Environmental Health

There are only a few ways I can think of to take action against climate change. One way is to educate others about the real and immediate threat of climate change. But the only action that will ultimately affect how much carbon goes into our atmosphere, and how soon, is burning – or emitting – fewer “greenhouse” gases (ghg). It means using (and wasting) less conventional energy, and being more sparing and efficient about what we do use.


A side benefit of reduced emissions, whether from smokestacks or tailpipes – is improved air quality.  Cleaning up our fossil fuel use habits can also benefit water quality – whether it’s making less plastic, or phasing out hydraulic fracturing of natural gas and oil. Admittedly, there are other water pollutants, but I’m going to keep all “environmental health” topics here as an organizational principle. And while there are other contaminants in our soil, food supply, and generally around us, many common toxins are, or are made from, petrochemicals.

Prioritizing Our Environment

I've been meeting with executives and staff from the Executive Office of Environmental and Energy Affairs at the State House, during educational seminars put together by advocates from the Environmental League of Massachusetts (ELM), the Nature Conservancy, Mass Audubon, Clean Water Action, and the American Farmland Trust. Representatives from the Departments of Environmental Protection (DEP), Agricultural Resources (DAR), Fish and Game (DFG), and Conservation and Recreation (DCR) gave presentations about the work of their agencies, and answered questions. One question they didn't answer was how they actually planned to do "more with less," a persistent them of presentations.


On September 30, I attended a "Walk and Talk" along the banks of the Mystic River, organized by ELM and the Mystic River Watershed Association (MyRWA.) It's always delightful to spend time by the river, but it's clear that less isn't more, when heavily used natural resources in urban areas are concerned. I want to see Massachusetts invest more in its grimy, run down urban parks - people who live in cities need nature, too, and volunteer cleanups by citizens can't make up for indifference and disinvestment over the years by the stewards of the state's public lands and waters.

October 04, 2016

Creating More Green Space - One Driveway (and website) at a Time

The marvelous grassroots organization Somerville Climate Action has undertaken a number of valuable activities, including "depaving" projects. Cheerfully determined volunteers have pried up a small mountain of cement and asphalt, uncovering the earth underneath. Most recently, they have turned a paved back yard into a space that will be fitted with raised beds and planted with trees.


This link provides basic information for planning your own depaving project:  https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=ZGVmYXVsdGRvbWFpbnxzb21lcnZpbGxlY2xpbWF0ZWFjdGlvbnxneDozODQ4YWM5YzIwM2U4YTI3


Maybe you share the depaving impulse, but pickaxes and wheelbarrows don't best express your skill set? Perhaps you have the time and talent to do some web design? If so, you could be the DepaveHub.org webmaster!  While there's nothing on the site now, it could ultimately be as helpful as Oregon's website: http://depave.org/


If this opportunity is calling to you, please contact Lenni Armstrong ("Connecting people with science"),

Depaver extraordinaire, at  lenni@informmotion.biz 

September 15, 2016

The "Deforestation of Somerville"? Threat of Infestation, and Destruction by Gas Leaks

I've heard from many of you about your unhappiness over the removal of seemingly healthy trees from Somerville's streets and parks;  about a seemingly high rate of damaged, dying, and dead street trees, and about the lack of replacement trees, even when they have been requested. Lately, there have been a flurry of questions about a spate of "tree removal hearing" signs posted on yet more trees. Looking into the situation, I learned something as disturbing as the signs themselves.


The planned removals are part of a preventative program designed to combat the Emerald Ash Borer: http://www.emeraldashborer.info/ . This invasive insect has appeared in Boston now, and is spreading, much as the Asian Longhorned Beetle did from its Worcester County epicenter, about a decade ago. The City of Somerville had an arborist inventory and evaluate the city's ash trees; the ones slated for removal are the weak and damaged ones most susceptible to infestation by the destructive Emerald Ash Borer.


There is a plan to replace trees which are being removed - but not all of the trees. I encourage those who are interested in this subject to attend the public hearing on Wednesday, May 25, at 5:30 pm, at the DPW Building, at 17 Franey Road (behind Trum Field) to advocate for a robust program to plant replacement trees. I would also encourage interested residents to call or email their Aldermen, and raise the matter of tree planting generally.


Private property owners should also be aware of the risk to their own trees, as well as the risk of harboring destructive insects harmful to the whole community. There are online resources (like the first link above) that can help you spot and infested tree - but it helps just to be aware whether you have an ash tree, so that you can monitor it. I encourage you to help spread the word,


Interestingly, the number one killer of Somerville's street trees now is leaks from natural gas distribution pipes. Natural gas is practically pure methane, a potent greenhouse gas, which is also lethal to trees. Residents of St. James Avenue have told me that the city has replaced dead trees more than once on the site of an often-reported gas leak - only to have the new trees die, in turn.


