Earth Matters Columns are written by John Frederick and featured in the Altoona Mirror.

Spring Clean up

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

A blanket of fresh snow over a Pennsylvania farm or patch of forest is an incredibly beautiful scene. Though it is not met with as much enthusiasm by the last week of March, it is still a pretty picture. Unfortunately, some of these landscapes too often look like landfills and scrap yards before the snow falls or after it melts.

So as the snow finally melts away (hopefully for the last time) it is a good time to think about how we can help clean up the mess left behind by Old Man Winter and his more malicious human cohorts in crime.  Sweep away that antiskid. A great place to start your cleanup is on your sidewalk and the street in front of your house. Rather than a noisy, air-polluting gas-guzzling leaf blower or a water-wasting hose, try a stiff-bristled broom to sweep up all that stuff that was spread around to keep you from sliding into your front yard. (Hardcore recyclers can save the grit for next year’s driveway antiskid.)

Pickup the litter. I know. You didn’t put it there so why should you have to pick it up? I guess for the same reason you wash your family’s clothes – you want things to look nice and it makes you proud when they do. (Hardcore environmentalists won’t only recycle the litter they can, they’ll even participate in cleanup projects away from home.)

Trim the trees. Spring is a good time to trim most trees. Elm, ash and oak are the exceptions because of Dutch elm disease, oak wilt disease and the dreaded ash borer. Otherwise, early spring is a good time to prune because the upcoming rapid growth means pruning wounds will heal more quickly. Be sure to cut as close to the juncture of two branches as possible, so as to encourage the bark to grow over the wound. Never top a tree, as it leads to weakened branches and increased chances of insect attacks and disease.

Retire that burn barrel. Don’t get burned up over your trimmings or your trash. Spring curbside yard waste collection is now sponsored by many municipalities. The composting facilities at the Buckhorn (open every day but Sunday and Wednesday) and south of Duncansville (open every Tuesday noon to five) accept nearly all your yard waste. Smaller facilities are also available for residents of Martinsburg, Bellwood and Antis Township.

Fix that grass. Take stock of your lawn and renovate those problem patches. When you get out the mower, pull the deck up a setting or two so you are cutting the grass a bit higher. Higher grass is healthier grass that is more tolerant of drought and discourages broadleaf weeds like dandelion and plantain. (If you’d like to avoid toxic weed and feeds or broadleaf herbicides, try the corn gluten products that naturally suppress weed seed sprouting.)

Plant something new. Spring is the very best time to do most planting. Consider planting something sweet and edible. Homegrown raspberries, seedless grapes and strawberries are nothing like their namesakes shipped across the continent.

Your springtime investment will help us make a community that we can be proud of, even after the snow melts.

Buying Less

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

Consumption for the sake of consumption is a bad idea, both economically and environmentally. Buying on a whim or buying things for the sake of buying them is simply a bad idea.

I participated in a waste study a few years back that looked at what people threw in the trash (and the recycling bin). I was often shocked by the things people threw away. Perhaps more notably, I was perplexed as to why they bought the stuff in the first place. I’m reminded of an old friend telling the story of his mom and dad out shopping one day. The conversation went something like this.

“Oh, look, honey, these are on sale three-for-five dollars!” his mom noted enthusiastically.
“Do you really need three, Mom?” the dad inquired.
“They’re usually two dollars each; we’re saving a dollar on the three.”
“You know what?” the father calmly replied, “You’ll save three bucks if you only buy one.”

Always looking for a bargain, the newest gadget or the material thing that we think will bring happiness or notoriety, many of us buy things we don’t necessarily need or which we can’t afford.

Shopping has become a pastime and “extreme couponing” is a sport. This is not to say, by the way, that shopping is evil or that searching for a bargain is a bad thing. But like anything in life, too much of something is, well, too much. It’s even given rise to its own show, “Extreme Couponing.” Those that they feature are quite proud of the incredible bargains and free things they manage to dig up in their quest for the ultimate coupon bargains. Many of the extreme “couponers” have had to add storage space onto their house or property in order to store all this stuff. It begs the question: how many bottles of dishwashing liquid, containers of deodorant or boxes of macaroni does one family need? Can it all be used before it goes bad?

