Archive for May, 2015

For the past few days, a fledgling Western Scrub Jay has been hanging out in the bottlebrush just outside my office window. It has been pretty fun to watch this bird get used to the world at large.

A lot of time is spent screeching for its parents who make frequent visits to the bottlebrush to deliver food items. I can always tell when one parent is getting close because the screeching gets much louder and more intense as the parent approaches. Both adults visit this bush a lot, and I have not seen them take food anywhere else, so I suspect this youngster outside my window is their only fledgling this year. Hearing the screeching over even this short period of time has been interesting because the bird has been getting better at it. Each day, this young jay is sounding less and less like a young and inexperienced bird, and more and more like a normal, adult Western Scrub Jay. It is cool to be able to actually hear the practice paying off.

While it waits for it parents to bring it food, the young bird with its greyer and fluffier feathers, spends a good bit of time jumping from branch to branch within the bush. It has a bit of an obstacle course set up for itself as it bounces around and around in circles all covered by the protective foliage of the plant. As it moves around, it does some practice flapping and a lot of very precise movements as it improves it fine motor control. It also is practicing hunting. When it sees an insect or other potential prey in or around the bush, it jumps after it and attempts to catch it. It is sometimes successful, but usually these successes are made against pretty easy to catch animals. It did really well catching a snail.

It and I did have one funny interaction. Most of the time, I am sitting at my desk and the bird does not seem aware of me at all. At one point, however, it saw something on the glass or at the edge of the window and flew right to it perching on one of the small dividers between panes of glass. When it landed, clinging with just the tips of its toes rather awkwardly it pauses a moment and looked through the glass and into the room. That is when it saw me and was very surprised indeed! Whatever brought it over to the window in the first place was forgotten as the jay jumped right back into the bottlebrush. It certainly learned that there are humans in the world!

Hopefully, this young bird continues to improve its skills and makes it through its first winter (the hardest part of a birds life) and can teach its own young some of the valuable lessons it is learning.

Read Full Post »

The Federal Water Pollution Control Act (commonly called the Clean Water Act) of 1972 is the primary law in the USA governing water pollution in surface waters. It is operated and enforced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The goal of the Clean Water Act (CWA) is to maintain or restore the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waterways. The CWA has several sections, called Titles, that address how this goal is to be attained. Title I contains the declaration of goals and also establishes grants for research and pollution control programs. Title II establishes grants for construction of water treatment facilities. Title III explains standards of water quality and enforcement of those standards and is one of the major sections of the CWA. Title IV contains a list of licenses and permits that are available to entities that require permission or exemptions to release potential contaminants into waterways and is another of the major sections of the CWA. Title V explains how citizens can bring suit under the CWA and also protects whistle-blowers. Title VI establishes the State Water Pollution Control Revolving Funds which largely replace the grants from Title II and also expand the scope of the grants to include nonpoint source pollution control and estuary protection.

One of the major components of the CWA is the Water Quality Standards Program. This program is explained under Title III of the CWA and it establishes risk-based requirements for water bodies. Each water quality standard (WQS) is site specific and depends on the designated uses of that particular body of water, the potential sources of pollution for that body of water, and the species present in that body of water. If a water body does not meet its WQS a Total Daily Maximum Load for pollution is set and an implementation plan is developed setting out specific steps that will reduce pollution in that water body. Over 60,000 Total Daily Maximum Load plans have been proposed that will take effect in the next decade which is a good thing because an assessment in 2007 found that about 50% of the waterways that fall under the jurisdiction of the EPA are unsafe to fish and swim in. Also, just in the last few months, the EPA has expanded the definition of waterways to include a much broader range of surface waters that fall under the CWA. The combination of WQS requiring a great deal of time and resources to do well, the large number of polluted waterways in the US, and the likely increase in the number of waterways to be assessed all contribute to water quality becoming an ever more important issue in the near future.

