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Karst Topography and the Buffalo National River

In August 2012 a hog factory with as many as 6500 hogs was permitted by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ). The permitting process employed what is called a Regulation 6 General Permit. In itself this is somewhat unusual as Reg 6 is usually applied to things like wastewater treatment facilities, or construction sites with concerns for managing storm water run-off. There are two types of Reg 6, individual and general. The permit used in this case was the general permit – it has no location or site specific considerations. Along with the general permit is a Nutrient Management Plan (NMP) that allows for the dispersal of agricultural wastes,in this case liquid pig manure, in a fashion which shouldn’t burden the soils with nutrients in excess of what can be absorbed on designated fields.

The problem is that this particular factory is sited on a Mount Judea, AR location on Big Creek, a tributary of the Buffalo National River. If hog manure is spread on the land in excess of the amount that the grasses can absorb, there may be nutrient pollution of Big Creek and and the Buffalo.

In August of 2013 Governor Beebe allocated several hundred thousand dollars to fund a research effort to examine the risk of pollution to the Buffalo. Professor Andrew Sharpley University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture is leading what is called the Big Creek Research and Extension Team (BCRET)

In April 2014 the Pollution Control and Ecology (PC&E) Commission began a moratorium on any new medium to large hog operations (Confined Animal feeding Operations – CAFO.) The data is mixed as to whether pollutants are running off the hay fields where the manure is spread and into Big Creek, then down to the Buffalo.

An important and confounding feature of this hog factory is that the local topography appears to be underlain by karst, a particularly porous limestone that is prone to sink holes, caves and springs. Water and anything in it will move rather rapidly through the subsurface terrain and contaminate locales distant from the site.

Two types of studies have been conducted that confirm the karst. Dr Van Brahana, emeritus Professor of Hydrogeology University of Arkansas, has done dye tracing in the area. He and his coworkers bore a hole in the ground, add a specific dye solution and then monitor the surrounding aquifers for presence of the dye. Dye added in close proximity to the farm spray fields resulted in detection of the dye in 44 remote sites, 14 of which were in caves and springs near the river and 3 in the Buffalo itself.

Professor Todd Halihan, Professor of Hydrogeology Oklahoma State University, utilized another technique to test for the presence of karst. He employed Electrical Resistivity Imaging (ERI) across several transects very close to the ponds holding millions of gallons of liquid hog wastes. He found not just porosity but what he believes to be a major fault which is allowing movement of wastes into the subterranian aquifers, confirming Brhana’s dye studies.

Sadly neither of these studies were conducted by the BCRET, and hence have been ignored by the ADEQ and the PC&E commission which oversees the ADEQ.

Zika

As if we didn’t have enough insect and tick born diseases to worry about, an emerging risk is the relatively new (to the western hemisphere) Mosquito born Zika virus. Add it to other scourges around Arkansas such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Erhlichiosis, and Tularemia from ticks (also deer flies for Tularemia), and mosquito born West Nile Virus and St. Louis encephalitis (SLE). Any and all of these diseases can have serious consequences especially if left untreated.

Zika is a new viral disease which is projected to be an issue in the future in much of the United States including Arkansas because of the ability of the host to breed and spread in a number of climatic niches. The mosquito vector, genus Aedes, is a day-time feeder and is said to be able to reproduce is a bottle cap’s worth of water. So far no known disease transmission from mosquito bites has occurred in the United States, but transmission from bites has occurred in two territories in western hemisphere, Puerto Rico and and the US Virgin Islands. There are reported cases in most states from travelers who were exposed overseas.

Zika was discovered in 1947 in Uganda. From the 1960s to 1980s, human infections were found across Africa and Asia, typically accompanied by mild illness. The symptoms are common to a number of other mosquito born viral infections. From there the virus moved to south-east Asia and across the Pacific. During a 2013-14 outbreak in French Polynesia, the neurological disorder Guillain-Barré syndrome was linked to Zika infection. In South America, the first reports of locally transmitted infection came from Brazil in May 2015. In July 2015 Brazil reported an association between Zika virus infection and GBS.

