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April 2008

April 24, 2008

Flowing to Greenversations

As of Earth Day 2008, I've stopped posting in “Flow of the River” to join Greenversations, the new agency-wide blog.  Please join the conversation over there.


April 22, 2008

My Favorite Bird

By Marcus Peacock, Deputy Administrator.

I prefer some birds to others. I like the Black-capped Chickadee for example. They're attractive, gregarious, and hardy enough to withstand a Minnesota winter. English Sparrows, on the other hand ... here we have an invasive species who bullies poor wrens and is only slightly less successful at depositing droppings on my car than the only slightly less revolting Starling.

My favorite bird is the Lesser Scaup (rhymes with “stop”). They are not particularly large or unusually beautiful (see picture) and I only see them once a year when they are blowing through Washington DC on their way to Canada. (I have yet to catch them on the return.) But that's why I like them. They are my harbinger of spring.

Lesser Scaups - Credit: Fish and Wildlife Service
two Lesser Scaup birds swimming in a marsh

This year I spotted a pair of Lesser Scaups on February 23. That's within a week of when I saw one last year and the year before that. I could see my breath that morning. It felt like January, but there they were, oblivious to the temperature.

I like winter, but nothing can compare to the riot of spring in Washington DC. Within two weeks of a Scaup's fleeting visit the daffodils emerge and not long after that all hell breaks loose: cherry blossoms, Virginia Bluebells, flox, vinca, dogwoods, tulips. Of course the flowers coincide with returning armadas of birds that overwhelm the tired survivors of winter. Red-winged Blackbirds quickly raise a racket in the cattails and you can't walk a residential block without getting pinged by a full-throated Cardinal.

But when the Scaups show up, that's all in the future. The marsh lies silent. It's all a promise to be fulfilled. It's all potential.

This blog started last summer as an experiment run on a shoe-string. That experiment was a success. Fittingly, today, on Earth Day, EPA becomes only the second federal agency to open up an Agency-wide public blog. It's called “Greenversations.” Unlike Flow of the River, Greenversations will cover everything we do. It will be home to a flock of EPA bloggers (including me). You'll hear from permit writers and scientists and lawyers and everything in between. It will create multiple ongoing avenues of communication. It'll be a riot.

This morning I saw a petal drop from a tulip stem. Can the heat of summer be far off? There is plenty of spring left, but nothing compares to the anticipation introduced by a small and scruffy Lesser Scaup: the herald of unlimited potential.

April 21, 2008

Being Prepared

Mary Kemp is currently the Homeland Security Coordinator in the Dallas, TX regional office. Mary started at EPA in 1985 and has worked in the asbestos, superfund, and air programs.

This past weekend my son received his Eagle Scout award from the Boy Scouts of America. He received this award with four other scouts, most of which he has been in scouting with since he was a tiger scout. As a parent, it's truly an honor to see your son receive scouting's highest award. Each of the five Eagle Scouts remarked on the positive experiences they received from scouting and how scouting had changed their lives.

The Boy Scouts of America's motto is “Be Prepared.” I reflect on how EPA has become more prepared since September 11, 2001. Prior to 9-11, we understood that it had a role through the Federal Response Plan to conduct hazardous material collections. The training for this role occurred primarily through our Superfund Removal/Emergency Response program. After 9-11, it became apparent that during a major disaster potentially all programs within EPA will be required to respond. During an emergency or crisis, the citizens of the United States want to photo of cleanup technicians in protective moon suits know how clean their air, water, and land in addition to clean-up of hazardous materials. These determinations affect the health of their families and sometimes must be answered before people can rebuild their lives.

EPA has made monumental efforts within the Superfund program to improve response capabilities and train staff on disaster response protocols. The Water program has been actively working with water utilities. Internally, EPA has been conducting tabletop exercises to further work with staffs on discussing “what-if” scenarios. EPA created an Office of Homeland Security to further aid in the coordination efforts between the various Offices within EPA and other federal agencies. EPA has also been conducting research into areas of decontamination, water, risk, and response.

Like the Boy Scouts of America, we at EPA want to be more prepared.

April 18, 2008

The Challenge of Earth Day

About the author: Karen Reshkin manages the Chicago regional Web site and is editing the Earth Day Challenge blog.

Earth Day comes with lots of flurry
Do great things and in a hurry

Every waking hour is reckoned
As “How long till the twenty-second?”

Earth Day comes with expectations
Big events and presentations

“But what if this year,” someone said,
“We did a better thing instead?”

Large pile of computersOld TVs and old prescriptions
Give the Great Lakes great conniptions.

Spare our lakes and our landfills
A million pounds*, a million pills!

Don't throw out that old computer
Do a thing that's far astuter…

Medications in the water
That's a thing you hadn't oughter

Pharma waste can harm the fauna
This Earth Week we hope you're gonna

Find an e-waste drive near you.
Some are taking old meds, too!

