Strange Fire

A novel by Joel Burcat

Well, my friend Joel Burcat is back at it, busy penning the next Great American Novel on a topic that I have to say is dear to my heart — Fracking!

First, a little synopsis:

Strange Fire, published February 1, 2022, is a gripping and romantically-charged environmental legal thriller about fracking and drilling for natural gas. Fracking for natural gas has turned deadly in Bradford County, Pa., and not only is the water contaminated, but people are dying. Round-the-clock operations conducted by Yukon Oil and Gas at their snake-ridden Campbell pad may have poisoned a residential well and now threatens a town’s water supply. Pennsylvania’s environmental agency, DEP, says the fracking of the Marcellus shale by Yukon did not cause the contamination. The neighbors have sued the agency and Mike Jacobs, a 29-year old environmental prosecutor with DEP, is back. He is ordered to represent the Commonwealth’s position. Because of the unique nature of the case, Mike finds himself on what he considers the “wrong” side. Mike suspects the neighbors are right and must get to the truth of the matter before he becomes a victim, too. 

Mike must work alongside his law school nemesis, Darius Moore, now a rising star at DC’s prestigious Finkel & Updike, universally referred to as “FU.” Mike’s friendship with his geologist, Missy Shelton, grows into something much more than a professional relationship. The citizen activist, Teresa Bruno-Campbell becomes entirely too interested in Mike after he saves her son from a protest that becomes a riot. Roger Alden, Mike’s friend, mentor and boss, may not be able to save Mike from a serious lapse in judgment while Mike’s efforts to discern the truth put him in the intersecting crosshairs of this suspenseful and exhilarating legal mystery.

And then, a few questions:

Is Strange Fire based on a real story?

No. It is based on realistic scenarios. I took some information from EHB and court cases and incorporated that into the story.

Why did you write this book?

After writing books about hazardous waste dumping (Drink to Every Beast, 2019) and coal strip mining (Amid Rage, 2021), I wanted to write one on fracking. That, and climate change, are the two biggest issues impacting us today. Also, I wanted to wait until I was retired to write this book to avoid any potential conflicts of interest.

How realistic is the book?

Everything in it is realistic. The drilling process described in the book is realistic. Real people fly into rages. Chemicals leak from drill sites. Government agencies make mistakes and have blinders on. I went to great pains to write a book that was factually accurate.

Are the characters based on real people?

No one in Strange Fire is based on a real person. Many of the characters have some DNA of people I have known or know of. Sometimes I will get a picture of an actor or actress off the internet and base the appearance of a character on the actor. When I wrote Amid Rage, I had a picture of Scarlett Johansen and another of Natalie Portman on my wall. They represented Miranda and Nicky. My wife wondered whether I was stalking them, but it was easier for me to look at the picture to describe a feature, than it was to make it up.

Are you Mike Jacobs?

No, however:

Mike is Jewish and so am I. Check

Mike is about my size and weight when I was in my 20s. Check

Mike went to Penn State and majored in Geography. Check

Mike went to Vermont Law School and became an environmental lawyer. Check

Mike went to work for DEP in Harrisburg. Check

Other than that, no.

Nice. Are any companies based on real companies?

Absolutely not. The companies are like the people in my stories. There may be a little corporate DNA in some of the companies and agencies in my stories. I made a point of NOT basing any companies in my stores after real companies. They are fictional.

Is the DEP in the book the real DEP which, if I recall, you worked for at one point in your legal career?

There is an agency of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania government called the Department of Environmental Protection, DEP. I have taken great liberties and made up a fictional version of DEP. When James Patterson writes about the District of Columbia Police Department, Thomas Harris writes about the FBI, or Robert Crais writes about the LAPD, no one should assume that they are writing about the real DCPD, FBI, or LAPD. The same with my version of DEP. While I have loosely modeled my version after DEP, it is a fictional version.

Is the science and engineering in your story real? 

I worked very hard to give as much accuracy as possible to the drilling, geology, and hydrogeology aspects of the book. Keep in mind, I worked with many industries in my 40+ year career, including the oil and gas industry and edited a book called The Law of Oil and Gas in Pa. In addition to my knowledge, I did a lot of research. Also, I consulted with experts when I thought I had everything right to make sure I really did have it correct. The experts suggested a number of changes to make things more accurate. Strange Fire is not a geology or drilling textbook, but you will learn something from this book. Of course, any errors are mine alone. 

As an example, on page 2 there is a description of the production trees or “Christmas trees” as the industry calls them, located on a drilling pad. I went to great pains to get  the technical details right. The NYT best-selling author, John Lescroart said of Strange Fire, “As a bonus, it’s also like a college course in fracking and the moral and technical issues surrounding fossil fuel extraction.” I won’t go quite that far, but he’s not incorrect.

How did you incorporate science, engineering, and drilling into the story?

That’s actually quite a challenge. Almost all of the technical details are quite boring if you are not an engineer or scientist. I did my best to sprinkle the technical stuff through the book, so no chapter is overly full of technical detail. Also, I tried to incorporate it through dialogue, in a way that was entertaining. A number of writers have been very successful at this: Michael Crichton wrote books dealing with medical issues that were scary and suspenseful as hell, then he wrote Jurassic Park. Tom Clancy’s first book contained detailed descriptions about nuclear submarines, radar, sonar, fighter jets, etc. and managed to sell 4.7 million copies and a major motion picture. He also launched a whole genre of thrillers called techno-thrillers. Other popular techno thriller authors include: Dan Brown, Preston and Child, Robert Ludlum, Jonathan Mayberry, and James Rollins.

What environmental fiction writers do you recommend?

Eco-Thrillers (more science fiction-y stories):

  • Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton)
  • Relic (Doug Preston and Lincoln Child)
  • Zoo (James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge)

Environmental Thrillers (more realistic stories)

Environmental Legal Thrillers (legal thrillers with a strong environmental element)

  • The Pelican Brief (John Grisham, 1992)
  • A Civil Action (Jonathan Harr, 1995)
  • Drink to Every Beast (Joel Burcat, 2019)
  • Amid Rage (Joel Burcat, 2021)

Cli-Fi (stories that focus on climate change)

  • State of Fear- (Michael Crichton, 2004)
  • Flight Behavior (Barbara Kingsolver, 2012)
  • Barkskins (Annie Proulx, 2016)

Is there going to be another Mike Jacobs book?

Probably. I’m working on one now. It is about a Flint, Michigan-type scenario where a public water supply is ruined by a factory wastewater discharge. It may not be my next book. 

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a Cli-Fi book, tentatively called FIRE AND ICE.

Also, the following are done and in various stages of editing: 

  • LITTLE BROTHER (a small town police department goes to war with the FBI)
  • LULLABIES AND OTHER LIES (young adult novel, about a group of teens who are the only survivors of a pandemic that has killed all of the adults of the world)
  • TEMPERATURE RISING (a young lobbyist gets caught up in a scheme to end all governmental support for climate change research)

Is it true you wrote Strange Fire after you became blind?