What began as a money-saving shopping strategy, seems to have become a bizarre obsession, and one that is bad for the environment. Many frequently overlook the volume of resources they consume or the waste they generate. Some argue that our energy use and waste generation are a reflection of a vibrant economy, but a look at the statistics tells a different story. (A great source for such statistical background is www.nationmaster.com.) A number of nations with similar standards of living use much less energy and produce notably less waste than the United States. Even after recycling, we generate nearly twice as much waste as Japan and we more than double the energy use per capita of much of Western Europe.

This life in the fast lane of consumption does not necessarily mean we are healthier or happier than other places in the world either. The United States leads the world in percentage of overweight people and ranks a dismal 49th in life span. A dozen countries score better on personal happiness and satisfaction with their plight in life.

Nineteenth century naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau suggested that we “Simplify, simplify.” We might be well served to try it once and awhile.

John Frederick writes on environmental issues every other Saturday in the Mirror. You can contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Individual Action

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead said many profound things during her lifetime, but one thought has been quoted more than any other. “Never believe that a few caring people can't change the world. For, indeed, that's all who ever have.”

The Good Book expresses related sentiments, telling us to set our own house in order and admonishing us to cast the first stone if we have not made mistakes.
All of these thoughts encourage us to take responsibility for our own actions and look to ourselves for change before asking someone else. Instead of complaining about others not getting the job done, sometimes it just makes sense to do the job yourself.

While neither Mead nor the good Lord had environmental issues in mind, one could argue that the principle holds true for many things in life. More opportunities to take those individual environmental actions present themselves all the time. And they seem to pop up in unexpected places, too. As our office prepared for the Blair County Home and Garden Show this weekend, we realized that such an event gives people a chance to research how they can lessen their impact on the planet (and save some money, too).

Answers to questions on saving energy, beautifying your yard, recycling more, reducing your use of hazardous chemicals, building with greener products or a smaller footprint on the environment can all be found at home and garden shows like this one.

Are you moved to tears when your home heating bill comes in the mail? Visit one of the regional companies that specialize in window replacements or talk with one of the heating specialists about newer higher efficiency furnaces or geothermal heat pump systems.

Do your walls feel like the inside of your refrigerator? Explore how you can add insulation and other weather-proofing measures to your house.

Do you need a recycling bin or need more information on recycling requirements in Blair County? Visit the recycling office’s booth at the home show.

Is your house or garden overrun with stink bugs, groundhogs or raccoons? Did the Colorado Potato Beetles and Tomato Blight get more of your potatoes and tomatoes than you did? Then stop and see the Penn State Master Gardeners for answers to those tough gardening problems.

Would you like to capture rainwater for your garden or produce your own compost? Visit the IRC’s recycling booth to learn more about their rain barrel and compost bin sale in late spring.

Have you grown weary of your electric meter spinning faster than the merry-go-round at DelGrosso’s Park? Look into more efficient light fixtures and lamps and appliance options.

Are you concerned about lead paint or asbestos insulation in your older home, mold in a damp part of your basement, or other indoor air quality issues? Visit one of the companies specializing in those hazards in your home.

Tired of the drab old lawn and those fifty year old arborvitae shrubs? Drop in on one of the incredible garden displays
Whether at the home show today and tomorrow or at the store later in the spring, explore what you can do to make your patch of green a bit greener.

The Blair County Home and Garden Show (www.blairhomeshow.com) continues today and tomorrow at Altoona’s Jaffa Shrine. Visit www.ircenvironment.org for more on the upcoming rain barrel and compost bin sale.

 

Passenger Rail

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

Passenger rail service in America – a railroad system that even Bulgaria would be ashamed of.

Those were the words of author James Kuntsler speaking about his research and writings on urban sprawl and related transportation challenges in the United States several years ago. Though a few years have passed since his terse remark on the plight of passenger rail, it would seem that the situation has gotten worse instead of better.

By most standards, rail transportation is woefully underfunded when compared to other modes of transportation in the United States. Despite this, five years ago Congress passed, and the last President signed into law, legislation that would make this bad situation even worse.

The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 will require states to pick-up the subsidy for passenger rail routes of less than 750 miles beginning in October. That means that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) will have to find $5.7-million to support Amtrak's daily Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg route.

The emasculation of Amtrak had already helped reduce the number of trains between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg to a single trip each way per day. (Sixty passenger trains once passed through Altoona each day.) This last move has been criticized as a short-sighted policy blunder that raises the real possibility that passenger rail service may disappear from Altoona completely by this Thanksgiving.

