Monthly Archives: March 2014

rosebush

You’re Dead – Now What?

The oldest known burial remains in North America were found in Montana. A two year old child was interred with numerous valuable artifacts, almost 13,000 years ago. The artifacts, stone tools for example, indicated the child was of the Clovis culture, so named for a distinct style of arrow heads first found in Clovis, New Mexico.

burial site of Clovis Child

burial site of Clovis Child

Interestingly Clovis Culture artifacts are widespread across North America but this is the first skeletal remains found and examined by DNA analysis. DNA confirmed the Siberian ancestral origin of native Americans.

Burial, with or without embalming, has been and to this day remains to be the most common method of disposal of human remains in the United States, but this appears to be changing. About two thirds of us are buried, the remainder cremated. Cremation rates vary considerably by state. In Mississippi only one in ten are cremated whereas seven in ten are cremated in Nevada. Here in Arkansas about 20 per cent are cremated. In some parts of Europe cremation rates are over 90 per cent.

crematory

crematory


Cremation began in the United States late in the nineteenth century, and the number cremated has slowly increased. It was initially promoted as a healthy alternative as it had been thought that bodies moldering in the ground gave of toxic airs known as miasma. Today modern crematoria such as that proposed here in the River Valley are fired with natural gas and fitted with exhaust scrubbers to recover much of the Mercury emissions coming from dental amalgams.

Cremation costs have risen with the cost of energy and also the cost for the advanced scrubbers for Mercury removal. This has driven the search for other alternatives. The most developed alternative technology to date involves what is called alkaline hydrolysis. A body is put in a chamber with water and lye which then is heated and pressurized to digest the body. Other than the large bones the only thing remaining is a sterile solution which literally goes down the drain. Alternatively the solution can be neutralized and used as a nutrient rich solution for watering plants.

A possibly more respectful and less wasteful disposal of humans could involve some sort of recycling. A process for composting human remains is being examined by a Swedish Company – Promessa. Rather than a human body being combined with vegetable peels in a compost pile, this company uses freeze drying. Completely dehydrated remains are pulverized, placed in biodegradable boxes and then buried in shallow graves. The nutrients from the body provide excellent fertilizer for subsequent plantings.

In Arkansas human remains can be buried without embalming and in rural areas a family cemetery could be the final resting place. So you’re last decision could be whether to fertilize, and hence become one with, a bed of roses or maybe a fruit tree or for longevity even an oak tree.

Distributed Energy Production

Long term solutions to power society should be sustainable, clean, safe, and affordable; but all of these descriptors are relative. Sustainable has the least wiggle room in its definition. Fossil fuels which took 100s of millions of years to accumulate, but are being consuming over a century or two obviously don’t qualify. For that matter they are neither clean, safe, nor affordable if consideration is given to all the hidden costs of health care and environmental degradation.

Large hydropower facilities are generally thought of as clean and affordable, but how about sustainability and safety? Large scale hydropower sites, dams with lakes behind them, don’t exist forever. Depending on the facility, life spans of 50 to 100 years seem to be an average. The reason is simple, rivers carry more than just water, they also move silt. Eventually the dam site will fill with silt. After time silt accumulates, filling in the reservoir.

The silt can be dredged out but that can become a large expense, impacting affordability. Hoover Dam, because of it size, and more importantly the silt trapping effect of Glen Canyon dam above it, has a projected life time of several centuries.

What about dam safety? Actually catastrophic failures are not unheard of. In the last 10 years in the United States alone close to 200 dams have failed. Obviously living downstream of a dam is not the safest place to be. One dam failure in 1975 in China resulted in 26,000 deaths due to flooding and another 146,000 deaths due to illness and famine.

Nuclear power is considered by some to be a sustainable energy supply, and as long as everything operates as it should it can be clean and safe. Nuclear power however suffers from the risk of catastrophic consequences when things go wrong.

Three Mile Island suffered a partial core meltdown with minimum release of radioactive material. Three million people live within a 30 radius of the site.

A reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine caught on fire and burned uncontrollably for days, spewing radioactive material for hundreds of square miles. Radioactivity set of alarms at a reactor site in Sweden within two days.

Damage due to a tsunami caused failure of several reactors at Fukushima and the problems are ongoing. A radioactive plume of seawater is making its way across the Pacific Ocean towards the west coast of North America.

So we are left with wind, solar, and geothermal. They are all sustainable, clean, safe, and compared to the real costs of the alternatives affordable. An especially attractive aspect of these sources is that they are quite diffuse compared to the aforementioned alternatives. Nobody will knock out the grid by flying a plane into tens of thousands of solar arrays, it just can’t be done. A terrorist might take down one wind turbine, but not hundreds in a wind field.

Any centralized power plant can be a target for terrorism. Our energy supplies of the future should be sustainable, safe, clean, and affordable. We should add distributed to the list as very unlikely targets for terrorism.

waterfall

What Price Clean Water?

The Cuyahoga River last caught on fire in 1969, but had burned uncontrolled on numerous occasions dating back to the latter half of the the nineteenth century. The river flows north through northern Ohio and Cleveland into Lake Erie. Numerous industries discharged wastes into the river to the extent that at times the river was coated with several inches of highly flammable sludge.

Cuyahoga on Fire

Cuyahoga on Fire

The 1969 fire along with a growing environmental movement resulted in the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. The waters of the nation have benefited from the laws, but problems still exist, especially when it comes to our demand for cheap energy in the form of fossil fuels and even cheaper food.

In one of the ironies of our time, a chemical used to clean coal means that the drinking water of Charleston, West Virginia is not so clean. In January 2014 several thousand gallons of an industrial chemical leaked from a Freedom Industries storage tank on the banks of the Elk river, just upstream of the drinking water intake for several hundred thousand people. To this day, some residents of the area refuse to drink the water as it still smells faintly of licorice.

In North Carolina, the Dan River has recently been contaminated by a pipe failure from a coal ash containment pond owned by Duke Energy. The river and even groundwater are now polluted with sludge that is highly contaminated with Arsenic, a heavy metal that is both toxic and carcinogenic. There are fears that the massive 40,000 ton spill is not over as another pipe may be leaking.

What these Clean Water Act violations have in common is that both were easily preventable. Had the responsible corporations taken care of business, the spills would never have happened. And had the responsible regulatory agencies done their job the problems that caused these spills would have been prevented. But no, businesses don’t want to spend extra money and taxpayers don’t want to properly fund the agencies that provide oversight.

A similar disaster is brewing in Arkansas. In our case it is not the result of industrial use of fossil fuels but the industrial wastes from a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO.) The hog farm, the first of its type in the watershed of the crown jewel of Arkansas, the Buffalo National River, was permitted by a deeply flawed process. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality granted a general permit for the operation. It did not consider the sensitive location in the Buffalo watershed, nor consider the uniquely porous limestone geology of the Ozarks.

CAFO

CAFO

Thousands upon thousands of gallons of liquid wastes, urine and feces, are contained in two ponds. The permitted design required only enough free board to contain a 25 year rain event. When the dirt bank ponds are breached, they will likely fail catastrophically, releasing the wastes into Big Creek and a few miles downstream, the Buffalo River National Park. Even during times when the banks hold, the clay lined ponds are allowed to leak wastes through the soil. Because of the Karst topography, the wastes can make their way rapidly to pollute the nation’s fist national river. Its not a matter of if but when.

Why do we continue to set ourselves up for these kinds of disasters? Because of short sightedness. Because we just can’t seem to learn that proper regulation of industry takes careful oversight, and the funding to provide for it.