Matt Reusswig's Weblog

Month: August, 2009

EPA Plans to Improve Transparency of Clean Water Act Enforcement

The EPA plans invest in improve the agency’s enforcement of NPDES permit compliance via on-line dissemination of the compliance status of firms discharging waste into public waterways.

Via Environmental Observer:

To clean up our nation’s waters, Administrator Jackson’s memo directs EPA OECA staff to devise a new action plan to achieve the following:

(1) Make clean water enforcement information more transparent. Administrator Jackson wants to “improve and enhance information that is available through the EPA Web site on compliance with the Clean Water Act and the level of enforcement activity in each state… [including] performance of individual businesses as well as state and national performance.”
(2) Raise the bar for clean water enforcement performance. The Administrator wants to bring strong, consistent and effective enforcement actions against those who violate the Clean Water Act. She has asked EPA staff to “boost [their] enforcement presence.”
(3) Launch a major shift of EPA’s clean water information systems. The Administrator wants data on facilities’ discharges and their compliance status to be available to “federal and state regulators and the public, over the web, [and] on a real-time basis.” For example, the Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) Web site displays inspection and enforcement information for various permitted dischargers under the Clean Water Act. But it only reflects compliance and enforcement records that local, state and federal entities have entered into the federal database.

Good on the EPA for moving in this direction. Its probably a bit overdue.


What I’ve Been Reading


(Hendrik Kerstens‘ The Bag)

-Ancient farmers converting large tracts of land from forest to farms may have altered the climate millennia ago.

-By 2050, food production in many regions of Asia will lag local population growth due to insufficient groundwater reserves for irrigation.

-More than I ever wanted to know about the taxonomy of the Juncus. They’re occasionally used in constructed wetlands, FYI.

Cellulosic Ethanol Produces Less Nutrient Pollution Than Corn-Based Ethanol

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Corn-based ethanol, while popular here in the Cornbelt, isn’t exactly winning friends these days. A new paper from Christine Costello, et al, in Environmental Science & Technology claims that nitrate production (which is the main cause of Gulf Hypoxia) could be reduced by up to 20% if the region prioritized cellulosic ethanol crops. From the abstract:

Many studies have compared corn-based ethanol to cellulosic ethanol on a per unit basis and have generally concluded that cellulosic ethanol will result in fewer environmental consequences, including nitrate (NO3-) output. This study takes a system-wide approach in considering the NO3- output and the relative areal extent of hypoxia in the Northern Gulf of Mexico (NGOM) due to the introduction of additional crops for biofuel production. We stochastically estimate NO3- loading to the NGOM and use these results to approximate the areal extent of hypoxia for scenarios that meet the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007’s biofuel goals for 2015 and 2022. Crops for ethanol include corn, corn stover, and switchgrass; all biodiesel is assumed to be from soybeans. Our results indicate that moving from corn to cellulosics for ethanol production may result in a 20-percent decrease (based on mean values) in NO3- output from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River Basin (MARB). This decrease will not meet the EPA target for hypoxic zone reduction. An aggressive nutrient management strategy will be needed to reach the 5000 km2 areal extent of hypoxia in the NGOM goal set forth by the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force even in the absence of biofuels, given current production to meet food, feed, and other industrial needs.

Constructed Wetlands: Periods of Technological Development

I’ve been reading Wastewater Treatment in Constructed Wetlands with Horizontal Sub-Surface Flow by Jan Vymazal and Lenka Kröpfelová and their introductory chapter presents the most complete and coherent narrative of the history and development of constructed wetlands (CW) as a sanitation and waste remediation technology that I’ve seen.

One aspect of their history that I hadn’t seen elsewhere came from a table that lists 77 types of wastewater/pollution that people have attempted to treat in CW and the year in which the tests began. These 77 include phenol wastewaters (1952), photographic laboratory wastewaters (1975), cyanides and chlorophenols (1986), coke plant effluent (1998), and chlorobenzene (2004). It suggests that interest in the technology really didn’t take off until around 1980.

