ago, in an attempt to make the fish sound more appealing, the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, New England fishermen, and conservationists tried to rebrand it as “Cape shark.” The effort to create local demand for this plentiful regional species, which grew in number with the collapse of the cod fishery, hasn’t yet taken hold.

Kate Masury, program director of Eating with the Ecosystem, said that, with its mild white boneless flesh, dogfish is less flaky than cod but just as delicious.

Eating with the Ecosystem, a Rhode Island-based nonprofit that promotes a place-based approach to sustaining New England’s wild seafood, is working with consumers, chefs, suppliers, processors, and fishermen to build a market for dogfish and the many other lower-valued species swimming off New England’s coast.

“It’s about increasing consumer awareness about what is out there and creating a demand,” Masury said.

More than 100 edible wild seafood species thrive in the region’s salty waters. But finding most of them, such as dogfish, ocean perch, scup, periwinkles, sea robin, or sea urchin, at a local market or on a restaurant menu is a challenge.

A new Eating with the Ecosystem study that used citizen scientists to track the availability of these under-appreciated species documented some interesting observations about local fish and shellfish in the New England marketplace.

Unsurprisingly, the region’s seafood counters are heavily dominated by five classic New England species: lobster, sea scallops, soft-shell clams, cod, and haddock.

At the other end of the market spectrum, however, half of the 52 local species included in the recent study were found less than 10 percent of the time. Many of these species, including dogfish, whiting, skate and Atlantic butterfish, which is often caught as bycatch in the squid fishery and shouldn’t be confused with its West Coast version, are among the most abundant species in the ocean ecosystem off the New England coast.

But despite their prevalence in local waters, these four species were found even less often, only 3 percent of the time. Dogfish was only found twice out of 198 searches, and skate 14 times (252). Both butterfish (268) and whiting (198) were found eight times.

The Eat Like a Fish citizen science project studied wildlife in a human habitat: the markets, kitchens, and tables that form the final links of the supply chains that connect ocean to plate. (Eating with the Ecosystem)

The report’s findings are based on a research effort called the Eat Like a Fish citizen science project. The project’s 86 participants hailed from all walks of life and resided in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, and New Hampshire.

For 26 weeks, from May to October of last year, the 86 volunteers, including 19 from Rhode Island, visited seafood markets, grocery stores, farmers markets, and seaside fishing piers in search of the 52 New England seafood species. Each participant received a weekly list of four randomly chosen local species and searched for them in up to three local markets. Upon encountering one of their species, they took it home and made a meal out of it.

“Citizen scientists found a stark mismatch between what’s swimming in local waters and what’s available on local seafood counters,” said Masury, who coordinated the research project. “This imbalance can strain the resilience of New England’s underwater ecosystems and undermine the well-being of the people who depend on them. Moving forward, we hope to see the New England marketplace do a better job of reflecting the full diversity of what our waters have to offer.”

The study’s goals were to understand how well New England’s retail marketplace reflects the diversity of local seafood and to draw on the volunteers’ lived experiences to help explain why these mismatches exist and what can be done to correct them.

As ecosystems change more rapidly because of climate change, Masury said diversity must become a cornerstone of the way we eat and market seafood. She also noted that understanding the assimilation of local species by the regional seafood supply chains is an important first step in achieving greater symmetry between ecosystems and markets, reducing impacts on ocean food webs, and positioning local fishing economies to be resilient in the face of change.

Citizen scientists who took part in the project say it was informative, challenging, and frustrating.

“At the inception of the project, I had no doubt that I would find, prepare, and marvel at my brilliance with new, exotic, local species of seafood each week,” said Sherri Darocha, a participating citizen scientist from Rhode Island. “I never dreamed that most weeks it would be so challenging to find even one fish on my list. After twenty-six weeks, I have plenty of pent-up fish envy that will only be soothed by finding species that have eluded me, like cunner and red hake.”

To assist consumers in finding these largely ignored species and help reduce the strain on the region’s ocean ecosystem, Eating with the Ecosystem offers several tips for consumers interested in expanding their local seafood options:

Seek out local species you haven’t tried before. Many citizen scientists discovered new favorite seafood species by going outside their comfort zone.

Don’t shy away from whole fish. Using every part of the fish reduces waste. The more mess you make in the kitchen, the more you will enjoy the meal that follows.

If you don’t see a particular local species available at the seafood counter, ask for it. Letting your fishmonger know you would like to buy it will help build demand.

Many fishmongers can locate hard-to-find local seafood species if you notify them in advance. Special ordering these species helps show fishmongers that there is interest in purchasing them, without requiring them to assume any risk.

When experimenting with new species, make it a social event. Team up with friends and family members who share your commitment. Citizen scientists relished the long-distance camaraderie that developed through the Eat Like a Fish project.

To help seafood lovers diversify their diets, Eating with the Ecosystem recently produced a cookbook called Simmering the Sea: Diversifying Cookery to Sustain Our Fisheries. Populated with whimsical ecological tales, imaginative artwork, and simple yet elegant recipes, the 100-page book celebrates 40 under-appreciated fish and shellfish that populate the Northwest Atlantic Ocean.

Frank Carini is editor of ecoRI News, where this article first appeared.

Frank Carini: Newport Dinner Train cited for herbicide use

The Newport Dinner Train back in 2009.

The Newport Dinner Train back in 2009.

From ecoRI News (ecori.org)

PORTSMOUTH, R.I.

Last fall the Newport & Narragansett Bay Railroad Co. was cited by the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council for spraying herbicide within 200 feet of coastal features without approval.

The unauthorized spraying of poison by the North Kingstown-based operation, which runs the Newport Dinner Train, along railroad tracks that run along the West Passage of Narragansett Bay, including through coastal wetlands and people’s backyards, caused “vegetative alterations,” according to the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC).

The spraying was in violation of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Program, which notes that the indiscriminate use of herbicides or the clear-cutting of vegetation is prohibited.

The Sept. 20, 2018 notice of violation noted that failure to comply would result in a cease-and-desist order.

In January, a railroad representative signed a consent agreement, agreeing to clean up the dead vegetation from the rail corridor over the winter. The Newport & Narragansett Bay Railroad Co. paid an administrative fine of $250, which is common practice when a violator agrees to sign a consent agreement to resolve a violation.

It was also agreed that the company would submit a long-term vegetation management plan, as company officials told CRMC that regular maintenance of the vegetation would be needed.

The deadline for the company’s vegetation plan was March 30. As of April 1, no plan had been received, according to a CRMC official. She said enforcement will likely do a site inspection this week to see if the company is in compliance.

“Buffer zones along the perimeter of coastal water bodies can be effective in trapping sediments, pollutants … and absorbing nutrients (particularly nitrogen) from surface water runoff and groundwater flow,” according to CRMC. “The effectiveness of vegetated buffers as a best management practice for the control of nonpoint source runoff is dependent upon their ability to reduce the velocity of runoff flow to allow for the deposition of sediments, and the filtration and biological removal of nutrients.”

Coastal buffer zones also provide habitat for native plants and animals.

“Vegetation within a buffer zone provides cover from predation and climate, and habitat for nesting and feeding by resident and migratory species,” according to CRMC. “Some species which use coastal buffer zones are now relatively uncommon, while others are considered rare, threatened or endangered. These plants and animals are essential to the preservation of Rhode Island’s valuable coastal ecosystem.”

Frank Carini is editor of ecoRI News.


Frank Carini: Some property owners battle bikes in downtown Providence

Kennedy Plaza    — Photo by Joanna Detz/eco RI News

Kennedy Plaza

— Photo by Joanna Detz/eco RI News

From ecoRI News (ecori.org)

PROVIDENCE

A group of downtown property owners has gone to court to halt a series of city and state projects designed to, among other things, improve bus service, including changing traffic patterns and making Washington Street open to buses only.

Kathleen Gannon, vice chair of the Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition’s board of directors, said the Providence-based advocacy group is also alarmed by the lawsuit’s contention that “increased bicycle traffic” will be a negative byproduct of the plaza’s redesign.

“Bringing more bicycles to the center of Providence is a good thing,” she said. “We believe that diversifying transportation modes in the city and increased bicycle use benefits all residents. Further, it is self-serving and backward looking to attempt to thwart an effort to improve the city’s transportation infrastructure.”

Fellow Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition board member Christian Roselund said he can’t believe the lawsuit’s plaintiffs are complaining that the redesign will bring more bicyclists and public transit commuters downtown. He called such concern “nuts,” especially by “anyone who cares about economic development.”

“It’s been shown in city after city after city around the world that if you want to bring people to your downtown areas, if you want them to spend money there, bicycles are a great way to do it,” he said. “This is really regressive thinking. Alternative transportation is not a nuisance.”

The plaintiffs claim that the Kennedy Plaza redesign could impact their quality of life and bring down property values.

In the lawsuit filed in Superior Court last month, the plaintiffs, including entities controlled by former Mayor Joseph Paolino, claim that a bus hub at the Providence train station and the dedicated bus corridor being built through Kennedy Plaza could impact their quality of life and bring down property values.

“The Kennedy Plaza Project and specifically the re-routing of the bus routes, alteration of bus stops and alteration of traffic patterns on Fulton Street and Washington Street stands to cause property damage, property devaluation, inconvenience, annoyance and an interference with the Plaintiffs’ quiet enjoyment of their Properties,” according to the lawsuit filed by Concerned Citizens of Capital Center LLC, a recently created nonprofit that includes about a dozen commercial and residential owners and partnerships that own three downtown buildings — 100 Westminster Partners LLC, 30 Kennedy Partners LLC, and Exchange Street Hotel LLC.

The suit names the city of Providence, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, and the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, among others, as defendants.

Joe Mancini, who is representing the Concerned Citizens of Capital Center, told ABC 6 News last month that his clients will lose access to parking and garage spaces and that the changes don’t address current issues and concerns in Kennedy Plaza.

Gannon said the redesign’s overarching intent — a truly intermodal transportation hub in the center of Providence — is promising. She noted that an emphasis on cars to the near-exclusion of other transportation options hasn’t served downtown Providence well. In fact, she believes the car-orientated downtown design has led to a loss of retail activity and jobs and lower property values.

“We have a choice to make about the kind of city Providence will be,” she said. “If we want a thriving, successful downtown area, with a higher quality of life and inclusion for all residents, we must embrace changes that will bring a full range of transportation options to the city center and not retreat into failed models.”

The Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition isn’t the only group troubled by the recent court action. The RIPTA Riders Alliance is concerned that a “few wealthy real estate firms in downtown Providence have filed a lawsuit attempting to halt improvements to our state’s public transit system.”

“Instead of trying to work cooperatively with the people who actually rely on the bus system and with other stakeholders, developer Joseph Paolino and his allies have opted to go to court to stop state and local plans to improve bus service in the center of Providence,” according to Barry Schiller, a RIPTA Riders Alliance member.

The transit advocacy group said the Concerned Citizens of Capital Center lawsuit will needlessly delay implementation of downtown projects and will increase their costs. The group called the lawsuit shortsighted, as “good transit access to downtown is one of center city’s principal advantages.”

“Those bringing this lawsuit fail to recognize that public transit — and bicycle ridership — is essential in combating the pollution and traffic congestion that contribute to climate change,” according to the RIPTA Riders Alliance.

Frank Carini is editor of ecoRI News.

Frank Carini: On the path to a great beech

Rhode Island arborist Matt Largess recently led a tour of Wingover Farm’s forest. He was impressed with what he saw.    — Frank Carini/ecoRI News photos

Rhode Island arborist Matt Largess recently led a tour of Wingover Farm’s forest. He was impressed with what he saw.

— Frank Carini/ecoRI News photos

From ecoRI News (ecori.org)

To see the video and more photos with this article, please hit this link.

TIVERTON, R.I.

The “oohs and aahs” and “oh my gods” were followed immediately by one or more superlatives from among “amazing,” “cool,” “awesome,” “incredible” and “wow.”

