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Jun 012013

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Mosquito season generally runs heaviest from June to August, but tell that to the mosquito that bit you last night while you were trimming the first May-blooming roses.

mosquito Culex quinquefasciatus PROMOIn many parts of the U.S., that first bite brings a sense of dread, because residents are well aware that mosquitoes can carry West Nile Virus, an illness that is generally mild, but can, in rare cases, cause a serious, sometimes fatal encephalitic response.

West Nile was especially devastating in 2012 in Texas, where 1,739 people were reported as becoming ill with the disease and 76 died, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It was the worst outbreak in the nation, with most cases concentrated in the Dallas/Fort Worth metro area. It so spooked Dallas officials that the city authorized aerial spraying in selected areas for the first time since the 1960s, and understandably — people were dying.

Cities and individuals have been fighting West Nile Virus in the U.S. since it arrived officially in 1999. Several cities and counties have gone full-bore with insecticides, dousing affected neighborhoods by airplanes or with fogging trucks. But this practice is controversial. People have reported that the insecticides sprayed — generally synthetic pyrethroids which kill adult mosquitoes on contact — have killed bees and depressed butterfly and bird populations as well. On the other hand, the insecticide camp promises that the chemicals used are a)effective and b)biodegrade in sunlight starting the next day.

Sometimes, people report birds dying in the middle of the West Nile outbreak, which adds to the angst over spraying. But this may or may not be an outcome of spraying, say experts. The birds, which carry West Nile, may be succumbing to the virus itself itself. So the presence of sick birds simply adds a layer to the conundrum over spraying, which could harm the birds; on the other hand, sick birds indicate the virus is present in the neighborhood, and being transmitted to mosquitoes, which in turn infect humans.

To Spray or Not-to-Spray

All this debate leads to the perennial question that dogs the dawn of summer: What is the most effective method to fight West Nile Virus? Those who study the problem bring a little clarity. They agree that the very best first line of attack is to try to keep mosquitoes from breeding near your house, and to use repellents (see more below) to avoid getting bitten.

But beyond those steps, even the experts wonder about the best tactics.

“It’s not really clear what’s the best way to combat these West Nile outbreaks,” says Michel  Slotman, a professor of entymology at Texas A&M University.  ”The spraying obviously has some impact, or probably has…the data isn’t really very clear.”

The data isn’t clear? Yes, you heard Dr. Slotman right. While opponents of aerial spraying swear that it’s not effective at all, and those who endorse it, claim that it stamps out adult mosquito populations, the scientific evidence, at least as interpreted by some scientists, remains inconclusive.

Because mosquito populations are notoriously difficult to measure, Slotman, among others, say that it’s difficult to nail down the effectiveness of aerial spraying. For similar reasons, it’s also difficult to determine how damaging the spraying is to other wildlife in the spray zone.

So you end up with the two cities at ground zero in last year’s outbreak following different paths. Dallas elected to spray during the epidemic of West Nile Virus in 2012, and Fort Worth held its ground on not spraying. Dallas officials declared the spraying to have squelched 90 percent + of the mosquitoes in target areas. Fort Worth dismisses spraying as ineffective, and causing collateral environmental damage.

As for the collateral damage, Slotman admits that some birds do show ill effects, though others seem impervious to spraying. They react differently across subspecies, just as their susceptibility to West Nile seems to vary, with crows and blue jays for instance showing more vulnerability, he said. The effects on butterflies, bees and other beneficial insects remains largely a mystery.

A study by A&M researchers in 2012 that gathered feedback from 75 Dallas residents living in sprayed areas found that some people reported “dramatic changes” to their local ecosystem while others saw no discernible effect on backyard butterflies, bees, dragonflies, fish and chickens.

One respondent reported an 80 percent drop in the dragon flies observed in his/her yard, while another said: “I was pleased to see butterflies and bees the very next day. I found no dead butterflies at all and I have a garden primarily for butterflies and birds.” Respondents with fish ponds reported no ill effects.