Our Great Lakes are worth protecting!
Let's get out and start collecting!

* of electronic waste (e-waste)

Thanks to the inspiration of EPA Region 5 Administrator Mary A. Gade and the efforts of the Earth Day Challenge workgroup, more than 100 events have joined the 2008 Great Lakes Earth Day Challenge. Our goal is to collect, all around the Great Lakes Basin, 1 million pills of outdated or unwanted medicine, and 1 million pounds of e-waste. You can learn more at the Earth Day Challenge web site and its companion blog. Even if you don't live near the Great Lakes, I hope you'll do your part this Earth Day and recycle something you might otherwise throw away.

April 17, 2008

Bucket Brigade

About the author: Donald Welsh is EPA's Region 3 Administrator in Philadelphia.

Photograph of Don Welsh, EPA Region 3 Administrator, seated at his desk The best measures of environmental results, most agree, are the ones that gauge things happening outside our offices, like pounds of pollution that do or don't enter the air and water, or contaminated sites that do or don't get cleaned up, or asthma attacks that do or don't happen – rather than inside our offices, like the number of permits written, plans approved or grants awarded.

It's a lot easier tallying the “inside” measures, but they don't give us a true indication of how well we're doing to identify and fix the environmental problems that have the greatest impact on the people in our Region.

At Region 3 in Philadelphia, we think we've found one way to take a better look at the things that really matter. We're breaking out of the traditional program “silos” that can stifle imagination and collaboration, and learning to use our collective talents and resources to take on the toughest tasks.

Think of it as a bucket brigade.

These buckets represent specific environmental problems we need to solve, or opportunities we want to seize to accelerate environmental improvement.

We're using some cool new tools like logic models and the mysterious sounding Multi-criteria Integrated Risk Assessment system to evaluate environmental indicators and program efficiency measures, and to factor in the professional judgment of our people, to identify the best opportunities and most important challenges in the region.

We then visit each of the program silos to collect the most appropriate and effective resources to put in each bucket.

Looking across the silos in this way has taught us some surprising lessons, for instance:

  • The Resource Conservation Challenge, a program aimed primarily at better materials management, is one of our strongest tools for fighting global warming.
  • The Superfund site clean-up program has an important role to play in protecting indoor air quality.
  • The wetlands regulatory program can help restore oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay.

You can learn more about how we are using these tools by visiting Region 3's Website.

What we've learned so far is that sometimes you can carry more in a bucket than you can hold in a silo.

Collaborations to Inspire Dreaming Big

About the author: Pat Bonner has been working in public involvement from local to international scales since 1971. Her most fun projects with EPA were web based dialogues and what she's doing now, launching collaboration training across the Agency.

Commercial rebuilding underway in Greensburg, KS Recently, I experienced a very positive reality check while coordinating EPA's input to the Council on Environmental Quality's (CEQ) 2007 Annual Report on Cooperative Conservation. 

Pulling together what became the Collaboration and Partnership collection reminded me why people want to work at EPA.  Yes, we want to use what we know to prevent and stop pollution and to protect public health.  Idealism may attract us, but having the chance to see ideas become actions keeps us here generating creative ways to improve environmental results by working with others to solve real problems.

That's what's happening in Greensburg, KS where EPA staff members are helping a community to plan and rebuild itself “greener” after an EF-5 tornado (1.7 miles wide, packing 205 mph winds) leveled their town on May 4, 2007.  The goal is to build the greenest city in Kansas and in less than a year people are working together to implement an adopted plan to do just that.

ReGenesis executive director Harold Mitchell with his mother on the front porch of their home It's the inspiration that comes from seeing ReGenesis, Inc. of Spartanburg, SC, grow a $20,000 environmental justice grant into the ReGenesis Environmental Justice Partnership that has obtained over $179 million through community driven public/private partnerships. ReGenesis now serves as a national model featured in a documentary film produced by EPA to help similar communities.  It's the story of how Harold Mitchell's dream for an environmentally safe and economically viable place to call home became the dream of a community and then a region.  EPA staff has been helping Harold and his community for over 12 years.  Their success has led to legislation initiated by now State Representative Harold Mitchell to make a similar difference in other parts of South Carolina.

There are 109 more examples in the collection.  Here are just a few more good ideas that have been put into actions with or by EPA's partners: using green infrastructure to reduce stormwater runoff; cleaning out the chemicals used in K-12 schools; enlisting faith-based groups in stewardship (Earthkeepers) actions and partnering with car manufacturers, recyclers and others to reduce pollution from mercury switches.

Looking for inspiration for your own ideas?

April 16, 2008

Just Breathe

About the author: Jeffrey Levy joined EPA in 1993 to help protect the ozone layer. He is the National Web Content Manager.

