Posts tagged with Environment

Pieces of razed buildings find new life at 'clean fill' site

On a dead-end street in a not-so-nice neighborhood of Kansas City, Kan., a makeshift open air showroom has been set up with neat rows of asphalt pieces, concrete slabs and rocks on display. Next to them are piles of rebar and PCP piping.

They are all remnants of razed buildings and are products of a “clean fill” — as opposed to a landfill — operation in full swing on the property.

But it wasn’t so long ago that drugs and prostitutes were the only thing for sale on the deserted street.

“The more things that happen there,” Dean Zagortz said pointing to the mounds of dirt and rock behind him, “the less things happen here.”

When Zagortz bought the land in 2000, there was a rundown home and overgrown thicket of trees and poison ivy.

From time to time, Zagortz and business partner Holli Joyce, a Lawrence resident, would drive by the property and wonder what should be done with it.

The answer came in 2008, when the two, who are in the financial security business, formed ZJ Enterprises LLC, and decided to turn the land into a site where they would accept and sort materials from demolished buildings. They call the material urbanite, a term for a mixture of used concrete, block, rock, dirt, brick and asphalt.

“It’s the ability to take a piece of land and reclaim it,” Joyce said of the concept.

Over the past year and half, the business, which they have named GreenWill, has accepted materials from the demolished White Haven Motel, Prairie Village Standard and Roeland Park School. They have piles of rocks from buildings that used to sit along Sixth Street in downtown Kansas City, rocks they think could have very well come from their property when it was quarry at the turn of the century.

The 6-acre property sits just off of Interstate 70 near the Interstate 635 interchange. It’s sandwiched between Kansas City’s City Park and the religious retreat center Sanctuary of Hope, home of the large Jesus statue overlooking the city.

Zagortz also bought the adjacent property, turning a home into an office. The business partners fixed water runoff problems on the property, drainage work was done and a rain garden installed. They created a butterfly garden and planted trees.

Below the office is a wide area that has been cleared so there is enough room for multiple semi trucks to drop off materials. And then there is a patch of woods with trails connecting to the retreat center. The site has been visited by both deer and graffiti vandals.

A few hundred feet away, I-70 traffic zips along.

“On a good night it sounds like a roaring river,” Zagortz said.

Proximity to the highway was key to their business plan. Zagortz said the vast majority of their customers used their site because it was the closest and least expensive.

The site’s showpiece is a mound of 3,000 cubic yards of dirt, part of the construction debris they’ve accepted. On top of the mound, Zagortz and Joyce have planted an urbanite garden. Pathways are created out of pieces of asphalt, art work is made with rebar, curbs form outdoor couches, concrete conduits are planters and cinder blocks form comfy seats. Plants are located throughout the area.

Zagortz and Joyce said in about a month the site will reach the limit in the amount of material it can comfortably take.

The next phase of the project is repurposing the material, and where community involvement is vital.

“We want to hear what people’s ideas are,” Zagortz said.

They are looking for artists, architects, landscapers and homeowners who have unique projects in mind that could use urbanite. From 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, they are hosting an open house at the property, 361 City Park Drive, Kansas City, Kan.

Even if visitors don’t find something to take home, Zagortz and Joyce hope it will inspire folks to look at construction debris in a new way.

By Christine Metz


‘Green’ jobs bigger part of work landscape

A builder who performs home energy audits. An office manager who looks for ways to green the supply chain. An auto mechanic who fixes hybrid vehicles. And an electrical lineman who is working on the smart grid.

Those are all green jobs, said Jay Antle, executive director of Johnson County Community College’s Center for Sustainability.

Much has been said about President Barack Obama’s aim to create green jobs as part of the nation’s attempt to regain economic stability. And some of the debate has centered on what exactly those green jobs are.

“I think part of our problem and why our national debate is skewed is the way we define green jobs,” Antle said.

For Antle, the question shouldn’t be how to create more green jobs, but how to transform traditional jobs into green ones.

