Wrangling Runoff

  • So every year, dozens of homes are flooded. That's in part because 28% of the entire watershed in this region around Washington DC is paved over. (Photo by Sabri Ben-Achour)

Stormwater runoff can be one
of the main ways that urban
areas create pollution. In
some cases it can dramatically
suffocate marine life. It
can also cause flooding. One
small town in Maryland is on
the receiving end of its region’s
runoff. As Sabri Ben-Achour reports,
it’s trying to set a national
example with its approach to
solving the problem:

Transcript

Stormwater runoff can be one
of the main ways that urban
areas create pollution. In
some cases it can dramatically
suffocate marine life. It
can also cause flooding. One
small town in Maryland is on
the receiving end of its region’s
runoff. As Sabri Ben-Achour reports,
it’s trying to set a national
example with its approach to
solving the problem:

Anytime it rains, the ground in Edmonston, Maryland quickly becomes waterlogged. Here’s Brigitte Pooley and her mother Maggie.

“When the river gets flooded with rainwater, for example, if it continued raining like this, it literally comes up all over, and then all the debris that comes from upstream, municipalities upstream, as the water recedes it just leaves milk cartons and trash, tires everywhere.”

Adam Ortiz is the mayor of this low income, low-lying town of 1400. He says his town is a trap for stormwater runoff from all the paved surfaces in the area.

“At least 30 to 56 homes would be under water at least once a year because of flooding from parking lots, highways, shopping centers and streets.”

So every year, dozens of homes are flooded. That’s in part because 28% of the entire watershed in this region around Washington DC is paved over. But flooding isn’t the whole story.

“If a watershed is more than 10% paved you’re going to have impaired water quality.”

Jim Connolly is Executive Director of the Anacostia Watershed Society. He says stormwater smothers or poisons aquatic life, and causes erosion.

“It’s all the oil or grease that comes out of cars, the trash we throw in the streets, the pesticides we use in our lives. Stormwater is the base cause of all the problems in our urban rivers.”

So the town of Edmonston decided to do something about it. A new pumping station is keeping floods down, but the town wants to be a model for how to prevent stormwater runoff in the first place. So with federal Recovery Act money, the town is rebuilding its main street from top to bottom. Mayor Ortiz sidesteps a bulldozer to show off what’s now a construction site on the roadside.

“This is a bio-retention treebox, so instead of the water going directly into the drains and into the river, it will go directly into this bed.”

In that bed will go native trees grown in gravel and compost – to absorb and filter water. The street itself is going to be repaved with permeable concrete to let some water pass right through.

“The water’s going to filter naturally into the water table, so everything will be taken care of onsite as it was a few hundred years ago.”

85-90% of run off will be trapped by this system. But what about cost? Dominique Lueckenhoff directs the Office of State and Watershed Partnerships for this region at the Environmental Protection Agency.

“It is not more costly with regards to the refurbishing and additional greening of this street.”

But this wouldn’t have happened had this community not organized to fight for it. Allen Hance is with the Chesapeake Bay Trust. He says that to have a major impact, many more communities will have to follow Edmonston’s example.

“We want this to become a matter of course in how people build streets, and how they design streets.”

Edmonston will be putting all of its designs, and experiences online for other communities to use as a blueprint.

For The Environment Report, I’m Sabri Ben-Achour.

Related Links

Recycling Your Roof

  • Several states are studying how the material holds up for asphalt roads, but for now most of the singles are mixed in asphalt used for parking lots. (Photo courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

It’s estimated, every year, somewhere
between seven and eleven-million tons
of old asphalt shingles end up in landfills.
Some states are short on landfill space.
Lester Graham reports, they’re now
encouraging grinding up and recycling
the old shingles:

Transcript

It’s estimated, every year, somewhere
between seven and eleven-million tons
of old asphalt shingles end up in landfills.
Some states are short on landfill space.
Lester Graham reports, they’re now
encouraging grinding up and recycling
the old shingles:

Two-thirds of American homes have asphalt shingle roofs. They last twelve to twenty years before they need to be replaced.

