Tag Archives: environmental

Environmental Professionals are Jedi

Obi Wan would have made a good environmental professional. Photo courtesy of Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones special in Vanity Fair magazine.

Obi Wan would have made a good environmental professional. Photo courtesy of Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones special in Vanity Fair magazine.

Lately I’ve been thinking about ways to describe the work of environmental professionals. I’ve also been enjoying a renewed interest in Star Wars. This comes from my son’s growing interest in Star Wars, the hype of Episode VII and watching Star Wars Rebels. This combination has made me realize that environmental professionals and Jedi have a lot in common. A bit of a stretch? Maybe. But it’s fun. Continue reading

Exploring Environmental Art: Sand Trails

Sand Trails photography by Susan Alexander.

Sand Trails, photograph by Susan Alexander.

This is part of a series where I explore interesting pieces of environmental art

This is a great example of eARTh or earth as art. As an earth scientist, I appreciate art that capture the beauty of a natural process. In this photo, award-winning photographer, Susan Alexander, captured the beauty of the eroding sand. You can stand on a beach all day and continually watch the waves and tides erode and deposit sand. Susan captures this continual process in a unique way and turned it into art. Very cool.

What makes this photograph special is that you’ll never see this exact image again…ever. That’s the beauty of water processes; it’s never the same twice. Waterfalls, rivers, waves, erosion, they may look repetitive from a distance, but moving water is never the same.

It takes more than just a good artist’s eye to see this, but also a good photographer to understand the lighting, composure, and technical skills to capture it. I’ve tried to take enough photographs of landscapes and earth processes to know that I’m impressed with this photograph.

The photographer may not have realized she was making environmental art when she took the photograph, but that’s how I perceive it. I immediately saw the eroding sand and made a connection. I guess that’s part of the process of art; everyone may take something different from it. I see environmental art.

This was photographed by Susan Alexander in Cape May, NJ in 2013.

Exploring Environmental Art


I have a growing interest in environmental art and I’m going to pursue it. Not making environmental art, but looking for it, appreciating and understanding it.

I don’t have an art education background or experience, but I’ve been seeing and thinking about the power of environmental art. Art is designed to grab your attention, inspire, or make you think. That’s what it does for me. When I see an interesting piece, I want to know more about it. What do I see? Does it have a deeper meaning? What was the artist’s intent? Is it the same as the artist? Does it matter?

I first need to come to an understanding of what fits in to the category of environmental art. Is it art that makes an environmental message, art that is made from natural or other environmental-related materials, both, or those and more? To me, it’s all of that as long as it creates a relationship, connection, understanding or appreciation of a natural process or environmental issue.

An example I enjoy, which is typically a photograph, is eARTh or Earth Art. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s the earth’s natural processes or landscapes captured with a beauty or perspective to create art.

Here’s what I plan to do about this new interest. As I see environmental art or artists, I’ll write about it here and do my best to highlight and explain it from my perspective. I may even get the artist’s perspective. I’m not going to be an art critic. I just want to understand the art. So stay tuned for my take on the environmental art that comes across my path.

TNEP Profile: Richard Cartwright, PE, CHMM, CPIM

Richard CartwrightRichard Cartwright is an engaging and energetic speaker on hazardous material management. His knowledge and passion for the subject ooze out of him. He teaches and speaks to environmental professionals all over the world and if you connect with him on LinkedIn, he seems to be somewhere different every day.

Richard is the Senior Vice President/Owner of MECX and has been involved with the Alliance of Hazardous Material Professionals (AHMP) as a Certified Hazardous Material Manager (CHMM) since the start of the organization. He continually works to bring together CHMM’s around the country, coordinating with chapters, and enhancing the brand.

We previously met when he spoke to the Colorado Environmental Management Society and he was back in Denver to give a talk on the history of hazardous material management to the Rocky Mountain Chapter of CHMMs. By chatting with him and hearing his presentation I gained an insight into his background and interest in having hazardous materials managers in all aspects of life.

I often ask people, “What drew you to this field?”, but I didn’t have to ask him. It was obvious when he spoke.

