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by the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had its 40th anniversary in 2010. How effective has the EPA been and what are its biggest challenges today? -- Bill A., Seattle, WA

By most accounts the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which turned 40 in December 2009, has been very effective. The first dedicated national environmental agency of its kind, the EPA has been instrumental in setting policy priorities and writing and enforcing a wide range of laws that have literally changed the face of the Earth for the better. The EPA’s existence and effectiveness has also inspired scores of other countries to create their own environmental agencies along the same lines.

Several environmental wake-up calls during the 1960s—from revelations about the hazards of pesticides to smog causing respiratory problems to rivers catching on fire as they flowed through industrial areas—set the stage for the creation of EPA in 1970 by the Nixon administration. The agency was charged with overseeing implementation and enforcement of a new raft of laws designed to protect Americans’ air, water and land from the ill effects of pollution, development and urbanization. The Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act are early examples of sweeping legislation that only a dedicated environmental agency could properly oversee. Today the EPA has also taken up the mantle of helping Americans find and implement remedies for pressing global problems from ozone depletion to climate change.

The Aspen Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering leadership and dialogue on wide range of topics, recently unveiled a list of “10 ways the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has strengthened
America over the past 40 years.”

The home runs on the list—which was compiled by a group of more than 20 environmental leaders, including several former EPA officials—include: banning the widespread use of the pesticide DDT, which was decimating bald eagles and other birds and threatening public health; achieving significant reductions in sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions that were polluting water sources via acid rain; changing public perceptions of waste, leading to innovations that make use of waste for energy creation and making new products; getting lead out of gasoline; classifying secondhand smoke as a known cause of cancer, leading to smoking bans in indoor public places; establishing stringent emission standards for pollutants emitted by cars and trucks; regulating toxic chemicals and encouraging the development of more benign chemicals; establishing a national commitment to restore and maintain the safety of fresh water, via the Clean Water Act; promoting equitable environmental protection for minority and low-income citizens; and increasing public information and communities’ “right to know” what chemicals and/or pollutants they may be exposed to in their daily lives.

As to the EPA’s priorities now under administrator Lisa Jackson, climate change is high atop the agency’s agenda, as are further improving air quality, assuring the safety of chemicals used in everyday products, protecting increasingly compromised waterways and coastal areas, building stronger state and tribal partnerships, and expanding protection for underrepresented communities. Any number of potential hurdles—from an unfriendly Congress to lack of White House resolve to public apathy, let alone future natural and man-made disasters that divert attention and resources—could hamper the agency’s progress.

CONTACTS: EPA, www.epa.gov; Aspen Institute, www.aspeninstitute.org/sites/default/files/content/docs/events/EPA_40_Brochure.pdf.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

Dear EarthTalk: Has the use of E-ZPass and similar programs to facilitate faster highway toll-paying cut down on traffic jams and therefore tailpipe pollution? Why do we need tolls at all?

­-- Dianne Comstock, New York, NY

Yes, E-ZPass and similar programs have been a boon to both participating drivers and the environment by reducing or eliminating idling and traffic back-ups at toll booths. Maybe that’s why 25 U.S. states either participate in E-ZPass or have their own similar systems (FasTrak in California, EXpressToll in Colorado, SunPass in Florida, etc.) to speed up highway travel and reduce pollution.

A study conducted in 2000 to evaluate the New Jersey Turnpike Authority ‘s E-ZPass electronic toll collection system found that toll plaza delay had been reduced by about 85 percent overall for a total savings of more than two million vehicle-hours per year. Passenger car drivers saved a total of 1.8 million hours per year, while truckers saved almost 300,000 hours. The system’s “reduced queuing” decreased overall fuel consumption on the state’s turnpike system by some 1.2 million gallons per year and cut emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—a key component of smog—by 0.35 tons per day.

Maryland’s Department of Transportation is about to take the concept a step further by installing express toll lanes along the a congested eight mile stretch of Interstate 95 north of Baltimore. Once the project is complete, drivers will be able to either zip through the express lanes to pay an electronically collected toll, or save their money and instead suffer through the congestion in the free, general-purpose lanes.