The widely varying comments could be a result of the residents preconceived notions about spraying, or the result of an admittedly imprecise process, the researchers wrote.

Was the lack of damage to other wildlife evidence that spraying is largely safe, or that it is ineffective, failing to break through tree canopies or missing the target insect? We may not know for many years.

As the debate continues, Slotman says his view is that spraying “is probably better than doing nothing” because it can kill the Culex mosquito that carries West Nile Virus. But in the absence of strong studies on the practice and outcomes, “people shouldn’t assume that once we send a spraying plane over it, the problem’s solved,” he said.

Prevention = Protection

The most important way to reduce your odds of contracting West Nile is to take action in your own environment, he said. First, keep mosquitoes from breeding in your yard, and second (or maybe first), keep them off of you.

Mosquito Control, CDC, wellstankscisternsjarsbucket

Standing water, especially with algae growth, becomes a breeding ground for mosquitoes. (Photo: CDC)

Mosquitoes don’t travel far, and that’s a strategic advantage that humans can leverage, Slotman says. Remove all standing water from in and around your yard. Dump out flower pot basins, fill divots, patrol for places water collects, inspect your rain gutters and refresh bird baths frequently, and even better, use mosquito “dunks” in your bird baths and ponds.

The Centers for Disease Control has more advice on a new webpage about eliminating mosquito habitats. Both the CDC and Slotman advise that neighborhood associations should band together to identify and eradicate mosquito breeding grounds.

Dunks, which a naturally occurring bacteria that occurs in nature and won’t harm birds, can be used in neighborhood ponds and water features. Mosquito larvae cannot tolerate the bacteria and will be killed before they hatch. This natural solution can thwart the mosquitoes that are near year house, thereby reducing the numbers that show up for dinner on your arm, and your chances of contracting West Nile. It also stops mosquito populations from multiplying, tamping down on their overall numbers.

Since only about 1 percent of mosquitoes carry the virus, and only 1 in 150 people who contract it will develop life-threatening symptoms, your odds are good, but these proactive measures make them even better, Slotman said.

And of course, be vigilant when mosquitoes are most active, at dawn, dusk and at night, because keeping them off of you and yours is the next line of defense.

Mosquito Repellents

Fortunately, the array of effective repellents has broadened in recent years, so you’re not necessarily stuck with the old standby, DEET. The Centers for Disease Control’s latest advise on DEET is that it is effective against mosquitoes and offers some of the most enduring protection. However, the CDC also endorses other ingredients as effective, including some botanicals. Some of these, however, may need to be reapplied more often. Here’s the full list from the EPA, with links to product information:   

Mosquito Repellant 40 percent and 7 percent both work

Higher concentrations of DEET, like this 40 percent “Max” formula aren’t more effective than the 7 percent solution that’s marketed as family- or skin-friendly, they just last longer.

  •  DEETThis chemical has been proven effective against mosquitoes, though you don’t have to use the 25 percent or 40 percent formulas. DEET products are available in 7 percent solutions, and they’re just as effective, Slotman says. The higher the percentages simply prolong the time the repellant works. The problem with DEET is that some people don’t like applying such a harsh chemical. Fortunately, CDC testing found more options that are effective.
  • Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus — This natural, essential oil has become the ingredient in a host of commercial and homemade repellants (see the recipe below). Be aware, just because something occurs in nature, doesn’t mean it cannot cause a skin or allergic reaction. You’ll have to try it to see.
  •  IR3535 — This CDC-approved repellent is often overlooked (perhaps the numerical name is not so catchy). But you know it if you’re familiar with Avon’s Skin-So-Soft products. Avon’s been making a killing on this line since people discovered it really works. It was an early replacement for DEET, which had been found to produce allergic and neurological side effects in sensitive individuals (the manufacturer has said these rare reactions may have been the result of overuse or misuse). In any event, the Avon products are considered non-toxic, and safe for kids. Bullfrog and other brands are also using this ingredient in repellents.
This botanical formula applies the concept that botanical oils can be most effective when combined. It contains oil of citronella, oil of lemongrass, oil of geranium and more.