It is only a matter of time until the local mosquito population becomes infected with the Zika virus, and begins to spread the disease among humans. The most frightening aspect of the disease which has recently been confirmed by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is a unique birth defect that occurs in the offspring of infected women. Microcephaly is a condition where the infant is born with an abnormally small head and underdeveloped brain. Brazil has reported a rate of about 2,500 cases of microcephaly.

The disease has also been shown to be transmitted by blood and semen. Men with the virus have been know to transmit the disease to sex partners. It is currently not know if women can infect partners.

The condition results in a poor prognosis for normal brain function and individuals have a greatly reduced life expectancy. Although there can be other causes of microcephaly, the CDC has affirmed the connection between the Zika virus and the Brazilian outbreak.

Two months ago President Obama asked congress to appropriate 1.8 billion dollars to fight the spread of the disease. The republican controlled Congress has so far refused to act on the request. Without congressional support to fight the disease the president has no choice but to switch funding within the CDC, taking it away from monies committed to surveillance and treatment of Ebola.

Congress, name your poison.

Pollution Trading

Pollution caused by a process or industry is a prime example of a negative externality. The pollution producer makes decisions on the cost of and profit from an activity. The cost of pollution is not born by the producer or even the consumer, but rather by impacted individuals or society as a whole.

Society can ban activities which pollute, but this will reduce economic activity which is also detrimental to society. One method to try to meld these opposing ideas is a system of pollution trading. This generally involves governmental establishment of a “tolerable” level of pollution as a cap, then a right to a portion of the allowed pollution can be bought and sold just like a commodity. With a cap in place, pollution can’t get worse, and the cap can be gradually lower to reduce total pollution.

Pollution trading in the United States began with Sulfur Dioxide (SO2,) the principle source of acid rain. The major source of the pollutant is produced by burning coal. In 1990, a cap of 10 million tons per annum was established. Utilities had to buy a “right to” pollute. The cap was then lowered in future years. Companies that could eliminate part or all of their share could sell the pollution rights to other utilities who were unwilling or unable to reduce their emissions.

The assumption is that the environment can deal with a small amount of pollution, as long as it is sufficiently dispersed. For the case of acid rain, alkaline soils or areas with a limestone formations can absorb some acidity. Another type of pollution is nutrient overload. Certain compounds of Nitrogen and Phosphorous are used as fertilizer. If the the fertilizer spread on a crop isn’t absorbed, it runs off and can damage the environment.

Agricultural activities and waste treatment plants in the Chesapeake Bay were seriously damaging water quality. Four states – Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia joined together to create Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for nutrients across the watershed. The ongoing program through nutrient trading and a gradual reduction of the TMLD, is resulting in improved water quality. There are costs associated with operating a trading program, but it produces positive externalities such as improved fisheries, and increased tourism due to improved water quality.

In 2015 the Arkansas legislature approved ACT 335, to “Authorize the implementation of nutrient water quality trading, credits, offsets, and compliance associations and for other purposes…” The plan is to employ nutrient pollution trading to ultimately improve the water quality in several impaired watersheds across the state. Biannually, the state of Arkansas must submit a list of impaired water bodies known as the 303(d) list. By capping total nutrients leaving the watershed and then slowly lowering the cap, water quality should improve. Market forces will determine how to best reduce nutrient pollution, not stringent regulations. Waste treatment facilities and farms which are successful at limiting nutrients we be able to “sell” their improvements to others not so successful.

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Balkanization – SCOTUS Style

Within an hour of the announcement of the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell announced that there would be no hearings to replace Scalia until after the elections in the fall. His argument is that we should await the decision of the American people as to the next president before deciding on a replacement Justice.

The constitution is clear that the President of the United States selects nominees for the court with the advice and consent of the Senate. What is not clear is how to select a new justice if the senate refuses to hold hearings on a presidential nominee.

There are a number of “what ifs” built into the constitution and its amendments. If the president dies or becomes incapacitated, we have a vice-president at the ready. Three successive congressional acts have defined a presidential succession that goes well beyond the vice president. If there is no majority of votes cast in the electoral college, the election goes to the House of Representatives. If congress doesn’t like the actions of a president s/he can be removed through the impeachment process. If a tie vote occurs in the Senate, the Vice-President as casts a tie breaking vote.