“The real energy is going to be: How do you green existing jobs and not just because of environmental concerns,” he said. “It’s really about making operations more efficient that will have positive environmental outcomes.”

Donna Ginther, director of Kansas University’s Center for Economic and Business Analysis, agrees it can be hard to define just exactly what a green job is. While it’s not working in a coal plant or building oil pipelines, it could include research that is being done at KU on alternative fuels and transportation.

“Anything related to bioenergy is a green job, anything related to energy conservation or sustainability would be a green job,” Ginther said. “But it is really difficult to get a precise definition on what we mean by green jobs.”

In 2010, the Kansas Department of Labor released a report that attempted to do just that. They placed green jobs into five categories:

  • Renewable energy

  • Energy efficiencies

  • Agriculture and natural conservation

  • Pollution prevention and

  • environmental cleanup

Clean transportation and fuels

The data, which was collected from nearly 3,000 employers in 2009, found that the state had 20,044 people employed in primary green jobs, which was about 1.5 percent of the workforce. Another 26,380 people were employed in secondary green jobs.

Those employers predicted that by 2012, there would be 30,236 primary green jobs. The biggest growth was anticipated in the renewable energy sector, where jobs were expected to increase by 121 percent. In the energy efficiency category, which had the most jobs, the number was anticipated to increase by 56.9 percent.

‘We are the solutions’

The report’s findings also echoed Antle’s observation that the majority of green jobs aren’t going to be the new ones created, for example, from manufacturing wind turbines or solar panels.

Among the occupations with the most green jobs were carpenters, heating, air-conditioning and refrigeration mechanics and installers, and landscaping and grounds workers.

One green business in Lawrence falls into the last category.Since high school, Troy Karlin, owner of All-N-1 Landscape, has been mowing lawns. When he graduated from KU in 2001, he turned his mowing services into a full-time business.

Over the years, Karlin’s philosophy on how to care for lawns changed as his concerns about the environment grew. He stopped using petrochemicals and began suggesting his clients incorporate items such as permeable pavements, rain barrels and edible foods into their outdoor space.

He eventually introduced a sustainable division to his company. In 2004, the company did its first green project, which was about one-eighth of 1 percent of the company’s total revenues.

Today, the sustainable division accounts for 16 to 20 percent of the revenues, and Karlin hopes to see it grow to about 32 percent next year. Since 2007, Karlin has upped his workforce by one employee annually to help with the work.

“As our sustainable division grows and our sustainable landscaping revenues grow, our green jobs grow,” Karlin said.

His advice is to not wait for the perfect green job.

“Everyone looks for the government and politicians to create these jobs out of thin air,” he said. “We are the solutions. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We have to get busy and solve them on our level in our world.”

Johnson County Community College is betting on a workforce that wants to acquire a green skill set. The college offers classes on sustainable agriculture, energy auditing and preparing for LEED certification.

Both Ginther and Antle don’t recommend that people limit themselves to looking for just green jobs. Instead, they recommended training for a career that could be tailored to green areas.

“Getting technical and analytical skills are the best bet for employment in the future,” Ginther said. “Some of those jobs may be green, some may not be.”

For Antle, green training helps give employees an edge in an increasingly competitive job market.

“I would argue that you need to define a solid career path that is going to be increasingly greening itself,” he said.

By Christine Metz


EPA official stresses clean water advocacy

With the Environmental Protection Agency under attack like never before, Region 7 Administrator Karl Brooks urged a friendly crowd at Monday’s Jayhawk Audubon Society meeting to advocate for cleaner water.

Recently, Republicans — both in Kansas and in Washington, D.C. — have criticized the EPA for what they say are too-stringent regulations that hamper small businesses, farmers and job growth.

“Our agency right now is as controversial as any government agency in the last quarter century,” Brooks said. “And, I can say that. I’m an historian.”