Since most of the material in asphalt shingles is the same stuff used in asphalt pavement, that’s where they’re going.

(sound of machinery)

New businesses are popping up across the nation that take the shingles.

Chris Edwards is co-owner of Ideal Recycling in Southfield, Michigan. He says roofers can dump old shingles at his place cheaper than taking it to the landfill.

“And then they can also sell it to their customers that they are recycling and it’s green. So it does help the contractors quite a bit.”

Several states are studying how the material holds up for asphalt roads, but for now most of the singles are mixed in asphalt used for parking lots.

For The Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.

Related Links

Follow the Soybean Road

  • A soybean oil sealant is now being tested on roadways (Photo courtesy of BioSpan Technologies)

Asphalt is usually made with oil.
The rising price of oil has made it more
expensive to repave roadways. Now some
cities are starting to give green alternatives
a chance. Julie Grant reports:

Transcript

Asphalt is usually made with oil.
The rising price of oil has made it more
expensive to repave roadways. Now some
cities are starting to give green alternatives
a chance. Julie Grant reports:

Cities use asphalt to reseal old roads. It oozes in and fills
the cracks, extending the life of the pavement.

But the price has gone up 200% in the last two years.

Paul Barnett is director of the Akron, Ohio Public Works
Bureau.

This year he plans to try a soybean-based sealant. Barnett
says now it costs about the same oil-based asphalt, but the
road runoff is better for the environment.

“So you have a soybean oil that’s biodegradable instead of a
petroleum product that’s going into the streams and creeks,
rivers.”

The cost of soybeans has also been increasing – for food,
for fuel, and now for things like pavement.

Barnett figures if soybean oil becomes popular, it will drive
the price higher, but for right now it’s a good alternative to
asphalt on some roadways.

For The Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

Related Links

Driving Down Road Noise

  • Heavy traffic on a Houston freeway. (Photo by Ed Edahl, courtesy of FEMA)

Whizzing tires, whining engines and booming car
stereos are just about everywhere. Those sounds are a
form of pollution, and can affect the way we feel. Kyle
Norris has this story:

Transcript

Whizzing tires, whining engines and booming car
stereos are just about everywhere. Those sounds are a
form of pollution, and can affect the way we feel. Kyle
Norris has this story:

The engineers at Chrysler are hard-core about noise.

Right now they’re inside a high-tech studio.
And there’s a car on rollers.
The engineers are trying to pinpoint the noises that a driver would hear.

Inside the cabin it’s pretty quiet (quiet sound inside cabin).
But outside, well… Engineer Taner Onsay explains.

(yelling over whirr of tires) “This is how it sounds outside. See, I cannot
communicate with you, with this sound. Inside this would be totally unacceptable.”

Cars that are quiet are the inside are a huge selling point in the auto biz.
But what about the sounds that a vehicle puts into the world?

Like road noise.
What are people doing about that?

Not a whole lot.

Story goes, there used to be a federal office that dealt with noise.
It was the EPA’s Office of Noise Abatement and Control.

But President Reagan shut that baby down in 1982.
Basically to save on cash.
The idea was that state and local governments could deal with noise.

The noise office did a lot of good things just to help protect our ears.
It had noise standards and regulations – on the books.
And the office was just a really good resource for state and local organizations, and also for people who were just having problems with road noise.

But since it’s been gone…

“Well a lot of the local noise-control programs at the city and county level just dried up
and blew away. It’s hurt the noise program tremendously throughout country.”

That’s Bill Bowlby.
He’s president of an engineering company that consults about road noise.
He’s also worked for state departments of transportation and for the Federal Highway
Administration.

He says that state departments of transportation are concerned about road noise.
And that they’re thinking about things like quieter tires and quieter pavements.
And about not building residential areas near highways.

