I often speak at public meetings about the state of affordable housing in our region. In both our rural and larger towns, we’re seeing many of the same challenges as large urban areas:
What is the federal role in affordable housing, and how can we make improvements?
The federal government has a housing subsidy program, called Section 8, that provides housing vouchers that can be associated with a renter or with a particular housing unit. In our region of California, like many other places, the program is not working very well. There are also federal financial incentive programs to encourage development of affordable housing, but in many rural areas, we are not seeing any new housing development, much less affordable housing development, so these programs do not have much impact on our communities. In the end, much of our less-expensive housing units are old, dilapidated, and may contain hazardous building materials or mold that is not healthy for tenants.
I think we can develop innovative programs that can help coordinate federal, state, and local programs and laws to improve affordable housing.
This week I spent several days with representatives from the Maidu community, government agencies, non-profits, and academia in Genesee Valley, Plumas County. We camped in a beautiful stand of trees during the hottest day of the year and got drenched in a thunderstorm and talked and laughed and learned together. It was an honor to be invited to participate in this gathering.
I learned so much that it’s hard to capture in a short article.
We talked and talked and talked about future projects that balance fire resistance with timber production and ecosystem restoration. These kinds of meetings are critical to California’s future, and we need to talk a lot more about how to best model the way and scale up projects to cover our entire forest landscape.
For more information about Genesee Valley and forest planning, visit these websites:
Since I’ve had a chance to live and spend time in Japan, the United States, and Mexico, not to mention all the time spent in industrial facilities all over the world, I’ve been able to see a number of different approaches to razing buildings. I love the term “razing,” because it can encompass a whole range of different techniques.
The most elegant work I’ve seen is in Tokyo, where space constraints and very strict waste management rules means that buildings are not demolished but are dismantled piece by piece. Here is a great little video that shows some of the challenges and solutions of working in Japan.
I’ve inspected many recycling facilities and building sites in Japan, and I will forever be in awe at the degree to which waste materials are separated and recycled, to avoid creating waste that must go into scarce landfill space. We could all learn a lot about recycling from Japan.
There is even one technique, Daruma Otoshi, that involves removing a floor at a time, starting at the bottom of the building. This remains one of my favorite ever demolition videos, especially since I’ve spent a lot of time inside the Prince Hotel before it was closed down.
And another short video that does a great job of showing Daruma Otoshi in time lapse.
With our excess of space and cheap landfills in the United States, we’re not quite so careful. In fact, we’re famous for our method of imploding buildings, which has spread to other areas of the world. There are even highlight reels of annual building implosions, including this one.
Of course, we still demolish most buildings with heavy equipment and a lot of time and effort. Two of the most common methods are with a wrecking ball (old school) and with a high reach excavator (newer school).
Building demolition in the U.S. can create a huge amount of dust, and cleaning up afterwards is really just picking everything up and trucking it all to a landfill. That means you have to remove any hazardous building materials before any demolition starts. Hazardous building materials can include asbestos, both in insulation and in everything from wall board to floor tiles. Use of friable asbestos was phased out before 1980, but asbestos can still be found in a wide range of building materials at relatively low concentrations. Lead-based paint has a similar story. It is still used on some exterior applications and was used quite a bit on interiors before 1978. Before polychlorinated biphenyls were banned in 1979, they were used extensively as insulation in liquid filled electrical equipment ranging from transformers and capacitors to small fluorescent light fixture ballasts. PCBs were also used as a plasticizer in paint (mostly in places like ships), and caulking. All of these hazardous building materials are strictly regulated as wastes and must be separated from other kinds of demolition waste. Asbestos gets landfilled in specially designed landfills where it can be sufficiently contained. Lead debris gets stabilized by mixing with concrete so that it won’t leach into the groundwater when it is landfilled. And all PCB waste gets incinerated at facilities that are designed to destroy these persistent organic chemicals at a 99.9999% destruction and removal efficiency.
I am often asked about why cleanup activities in California are more complicated than in other states. The quick answer is that California has several different laws that could trigger cleanups, and there may be a number of different regulatory agencies involved depending on the source of the contamination and the extent of contamination - whether soil, groundwater, surface water, or sediment is affected.
