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

Demanding More

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

“We should demand more of them,” author and historian David McCullough lamented as he reflected on the 2012 campaign last weekend on CBS.

No matter what your political persuasion, the barrages of negative ads, abrasive sound bites and wild accusations made the last month a most unpleasant one.
The collective costs of this year’s political campaign could be $6 billion according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Yet for all we had to tolerate and all that was spent, the environment was, for all practical purposes, ignored. Only energy was discussed to any notable degree, and it usually only arose when it could be used as a partisan wedge.

There is little doubt that we would be better served as a nation if we followed McCullough’s advice and zealously demanded more of those running for public office. While many issues were cast aside, the environment was surely one that was overlooked as much as any other.
On the domestic environmental front, energy, water resources, environmental infrastructure, air quality, climate change, transportation, agricultural policy, urban decay and suburban sprawl should all be part of our national political dialog. Even if you don’t care about the ecological implications of those issues, each has profound social and economic ramifications as well. Many impact our daily lives.

On the issues beyond our borders, we seldom heard candidates talk about the social injustices and genocide (many of which are related to control of land and resources) that make life a living hell in places like Darfur. Nor did we talk nearly enough about how our insatiable thirst for oil drives our foreign policy to places we would be better off not going. The plight of island and coastal nations, whose very existence are endangered by rising sea levels, are similarly discounted.
Almost all these issues were ignored on Election Day. While economic struggles have rightfully been a focus of attention, these environmental issues are, ironically, often connected to those economic woes.

Our energy costs are higher when we use it inefficiently. Disease and health problems caused by poor air quality or exposure to industrial pollutants cost us billions in health care and treatment every year. We spend countless dollars cleaning up polluted water so it’s fit to drink. Our auto-based transportation system brings us congested highways that cost us time, money, energy and aggravation. The related sprawl has driven people and business from our cities while paving over agricultural land and open space that is both beautiful and valuable. Perhaps just as importantly, they are connected to our quality of life.

The bigger, planet-wide challenges affect people and places far from home and often in much more crucial, even life-threatening ways. From the security of our stable, relatively safe and mostly peaceful society, we forget what torment, conflict and lack of basic needs many of the world’s people struggle through every day of their lives.

Yes, there is unquestionably much to talk about on the environmental front and the issues are attached to many other challenges that confront us. As McCullough has implored us, let’s really demand more and bring things like the environment back to their rightful place in the American political conversation.

John Frederick writes on environmental issues every other Saturday. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Reports are Exaggerated

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

Mark Twain’s famous quote, “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” came to mind recently when I was asked yet again if the county’s compost facilities were closing. Twain was feared to be on death’s door in 1897 when he was confused with his sick cousin James.

Just as Twain was still with us at the time, the compost facilities near Duncansville, the Buckhorn and Bellwood are still alive and well. Besides serving Blair County’s mandated recycling municipalities, the three sites serve most of the county’s other communities and hundreds of users every week during the fall leaf season.

The Buckhorn site (which also provides drop-off recycling for a wide variety of recyclable materials) is now operated by the Intermunicipal Relations Committee (IRC) Council of Governments (COG). It’s open every day but Wednesday and Sunday in the fall. The Blair County Conservation District helps the IRC to man the Duncansville facility every Tuesday through Thanksgiving. The Bellwood area facility (which can only accept non-commercial patrons because of site limitations) is hosted by Antis Township and is open Monday through Saturday most weeks.

The fact that the sites remain open also means that all those municipalities that collect leaves or brush at the curbside are still providing that service. These programs are among the most popular services provided by local government in Blair County.

It prompts a plea that we make to the public from time to time, that folks minimize what they burn or consider kicking the burning habit altogether. Although the study and effects of air pollutants in general are complicated, there is little question that the burning of leaves can trigger unpleasant, even life threatening, health problems. These problems are especially pronounced in high risk people – the very young, the very old and those whose immune systems are compromised.

Any county resident or property owner can bring their own leaves to the compost facilities at no charge. The City of Altoona, Logan Township, and Hollidaysburg and Tyrone Boroughs all offer weekly leaf collection through Thanksgiving or later. Allegheny, Antis and Blair Townships and Duncansville, Williamsburg and Roaring Spring Boroughs also offer curbside collection at least once or twice each fall.