This botanical formula combines oil of citronella, oil of lemongrass, oil of geranium and more, a tactic that’s believed to enhance performance.

  • Catnip Oil – This botanical oil from the herb by the same name (more properly known as refined oil of Nepeta Cataria) offers 7 to 15 hours of protection, depending on the concentration (7 percent or 15 percent).  It can be found in a variety of botanical repellents on the market, and is sometimes combined with other essential oils, such as oils of geranium, citronella and lemon grass.
  •  p-Menthane-3,8-diol — This “biologicial” pesticide is a synthetic made to mimic the naturally occurring compound found in lemon eucalyptus plants. It repels flies and gnats, as well as mosquitoes.

These are the recommended and tested ways of keeping mosquitoes at bay (the ingredients above have all be registered by the EPA, which may or may not prove comforting to you), but they’re by no means the only formulas available. Homemade repellents intended for use on the skin and other deterrents abound on the Internet. Some use the botanicals mentioned above. More to come on that in our next installment.

Copyright © 2013 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network

Feb 122013

From Green Right Now Reports

Outraged that the EPA dropped a case against a gas company that apparently contaminated private wells near Fort Worth, environmentalists from more than 80 groups in 12 states have called for an internal EPA investigation of the case.

Natural Gas Well ft worth

Natural gas well near Fort Worth, which sits over the Barnett Shale. (Photo: GreenRightNow)

The organizations, which include the Environmental Working Group, Center for Biological Diversity, Food & Water Watch and Frack Action as well as dozens of local anti-fracking groups, want to know why the EPA dropped a legal action against the drilling company, Range Resources Ltd., after  finding in 2010 that gas drilling had caused or contributed to polluting nearby water wells with benzene and methane.

After that finding, the EPA had required Range Resources to provide water for two affected families and to monitor their homes for evidence of explosive gases.

But the agency dropped that requirement and the case against Range Resources in March 2012, with little explanation, saying only it wanted to “shift” the case away from litigation and focus on working with gas extraction companies to find safer drilling practices.

Range Resources has maintained that the well contamination in homes in Weatherford in Parker County west of Fort Worth came from naturally occurring methane gas in deposits in the Strawn formation, and cannot be attributed to its gas drilling operations in the deeper Barnett Shale.

Now six U.S. senators have asked the EPA’s inspector general to investigate and report on why the EPA dropped the case.

The environmental groups have added their voices to that call, saying that they fear the EPA caved to industry and political pressure, as a recent investigations by the Associated Press and EnergyWire have suggested.

Documents obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request and published on Feb. 5 by Washington, DC-based EnergyWire show that former Pennsylvania governor and former head of the Democratic National Committee Ed Rendell pressured the EPA to drop the case. Rendell was on vacation, according to an aide, and had no comment.

The EnergyWire piece also shows that EPA staff who wanted to pursue the case faced intense pressure to back down from Texas oil and gas officials who’d cleared Range Resources of culpability.

Separately, the AP  reported in January that the EPA had found “extremely high levels of methane in [the] water pose an imminent and substantial risk of explosion or fire” at houses near the drilling site northwest of Fort Worth. The finding shows the inner conflict at the agency, which could have used the report to continue its case against Range.

Steve Lipsky, LM Otero AP

Steve Lipsky, a homeowner whose water has been contaminated by methane gas, demonstrates its flammability. (Photo: LM Otero, AP)

The AP story reported that the EPA had hired an independent investigator who found that the water contamination likely came from nearby gas drilling; yet EPA dropped the case against Range Resources “despite the compelling evidence” against the company.

The protesting environmental and anti-fracking groups want to get to the bottom of the case. They say in their letter issued Monday:

“We want to ensure that your [EPA's inspector general] investigation encompasses issues that have recently come to light that raise questions about EPA’s commitment to protecting the public from oil and natural gas drilling pollution.”