“If you could leave this for 100 years people would come from around the world to see it because everything else is going be gone. Just think of it that way,” Matt Largess, a respected Rhode Island arborist who has studied East Coast forests from Maine to the Florida Keys, said near the end of an hourlong walk in the woods on a 72-acre farm not far from the coast. “If Rhode Island could start to think that way, if they saved their places where people come as ecotourists to see the forest. I know its sounds farfetched but in 100 years it’s going to be that crucial, not only to see our leaf colors but just come to be in a forest near our ocean. Rhode Island is one of the great environments. We have these beautiful forests right up to the ocean, but they’re diminishing rapidly.”

During an Oct. 18 tour of Wingover Farm’s “unique” forestland, the leaves of Rhode Island’s state tree, the red maple, were turning color and Largess and two colleagues, Daryl Ward and Kara Discenza, were constantly pointing out trees of all shapes, sizes, and ages.

During the 60-minute tour, they counted nearly two dozen different types of trees, including American beech, American holly, black and white oaks, yellow and white pines, black tupelo, yellow and paper birches, sassafras, black cherry, and bigtooth aspen.

And not just individual trees, but stands of black birch, groups of teenage and adult red maple growing together, and baby holly trees sprouting from the forest floor. Largess said having birch, holly, and beech together in one place was special. He used the word “special” a lot. He said the forest has an “impressive understory.” He noted that some of the tallest hollies documented in North America are in Tiverton and Little Compton. He said native forests of American beech are shrinking rapidly, especially in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

With the population of the region’s American beech decreasing, Largess was thrilled to discover a large beech tree he repeatedly called “the mother tree.” He said the tree must be 300-400 years old and was surrounded by younger beeches, 150 or so years old, waiting to be the next mother. He pointed out beechdrops, a wildflower that lacks chlorophyll and produces brown stems on which small white and purple flowers appear July through October, growing under the forest’s majestic beech tree.

The property’s other vegetation included, among many others, mountain laurel, a broadleaf evergreen shrub; sweet pepperbush, a shrub with fragrant white or pink terminal flower spikes in late summer; and winterberry holly, a shrub with copious amounts of bright-red berries that shine in the fall and winter landscape.

Largess called the layered and biodiverse property, which includes a pond alive with frogs and fish, “a balanced ecosystem.” He said it would be an excellent location for the Rhode Island Natural History Survey to hold a BioBlitz, would make a wonderful outdoor classroom for local students, and could be a great future ecotourism site, as it could be tied into nearby Weetamoo Woods.

Julie Munafo invited the Largess Forestry professionals on the tour to better understand what could be lost should the property be developed into an 11-megawatt solar facility.

Munafo’s family has owned the Crandall Road property since the 1970s, but a pending sale could lead to some 40 acres of solar panels. The buyer’s proposed project would inevitably decimate forestland, ruin farmland, and destroy wildlife habitat.

The family is torn by the pending sale of the property — Munafo, for one, doesn’t want to see the farm reduced to acres of solar panels. But the family was unable to come to an agreement with the local land trust or find a buyer interested in farming and/or preservation, according to Munafo. She said she believes the property is selling for about a million dollars.

Largess, who has become a leading spokesmen for the preservation of trees and old-growth forests, said the farm’s open space is unique, as it features, in this order, open fields, young woodlands, and a mature forest. He was impressed with the property’s mix of vegetation, most notably its diverse collection of tree species. He noted that forestland like this “needs to be protected,” not turned into an energy facility, subdivision, or an office park.

In fact, the staunch conservationist believes that trees deserve more respect, which is why his company is “dedicated to the preservation, restoration, and education of the the Earth’s forests while enhancing awareness and knowledge of the natural world.”

“Trees are the No. 1 tool to battle climate change,” Largess said. “But my work as an arborist is less about planting trees and more about cutting them down, because cars are getting dirty or someone wants to see the water.”

 

 

Like many following the ongoing debates across Rhode Island on where to site solar projects, Largess doesn’t understand why so many are gung-ho to clear-cut forests. Like others who have weighed in on the controversial topic, he believes Rhode Island can deal with the issues of interconnection, infrastructure, incentives, property rights, and economics without sacrificing priceless open space. (A city in eastern China is building the world’s first photovoltaic highway.)

The will, both public and political, however, needs to be there. The state, its 39 municipalities, its 1.06 million people, and a host of nonprofit organizations have been grappling with the issue for two years. The town of Tiverton, for instance, is pondering a solar moratorium until it can craft an ordinance that better addresses the siting of utility-scale solar energy.

Munafo, who, like Largess, supports renewable energy, at least those projects sited responsibly, has been a vocal proponent of the moratorium. She believes the project proposed for her family’s property doesn’t mesh with the town’s comprehensive plan or even Tiverton’s current solar ordinance. In a letter to the editor recently published in the Sakonnet Times, the Jamestown resident asks: “How is wiping out a historic farmhouse, prime farmland and a special forest for a massive solar plant consistent with the comprehensive plan?”

Site work in the woods of Wingover Farm, likely done to determine the property’s ability to host an industrial-scale solar project, has already claimed a number of trees, including a small stand of American holly.

Once the trees are cut down and the solar panels installed, Largess said the development will clear a path for Russian olive, oriental bittersweet, and other invasive species to take root.

“All these trees will be gone and the whole ecosystem will change,” Largess said. “This place is special. It’s hard to find green spaces like this anymore. This property is a classic example of the problems we are having.”

Frank Carini is editor of ecori.org

 

Frank Carini: How to start blocking catastrophe

wood.jpg

From ecoRI News (ecori.org)

History will not be kind to many of us, most notably Baby Boomers, Millennials, the Joneses and Gen Xers. We’ll be remembered for savaging the planet even though we knew better. We’ll be synonymous with selfishness. Our hubris will be infamous.

The latest projections from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) aren’t pretty: widespread drought, food shortages, and a mass die-off of coral reefs, perhaps as soon as 2040. Our collective modus operandi will be to ignore the report’s facts, discredit its science, and blame more frequent and intense storms and raging wildfires on everything but the burning of fossil fuels, our unrelenting procreation, and human arrogance, from flatulent bovines to the pesky sun.

We’ve been ignoring climate change for generations. Even though our 140-character attention span was recently increased to 280, the issue is too big for our selfie society to take the time to understand. Plus, if we did, we’d actually have to change our behaviors and reduce our consumption.

The future other generations — and many of us — are facing will be even crueler to the desperate and will be more devoid of biodiversity. More people will suffer and more species will be lost. And you know what, the sad truth is we don’t give a damn — at least not enough of us, at least not yet.

The daily news cycle largely ignores the topic of climate change, because it doesn’t change much from day to day. It can’t be measured in polls, there aren’t many sexy soundbites, and it doesn’t get good ratings. Plus, much of the media can’t be bothered to focus on a slow-motion crisis that impacts everyone and everything on the planet.

The IPCC’s recent report, which was released Oct. 8, warns that world governments have only a dozen years to take meaningful action. The reaction so far to the latest climate warning? You can hear what’s left of the world’s crickets chirping.

With recent climate-change projections being more dire than previously thought, heading off disaster and suffering will require a massive effort from governments around the world. Unfortunately, generations’ worth of evidence shows there’s little reason to believe that humanity is up for the challenge.

The kind of political will and movement away from partisan pandering required to make the necessary changes could be driven by a nagging public, but that sort of pressure depends on the collective public diverting its attention away from the latest iPhone, the escapades of real housewives, the D.C. follies, and the fortunes of sports teams. The odds are against that, which is exactly what the profiteers want. We’re easily distracted when the status quo yells “squirrel.”

For instance, the recent U.N. report, which stresses the need to protect and restore forests, was released two weeks after more than 200 organizations, elected officials, and scientists unveiled their Stand4Forests campaign. The nationwide effort demands the protection of forests as a vital climate solution and warns against false technology solutions such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage. The campaign’s message has largely been ignored.

“Climate science shows that we cannot stop a climate catastrophe without scaling up the protection of forests around the world,” according to Stand4Forests supporters.

In Rhode Island, the ongoing debate surrounding the protection of forestland provides a microcosm of the world’s larger problem. During the past several years, Rhode Island has clear-cut forest, both young and oldish, to build a casino and an office park, and to accommodate other revolutionary ideas, such as a fossil-fuel power plant. There’s a current rush intensifying to chop down forests to build solar arrays, to help power our growing collection of mobile devices and televisions. To defend this shortsighted practice, some profiteers have argued that this sacrifice is necessary to protect the environment. They ignore the land we have already ruined for use as potential solar fields.

Just because renewable energy is much cleaner than fossil fuels doesn’t mean that such projects have the right to be sited irresponsibly.

The current recorded amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is nearly 406 parts per million (ppm) — well beyond the 350 ppm that climate scientists have deemed safe for humans, never mind most of the planet’s other living inhabitants.

Nevertheless, the U.S. forest industry, for one, is rapidly replacing much of the nation’s mature forests with younger forests and commercial tree plantations. Degraded and fragmented woodlands are far less effective at storing carbon than old-growth forests, they are more vulnerable to wildfires, and they aren’t nearly as helpful when it comes to flood prevention.

Forests, especially mature ones, also provide clean air and fresh water, are home to thousands of species of plants and animals, and are a vital necessity when it comes to addressing climate change — should we ever really decide to.

Part of a true action plan, according to the Stand4Forests campaign, should include:

Ending subsidies for false solutions such as industrial-scale bioenergy and genetically engineered trees.

Investing in forest protection as a resiliency and adaptation strategy for communities vulnerable to the impacts of pollution and climate change.

Developing just economic transition strategies for communities dependent on an extractive forest economy and provide more options for landowners and municipalities to keep forests standing and thriving.

Rhode Island could also start doing its part, beyond signing toothless executive orders, ignoring policy recommendations, and supporting schemes such as voluntary compliance.

The time is now for Rhode Island and the rest of the world to reflect on our behaviors, actions, and attitudes that are bankrupting the future. The only real answer to mitigating our life-changing impacts is sacrifice. It starts with you.

Frank Carini is the ecoRI News editor.

Frank Carini: Nitrogen from houses threatens coastal salt ponds

Mashchaug Pond, in Westerly, one of southern Rhode Island's salt ponds, also called lagoons.

Mashchaug Pond, in Westerly, one of southern Rhode Island's salt ponds, also called lagoons.

From ecoRI News (ecori.org)

CHARLESTOWN, R.I. — People flock to live on and visit the coast here, but in the town’s most densely developed area, excess nitrogen from all those coastal dwellings is threatening the health of three salt ponds that connect to Block Island Sound and are the foundation of the local tourism industry.

This salt-ponds watershed makes up 33 percent of the town but contains 63 percent of all Charlestown dwellings. Dense development around the Ocean State’s coastal salt ponds isn’t limited to Charlestown.

The salt-pond region of southern Rhode Island extends from Maschaug Pond in Westerly to Point Judith Pond in Narragansett and forms the natural boundary between the Atlantic Ocean and a shallow freshwater aquifer. This watershed is so built up that vital ecosystems are under enormous pressure.

“A burgeoning population and increasing competition among activities threatens to overwhelm the capacity of the salt ponds to absorb wastes, provide shelter for boats and vessels, attract residents and tourists and underpin premium real estate values,” according to the Coastal Resources Management Council’s Salt Ponds Region Special Area Management Plan. “Large areas of the salt ponds are poorly flushed, which makes them valuable as fish and shellfish nurseries, but, also particularly susceptible to eutrophication and bacterial contamination.”

Studies and surveys by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and by state agencies across the country have found that nonpoint source pollution, such as excess fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides, oil, grease, and toxic chemicals from runoff, and bacteria and nutrients from faulty septic systems, causes the most harm to rivers, streams, lakes, estuaries, coastal waters, and wetlands.

In Rhode Island’s salt-pond region, cesspools and failing and substandard septic systems are the largest source of bacterial and nutrient contamination. In Charlestown, work done by the University of Rhode Island's Cooperative Extension and Nonpoint Education for Municipal Officials has found that 80 percent of groundwater nitrate is from onsite wastewater treatment systems.

