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Almanac Archive for Nov. 6, 2019

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Quote of the Week

“This permit elevates working at cross purposes to an insane degree. Massachusetts cannot have both a PFAS emergency and a business-as-usual permitting policy.”
—Tim Whitehouse, Executive Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)

While the state is spending millions of dollars on PFAS clean-up efforts, and a new bill in the legislature would label the situation an "emerging crisis", the MaDEP and regional EPA office have just issued a permit allowing the town of Lowell to accept leachate containing high levels of PFAS from a landfill in New Hampshire and dump it in the Merrimack River, a public drinking water supply. Read more in the press release from PEER.

Our view is that the permit approval by the state DEP is hard to fathom, given that the cleanup costs will fall on state taxpayers, but approval by the EPA is sadly unsurprising. Since August, the New England regional office has been led by the former top lobbyist for Dow Chemical, who, when reporting to Washington, does so to Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist.

Conservation Calendar

Venison Donation Program: Info Session
Friday, Nov. 8, 5:00 — 6:00 pm, West Tisbury.
Island Grown Initiative, the Ag Society, and other non-profits host a conversation at the West Tisbury Library about a promising new program to distribute healthy venison to islanders in need, while encouraging a reduction in the local deer herd. 

Deer reduction is the most effective strategy for combating the epidemic of tick-borne illness, but it is also of significant conservation importance. Habitat fragmentation in general leads to the creation of ideal deer habitat, and the resulting loss of biodiversity as the deer eat everything in sight.

Open House for New Food Co-Op
Co-op makes Zero Waste shopping easy!
Thursday, Nov. 14, 5:00 — 7:00 pm, Vineyard Haven.
A new organic food co-op was just launched this September, offering at cost pricing for bulk organic goods. Learn all about this exciting opportunity at next week's open house at their office, located at Merchant's Circle on State Road; for more info and exact directions, see website.

Big Clothing Swap Event!

Saturday, Nov. 16, 1:00 — 4:00 pm, Edgartown.
This is another huge Zero Waste opportunity, and a lot of fun too!
Bring your contributions to the Edgartown Library children's room through Nov. 15 during regular hours, and you'll receive a voucher to attend the Swap. Acceptable items include kids and adult clothes, costumes, backpacks, accessories, and jewelry in new or slightly used condition. At the swap on the 16th there will be raffles, refreshments, and face-painting, but please remember that you must bring your voucher to participate! For more info, call the library at 508-627-4221 and ask for Elyce.  

Three Climate Talks from ICAN

Emergency Preparedness
Thursday, Nov. 7, 6:00
— 7:00 pm.

Russ Hartenstine, Emergency Manager for West Tisbury, will go over how to prepare for extreme weather events, what to do when it happens, and what services will be available afterwards. A free talk at the Vineyard Haven Library. 

Tuesday, Nov. 12, 4:00
— 5:00 pm.

Elizabeth Durkee, Oak Bluffs’ Conservation Agent, will speak about adapting to the impacts that the climate crisis will have on the Island. Sea level rise, extreme weather events, and increased flooding will require changes to our infrastructure, economy, and other aspects of Island life. This free presentation at the West Tisbury Library will be repeated on Nov. 23 at 2:30 at the Oak Bluffs Library. 

School Building Performance
Monday, Nov. 18, 5:00
— 6:00 pm.

Building performance engineer Marc Rosenbaum (of South Mountain Company, and the VCS board of directors) will talk about his experience working with the Plainfield School in New Hampshire, which was able to dramatically reduce their energy usage while fixing other facility challenges. That school is also a rural public school, so the lessons learned should prove valuable to addressing the future needs of our Island's school buildings. A free presentation at the West Tisbury Library.

The Island Climate Action Network (ICAN) is a volunteer organization made up of individual community members, town officials, and nonprofit organizations including VCS.
Winter Walks Return

Join your friends at VCS this winter for the always fun and informative Winter Walks series. Get outdoors, take in the Island's scenic beauty, and learn the interesting conservation history of some of our local ecological treasures. Winter Walks usually begin at 10 am, but please check newspapers or our website for times and directions. All walks are free – and usually, with cider and cookies afterward, even better than free!

Sunday: Building Community at the State Forest

This Sunday, the series kicks off with a return to the Manual Correllus State Forest. Join us at 10 am at the Headquarters building off Barnes Road for a hike guided by MCSF superintendent Chris Bruno and Friends of the State Forest organizer Bob Woodruff. Chris and Bob will share their knowledge of the ecology and geologic history of the Island’s largest, and most important, conservation property – home to more than 40 rare species and their supporting habitat, including globally rare frost bottoms and pine oak barrens.

Prior to the walk, we will get a brief introduction to the ongoing project by the Friends group to construct an outdoor classroom and interpretive center for the Forest. Read more about the pavilion project (inspired by an ancient French marketplace) and see the rest of the 2019-20 Walks schedule here. We hope to see you on Sunday!