Read Full Post »

In the 1890s, a man named William T. Love had a great idea. He was going to dig a canal in western New York State from the Niagara River, around Niagara Falls, and into Lake Ontario. He was going to use the water flow through this canal to generate electricity for the growing communities in the area. It was going to make him a ton of money! So, he bought land, hired workers, and started digging. Unfortunately, his timing was not so good. His plan had been to generate direct current, but direct current has significant transmission limitations, and at around the same time, Nikola Tesla and others were helping to introduce alternating current to the world. Additionally, the US Congress passed a law prohibiting the diversion of water out of the Niagara River to help preserve the famous falls. Not to be deterred, William Love changed his plan. He was going to use his canal as a commercial shipping route around Niagara Falls. He had a whole urban area planned out which he called “Model City.” He mapped out parks and community centers, where roads and neighborhoods would be around the canal, the whole thing. However, after only digging about a mile of canal, building a couple of streets and a few houses, William Love ran out of money and abandoned the project.

And so, there the canal sat. It filled with water and was basically left undisturbed until the 1920s. Around this time, the City of Niagara Falls began using the canal as a dump site for the city’s garbage. In 1942 the Hooker Electric Company was given permission to use the canal as a dump site for their chemical waste. The canal was drained, a thick layer of clay was placed on the sides and bottom of the canal, and Hooker Electric began filling it with 55-gallon drums. In 1947, Hooker Electric bought the canal and both banks. The US Army and the City of Niagara Falls also used the area as a dump site until 1948 after which Hooker Electric was the sole owner and user. By 1953, about 21,000 tons of chemicals, many of them very toxic, had pretty much filled the canal, so about 20 feet of dirt was used to cover the canal, and soon vegetation began growing over the area where the canal had been.

During all this time, the human population around of the area had been growing. The City of Niagara Falls wanted to build new neighborhoods and school for its growing population, and it look at the land that used to be the Love Canal as usable property. It attempted to buy the land from Hooker Electric, but the company refused to sell because of safety concerns due to the toxic nature of the waste under the site. The City was not deterred and eventually expropriated the property, forcing Hooker Electric to sell the property. It did so in 1953, for the price on $1, and included an extensive caveat explaining the dangers of building on the land the potential for toxic exposure. The City of Niagara Falls, or private developers working with the city, then built the 99th Street School and several neighborhoods on and around Love Canal.

By the late 1950s, the City of Niagara Falls had removed some of the clay lining of the canal to use as fill dirt and had broken holes in other parts of the clay lining to run sewer lines. Further, the clay lining, which had been supposed to be impermeable, began to form cracks on its own. All this, combined with rain water, resulted in extensive exposure to chemicals for the people living in the area. Sink holes opened on the school grounds exposing drums of chemicals. These holes then filled with water and became puddles that children played in, people began to report puddles of oil or strange colored liquids seeping into their basements, children often returned home with chemical burns or rashes on their hands and faces after playing outside. In the 1970s, people were suffering from cancer, birth defects, and a wide range of other health problems. Finally, in 1979, the still fairly new Environmental Protection Agency declared the area around Love Canal an emergency disaster area. The 99th Street School was demolished, the nearby 93rd Street School was also destroyed, and many people were evacuated. Eventually about 800 people would be paid for their homes and moved out of the area. This was the first time that US Federal disaster dollars were used for something other than a natural disaster. All the buildings that had been built on or near Love Canal were raised, and a combination of Hooker Electrical (by then a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum) and the City of Niagara Falls would pay millions of dollars to former residents, to divert water from the site, and to cover the most toxic areas with plastic liners, more clay, and more soil. The area is now surrounded by barbed wire to prevent people from entering the site.

The Love Canal disaster is important to learn about and remember partly because of its impact on environmental law in the US. It was partly due to the Love Canal disaster that, in 1980, the US passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) also known as the Superfund Act which established a fund of money to help clean up toxic sites and also laid groundwork for how to establish liability for the release of toxic chemicals into the environment.

Read Full Post »