In the town’s coastal-pond watershed sampling of private wells has found nitrogen concentrations that approach or exceed the EPA established maximum contaminant level of 10 milligrams per liter. The EPA action level is 5 mg/L. Charlestown relies exclusively on groundwater for drinking.

Besides contaminating drinking-water wells, this nitrogen-enriched groundwater also eventually flows into Charlestown’s three coastal salt ponds, where it causes eutrophication and increases the risk of hypoxia.

Since 1994, Green Hill Pond and eastern Ninigret Pond have been closed to shellfishing because of “significantly deteriorated water quality.”

The total average annual influx of nitrogen to Charlestown’s three coastal ponds is nearly 1.2 million pounds, according to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM). Here is the breakdown: Green Hill Pond, 46,903 pounds; Ninigret Pond, 44,794; Quonochontaug Pond, 24,579.

Matt Dowling, hired in 2008 as Charlestown’s first full-time onsite wastewater manager — only a handful of Rhode Island municipalities have a such a position — recently told ecoRI News that reducing nitrogen loading is a major priority from both a public-health and environmental-protection perspective.

Charlestown began addressing the problem in earnest four years before Dowling, an environmental scientist, was hired. 

In the town’s coastal-pond watershed sampling of private wells has found nitrogen concentrations that approach or exceed EPA established maximum contaminant levels.

Filling in holes

In 2004, three years before a Rhode Island enacted a law to address a statewide problem, Charlestown officials took a bold step by requiring the elimination of all cesspools, which are merely holes in the ground that do nothing to treat human waste. These 55-gallon or so concrete- or stone-lined pits with holes in which sewage is flushed offer no treatment for pathogens, harmful bacteria, and nutrients, most notably nitrogen.

Cesspools and failing septic systems contaminate groundwater, the only source of drinking water in Charlestown. Conventional septic systems, meanwhile, do little to address the problem of nitrogen loading.

The town’s forward-thinking ordinance that required all cesspools be removed and replaced by 2009 was later modified. A zoned phase-out was implemented that mandated cesspools to be replaced by June 2014. Mission nearly accomplished.

Of the nearly 1,000 cesspools that once marked the local landscape, only 12 remain, according to Dowling.

The removal of the remaining cesspools is being managed through the town’s municipal court or by the Wastewater Management Commission’s waiver program that grants relief to property owners with financial hardships.

Statewide, DEM identified 1,084 cesspools subject to Rhode Island Cesspool Act of 2007 provisions requiring the replacement of those within 200 feet of a coastal shoreline feature, within 200 feet of a public drinking-water well, or within 200 feet of a public drinking-water reservoir, according to an agency spokeswoman.

She recently told ecoRI News that at last check 752 of those cesspools were replaced with a septic system and 147 were removed from service because the property connected to a sewer line, leaving 185 cesspools that haven’t yet come into compliance with the law.

“It is worth noting that these numbers are a snapshot,” she wrote in an e-mail. “There are sites working through the permitting process all the time so it is likely that more cesspools have been removed from service than are reported here.”

There are more than 3,000 onsite wastewater treatment systems in Charlestown’s salt ponds watershed and nearly 84 percent are within a ‘Lands Developed Beyond Carrying Capacity’ area.

Nutrient overload

Conventional septic systems typically have final effluent nitrogen concentrations of 44 milligrams per liter. For a three-bedroom home, this amounts to a nitrogen discharge of some 21 pounds annually.

In Charlestown, there are 3,008 onsite wastewater-treatment systems in the salt ponds watershed. Of those, nearly 84 percent, including 138 systems classified as unpermitted and/or substandard and installed before 1968, are within a Coastal Resources Management Council “Lands Developed Beyond Carrying Capacity” area, which frequently means one residential or commercial unit per one-eighth to half an acre.

In Charlestown, Dowling noted that the housing density is 8-10 dwellings per acre, and each lot has a septic system and well.

“Such intense development was the major source of contamination to groundwater and the salt ponds,” according to the Salt Ponds Region Special Area Management Plan. “High nutrient loadings and contaminated runoff waters were resulting in a high incidence of polluted wells and increasing evidence of eutrophic conditions and bacterial contamination in adjoining salt pond waters.”

Septic systems with nitrogen-reducing technology, however, are designed to lower nitrogen concentrations in wastewater by 50 percent. Dowling and the town are working with property owners to install this technology in the coastal ponds watershed. In the past eight years about 35 septic systems with this technology have been installed in Charlestown.

In 2016, Charlestown received an EPA grant to, among other things, help upgrade 15 substandard septic systems with nitrogen-reducing technology. The chosen homeowners will be compensated 75 percent of the total cost. The $674,201 grant also is funding a quarterly effluent sampling program for up to 50 property owners with denitrification systems.

To make sure that these expensive systems — $25,000 on average — are working properly and not underperforming, Dowling said data are needed to measure nitrogen output and to adjust the systems to meet their optimal nitrogen-reducing capacity. Barnstable County on Cape Cod is running a similar sampling program to help ensure a substantial decrease in nitrogen loading.

If the town were to be sewered — an expensive proposition that would require an agreement with South Kingstown — more property would be opened up to development, Dowling explained. Less nitrogen would be discharged to groundwater and the coastal ponds, but other development pressures would increase.

The four-year grant is also being used to help the town’s voluntary Recommended Landscaper Process partner with Save The Bay to install six demonstration rain gardens on public property, and partner with the Salt Ponds Coalition to establish two surface water sampling stations in Green Hill Pond to track nutrient impacts.

Modeling has demonstrated that fertilizer use contributes as much as 20 percent of the groundwater nitrogen in densely areas where high-maintenance lawns are clustered, according to Dowling.

Lawn chemicals aimed at killing pests, insect or plant, also take a toll on the ponds' health. During a recent visit to the area, two adjacent homes on Powaget Avenue had "Lawn Chemicals Applied" signs in their front yards.

Frank Carini is editor of ecoRI News.

 

Frank Carini: 2 bills could help the rich wall off the R.I. coastline

The maximum building height in Charlestown is 35 feet, plus up to 5 feet of freeboard in flood hazard areas. If Rhode Island Builders Association-supported bills are passed, coastal structures in Charlestown and along the entire coast could get a lot taller    -- Charlestown Building Department

The maximum building height in Charlestown is 35 feet, plus up to 5 feet of freeboard in flood hazard areas. If Rhode Island Builders Association-supported bills are passed, coastal structures in Charlestown and along the entire coast could get a lot taller

-- Charlestown Building Department

Via ecoRI News (ecori.org)

CHARLESTOWN, R.I. — Two bills recently approved by the Rhode Island General Assembly support the construction of taller buildings along the Ocean State’s shoreline, which, according to some municipal planners and building officials, would essentially result in the walling off of the coast.

The bills passed in the House and Senate on June 23, the last day of the 2018 legislative session. The bills now await the governor's signature. If signed by the governor, the new law would go into effect March 1, 2019.

The Rhode Island Builders Association is using the state’s desire to replace Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood maps with more detailed Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) maps as a way to “dramatically increase building height along the coast,” Charlestown town planner Jane Weidman said.

She noted that the bills would essentially increase structure size in coastal areas that are increasingly susceptible to sea-level rise, more frequent and intense storms, and other climate-change impacts.

“It’s not good planning practice in general to build homes that block the shore and obstruct the view,” Weidman said. “We should be retreating or moving away, not promoting larger structures in flood zones. Why do we want to be massing up the most sensitive areas we have?”

The Charlestown Town Council adopted a resolution opposing Senate bill S2413 and its companion House bill H7741. The council, along with Weidman and Joe Warner, the town’s building/zoning official and its floodplain manager, are against altering the state definition of “building height” to allow measurement from base flood elevation instead of existing-grade elevation.

Rhode Island building height has for years been measured from the average natural grade, or from the ground itself, according to Weidman. Under the proposed bills, that way of measuring would stay in the state Zoning Enabling Act of 1991 for all new structures except those being built in flood hazard areas, which would automatically be allowed to go to an elevation equal to base flood elevation as the measuring starting point, she said.

“This new bill would allow for three to three and a half floors instead of two,” Warner said. “We promote elevating above base flood elevation and the changes we made two years ago are working well. This bill isn’t adding any incentive or benefit for flood protection or protection against extreme weather. It does nothing to protect buildings from damage. We’d be building elevated mansions.”

Building and planning officials in South Kingstown, Westerly and Narragansett share similar concerns.

ecoRI News reached out to both CRMC and the Coastal Resources Center at the University of Rhode Island to get their take on the two bills. The Coastal Resources Center said it didn’t have anyone who could speak in depth about the bills. CRMC acknowledged the request, but didn’t supply a response.

The Conservation Law Foundation testified in April in support of the House bill.

Having the state go from using FEMA maps to CRMC maps to identify flood zones isn’t the problem the Rhode Island chapterof the American Planning Association (APARI) and others have with the bills. The concern is with other wording that has been slipped in and what that could mean for both the look and vulnerability of Rhode Island’s coast.

“This is a lousy bill that will give wealthy land owners the right to block off the shore,” said Weidman, co-chair of the APARI’s Legislative Committee. “Municipalities, and neighbors on the land side, are either going to face higher structures within flood hazard areas or are going to have to amend their zoning codes to reduce total heights in these areas.”

During the 2016 General Assembly session, the state’s definition of building height was debated by planners and builders and eventually amended. Among the major changes made was to allow any property in a flood hazard area to have its building height measured in a way that excludes up to 5 feet of freeboard. Measured in feet, freeboard compensates for flood heights and wave action by raising a building.

This change provided an incentive for property owners in flood hazard areas to go higher than 1 foot above base flood elevation, which is the current requirement in the state building code. It’s a good law and it’s working, Warner said.

The so-called “freeboard bill” passed without noticeable opposition from the Rhode Island planning community. Developers were happy, because, as freeboard height requirements increased in recent years, they said local height restrictions were limiting building.

The 2016 bill that was adopted, however, was much different than the original ask. Builders wanted more, Weidman said, and these two current bills resurrect some of that old language, including “for any property located in a flood hazard area, the building height shall be measured from the base flood elevation.”

Both Weidman and Warner recently told ecoRI News that the bills’ provision requiring that building height in flood hazard areas be measured from base flood elevation should be removed, as it was two years ago.

“This bill tells us how to measure height,” Warner said. “Each community should be free to decide what works best for it. This bill would increase the risk of wind damage to the larger buildings it would allow."

They both agreed that the current definition doesn’t need to be changed, and if it were to be by these bills, it would result in a dramatic change in how building height is defined and, without corresponding changes to a municipality’s building-height limits in coastal zones, would result in buildings with excessive height and bulk along Rhode Island’s coast.

Weidman is worried that the concerns of planners and builders will again be ignored by those on Smith Hill.

“There’s no pushback against the builders. We don’t have that standing in the General Assembly like they do,” she said. “We can’t get our bills out of committee. These bills are a complete giveaway to builders.”

Warner is concerned too few people, most notably municipal planners and building officials, understand the true impact these bills will have if they pass.

“There has been no real thought of the bills’ consequences,” he said. “There will be plenty of uproar when building permits are pulled and neighbors see the size of beachfront homes to be built.”

For instance, Warner noted that the maximum building height in Charlestown is 35 feet, plus up to 5 feet of freeboard in flood hazard areas. If the Rhode Island Builders Association-supported bills are passed, he said Charlestown could see buildings as high as 56 feet along the shore.

“It’s about economic development,” Weidman said. “It’s not about good growth, good land use, or good environmental practices. It’s all about economic development. Our land use needs to be done in a comprehensive manner, not caving to what builders want.”

Frank Carini is editor of ecoRI News.

 

 

Frank Carini: Oil dumping continues to mar New Bedford Harbor

A weirdly beautiful oil sheen on the waters of New Bedford Harbor.    Photo by Frank Carini

A weirdly beautiful oil sheen on the waters of New Bedford Harbor.