Yes. I have an eye disease called non-arteritic ischemic optic neuropathy and lost partial vision in my left eye in 2017. At that time, I lost enough vision to make me legally blind in that eye. On January 8, 2019, I lost partial vision in my right eye. I was fully legally blind by the end of February 2019. At about that time, I was inspired by watching a program on skiers with one leg, doing something abled people said they couldn’t do—downhill ski. I wanted to “prove” a blind person could do something people would think a blind person couldn’t do, so in March 2019, I started writing Strange Fire. I finished the first draft 7 weeks later. 

Tell us a little more about yourself.

I went to Penn State and obtained a B.S. degree in geography and followed that up with a law degree from Vermont Law School. In 1980, I went to work for the Pa. Department of Environmental Resources and worked there for three years. I was in private practice until I retired. I’ve now published three novels: Drink to Every Beast (about dumping hazardous wastes, 2019), Amid Rage (about coal strip mining, 2021), and Strange Fire (about fracking, 2022). I have also been the co-editor of two major textbooks: Pa. Environmental Law and Practice and The Law of Oil and Gas in Pa

I love classical music and classic rock (no relation). I follow Philadelphia sports teams but was 8 years old in 1964, so I’ve learned never to get my hopes up. My wife and I live in Harrisburg. We have two daughters, one in New York City and the other In South Philly. We have two grandchildren.

Best of luck with this new addition to the Burcat library of environmental novels, Joel. I look forward to reading it!

pam lazos 2.6.22

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Service

Sacred Commerce and the Twelve Virtues of the Merchant Priest

In November 2017, I posted a book review of Sacred Commerce, followed by a post on the Twelve Virtues of the Merchant Priest, honor, loyalty, nobility, virtue, grace, trust, courage, courtesy, gallantry, authority, service, and humility — traits that “automatically lift us to a higher octave of being.” I was going to do a post each month on the twelve virtues culminating at the end of 2018, but as it does, life got in the way, plus I got hung up a few times trying to find examples for what constituted selfless behavior in a society of me-first individuals. I’m down to the last two — service and humility. And I really can’t think of a better example of service than of our current President, Joe Biden.

Here is Service:

I’ve been a public servant for over 30 years so I know what it is to walk the tightrope of restrictions — Hatch Act; public scrutiny; gift giving; and more — all things most public servants take seriously.   But nowhere is that job of public servant more difficult than as president of the United States where being the top executive is like walking the tightrope between the Twin Towers every day.  Despite the Herculean effort it takes, President Biden has managed to do it and hold the country together in the process despite the great tug of war between the right and left.  

After a single year in office, Biden has dealt with the coronavirus, the January 6th insurrection fallout; removal from Afghanistan; climate change resulting in huge storms and rogue tornadoes; the assault on voting rights; inflation; and a news media that throws shade for sport — and it’s not just Fox News although they are arguably the worst.  Could his job be any harder?  Despite issues that are magnitudes beyond the normal, Biden has taken them all on with a quiet determination in service to his country no matter what the media says.

He has outperformed the last four decades of American growth with an “unbeatable” economic performance.

Under Biden, unemployment is down, wages are growing, companies’ profit margins are up, and congress passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill to repair our roads, bridges, water systems, and more.  So why the shade?  Are Americans just jaded and contrary?

There’s a legal maxim that possession is 9/10s of the law meaning that ownership is easier to maintain if you have possession of it.  As President, Mr. Biden has ownership of the country’s ills, whether his fault or not, because people’s basic nature is to blame, and generally, blame falls to the person in charge.  The fact that Biden can’t control the supply chain, for example, doesn’t matter: as President, it’s his job to fix it.  It’s a little Pollyannaish to think this way, but it comes with the territory in a blame society, and Biden has accepted it without even flinching.  Meanwhile, he has delivered the best economy since the Regan era with a growing GDP,  along with the lowest unemployment, down from about 6% to 4% since taking office with the creation over 4 million jobs.  

Yet haters gotta hate so they say nothing about these successes.

And do you know why?  Because reality is 9/10s of perception and many people are living in an alternate reality controlled by the media.  At least some of the media (hi Fox!) is only out to serve the media — not America, despite all it’s flag -waiving BS — and its own ratings because that translates to money in the pocket.  Not truth, not fair and balanced reporting, not trying to save our democracy — these are all secondary to cold hard cash, so even when the news is not so bad the media spins it so it sounds bad. Why? Because bad sells.  

Look, none of us gets to choose the suite of problems that come across our desks and the president of the United States knows this better than most.  But wouldn’t it be nice if we Americans stopped complaining for ten minutes about all the things going wrong and instead, focused on the things going right? Maybe say “thank you” instead of “what have you done for me lately?”  With a little gratitude, maybe we can all be friends again despite our political affiliations rather than watch the maelstrom of misery brought on by our insane culture of individualism. I’m all for individualism, but not at the expense of every other thing we’ve worked to build. Sometimes you have to take one for the team, and yes, that might mean wearing a mask on an airplane.

There is a Native American proverb that says: “no tree has branches so foolish as to fight among themselves.”  We are all of the same tree so unless we want to start hacking off limbs to the detriment of all we need to figure out how to talk to each other civilly with an eye toward a common goal of a robust democracy rather than the hollow and singular ruling by a designated few.  There is no way that only some of us win here.  Either we all win or we all lose.  Those are the only two choices despite what Fox News wants you to believe.

How can you be of service to your country?  Start by doing something in service to someone else, maybe a hello to someone to whom you wouldn’t usually give the time of day.  Follow it up with a smile, a nod, a thank you, perhaps, and see what happens next.  The magic is in the moment and the moment is slipping away. Grab it before it does.

pam lazos 1.30.22

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Applying Environmental Justice Solutions to California Local Government Efforts in Water Conservation

by Luis González

I had the pleasure of working with Luis González when he interned as a law clerk in our office last summer. Luis is currently a student at Vermont Law School, but as a San Diego, Cali resident, Luis has had a long history with water and some great ideas of how to conserve it while also making it more user friendly. As the world population grows and the demand for water along with it, we need to look closely at how to protect the source — both ground and surface water — from contaminants, wasteful practices, and other water abuses. And what a great idea to look at water through an EJ lens since that is where many of the water abuses are happening — in EJ communities. No matter how grim the future of water can look sometimes, when I read articles like Luis’, I know the future is in good hands. Read on and enjoy. pam lazos 1.23.22

p.s. a note on the text — because of my wordpress naiveté, I was unable to figure out how to add the footnotes to this article. If you are interested in the legal citations, please leave me a comment in the chat and I will send you the article as a pdf. Sorry for the inconvenience. pl

La Jolla, California

A. Introduction

Federal and state actions are necessary ravines that feed into the river of environmentally just solutions. However, municipal and county governments have an important role that they too can play. To be specific, California’s local governments can employ ordinances like: Cincinnati’s law creating an environmental justice review board, and Baltimore’s ban on crude oil terminals. These two strategies could serve local California governments to mitigate contamination, protect some of California’s most vulnerable communities, and work towards comprehensive and impactful environmental justice solutions.