The last of the county’s old drop-off recycling depots was closed down this past week. But the Buckhorn facility is still accepting both traditional materials (that are part of regular curbside collection programs) and many special recyclables as well.

Besides bottles, cans, paper and cardboard, residents can drop-off all kinds of electronics, many rigid plastics (like toys, flower pots, CD cases and vinyl siding and fencing), rechargeable batteries, automotive fluids, waste cooking oil and fluorescent bulbs.

A special drop-off recycling event is also being held today from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. at Peoples Natural Gas Field in Lakemont. In addition to computers, televisions and other electronic devices, this final event of the fall season will also include boxes and books. That means any sort of box (corrugated or thinner paperboard) and books of all kinds will be accepted.

Though the system is changing and you might have to look a bit harder for some recycling provisions, reports of recycling’s death really have been greatly exaggerated.

John Frederick writes about environmental issues every other week. For more on the changing recycling landscape in Blair County, readers are invited to visit www.ircenvironment.org.

Barry Commoner

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

Long before the first Earth Day in 1970, many scientists realized that man was seriously degrading the environment. Yet most common folks didn’t pay attention. The problems didn’t seem like things that would threaten our health or the planet in any permanent way.

What made the sixties and seventies different was a growth in the understanding of the issues and the science behind them. While it might have ultimately been the political and social pressure that brought change, it was the building of this knowledge that had the greatest influence on affecting that change.
Like today, the written word can be powerful in bringing about that change. This awakening came to be thanks to scientific writing, reports from the popular media, as well as the books of the era.

One of the most notable voices and writers of that era, Barry Commoner died the last day of September and his passing prompts me to reflect on his impact on modern environmentalism.

Commoner wrote two bestsellers, The Closing Circle in 1971 and the Poverty of Power five years later. He is best known for his four “Laws of Ecology” that he outlined in the first chapter of The Closing Circle. 1) Everything is connected to everything else; 2) Everything must go somewhere; 3) Nature knows best; and 4) There is no such thing as a free lunch.

In my previous life as an Earth and Environmental Science teacher, I would repeat those laws in one form or another more times than I could count. I would like to think that, four decades later, a much larger portion of the public understands these principles than grasped them in 1970.
That said, our individual choices, collective decision-making and political dialog would indicate that many still don’t understand, or have chosen to ignore, Commoner’s precepts.

The first law’s premise, that “everything is connected”, means that our actions can impact things far beyond our own backyard. We have often ignored this law over the years, locally failing to see the “connections” between poorly planned development and flooding. We pay the price every time it rains hard.
Sometimes we forget that “Everything must go somewhere.” Violation of this law could often be avoided if we simply thought about others. The smoke from our burn barrels has to go “somewhere” and it’s usually the neighbor’s yard. Similarly, our non-recycled trash has to go “somewhere”. But it’s usually a landfill in somebody else’s community.
Commoner’s third law of ecology – nature knows best – testifies to the efficiency of natural cycles. Ignoring this law is a reflection of man’s arrogance that he can control these complex natural systems. Composting and recycling replicate natural cycles, yet we still dump a majority of our trash in landfills.

His fourth law, that there is no such thing as a free lunch, holds true in both economics and ecology. Particularly as it applies to power generation, the extraction of those resources from the ground and the subsequent burning of that fuel always have a cost to the environment or our health.

As Commoner contends and we too often forget, many of the solutions can be found in social change rather than scientific advances.

Same Destination

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

Building a Tradition a Key to Sustainability Efforts

Sometimes, especially in Pennsylvania, two different roads can lead to the same place. This can happen figuratively as well as geographically.
Strangely, Blair County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Joe Hurd and I have experienced this phenomenon twice during our professional lives. As younger men, local sports fans might remember that we both coached successful high school girls’ basketball teams.

Though our teams were rivals, we were part of a group of coaches and hard-working players that helped make our region a hotbed of girls’ basketball success. While we took two different paths, our journeys brought us to the same final destination – a level of success that female high school athletics had seldom experienced in our region.

Life went on for both of us and we ended up again, seemingly, on opposite sides of the fence. As executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, Joe had become one of the county’s most visible business advocates. Working for the state recycling organization and then the local recycling office, I came to fill a similar advocacy role on environmental issues.