The toll amount will vary depending on the time of day and traffic conditions and will be assessed automatically via existing E-ZPass transponders or by photo capture of drivers’ license plates. Unlike existing E-ZPass-type systems in the U.S., there will be no penalty or fine for entering the express toll lane without a transponder—a bill for the toll will just be mailed to the address on file with the car’s registration. The new cutting edge express toll lanes in Maryland should be operational by 2014.

Why do we need tolls at all? Their original purpose was to raise funds for highway upkeep in a way that places the burden on the users of the roads and not simply on local taxpayers who may not even take to the highway or may do so only minimally. After all, a large percentage of highway traffic is trucks and other vehicles “just passing through,” often for commercial purposes. And environmentalists saw tolls as a way to discourage individual automobile usage, even make it unpleasant enough to hasten the day that people would begin to embrace a serious commitment to public transit. In that sense, it could be argued that E-ZPass and similar systems, in making tolls more bearable, could undermine the realization of that dream.

Given that the private automobile as our main mode of transportation is likely to be around for some time to come yet, it certainly behooves us to green up the experience as much as possible. With electric cars, plug-in hybrids and other alternative fuel vehicles poised to come on strong in coming years, we certainly seem to be moving in that direction. But let’s not lose sight of the incredible benefits that public transportation could provide if we could just get our elected officials to pay it more than lip service.

CONTACTS: E-ZPass, www.ezpass.com; New Jersey Turnpike Authority, www.state.nj.us/turnpike; Maryland Department of Transportation, www.mdot.maryland.gov.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

Dear EarthTalk: What’s the latest research on the question of whether cell phone use causes cancer? -- William Thigpen, via e-mail

Cell phones have only been in widespread use for a couple of decades, which is far too short a time for us to know conclusively whether or not using them could cause cancer. Research thus far appears to indicate that most of us have little if anything to worry about.

According to the federally funded National Cancer Institute, the low-frequency electromagnetic radiation that cell phones give off when we hold them up to our heads is “non-ionizing,” meaning it cannot cause significant human tissue heating or body temperature increases that could lead to direct damage to cellular DNA. By contrast, X-rays consist of high-frequency ionizing electromagnetic radiation and can lead to the kind of cellular damage resulting in cancer. Nonetheless, some cell phone users and researchers still worry about our cell phone usage, given how much we now use them and how little we know about their potential long-term effects.

The reason the issue keeps coming up is that some initial studies in
Europe, where cell phone usage caught on a decade before the U.S., showed links between some forms of tumors and heavy cell phone usage. As a result, researchers teamed up to do a more definitive study, called the “Interphone” study, across 13 countries between 2000 and 2004. The results, published in May 2010 in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Epidemiology, indicated no increased risk of developing two of the most common types of brain tumors, glioma and meningioma, from typical everyday cell phone usage. Study participants who reported spending the most time on their phones showed a slightly increased risk of developing gliomas, but researchers considered this finding inconclusive due to factors such as recall bias, whereby participants with brain tumors may have simply remembered past cell phone use differently from healthy respondents.

Researchers looking to get past the relatively short timing window and the recall bias issues of the Interphone study recently launched a longer term study, dubbed COSMOS (short for Cohort Study on Mobile Communications), in Europe. Some 250,000 cell phone users between the ages of 18 and 69 and located in
Britain, Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark will participate by allowing researchers to track their cell phone usage and health over three decades. According to an April 22, 2010 article in Reuters, the study will factor in the use of hands-free devices and how people carry their phones and will also be on the lookout for links to neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

There are some precautions you can take to minimize whatever risk may exist. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) suggests reserving the use of cell phones for shorter conversations, or for times when a conventional phone isn’t available. Also, using a hands-free device places more distance between the phone and your head, significantly reducing the amount of radiation exposure. If the fact that many states require hands-free devices for using a cell phone while driving isn’t enough to make you go out and spend the extra money on such an accessory, maybe the cancer risk, perceived or real, will.

