Monday, December 22, 2014

Sea-Level Rise's Threat to Bay Area Sewage and Stormwater Infrastructure

I've been writing for Estuary News, a monthly publication of the San Francisco Estuary Partnership covering the San Francisco Bay and adjacent waterways, for a while now. Maybe a few years. But to date I've only managed to post one of those stories here, because one is precisely how many of my articles for Estuary News have been published in full online. (Print still rules in this case.)

Well, here's the second one: "Two-Way Threat to Intakes and Outfalls," in the December 2014 issue. It covers an interesting issue: potential impacts that sea-level rise and climate change could have on the region's wastewater infrastructure. From the story: "The pipes and plants that collect, treat, and whisk away our cities’ stormwater and sewage could face a double hit from climate change in the coming decades: more severe storms dumping excess rainwater into the system on one end, and rising sea levels and storm surges inundating pipes and facilities on the other. The region’s five largest wastewater plants, processing 60 to 70 percent of our wastewater, are all located within a few hundred yards of the shore. 'If wastewater starts flowing into the streets, people are going to get upset really quickly,' says the Pacific Institute’s Matt Heberger." Read the rest here.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

New in EHP: Remote Sensing and Environmental Health

For my third EHP feature in six months I tackled remote sensing (that is, in this case at least, satellite imagery -- the term can refer to any airborne earth observation, including from planes) and applications for environmental health research and management. I honed in on three applications in particular: harmful algal blooms (which I also covered in depth for EHP in August), infectious diseases (particularly malaria and bacterial meningitis, though most any infectious or vector-borne disease with a strong environmental component can be monitored to some extent through remote sensing), and air quality (particularly PM 2.5 and NO2 levels near the earth's surface). Sound intense? It's actually one the best-reading pieces I've penned for EHP, if I do say so myself, because the overview approach we took allowed for a more conversational tone and didn't require getting too in-depth on any one topic. It was fun to research and write, and has received good feedback from the scientists whose work I addressed -- not necessarily the hallmark of good journalism, but in this case valuable, since I focused strictly on the science as opposed to any potential conflicts in the field, which, in any case, didn't come up. Read it here!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Why Medical Pot Is So Hard to Find in Liberal Marin County

This isn't really a science story or an environmental story, but it is a story about politics and NIMBYism and health in Marin County, one of the Bay Area's (hence the entire country's) most liberal regions. Voters supported Prop 215, which legalized medical marijuana in California, to the tune of 80 percent, but Marin County towns have since cracked down on dispensaries so hard that there are none left -- and county leaders have refused to stand up for patients demanding access. What gives? Find out in my latest story for Marin Magazine, which addresses how the lack of storefront access affects some patients and how county supervisors are finally trying to establish a more permissive set of dispensary-siting guidelines for unincorporated areas of the county. Read it in the October issue of Marin Magazine or online here.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Two more Berkeley Engineer stories

And here are two more I failed to post: a pair of stories on student research at UC Berkeley's College of Engineering, for its publication Innovations. First is one on a Cypriot student who received a prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute award for her work on cancer research, and second a story on four undergraduates hoping to save lives by treating postpartum hemorrhage with a unique device.

Rethinking the Garden: A story about drought-tolerant landscaping for Marin Magazine

Forgot to post this puppy back in June. It was a fun and very useful story to research, especially considering my wife and I are in the midst (sort of) of trying to landscape almost an acre at our new home in Petaluma with low- or no-water plants and to mitigate any water demands with a greywater system. Marin is a regional leader in water conservation (meaning it's also a national leader), and it shows through the sources/experts I was able to reach for this story. Hear their thoughts and tips here!

On the cover of this month's EHP: "Keeping Tabs on HABs"

What's that you say? You'd like to learn about harmful algal blooms (commonly referred to as red tides, though as you'll learn in my story that's a misnomer)? Well, you've come to the right place. On the cover of this month's Environmental Health Perspective is my latest feature for the publication, titled (in full) "Keeping Tabs on HABs: New Tools for Detecting, Monitoring, and Preventing Harmful Algal Blooms." I spoke extensively with many of the nation's leading researchers on the subject and perused a lot of the latest science. I studied up on the newest technologies and visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institution (MBARI) to see their facilities, various underwater vehicles, and the brand-spanking-new ESP, the Cadillac (or Ferrari, perhaps, since it'll be mounted to one of the world's three long-range autonomous underwater vehicles [LRAUVs]) of HAB detection devices, which'll be rolling out for testing later this year. But I digress. For the whole story, go here.