Yet just as in our previous lives, we found ourselves going to the same place via different routes. As I came to fully appreciate the many different ways business could help solve environmental problems, Joe came to recognize that sound environmental management was usually good for a businesses’ bottom line.
Our professional passions criss-cross frequently and we share concerns over quality of life issues that are important for both environmental protection and business development. We have shared aspirations to enhance our transportation infrastructure, expand local government cooperation, promote local businesses, and reconnect the agricultural community to our urban consumers.

Both of us have remained in Blair County, but have also looked elsewhere in the hopes of learning from other’s successes. It was with this in mind that the Chamber’s Committee on Sustainability invited Centre County’s Recycling and Refuse Authority’s Joanne Shafer to the next Chamber Breakfast Club on October 11th. Centre County has a long tradition of innovative solid waste management and successful recycling. Their programs have contributed to the county often being ranked among Pennsylvania’s most livable communities. Shafer will highlight how Centre County has
• Built a coordinated county-wide program supported by both the public and private sector
• Developed and implemented a uniform and successful recycling program for both residential and business entities
• Addressed not only traditional wastes, but special wastes and recyclables, at affordable prices
• Discouraged illegal dumping and theft of services in commercial dumpsters by assuring that residents have waste collection throughout most of the county
• Provide assistance, services, and resources that will give businesses and institutions the tools that they need to handle wastes properly, while reducing waste costs and liability.

The Centre Region and its municipalities have worked together to build a tradition of successful and popular “green” and sustainable programs and practices of all kinds.

Surely if Blair County can build a great basketball tradition, it can find a way to build a great “Green” tradition as well. Both business and the environment will end up winners and Joe and I will reach another goal, even if by slightly different paths.

Members and non-members alike are welcome to attend the Chamber’s October 11th Breakfast Club to find out what Blair County might learn from its neighbor to the north. Visit www.blairchamber.com for details.

Door of Opportunity

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

When one door closes another door of opportunity often opens. Such may be the case with recycling in Blair County. Confronted by a shrinking pot of money to pay for it, Blair County will be ending its popular and successful drop-off recycling program later this month. Though this bad news could spell the end for recycling in many homes and businesses, it may be just the thing that prompts municipalities to consider other ways to facilitate recycling for their residents.
After a court ruling, prompted by a challenge from the waste industry, counties throughout Pennsylvania were ordered to stop collecting fees levied on waste generated within their counties. Our fee funded the county compost facilities and an ever-growing drop-off recycling program. The drop-off program served every part of the county at ten different sites.

The fee also funded the hazardous waste and electronics recycling programs that diverted tons of toxic material from burn barrels, disposal facilities and illegal dumps. In Blair County it cost residents less than a nickel per person each week.

But as the county department’s reserves dwindled, it became clear that the programs could not be continued. The department will close its doors on October 1st and the drop-off recycling containers will be removed from the collection sites beginning the week of September 24th.
Some have suggested that it may be time to reexamine our waste management practices and make changes that some other counties have already embarked upon.

In nearby Centre County, all the townships (not just those larger ones mandated by state law) surrounding State College have curbside collection of recyclables as part of their weekly waste collection service. In Blair, however, recycling is required only in the mandated municipalities. Though many county residents would prefer curbside recycling, not all municipalities even require haulers to pickup recyclable material.

Though curbside recycling would be more challenging for the most rural parts of Blair County, a large portion of the county is well suited for curbside collection. The companies that provide recycling in the mandated communities are the same companies that pick up trash in the area in and around Altoona. Recycling trucks are already driving through these suburban communities from Tyrone to Newry and our nearby recycling facilities are marketing the materials that are collected.

The infrastructure is in place and residents are willing. Perhaps just as importantly, recycling is one of those things that make the community a more attractive place to live. When people look for places to live or do business, good environmental programs and services (especially that make the region more attractive) are an important consideration.

Even a full decade into the 21st Century, many thousands of households (and in every part of the county) do not even have waste service, let alone recycling. This contributes directly to the incidence of open burning, illegal dumping and dangerous accumulations of trash on private property.
These changes will not happen, though, unless residents let their elected officials know that it is important. Contact your municipal officials next week and let them know that recycling and proper waste management is important for the entire community and ask them to take action to make it possible.

Let your municipal officials know that you would like them to pass an ordinance requiring that everyone have waste collection and that all business and households recycle. For more on recycling options in Blair County, visit www.ircenvironment.org.

 

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