Interestingly, the PRIIA provided considerable funding for the Northeast Corridor, setting aside over $8 billion for the section of the system that runs from Washington, through Philadelphia and on to New York. But the legislation stuck the states with the tab for routes that were already in a tough spot and operating at the mercy of the freight lines that own the track on which they travel.

Over 35,000 passengers got on or off the train in Altoona, Tyrone or Huntingdon last year. Another 23,000 boarded or detrained from the Johnstown station. Ridership is up six per cent since 2010, despite the fact that the trains are old, the tracks are designed for freight trains and it takes less time to drive. The single daily train means that arrivals and departures are inconvenient for business travelers, forcing people to make overnight stays if they use the train.
Based on the national average of 1.5 passengers per car, the train is keeping 32,000 cars off the road each year, even here in the more lightly traveled Central Pennsylvania region between Huntingdon and Johnstown.

Besides being a much more environmentally sound way to travel, it is an important option for many people that have limited access to an automobile. In addition to older and lower income people, that group also includes many college-aged individuals. As Penn State Altoona continues its amazing growth as Penn State’s most requested campus after University Park, that student access is important.

Limited mass transit options inordinately penalize those that can least afford it. So in our infinite short-sightedness, we seem poised to make it more difficult to use the train. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania isn’t so sure they think anyone west of the Susquehanna deserves passenger rail access at all.
It sure seems like a funny way to run a railroad.

If you think that rail service to our region is important and a worthwhile transportation alternative, let your local legislators know your feelings. If you missed it, check out the February 5th Mirror article by Ryan Brown at www.altoonamirror.com.

Energy Conundrums

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

Americans have long been in denial that their extraction and use of energy causes environmental problems. We have managed to rationalize the acid mine drainage that has befouled 5,000 miles of Pennsylvania’s waterways, rendering the water undrinkable and destroying aquatic ecosystems. We excuse the childhood asthma, elderly respiratory disease and premature deaths caused by the polluted air. We have discounted the risks of shipping nuclear wastes across the country and long term storage of those wastes because we “need” the electricity.

We accept the mental impairment of a half million children caused by the lead mercury emitted from the burning of coal. We lament oil spills in sensitive marine environments but still ignore “best practices” when drilling in such regions. We deny that that the carbon dioxide we emit is warming the planet. So we look for other options and alternatives that reduce those pollutants and risks. Solar, wind and natural gas seem to be common sense alternatives that avoid some of the worst environmental problems connected with fossil fuels. Unfortunately, the initial investments for solar and wind energy have been extraordinarily expensive when compared to the often subsidized fossil fuels.

Many are particularly concerned about the potential impacts of natural gas drilling and windmills. Yet a number of ardent environmentalists also see the gas from Marcellus Shale and the electricity generated by windmills as two answers to an uncertain energy future. It is the classic environmental conundrum – a seemingly unsolvable dilemma, a question without a clear answer.

Clearly, we would be much better off environmentally if we used more natural gas and less coal. Yet serious uncertainties still surround fracking for natural gas. Despite these questions, the practice has been given preferential regulatory treatment, being exempted from the underground injection control program of the Safe Water Drinking Act and provisions of the Clean Water Act.

The fourteen biggest fracking companies in the United States use more than a quarter trillion liters of fracking fluid. The fluids are a well kept secret in the industry and a source of great concern to opponents of hydraulic fracturing. More than two dozen of the chemicals that are believed to be used in the process are known or suspected human carcinogens.

The amount of water used in the process is significant as well. Most of the Great Lakes states have additionally waived restrictions on the amount of water that can be withdrawn from both ground and surface water for fracking. The noise, habitat destruction and aesthetic degradation connected with windmills has brought opposition to wind energy, despite its many advantages. It would seem that, like so many other industries, there are good and bad actors in the wind energy business. Poorly planned, sited and maintained wind farms can be liabilities to the communities in which they are developed.

Even the most responsible wind energy companies and natural gas drillers must be tempered by the interests and wishes of local residents. There are places where such development might be very appropriate and widely accepted by the host communities. Clearly, there are also places where water, aesthetics, forest resources and the expectations of the people should be put first.

John Frederick ( This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ) writes on environmental issues every other week in the Mirror. Later this month, we’ll examine a still frequently overlooked alternative – energy conservation.

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