CONTACTS: National Cancer Institute, www.cancer.gov; INTERPHONE Study, www.rfcom.ca/programs/interphone.shtml; COSMOS Study, www.ukcosmos.org, FCC, www.fcc.gov.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

Dear EarthTalk: In his recent State of the Union Address, President Obama called for a million electric vehicles on American roads by 2015. How likely is it that we’ll attain that goal?

-- Jerry Mitlitski, Salem, OR

“We can break our dependence on oil…and become the first country to have one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015,” President Obama said in his January 2011 State of the Union address. “The future is ours to win.”

It’s difficult to say how likely such an arbitrary goal might be, but green leaders and others are optimistic. The waiting list for the new electric Nissan Leaf, rolling off the factory floor as we speak, is some 20,000 Americans long. The auto industry expects similar demand for other new electric and plug-in hybrid cars hitting
U.S. roads this year and next from General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Mitsubishi and others.

Of course, the Obama administration realizes that attaining such a goal will be impossible without help from the federal government. To that end, consumers and businesses can get tax credits worth up to $7,500 on the purchase of each new electric vehicle (EV). The feds have also committed $2.4 billion for research and development into improving EV batteries, and another $115 million for the installation of EV charging infrastructure in 16 different metro areas around the country—not to mention some $300 million in clean cities grants to dozens of American communities working to reduce petroleum use, and the $25 billion being doled out to help U.S. automakers retool. So much federal involvement has helped spur state governments and private industry to make significant investments in the EV sector as well.

But even with all this funding, a million EVs on the road by 2015 may still be just a pipe dream. James Sweeney of Stanford University’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center calls the plan “very aggressive.” He reasons that it took over a decade for hybrids—which “did not require any difference in infrastructure and had as great a range as conventional vehicles, neither of which is likely to be the case with electric vehicles”—to capture three percent of the U.S. passenger car and light truck market. EVs would have to achieve the same market share in just four years if Obama’s goal is to be realized. “Even with a large subsidy, it would be very hard to move to such a large market share that quickly,” Sweeney concludes.

The Electrification Coalition, an organization of pro-EV business leaders from companies including Nissan, Federal Express, Coda Automotive and Coulomb Technologies, would take issue with that conclusion, however. The group’s November 2009 study, dubbed the Electrification Roadmap, predicted that as many as 14 million EVs could be on American roads by 2020 if lawmakers create “electrification ecosystems” in several major
U.S. cities simultaneously. If the group is anywhere near the mark, reaching Obama’s goal of a million EVs by 2015 should be a no-brainer. The group also says that EVs could account for as many as 75 percent of all miles driven by light duty vehicles in the U.S. by 2040.

Now if only we could clean up our supply of electricity too, then we really might be onto something good for the planet…

Precourt Energy Efficiency Center, http://peec.stanford.edu; Electrification Coalition, www.electrificationcoalition.org.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

Dear EarthTalk: Vice-President Joe Biden just announced a commitment by the Obama administration of $53 billion to high speed rail. Isn’t it about time? Why is the U.S. so far behind other nations in developing environmentally friendly public transportation? -- Diane A., Boston, MA

There are many reasons why public transit hasn’t taken off in the U.S. as it has in parts of Asia, Europe and elsewhere. For one, ever since the Model T first rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly line, Americans have had a love affair with cars. Also, a successful plot by General Motors and several partner companies in the 1930 and 1940s bought up and shut down rail transit lines across 45 American cities, replacing them with bus routes driven on GM buses. Meanwhile, the U.S. government embarked on a plan to link the nation’s metro areas via interstate highways, further encouraging car travel. The sexy new car designs of the 1950s then drove the final nail in the coffin, relegating public transportation to an afterthought.

But with rising oil prices and growing fears about global warming, public transit is looking sexier to many Americans. As part of 2009’s landmark American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the White House committed $8 billion to efforts to create and maintain high-speed intercity passenger rail service. And just weeks ago, after calling for giving 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail within 25 years, Barack Obama pledged another $53 billion to increase the nation’s network of high-speed rail lines.

Plans to expand high-speed rail service are already underway in several
U.S. regions. Illinois was the first of 31 states to receive a portion of the funding to begin building high-speed rail lines linking Chicago and St. Louis. A recent report found that high-speed rail in the Midwest would reduce air travel by 1.3 million trips and car travel by 5.1 million trips per year by 2020, saving 188,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions (equivalent to taking 34,000 cars off the road while still getting everyone to and from work).