There is however no mechanism to force a recalcitrant senate to act to confirm a selection to the supreme court. For that matter the senate could refuse to confirm any federal judge appointment, essentially abolishing the federal courts by attrition.

When the court is short one member, the possibility of a tie exists. In the case of a tie there is no decision. The previous appeals court decision stands. The death of Scalia has already changed things. In a recent civil action, Dow Chemical decided to pay an 835 million dollar settlement in an antitrust price-fixing case that it had lost in lower courts and that was on the Supreme Court’s docket. (A 4-to-4 tie at the Supreme Court would have left the lower court’s decision in place, including a judgment in excess of a billion dollars against Dow.

A serious problem exists now because tied decisions mean that the circuit court decision stands, but only for that circuit court, of which there are 12 (Arkansas is in the 8th circuit.) Tied decisions mean no decisions, it is as if there were no supreme court only the 12 regional circuit courts. There can be no consistent federal law throughout the nation as long as tie votes are possible.

With only eight justices on the court, and the possibility of tie decisions, we have a situation which “Balkanizes” federal law (Balkanization is a term which refers to a condition when one political unit fragments into several smaller units, especially when there are political differences among the smaller units. It refers to the Balkan Peninsula in the 19th century when the Ottoman Empire collapsed into a number of smaller often hostile nation states.)

Right now it is not the United States of America, but rather the “Amalgamated 12 Different Regions of America.”

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Chronic Wasting Disease

Last month Arkansas Game and Fish confirmed that a deer found dead near Ponca, Ar and an elk taken by a hunter were both found to have Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). This ultimately fatal disease is not yet known to be transmissible to humans who consume the flesh of an infected animal. It is the same disease which showed up in Great Britain years ago, called Mad Cow Disease. In sheep, where the disease has been known for centuries, it is called Scrapie. In the remote highlands of New Guinea, warring tribesmen spread the same disease, known as Kuru, through ritual cannibalism. There is even a heritable form called Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CGD.)

The assemblage of diseases are collectively known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE.) What that means is that one may get it from eating the flesh of an infected animal and over time fatally damages the brain. The really unique thing about prion diseases is the nature of the infectious component of disease transmission.

With every other kind of transmissible disease from the common cold to the plague, from warts to ebola, transmission requires an organism such as a bacteria, or at least a virus. These agents replicate by well understood mechanisms involving DNA. Reproduction is necessary to create enough of the organism in a body to do it harm.

Stanley Prusiner won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1997 for “his discovery of prions – a new biological principle of infection.”

As noted Scrapie has been known for centuries. Sheep farmers knew that the disease could be spread from one animal to another in a herd, although it may take years between infection and the presentation of symptoms in an infected animal. By the 1950s and with an awareness of the modern germ theory of disease, the cause of Scrapie was thought to be a viral. Because it took a long time for symptoms to present it was called a slow virus.

Prusiner began studying the disease in the ’70s. It was known that the disease could be spread from on organism to another via extracts of diseased brains tissue. What Prusiner discovered however was that when these extracts were treated with agents that destroyed DNA and RNA – nothing happened – the extracts were still infectious. This was previously unheard of. At first it was thought that a new kind of life (an organism) that replicated without DNA. Not so.

The infectious agent isn’t an organism, it is a simple molecule that already exists in all of us, quite possibly all multicellular organisms. Prions are proteins. Proteins all have unique three dimensional shapes. Prions are nothing more than a misshapen protein, except their misshapen form causes normally shaped protein to become similarly misshapen. The “bad” form catalyzes the change from the normal to the bad shape. Brain tissue riddled with the badly shaped protein take on a sponge-like appearance, with the loss of normal brain function.

The protein is found not only in brain tissue but virtually all nervous tissue. Consumption of any flesh of an infected animal, even an asymptomatic one carries a risk of contracting a lethal disease. Thorough cooking which normally destroys the usual infectious agents may not suffice to destroy the prion.

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Get the Lead (Pb) Out.

Professor Plum – did it in the kitchen – with the lead pipe. This could have been an outcome in the old board game, Clue. In reality and recent times it was the the emergency manager in Flint Michigan, with the lead pipes in the cities antiquated distribution lines.