Photo by Frank Carini

From ecoRI News (ecori.org)

NEW BEDFORD, Mass.

Oil sheens have long stained one of the country’s most historic harbors. Visits by tourists to enjoy seaside sights and sample local seafood at harborside restaurants can be marred by these distinct marine markings.

In late February, the Coast Guard and Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) were called to New Bedford Harbor after oil was spotted lapping up against the docks and fishing vessels at Leonard’s Wharf. About two drums worth of oil was recovered. The source was never identified.

Six months later, in mid-August, Coast Guard crews oversaw a fuel-spill cleanup after a tugboat captain called the Coast Guard to report a 62-foot fishing vessel had sunk and was discharging fuel. The vessel carried about 7,000 gallons of fuel. The spill spread some 1.5 miles to Fairhaven.

Since 2010, the marine-industrial harbor has seen at least one recorded oil spill every month, according to the Buzzards Bay Coalition.

“New Bedford Harbor has a chronic oil spill problem,” a Coast Guard press release noted earlier this year.

The harbor’s spill problem doesn’t mix well with a 2009 study titled “Evaluation of Marine Oil Spill Threat to Massachusetts Coastal Communities,” which noted that, “New Bedford Harbor reported the highest number of vessels, with a fleet size of 500, many of which are large offshore scallopers and draggers. The GPE (gallons of petroleum exposure) for the New Bedford Harbor fishing fleet is estimated at 7,500,000 gallons, more than three times the next largest amount.”

Much of the Port of New Bedford’s petroleum problems can be traced back to the accidental and intentional dumping of oil via bilge water from commercial fishing vessels. Fuel and oil can leak into a vessel’s bilge, or the engine block can be deliberately drained into the bilge. This mixture of water, oil and fuel is released into the marine environment when an automatic bilge pump turns on, or when a boat owner deliberately breaks the law and pumps the bilge out in the harbor or out at sea. It's been a problem for decades.

These chronic oil discharges have been a longtime concern for Joe Costa, executive director of the Buzzards Bay National Estuary Program. The 1991 Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP) for Buzzards Bay highlighted the problem. It remained an identified concern in the 2013 Buzzards Bay CCMP.

It remains a concern today. Since 2016, more than 70 oil sheens have been reported in the water between New Bedford and Fairhaven. In most cases, no one steps forward to claim responsibility, according to the Coast Guard’s New Bedford field office.

Port director Edward Anthes-Washburn acknowledged that the problem is exacerbated when ships pump out contaminated bilge water.

“We have a concentration of vessels like nowhere else on the East Coast,” he said, noting that the working harbor is the home port of 300 fishing vessels and services another 200. “There’s no doubt bilge water is an issue. We’re working on education, and reporting spills.”

Anthes-Washburn, who also serves as the executive director of the New Bedford Harbor Development Commission (HDC), noted that fuel barges operated by oil retailers pump out waste oil for free, as long as it’s not contaminated by seawater.

And therein lies the real issue: too many owners fail to properly maintain their vessels, some of which are 20 to 30 years old. Advocates for a cleaner harbor believe the city needs to be more actively engaged in implementing a solution.

For instance, the HDC’s Fishing for Energy program collects derelict fishing nets and burns them for fuel. But the program doesn’t accept hazardous waste such as used oil contaminated by salt water.

“This problem has been worked on for 30 years and the ending is always the same: nothing gets done,” said Dan Crafton, section chief of emergency response for DEP’s Lakeville, Mass.-based unit. “The city doesn’t want to do anything to increase the burden on fishermen. But there are necessary components to running a clean harbor.”

Slow motion


As far back as the early 1990s, the reduction of discharges of oil and other hydrocarbons into New Bedford Harbor was identified as a high priority. The 1991 Buzzards Bay CCMP noted:

“Commercial fishing vessels, which operate mostly out of New Bedford but also Westport, usually have their engine oil changed (10-120 gallons per boat) after practically every trip. It is believed that the inconvenience and the expense (about 30 cents per gallon) of safely disposing of waste oil has resulted in a number of boat operators blatantly dumping oil into the Bay or offshore waters.”

The 270-page report also noted that, “Although this is illegal, it is difficult to document violations and hence take enforcement actions against the appropriate fishing boats.”

A January 1993 report titled “New Bedford Harbor Marine Pump-Out Facilities Study” and prepared for the HDC by HMM Associates Inc. noted that the disposal of vessel-generated waste oil “is unquestionably the single most important water quality protection initiative that must be implemented by municipal authorities if advances in water quality improvements are to be made within the harbor.”

The report also noted that the “unknown fate of over 252,000 gallons of engine waste oil known to be generated by the home fleet and not collected, is just too important to ignore.”

In 2000, Buzzards Bay National Estuary Program's Costa wrote a proposal titled A Boat Waste Oil Recovery Program for New Bedford Harbor to address the problem and received grant money from two sources. However, the initiative, which included building a bilge-water-oil separation facility along New Bedford’s working waterfront, failed to gain traction, due in large part to a lack of support from local officials. Costa ended up returning the grant money.

Crafton said the city isn't interested in a waterfront bilge-water-oil separator, even if the state funded the upfront costs. The city would have had to provide some operational funding. The cost to boaters to properly dispose of waste oil is about 50 cents a gallon, according to Crafton.

“Jiffy Lube charges car owners to dispose of their waste oil,” he said. “It’s harder to dump oil on the ground and get away with it. Most spills in the harbor happen at night, not during the day. People need to be more environmentally aware.”

Crafton also noted that DEP hasn't been able to find a private property owner interested in hosting a separator facility.

ecoRI News contacted the mayor’s office, but comment for this story was left to the HDC, a city agency. Mayor Jonathan Mitchell is the chairman of the HDC Commissioners.

“Our grant request to DEP for an oil recovery facility will address one major remaining source identified in the CCMP, the accidental and sometimes intentional dumping of tens or hundreds of thousands of oil by commercial vessels via bilge water,” according to Costa’s 17-year-old proposal. “The net environmental benefit of funding this initiative will be the prevention of 100,000 of gallons of oil and hydrocarbons from entering the coastal environment.”

The plan was specifically designed to eliminate “imposing oil disposal costs to an economically disadvantaged fishing industry.” Besides building a bilge-water-oil separation facility, the plan also proposed implementing an oil-recovery recycling program to provide easy and safe disposal of boat engine waste oil, a multilingual outreach/education program, and providing training and assistance to oil retailers.

The 1993 HMM Associates study recommended eight specific actions to address the improper disposal of waste oil, from adopting local regulations requiring oil-free bilges in commercial vessels to creating a private commercial service that would pump out waste oil from commercial vessels free of charge.

Costa’s 2000 proposal noted “little was done to implement these recommendations.” Costa estimated that as much as 60,000 to 120,000 gallons of waste oil are dumped, leaked and spilled into local waters annually by New Bedford Harbor’s commercial fishing fleet.

Today, nearly two decades later, New Bedford’s fishing fleet doesn’t have as many vessels and more boat owners are recycling waste oil properly. But a significant amount of used boat oil, which is considered hazardous waste, is still unnecessarily finding its way into New Bedford Harbor and Buzzards Bay.

Anthes-Washburn said the HDC doesn’t focus on the enforcement of state and federal regulations. He noted that the municipal agency is focused foremost on keeping its customers, the port’s commercial fishing fleet, safe.

“We report everything we see,” he said. “The fleet knows law enforcement is looking at it.”

Those concerned about this marine hydrocarbon problem point to several factors: no identified source or responsible party; poor waste oil management practices; underutilized disposal options; reluctance to report spills; lack of awareness.

“We want to work with fishermen, not against them,” Crafton said. “We’re not trying to harm the fishing industry.”

Addressing the problem
It’s been a while since the practice of pumping contaminated water from the bilges of fishing boats into the ocean has been legal. Under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, no amount of oil is allowed to be pumped into the sea — understandable, since a cup of oil can create a sheen the size of a football field.

Lt. Lynn Schrayshuen, the Coast Guard’s New Bedford unit supervisor, and her Marine Safety Detachment team patrol New Bedford Harbor regularly looking for spilled, leaked or dumped oil. When an oil sheen is discovered, or reported, the team investigates to determine if it is recoverable, and collects a sample.

Collected samples are taken to the Coast Guard Marine Safety Lab in New London, Conn., for testing. The samples are processed and cleaned of organic material until only oil is left. If the oil fingerprint from the sheen matches the fingerprint from another bilge sample, the team may be able to identify a responsible party.

But the illegal practice, including the common practice of pumping water out from the bilge and then stopping when oil enters the stream, remains a considerable problem for New Bedford Harbor, the city’s coastline, and across the way in Fairhaven.

To deal with the problem, DEP and the HDC ran a pilot program called Clean Bilge New Bedford that offered free pump-outs and inspections to commercial fishing vessels to prevent oil spills, and featured outreach and educational efforts. The 1.5-year pilot, which was state funded, ended earlier this year. During the pilot program, 174 vessels had their bilge pumped out once and 39 had their bilge pumped out at least twice. A total of 58,666 gallons of oily bilge water was recovered — 18,387 gallons, or 31 percent, was oil.

“This is a real issue,” Crafton said. “What would people think if they knew the number one fishing port in the United States is the same place where waste oil is being dumped?”

Frank Carini is editor of ecoRI News (ecori.org)

·        

Frank Carini: Debating the future of 'the most important fish in the sea'

Atlantic menhaden.

Atlantic menhaden.

Via ecoRI.org (ecori.org)

Even though menhaden are a fish that few people eat, they are currently at the center of a heated dispute between the commercial fishing industry and environmental organizations. The two sides are pushing contradictory narratives about the importance of menhaden to the marine food web.

During its two-day meeting, Nov. 13-14 in Baltimore, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission(ASMFC) is expected to vote on Amendment 3 — a proposal to provide stronger protections for Atlantic menhaden.

Rhode Island’s three representatives on the commission are Sen. Susan Sosnowski, D-South Kingstown, David Borden, representing Gov. Gina Raimondo, and Robert Ballou, assistant to the director at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, who also serves as chairman of the Atlantic Menhaden Management Board.

Conservationists often refer to the species as “the most important fish in the sea” — after the title of a 2007 book by H. Bruce Franklin. They note that menhaden deserve special attention and protection because so many other species, such as bluefish, dolphins, eagles, humpback whales, osprey, sharks, striped bass and weakfish, depend on them for food.

In a recent press release, The Nature Conservancy called the species a “small fish with outsized importance for ocean health.” The conservancy also sent a letter to the ASMFC outlining the organization’s recommended management changes, such as adjusting coast-wide total allowable catch allocations to better reflect the current distribution and abundance of menhaden from Maine to Florida.

Menhaden are often referred to as ‘the most important fish in the sea.’

Save The Bay has also come out in favor of better protecting the menhaden population. The Providence-based organization favors a more ecosystem-based management approach.

“Atlantic menhaden play a central role in the ecological and economic vitality of the Atlantic coastal ecosystem as an essential food for whales and important commercial and game fishes and a host of other marine wildlife,” according to a Save The Bay press release. “Menhaden are also a key force in the regulation of regional water quality by filtering phytoplankton, which are the menhaden’s food source and a major cause of algae blooms and brown tides.”

The Nature Conservancy and Save The Bay, along with the Audubon Society and some scientists and fishermen, have urged the ASMFC to establish a new management approach that accounts for marine wildlife forage needs when menhaden harvest limits are annually set.

“Abundant menhaden is good for fish and wildlife ... and good for the economy,” John Torgan, The Nature Conservancy’s Rhode Island state director, said. “Rhode Islanders care about menhaden because they are critical to the health of Narragansett Bay and the larger coastal ecosystem, and have an enormous effect on other vital industries, like fishing and tourism.”

During the past five years, the menhaden population has rebounded, according to The Nature Conservancy, as indicated by ASMFC stock assessments and reports of large menhaden schools at numerous locations along the Atlantic Coast, including Narragansett Bay.