But states are only required to do so much about road noise.

For example, when states are widening or building highways and using federal money –
which they almost always are – they’re required to study road noise and obey certain
standards.

But when it comes to road noise coming from an existing highway, it’s totally voluntary if
a state wants to deal with it.

So you get a range of how different states deal with it, which they call retrofitting.

Bill Bowlby that says although some states take the issue very seriously…

“…other states have had little interest in idea of retrofits usually because they’re looking
to spend their limited amount of money on highway related projects.”

And the kicker about road noise is that it can seriously, seriously affect people.
For people who live near noisy roads, it can make their lives miserable.
Plus it can make it hard to concentrate as a driver.
And to hear the vehicles around you, like motorcycles and other sounds, like sirens.

Dennis Weidemann is a guy who’s thought a lot about all this.
He wrote his thesis about road-noise.

He says that road noise isn’t dramatic or flashy.
So it doesn’t grab our attention.
And road noise does not have a villain, so we’re all responsible.

Weidemann says it can seem hopeless to people.

“They know they don’t like it but they don’t know how it effects them. And if you don’t
know that, you just get the impression, well, it just bothers me, I’m weird, I’ll let it go.”

Noise experts say we need to re-open the federal noise office.
Or something like it.
And we’ve got to figure-out how to make things quieter.

This is starting to become a hot topic in the pavement industry, where different
businesses are trying to one-up their competitors by making the quietest pavement.

But for car companies there’s really no incentive to make cars that are quieter on the outside.
And right now there are no regulations of how quiet a car needs to be when it comes off
the assembly line.

Although that’s not the case in Europe,
where vehicle noise regulations are much more strict.
And where the whole subject of road noise is taken a lot more seriously.

For The Environment Report, I’m Kyle Norris.

Related Links

Rain Barrels and Rain Runoff

  • One city is asking people to use rain barrels like this one to prevent rain runoff that can overload drains and creeks. (Photo courtesy of the Huron River Watershed Council)

As cities cover more and more surface with pavement and buildings,
it’s taking a toll on the environment. Heavy rains flood off the
impervious surfaces and overload drains and creeks. Some cities are
trying new methods to control the problem. As Tracy Samilton
reports, Ann Arbor, Michigan is asking its residents to play a role by
catching their home’s rainwater in rain barrels:

Transcript

As cities cover more and more surface with pavement and buildings,
it’s taking a toll on the environment. Heavy rains flood off the
impervious surfaces and overload drains and creeks. Some cities are
trying new methods to control the problem. As Tracy Samilton
reports, Ann Arbor, Michigan is asking its residents to play a role by
catching their home’s rainwater in rain barrels:



Miller’s Creek in Ann Arbor is not a pretty creek. Part of it runs
alongside a congested four-lane road in one of the most developed
areas of the city. Since there’s almost no place left for rain to seep
slowly in the ground, it pours off the road and parking lots and
rooftops right into the creek:


“What you can see is all the roots that are exposed and very high
banks…”


Laura Rubin is head of the Huron River Watershed Council. Miller’s
Creek is part of the watershed. She says rain storms carry pollutants
and sediment into the creek, and sweep away animal and plant
species that might otherwise live here:


“This is not a healthy creek we call this impaired when they get flows
they’re so strong that they’re tearing away the banks.”


Rubin would like Miller’s Creek to be vibrant with life again one day.
But a lot of changes will have to happen first. She says nearby
businesses will have to build wetlands to retain their storm water.
The city will have to repave the roads to allow more drainage. And in
such a heavily populated area, residents will have to do something
too. Rubin says the first step is teaching people that a single point
source of pollution like a big factory is no longer the biggest threat to
water in their neighborhood:


“Now the main source of pollution is non-point pollution and that’s
us.”