California is like other states, in that you must identify all the exposure pathways and address risks for human health and environmental receptors in order to close out a hazardous substance or petroleum release site. Background levels for metals can be used to support a finding of no release. Each agency has its own closeout checklist that is completed as part of the final assessment prior to regulatory closure. Engineering controls and institutional controls are used to supplement cleanup remedies and may remain in place in perpetuity through deed notices and deed restrictions. The process for completing remediation varies from one regulatory program to another. The key regulatory programs include:
DTSC uses soil cleanup standards that are geared toward human exposure and are developed by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA):
DTSC also has its own method for assessing risks from soil vapor intrusion:
The SWRCB is a state agency, with Regional Water Quality Control Boards (RWQCBs) for nine regions across California. Water protection, for groundwater and surface waters, fall under the authority of these agencies.
Environmental Screening Levels (ESL) were established for a wide range of exposure pathways and environmental conditions, and they address both human and environmental receptors. These are updated quite frequently, most recently in 2013. The Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay regional boards put these together, but they are applied across the state.
In order to properly apply the ESLs, it’s critical that the applicable basin plan be consulted to identify all beneficial uses of surface and groundwater for the subject site, as these beneficial uses will drive the selection of screening criteria.
For complex sites where screening levels may not adequately address multiple contaminants or synergistic effects, USEPA’s CERCLA risk assessment methodology may be used to set cleanup levels for a cleanup project.
In Arizona, there are three regulatory paths for stormwater discharge at industrial facilities:
This program falls under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) stormwater program of the national Clean Water Act, as applicable to the state and local jurisdiction where the subject property is located. States adopt general permits that cover a wide range of industrial and business activities.
A permit must be obtained for facilities where stormwater is considered “contact stormwater”, from either the state or the city, depending on where the stormwater is discharged. However, some industrial activities are not covered or exempted under general permit standards.
Non-contact stormwater flows on an industrial property means stormwater that does not come into contact with industrial operations or loading/unloading activities.
For facilities that are not planning discharge pollutants into the stormwater system, there are two ways to proceed:
Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter... It is not too much to expect that our children will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history, will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age.
Lewis Strauss, chair of the Atomic Energy Commission
Even if you build the perfect reactor, you're still saddled with a people problem and an equipment problem.
David R. Brower, environmental activist and founder of the Sierra Club
I just started following The National Interest’s blog, and I’m enjoying the international perspective and diversity of contributors. I’m always interested in alternatives to carbon-based energy, and recently John Quiggin, an Australian economist, wrote about why he thinks that China’s nuclear program could work for them (Link: http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/china-can-make-nuclear-power-work-9815).
I grew up in a time when nuclear power was going to solve all our energy problems, making electricity too cheap to meter. But Quiggin points out that even by the time the Three Mile Island meltdown occurred 1979, the nuclear plant building boom in the United States was nearing an end. Long delays, cost overruns, and public opposition resulted in no new nuclear plants being completed after 1980. In contrast, the French were successful at building a large number of nuclear reactors, in an effort to convert completely to nuclear energy in the wake of the 1970s energy crises. Arnulf Grubler, one of my favorite professors at Yale, pointed to four key factors in the success of the French:
Could China, which seems to have a lot in common with 1970s France, make nuclear power work for them to reduce the amount of coal they are burning? Quiggin seems to think it’s a good possibility and would be beneficial for everyone on our planet. He points out that “China is ruled by a modernising elite that’s procapitalist but happy to exercise state control over the economy, and to ignore or crush public opposition. Like France, China seems likely to standardize on a single Westinghouse model, the AP1000. So, it’s unsurprising to see Chinese nuclear projects being completed on time and on budget while similar projects in the US and Europe are floundering.” Of course, it might be difficult for those conditions to be sustained in China into the future, and if renewables become economically competitive, nuclear could be less attractive.
I’ve spent a lot of time at all kinds of factories in China, including a number of coal fired power plants, biowaste facilities, and co-generation plants at large industrial plants. I’ve audited solar panel fabrication plants, transformer factories, and all kinds of factories making manufactured goods like CAT scan machines, escalators, and refrigerators. What worries me about nuclear power in China are the two things I see in common with all these facilities: not one of them had bothered going through the effort to get all their environmental permits in place, and not one of them had an appropriate operations and maintenance program to ensure that conditions at the factory when it was built would be sustained for more than a year or two after completion. And that brings me back to David Brower’s quote. Given the complexity and inherent risks associated with nuclear power, its success rests on the people and their ability to understand and maintain the equipment they are working with. I’m not sure any government or company can manage that for nuclear power over the lifetime of the plant and the waste it produces.