B. Background

As California becomes more and more dependent on its groundwater, the state must take steps to make sure that its potable water does not become more contaminated. At the moment, about thirty percent of California’s water comes from groundwater, but it is projected that that number will go up—as a result of climate change’s negative effects on both the amount of snowpack in California’s mountains, and reduction in the stream of the Colorado River (the other major sources of California’s water). California depends even more on groundwater when it comes to drinking water; the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) estimates that about thirty million residents (out of California’s thirty-nine million) depend on groundwater for at least part of their drinking water supply. Although many groundwater basins are already contaminated with pollutants, further contamination can lead to costly treatment systems to make the water potable. It therefore makes far more sense to take preventive steps to safeguard California’s water—rather than after-the-fact clean-up and remediation.

Local governments in California are important in this conversation about contamination prevention because California municipalities and county governments play a strong role in land-use decisions and water planning. Alongside water boards, federal and state agencies, and tribal governments, local governments set the water policy, and manage everything from delivery, water treatment, irrigation, etc. Some argue that California’s decentralized and fragmented water management (and government style) may lead to policy gridlock and inaction when it comes to water policy. However, California’s federalist-style government should be seen as an opportunity—it allows for a diffusion of responsibility—the passing of possibly unpopular (but helpful and necessary) laws from different levels of government. Furthermore, it allows for more voter participation from residents, and increases efficiency since responsibilities are delegated into more digestible and simpler tasks (since there are more people and agencies involved). As a result, California is uniquely and favorably positioned to pass legislation protecting its ground and drinking water.

La Jolla, California

C. Applying Solutions

a. Cincinnati’s Environmental Justice Ordinance

The first law that California’s city and county governments should look at is Cincinnati’s 2009 ordinance that looked to build on existing zoning requirements. Essentially this review board would look into environmental justice factors and assess whether new development projects would be overly harmful towards environmental justice communities. The review board would do this in two ways. First, it would collect data on chemicals, pollutants, cancer risk, etc. existing in an area and any new risks from future developments and then publicize that information for community members to see. Second, the Cincinnati law required that officials provide “culturally competent outreach, including language of translation and explanation of scientific and technical issues, meetings… [and] longer comment periods.” These adages were meant to increase communication and transparency between city officials and concerned community members. 

Although the Cincinnati law only passed into law but was never enforced (due to vehement opposition from local businesses and lobbyists), the law is still significant as a model for future legislation. Cities throughout California, whether or not their groundwater is currently contaminated or not, would benefit greatly from an added level of review like this. It builds off of existing zoning infrastructure and adds a layer of review that centers the interests of low-income communities and communities of color. This form of review would not be unheard of from what is already in place, especially with the increased use of discretionary review, which permits local officials to review development proposals and attach conditions to approval. Discretionary review allows planning commissions to review individual projects and cases even if the use is allowed under the existing zoning ordinance. Adding a condition that would require developers and officials to review based on cumulative impacts and environmental justice issues would not be a stretch of existing uses of discretionary review already taking place in California. For example, the California Environmental Quality Act already encourages public debate on environmental aspects of projects. And conditions that have been imposed by governments previously have required: “planting of a large number of trees, construction of affordable housing, the payment of a traffic mitigation fee.”

b. Baltimore’s Crude-Oil-Terminal Ban

The second law that local governments in California should consider is Baltimore’s ban on crude-oil terminals. With this law, the City of Baltimore repealed and rewrote its zoning ordinance, effectively banning new terminals and prohibiting the expansion of existing terminals. The 2018 ban was a response to the heavy impact of existing crude oil terminals to low-income communities and communities of color, along with heavy environmental justice activism from community members.

Oil pumps, refineries, and terminals can be found throughout residential communities in California. For example, California beachgoers may recall an easy-to-spot oil pump jack located next to single-family homes in Huntington Beach. Similarly to Baltimore, municipalities and county governments in California can use their power in zoning to limit the expansion of oil terminals. By definition, zoning ordinances are a set of regulations that restrict what landowners can do with their property. And California municipalities have a history of zoning-out businesses that they find unpopular or unwanted; for example, two thirds of California cities prohibit Marijuana dispensaries even though smoking marijuana recreationally and medicinally has been legal in the state since 2016. This strategy of zoning out unwanted businesses can also be seen with prohibitions to adult entertainment businesses, where although cities cannot create an outright ban on the industry (due to First Amendment concerns), cities are permitted to enforce reasonable zoning laws that direct unwanted industries away from residential communities. So, similarly to how California cities use zoning ordinances to prohibit or discourage marijuana dispensaries or adult entertainment businesses, they too can use their powers in zoning to assure that vulnerable communities are not located next to oil or gas extraction or refinement sites.

Lake Tahoe, Cali side

D. Conclusion

This is by no means an exhaustive list of ordinances that California municipalities and counties should look at—they are not even the most drastic laws to consider. However, these laws are relevant because they do not depart significantly from what is currently in place in California or cities across the country, and their application would not be disproportionately difficult. Local governments in California should look towards Baltimore’s 2018 ban on crude oil terminals and Cincinnati’s 2009 environmental justice ordinance as models for how to take impactful steps towards environmental justice solutions and safeguard California’s water supply. 

Luis González

Luis González graduated from University of California, San Diego majoring in both Political Science and Ethnic Studies. They are currently a JD student at Vermont Law School where they continue to learn and write about environmental justice.

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Groundswell Rising!

A conversation with fractivist Renard Cohen

Renard Cohen, singer, songwriter, teacher, filmmaker, shiatsu practitioner, and fractivist

Let’s start off this interview with an answer to the burning question you are likely asking yourself: what is a fractivist?

Urban Dictionary describes a fractivist as follows:

fractivist

n. Person opposed to liberating hydrocarbons from their dark prison under the earth.

Humor aside, why not fracking? Is it activism gone awry or do we really have to take stock of what is coming and going in and out of the ground? After all, we need the energy, right? Wasn’t hydraulic fracturing sold to the American populace as a safer alternative to drilling for oil — like fossil fuel lite? Let’s drill down for a moment and consider what hydraulic fracturing is doing to the planet.

Graphic courtesy USEPA

Let’s start with an energy company drilling a hole. No big deal, right? We have tons of holes to get oil or water out of the ground, to build basements for houses, etc. But first the energy company builds a well pad sufficient to hold thousands of pounds of drilling machinery that will dig the hole. The well pad is typically placed near a stream because, if nothing else, fracking wells are thirsty business. The energy company drills down anywhere from 5,000 to 9,000 feet, the approximate depth of the Marcellus Shale, then inserts a pipe, encases the pipe in concrete — but only about 50′ to 100′ down — then pumps a combination of water, sand, and chemicals, dozens of likely hazardous, often unidentifiable substances — not because the company doesn’t know what they are but because they claim confidential business information on the mixture — at high pressure into the hole which extends about one to two miles underground into the Marcellus Shale. Then the energy company sets off a charge to fracture the bedrock, releasing the natural gas stored in the earth’s nooks and crannies, and the water pressure forces it back up the pipeline where it is captured, transported, and sold. Here’s a time-lapse video from Penn State if you want to see the process for yourself.