Brooks, who has lived in Lawrence for 15 years and teaches environmental law, history and policy at Kansas University, took on the role of EPA Region 7 administrator in 2010. He noted Monday night that public opinion polls show 75 percent of Americans support that the EPA should be as strong as it is now.

“Criticism comes with the turf. There’s never been a time where the EPA hasn’t been debated. But this is probably as tough as a season as we have ever faced,” Brooks said. “I’m confident that this agency will renew that connection with the people.”

Brooks main focus Monday was on better management of the state’s watersheds. Although Kansas law says water is a public resource, nearly all the land in Kansas is private. And much of that land is heavily cultivated.

The 41-year-old Clean Water Act regulates the pollution the sewer plants and industries emit into waterways. But it fails to regulate what chemicals are entering the waterways through nonpoint source pollution, such as the fertilizers put on lawns, fields and parks.

The most prevalent form of nonpoint source pollution in Kansas is the nitrogen and phosphorous coming from farm fields. Across the country, the EPA has set up conversations with other federal agencies, state and local government groups and businesses to talk about ways to better control the pollutants without requiring agriculture producers to obtain permits.

“What we have tried to do in Kansas and other states is to focus in on finding the problem and measuring where we are at and using the data to come up with solutions that do not involve the use of a permit,” Brooks said.

But Brooks said the input from groups such as the Audubon Society will be important in that process.

“That’s right, look in the mirror; you are going to have to become involved,” Brooks said. “If you don’t, other entities who are only interested in what they do will be the only ones at the table. You are going to have to step up and get involved.”

By Christine Metz


Public hearing on controversial pipeline project will be held in Topeka

Several of Kansas’ largest environmental groups plan to protest the massive and controversial Keystone XL Pipeline project when they rally outside of a public hearing in Topeka on Monday.

Next week, the U.S. State Department will hold public hearings in eight cities stretching from Montana to Texas on TransCanada’s proposed 1,700-mile, $7 billion pipeline project. The pipeline will more than double the amount of crude oil being transported from the oil sand fields of Canada to the refineries on the Gulf Coast.

Part of that massive pipeline already runs through Kansas, but it hasn’t been built in other states.

Before the pipeline can be built, a presidential permit must be issued, a process that is being overseen by the U.S. State Department. Part of that process includes taking public comments.

Monday’s hearings will be from noon to 3 p.m. and then from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Kansas Expocentre, 1 Expocentre Drive, Topeka.

Outside of the Expocentre, protesters plan to hold a rally at 3:30 p.m. Among those opposing the pipeline are the National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Great Plains Alliance for Clean Energy, Kansas Young Democrats, CREDO and Kansas Interfaith Power and Light.

Extracting oil from tars sand is among the dirtiest forms of energy, said Kendall Mackey, a grass-roots organizer for the National Wildlife Federation. Groups such as the National Wildlife Federation would like for the oil to be replaced with clean energy sources.

They also have concerns that once it reaches the refineries in the Gulf Coast, the oil will be shipped overseas and that TransCanada has a poor track record of oil spills.

“This is a national issue focused around America’s dependence on foreign oil,” Mackey said.

Monday’s rally will be an opportunity for those who want to speak outside the hearing, whether it be through words or signs.

Inside the hearing room, those signs will be forbidden. Those interested in speaking will sign up at the door. Each speaker should have three to five minutes to speak, but that could change if there are a large number of people who wish to speak.

All hearings are chaired by a senior official from the state department, who will explain the status of the permit and the department’s process for making a decision. The presiding officer will not answer questions. For those who don’t wish to speak, comments can be submitted in writing.

Regardless of the state department’s decision, the pipeline in Kansas won’t change, but two pumping stations could be built. Last summer, TransCanada laid pipeline through Kansas to connect Steele City, Neb., with Cushing, Okla. That pipeline travels through Washington, Clay, Dickinson, Marion, Butler and Cowley counties.