The Cambridge-based organization Home Energy Efficiency Team (HEET) has systematically measured gas leaks in Cambridge and Somerville - and our city has more, and worse, leaks: http://www.heetma.org/squeaky-leak-maps-somerville/ . An expert working with HEET estimates that the climate damage from leaks in our two cities is greater than the impact of every automobile in Cambridge and Somerville: http://www.heetma.org/squeaky-leak/squeaky-leak-report/


As you may be aware, all natural gas customers pay for the gas lost to leaks, in our monthly bills - and, by the way, Brookline is currently suing its gas distribution company for $1 million, for tree damage the town has suffered, due to gas leaks.

May 16, 2016

Our Energy Policy for the 21st Century, and the Long-Anticipated Energy Bill

Many of you have emailed or spoken to me about what should - and should not - be in the "omnibus" energy bill which is now being prepared by the legislature's Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy (TUE.) Since there seems to be considerable uncertainty about my position, I want to make it clear that I have been deeply involved in energy policy discussions, even before this 2015-2016 legislative session. I have been a consistent advocate for renewable energy, especially from solar, off-shore wind, and geothermal sources.


I have consistently voiced opposition to the construction or expansion of natural gas pipelines, which are manifestly unneeded. I have particularly opposed proposals - such as ones now pending before the MA Department of Public Utilities (DPU, against which I have testified) - to allow electricity consumers to be charged for the cost of pipeline expansion. I am utterly against any provision in the upcoming energy legislation which would authorize the electricity distribution companies to make such charges.


I've been advocating that the TUE bill include a strong mandate for repair of natural gas leaks. Efficiency is one of the most cost-effective ways to assure reliable supply, while meeting carbon emission goals - and as the HEET maps show, our gas distribution infrastructure is far from efficient. Also, we're barely scratched the surface of efficiency and de-carbonization in our transportation sector - a subject on which the House and Senate Committees on Global Warming and Climate Change will be holding an Oversight hearing on Thursday, June 7, 2016 - please contact my office for further details.

May 16, 2016

My Additional Testimony on Proposed Somerville Zoning

I was pleased to see in the comments from the public that many of you noted that the proposed zoning does not significantly further Somerville's goals for new, green, open space. This is an important point to have made to the Board of Aldermen. I personally can't support any new zoning which does not promote such a goals.


Finding myself with a little time before the date given for the close of public comments, I submitted a few further remarks about Somerville's zoning proposal. This time, I focused more on what I would have wanted to see in the proposed ordinance.Once again, my remarks were not comprehensive:


March 27, 2015

Additional Thoughts on Proposed Zoning


In the time remaining before your comment period ends, I would like to raise some questions about the way the proposed new zoning ordinance's contemplated interplay between Somerville's built environment, the natural world, and the city's energy and environmental future:


1) Open space, gardening, "urban agriculture"

Somerville is supposedly a city which values "urban agriculture," yet the new zoning will allow even greater density than presently exists in the region's densest city. The shrinking of setbacks and allowance of more building height in even the most protected residential neighborhoods will transform us, over time, into a city without yards. Rising heights, from closer-together, denser buildings (no FAR) will deepen our shadows. Lack of arable land and natural light will render us virtually without gardens. This will be a terrible loss, especially given our paucity of public open space.

 What thought was given to the conditions necessary for growing plant life - including trees - in Somerville? Were shadow studies conducted, to determine how much light will be lost, at maximum allowed build outs, on public and private land - especially private homes abutting districts which allow substantial height? Has anyone calculated the amount of unpaved land that will be left, at maximum build out?


2) Water use, drainage, runoff, flooding

Flooding and improper drainage have long been problems in Somerville. There seems to be no enforcement of current zoning restrictions on paving private property, or of illicit connections to city sewers and storm drains. Additional building and paving have worsened flooding of adjacent basements, and sometimes introduced such flooding. The overwhelming of storm drains during our increasingly heavy rain events floods streets, and has caused considerable damage to private property. It is widely understood that a storm surge at high tide - such as that which New York experienced with Hurricane Sandy - would cause considerable flooding along the Mystic River.


What modeling has been done of storm surge scenarios along the Mystic? How does zoning in the potential flood zone area reflect planning for flood resiliency? What studies have been made of the capacity of the city's sewers and storm drains to carry the additional water usage and surface runoff, at different build out scenarios - including maximum build out? Has there been any though of where residents will put snow, as the area of privately owned opened land diminishes?


3) Energy Needs/ Renewables

There is a significant missed opportunity here to set out clearly the requirements for the permitting of solar panels and other renewable energy infrastructure, to replace the slow and unpredictable process that residents complain of now. New roofs should be required to have solar PV panels, to be "green" roofs (built to support soil and plant life), as the City of Paris is now requiring. At minimum, new roofs should be made of white roofing materials, to counter "urban heat island" effect. The use of geothermal heating and cooling, and other accepted technologies, should be a condition of certain developments. The provision of electric car charging stations should be mandatory whenever developers are providing new parking; there should also be requirements for providing charging stations when municipal facilities are constructed.


These comments are more suggestive than exhaustive, but there are sources, I'm sure, for bold "best practices" when it comes to zoning codes that adapt to emerging conditions. 

April 10, 2015

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