The local groups signing the letter represent citizens concerned about the safety of hydraulic gas fracturing in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, Wyoming, California, Colorado, Maryland and New Jersey.

Apr 242012

From Green Right Now Reports

The Meadows Foundation has given the Texas Trees Foundation $96,000 to fund what could be the largest tree planting initiative in the nation.

Texas Trees plans to plant  3 million trees in North Texas over the next ten years, helping to restore a few of the estimated 500 million trees lost to the historic heat and drought of 2011.

Tree plantings will be sited mainly on public and price lands in the most densely populated 10-county area around Dallas and Fort Worth, with a focus on replacing canopy cover. A few counties farther out will be included in the tree plantings. More than 45 mayors have pledged their support for the project, which has already begun plantings, according to the trees foundation.

“We are very grateful to the Meadows Foundation for their continued dedication to improving the air, water and quality of life for the community,” said Janette Monear, President & CEO of Texas Trees Foundation. “The Meadows Foundation recognizes the value of trees and importance of improving our environment for today and for future generations.”

Aug 242011

From Green Right Now Reports

You can't necessarily see it, but that light summer haze could be brewing ground-level ozone. Among Texas cities, Austin has less of it. But alerts have been issued for late August.

Get your gas masks out. Seriously, plan to hide indoors if you live in Austin, Dallas, Fort TCEQ’s air forecasts.Worth, Houston or the Beaumont-Port Arthur or Tyler-Longview areas, the next few days are promising air that’s “unhealthy for sensitive groups.”

It happens every summer, and as you can see, the “unhealthly to sensitive groups” category is not the worst one possible. But these polluted late summer days still a serious encumbrance to anyone who is active outdoors, suffers from allergies or asthma, is a young child or an older adult.

In other words, a pretty significant chunk of the population had better watch out if they’re outdoors during coming days. To learn more about your air, see the

Air Quality Index (AQI)
AQI Scale
Forecast Region
(Click name for AIRNOW version)
Austin Good Ozone Ozone Ozone
Beaumont-Port Arthur Ozone Ozone Ozone Ozone
Brownsville-McAllen Good Good Good Good
Corpus Christi Good Good Good Ozone
Dallas-Fort Worth Ozone Ozone Ozone Ozone
El Paso Good Good Good Good
Houston Ozone Ozone Ozone Ozone
Laredo Good Good Good Good
Lubbock Good Good Good Good
Midland-Odessa Good Good Good Good
San Antonio Good Ozone Ozone Ozone
Tyler-Longview Ozone Ozone Ozone Ozone
Victoria Good Good Good Ozone
Waco-Killeen Ozone Ozone Ozone Ozone

Feb 012011

From Green Right Now Reports

Meritage Homes, a large production homebuilder active in the Southwest U.S., has expanded its green home offerings to Texas.

A Texas-style home built by Meritage in River Trails, Fort Worth.

The new Meritage green communities in Fort Worth and San Antonio will offer home buyers Energy Star-qualified homes that feature spray foam insulation and water-saving plumbing fixtures, among other features.

To meet Energy Star standards, these homes must include energy-saving features that make them typically 25 to 30 percent more efficient than comparable conventionally built homes. Meritage reports that its new energy-efficient homes will save homeowners up to 60 percent on their energy bills, making them even more efficient than the standards require.

“We’ve changed how we build homes and we expect it is going to change the industry. Our goal is to pioneer a new standard, building family communities with extremely energy efficient homes. The result is a design that delivers a significant savings without sacrificing comfort, function or style,” said Steve Hilton, President and CEO of Meritage Homes, in a statement.