The current approval process is for two expansion projects. One starts in Hardisty, Alberta, Canada, and travels through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. Another phase would take oil from Oklahoma south to Texas. The pipeline that already runs through Kansas would connect those two projects.

Representatives for TransCanada have said that the company is going above and beyond what is required for safety and integrity. They also noted that Canada has far more stringent environmental regulations than other foreign countries supplying the U.S. with oil, such as Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Mexico.

By Christine Metz


Senator says dust regulation unnecessary; agency says farmers needn’t worry

From driving down rural roads to cattle stomping around the feedlot, dust is a common byproduct of farm life in Kansas.

And that’s exactly why the state’s agricultural organizations are so concerned about the Environmental Protection Agency’s review of the Clean Air Act, which, among other things, stipulates how much coarse particulate matter (aka dust) can be in the air.

Last week, U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., cosponsored a bill that would prohibit the EPA from regulating farm dust. In a press release, Roberts said the regulation “defies common sense.”

To be clear, the EPA hasn’t proposed any changes to the limits of coarse particulate matter that can be in the air. Right now the standard is set at 150 micrograms per cubic meter, which can’t be exceeded more than once a year over an average of three years. If it is exceeded, states have to submit an implementation plan that details what steps they will take to reduce the pollutants.

The Clean Air Act has been around for more than 40 years, and the 150 micrograms per cubic meter standard has been on the books since 1987. It’s a limit the state of Kansas has never exceeded. What has farmers and Roberts concerned is the EPA’s routine five-year review of the Clean Air Act standards.

The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, an independent advisory board, recommended that the EPA revise its current coarse particulate matter standard to between 65 to 75 micrograms per cubic meter.

And that’s a standard that just an average windy day in Dodge City could exceed, said Allie Devine, vice president of the Kansas Livestock Association.

“We estimate most of the western United States would exceed (national air standards) if the new lower standard for dust is adopted,” Devine said.

The Kansas Livestock Association has joined a coalition of other industries in the western half of the country to study the implications of such a standard and the health effects of dust.

“Here’s the kicker,” Devine said “The Clean Air Act requires there to be a health effect. And we don’t believe there is substantial data, or actually there is very little data, that supports the health effects of large particulate matter.”

While the smaller particulate matter can more easily escape into the lungs, Devine said the larger stuff mainly stays in the nose.

According to the EPA, scientific studies have linked exposure to coarse particles to increased respiratory symptoms in children and to hospital admissions or even premature death for people with heart or lung disease.

Furthermore the EPA contends the monitoring requirements don’t target rural areas. In Kansas, 10 air monitors measure coarse particulate matter. Four of those monitors are in the Wichita area, another two are in the Kansas City metro area, and the rest are in Topeka, Dodge City, Goodland and Chanute.

Kansas has never exceeded the standard. And according to the EPA, the vast majority of states who do have to reduce their emissions focus on pollutants from industrial and construction settings.

“There are no plans to regulate the dust from any farm,” said Kris Lancaster, an EPA Region 7 spokesman. “The focus is and consistently has been in urban areas where most of the air pollution is.”

Steve Baccus, a farmer near Salina and president of the Kansas Farm Bureau, scoffs at some of the proposals he has heard for curbing the dust from farming. They include speed bumps in feedlots, watering country roads, putting a diaper-like contraption on combines, lowering the gears on farm equipment so they go slower and limiting how many times fields can be tilled.

For Baccus they would all add more money and time to his farming operation.

“For some of this, there is no common sense involved,” he said.

But Lancaster said he doesn’t know of any such recommendations that have come from the EPA.

“We haven’t proposed any such ridiculous things,” he said.

As for Roberts’ proposed bill, dubbed The Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act, it would stop the EPA from imposing more stringent standards for one year. It would also give state and municipalities the ability to regulate the issue before the federal government. And before the EPA could impose stricter standards, it would have to prove there were substantial health effects from dust and that those concerns outweighed economic ones.