I’m not going to reproduce Vymazal and Kröpfelová’s table here but the difference is more apparent presented graphically anyway. I was curious what the list could say about the relative interest in constructed wetlands over time, so I took the table and plotted the total cumulative number of wastes which had been tested in CW for each year and its obvious that things took off in the late ’70’s. I also plotted the rate at which new wastes were first tested as a 5-year moving average to make the difference between the pre- and post-1980 periods pop a little more.


A Factoid Which Is Only Somewhat Related To This Post: Käthe Seidel (who conducted the first experiments on CW/macrophyte systems for wastewater treatment in 1952) wanted to call the technology the “hydrobotanical method”.

What I’ve Been Reading

-Reece Rushing from the Center for American Progress recently produced a report on declining male fertility . Matt Yglesias shows us some of the best plots here. Much of the info in Rushing’s paper originated in this metanalysis by Swan, et al.

-This paper kind of blew my mind.


-Carl Zimmer on selection driven plant evolutionary responses to climate change.

The Organic Food Movement and Farmers


(CC photo from iLoveButter

I currently live in Iowa City, Iowa, which is a pretty good place to live in the Midwest if you are a fan of great food and food culture. We have farmers’ markets open most of the week, high quality grocery stores, decent restaurants, and lots of people who love to eat. So, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the organic, sustainable and local food movements enjoy a great deal of support here.

One thing I’ve noticed from talking to many proponents of these movements is that there is this mental model they have where producers are either poor shmos being led around the nose by corporations or as unable recognize obvious business opportunities. So I enjoyed reading this article by Blake Hurst , a corn and soy producer from Missouri.

Hurst addresses the fact that farming is a complex process and a complex business:

On the desk in front of me are a dozen books, all hugely critical of present-day farming. Farmers are often given a pass in these books, painted as either naïve tools of corporate greed, or economic nullities forced into their present circumstances by the unrelenting forces of the twin grindstones of corporate greed and unfeeling markets. To the farmer on the ground, though, a farmer blessed with free choice and hard won experience, the moral choices aren’t quite so easy. Biotech crops actually cut the use of chemicals, and increase food safety. Are people who refuse to use them my moral superiors? Herbicides cut the need for tillage, which decreases soil erosion by millions of tons. The biggest environmental harm I have done as a farmer is the topsoil (and nutrients) I used to send down the Missouri River to the Gulf of Mexico before we began to practice no-till farming, made possible only by the use of herbicides. The combination of herbicides and genetically modified seed has made my farm more sustainable, not less, and actually reduces the pollution I send down the river.

In fact, the most pressing environmental problem created by current farming practices have to do with soil erosion with water quality problems coming in second. And I don’t think greenhouse gas emissions are a problem that the farm industry needs to address. Rather, its a problem for the meat eating public.

Hurst covers a lot of ground and I don’t agree with him on everything–I think he’s underplaying the poor conditions that exist in many animal confinement operations and I’m not sure how you can talk at all about food production models without discussing national subsidies. But he brings a useful perspective to the discussion and I recommend you read the piece.

What I’ve Been Reading

-Competitive swimming is having to adapt to rapid technological advances in swimwear driven by biomimetic materials and computational fluid dynamics. Speedo spend “several million dollars” designing their LZR Racer suit which costs $550/suit.

-A fascinating history of wastewater treatment in Montreal by Andrew Emond.

-The intersection between sewage treatment and the free practice of religion in Pennsylvania.

What I’ve Been Reading

Community Urinalysis–I heard a talk on a similar technique utilized in European cities. During the Q&A session, many audience members focused in on privacy issues. For instance, could police perform analyses upstream of the main combined-sewer lines in order to identify households with using members? Is there a privacy issue that could come into play here? NB: This is an old story and I can’t recall where I found it! Therefore hat tip to the internet.

How did I miss this Venter/Exxon tag-team on biofuels?

Geometry and design in manhole covers .