Before fracking, energy companies needed to rely on finding the larger stores of natural gas to do their extraction, but after fracking the earth knows no bounds because below the Marcellus Shale lies the Utica Shale which is anywhere from 5,000 to 11,000 feet and that means fracking will be with us for decades to come.

Why is this an issue? Because of the chemicals used in combination with water and sand to fracture the ground and force the gas to the surface. Because of the possibility of contaminating area groundwater. Because of the well pads themselves which are eyesores and ear-sores, often built in people’s backyards with pumps that run constantly and stadium lights that stay on 24/7.

I think I’ve set the stage sufficiently for the main event, an interview with Renard Cohen.

Renard is an Emmy Award winning television producer/director, composer, musician and filmmaker who has been involved in protecting our environment for many years as a past president of the nonprofit Pocono Environmental Coalition and Wild Life Society, cofounder and past president of the nonprofit Resolution Media Fund, who’s mission is to create media, education programs, music and films that support protecting our environment and our rights. He’s produced TV for PBS, National Geographic, Food Network, Fine Living Network, IBM, Teach For America, Court TV and more. His feature length documentary, Groundswell Rising, Protecting Our Children’s Air and Water was featured in 12 Film Festivals, won a Humanitarian Award, aired worldwide on Free Speech TV, RT and can be purchased on Amazon Prime TV.

But wait, there’s more. Renard has also produced the PBS Special, The Science of Healing, and won an Emmy for the PBS series, Seasoned with Spirit, a Native Cook’s Journey.

Renard is the co-founder of artists4earth.com, an innovative website featuring an online art gallery of environmentally inspired art which can be downloaded for a donation to the Artists for Earth Project. The donations are then shared with partnering groups such as Food and Water Watch and Delaware River Keeper Network, turning art into support for the Earth. Renard, and partner Brian Van Korn wrote and recorded One Earth Song, and produced the video for the song.

And now, on to the questions:

You have a website, Artists4Earth, a community of artists who have donated their work to the cause of supporting different non-profits that work on behalf of the planet.  First of all, great idea.  Where did it come from, how’s it going, how long have you been at it, and do you feel your movement is successful? And if the answer to the last question is yes, how do you measure success?

When I directed and produced the documentary Groundswell Rising, Protecting our Children’s Air and Water, I met and filmed people who have been personally harmed by fracking and natural gas harvesting, people who have dedicated their lives to countering the abuses of the oil and gas industry, and those who would protect people from this harm. I wanted the film to give these people a greater voice than they would have talking to a group of people at a library or school. I am happy to say that we have accomplished this, and their words have been effective in warning other communities and educating legislators to take action to protect people facing the same harms.

I was hoping to find a way to help support some of the groups we worked with in making Groundswell Rising. Delaware River Keepers Network, a nonprofit that was able to keep the gas companies out of the Delaware River Basin (which supplies drinking water to millions of people) was one and Food and Water Watch another. I then learned of Green Amendments For the Generations, working to get green amendments in all the state constitutions and then the federal constitution. I wanted to find a way to help these groups who are on the front lines in the confronting the climate crisis in ways most of us are not.

For the last few years I had been providing music for an art competition involving environmentally inspired art. The Earth Speaks Art Competition features great art dedicated to heightening our awareness of the challenges we face from climate change and polluting technologies. When the art show was done, the art that was not sold would be brought back to the artist’s studios or closets and not seen again. I thought what a waste. I thought what if this art could be part of a web based art show, benefiting environmental groups.  We could then honor the art and help the environment — so artists4earth.com was born.

Did you know the artists you’ve recruited for the website before you started Artists4Earth?  It looks like sales are limited to artists who work in visual arts.  I get that because it’s something that is easily transferable, but have you thought about adding musicians, writers, filmmakers, and the like?

I had been working with a gifted artist/music producer, Brian Van Korn on a video we created for our composition and recording, One Earth Song when we began creating the initial website for Artists4earth.com. I reached out to some of the artists in our home Pocono region including Maciek Albrecht a Peabody and multi Emmy award-winning animator. Maciek was willing to allow digital copies of some of his drawings to be used for donations to download, and the funds to be given to our partnering nonprofits. With artists Maciek Albrecht, Lauri Henninger, John Yetter and Jack and Jill Swersie we had a start.

My production company Resolution Pictures, which also produced Groundswell Rising, edited the documentary, Art of the Fantastic. This film explores the fine artists who’s work brings to extraordinary life the world of science fiction, fantasy books, films, and designs for high level commercial art. When I shared the idea of artists4earth.com with Art of the Fantastic director Bill Niemeyer, he became on of our curators and invited top artists, Don Maitz, Volkan Baga and Donato Giancola to join us. Today with many accomplished artists, artists4earth.com is fulfilling its mission, turning art into support for the earth.

You made a film called Groundswell Rising that seeks to debunk many of the theories surrounding hydraulic fracturing, such as: it’s safe, easier on the planet than other forms of fossil fuel recovery, and that it’s integral to the U.S. becoming energy independent.  Tell us about the movie, how it got started, and what prompted you to take on the task of letting the world know about the environmental ills caused by fracking?

Many years ago I was the president of The Pocono Environmental Coalition and Wildlife Society. When the current president invited me to attend a teach in at our local library on something called Fracking, I was intrigued. At this small gathering I learned that there was an industrial process that was being done literally on the doorsteps of residential homes, schools, nursing homes and sensitive areas that were in no way industrial. They showed a film by Dr. Theo Colborn on the dangers to people, nature, wildlife, air and water that are inherent in this toxic gas drilling technique. I was amazed that I had never heard of this and it was going on just miles from where I lived. There were two presenters, a woman from Pro Publica and a woman from The Community Legal Defense Fund. They spoke of how communities were organizing on local levels to keep this industrial intrusion out of their towns. I was inspired and decided that their story and others giving so much needed to be heard. I was determined to make a film about their work and mission. This film became Groundswell Rising.

One of the people in the movie has a T-shirt that says “fractivist”.  Great shirt, BTW.  You should sell them on your website.  Were you an environmental activist from childhood or did it evolve over time? Was there a the precipitating factor or did you just come into this world wanting to do good for the environment?

I turned 13 in 1963 and along with the Beatles, opposition to the Vietnam War, the need to feed places like Biafra and Bangladesh, the civil rights movement, and tragic assassinations, my consciousness was raised. I began playing piano at age 4 and guitar at 13. Inspired by Dylan, Phil Ochs, and the Beatles I began writing songs at 13. My parents were founding members of one of the foremost theater groups on Long Island NY, Lantern Theater. So I began acting at around 11 years old. I was treated like an adult by the other cast members and enjoyed the collaborative effort of doing theater. My view of the world was shaped by Ipsen, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. I played Peter in The Diary of Ann Frank, and my Mother, Felice Cohen played my mother. It was a great education.