“Our producers deserve respect and appreciation from the EPA, not costly and redundant regulation,” Roberts said in a press release.

By Christine Metz


Litter Fest hits highways this weekend

The Midwest Litter Fest, a 45-mile trash-grabbing event from Johnson County to Lawrence, is set for Saturday.

The event will celebrate the arrival of Pick Up America, the nation’s first coast-to-coast roadside litter cleanup, in the Kansas City area.

To register a team, contact Julie Coon at or (913) 715-6938. One parent or guardian must be present for every three volunteers aged 11 to 15. For more information go to


Kansas attorney general sues to stop EPA air pollution rule

Attorney General Derek Schmidt on Monday filed a federal lawsuit to block new EPA air pollution regulations.

Schmidt said the regulations will require Kansas utilities to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in new emissions control equipment by Jan. 1.

“It will be physically impossible for all of our utilities to comply, which means that either Kansans will be paying higher rates to buy out-of-state electricity or there simply will not be enough electricity to meet Kansas demand after the first of the year,” he said.

EPA says the Cross-State Air Pollution rule is needed to prevent air pollution from power plants from contributing to air-quality and health problems in other states.

By Scott Rothschild


Simple steps can keep home's thermostat off in the fall

It might seem that Kansas weather jumps straight from winter to summer and then back to winter.

But in reality there are plenty of days in the fall when temperatures are perfectly moderate. And those days are great for turning off the thermostat and opening up the windows.

“You get the fresh air in there besides benefiting your energy bill,” said Delores Hughes, who runs a home energy auditing business with her husband Bob.

We talked to Hughes and other energy saving experts on how to make the most of fall’s pleasant weather.

Here’s what they had to say:


In the words of energy auditor Kirk Devine, “window management” is key. When it’s hot outside, keep the windows open to gather the cool air during the evening. Then, close them when you wake up so that cool air is captured inside the home.

On cold days the opposite is true. Make sure to keep windows, curtains or blinds opened in south-facing windows during the day. When the sun goes down, close them to keep the chill out.

When the weather turns really cold, install storm windows and keep the frames tightly latched to leave the cold air outside.

“Take those opportunities to manage windows, to draw the temperature air you want in and store it for later,” Devine said.

For those that don’t feel safe leaving the windows or curtains open, work with the blinds. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, when reflective blinds are closed and lowered on a sunny day, they can reduce heat gain by around 45 percent.

Blinds are more effective in warm weather since they reflect heat better than reducing heat loss.

Turn on the fan

On warm days, fans can be great for circulating the air through the house to create a cool breeze. Ceiling fans, which can make a house feel 4 degrees cooler, work best in rooms where ceilings are at least 8 feet high.

Be sure to turn off the fan before leaving the room or house. The DOE reminds folks that since fans create a wind chill effect, they cool people, not rooms.

For homes that have really high ceilings, Devine said it might be a good idea to reverse the fan when it turns colder so warm air is pushed down from the ceiling to the floor.

It’s a strategy that doesn’t work for homes with average ceiling heights, since even the warm air feels drafty on cold days.

Keep your house efficient

It doesn’t matter what time of year it is, the less air that gets into a home, the more efficient it will be to heat or cool it. That means having the proper amount of insulation in the home and making sure windows are tightly sealed and caulked, Hughes said.

And before turning on the furnace, make sure its cleaned and the filters have been changed. A well-maintained furnace is more efficient.

Adapt your lifestyle

Perhaps one of the easiest ways to keep up with the weather is by throwing on a sweater or putting an extra blanket on the bed when it gets chilly outside. For the hardy, wear a hat or long underwear.

Other tips for staying warm are to use the oven to heat up food (not the microwave), stay active and drink warm beverages.

Eileen Horn, sustainability coordinator for the city of Lawrence and Douglas County, sweated through the early part of the summer before turning on her air conditioner.

By resisting the urge to change the thermostat, Horn said it helps her adjust to the change in season.

