Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Green Infrastructure Is By Definition Moderate

Friends and readers of this blog often kid me that based on some of the topics in this blog, I often appear more progressive than moderate, as I claim.

I can see their point.  Moderates are eclectic in their views by nature.  But reading closely they will see that while I am passionate about green infrastructure, I often kid “eco-Talibans.”  I prefer bans such that result in recycling and recovery to those on consumer use.

I also believe biotech, or genetically modified, foods (GMO) can be extremely beneficial and not just because I live in Durham, NC, a center for biotechnology research, development and entrepreneurs.

I am also wary of mainframe solutions or one-size-fits all approaches institutionalized by regulations, uninformed by or restricted from practicality and inflexible to the spirit in which they were created.

I am particularly intrigued with solutions forged across seemingly ideological divides such as the case made for green infrastructure over gray infrastructure in a white paper published last month by scientists for The Dow Chemical Company, Shell, Swiss Re and Unilever in conjunction with The Nature Conservancy.

These organizations have unique histories.  About the time Dow was founded in Michigan in 1897, the business that pioneered bulk oil tankers in 1892 was being renamed Shell.  Swiss Re, a wholesale reinsurance pioneer against catastrophes, took on the hazards of operating railroads, following insuring the conveyance of visitors to the World’s Fair in Chicago.

At the time, Unilever had just created Lifebuoy Soap and was launching Sunlight flakes to revolutionize household cleaning.  Two decades later The Nature Conservancy (TNC) found roots first as a society for ecologists to “publish research and pursue an agenda to preserve natural areas.”

World War I had started and baseball slugging legend Babe Ruth began his career as a pitcher in Boston.  Officials in New York State had protected the Adirondacks and Cornell professor Liberty Hyde Bailey published The Holy Earth, elevating conservation stewardship to an ethical imperative.

Bailey had been born on the shores of Lake Michigan, 168 miles west and south of where Dow was founded - and is still headquartered - near Saginaw Bay on Lake Huron.  In 1908, he headed President Theodore Roosevelt’s national Country Life Commission.

L.H. Bailey died in 1952 when I was shy of four years old,  two years after The Ecological Society of America had been renamed The Nature Conservatory and less than three years before the organization founded the first “land preservation fund.”

Seadrift, Texas lies roughly midway between Houston and San Antonio, encompassed by the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge which protects it from the Gulf of Mexico.  Dow’s 4,700 acre plant in North Seadrift was established in 1954 by Union Carbide which it assumed as a subsidiary in 2001.

The two companies had been founded a year apart but Dow took a special interest in the Seadrift plant not because it makes plastics for wiring and drip irrigation or glycols for antifreeze and fabrics, but for its use of green infrastructure.

To expand in 1996, regulations required expanded water treatment facilities that would cost $40 million.  But an engineer, possibly inspired by witnessing the power of wetlands in the surrounding wildlife refuge, staked his career on an unconventional solution, construction of a wetland next to the plant.

At $1.4 million, it was far less expensive and now treats 5 million gallons of water per day while meeting all regulatory standards.  As a bonus it provides habitat for wildlife.  One of the few downsides, as noted in the white paper, is that it first required a 1 to 2 year pilot project and it covers 110 acres as opposed to 4-5 acres for a treatment plant.

Dow is currently taking this tactical success to a strategic level and re-evaluating the feasibility of green infrastructure substitutes to a number of its gray infrastructure practices.  The paper also discussed a project in Oman where Shell is using commercial wetlands to treat water from oil drilling.

The white paper also gives a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) of green infrastructure, an overview of risk management solutions, as well as recommendations for how to make green infrastructure alternatives scalable.

Experts from Swiss Re have a special purpose for their involvement.  The company is in the business of managing risks, including that from global climate change, for which it has been a harbinger.  While many in high office hold solutions to that issue hostage, the free market is taking it very seriously.

Officials in my adopted home of Durham are working hard to deploy green infrastructure by taking a page from its past.  As can be seen by torrential downpours here of late, the city’s park, many of which were created on floodplains, also serve as giant retention ponds to slow and cleanse run-off.

Now in an effort to purify two of Durham’s urban streams, Ellerbe and South Ellerbe creeks, as well as a Durham lake created in the 1970s as a water supply for Raleigh located further downstream, storm water officials are proposing to create a wetland where an abandoned fitness center sits in the floodplain.

The proposed site sits at a low spot that drains nearly 480 acres of storm water runoff from Downtown and the lower part of the historic Trinity Park neighborhood.  It would cleanse this water of pollutants gathered from the impervious surface of the urban core and then slowly release them to control flooding.

Hopefully, when complete, The Dow Chemical Company’s strategic assessment of a holistic, company-wide application of green infrastructure applications will include full-cost accounting.  To fully address sustainability, it will have to not only offset the company’s footprint on the environment but give back.

As its founder, Herbert H. Dow. once remarked – “If you can’t do it better, why do it?”  Companies may never be able to outperform nature, but there is a stewardship obligation to first, do no harm.”

As disheartening as it is to see those in high office try to undo stewardship, I am heartened by what may become the full embrace of the marketplace.

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