Back to Flint, Michigan later, but first a brief history and discussion of the toxic nature of lead. Lead is the quintessential example of the class of elements know as heavy metals. Other toxic heavy metals include Mercury and Cadmium. Heavy metals generally share a capacity to cause nerve damage in both peripheral and central nervous systems. The element symbol, Pb, comes from the Latin Plumbum, which is also the root of the English words plumber, and plumb-line.

Lead has been in common use for centuries. Lead glaze in pottery has been dated to circa 4000 BCE in Egypt. It is a dense, relatively non oxidizing (won’t “rust” like iron) malleable material. Among its many uses are jewelry, solder, lead pipes, batteries, and of course the most toxic form-bullets. In various chemical combinations it has been used as durable paint pigment, and an anti-knock agent for gasoline. In ancient Rome a chemical compound of lead was used to sweeten wine. Not surprisingly the compound’s common name is sugar of lead, made by dissolving lead in vinegar to get lead acetate.

Lead came into use about the time of the iron age, but may have preceded iron as it is easier to smelt from its ore, Galena. It’s toxicity has also been known from ancient times. Acute lead poisoning is rare, but chronic poisoning was common. The forerunners of modern chemists were the alchemists. They for reasons know only to them associated some elements with planets. Lead was connected to Saturn. The word saturnine is an adjective meaning slow, gloomy, taciturn, even cynical. These describe nicely the early symptoms of lead poisoning. Further progression of poisoning involves damaged memory, confusion, and tremors. Some of these symptoms can be irreversible.

Chronic lead poisoning is at its most insidious when children are involved. If items with any lead content are in the presence of a toddler, it will likely end up in the child’s mouth. Lead based paint was common, and the toxicity known since early in the 20th century. A painted window sill is the perfect spot for a teething toddler. Regulation of the industry was resisted for decades, the industry blamed the parents for not keeping toys, window sills, etc out of the mouths of children.

The most recent example of lead poisoning in children takes us back to Flint, Michigan. The collapse of the auto industry and other financial troubles lead the state to take over management of the city. An emergency manager with broad authority to manage the city budget caused (or allowed) the city to switch their water supplier from properly treated Lake Huron water to untreated water from the Flint river. This untreated water flowed through the city’s lead pipe distribution system. Proper treatment can prevent leaching, but it wasn’t done. Subsequently as many as 10,000 children have been identified as having toxic levels of lead in their blood. Many could suffer permanent kidney, liver, and brain damage.

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Interstate Health Insurance?

If the Republicans win the general election in the fall and Obamacare is repealed, what happens? Several common threads run through the various strategies from Republican front runners.

The most odious feature of the the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) among conservatives seems to be the mandate, so it will go. If you don’t want to buy insurance, you don’t have to. If for example you get pneumonia from an untreated infection, you can go to the hospital and get free care. For the hospital to remain in business however, they have to cover the cost of the “free” care with higher costs to the paying customers – the insurance companies. And remember that emergency care is the most expensive way to deliver care, bar none. The cost to those who buy insurance will go up to subsidize the uninsured. This doesn’t do anything to lower costs, it’s what we had before and it is a silly way to keep everybody healthy.

So everyone, republicans included, realizes that steps need to be taken to bring down the cost of healthcare and one thing you hear constantly is that allowing the purchase of insurance across states lines will increase competition and thereby lower costs. Will it work? It works with widgets. If someone in another state sells widgets at a lower price than that can be bought here, then go there to buy where the price is lower.

The story with health insurance is quite a bit more complex. The PPACA includes provisions that already allow the purchase of health insurance across state lines. The difference between the PPACA compact provisions and earlier interstate sales provisions are that the PPACA requires all states to comply with a minimum level of insurance coverage. But interstate sales is not happening, so why?

Insurance companies make money by negotiating prices for “healthcare commodities” – doctors fees, hospital costs, laboratory costs, drug costs etc. All these costs are negotiated to control costs to the policy holders. The nature of the policies sold in a state are regulated in the state.