Funding is also slated to go to
California, where trains traveling up to 220 miles per hour will move people between San Diego and San Francisco in less than three hours. California’s high-speed rail system, which should in service by 2020, is expected to cost about half as much as would expanding highways and building new airport runways and gates to accommodate fast growing passenger transportation demand.

Not everyone is on board with high speed rail.
Florida’s Republican governor Rick Scott recently rejected $2 billion in federal funding to build an 85-mile high speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando, arguing that cost overruns would likely leave Florida taxpayers making up billions of dollars for something they don’t need. Scott’s move in killing the Tampa-Orlando run calls into question whether or not Obama can push his plans through in other parts of the country that are also conservative strongholds.

No matter how quickly Americans get up to speed on high speed rail, the U.S. certainly has some catching up to do. According to statistics from the International Union of Railways and other sources, China leads the world with upwards of 2,800 miles of high speed rail lines in operation and another 5,500 miles planned. Spain, France and Japan each have around 1,200 miles in operation; Germany has 800 miles and Italy has 577. The U.S. has only 226 miles in operation currently. The Obama administration would like to see Americans riding on more than 16,000 miles of high speed rail lines by the middle of the century.

CONTACTS: ARRA, www.recovery.gov; International Union of Railways, www.uic.org.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

Dear EarthTalk: December 2010 marked the 26th anniversary of the infamous Bhopal disaster in India when chemical company Union Carbide leaked deadly gases, killing thousands of people. What safeguards are in place today to prevent incidents like this? -- Charlene Colchester, via e-mail

Bhopal should have been a wake up call, but it is unclear whether chemical plants around the world are any safer a quarter century after the December 1984 disaster—during which some 40 tons of toxic methyl isocyanate gas leaked from a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide (now part of Dow Chemical), killing 2,259 people immediately and causing lifelong health problems and premature death for tens of thousands more.

In the
U.S., the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) oversees chemical and other facilities that deal with hazardous materials, making sure various “process safety” routines are followed so as to “prevent or minimize the catastrophic injury or death that could result from an accidental or purposeful release of toxic, reactive, flammable or explosive chemicals.” Also, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security instituted its own “Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards” (CFATS) that chemical and other hazardous materials facilities must follow or be shut down.

While this system has worked pretty well in the
U.S. so far, some worry that a Bhopal-scale tragedy, whether due to an accident or terrorist attack, could still occur on American soil. For one, water treatment and port facilities are exempt from CFATS altogether, so some of the nation’s largest chemical facilities are not subject to as rigorous standards as they could be. A 2009 bill that passed the House of Representatives but failed to make it through the Senate addressed this and other issues. Supporters are optimistic that the bill in one form or another could resurface in future legislative sessions.

Of course, what happens in industrial facilities abroad is up to the host country to regulate. And while standards are higher than they used to be in many developing countries today, runaway economic growth often means oversight and enforcement are lacking if nonexistent, so dangerous facilities still threaten people and the environment in ways that wouldn’t be tolerated in the United States.

Advocates for corporate responsibility say that companies should be held accountable for accidents with their materials, whether they occur on home soil or elsewhere, arguing that a double standard presently exists that is much too lenient on multinational corporations operating in developing countries. Martin Khor, executive director of The South Centre, a Geneva-based research group, reports that this double standard also seems to apply to compensatory pay-outs. Union Carbide’s settlement for the
Bhopal disaster, for example, was only $470 million, or a few thousand dollars per affected family.

If nothing else, the
Bhopal disaster certainly raised awareness around the world about the dangers of modern chemicals, especially those used or manufactured in close proximity to people. Hopefully at least some local governments in developing countries have taken heed and stepped up efforts to site potentially hazardous industrial facilities away from both human population centers and environmentally sensitive landscapes. But, unfortunately, without stronger regulations and enforcement around the world, it may be only a matter of time before another highly lethal accident occurs.

CONTACTS: South Centre, www.southcentre.org.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

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