Prior to 2012, however, the Atlantic menhaden fishery was managed without a total annual harvest limit. Amid concerns about the health of the population, the ASMFC passed Amendment 2 that year, capping annual harvests at about 20 percent less than average landings from 2009-11.

The Nature Conservancy, concerned that the fate of continued menhaden recovery still remains uncertain, teamed up with Red Vault Productions to produce a video that captured the perspectives of five New York stakeholders on why abundant menhaden is good for New York’s ecology and economy.

While people rarely eat menhaden — an oily fish often called “pogies” or “bunkers” by New Englanders — more pounds of the fish are harvested each year than any other in the United States except Alaska pollock.

Last year, for example, the Atlantic menhaden harvest totaled some 400 million pounds, with about 76 percent used for livestock, pet and aquaculture feed, for various fish-oil products, and added to fertilizers. Much of the remaining supply was sold as bait in recreational and commercial fisheries.

“Rhode Island’s saltwater anglers, who spend millions of dollars pursuing their interest, believe this is the most important fisheries issue to come up for a vote in years,” said Rich Hittinger, vice president of the 7,500-member Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association. “It is clear that the vast majority of those with an interest in menhaden support ecological management of this fish.”

The commercial menhaden fishing industry, however, has a vastly different take. The Menhaden Fisheries Coalition claims widespread misconceptions about Atlantic menhaden, saying “the science shows a healthy and sustainable fishery” and noting that the ASMFC found in its 2017 stock assessment that Atlantic menhaden is neither overfished nor experiencing overfishing.

“It is true that menhaden serve as ‘forage’ for larger predators, but their importance in marine food webs is frequently overstated,” according to a Menhaden Fisheries Coalition press kit.

The coalition points to a study published in April in Fisheries Research by Ray Hilborn that claims fishing for forage species such as menhaden likely has a lower impact on predators than previously thought.

There seems to be little correlation between the number of predator species in the water and the number of forage fish, making it nearly impossible to determine a catch level that is appropriate for forage fish as a whole, according to the study. Other variables include the natural variability of forage fish, which is different from species to species, and relative locations of predators and forage species.

The Menhaden Fisheries Coalition teamed up with industry-funded Saving Seafood to produce two videosand a 27-page booklet titled “Faces of the Menhaden Fishery" to support their stance.

Menhaden is the second-largest U.S. fishery, and two states, New Jersey and Virginia, control about 96 percent of the coast-wide quota.

Since last November, the ASMFC has received more than 126,000 public comments concerning Atlantic menhaden, the most the commission has ever received regarding the management of a fishery.

Frank Carini is editor of ecoRI News.

Frank Carini: Selfish climate-change deniers helping to ruin the world for short-term profit

Climate-change deniers are selfish, or possibly scared. The debate they have managed to manufacture is artificial, like much of the food we consume. It’s fake news.

Whatever you want to call it — climate change, global warming, overpopulation — humans, in a short period of cosmic time, have had a tremendous impact on the planet, its climate and its ecosystems. Much of it to the detriment of life.

To think  that 7.5 billion people, plus the more than 100 billion who have come and gone, haven’t had an impact is the very definition of denial. Why can’t we admit it and work to lessen the impact. The answer, sadly, is simple: greed. Sacrifice is for someone else.

We spew some 9.5 gigatons of global greenhouse-gas emissions from fossil fuels into the atmosphere annually. We’ve done so for decades. One gigaton is equivalent to a billion metric tons, or more than 100 million African elephants or 6 million blue whales. If you think all that accumulating pollution isn’t having an impact on the planet, on the climate, you are divorced from reality. Pull your head out of the tar sands.

Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, which we generate in abundance, are altering the climate, changing ocean chemistry and helping the seas rise. Science doesn’t lie. But politicians, CEOs and Big Business frequently do.

Diversity created the planet on which we live, and we have spent our limited existence on this sphere stamping it out, for short-term individual gain.

Our hubris led directly to the demise of passenger pigeons, Carolina parakeets and great auks, to name but a few. We have overfished and trashed the oceans. We felled cypress forests to sell mulch. New Orleans drowned as a result.

We treat the planet and life on it as if it is a free all-you-can-eat buffet. Profit trumps life. Drill, mountain mine and blast, baby.

Climate-change deniers like to argue that the planet’s rising seas and changing climate are just part of a natural cycle. They’re correct, but they also like to ignore the fact our activities play a major role. We’re changing and speeding up the process. We’re putting future generations at risk, and destroying life-creating/sustaining natural systems.

We’ve replaced natural coastal buffers, such as salt marshes and mangroves, with homes, roads, restaurants and tourist attractions, making our built-up shorelines vulnerable to storm surge, flooding and erosion. We're currently filling runoff-capturing wetlands to build another Rhode Island casino.

We dynamite and bleach coral reefs to capture fish for aquariums. We poach rhinos and elephants for their ivory. We slaughter sharks for their fins. None of these ongoing massacres are required for our survival.

We support diversity-killing monoculture so multinationals can control the world’s food supply. We poison water resources to save money or make money.

The only way to get better is to admit we're having an impact, a bigly one. We need to be educated and conscious consumers. We need to be stewards, not mindless devourers. It requires sacrifice.

Frank Carini is editor of the ecoRI News.

 

Frank Carini: Pushing against southern New England's rising tide of toxic plastic

-- Photo by Frank Carini

-- Photo by Frank Carini

Via ecoRI.org

There’s an estimated 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the world’s oceans. Some 8 million tons of plastic enter the sea annually. How much is floating in local marine waters remains a mystery. An answer may be forthcoming, though, as researchers will spend five days next week scouring Narragansett Bay for plastic.

The July 18-22 trash trawl is being conducted by the Rhode Island chapter of Clean Water Action (CWA) to raise public awareness about the most invasive “species” in the ocean: plastic.

Johnathan Berard, state director of CWA Rhode Island, was the policy director at Blue Water Baltimore when the organization partnered with Trash Free Maryland a few years ago to conduct a similar trawl of Chesapeake Bay. While the amount of visible plastic collected was “striking,” the four-day effort also captured a “great deal” of micoplastics — likely photodegraded pieces of plastic bags and wrappers — fishing line, and cellophane rip-strips from cigarette packs.

The Chesapeake Bay trawl and a similar one done on the Hudson River were for scientific research. The Narragansett Bay trawl is more of an advocacy project.

“We want to get elected officials, the press and advocates face to face with the problem,” Berard said. “A jar of Narragansett Bay water filled with plastic is a powerful image.”

Next week’s five-day sweep will employ an ultra-fine mesh net designed to capture micorplastics, microbeads and micofibers. These tiny plastic particles represent the planet’s next big environmental and public-health concern.

Microfibers from polyester fleeces and other synthetic clothing are an emerging concern when it comes to the quality of drinking water. Neither washers nor wastewater treatment facilities are designed to remove these accumulating bits of plastic.

“We can’t keep pushing plastic into the economy,” Berard said. “It wreaks havoc once it’s out in the environment. We find this stuff in our water. It’s in the fish we eat. On our beaches. It’s going to get to a point when it will be too gross to go to the beach or eat fish.”

Plastic packaging isn’t well recycled, or reused. (As You Sow)

Throwaway Economy


The United States alone tosses out 25 billion Styrofoam cups annually, more than 300 million straws daily, and some 3 million plastic bottles every hour of every day. Few of these items are recycled or reused.

“The current system pumps tons of plastic into the economy and environment,” said Jamie Rhodes, program director for UPSTREAM. “The scope of the problem is huge. We can’t burn or recycle our way out of this problem.”

Southern New England is certainly home to its share of plastic pollution. But how much? No one ecoRI News spoke with for this story has any idea, and while they all would be interested in finding out, their bigger concern is how to lessen the local impact of a global problem.

But, as Rhodes, former chairman of the Environmental Council of Rhode Island, noted, we can’t simply ban plastic. “Plastic has raised people out of poverty. I, for one, don’t want a computer made of iron,” he said. “But it’s overused. We need to use it more wisely.”

What is considered a “wise use,” however, can be subjective. One person might think wrapping a cucumber or apple in plastic is a ridiculous waste of resources and feeds the growing waste stream. Another person might argue that such a use of plastic prolongs shelf life and reduces organic waste.

What can’t be debated is the amount of plastic litter collected at beach cleanups in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, roadside debris seen through moving windows, and the flotsam and jetsam that bob in the region’s waters.

“Plastics suck in chemicals. That’s what they’re good at,” Rhodes said. “What’s the long-term impact on humans, on the environment?”

Dave McLaughlin, executive director of Middletown, R.I.-based Clean Ocean Access, noted that “we don’t know the implications of the bioaccumulation of plastics in humans.”

“They’re endocrine disruptors and that is some scary stuff,” he said. “It’s important that we understand the severity of the issue.”

Plastic bags float in Buzzards Bay, Long Island Sound and Narragansett Bay like jellyfish. Turtles, whales and other marine animals often mistake them for food, causing many to starve or choke to death. In fact, all of southern New England’s fresh and salt waters, from hidden brooks to popular beaches, are touched by plastic — a toxic problem that threatens wildlife and public health.

Adult seabirds inadvertently feed small pieces of plastic to their chicks, often causing them to die when their stomachs become filled with petroleum byproducts. As plastic breaks down into smaller fragments — microplastics that may contain toxic chemicals as part of their original plastic material or adsorbed environmental contaminants such as PCBs — fish and shellfish become increasingly vulnerable to the toxins these polluted particles collect.

At least two-thirds of the world’s fish stocks are suffering from plastic ingestion, according to estimates, as much of the planet’s plastic pollution eventually makes its way into the ocean. Local seafood favorites such as stripers and quahogs, for example, are vital to southern New England’s marine food web and the region’s economy.

The countless plastic bags, plastic bottles and plastic wrap strewn along southern New England’s coastline, swimming in the region’s rivers, ponds and lakes, waving from trees, and loitering in parks were each likely used only once, and for just a few minutes. These petroleum byproducts, however, don’t biodegrade. They remain in the environment for centuries. Their long-term impact on environmental and public health is not yet fully understood, and barely studied.

“We’ve plasticized the entire biosphere, including our bodies,” Marcus Eriksen, research director and co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, said during a March panel discussion at Brown University titled “The Plastic Ocean.” “The impact of plastic is widespread.”

The world’s plastic problem was first acknowledged in the 1970s. A 1973 survey of the plastic materials accumulating on a private beach on Conanicut Island in Narragansett Bay, for instance, found that the plastic pollutants “were mainly a by-product of recreational activities within the bay and not household, industrial or agricultural refuse.”

The study also noted that “plastic objects manufactured from polyethylene made up the bulk of the flotsam on the beach.” Among the plastic items collected were milk-shake tops, beer-can carriers, fish-hook bags, straws, bleach containers and shotgun pellet holders.

In 1987, the United States eventually responded to the growing plastic problem, with the passage of the Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act. The law, which went to effect Dec. 31, 1988, made it illegal for any U.S. vessel or land-based operation to dispose of plastics in the ocean.

However, this act and other laws like it, such as the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, can’t compete with mass consumption in a throwaway society. Their effectiveness is further limited by Washington, D.C.’s relentless assault on environmental protections, and by non-existent or lax waste-management practices in much of Southeast Asia and in developing countries.

Some four decades since the problems associated with plastic manufacturing and use were first identified, apathy, ignorance, convenience and profit have led to an addiction that is trashing the planet and putting human health at risk.

While our plastic reliance, especially for single-use items, grows, the reuse and recycling of this material has essentially flatlined. Waste-management practices can’t keep pace with the volume of production and the relentless tidal wave of new plastic packaging.

Currently, less than 15 percent of plastics packaging is recycled worldwide, according to As You Sow, a nonprofit foundation chartered to promote corporate social responsibility.

As You Sow is one of about 800 organizations worldwide, including UPSTREAM and the Story of Stuff, united in the goal of dramatically reducing the production of single-use plastic packaging, containers and bags. It’s known as the Break Free From Plastic movement.