I was a freshman at Emerson College in Boston in 1969 when Kent State happened and the boycott began. I helped alert the students about the strike by making and distributing a flyer, ( I had a job at the school print shop) and organizing students to go into the offices and call all of the commuter students. I was a rebel. My activism ignited.

I have a theory, I believe the activism of the 60s was precipitated by the TV shows of the 50s. As kids we were told on the shows like Captain Kangaroo, Kukla Fran and Ollie, Mickey Mouse Club and Howdy Doody, ( I was on the Howdy Doody show in the Peanut Gallery and interviewed at 7) that the police were our friends, and America stood for truth, honesty and doing the right thing. When we saw Selma, the killing of King, the Kennedys and Malcom X, and the revelations of the Pentagon Papers, we felt betrayed and wanted to drop out and protest. A lot of us are still there.

When we began to understand that global warming was happening, with films like Inconvenient Truth and it became clear that our leaders and heads of industry were denying it, we made the decision to do what we could to tip the balance to sanity and protection for our children and grandchildren’s futures. I say we but I understand that I made these decisions for myself. I began by writing songs that spoke of the things I was concerned with and then given the opportunity, I decided to use my knowledge as a filmmaker to create Groundswell Rising (Resolution Pictures, founded by my brother Matt Cohen and myself makes shows for The Food Net, PBS, IBM, National Geographic, etc., and has won an Emmy for a 5-part PBS miniseries, Seasoned With Spirit, A Native Cooks Journey). After the film came out, I introduced it at many screenings, and opened the show by singing the theme song live. I am still up for doing this when asked. The film was on Free Speech TV, Russia Today, 12 film fests, won a Humanitarian Award and now is on Amazon Prime. It has been used to help get bans of fracking through in Florida, Maryland, New York, Scotland and other places.

photo courtesy USGS

How much research did you do before you started making Groundswell Rising?  Did you know the people you showcased in the movie — for example, Maya Van Rossum — before you started the movie or did your work in the environmental movement result in Groundswell Rising as a collaboration? BTW, Van Rossum is an adjunct professor at Temple Law, my alma mater, although we missed each other by a few years.

Before I went to a library teach-in about Fracking, I didn’t have any idea what it was. This opened my eyes and after I decided to do the film, I started going to local events to shoot and learn more. I went to an Earth Day event at Muhlenberg College and learned about rural country roads being turned into clogged industrial highways by fracking. I heard they were spreading dangerous frack water on roads as deicer, and heard a rep from a business group proclaim that fracking was our best financial opportunity. Some of this made it into the film. We then shot a program at North Hampton Community College with Dr. Tony Ingraffea, a former oil company engineer who was spreading the word on the dangers of fracking. It was there that I leaned that by the industry’s own admission 3-5% of all wells leak methane from their first days, then leak more as time goes on. And there are thousands of wells, leaking and burning methane off into the environment.

The more I learned the more determined I was that this story, which most of us were unaware of, had to get out. I then stared meeting people who were dedicating their lives to protecting us from fracking and industrial pollution, including Sandra Steingraber, a victim of industrial pollution which resulted in her contracting bladder cancer at the age of 20. Now a scientist, she was leading the charge against the effects of frackng, especially in babies and children. Sandra became an important part of Groundswell Rising and I was very glad to help get her message out to more people.

I then met some of the leading activists who were working to help communities keep fracking out of their towns. The habit of the Oil and Gas Companies was to sneak into a town before anyone knew what was happening. The individuals I met and included in the film were alerting people and organizing them to keep this away from their kids and literally, their doorsteps. I was able to show some success so the film became not only about the dangers but also about what we can do to protect ourselves. As this movement grew it became, and still is, a groundswell rising.

I listened to a Smartless podcast the other day with Admiral Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General of the U.S. and he said that if the people in power now would be around to see the effects of climate change, there would probably be more political will.  What is your view of the world and its leaders at this particular time in history and are you hopeful or do you feel we may actually be running out of road?

I think because we trusted those in power to watch out for us, we let them make decisions that did not have our best interests as their top priority. We should have not been surprised, we knew that in the Bush 2 Administration, Cheney and the Bush Family came from the oil and gas industry. We learned about the Halliburton Loophole, (Cheney’s former company) letting the oil industry be exempt from the clean air act, the clean water act, and others put in place to protect us. We learned later that Exxon had researched climate change and determined that we would be responsible for it and that it would be harmful, but then denied it in pronouncements. We also found out that the oil industry hired the same PR firm the tobacco industry used to deny a cancer and smoking connection, to convince the public that there was no climate emergency and humans had nothing to do with climate changes though their own research was to the contrary.

I am cautiously optimistic that we can pull together and mitigate our climate crisis in time to cut short the worst outcomes. There is always the possibility that new technologies and unified action can turn the tide. It does worry me to see that the reaction of many areas is to prepare for the worst outcomes like building dikes and moving to higher ground instead of working to fix the problem. I don’t know how it will turn out, but we must do what we can, for our children and grandchildren. I say this as a father of five and, as of now, a grandfather of two with a new grandchild on the way.

the artist on the water

In the constant quest that each one of us has to become the best version of ourselves, how has your history — childhood, adolescence, and adulthood  —  hampered or spurred you on to becoming the version, and what is it that brought you to the environmental movement with such gusto?

My first exposure to the problem of environmental degradation was seeing the pictures of the dark clouds of smog that hung over cities like LA and NY. It was hard to dismiss. Then I heard about acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer, and the burning of the rain forests. In the case of smog, I believe that progress has been made and cities are somewhat less polluted, but until approximately 30 years ago, most of us were unaware of the real threat of the climate crisis. We saw the Native American with a tear in his eye talking about littering and garbage, but who knew that we were facing an existential threat.

There is an old Buddhist saying: when you know, you can’t not know, so the more I learned about what science was saying about our part in creating a climate calamity, the more I wanted to use whatever talents and abilities I had to help educate the public on what we can do to meet the challenge. And as I realized that most people didn’t really have a clue about what we face and our responsibility in it, it became clear that films like Groundswell Rising could expose the problems and talk about how we can at least protect our communities. 

Talk about the unregulated oil and gas industry.  How did it avoid the usual regulations?

From the time oil was discovered in Pennsylvania and became our dominant form of fuel, a decision was made about what kind of world we would have. Not everyone was consulted and as usual in our society, those who stood to make lots of money had the power to institute fossil fuel for almost all of our energy needs. Certainly the adopting of the combustion engine and powering private small individual-use cars became the key to our growth and process. To question the wisdom of this track was seen as un-American and anti progress. Moguls of the oil and gas industry had direct influence on and eventually became our government leaders. And now we know that the oil and gas companies had their own in-house studies that confirmed that we were causing real environmental harm, and they decided to squash their own findings and deny it. So we are way behind the curve in being able to respond in time and address the problems. But what can we do but try!