The homes at the two  communities – Rolling Creek in San Antonio and The Lakes of River Trails in Fort Worth — will offer these features:

  • Spray Foam Insulation, which seals the house so it can retain heated and cooled air. It offers three times the R-value of the standard required fiberglass insulation, according to Meritage.
  • Double Low-E Vinyl Windows that can reduce energy loss by up to 50%.
  • Energy Efficient CFL Lighting that reduces lighting energy usage by 75%.
  • Weather Sensing Irrigation System to enable landscaping that meets standards set by the EPA’s new WaterSense program. (standard in Fort Worth, an upgrade in San Antonio)
  • High Performance Water Saving Plumbing Fixtures including dual-flush toilets that can reduce water bills and cut water heating costs in half.
  • 14-SEER Air Conditioning Unit that can lower cooling costs by up to 40%.

Meritage Homes Corporation, the 9th largest homebuilder in the U.S. based on homes closed, builds in a range of price categories, from starter to move-up and luxury homes.

The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company is active in 12 metro areas: Houston, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Austin, San Antonio, Phoenix/Scottsdale, Tucson, Las Vegas, Denver, Orlando, and the East Bay/Central Valley and Inland Empire of California.

Meritage was recognized by the National Homebuilders Association with the 2011 Energy Value Housing Award and boasts that it is  “the only large national homebuilder to be 100% ENERGY STAR qualified in every home started since January 1, 2010.”


Feb 252010

By Harriet Blake
Green Right Now

As passionate as his father was about civil rights, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is equally so about the environment.

Robert Kennedy Jr.

Robert Kennedy Jr.

In a lecture in Fort Worth on Wednesday, the 56-year-old son of the late Senator, advocated for moving the nation to green energy, which he doesn’t see as encompassing nuclear power.

Coal is not the only power-producing industry that needs scrubbing, said the longtime environmentalist, nuclear energy is simply not safe. “Nuclear energy is the most catastrophic form of energy. No bank will finance it…[and] no insurance company will insure it,” he said.

“It’s not just a bunch of hippies saying it’s unsafe. There are spills all the time into the Hudson,” says Kennedy, who serves as chief prosecuting attorney for Riverkeeper, whose mission is the restoration of the Hudson River. Three Mile Island was not the last accident despite what nuclear advocates say.

He made it clear that lobbyists for fossil fuel and polluting energy industries are powerful and dangerous. The nuclear industry, for example, managed to find a way to get a Congressional exemption that leaves them free from damage. “All homeowners’ policies in the U.S. exclude radiation from the nuclear industry,” he said.

Kennedy believes greed has taken over the utility companies as well. “Utility companies make money by selling more energy – even if the energy is green. We need to change the rules,” he says. “Don’t reward bad behavior.”

He believes it’s a question of loyalty. “Instead of being loyal to their shareholders, company leaders need to be loyal to our nation,” he says.

Along with serving on the boards of green energy companies, Kennedy, a resident of Mount Kisco, N.Y., has led the efforts to protect New York City’s water supply, both through Riverkeeper and as a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. He is the president of Waterkeeper Alliance and a professor and supervising attorney at Pace University School of Law’s Environmental Litigation clinic. (After getting his undergraduate degree from Harvard and law degree from the University of Virginia, he picked up a masters in environmental law from Pace.)

As a partner with Silicon Valley’s VantagePoint Ventures, he is involved firsthand with green energy. VantagePoint funds an array of emerging clean tech and green energy companies., including solar, algae fuel and energy conservation businesses.

During his lecture at Texas Christian University, Kennedy also addressed the coal industry’s claims that coal is clean and cheap. It is neither, he says.

The problem is that once a coal plant is built, there are many hidden costs such as pollution and healthcare.

“More than 60,000 Americans are killed each year due to ozone particulate pollution,” he says. In addition, every fish in the United States is affected by dangerous levels of mercury, thanks to the coal industry. That mercury level also has grown in humans. Babies being born to women with high mercury levels have a higher percentage of illness ranging from autism to mental retardation.

On the other hand, “Once a solar plant is built, the energy is free forever.” There are no pollution and health costs, and no strings attached, he said.