Rubin says rain barrels could play a significant role in healing Miller’s
Creek. Rain barrels are just like they sound: big barrels that collect
water from a home’s rain gutters, to be dispersed later onto lawns or
gardens. One rain barrel can retain up to thirty percent of storm
water falling on a house. Under a dark grey sky that bodes rain,
Dave Aikins shows off his:


“It’s a big, uh, green trash can-like object…aesthetically, uh, I’m not
prepared to defend it.”


Aikins owns a medium-size house in downtown Ann Arbor. Now, with
a rain barrel installed on one side, he’ll catch half the rain that falls on
the house. He uses it to water his garden, but says someday he
might rig it so he can use the water for his laundry machine. A
neighbor kiddy-corner from him has installed one too, and they’ve
had neighborly arguments about proper installation and usage. He
likes how the rain barrel makes him feel.


“Living in an urban area, there’s no direct impact on you whether it
rains or not and this puts you back connected to natural environment,
so you start to care about whether you get your rain today.”

Aikins and other city residents have more than environmental
reasons to install rain barrels. The city water department is using a
carrot and stick approach to encourage their adoption. Installing a
rain barrel gets you a modest discount on the City of Ann Arbor’s new
storm water rates. Tom McMurtry is head of the new program:


“Under the old system, we charged one flat rate for every single
household whether you were an 800-square foot home in the city or a
5,000 square-foot mega-mansion.”


Now, the city will charge four different rates depending on the amount
of impervious pavement and size of the roof on the house. The
highest rate is three times more than the former flat rate, to better
reflect a big home’s impact on the city’s drains and creeks.
McMurtrie says about (blank) people have installed a rain barrel and
applied for the credit. He’d like to see at least 3,000 rain barrels
installed throughout the city. He doesn’t know how long it will take
to accomplish that:


“But every little bit helps.”


It’s an experiment in progress to see if having lots of rain barrels
around Miller’s Creek will help restore it. According to Laura Rubin
of the Huron River Watershed Council, it took about fifty years to
damage the creek this badly. It could take another fifty to bring it
back to health.


For the Environment Report, I’m Tracy Samilton.

Related Links

How Long Do You Keep a Polluting Heap?

  • Motor oil dripping from cars can add up and end up contaminating waterways and sediments. (Photo by Brandon Blinkenberg)

Industries and companies get labeled as
“polluters.” But what do you do when you find out you’re a pretty big polluter yourself… and you find out it’s going to cost you a lot of money to fix the
problem? As part of the series, “Your Choice; Your
Planet,” the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Rebecca
Williams finds herself in that dilemma:

Transcript

Industries and companies get labeled as “polluters.” But what do you do when you find out you’re a pretty big polluter yourself… and you find out it’s going to cost you a lot of money to fix the problem? As part of the series, “Your Choice; Your Planet,” the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Rebecca Williams finds herself in that dilemma:


(sound of car starting)


This is my ‘89 Toyota Camry. It has 188,000 miles on it. Pieces of
plastic trim fly off on the highway, and I have to climb in from the
backseat when my door gets frozen in the winter. But I got it for free, I get good gas mileage, and my insurance is cheap. But now, it’s leaking oil – lots of oil. I knew it was bad when I started
pouring in a quart of oil every other week.


I thought I’d better take it in to the shop.


(sound of car shop)


My mechanic, Walt Hayes, didn’t exactly have good news for me.


“You know, you’re probably leaking about 80% of that, just from experience, I’d say
you’re burning 20% and leaking 80%.”


Walt says the rear main seal is leaking, and the oil’s just dripping
straight to the ground. Walt tells me the seal costs 25 dollars, but he’d
have to take the transmission out to get to the seal. That means I’d be
paying him 650 dollars.


650 bucks to fix an oil leak, when no one would steal my car’s radio. There’s no way. Obviously, it’s cheaper to spend two dollars on each quart of oil, than to fix the seal.


“Right – what else is going to break, you know? You might fix the rear main
seal, and your transmission might go out next week or something. Your car,
because of its age, is on the edge all the time. So to invest in a 25 dollar seal, spending a lot of money for labor, almost doesn’t make sense on an
older car.”