New categories of Recognized Environmental Conditions mean that financial institutions must adjust their risk appetites
It’s been several months since ASTM released its new standard for Phase I environmental site assessments, E1527-13, and most consulting firms have completed their transition to the 2013 standard that replaces the 2005 version. How are things going so far?
On December 30, 2013, U.S. EPA issued a federal register notice (hyperlink http://www.epa.gov/brownfields/pdfs/fr-notice-recognize-astme.pdf), formally recognizing this standard to meet its All Appropriate Inquiries regulatory rule that provides liability protection from federal Superfund cleanup programs when an innocent landowner conducts the appropriate due diligence prior to acquiring a property. EPA intends to update its All Appropriate Inquiries rule in the near future to formally recognize the E1527-13 standard, but in the meantime both the 2005 and 2013 standards are acceptable.
I had an opportunity recently to meet with some students involved in the Fossil Free initiative. As the New York Times reported last month (http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2013/09/05/a-new-divestment-focus-fossil-fuels/), over 300 college campuses have student-led initiatives to encourage their institutions to divest. One of my first college experiences was learning about the divestment campaigns against South African Apartheid. When I arrived at Oberlin College in 1983, there was a shanty town in the school green, and before I knew it I was drawn into an occupation of the college President’s office. I still vividly remember helping to haul food up to the occupiers on the second floor of the administration building in 5-gallon buckets and handling their waste materials -- my first waste management project! Three years later, I was working for the campus police as a dispatcher and remember the summertime sweep to remove the shanty town once and for all.
This campaign appears to be much more civilized (http://gofossilfree.org/). I had a chance to take a look at this program in more detail and had a few observations.
1. The Fossil Free campaign is very specific, targeting just 200 large resource companies, all of them publicly listed. This may present a challenge when talking with college investment committees, since most institutional investors who are actively managing their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) risks approach their portfolios with a very balanced perspective. They are considering climate impacts among a whole list of ESG issues. Oil, gas, and coal resource companies would tend to be balanced in their portfolios with renewable and other low-carbon technologies and things like energy efficiency and life cycle impacts.
CALPERS is an excellent example of a large institutional investor that integrates ESG risk management into their overall approach, and they also have the best report.
2. The selection process used to identify the 200 targeted companies involved some good, fundamental research. Does it make sense for students to push for more disclosures from these 200 companies, if they are represented in their school’s investment portfolio? To me, it makes more sense to focus more on metrics for the portfolio and investment strategy. Even if a school doesn’t want to disclose at the level of individual company investments, it would be reasonable to request that they provide information on the following:
3. More reporting and transparency by colleges on their investment portfolios is inevitable, as students and alumni become more engaged and committed to ESG principles. The Calpers portfolio is an excellent example of socially responsible investment activities. This report from 2012 (http://www.irrcinstitute.org/pdf/FINAL_IRRCi_ESG_Endowments_Study_July_2012.pdf) received good media coverage and provides an excellent idea of what that reporting might look like. As it notes for Yale University, where I completed my graduate studies, Yale actually disclosed some information about its portfolio in 2009, none of the more recent endowment reports have any comparable data.
From the report:
The largest capital investment by any school, representing just over half of the total sustainable investments reported to STARS, is Yale University’s $1.4 billon holdings in sustainable timber, renewable energy, and clean technology. Yale highlighted its sustainable timber and cleantech investments in its 2009 endowment report. At that time, Yale touted $100 million in venture capital investments in early-stage cleantech companies and three million acres of timberlands certified by either Forest Stewardship Council or the industry-backed standards of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.
Though sustainable investing was not discussed in Yale’s 2010 Endowment Report, based on the university’s AASHE response and recent press, its investments in sustainability continue to grow. In March 2011, Yale announced an endowment investment in the Record Hill 22-turbine wind power project near Roxbury, Maine.
The case of Yale highlights how alternative asset classes such as private equity and venture capital and real assets such as timber can be particularly well suited for investments in environmental sustainability.