Here’s what 4 local experts have to say about the environmental state of the region - Generocity Philly

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Mar. 2, 2016 10:03 am

Here’s what 4 local experts have to say about the environmental state of the region

Their conclusion? Well, we're doing pretty well in some areas, but pretty terribly in others.

Andrew Kricun, executive director and chief engineer of Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority, speaks during the PHENND panel.

(Photo by Julie Zeglen)

Philadelphia is known as one of this country’s greenest cities, thanks to efforts from the Office of Sustainability and the former mayor’s pledge to become the greenest city in America.

The Philadelphia Higher Education Network for Neighborhood Development (PHENND) Conference, held last Friday at Philadelphia University, discussed how we’re doing in four specific areas: energy efficiency, land use, air quality and water management.

Four environmental experts spoke about their organizations’ sustainability efforts during a panel titled “The Environmental State of the Region” —

  • Liz Robinson, executive director, Energy Coordinating Agency
  • Julianne Schrader Ortega, chief of programs, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society
  • Sean Greene, manager, Air Quality Programs, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission
  • Andrew Kricun, executive director and chief engineer, Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority

Their conclusion? We’re doing pretty well in some areas, but pretty terribly in others — and though it’s a challenge, we each need to do our part to save the planet.

LIZ ROBINSON

Robinson cofounded the Energy Coordinating Agency (ECA) in 1984 as a nonprofit that coordinates energy services for low-income Philadelphia residents, such as air sealing in basements and painting roofs white; compared to black roofs, white roofs are 60 to 90 degrees cooler, Robinson said. About 10,000 homes are serviced per year.

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ECA also hosts a Green Jobs Training Center.

“If Philadelphia was going to realize the potential it had for energy efficiency,” she said, “we needed to train the workforce to match that potential.”

"We have to monetize carbon, just as we are monetizing energy efficiency. In a capitalistic society, we have to create value."
Liz Robinson

The energy efficiency industry is changing quickly, according to Robinson. The U.S. is now accepting energy efficiency as a resource, and as a result, “a lot of changes are coming” in sustainability. The Clean Power Plan, federally announced in April 2015, “is potentially transformative and it is extremely important to move in this direction,” she said.

If the plan is implemented, a national market for carbon pollution reduction will be created. This is essential for the future of sustainability, Robinson said.

“We have to monetize carbon, just as we are monetizing energy efficiency,” she said. “In a capitalistic society, we have to [create] value.”

She also put out a call for all those technically, politically and educationally inclined to share the message of sustainability: “All hands on deck.”

JULIANNE SCHRADER ORTEGA

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS), the nation’s oldest horticultural society, aims to improve community through horticulture and by transforming local spaces.

However, “one of the big issues with land use” is vacant lots, Schrader Ortega said. And Philadelphia has a lot of them — about 40,000. “They really become havens of illegal activity and environmental contamination.”

PHS’s invention is simple: The organization coordinates cleanups to remove debris, add grass and provide maintenance. So far, it’s cleaned about 6,000 lots, resulting in increased housing values and decreased violence and stress levels in the surrounding areas, according to Schrader Ortega. 

Nowadays, PHS is working with community groups to maintain another 2,000 lots, and this year, with help from Council President Darrell Clarke’s office, it’s doing so with the help of returning citizens.

Sean Greene presents on regional air quality trends.

Sean Greene presents on regional air quality trends. (Photo by Julie Zeglen)

SEAN GREENE

The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) tracks the region’s air quality and makes sure that region’s transportation systems don’t cause violations of the Clean Air Act. About one-third of air pollutants and carbon emissions come from transportation sources, Greene said.

Over the past 15 years, the number of days the region violated federal air quality standards has generally decreased, according to Green, but it still does not meet standards for ground-level ozone pollution.

“We still have some work to do,” he said. More energy-efficient choices should be made on both regional and individual levels — for instance, on the local level, freight trucks at transportation centers can be turned off when idling at the gate.

There is a moral imperative to improve the region’s air quality: “The communities that experience the most [issues with air quality] are the ones that are least qualified to deal with them,” Green said, referring to low-income neighborhoods.

ANDREW KRICUN

Kricun, an environmental engineer, put in no uncertain terms the severity of our environmental standing: “One of the great challenges of the 21st century,” he said, “is going to be to save the planet.”

It’s daunting, yes, but “this task is too big for any one person. Everyone must do their part.”

There are certain challenges faced especially by water waste treatment plants such as the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority (CCMUA) — an increasing population, which leads to increasing demand for industry and increasing water use. Nationally, there’s a problem with aging infrastructure: In 2015, the U.S. got a D+ grade for its infrastructure quality, up from a D in 2010, according to Kricun. 

But, he said, challenges are opportunities. CCMUA’s organizational goals have been to optimize water quality, minimize energy use, control local odor from the facility and keep a triple bottom line of people, planet and profit.

Part of the problem was that system operators didn’t believe that these issues were related to justice, even though it was disadvantaged communities that were most negatively affected by poor water and air quality, so Kricun set out to change their minds.

"Change the paradigm to change the system internally."
Andrew Kricun

“Change the paradigm to change the system internally,” he advised.

The results so far are promising: CCMUA has reduced the amount of solids being released into the water by 40 percent, reduced odor violations, installed energy efficient aeration equipment and motors, created six new parks and planted 50 rain gardens — all while reducing costs by 43 percent, according to Kricun.

Partnerships have helped. CCMUA is a part of Camden Collaborative Initiative, which includes 45 entities in the city. Of that Initiative, six working groups have formed to work to solve environmental problems collectively, focusing on flooding, recycling, air emissions, environmental justice, environmental education and contaminated sites.

THE POWER OF PARTNERSHIPS

Several panelists spoke about university partnerships. Robinson said the the ECA is interested in partnering with local architecture programs to introduce students to real-world materials and community concerns — to “get their hands dirty.”

“Universities have a huge responsibility to educate and build demand for sustainability,” she said. “We have to create the demand for change.”

Schrader Ortega said PHS would like to increase their number of partnerships because it is limited in staff and also relies on input from communities. Students, too, are helpful in getting the word out and making a case for communities to adopt best practices regarding land use.

Kricun said CCMUA partners with Rutgers University to design its rain gardens and Drexel University to help with its combined sewage management. Partnerships can lead to a positive “cross-pollination of ideas,” he said.

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