Since most plastic is made from fossil fuels, the issue of plastic manufacturing, use and waste is also one of climate change.

“It’s fuel early on, a kid’s juice pouch in the middle, and a fuel at the end,” UPSTREAM’s Rhodes said.

Litter, especially of the plastic variety, costs taxpayers plenty. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Local Impact


Plastic pollution doesn’t just ruin beach getaways and picnics in the park. It also harms the limited exposure many urban children have to nature, according to Leah Bamberger, Providence’s sustainability director.

Last year, the city had a study done to better understand how Providence residents, most notably children, perceive nature and how they use the city’s parks and open spaces. The study found that among the main concerns of children and their parents was the cleanliness of outdoor spaces, particularly litter in parks.

“Litter was the number one barrier that kept kids from enjoying nature and our parks,” Bamberger said. “It debunked the myth that urban kids don’t care about nature.”

Dealing with the region’s litter problem, much of which is some form of plastic, requires taxpayer funding and the ample use of unpaid time.

Staff and volunteers of Clean Ocean Access (COA) have spent the past 11 years cleaning up the Aquidneck Island shoreline. In that time, volunteers have worked nearly 14,000 hours and picked up some 95,000 pounds of debris, much of it plastic, according to McLaughlin, the nonprofit’s executive director.

“There’s litter that’s preventable — the stuff that blows out the back of pickup trucks — and then there’s illegal dumping that’s intentional,” he said. “Most of the plastic we find is from the society of convenience, like packaging and single-use items. A small piece of plastic has a pretty big impact.”

Of the 94,487 pounds of debris collected during 457 cleanups held between 2006 and 2016, much of it was plastic-based, such as bottles, food wrappers, fishing line, straws and cigarette filters, according to the 10-year anniversary report released by COA earlier this year.

All those cigarette butts nonchalantly flicked from car windows and haphazardly dropped on the ground, along with tobacco packaging and plastic lighters, represent one of the main sources of marine debris worldwide. Cigarette butts are made from a plastic called cellulose acetate. It doesn't biodegrade, and can persist in the environment for a long time. This plastic also contains toxins that can leech into water and soil, harming plants and wildlife.

On World Oceans Day, June 8, COA held a coastal cleanup at Easton’s Beach in Newport. Seventy-two volunteers collected 160 pounds of debris, including 1,700 cigarette butts.

Unsurprisingly, plastic bags also make up a good chunk of the organization’s shoreline hauls. Between 2013 and 2016, for example, volunteers picked up 11,874 bags.

The Aquidneck Island coastline, however, isn’t the sole domain for litter. The waters off Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth are also teaming with debris, most notably Newport Harbor. The Rozalia Project has documented a concentration of trash in the historic harbor at 41 million pieces of litter per square kilometer. Trash covers 25.2 percent of the harbor’s seafloor. It’s been dubbed Beer Can Reef, although much of the debris is plastic bottles and cups.

The Long Island Sound Study notes that marine debris is a nuisance and hazard for boaters. For instance, floating lines can foul a boat’s propellers, and chunks of plastic or plastic bags can block an engine’s cooling-water intake.

“While floatable debris in the open waters of Long Island Sound is less concentrated than in the neighboring New York-New Jersey Harbor estuary and in western Long Island Sound embayments, it is present in great enough quantities to mar the aesthetic enjoyment of the Sound,” according to the program that was started in 1985 by the Environmental Protection Agency and the states of New York and Connecticut to improve and protect the water quality of Long Island Sound. “Debris floating in the waters of the Sound can accumulate along with detached seaweed and marsh grass into large surface ‘slicks.’ These slicks can wash ashore fouling beaches and the coastline.”

Plastic caught in fences, lying on beaches, blowing around open spaces and carried by stormwater runoff into the region’s sensitive estuaries is much more than an eyesore. It’s pollution, and it has economic, ecological and public-health impacts. It’s a macro-, micro- and nano-scale problem.

To get a rough idea of the amount of litter accumulating in Rhode Island, McLaughlin did some conservative guesstimating. He figured if 5 percent of the state’s 1 million residents littered once a month, accidental or not, Rhode Island would see 600,000 new pieces of wind-blown trash annually. If 5 percent of the Ocean State’s 3.5 million annual visitors did the same, another 2.1 million pieces would be added to the landscape.

Collectively, southern New England taxpayers spend millions of dollars annually to clean up and prevent litter, much of which is of the plastic variety. Providence and other cities have to spend time and money notifying businesses to keep their Dumpsters closed, so trash doesn’t blow away or get spread about town by animals. DPWs have to clean vacant lots of trash and clear clogged storm drains and catch basins.

It also costs taxpayers when loads of municipal recycling are contaminated — plastic bags are one of the biggest contaminators; biodegradable and compostable plastics are also problem contaminants — and the collected material must then be buried or burned, instead of sold to recyclers.

Despite her relentless efforts organizing cleanups, Massachusetts resident Bonne Combs says, ‘We can’t clean our way out of this problem.’ (Courtesy photo)

No one pays Bonnie Combs to pick up after others. The Blackstone, Mass., resident is a relentless reuser and recycler. She conducts daily one-woman cleanups, at Stump Pond in Smithfield, R.I., up and down the banks of the Blackstone River and in her neighborhood, to name just a few spots. She founded Bird Brain Designs by Bonnie to repurpose animal feed bags into reusable shopping bags.

The marketing director for the Blackstone Heritage Corridor (BHC) manages the organization’s Trash Responsibly program. She also started the BHC’s Fish Responsiblyprogram, which works with businesses, such as Ocean State Tackle in Providence and Barry’s Bait & Tackle in Worcester, and the Audubon Society to make sure monofilament fishing line and spools are recycled properly.

Combs regularly sees firsthand the pervasiveness of southern New England’s plastic problem. She said nips are a “huge problem.” She picks up plenty of iced-coffee cups wrapped in both Styrofoam and plastic, and sees discarded plastic packaging everywhere.

“It’s becoming harder and harder to buy everyday products in recyclable packaging. It’s really frightening,” Combs said. “We have a waste problem. We need to go on a waste diet.”

Since this month is Plastic Free July, perhaps southern New England should start dieting now. But dieting is hard. Much of the world’s food and drink, from coffee to baby food, is now wrapped and shipped in plastic.

Addressing the region’s plastic problem, however, is complicated and will require more than avoiding plastic utensils, plastic bags, plastic water bottles, plastic straws and mylar balloons for a month. McLaughlin, of Clean Ocean Access, said the issue demands a three-pronged approach: policy, which he called “the stick;” technology/innovation, “business taking the lead;” and engagement, “the carrot.”

McLaughlin believes, at this moment at least, all three legs are a little too short.

“It starts with people becoming educated, connected and stewards of the environment,” he said. “We just can’t ban our way to a healthy ocean.”

Policy Improvements


Since the late 1960s, plastic shopping bags have been clogging storm drains, degrading marine ecosystems, choking animals, littering beaches and leaching estrogenic chemicals, but the Ocean State and its two southern New England neighbors lack the political will to enact statewide bans. The American Chemistry Council, the American Petroleum Institute and other lobbyists hold more sway than in-your-face environmental degradation and public-health concerns.

The environmental/public-health impacts associated with plastic manufacturing and disposal include greenhouse-gas emissions, and water and land pollution. For instance, a billion discarded plastic bags is the equivalent of 12 million barrels of oil. These costs are largely ignored.

Lobbyists from D.C. and parts unknown descend whenever a statewide ban or local one is discussed in Connecticut, Massachusetts or Rhode Island. They argue that consumers benefit from the use of plastic bags, because they can easily carry goods without the burden of lugging around reusable bags. They note that plastic bags handed out by retailers are reused as pet-waste containers or to line household trash receptacles. They say properly collected and recycled plastic bags — they shouldn’t be placed in curbside recycling bins and instead be brought back to stores for collection — are made into a composite product used as a wood substitute for decks and stairs.

Unfortunately, only a small percentage of plastic bags are actually recycled. In Rhode Island alone, some 190 million plastic bags are consumed annually, according to a 2006 Brown University study, and only about 9 percent are recycled.

Lobbyists, however, have failed to sway some local municipalities. Three Rhode Island communities — Barrington, Middletown and Newport — have passed bans on plastic retail bags. About 35 municipalities in Massachusetts have similar bans. The first municipality in New England to ban plastic checkout bags was Westport, Conn., in 2008.

While lawmakers in southern New England’s three states have been slow to adequately address the region’s role in the world’s plastic problem, a few western states have attempted to change the paradigm. California enacted a statewide plastic-bag ban last year, despite intense lobbying by plastics manufacturers. A 2013 study of San Jose’s bag ban helped pave the way for California’s statewide ban. The study found that after San Jose enacted its bag ban, there was nearly 90 percent less plastic debris in the city’s storm drains and about 60 percent less plastic street litter.

In Hawaii, all four of the state’s county councils and the city of Honolulu have passed some type of bag ordinance that has effectively banned plastic retail bags in the 50th state.SThis year, Connecticut debated a proposal to put a 5-cent tax on single-use plastic and paper shopping bags. The city of Providence has warned and then fined residents who continue to use their recycling bins for trash. On June 22, for example, the city’s five enforcement officers wrote 50 tickets.

McLaughlin, of Clean Ocean Access, noted that states and municipalities need to support, fund and enforce waste-diversion efforts. In Rhode Island, at least at the state level, resources for such efforts are scarce. In the three decades since the state’s recycling law was enacted, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management has neither warned nor fined any business for noncompliance.

Bag bans, bag taxes, fines and enforcement, while all part of the solution puzzle, aren’t the key pieces. Producer responsibility, also known as product stewardship, enlists manufactures in the disposal and recycling of the hazardous and bulky goods they produce. In southern New England, producer-responsibility programs already exist for mercury thermometers and thermostats, paint, and mattresses.

Bamberger, Providence’s sustainability director, Rhodes, of UPSTREAM, and CWA’s Berard all told ecoRI News that producer responsibility is vital to local, national and global efforts to reduce plastic pollution, minimize packaging and change practices.

“Bans are nice, but they’re not a good solution,” Bamberger said. “Producer responsibility is the most effective way to manage the waste stream.”

Berard said, “Manufacturers can’t just put all this material into the economy and then have no skin in the game post-use.”

One of UPSTREAM’S focus points is helping make producers more responsible, here and across the globe.

“Companies need to be part of the solution,” Rhodes said. “We need policies to stop the flow of single-use plastic. This isn’t the system we’ve always had. We created it; we can change it.”

Innovation and Technology


They look like small, floating Dumpsters. In their first year of use, the two trash skimmers attached to docks at Perrotti Park removed more than 6,000 pounds of debris from Newport Harbor. Much of the litter was of the usual-suspect variety — plastic food wrappers, straws and bags, and fishing line.

COA’s Newport Harbor Trash Skimmer Projectwas implemented last August, and made possible by funding from 11th Hour Racing. Some 30 units, manufactured by Washington-based Marina Trash Skimmers, are in use on the West Coast and Hawaii. The two installed in Newport Harbor are believed to be the first ones in use on the East Coast.

They operate essentially as large pool skimmers, filtering water 24 hours a day and capturing floating debris and absorbing surface oil or other contaminants. The skimmers are powered by a three-fourths-horsepower electric engine that costs $2 a day to run. Hundreds of gallons of water flow through the units every few hours, and the skimmers are minimally invasive to marine life.

COA has since added a trash skimmer at Fort Adams State Park and at New England Boatworks, in Portsmouth.

“These units are highly effective in removing floating marine debris,” COA’s McLaughlin said. “But we can’t put trash skimmers everywhere.”

A similar piece of equipment in use in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor also removes debris, including plastic litter, from the water. The water-powered wheel deposits the scooped-out trash into a Dumpster. When there isn’t enough water current, a solar panel attached to the unit provides additional power.