Georgia, Maine, and Wyoming are states that have taken the step to promote interstate sales. The problem is not that regulations prevent it, but rather no insurers are interested. In none of the aforementioned states, has an out of state insurer expressed interest in selling in those states. This is partly due to the fact that out of state insurers will still have to abide by the rules in the states where they sell.

Eventually it may happen. There is a case to be made that costs are lower the bigger the pool of insured, and crossing state lines could expand the pool for a given insurer. In some markets such as large metropolitan areas that cross state lines, this could happen sooner rather than later, but the development will take time. How how much will this lower the cost to a consumer?

Experts cite the fact that insurance costs depends on how healthy a given group of policy holders are. Arkansans currently have the highest obesity rate in the country, Colorado the lowest. If an insurer from Colorado wanted to sell in Arkansas, the policy costs would be base on the obese Arkansas pool, not the fit Colorado pool. Consequently what cost savings may occur would be small.

In a final irony, a catch-22 of sorts, interstate sales of insurance means federal regulation, anathema to generally states rights conservatives.

Wind Power Transmission Line

A federal decision on the Plains and Eastern Clean Line High Voltage Direct Current line is imminent. This proposed 700 plus mile long transmission line will extend from the panhandle of Oklahoma, through Pope County, and on to Memphis. If approved and built it will allow for the movement of large amounts of wind generated power from the midwest to parts east where it can be used to replace coal fired generating plants.

The route already approved by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) will pass through central Pope county. A substation just north of Atkins will allow Arkansans a piece of the power from the line. For perspective the line will cross Big Piney Creek near where it crosses Highway 164.

The line and others like it are necessary to reduce our need for coal which fouls the atmosphere in multiple ways. There is a superabundance of clean, relatively inexpensive energy waiting to be tapped in the midwest, the only need being transmission.

The Line is not without its detractors however, especially those in the path of the powerline right-of-way (ROW.) It will require a couple of hundred foot wide ROW with 150 foot towers spaced about 5 to the mile. The land within the ROW can be used safely for any purpose with the exception of forestry – crops, hay fields, and pastures are acceptable uses for the area. Landowners will be compensated for the ROW but they complain that compensation is insufficient.

It really boils down to “Not In My Backyard” (NIMBY.) This is not surprising, nobody wants their view of a skyline marred by powerlines. But powerlines are a fact of modern life. Anyone who is connected to the electrical grid benefits from numerous folks having yielded a ROW to get that power to their home or business.

One suggestion to remove the negative visual impact would be to bury the line underground. It has been done locally on a very small scale. In some newer subdivisions the distribution lines are buried but not for far, as it is quite expensive compared to overhead lines.

The relative cost of burying high voltage transmission lines is assumed to be prohibitive as it is just not done with the exception of lines that cross large bodies of water where it is the only possible alternative.

To bury a transmission line requires serious disruption, trenching then back filling, not just pastures and hay fields but sidewalks, roadways, and even rivers and wet lands. For forest land, a clear cut ROW would be necessary to be able to bring in the heavy equipment necessary to excavate and lay the line.

One of the benefits of buried lines is that they are less susceptible to weather related outages. The other side of the coin is when an outage occurs in an underground line it is harder to locate and harder to access, changing repair times from hours for overhead lines to weeks for underground lines.

Cost estimates are in the range of 2 to 10 times more expensive than overhead lines. Power companies across the land, whether private like Entergy or public like the Arkansas Electric Coops, have made the decision to stay with overhead lines, wherever possible.

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Cars and Cold Weather

Anyone who pays even passing attention to their fuel economy know that regardless of the vehicle driven, colder weather means poorer performance for a myriad of reasons. Important to all vehicles is inefficiency due to rolling resistance and wind resistance. Electric cars have additional inefficiencies due to battery issues.

In cold weather lubricants, which keep parts which move with respect to each other moving, are more viscous and therefore more resistant to movement causing drag. Another source of resistance to motion comes from the lower tire pressure in cold weather. Students in introductory chemistry classes learn Guy-Lussac’s Law: Pressure is directly proportional to temperature. Lower temperatures mean lower tire pressures.