That’s my mechanic telling me not to fix my car. In fact, he says he’s seen
plenty of people driving even older Toyotas, and he says my engine will
probably hold out a while longer. But now I can’t stop thinking about the
quarts of oil I’m slowly dripping all over town.


I need someone to tell me: is my one leaky car really all that bad? Ralph
Reznick works with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. He
spends his time trying to get polluters to change their behavior.


“That’s a lot for an old car. If you were the only car in the parking lot,
that wouldn’t be very much. But the fact is, there’s a lot of cars just
like yours that are doing the same thing.”


Reznick says the oil and antifreeze and other things that leak from and fall
off cars like mine add up.


“The accumulative impact of your car and other cars, by hitting the
pavement, and washing off the pavement into the waterways, is a very large
impact. It’s one of the largest sources of pollution we’re dealing with
today.”


Reznick says even just a quart of oil can pollute thousands of gallons of
water. And he says toxins in oil can build up in sediment at the bottom of
rivers and lakes. That can be bad news for aquatic animals and plants.
There’s no question – he wants me to fix the leak.


But I am NOT pouring 650 bucks into this car when the only thing it has going
for it is that it’s saving me money. So I can either keep driving it, and
feel pretty guilty, or I can scrap it and get a new car.


But it does take a lot of steel and plastic and aluminum to make a new car.
Maybe I’m doing something right for the environment by driving a car that’s
already got that stuff invested in it.


I went to the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan
and talked to Greg Keoleian. He’s done studies on how many years it makes
sense to keep a car. He says if you look at personal costs, and the energy
that goes into a making a midsize car, it makes sense to hang onto it for a
long time… like 16 years.


No problem there – I finally did something right!


Well, sort of.


“In your case, from an emissions point of view, you should definitely
replace your vehicle. It turns out that a small fraction of vehicles are
really contributing to a lot of the local air pollution. Older vehicles
tend to be more polluting, and you would definitely benefit the environment
by retiring your vehicle.”


Keoleian says if I get a newer car, it won’t be leaking oil, and it won’t
putting out nearly as much nitrogen oxide and other chemicals that lead to
smog. Oh yeah, he also says I really need to start looking today.


And so doing the right thing for the environment is going to cost me money.
There’s no way around that. The more I think about my rusty old car, the
more I notice all the OTHER old heaps on the road. Maybe all of you are a
bit like me, hoping to make it through just one more winter without car
payments.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Related Links

Reducing Road Noise

Efforts to reduce road noise pollution are making progress in
Indiana. Last year, Purdue University opened the Institute for Safe,
Quiet, and Durable Highways. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
David Naylor reports:

Transcript

Efforts to reduce noise pollution are making progress in Indiana.
Last year, Purdue University opened the Institute for Safe, Quiet, and
Durable Highways. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David
Naylor reports:


In the past, measuring road noise meant measuring the sound of a
car’s mechanical systems, primarily engine and muffler noise. Now,
with the development of more efficient engines, researchers have
identified the tires and road surface as the newest problem.


So, Purdue researchers are looking for the quietest combination of
tire treads and pavement. They say the most promising surface so far is
one developed in Europe: a thick layer of asphalt, with pits one and a
half to two inches deep.
It reduces road noise by about 50% and does well in the
freeze-and-thaw cycle. But the major problem is keeping oil and dirt
out of the deep pits.
Lab director Bob Bernhard hopes a double layer of pavement will
help.


“One which has the properties that they think are optimal for acoustics, and then put a second

layer below it, which has bigger spacing. In that way, they can flush the dirt and the things that

are plugging, out of the top layer, where the acoustics are affected, in the bottom layer, and

then flush it out.”


Research on the porous pavement continues in Europe and the U.S.
There are no plans yet for commercial production.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m David Naylor.