“Even just sleeping with it a little bit colder in the house helps me get used to it,” Horn said.

By Christine Metz


Johnson County Sunflower contest approaching

Think you might have grown the biggest sunflower in the county?

The Johnson County K-State Research and Extension Sunflower Growing Contest is almost here, and horticulturists are offering last-minute tips.

When the plant’s leaves turn brown and the flower heads droop, the plant has reached its full maturity. You can either pull up the plant and store it until the contest or leave it in the ground, although birds or the elements could damage it outdoors. It’s OK if the plant and head are dry at the time of judging.

To enter, bring sunflowers to the Extension booth at the Overland Park Fall Festival in Santa Fe Commons Park, 8045 Santa Fe Drive in Overland Park, between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Sept. 24. Winners will be announced at 2 p.m.

Cash prizes totaling $550 will be awarded for first, second and third place for both the tallest plant and the largest seed-head. For complete contest rules, visit


Team travels across country picking up, recycling trash

Moving mile by mile, the team of volunteers at Pick Up America have seen much as they gathered trash along the country’s roadways.

In Maryland, they found a chicken duct taped to a shoe box. One spot along the Ohio River, the receded waters left behind a contour of plastic bottles so thick it took a single day to move just over a half-mile.

And in Missouri, the team picked up enough aluminium beer cans to joke that their trip is partially sponsored by the drunk drivers of the Show Me State.

But mostly the team has discovered heaps of wasted natural resources thoughtlessly tossed out of car windows. It’s an image they want to share with the rest of us.

“All the things we view as trash, what ends up on the side of the road and things we throw away every day, are not necessarily trash. They are a natural resource that we are making a decision to stuff in a landfill. And that does no one any good,” Jeff Chen.

Chen, a 25-year-old University of Maryland alumni, is cofounder of the nonprofit Pick Up America. The idea come from a dream to walk across the country and was combined by an experience he had as a student conservation volunteer at Yosemite National Park. The trail to one of the park’s most popular attractions, Half Dome, was covered in litter.

“We are just idealistic kids. When we dream up something weird and ridiculous we just try to do it,” Chen said.

A year ago in March, the team launched from the coast of Maryland and by November had made it to Ohio, where they stopped for the winter. Their work resumed last March in Ohio and the goal is to make it to Denver by November. By November 2012, they hope to reach the San Francisco Bay.

So far, they’ve collected more than 125,000 pounds of trash. But, the group’s mission isn’t just about picking up the country’s litter. Chen said they want to spread a message of zero waste.

As they move across the country, the team has discovered that much of what they collect can’t be recycle because the nearby communities don’t have the facilities to accept the different kinds of plastics.

“I would say that 20 percent of the things that are picked up are actually recyclable. When you get to a bigger city, you are able to recycle a lot more. You try to do what you can. But the system isn’t working in our favor,” Chen said.

Chen and his group are still looking for volunteers for the Midwest Litter Fest, a Sept. 24 event which will have teams helping pick up trash on a 45-mile route from Johnson County to Lawrence. It’s one event that Chen hopes will inspire others to keep their roadways clean and reduce their consumption.

“We want to get people out there to see trash with us, to see what is on the side of the road. Once they see it, maybe they will get hooked and maybe make a commitment to reducing the plastic in their life,” Chen said.

Details of events:

Pick Up America along with the Blue River Watershed Association and Cans for the Community is hosting the Midwest Litter Fest on Sept. 24. The event will tackle a 45-mile stretch of road from Roeland Park to Lawrence.

The organizers are looking for 20 to 25 teams of between four and 10 people to help collect litter along a two-mile section of the proposed route. Volunteers will meet a 8 a.m. at Shelter No. 12 in Shawnee Mission Park for breakfast and a safety briefing. Teams will help pick-up litter from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and return back to the shelter for a victory photo.

All participants can receive a T-shirt. To register or find out more information go to

By Christine Metz