Both friction due to viscous lubricants and lower tire pressure are overcome because both cause friction and friction generates heat. Depending on how cold it is, and how long the vehicle is driven, parts warm up lowering lubricant viscosity and tires gain pressure as they heat up.

Even the air itself conspires in cold weather. Vehicle designers pay careful attention to “slipperiness,” as wind resistance is a big factor especially for a fast moving car or truck. Wind resistance is a function of the density of air and air density is inversely proportional to temperature. Colder air is denser air and provides more resistance.

Internal combustion engines (ICEs) have to be tuned to run rich to get started in cold weather. This means that more fuel is used to get the engine started and up to operating temperature. Additionally, in the winter people tend to start up their engines to warm up the interior of the car before it even hits the road.

Hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and pure electric vehicles suffer an additional problem, because they all are powered to some degree by a battery and batteries in cold weather are a problem. A hybrid electric vehicle like a Toyota Prius has a traditional ICE connected to the drive wheels, with an electric motor which supplements the ICE. Plug-in hybrids are a little different. They have an electric drive train with an ICE used exclusively as a generator to charge the battery when it is discharged. Of course all electric vehicles have only the electric motor and a comparatively large battery to extend the range on a charge.

Two factors contribute to cold weather reduced range in battery powered cars. The colder a battery is the less charge in will accept, thus lowering the vehicles range until the next charge. A factor called internal resistance increases as the temperature decreases. This means you don’t have as much energy stored from the outset. Further reducing range is the process which converts chemical to electrical energy. The distance you can travel on a unit of energy is lowered in colder weather.

Electric cars have reduced range on a given charge in cold weather, but overall are still cheaper to operate than an ICE vehicle. Basically the cost of electricity for a given amount of travel is much less than the cost of gasoline for an ICE vehicle, even at today’s greatly reduced cost for gas.

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State Support for Sustainable Energy

The data are in and the numbers are crunched. 2015 is officially the hottest year for the planet in recorded history. Last year raced past the previous hottest year, 2014. In fact the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 1998.

The science is clear, the heating is due in the main to burning fossil fuels. Governments around the world are developing strategies to decarbonize their economies. Here in the United States we have federal various tax credits which lower the cost for both individuals and businesses to be less reliant on fossil fuel combustion. Purchase tax credits are available for energy efficiency and sustainable energy production. Also, production tax credits for wind produced energy are available.

Variable levels of subsidization from the states for both purchase and production of sustainable energy is also available. These can come as purchase savings: income tax credits, income tax deductions, sales tax rebates, and cash rebates. Production of sustainable energy, for example solar photovoltaic systems or wind turbines are subsidized by feed-in tariffs or net metering. Levels of support also vary by sector such as homeowners, coops, or for profit businesses.

California is generally recognized as the nation’s leader in clean renewable energy because they have committed to a renewable portfolio of 50% by 2030. This means they expect 50% of energy production in the state to come from renewable energy. Their success thus far is driven by a combination of all the above, credits for efficiency, the purchase of equipment, and for energy produced.

An example of a production subsidy is a feed-in tariff. This is a rate structure for electricity where the producer of clean energy, say a homeowner with solar panels, signs a long term contract to produce energy to the grid at a premium price. In Michigan the average cost of electricity is about 11 cents a kilowatt hour (kWh). Producers with a feed-in tariff are paid 24 cents a kWh. Payback times at this rate could be less than five years!

Here in Arkansas we are about in the middle of the pack, renewable energy support-wise. There is essentially no state purchase support, but net metering provides some assistance for the production of clean, carbon free energy. Net metered systems in Arkansas use bidirectional meters. When the sun shines and production is in excess of consumption the meter runs backwards, at the same rate as it runs forwards when consuming energy. There no additional access charge or fee for net metered systems. What this means is that the home producer is paid retail cost for the power sent to the grid.

Less valuable but still of some help are net metered systems where the producer is only paid the power company’s avoided cost, the wholesale rate. This doesn’t reward the expense of providing clean power to the grid as the avoided cost is the cost of the oldest, cheapest, and usually coal fired power production. Nevada recently downgraded their net metered systems to pay only the wholesale price for production, rather than the retail price.

Only two states, Tennessee and South Dakota, have no production support for distributed clean energy.