Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Dangers from nuke and sewer; wiser approaches

For this drawing, I took some influence from Japanese giant monster movies.

The nuclear situation in Japan remains frightening, as does the threat of a similar event in the US. The bone-chilling guitar riff from Black Sabbath's “Electric Funeral” plays repeatedly in my head.

Since my previous post, I have learned some new things about our unsafe reactors. According to Dr. Ira Helfand, The U.S. nuclear plant most vulnerable to earthquake damage is not in California, but Indian Point, 27 miles north of New York City—with a population of over 20 million within a 50 mile radius. Where or how that population could evacuate in a meltdown crisis is an open question. For more on nuclear power and why it is not good energy policy, consult this thoroughly-researched blog by the U.S. PIRGs.

Meanwhile, wind farms in Japan were unscathed by the earthquake. Remarkable.

Tectonic and climactic forces have ravaged our cities multiple times in recent years. And repeatedly demonstrated our unpreparedness for such events.

I have experienced the destructive power of weather firsthand. In 2008, I lived on Galveston Island, Texas, and worked for an environmental education organization there. In September, Hurricane Ike struck. Prior to the storm's arrival, I evacuated to a Houston. I and several other employees and relatives of the director rode it out in an upper floor apartment. I spent the day before the storm frantically gathering and preparing all the supplies I could—gasoline, batteries, emergency phone charger, radio, water, more water, canned food, rubber boots, etc. The night of the storm, I was alternately asleep and awake, as I listened to wind and rain pummel the building—first from one side, then the other. The sturdy brick structure absorbed the weather's assault. The next day, we were without electricity. The building quickly overheated, being designed for air conditioning. Neighbors gathered for a grill-fest of the meat in their fridges—we had to eat it before the bacteria set to work seriously on that task, making the stuff foul-smelling and unpalatable. We gathered around battery-powered radios and listened to weather updates (and audiobooks). I stood in a long line to collect my allocated food and water from FEMA. Driving in Houston became even more hazardous than usual, in the absence of functional traffic lights.

I returned to Galveston after the storm, to move myself out, and to help the organization recover. I found a devastated island. I learned about the dangers brought on by a storm surge.

An excerpt from an email that I sent to friends about the situation on September 26, 2008 (slightly edited):

“I have made my exit from Galveston Texas. I hid safely in Houston during the storm, and my second-floor apartment back on the island was remarkably undamaged. I lost amazingly little property in the storm, only some books that were at the office. The office was not so lucky as my place. The office is located on the ground-floor, but near the highest street on the island. Even so, the storm surge flooded the building up to four feet. Computers, microscopes, binoculars, slide-projectors, many books, and cabinet drawers full of essential grant papers were waterlogged, went swimming, or were overgrown with mold. And this was no ordinary water filling the office. When the water level riseth, the sewer overfloweth. My last day with the organization was spent clearing and cleaning the toxic office. The smell made my head swell and nose run, and I hoped that my rubber gloves and boots were sufficient shield from the brown scum that covered all surfaces that were flooded. The organization lost about 75 per cent of equipment, and the Galveston Bay will be unsafe to kayak for months. All but the four veteran employees were laid off temporarily, and I have decided to migrate onward.”

When the water level riseth, the sewer overfloweth. Even without a Hurricane, there are many dangers to so-called sanitary sewers. Human excrement combines with drain cleaners and industrial chemicals, and is distilled at sewage treatment plants to create toxic sludge. Depending on your municipality, the sludge may be landfilled, incinerated, or applied to agricultural lands. All of these approaches can be hazardous to your health, and none are environmentally sustainable.

There is a better way. I learned about it thanks to The Homestead, and made it my topic for the Homestead Seminar for my senior year. Human excrement or “humanure” can be a valuable resource—if it is composted under the right conditions so as to kill pathogens. Sustainable living-practitioner Joseph Jenkins has authored an invaluable resource on this subject—The Humanure Handbook. (The Composting Toilet System Book by David Del Porto and Carol Steinfield is also a worthy tome.) With composting toilets, we could all be safer and our planet healthier.

Beyond waste management, The Homestead also taught me about temperature management. The strawbale Cabin Bob is cool in the summer with no air conditioning, and comparatively warm in the winter, even when there isn't a fire. Overall, the structure maintains homeostasis considerably better than the apartment complex in Houston. The Homestead has much to teach us about wiser forms of technology.

Cabin Bob and its proud south-facing windows, which capture the sun's warmth in the winter. The structure and its surroundings have evolved considerably since this 2001 photo.

I had intended to include with this post the educational comic/ poster on humanure that I created for my seminar project. I have been unable to find this item, so will post it at a later date. For now, I'll share a sea turtle. These critters are affected by all that occurs around coasts, and will appreciate a transition to sustainable methods.

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