Groundswell Rising talks about some statistics, like the failure rate of new wells being one out of 20, or approximately 5%; how 30% of wells will leak after a decade (and we have no idea how many after a century); and how the energy companies were only required to do a 250’ setback from residential properties, resulting in people having fracking wells adjacent to their backyards, a severe detriment — like in the case of the homeowners in Dimock, PA — to the home’s sanctity and the owner’s peace of mind.  The movie also talked about the fact that the fracking companies know they are not capturing all emission even though they have represented to the homeowners that their processes are safe.  What is the fix, do you think, when the company misrepresents the health risks associated with these gas wells?

There was a time not long ago when knowledgeable people were concerned about Peak Oil. We thought oil was running out. There was a real push to start creating new sources of energy. Hydrogen-powered cars with only water as the exhaust were being researched by companies like British Petroleum. There was new interest in renewables.

Then a scientist in Pennsylvania discovered the Marcellus Shale deposits and a technique that used great amounts of fresh water, a cocktail of potentially harmful chemicals, along with earthshaking explosions to bring the shale oil and gas to the surface. That is fracking. Once the gas is at the surface, there are many problems with storage, leaking methane, transportation, water contamination, and more. Before the real environmental downside of this technology was publicly known, laws giving the industry a pass on important water, air and soil protections were instituted. Before long, with fracked gas and new oil deposits found in the US, we were awash in oil and gas. We went from being an oil importer to being an oil and gas exporter, making it even harder for us to want to move past fossil fuels, into clean renewable technologies. But if we want to or not, science tells us that we must make these changes for our children and grandchildren to survive.

Where are the adults? Where are the leaders that can give us real choices and the consequences, good and bad, of those choices? We are at a crossroads. 

I have heard many different numbers on how much more of a green house gas driver methane is. I guess it depends on what method you use to measure. But what they all say is that methane is many times worse for the environment than carbon or CO2. Fracked or “Natural” gas is methane. And it gets released into our environment by the industry in many ways, from harvest to transport to use. The truth is, we don’t need to rely on methane or any fossil fuel to power the earth. Studies show that we can power the earth with renewables. It requires the will and support of the people and the real desire to meet the challenges before it is too late (and we are getting close)

In the movie you talk about a Green Amendment which is an idea started by Maya van Rossum who has also written a book about it.  What is the Green Amendment and how did you begin working with Professor van Rossum.

The oil and gas industries had their sights set on fracking in the Delaware River Basin. This basin provides the drinking water for millions of people including New York, Delaware, Pennsylvannia, Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia. The responsibility to keep this water safe falls on the Delaware River Basin Commission. When it became known that the Commission we set to allow the Oil Companies to come in and Frack the Basin, Delaware River Keepers Network, lead by Maya Van Rossum, sprang into action and brought protestors, environmentalists and educators to the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) meeting and demanded that no permission should be given until much more extensive research was done on the dangers instead of just relying on the assurances the industry was supplying. It worked and the Commission eventually banned fracking from the Basin. Maya and her actions with the Delaware River Keeper became an important part of Groundswell Rising. Artists4earth and its partnering organizations continues to work with Maya and her new group, Green Amendments For The Generations, working to establish Green Amendments to the constitutions of all states and the federal constitution. With these laws in place, environmental protections will be much stronger and harder to sweep aside with the Presidential Pen.

Let’s talk about renewables which the movie touts as being sufficient to power our entire country.  If this is the case, what is stopping us from not walking, but running in that direction, meaning, why aren’t we doing more and how do you suggest we start?

In 2013, Scientific American asked two scientists to do a study on the feasibility of powering the world solely with renewable energy. Using just technologies available then they determined that this could be done — without huge upheaval and disruption of life — and laid out a plan to do so. I traveled to California to interview one of the scientists, Mark Jacobson, for Groundswell Rising. In the film, Mark says, based on his research, there is no technical reason that we can’t power the world with renewables, it is just the will to do it and the social pressure needed to make these changes happen. Mark now has The Solutions Project, which is helping cities, states and countries make the transition to clean renewable energy. He is working with Mark Ruffalo (also in Groundswell Rising) and Leonardo DiCaprio on the project. 

In Catching the Sun, a documentary by filmmaker Shalini Kantayya, she has a segment on Van Jones, formerly Obama’s green jobs czar, and founder of the renewable energy training organization Green for All, an organization that trained people, generally in underserved communities, to install solar panels, giving them access to a living wage and a sense of community.  In addition, I just read an article in Brookings Institute that we don’t just need the money from Build Back Better to go green, we also need people who will be able to implement the changes which means we need more money going to states and localities for training/retraining of these new technologies.  How do we make this happen? Do we need a couple thousand Vance Jones to take up this crucial work and if so, how do we find them?

It is very gratifying to see more and more young people getting involved with responding to the climate crisis. I am heartened by the divestment movement on many college campuses, which demands that the school’s investments move away from fossil fuels and harmful practices and technologies. It was only after countries divested from South Africa that apartheid began to loose support and ended.

When I am faced with the question of whether we as a society can really change I think of how we moved past smoking. I remember when every office, bus, club, airplane, taxi, movie, train, sports arena, theater and government building was filled with smoke. When the question, “Do you mind if I smoke?” was met with a yes, you were looked at like a selfish tree-hugging lout. Finally, after years of the cigarette companies advertising, proclaiming that there was no connection between smoking and cancer, we woke up and said this needs to stop. And it did. Good for us!

The same cohesion and common sense needs to unify us now to slow down and hopefully reverse the effects our society is having on our climate, our health, our co-habitant plants and animals, and our interaction with each other. If anything I do can move us closer to healthier outcomes, I will have lived a good life. 

I have one more question: do you think music can save the world and if so, why?

Throughout my life I have dedicated what talents I have to positive change and social causes. I believe that music is a special gift and has the ability to heal and inspire. Being a conduit for that energy is very fulfilling and my desire is to help mankind evolve to more sensitivity, fairness and wisdom.

If my music can help with that, I will be grateful. 

Renard, thanks so much for taking the time to tell us about your work. It’s been terrific and enlightening. Wishing you all the best in realizing your vision for the kind of environment that supports us all. I’ll be looking out for your next project.

Interested in contacting Renard? You can find him at Artists4earth.com, a group of world class artists, including Emmy winners, Hugo Award winners, Earth Speaks winners and many other great artists from all parts of the world. Their artists submit work that will be used as thank you gifts for donations to artists4earth’s nonprofit environmental partners. Artists4earth partners include:  Food and Water Watch, Delaware River Keepers, Move Past Plastic, and Green Amendments for the Generations . The 501(c)(3) Resolution Media Fund collects and distributes the funds, turning art into support for the earth. 