Monday, June 2, 2014

On the cover of this month's EHP: Harmful Cooking Pollutants and How Range Hoods Help

My latest story for Environmental Health Perspectives, featured on the cover no less, has all the elements of another overblown health scare dwelling right inside your very home: the use of modern gas and electric stoves, and the process of cooking itself, can potentially release unhealthy amounts of various pollutants into your home. The risk is higher in newer, more energy-efficient homes because the bad air can literally be trapped inside -- particularly during the summer, when your windows are less likely to be open. Scientists are still studying the precise health impacts, though adverse effects from some of the pollutants have already been demonstrated in young children with asthma.

The good news is that a simple range hood helps a lot by venting the pollutants to the outdoors (as long as you switch it on!). As my story explains, most existing consumer range hoods are sub-par, but they're certainly better than nothing. And improvements are on the way.

File this under: be aware, but not freaked out. As we build tighter and tighter homes, it'll become a bigger and bigger concern, but building codes and hood manufacturers are looking to keep pace. Read the whole story here.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Interview with Eric Heitz of the Energy Foundation

This Q&A was published in Marin Magazine last month... forgot to post it 'til now. Marin resident Eric Heitz co-founded the Energy Foundation, which distributes tens of millions of dollars for clean-energy causes in the US and China. Read more here.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Cities waffle on incinerator proposals

My third story on the subject of new waste-incineration technologies, also known as waste-to-energy or conversion technologies, addresses a new element of the issue: whether cities are capable of fully evaluating new proposals given the technologies' poor public perception, lack of a track record, and attractive promises around renewable energy and waste management.

In theory they may seem like a great idea, but in practice how do they perform? Will we ever get that far, given the failure of more than 100 proposals across the country to date? For this story I investigated how some cities are handling proposals for the new plants from developers, how citizens are reacting, and how the plans are faring (more accurately, how they're failing).

If you haven't heard much about waste-to-energy yet, you will soon. Given our thirst for renewable energy and dwindling landfill space nationwide, these technologies seem to offer the perfect solution. But as I've covered before, considerable uncertainties and persistent concerns over environmental impacts and sustainability continue to dog the new plants. In this latest story, I examine how that has played out in a number of US cities.

Friday, February 14, 2014

A "Game-Changer" for HIV/AIDS Treatment?

My latest for Berkeley Engineer, the alumni magazine of the UC Berkeley College of Engineering (well, technically, in this case, its research-centric online sister pub, Innovations) is a little ditty on an ingenious device with significant real-world applications being developed by Cal dynamo Sylvia Natividad-Diaz. Suffice to say it could help save lives in developing countries where HIV/AIDS monitoring can be prohibitively expensive. I'll leave the rest of the heavy lifting up to the piece itself. Read it here.

Monday, January 20, 2014

New story for High Country News: Building better homes in Indian Country

The subject of my latest for High Country News, green building in Indian Country, has become one of my favorite topics. It's not only innovative and off the beaten path a bit, but it also brings together a number of my interests: green building, sustainability, science (as it informs architecture and man-made systems), infrastructure, renewable energy, water efficiency, and more. Yet at its core is a human story, one related to the sustainability of cultures and communities. Here, green building is not an end in itself, as we often find it framed in the wealthy and eco-conscious Bay Area, but rather a means to achieve something bigger and more permanent.

My first story on the topic, for Environmental Health Perspectives in December 2012, focused on human health and indoor air quality. My second, for Indian Country Today in May 2013, illuminated the cultural context and also offered a broader view of the trend and its benefits to tribes. My third, out today in High Country News, goes in-depth on a major project at South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation and concludes with a series of case studies on other green-building projects throughout Indian County. (You may need a subscription in order to read the entire story.)

And I'm not stopping here; more stories are likely to follow.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Wind Turbines: A Different Breed of Noise?

File under: serendipity. It so happened that just as I began work on my latest feature for Environmental Health Perspectives, I was also preparing to fly to Massachusetts for the Woods Hole Ocean Science Journalism Fellowship. Throughout the weeklong program, us fellows (ten in all) would be staying in a town called Falmouth, located about ten miles from Woods Hole.

Oddly enough, Falmouth was on my mind for another reason, too: it kept coming up in web searches for stories on wind turbine noise. Once I looked into it and put the pieces together, I was floored. Weeks later when I was in Falmouth for the fellowship, I used some of my spare moments to do reporting for my EHP story, including making a couple trips from our hotel to the outskirts of town where the three controversial turbines were located. Some things are just meant to be.

The resulting story was published online today. It deals with not only the situation in Falmouth but also the bigger picture: what, if any, are the health effects of wind turbine noise, and how do they compare to those of traffic and aircraft noise? As supersize turbines become more commonplace, it's a question being asked virtually around the world, with a consensus still beyond our reach. Hopefully, this story (and the scientific research it addresses) will contribute something meaningful to this important conversation.