His life is a personal connection to the chemistry, toxicology and management of hazardous materials. He talks about Paracelsus, Marie Curie, and Rachel Carson as if they are Washington, Napoleon, and Churchill.  During his presentation this night, he presented a history of hazardous material incidents, both good and bad. For all the bad ones, such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, he is assured that they could have been avoided if a good CHMM was involved in the operation.

His talks are a mix of technical problems and solutions and interesting stories that make you think more deeply about the topic. For example, hazardous material management or toxicology is the world’s oldest profession. Huh? He makes the point that our ancestors looked to the animals and nature to see what they were eating. The “original CHMMs” would see an animal eating a food and then give it to another person and see if it was good or poisonous.

After he talked, I had one specific question for him. It’s one that I ask nearly all the environmental professionals profiled here.

TNEP: Everyone in this room has an appreciation for what you talked about tonight? How do you relate to people who don’t understand our field?

Richard: You have to give examples. It’s kinda like scripture. They’re parables. You’ll become fishers of men. Instead of catching fish, we’ll have new disciples and new people and we’ll grow and multiply. You have to capture the new young generation. They’re willing to learn and they’re willing to change. At my age, people will dump trash and their kids and grandkids will go pick it up. So it’s a culture change.

And understanding these different tragedies and why they occur. Unfortunately in America, we’re a nation of under-reaction and overreaction. And the only time we learn is from a catastrophe. We don’t listen. God gave us two ears and one mouth and we just don’t listen. And only when it goes wrong we actually do something.

TNEP: Thank you, Richard. It was an enjoyable evening learning more about the history of hazardous material management and getting an insight into one of the original CHMMs.

Richard will no doubt continue to travel the world emphasizing the need for good management of hazardous materials. He regularly blogs on his LinkedIn page, is writing several books on the topic, and I’m sure will keep speaking to any and all groups that invite him in.



Asking Deep Environmental Questions

Freedom Industries Storage Facility on the Elk River. Photo by AP.

Freedom Industries Storage Facility on the Elk River. Photo by AP.

I was asked a couple deep environmental questions while teaching a recent RCRA hazardous waste course. I usually just get questions on topic. The students often don’t get engaged until I tell them a tragic environmental story or two. As an instructor, I love these deeper discussions, enjoy creating an environment to cultivate these discussions, and let the class go at it. They take much more away from the class by having these discussions than if we just discussed the nuts and bolts of RCRA.

The recent West Virginia methylcyclohexane spill was the first one. I presented the topic to discuss the hazards of methylcyclohexane, in context to cross reference their own hazards. One student brought up that the facility had not been inspected since 1991. Now we’ve entered the deep end. The class exploded with their debate on why.

Their first thought is that the company was bribing the regulators and inspectors. The other ideas included, lack of funds by regulatory agencies, bumbling government agencies, the state doesn’t care because the money from the coal business is big business, or the company didn’t do their own checks because the money was flowing in. They’re all correct. Maybe not specifically to this incident, but most environmental incidents can be connected to one or more of these.

The second one comes up more often and it surprises me that it’s such a hot topic for people. It’s the use and proper disposal of compact fluorescent bulbs. It starts with complaints that the government is regulating the type of bulbs they can purchase. Then we go deeper into the pros and cons of reduced energy use and costs versus the disposal of mercury containing bulbs. It usually goes deeper into whether the disposal of mercury into our landfills justifies the reduced greenhouse gasses. I like it when they get upset with me for not having the answer.

A one-day RCRA class isn’t going to have the answers, because there isn’t a solution to satisfy everyone. In fact, the class is often unsettled when they realize that the issue is even deeper than they originally thought. If you can find the perfect balance of science, technology, society, politics, money, and NIMBY, then you win.

Seeing the World Through Environmental Tinted Eyes

air pollution

Pollution from a sugar factory. Yes, a sugar factory

Seeing through the world through the eyes of an environmental professional is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that it gives me an appreciate for the natural world and allows me to see and understand the improvements in our environment. The curse is that I can’t miss the environmental pollutants and potential damage in nearly everything.

Control of air quality, management and releases of hazardous chemicals, and other important environmental areas have seen great improvements. But the amount of chemicals in our daily life seems to be increasing and our exposure to them is often unknown. I can’t stop thinking about constant exposure to environmental pollutants, both mine and the people I see being exposed. At work, it’s the exposure to hazardous materials for both me and my coworkers. At home, it’s the countless man-made chemicals in our food and products.