Thanks for reading.

pam lazos 1.16.22

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Bye Bye 2021

I can’t say I’m sad to see you go…

eye of the tiger

So here we are at the end of another year — a good deal spent dodging the vicissitudes of life to get to this place…

peering around the corner of a new year with a great hope that the future will cut us all some slack so we can get back to being normalish.

And while I doubt we’ll ever get back to what was once normal…

we can certainly get back to what’s important…

and to all a good night

If there’s one thing that’s kept me upright all year, it’s our favorite support pets.

So cheers to them. May they, and us, be blessed with health, happiness and joy in 2022.

Cent’Anni — may you live 100 years, and may balance, joy and creativity be a central part of them all. Happy New Year!

pam lazos – 12.31.21

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The Return of the Light

Sunrise beach – Cape May, NJ

It’s always been interesting to me how the holy days in the christian calendar overlap with the pagan holidays of old. Before we had Christmas, there was the Germanic Yule — which gave us things like yuletide caroling and the yule log — and the Roman Saturnalia, a rousing ruckus of a time when laws were temporarily suspended and people exchanged gifts, got rip-roaring drunk, and ate — wait for it — fruit cake!

Moody Sunrise, Cape May, NJ

No matter what your holiday you celebrate, remember there is no wine without clean water. A little something to ponder while you drink your Christmas ale.

Misty Sunrise, Cape May, NJ

Here comes the sun!

Technically, Sunset – Cape May, NJ
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Reusable Cash

Earning Through The Second-Hand Economy: Tips On Getting Started

Photo by Pixabay

Thanks to Lisa Walker for this great article and helpful links on (up), (re), and (free)-cycling!

by Lisa Walker

Many of us would love to earn extra money but it can be difficult to figure out the best way to get started. For some, finding the time to try something new is tricky, while others strive to be careful about making sure they’re still being eco-friendly. Selling items through the second-hand economy is a great way to make extra money, and the good news is that it’s environmentally sound. Whether you want to learn how to recycle items to turn them into art or just get rid of all the things you no longer need, there are plenty of ways you can earn cash by taking advantage of items you already have.

Think about the tools you’ll need to make the process easier; there are many sites and apps that will help you sell belongings, whereas recycling bins will help you keep things sorted and neat so you can easily find what you need. If you’re thinking of having a garage sale, you’ll need to prepare well with signage, display tables, and racks for hanging clothing.

Here are a few tips from Neighborhood Sprout on how to get started in the second-hand industry.

Register Your Business

When you decide to delve into the world of the second-hand economy, you need to make sure you’re operating legally. Many states have very strict rules about what constitutes a business, so if you intend to do this on a regular basis going forward, you may need to register as an LLC, for example. There are many advantages of doing so (liability protection, for instance), and the process is fairly straightforward when you use formation services to help you through the process. 

Do Some Research on Recycling

If you’re planning a future trip to Target to upgrade your office furniture, recycling the things you no longer use is a great way to earn the extra cash you’ll need. However, it’s important to do a bit of research first. Knowing how to recycle certain items or convert those items into something new requires knowledge. For example, if you want to find a new way to use something old — such as turning colored glass bottles into a mosaic piece you can sell — you’ll want to know how to do it properly and to your advantage. Alternatively, if you just want to get rid of that glass bottle, reach out to the local recycling center to see if they accept glass, as many don’t. Others don’t offer a pickup service but will accept drop-offs if you bring items yourself. 

If you’re looking to get rid of some old things and don’t need to sell them, try sitting them out on the curb for passersby to take. Known as “freecycling,” this is a great way to declutter your home without sending more trash to a landfill — a huge contributor to climate change.

Sell on an App

There are several sites and apps that will help you sell the things you no longer want or need, so look online to find out more about your options. Some apps take a small cut of your sale but offer prepaid shipping labels to make the process easier. Check out Vinted, Poshmark, eBay, and Etsy (which only sells handmade or vintage items) and read about their policies to get an idea of how you can get started.

Hold the Perfect Garage Sale

The right garage sale can help you get rid of anything you no longer use while helping you make some cash at the same time. Do some promoting with brightly-colored posters around the neighborhood, set up displays to attract attention from the street, and be prepared to barter a bit. Most garage sale shoppers love finding a deal, so you might consider pricing your items a little higher so you’ll have room to haggle.

Start an Etsy Shop

If you have a creative streak or a great eye for vintage pieces, you can find quite a bit of success on sites like Etsy, where shoppers are looking for something unique. You can recycle items you no longer want — like turning old clothes and linens into tea towels, quilts, or dresses for little girls, for instance — and earn a nice profit by using a crafty spin. 

If you’re more into vintage fare, head to your local second-hand shop or antique store and look for pieces with promise. If you can clean them up and take a great photo or two, you’re bound to find a buyer who is willing to pay a pretty penny. In fact, if you already have high-quality photos of these items on social media, you can simply use a free tool to remove background elements that you don’t want to show in the listing.

Earning money via the second-hand economy can be both fun and rewarding, as long as you feel prepared going into it. Doing a little research will help you get a great start, and you may even make a new career for yourself while doing something you enjoy.

Lisa Walker is a proud SAHM (Stay at Home Mom). She enjoys trail hiking and beach-coming with her husband Jake when not busy with her boys and home improvement projects. She created NeighborhoodSprout.org as a passion project to share her love of homeownership with others.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

© pam lazos

As many of you know, I am crazy for clean, safe water for all and work toward that end both in my J.O.B. and in my volunteer life. So I am sharing the post I made for the Global Water Alliance today with some water facts for you to ponder as you carve your turkey and relax with family and friends today. If you are one of the people that enjoys unfettered access to clean water, say a little prayer of thanks for your luxury and another one that all people will one day share your bounty. I hope you have a blessed Thanksgiving filled with family and friends, good food, a solid roof over your head, plenty of laughter, and clean water for all. pl — 11.25.21

Happy Thanksgiving! Here at GWA we have much to be thankful for, but most of all we are grateful for the gift of clean water!  GWA envisions a world where all people have access to safe drinking water and sanitation.  The UN and WHO estimate that around the world, over 785 million people don’t have access to basic water services while more than 884 million people don’t have safe drinking water. 

The good news is that since 2000, drinking water services improved from 61% to 71%, and sanitation services increased from 28% to 45%

Arsenic removal project in West Bengal, India

But there is still much work to be done.  The WHO estimates that during Covid, three out of every ten people couldn’t wash their hands in their own homes due to lack of access to clean water.

Connecting the pipes — Panyebar Water Project, Guatemala

We’re not on the straightaway yet, but we are making progress with projects like Panyebar in Guatemala and our arsenic removal work in West Bengal, India.

While most of us in developed countries have access to clean water, there is this little problem of a crumbling infrastructure that needs a great deal of attention here in the U.S., a problem that has been called “a ticking time bomb” by the former EPA Administrator, Carol Browner.  Without a much needed investment in infrastructure, parts of the U.S. could find itself looking much like a developing country when it comes to water access.  President Biden’s Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act will pump approximately 82 billion into the water sector, improving infrastructure and sustainability.  What a great way to start a massively daunting project!