Using coal to produce electricity is a destructive business from the beginning of the process, says Kennedy, who opposes the mountain-top removal mining in Appalachia in which ancient mountains are sheared off to get to the coal. The practice destroys forests and the resulting debris pollutes area rivers. (Coal companies say they ameliorate the damage by planting new trees, but environmentalists say these saplings cannot replace the mature forests; that erosion, runoff and river pollution are not abated.)

Kennedy recalled his father being against what was then known as strip-mining. “He told me, [the coal industry] is not just destroying the environment, but permanently impoverishing the surrounding communities. They’re doing this so they can break the unions.”

It’s particularly a shame because Appalachia, Kennedy points out, “is the oldest ecosystem on the continent.”

“Today,” he says, “ninety-nine percent of coal in West Virginia is owned by Wall Street bankers such as JP Morgan and Chase.” The reason? Many of the homeowners were tricked into selling their mineral rights because they didn’t know any better. “The coal industry has liquidated the people of West Virginia of their cash,” he says.

Kennedy says he’s not just fighting for ecosystems and halting the destruction of the environment. “It’s about the subversion of American democracy, the public process and transparency in government.

“Government is supposed to protect us,” but because of the influence polluting companies and lobbyists wield in Washington, that’s not happening.

Interestingly enough, he says, “every nation that has attempted ‘de-carbonization’, has prospered afterward. In Iceland, they became scared of global warming and within 15 years, went from being the poorest nation in Europe to the fourth richest. Sweden is another example. After Sweden de-carbonized and closed their nuclear facilities, they prospered. Tons of entrepreneurs came in as clean energy was introduced.”

He named Brazil and Costa Rica as having robust economies after they de-carbonized as well.

Robert Kennedy Jr. speaks at TCU.

Robert Kennedy Jr. speaks at TCU.

Kennedy would like to see an increase in geothermal power, which he uses at his home in New York. “Geothermal,” he says, “is an underutilized resource. It’s been unexploited until now, but it could be a boon, especially in Texas where you already have holes in the ground from gas/oil drilling.” His home also has solar panels and between the two forms of energy, his home generates more power than he can use, which he then sells back to the utility company. “But you can’t do this in all states. This needs to be fixed. We need to reward efficiency; and punish inefficiency. We should be able to turn every home into a power plant.”

Another resource he’d like to see used more is wind. “There’s enough wind in the states of North Dakota, Minnesota and Texas to power the entire country,” he says.

The Obama Administration faces some major obstacles, Kennedy says. “We need to get rid of the subsidies that give breaks to dirty energy. And we have to build an electric grid that can accommodate the entire country.”

Kennedy compares the effort to the interstate highway system that was built during the Eisenhower years. The United States has the technology, Kennedy says. “And we have the resources – wind that blows at night; and sun that shines by day…We can put PVCs on every south-facing roof in the country.” Taking advantage of these green energies should be a no-brainer.

The TCU lecture was part of the Frost Foundation Lectureship for Global Issues, sponsored by the TCU Center for International Studies.

Copyright © 2010 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network

Nov 042008

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Every spring, as sure as the sun warms the cedars and the birds flock back from Mexico, Lee Clauser leads a stealth group of intense adults dressed in khakis and boots to the edge of a wild thicket near his house in north central Texas.

They creep into the brush, quietly unloading their weapons of mass observation.

Putting binoculars to eyes, they look, and listen, for the brilliant Golden-cheeked warbler, and for the reclusive Black-capped vireo. Both songbirds are listed as endangered in the United States, their nesting grounds having been narrowed to a strip of Texas Hill Country that supplies just the right shrubbery and old-growth cedars. The birders, who come from Fort Worth, Dallas, New England, the Pacific Northwest and beyond, know that catching a glimpse of one of these delicate creatures is a rare treat.

“People have come from Europe to see those birds, both species. For birders all over the world, it’s a huge deal,” says Clauser, a retired banker and life-long bird rescue and rehabilitation expert.

“Texas is the only place in the entire world that they nest,” confirms Gail Morris, president of the Fort Worth Audubon Society. “They require certain junipers and ash and that habitat is just not available anywhere.” Continue reading »