Long view of a city on a smoggy dayI've been doing things outdoors most of my life: hiking, rockclimbing, etc.  For the past 15 years or so, I've also been playing Ultimate Frisbee, which is sort of like soccer mixed with football and basketball.  The upshot is you run.  A lot.  It's usually a race between my lungs and legs to see which will run out of juice first.

A few years ago, I found out I should be more worried about my lungs, especially since I have mild asthma (I don't wheeze so much as cough).  Running a lot can be a real problem when the air quality is bad: a lot of ozone in the air can irritate my lungs and leave me out of breath.  Note this is ozone down near the ground; the stuff up in the stratosphere protects us from the sun's ultraviolet rays

We can help you figure out when it's better to stay home with the Air Quality Index.  This handy site gives you a color-coded, clickable national map with info for many communities.  For example, the AQI is provided for "Northern Virginia," which means the DC suburbs where I live.

Try out the AQI and see if it works for you.  If it doesn't, I'm sure the folks running it would like to hear your ideas for improvement.

P.S. While you're on the Web, take a look at our Earth Day offerings.  We've got podcasts, a "widget" that lets you put a daily environmental tip on your own site, and more.

More Flow

I think federal agencies should blog more.  That includes EPA. 

Starting today this blog is going to broaden its purview.  You will see more EPA employees blogging about more topics.  There won't be any more "Guest Blogs."  Every entry will have its own byline showing who the author is.  They'll all be open to comments.

Just because the Flow of the River will be broader, doesn't mean it will be slower.  I, for instance, will continue to blog under my own byline.  There will be a lot more entries on a lot more topics.  You'll also start seeing more improvements to the look and feel of the blog.  Unlike a real river, the Flow is getting wider and stronger.

April 15, 2008

Find the Hidden Message

By any measure, the best blogs are multidimensional. Usually, given time and wit, I try and add a little depth to this blog. You may notice that . . . or you may not. Examples run the gamut from obvious to arcane. Not many folks missed the connection with Irving Berlin when Annie Oakley suddenly popped up at the end of “Anything I Can Do, I Can Do Better.” Even fewer failed to spot the sprinkling of French expressions in the tour de force, "How Freeing Paris Saved Money.” Rarely do things go as badly, however, as when a majority of folks, at least in my office, had no idea what Dunder Mifflin was on America Recycles Day.

Given the difficulty of understanding all that may be going on in a 400 word blog entry, it's understandable that it can be even harder to grasp the substance in EPA's ten-page Quarterly Management Report. You may need to be an EPA geek to really ‘get' all of what we are measuring. “Superfund Site Completions” and “TMDL Approvals” are not necessarily phrases you'll hear while waiting in line at Starbucks. To be sure, the quarterly measures are important, but they are indirect, not direct, measures of environmental quality.


Click to Open Quarterly Management Report
Image of a box from the EPA Q1 2008 Quarterly Management Report which shows the amount of green house gas avoided and cost savings from using EnergyStar

A lack of context in the report makes the measures less accessible to the average citizen. Regular folks may need assistance understanding what the measures mean and how they relate to protecting health and the environment.

Let me introduce EPA's latest and best Quarterly Management Report. In addition to simplifying some of the data boxes, once inside the report, just roll your cursor over a measure, left click, and a supplemental guide appears with background information and explanations.

Greater accessibility to what our quarterly report means will allow more people to study what we're doing. However, what is more important than just reporting this information is learning from it. Take a look, if you want to see how we're doing, and let us know what you think.

Stumped by the hidden message?

April 10, 2008

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: Correspondence

Time for another EPA performance follow-up. Last August I noted that we had done a tremendous job of being more responsive to letters we get from elected officials. Being responsive is important because it influences how well these officials are able to serve their constituents. It's also a reflection on whether EPA has its act together. It affects our rep.


We try and respond to all letters from Senators, Congressmen and Governors within two weeks.  (Very complicated requests, like requests for lots of documents, are excluded.) When we started measuring this in early 2006 we typically had about 60 letters overdue in any given week. In less than four months we reduced that to zero - no letters overdue!

It's been seven months since we last checked in. Did we let our guard down?

No! We're keeping it down near zero. Congratulations to everyone for making it a habit. In the world of the good, the bad and the ugly, this one is very good.

April 08, 2008

Haggis' Bells

I had this conversation the other day with my Assistant, Rocco Russo - yeah, that's his real name.

Marcus: Hey Rocco, I want to run an idea for a blog entry by you. You know my dog Haggis?


Rocco: Heard of him.

M: We have a set of bells by the back door that we've taught him to ring if he thinks he needs to go outside.

R: Uh-huh . . . bells.

M: Well, my mother-in-law recently stayed at my house for a few weeks. We told her about the bells, but she sort of unilaterally decided that if the dog rang the bells but didn't want to go outside then that meant he should be fed.