This year, Global Water Alliance is expanding its reach, funding additional projects both in the U.S. and abroad, supporting students in our affiliated universities at the World Water Forum in Dakar, and committing to more education via conferences and webinars while expanding our networking capabilities to increase our reach. 

President, Christiaan Morssink and students from Temple’s EWB chapter at World Toilet Day

Become a member of Global Water Alliance today where you will collaborate with our partners in the field, such as Engineers Without Borders, in bringing the gift of clean water to a family or community, help us to educate the up-and-coming groups of students and future water leaders who will ultimately take the baton on behalf of clean, safe water, and to finally eradicate the lack of access to WASH, water, sanitation and hygiene, for all people across the globe, all of which cannot be done without a united, consolidated effort. 

Clean water is a right, not a privilege.  Let’s all exercise our rights.

I’ll leave you with this final word from from GWA President, Christiaan Morssink.

Why not join us today?

Pam Lazos is an environmental lawyer with a passion for assuring access to clean water for all, a blogger, author of the novel Oil and Water, about oil spills and green technology, and the VP for Communications at Global Water Alliance. She practices laughter daily.

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What is This Man Thinking?

Rodin’s “The Thinker”

He’s probably thinking about the lack of access to improved sanitation for about 1/3 of the planet’s inhabitants.

Today is World Toilet Day. Let’s review a few facts:

How does a species evolve? For centuries, people lived side-by-side with their waste, throwing it into the streets, into the rivers, over the back fence, out of sight, out of mind.

But that’s never been the best solution since waste by definition is full of pathogens that can seriously impact human health and with almost 8 billion of us on the planet, the waste stream is rising.

Children are an especially vulnerable population.

As are those living in rural communities where access to water is expensive and often prohibitive due to difficult terrain and distance from the wastewater treatment plant.

In developing countries, women and girls bear the extra burden of a lack of access to clean, safe water, missing school because of starting their menses, or being removed from school to walk long distances to get water for the family.

Technologies such as the compostable toilet can ease the burden of deaths related to lack of sanitation.

Today, skip the coffee and instead, make a donation in favor of WASH — water, sanitation and hygiene.  Your donation to GWA will support programs and projects dedicated to bringing water to those who need it most.  Thank you in advance for your support.

pam lazos 11.18.21

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The Crapper

World Toilet Day — November 19, 2021

by Tom McKeon

My friend and colleague, Tom McKeon has written this lovely post about a composting toilet known as “The Crapper.” If you live in a tiny house, have an RV, or just want to learn more about composting toilets, read on.

Friday, November 19th is World Toilet Day and what better way to celebrate than with a visit to The Crapper!  If you live in the Philly area, we hope to see you there. Details on the event are as follows: 

photo courtesy of Temple Tiny House

Friday, November 19th 3 to 5 p.m.
Where: Tiny House, Temple University Campus at Diamond & Carlisle Streets, Philadelphia, PA
What: The Global Water Alliance  (GWA) in partnership with Temple University’s Office of Sustainability, the Fox Entrepreneurship Academy and Engineers Without Borders plan to display a compostable toilet at Temple University’s Tiny House, Diamond and Carlisle Streets, in observation of World Toilet Day.  The U.N. estimates that 3.6 billion people don’t have access to a working toilet and proper, improved sanitation. That’s almost half the world!  To celebrate this global holiday and raise awareness by engaging the community around water access, sanitation and hygiene, or WASH, issues The Crapper will be on display.  GWA hopes the event will also serve as a networking opportunity, connecting students and the community to upcoming GWA events, conferences, and research opportunities. 

 The Compostable Toilet is designed by Toilets for People: https://www.toiletsforpeople.com/ 

Although we will display The Crapper for demonstration purposes only, it is functional. It uses urine diversion and the natural processes of decomposition and evaporation to breakdown and reduce the volume of human waste, transforming it into a soil-like compost material.

It starts with a horizontally mounted rotating drum, much like a garden composter, that sits inside a box. This proven technology has been the industry standard since the 1970s in the USA and Canada.

To use, start by filling the drum with 1 gallon of damp and loose compost material — coconut coir is popular. Then you pee and poop as you do. No need to cover it with saw dust, dry leaves, or ash afterwards, you just spin it once after every use. The urine diversion system routes the urine (which is generally sterile) either into a container for later disposal or is discharged directly into a soak pit.

There is no need to clean the drum and the bin – it is actually better if some material carries over to start the composting process with the next batch. You would clean the seat as you would a seat on a flush toilet, and the same goes for the interior interface under the seat. The exterior can also be wiped down. Any cleaning product can be used. 

The toilet only needs to be cleaned once every two months. The waste entering the toilets is over 90% water, which is evaporated and carried back to the atmosphere through the vent system. The urine diversion system carries sterile urine to storage containers to be diluted and used as fertilizer or discharged directly into the ground via a shallow soak pit.

The natural decomposition process, which is essentially the same as in your standard backyard garden composter, is enhanced in waterless composting toilets by manipulating the environment in the composting chamber.

The correct balance between oxygen, moisture, heat and organic material is needed to ensure a rich environment for the aerobic bacteria that decomposes the waste. This ensures odor-free operation and complete decomposition of waste.

Natural aerobic decomposition eliminates dangerous pathogens and foul odors. It also reduces the volume of the waste by 80% so the user only needs to empty the drum into the secondary storage container once every 2 weeks.

After you empty it into the secondary container, the composting solid waste will continue to break down underneath the drum. After emptying the drum a few times over 2 months you can take out the composting bin to bury.

To do so, you dig a hole a foot deep, put the compost in the hole, cover it with wood ash, charcoal ash or agricultural lime (this is to dry it out & raise the pH which kills the pathogens thereby disinfecting the waste) and finally cover it all over with dirt and you’re done!

The compost from the toilet is safe to be used as a fertilizer. When human waste is properly composted, levels of pathogens or viruses in the waste are dramatically reduced. The pathogens and viruses are further destroyed by desiccation (drying out).

It is recommended that the soil-like compost material coming out of a composting toilet be buried nearby with an ash/lime cover as a final disinfectant. This will raise the pH of the waste – further destroying any remaining pathogens and viruses that thrive in an acidic environment and die in a basic one. 

Under certain circumstances, it can be used as a nutrient-rich fertilizer for growing trees. However it is not recommended for surface crops since there is the possibility that some pathogens remain in the waste, which can be harmful if exposed to. As long as the compost is in the ground, then the exposure route is not present.

Tom McKeon holds a master’s in public health from the University of Pennsylvania and is currently a Ph.D. student at Temple University studying geography where he uses statistics, GIS, and epidemiological concepts to analyze place-based interventions to improve community health by maintaining and improving water quality through community education, biological sampling, chemical sampling, and designing restoration proposals. 

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