Progress on the pavilion has been impressive so far – but much work remains to be done! It will be framed with timbers milled from storm-damaged trees at the State Forest. The above photo of the team is by Michael Berwind, who has helped lead the milling work.

Innocent Until Proven Guilty
PFAS Concerns Illuminate a Weakness in Environmental Protections

For anyone looking to better understand the recent explosion of concern about PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, a large class of several thousand chemicals), the most recent episode of the public radio program “Science Friday” is an excellent introduction. Ira Flatow’s guests Robert Bilott and Sharon Lerner discuss the history of the issue (which feels at once very recent, yet not so: before DuPont's Teflon became a household name in the 1980s, its wonder chemical, PFOS, had been in use for decades – and would continue to be used for two more decades, until being replaced by DuPont’s “Gen-X” in 2009) and the current situation, which sees a race between scientists and activists on one side and industry on the other.

How dangerous are PFAS? Can chemicals that are found in so many everyday products really cause serious health problems? In short, to demonstrate conclusively that environmental contamination by any chemical causes human disease is a very high bar to clear. Even scientists who agree on the facts on any given chemical may reasonably disagree on whether those facts show a causal link rather than a correlation. (It is always possible that some other factor – poverty, for example – explains both the disease and the PFAS exposure). Despite that challenge, the evidence against DuPont’s original PFOS, as well as 3M’s rival PFOA, has by now become nearly impossible to deny, and the companies have begun to phase them out. (However, their replacement, “Gen-X” aka “C8,” is also associated with many of the same health problems; proving a causal link here may be just a matter of time and resources.) Worse, these chemicals readily find their way into groundwater and are extremely persistent in the environment, leading to their recent moniker of “Forever Chemicals” – an accurate description that cleverly references the fluorine-carbon bonds that define the group’s chemistry.

Locally, the subject of PFAS first arose last year when the chemicals were detected in groundwater near the airport, caused by past use of firefighting foams for training exercises. (These foams are one of the most common causes of documented PFAS contamination, which has led to many US military sites showing up on the interactive map linked in the Science Friday story).

Last month, the planned installation of artificial turf at the MV Regional High School drew new scrutiny following reporting (in the Boston Globe, as well as a story by Lerner for the Intercept) on PFAS contamination of a wetland in Franklin, MA, likely caused by the Town’s disposal of an artificial turf carpet next to it. (The Intercept’s version of the story is the more entertaining of the two because it includes details on the Town’s shifty behavior regarding the mysteriously disappearing and reappearing turf – which they claim to have never known anything about in the first place.)

The MVRHS artificial turf proposal is currently before the Oak Bluff’s Planning Board, and, as we have on numerous occasions throughout this process, VCS has offered written testimony in opposition. Our letter lays out many other environmental objections to plastic grass on our Island, but in light of the recent revelations and resulting controversy, we thought it important to explain the complicated (and often cryptic, as companies are not required to disclose their ingredients or processes) issue of PFAS and artificial turf –
PFAS are a class of chemicals used in industrial manufacturing, most frequently as stain repellents, paints, and other coatings. It is important to understand that PFAS share not just chemistry, but also physical properties. Therefore, when clear evidence emerges that a certain compound is harmful to human health (as has been demonstrated with PFOS and PFOA), the offending chemical can often be replaced by a different PFAS compound that will accomplish the same industrial purpose. New PFAS compounds (and non-PFAS alternatives, which may accomplish the same purposes, but in turn may also prove toxic) are continually being developed. In our regulatory system, if a new chemical has not yet been demonstrated to cause harm, that is sufficient to allow its use in production.

Naturally, the artificial turf industry touts the safety of the new chemicals that are developed to replace the previous unsafe ones; likewise, public health and environmental advocates (including VCS) view these replacement chemicals with suspicion. We understand the lack of information on new, and often undisclosed, chemicals presents a dilemma for decision makers. What we urge, though, is that assurances of safety from the turf industry – which continues to promote materials that are known carcinogens (such as crumb rubber) – should be met with skepticism.

PFOS, PFOA, and all the other PFAS were created to do a job, and they do that job well. Unfortunately, it is reasonably likely that the same properties that make PFAS effective are also what make them toxic. Chasing the perfect PFAS alternative may never pan out, while in the meantime, environmentally persistent toxic chemicals continue to pile up. To live without the toxicity associated with PFAS, we – not just as individuals, but together, as a society – may just have to live without some things: stain-resistant carpets, leak-proof paper plates, fried eggs that slide off a dry skillet, and football fields of plastic grass. That doesn’t seem so terrible, now does it?

Photo by Steve Cylka for his baked skillet eggs recipe (which honestly looks really good right now!)
The Vineyard Conservation Society is a non-profit membership organization dedicated to preserving the environment of Martha’s Vineyard through advocacy, education and the protection of the Island’s land and water.
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Original content by Jeremy Houser unless otherwise noted.