R: That doesn't make sense.

M: I know, but that's what she did. Anyway, pretty soon the dog was ringing the bells all the time. The whole system broke down and now he's fat.

R: Too bad . . . is that it?

M: No, no. Did you know that some Greek Hedonists thought there were only three basic physical pleasures in life?

R: Uh-uh. What are they?


M: Well, two of them are eating and relieving oneself.

R: What's the third?

M: Never mind. The point is eating and going to the bathroom are very different but necessary functions.

R: You know . . . I'm pretty busy today.

M: My point is EPA can be split into two distinct parts. We have the people inside the beltway and their various support offices and then we have the ten Regional offices. Headquarters primarily develops national policies and programs while the Regional offices work on the ground, directly with the states and tribes, implementing these programs.

R: You trying to tell me Headquarters eats and the Regions poop?

M: Well, no . . . the important thing is that, in general, they are two separate but necessary functions and because of that they need to be managed differently.

R: They need different bells?

M: They need different management measures that recognize they perform different functions. For instance, Headquarters often uses process measures to gauge performance. Regions, on the other hand, care more about particular geographic priorities and can use more specific and practical measures of performance. All of EPA has to work together to achieve our mission, but these two parts of EPA perform different jobs to get us there. If you try and force them to use the same measures, I think the whole system breaks down.

R: So, what are going to call this blog, "Half of EPA is Dog Crap"?

M: Oh! Forget it.

R: You want me to call Al Kamen at the Post now or just let that happen?

April 03, 2008

Guest Blog: Reuse it or lose it

Jim Schulman is a good friend and the President of Community Forklift a reclaimed and green building materials store in Hyattsville, MD.

Jim SchulmanSome people say that we Americans live in a post-industrial society. That is absolute (toxic) rubbish. Even though large numbers of American manufacturers are now operating overseas, interlinked engines of consumption, manufacturing, and materials extraction, spin on nonetheless. In developing and (over) developed nations alike, our lifestyles appear absolutely dependent, for good or for bad, upon industrial production.

But it's not necessarily the manufacture, distribution, operation, or disposal of material goods that is so harmful. Thoughtful research by the Wuppertal Institute has shown that well over three quarters of all environmental harms (including habitat loss, toxicity, climate disruption, etc.) are directly caused by materials extraction. It is practices like the clear-cutting of forests in Southeast Asia, mountain-top removal mining in West Virginia, and diversion of water from the Rio Grande River, that do the most damage to otherwise hardy eco-systems.

The fundamental problem of our era (as I see it), is how to redirect our economic activity to protect the earth's eco-systems, while still putting food on the tables of over 6 billion people.

Perhaps the easiest tool at our disposal towards this end is the reuse of products otherwise destined for disposal. At Community Forklift, we see the reuse of local building materials as not only cost-effective, but a form of environmental protection. One person's trash is another's treasure times two.

Currently, building materials constitute approximately half of the solid waste stream in America, by weight. Most buildings, however, can be carefully taken apart, or “deconstructed” in ways that preserve 85 to 95% of the materials for reuse or recycling. In fact, deconstruction can be cost-competitive with traditional demolition. A building owner may pay more for labor, but they avoid landfill and heavy equipment fees, and can receive tax deductions for donating materials. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance has shown that more green-collar jobs can be created in deconstruction, re-use, and re-manufacturing (converting old materials into new products) than might be lost in traditional raw materials extraction and manufacturing.

Although purchasing used and overstock building materials is not appropriate for every construction project, it can be extremely affordable in renovation and repair work. The creation of healthy, ecologically-regenerative communities can begin with the simple decision to reuse a 2x4.

April 01, 2008

Gitche Gumee Rocks

Every summer while I was growing up my family drove to the northern shore of Lake Superior to hunt for agates, browse local shops, and generally loaf around the shingle ‘beach.' I loved it. To this day I can skip pretty much any rock someone hands me because of the hours of practice I put in during those formative years (although it was not so good for my rotator cuff).

So when it comes to the Great Lakes, I'm biased. For me, Lake Superior is the deepest, biggest, coldest, greatest Great Lake of them all. The Ojibwa referred to it as Gitche Gumee (“big water”). Longfellow waxed poetic about it. The “church bell chimed ‘til it rang 29 times” because of it. It's the boss. It's superior.

Starting today, contrarians to my point of view have an opportunity to prove me wrong. On a companion website, EPA's office in Chicago is starting a blog to discuss an environmental challenge it is posing to communities around all of the Great Lakes. I'm expecting a good showing from towns around Lake Superior from Grand Portage to Sault Ste. Marie. (I'm not sure the challenge extends to our Canadian friends, they're out of our jurisdiction!)

However the challenge works out, I'm tickled to see EPA starting up another blog, albeit temporary. The Great Lakes blog will continue through May 9th.