New technology, whether it’s floating Dumpsters or trashy water wheels, play a role in controlling litter. To better address plastic manufacturing and use, however, advanced packaging innovations will have to play a bigger role.

Public Engagement


Solving the problem of plastic pollution can’t be done by stopping littering and improving recycling rates. Producer responsibility alone won’t end the deluge. The effort must include education and outreach, to curb such issues as “wishful recycling.” It’s also about changing behaviors — something as simple as restaurants asking if you want a straw rather than just giving you one.

According to a study recently done by UPSTREAM for the city of Providence, one way to address the issue at an individual consumer level is to incentivize behavior to reduce single-use items, such as being allowed to cut the line at the coffee shop if you bring your own mug.

Much of the outreach is needed to make people aware that the region’s plastic problem isn’t magically fixed curbside, or at a transfer station, landfill or incinerator.

“We see litter on the streets and plastics in the ocean, but when we put our recycling out at the curb, we don’t care or know what happens next,” Rhodes said. “Much of the this material is shipped to small, developing countries like the Philippines and Malaysia, where poor waste pickers go through it.”

McLaughlin said the overuse of plastic is a solvable problem. He said it starts with individuals taking action.

“We have to take care of each other and the environment. That’s how we are going to make progress,” McLaughlinsaid. “We have to get people involved at the local level to take action."

Frank Carini is editor of ecoRI News.

Frank Carini: Algae bloom forces town to dose pond with sulfate

This aerial photo was taken in August 2015 by Halifax Police Chief Ted Broderick. A thick mat of blue-green algae covers much of West Monponsett Pond.

This aerial photo was taken in August 2015 by Halifax Police Chief Ted Broderick. A thick mat of blue-green algae covers much of West Monponsett Pond.

 

Via ecoRI News (ecori.org)

HALIFAX, Mass.

For more than a decade, blue-green algae blooms in West Monponsett Pond have often ended summer fun early and rendered the boat ramp useless. Local residents are regularly cautioned about using the pond, because of harmful health effects linked to cyanobacteria. The  Halifax Fire Department routinely receives calls about gas odors. The stink is inevitably traced to an abundance of algae triggered by nutrient overloading.

For the past eight years the Massachusetts Department of Public Health has been regularly testing West Monponsett Pond’s summer water quality, but the situation was recognized long before that. The problems and fixes are complicated.

A July 1987 report found increasing aquatic-weed growth, nutrient pollution from septic-system leachate, siltation from solids carried in by storm drains and fecal contamination in both East and West Monponsett ponds. The ponds, part of the Taunton River watershed, are separated by Route 58, a 30-mile, south-north highway in southeastern Massachusetts.

Three decades later, the same problems — failed septic systems, stormwater runoff carrying lawn and agricultural fertilizers and animal waste, and phosphorous from bog operations — are causing water-quality impairment and leading to destructive algae blooms. The problem also has been exacerbated by increased development around both ponds during the past 30 years.

The pumping of Silver Lake and other area waterbodies to meet Brockton’s water needs is also impacting the water quality of these two ponds.

Significant levels of these pollutants continue to cause algal blooms that have closed beaches and caused fish kills. Algal blooms with results as high as 1,900,000 cells per milliliter have been discovered; a threshold of 70,000 is enough to close a beach.

Cyanobacteria advisories for West Monponsett Pond have become the norm. These outbreaks are even obvious to untrained eyes, as thick mats of algae choke the pond and color the water pea-soup green.

Since 2008 the Massachusetts Department of Public Health has issued multiple public-health advisories for the pond, forcing the town to close the beaches to swimming and boating. In 2013, the Monponsett Ponds held the record of longest consecutive beach closures in state history, according to a 2016 report.

“The stagnant waters in the ponds combined with the warm water temperatures and high nutrient content make them very susceptible to cyanobacteria toxin blooms,” according to the report titled “West Monponsett Pond Nutrient Management Project.” “Cyanobacteria blooms in the pond have resulted in multiple beach closures and serious health concerns.”

Swallowing water contaminated by blue-green algae guarantees major digestive discomfort. Children can become ill, and pets can die from ingesting it. Cyanobacteria also can cause skin rashes, hives and blisters, and inhaling droplets of it can cause sore throats, sinus and ear infections.

Earlier this month, the town of Halifax hired SOLitude Lake Management to dose West Monponsett Pond with a solution of aluminum sulfate. Aluminum sulfate binds with phosphorous, one of the nutrients, along with nitrogen, that helps algae to thrive. By making the phosphorous unavailable as a nutrient, algae growth is reduced.

Local officials had long wanted to treat the stressed pond with aluminum sulfate, but the presence of an endangered mussel and dragonfly larvae delayed that route until the state Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program approved the plan.

This month’s treatment was done to improve the pond’s water quality with the hope that it will be open for more days this spring and summer for recreational uses including boating, swimming and fishing, according to Halifax town Administrator Charlie Seelig. The treatment program ended June 14.

Frank Carini is editor of ecoRI News.

Frank Carini: Energy-sector sprawl raises concerns in southern New England

By FRANK CARINI for ecoRI News (ecori.org)

Meeting rising energy demand while minimizing the climate impact is a widely recognized, although often ignored, issue. But there’s an additional challenge that warrants attention: the land-use implications of the world’s energy demands.

This growing pressure is especially acute in southern New England, where land is at a premium.

Worldwide, during the next two-plus decades, some 200,000 square kilometers of additional land area will be directly impacted by energy development, according to a 2016 study. When spacing requirements are included, another 800,000 square kilometers, an area greater than the size of Texas, will also be impacted to quench the world’s thirst for energy.

Development of new land area required for energy production is, and will likely continue to be, the largest driver of land-use change in the United States for the foreseeable future, according to the report.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration has projected energy produced in the United States will increase 27 percent by 2040, to support both domestic and international demand.

Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are all feeling crunched for space, and the preferred energy-development areas seem to be forestland and farmland. Forestland in all three states is already being cleared or is in line to be clear-cut to make room for more natural-gas infrastructure.

Fossil fuels, however, aren’t the only form of energy eating up valuable real estate. There’s growing concern that solar- and wind-energy projects will also leave behind environmental scars.

All three states, especially at the statehouse level, routinely rally around energy projects that promise to deliver electricity at the lowest cost. As a result, energy projects are typically directed away from developed land, because it’s cheaper to build from scratch. These open-space projects then inevitably ignore environmental-siting concerns and long-term external costs.

Connecticut’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), for one, is deeply troubled by the region’s rush to take farmland out of production and cut down forest to power overconsumption.

Earlier this year the nine-member council published a report aimed at stimulating the siting of solar-energy facilities in places other than farms and forests. The report, "Energy Sprawl in Connecticut,'' documents the surge in proposals to use farmland and forestland for the construction of large solar electricity-generating facilities.

“We do not see any need for Connecticut’s land conservation and renewable energy goals to be in conflict,” CEQ Chairwoman Susan Merrow said. “We envision a future with ample solar energy, farms, and forests.”

Solar photovoltaic facilities are the largest single type of development consuming agricultural land and forestland in Connecticut. In 2016, the area of farmland and forest selected and/or approved for development of solar facilities nearly equaled the area of such lands preserved by the state in an average year. (CEQ)

The CEQ report analyzed recent state decisions affecting utility-scale solar development, and determined that if all of the projects selected by the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP) in 2016 to supply renewable energy are built, hundreds of acres of farmland and forest would be converted to electricity generation.

The 16-page report recommended legislation to:

Require DEEP to give “meaningful weight” to environmental-siting criteria when selecting renewable-energy projects that supply electricity to Eversource and United Illuminating. Under current laws and policies, DEEP bases its decisions on the price of electricity supplied, which has led to a surge in projects proposed to be built on farmland and forest.

Require utility-scale solar developments to obtain a certificate of environmental compatibility and public need from the Connecticut Siting Council (CSC). Current statutes require the CSC to approve such projects by declaratory ruling, and severely limit what the CSC may consider before approving a project. The certificate, on the other hand, is the approval tool for most facilities regulated by the CSC, from power plants to cell towers, and provides more detailed oversight of siting. In addition, the report urges the legislature to amend the statute to allow the CSC to consider impacts to agricultural land in all its decisions.

The CEQ also has urged DEEP and the Legislature to consider incentives to encourage developers to put their projects on landfills and other developed sites. The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources is pushing a similar incentive program.

“The CEQ is focusing on the legal responsibilities of state agencies to select and approve renewable-energy projects,” Merrow said. “We are not recommending anything that would restrict the rights of landowners.”

Scott Millar, manager of community technical assistance for Grow Smart Rhode Island, said solar panels on rooftops, industrial land, landfills and brownfields would minimize environmental damage. He noted that crash-strapped municipalities would be eager to rent vacant and underused development space to renewable-energy developers.

“We need to take a hard look at what we’re proposing,” the former Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management staffer said. “We shouldn’t be sacrificing farms and forests.”

Grow Smart Rhode Island is particularly concerned about two bills filed in the General Assembly this session — similar to other bills filed during the past several years. Both the Senate and House bill would pave the way for energy-project development on farms and both would take away local siting control. Millar said the bills fail to properly value working farmland.

“Renewable-energy proponents are pushing the bills because they’re anxious to get projects built quickly,” he said. “It’s unprecedented that we would amend zoning to make industrial uses in zoned residential allowable and then place restrictions on cities and towns on how they can manage those uses.”

Some Rhode Island farmers have testified that allowing such projects on their land would help make their operations profitable.

Both bills were held for further study.

While Grow Smart has remained quiet regarding the development of what would be Rhode Island’s largest fossil-fuel power plant, the Clear River Energy Center in the woods of Burrillville, the proposed project may well be the best example of how southern New England is grappling with energy demand.

It’s been estimated that at least 200 acres of forestland would be impacted if the natural-gas power plant is built. The area’s forestland is home to some 165 wildlife species, including the hairy woodpecker, the black-throated green warbler, the wood frog, eastern box turtle, big brown bat and the six-spotted tiger beetle.

These woods, one of the largest remaining untouched forest tracts in Rhode Island, also feature an assortment of vegetation, from eastern hemlock, red maple, and various birch and oak trees to maleberry, blueberry, mountain laurel and witch hazel to cinnamon fern, threeleaf goldthread, northern starflower and peat moss.

To combat the increasing demand for energy, the CEQ report noted that energy-efficient appliances and programs would lessen the demand from all sources, including renewable sources.

Frank Carini is editor of ecoRI News.

Frank Carini: Human overpopulation's assault on the environment

Via ecoRI News (ecori.org)

Lost in the discussion about climate change — at least the snippets of it not drowned out by the air horns of special interests — is the issue of overpopulation, arguably the main reason that  the planet is heating up, the oceans are acidifying and the atmosphere is wheezing.

Our sheer numbers are mostly a threat to, well, ourselves. The planet will recover; we won’t if we fail to take real action. Our most recent response — a full-on assault of women’s reproductive rights — doesn’t leave our children’s children much hope.

Sensing this blatant disregard for their future, a group of 21 kids, in 2015, filed a climate lawsuit against the federal government. It’s moving forward. In the lawsuit, the young plaintiffs have accused the federal government of violating their constitutional rights by knowing about the climate impacts of burning fossil fuels and supporting the development of fossil-fuel production anyway.

The residents of Burrillville, R.I., can relate.

Meanwhile, many of the adults elected to lead us forward act like spoiled brats. In the face of overwhelming scientific proof — never mind common sense — that human activities are changing the climate and punishing the natural resources that sustain us and all other life, they dismiss the importance of family planning and reproductive heath to push ideology.

Tom Price, current secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, hates birth control. As a member of Congress, he voted to terminate the program that subsidizes contraception for low-income women. He voted against a law barring employers from firing women for using contraception. He rages against the Affordable Care Act (ACA) requirement that insurance plans cover contraception without a co-pay.