I see coworkers who are exposed to hazardous chemicals on a daily basis and I try to educate them on the effects of exposure. I gas up my car, get a quick whiff of the fuel vapors, and immediately think about what that exposure is doing to me and everyone else. I’ll drive past a construction site and think about the pollutants in the dust being kicked up. I’ll see someone applying a pesticide without any PPE and wonder about their exposure. Although our overall air quality control has improved, I see pollution from refineries and factories and worry about spending too much time around them.

air pollution rocky mountains

Air pollution over the Rocky Mountains

As a recreational triathlete, albeit a slow one, I think about the environment where I’m training. I enjoy open water swimming, but wonder what pollutants are in the water? It could be a beautiful lake and maybe the only nasty thing in it is too much goose poop, but a lake in an urban setting could be filled with stormwater runoff chemicals – fertilizers, pesticides, oils and greases. You probably shouldn’t swim in an urban lake the day after a big storm. This fall I ran a half-marathon through downtown Denver and was thankful that the race was on a Sunday morning. I couldn’t imagine running 13.1 miles through the city on a busy weekday and question people who do or worse, run along a busy road during rush hour.

In my house, I’ll wear my shoes inside and wonder what was on the bottom of them that I just carried through (pesticides, grease from the street). Should I be using this household cleaner? Am I being exposed to the fire-retardant chemicals in my couch or the pesticides I applied to get rid of the ants? Most likely, yes. I bought Halloween makeup to apply a mustache for my son’s costume, Einstein. I read the ingredients, thought better of it and he went as Lil Einstein – no mustache.

One area where some progress is being made to reduce our exposure to small amounts of toxic, man-made chemicals is in our food. Although agribusiness is bigger than ever, finding options for healthier, naturally grown food is becoming more widespread.

Paracelsus said, “All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.” I enjoy seeing the world through my environmental-tinted eyes and use that understanding to balance being environmentally conscious, being realistic, and taking calculated risks. Ignorance is not bliss, so I wear my PPE.

pest control spraying

What is this guy being exposed to?

Why is Lead 5.0 mg/l?

Lead at 8.3 mg/l.

Lead at 8.3 mg/l.

Why is the EPA hazardous waste characteristic concentration for lead 5 mg/l or greater?

Lead is a poisonous metal and exposure to it, mainly through ingestion or inhalation, can do a long list of harm to your body – nervous system, brain, kidneys, weakness, reduced cognitive ability, and more. There’s decades of research and evidence about the toxicity of lead. That is why the EPA has determined that wastes containing a certain amount of lead are considered hazardous waste.

Let’s hear it directly from the EPA: If lead in the leaching solution is present at a concentration greater than or equal to 5 mg/l (or parts-per-million – ppm), the waste would be considered to be hazardous, and would be required to be managed as a hazardous waste.

But why 5 mg/l? Why not 100 mg/l, which is the level for barium? Why not 1 mg/l, which is cadmium? How did the EPA determine that 5 mg/l is the threshold level? That less than that leaching out of product in a landfill is not as hazardous? I could ask the same about the levels of any of the hazardous waste toxins, but lead is the one I think about.

The answer has to do with ingestion of lead from drinking water derived from groundwater or surface water sources. The maximum contaminant level (MCL) for lead in our drinking water is 50 ug/l. To determine the level for hazardous wastes, the MCL is multiplied by a 100-fold dilution attenuation factor to come up with the level of 5 mg/l. Apparently in some cases dilution is the solution to pollution.

It’s not the prettiest answer, but it is a technical question, which don’t usually have pretty answers. The summary answer is that lead is poisonous and the EPA has to set a limit that is “safe”. They have determined a level that protects the public based on history of lead poisoning, the science of the breakdown of lead, our consumption of contaminated water, and most certainly the review by policymakers and industry.

The best part is that we have identified a toxic threat to our health, taken steps to reduce our exposure, and we are a healthier, happier, and safer society due to the drastic reduction of lead. Read this for great article about how reducing lead in our environment has reduced crime.