He told ThinkProgress in 2012 that there are no women who struggle to afford birth control and that the ACA’s contraceptive mandate is wrong. “Bring me one woman who has been left behind. Bring me one. There’s not one,” he is quoted. “The fact of the matter is, this is a trampling of religious freedom and religious liberty in this country.”

This widely shared heavenly worldview is helping trample the life out of this planet. It’s a big middle finger to the future.

Consider this staggering fact: human population grew from 1.6 billion to 6.1 billion during the course of the 20th Century, according to the United Nations Population Fund. It took 199,900 years for the population to reach 1.6 billion, and then, in a blink of a century, 4.5 billion more people were added.

The worldwide population, now at 7.4 billion, is projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. We need intelligent conversations — not intelligent design — about our population, to eschew escalating wars fought over natural resources and to avoid increased pain and suffering.

Human activity is causing the greatest mass extinction of species since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, at rates of 1,000 to 10,000 faster than normal. (Center for Biological Diversity)

Climate change, or if you prefer the label global warming, is really just about numbers — ours. It’s a simple math problem. But the issue of human population is never debated during presidential campaigns or discussed by cable TV’s talking heads.

Population, climate change and consumption are inextricably linked in their collective global environmental impact, according to the Sierra Club’s Global Population and Environment Program.

The Worldwatch Institute says the two overriding challenges facing mankind are to mitigate climate change and slow population growth.

“Success on these two fronts would make other challenges, such as reversing the deforestation of Earth, stabilizing water tables, and protecting plant and animal diversity, much more manageable,” according to the Washington, D.C.-based organization. “If we cannot stabilize climate and we cannot stabilize population, there is not an ecosystem on Earth that we can save.”

Addressing these two interconnected issues starts with improving the health of women and children, especially in developing nations. By reducing poverty and infant mortality, increasing female access to human rights, such as economic opportunity, education and health care — funding that the White House wants to cut because some of the organizations helping to improve the lives of poor women and girls also provide abortions — educating women about birth-control options and ensuring access to family planning services, women worldwide would have stronger voices.

Knowledge, after all, is power, but we seem determined to curtail education, as we relentlessly attack climate science and evolution, and spout rubbish about the Environmental Protection Agency generating “propaganda” and “brainwashing” children.

If he isn’t already, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.., should be named as a defendant in the kids’ climate lawsuit. The senator who recently spewed that brainwashing garbage received $465,950 from the oil and gas industry during the past five years to help fatten his campaign coffers.

Humans continue the geo-engineering of the natural world to sustain our unsustainable numbers. The bough will eventually break.

More than two centuries ago, English scholar Thomas Malthus published ''An Essay on the Principle of Population''. In his writing he noted that human population tends to grow geometrically, while the resources available to support it tend to grow arithmetically. Under these conditions, he wrote that human population will inevitably outgrow the supply of food. He predicted that population growth would lead to degradation of the land, and eventually massive famine, disease and war.

Improvements in agriculture and the Industrial Revolution postponed the disaster Malthus thought was imminent, although much of what he predicted as happened, just not in one fell swoop.

Now, 219 years later, can we again tech our way out of the numerous impacts our rapidly growing population has and will create?

If so, it will likely come at the cost of diversity, and a considerable price has already been extracted. It also will likely expand the already-too-wide gap that separates the wealthy from the poor.

Simply discussing the issue of population is taboo, and many of the conversations that are held inevitably veer toward population control and China’s since-lax one-child policy.

Ignoring the problem won’t solve it. We need to have grown-up discussions about reproductive health. We need to address public health and population at all levels of government. After all, humans are the main force behind environmental pollution.

In the United States, at least, these vital conversations are muted by politicians who clap their tiny hands and get all giddy about rolling back laws enacted to protect public health and the environment. God forbid if the words “penis” or “vagina” are mentioned in a classroom.

A voluntary family-planning program in Iran helped drop the highest rate of population growth in the country’s history to replacement level a year faster than China’s compulsory one-child policy. The program subsidizes vasectomies, offers free condoms and affordable contraceptives, and supports countrywide education on sexual health and family planning.

Iran’s collection of spoiled brats, which, like here, consists mainly of older, whiny men, wants to defund the program.

It seems the “leaders” of these two countries have more in common than they know.

Frank Carini is the editor of ecoRI News.

Frank Carini: The horrific effects of plastic pollution

The remains of this Laysan albatross chick on Midway Island in the Pacific show the plastic it ingested before death, including a bottle cap and lighter.

The remains of this Laysan albatross chick on Midway Island in the Pacific show the plastic it ingested before death, including a bottle cap and lighter.

 

The amount of plastic choking the planet, most notably the world’s oceans, is unfathomable. The evidence of this unrelenting assault overwhelming. The scale of this toxic pollution horrifying.

Consider:

It’s estimated that there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean, from 269,000 tons afloat on the surface to some 4 billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer in the deep sea.

Plastic bags break up into smaller pieces, but their footprint never vanishes. If they do break down, it’s into polymers and toxic chemicals. Some 500 billion single-use plastic bags are used annually worldwide. If you joined them end to end, these petroleum pouches would circumnavigate the globe 4,200 times. Only a minuscule fraction are recycled or reused.

Twenty-five billion Styrofoam cups are thrown out annually in the United States alone.

A single tube of facial scrub can contain more than 330,000 plastic microbeads. A single microbead can be a million times more toxic than the water around it.

Nearly 3 million plastic bottles, every hour of every day, are used in the United States. Less than 30 percent are recycled.

More than 300 million plastic straws are used every day in the United States. Straws are too small to be easily recycled, so they typically become trash. Plastic straws are one of the top beach polluters worldwide.

Eight million tons of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans every year.

About 100,000 marine creatures die every year from plastic entanglement.

About a million sea birds are killed every year by plastic. A record 276 pieces of plastic where found in one dead bird. It was 90 days old.

At least two-thirds of the world’s fish stocks are suffering from plastic ingestion.

A 2016 study warns that there will be more waste plastic, by weight, in the ocean than fish by 2050, unless humans clean up their act.

“We’ve plasticized the entire biosphere, including our bodies,” said Marcus Eriksen, research director and co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute. “The impact of plastic is widespread, and it’s destroying the oceans.”

Eriksen was one of four guests who spoke March 4 at Brown University during a panel discussion titled “The Plastic Ocean.” The discussion also featured photographer Chris Jordan, Georgia State University professor Pam Longobardi and author Carl Safina.

In January, ecoRI News hosted a screening of A Plastic Ocean at the Cable Car Cinema, in Providence. Both events highlighted a serious problem.

Plastics production has increased twenty-fold since 1964, according to last year’s The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics study. Production is expected to double again in the next 20 years, and almost quadruple by 2050.

The world’s plastic problem was first identified in the 1970s. In 1987, a law was eventually passed to restrict the dumping of plastics into the ocean. The Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act went into effect Dec. 31, 1988, making it illegal for any U.S. vessel or land-based operation to dispose of plastics in the ocean.

However, this act and other laws like it, such as the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, can’t compete with mass consumption and throwaway societies.

In 2000, Eriksen traveled to Midway Atoll — a 2.4-square-mile island roughly equidistant between North America and Asia — where he found hundreds of dead Laysan albatross with plastic-filled stomachs. The visit narrowed Eriksen’s environmental focus, and led to the creation of his Los Angeles-based nonprofit that empowers action against the global health crisis of plastic pollution through science, art, education and adventure.

More than 600 animal species are impacted by plastic, through ingestion or entanglement, both of which can sicken or kill them, according to the 5 Gyres Institute. Birds, fish, turtles, dolphins, sharks and whales can be poisoned or trapped by plastic waste.

“There’s pieces of plastic out there with shark bites, turtle bites,” said Eriksen, noting that smaller pieces of plastic can be found everywhere in the world’s oceans. “The world is covered by microplastic particles. The fact we can find plastic in the middle of the ocean is a tragedy of the commons.”

Photographer Chris Jordan followed Eriksen to Midway Atoll. He has visited the far-flung island in the North Pacific Ocean several times. His photographs have vividly captured the destruction caused by plastic. The experience was soul-crushing.

Jordan, the first speaker at the recent panel discussion, introduced himself this way: “I’m the guy who took the horrible photos of the birds with plastic in their stomachs.”

As the Seattle-based photographer shot pictures and videos of plastic-ridden bird carcasses, he found himself sobbing. “Being with dying birds and seeing their suffering ... I felt the grief,” he said. “I never knew how much I cared about these animals.”

“We could be living in such a different way,” Jordan said. “There’s nothing standing in the way of radical change in global behavior. Science is telling us that we need this change.”

Pam Longobardi with some of the plastic she has collected from beaches around the world during the past 10 years. She makes art with some of it, to raise awareness of the world’s plastic problem, archives some of it and recycles as much of it as she can. (Drifters Project)

In 2006, after discovering mountains of plastic on remote Hawaiian shores, Pam Longobardi founded the Drifters Project. During the past decade, the nonprofit has removed tens of thousands of pounds of debris, mostly plastic, from the natural environment and reused the material as communicative social sculpture, to create awareness of the problem.

“The ocean ecosystem is full of life ... and it’s in trouble,” Longobardi told those gathered in the Brown University auditorium. “The ocean is vomiting plastic because it’s full.”

She called plastic a crime against nature, and noted that all this pollution is creating an environmental and racial crisis.

“Plastic comes back to haunt us,” she said. “It’s the ghost of our consumption.”

Longobardi has led “forensic beach cleanings” around the globe, from emptying plastic-filled caves on Kefalonia, an island in the Ionian Sea, west of mainland Greece, to scrubbing beaches in Hawaii. She’s currently running a project in Lesbos, a Greek island in the northern Aegean Sea off the coast of Turkey.

Change is possible, and the four speakers noted that, despite the best efforts of lobbying groups such as the American Chemistry Council, a tipping point is fast approaching.

For instance, applying circular economy principles to global plastic packaging flows could transform the plastics economy and drastically reduce negative externalities such as leakage into oceans, according to the 2016 report by the World Economic Forum and Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

“Why are we packing yogurt that lasts three weeks into containers that last forever?” Eriksen asked.

Individual behaviors are also changing.

“When I see a piece of plastic, I pick it up,” Longobardi said. “I know it won’t be consumed by a bird or animal.”

Frank Carini is editor of ecoRI News, where this first ran.

 

Frank Carini: Painting over the damage done by shore slobs

 

Via ecoRI News (ecori.org)

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — Mike Pellini doesn’t get down to the seaside home his grandfather built in 1940 as much as the Massachusetts resident would like. When he does, however, he’s increasingly spending his time removing graffiti from coastal rocks and cleaning up after others.

“It’s so disheartening that people do this to such a beautiful place,” the Shrewsbury, Mass., resident said. “It’s disgusting and a huge problem, and the state doesn’t seem to care.”

“Do this” refers to those who spray-paint shoreline rocks with obscenities, leave behind beer cans, beer bottles and cigarette butts after a night of drinking, and generally trash Scarborough Beach and the Black Point recreation area.

Pellini, 52, said this type of thoughtless behavior has marred the area for as long as he can remember. He has spoken with employees from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) about the problem, to no avail.

“I’m always told we don’t have the resources ... no budget ... too expensive to clean the rocks,” Pellini said. “It’s so frustrating.”

The cleanup is instead left to people such as Pellini, Camilla Lee, Marianne Kittredge Chronley, and Holley and Ted Flagg. For the past three years or so, they have been cleaning up after the partiers. They pick up marine debris such as plastic bags, plastic bottles and Styrofoam cups. Holley, an artist who paints local nature scenes, mixes paints — donated by Jerry’s Paint and Hardware on Point Judith Road — to match the color of the defaced rocks.

Creating the right color, painting the rocks — Pellini, who is slightly younger than the others in the clean-up group, handles the painting of the harder-to-get-to rocks — and hauling out other people’s trash takes time and effort.

“It’s crazy the state doesn’t do anything about this,” Pellini said. “Rhode Island has this wonderful resource and the state allows it to be trashed.”

Frank Carini is editor of ecoRI News.