The Living Wall

Urban Biofiltration

The concrete-and-steel of downtown Toronto is not generally thought of as environmentally friendly. But a number of office buildings in the heart of Canada's largest city have become involved in an exciting new “eco-engineering” application.

Photo: Toronto

The air smells sweeter at Toronto's Club Monaco after it installed a 40 square foot "living wall."

Over the past three years, Canada Life, Panasonic and the Club Monaco clothing chain have each had a self-sustaining ecosystem or “breathing wall” installed in their Toronto headquarters. Far from a few token plants, these ecosystems are complex combinations of water, rock, frogs, fish, insects and over 400 species of plant life.

Besides its aesthetic value, the breathing wall also serves a very practical purpose: It acts as a biofilter, removing contaminants from the air and then circulating clean air through the office naturally.

These new-wave urban gardens are the brainchild of Toronto biologist Wolfgang Amelung. Through his company, Genetron Systems Inc., the self-described “experimental engineer” has been creating his miniature ecosystems on a smaller scale for more than a decade. The larger corporate applications represent a major leap forward.

“About 20 years ago, I began to think about building self-sustaining ecosystems, to develop a philosophy behind it,” says Amelung. “You can't simply bring the outside inside, you have to recognize all the relationships that are involved.”

In the breathing wall, water flows over a lava rock wall covered by moss and other plants, then into a small pond. Contaminants in the air are absorbed by the vegetation and consumed by micro-organisms in the soil. Any excess waste is carried to the pond, where it is eaten by fish, frogs or insects. “Everything acts as a filter,” explains Amelung, and studies conducted by Guelph University confirm the biofilter's success.

Genetron's latest project is a 40-foot-square installation at the Toronto offices of Club Monaco. Employees of the club had complained of frequent headaches, red eyes and lethargy, signs of “sick building syndrome.”

Club Monaco CEO Joe Miriam says there was a noticeable improvement in air quality shortly after the installation opened. “Not only did the air smell sweeter, but I also noticed a higher energy level among the staff,” he says. “The plants helped increase the humidity and eliminate the dryness common to office buildings.”

Biofiltration itself isn't entirely new: Ocean Arks International has installed similar “greenhouse” tank filtration systems to process sewage, and NASA's Dr. Bill Wolverton created an entire “living” complex at the University of Mississippi. But bringing the technology inside and having it address air quality is Amelung's special innovation. “Eco-engineering requires working with nature rather than against it,” he says. “Once people align themselves to this way of thinking, the technology will take us to places we have yet to imagine.”

CONTACT

Genetron Systems
4801 Keele Street, Unit 34
Downsview, Ontario
Canada M3J 3A4
Tel: (416) 665-8155

—Joe Valvasori


Mississippi Casinos: A Lott of Help?

When dockside gaming was approved by the Mississippi legislature in 1991, state regulations required that casinos locate only in coastal waters and along the Mississippi River. As the popularity of gaming grew, the small riverboat casinos gave way to huge, floating barges, some longer than a football field.

Mississippi was soon the third-largest gaming area in the country after Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Looking at what amounted to floating cities, environmentalists said it made no sense to put millions of dollars worth of development in the water, especially along the hurricane-prone coast. Making common cause, environmental and neighborhood groups haven't opposed casinos in commercial areas, but are vigorously fighting them in pristine wetlands zoned for recreation and other such uses by the state's Coastal Zone Management Plan.

Photo: Bally

Mississippi's casinos are huge floating barges whose growth is threatening pristine wetlands.

Two mega-casino resorts are planned in undeveloped areas of Bay St. Louis. Another even larger enterprise in Biloxi would permanently shade 66 acres of the Mississippi Sound and fill 3.6 acres of wetlands. It would have six casinos, 12 hotels, a golf course and an amusement park.

Citizen groups thought they had won a victory last March when Michael Davis, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deputy assistant secretary, placed a moratorium on new casino permits until a two-year Environmental Impact Statement could be conducted.

But state business leaders reacted immediately. “It's a travesty of justice,” says Michael Olivier, executive director of the Harrison County Development Commission. He adds that, by including a sewage treatment plant in their plans, Circus Circus casino would actually be improving the environment. The business leaders called in the assistance of Senate Majority Leader (and Mississippi Republican) Trent Lott. Pro-casino forces alleged that Davis was colluding with his environmentalist brother-in-law, Michael Wiley, Region Four wetlands chief for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). At Lott's urging, both the Corps and EPA launched formal, internal investigations into the alleged conflict of interest between Davis and Wiley. The moratorium, which the Mobile office of the Corps now says never existed, was lifted.

For his part, Lott denies that he is pro-casino. A spokesman says that the senator's role was simply to assure that the casino permitting process was fair.

But casino opponents aren't happy with what they see as the majority leader using his political muscle to override environmental concerns about the rapidly-growing casino industry. “The Corps can't hide its change of position as a result of political pressure brought by Trent Lott,” says Reilly Morse, an attorney who represents area citizen groups. “There was a moratorium, powerful people opposed it, and they got it changed.”

CONTACT

Gulf Islands Conservancy
1270 Kensington Drive
Biloxi, MS 39530
Tel: (228) 435-1052

—Becky Gillette


The Electric Car's Lease on Life

Carspotters in Los Angeles looking for a General Motors EV1 or a Honda EV Plus on the freeways generally find their quarry emblazoned with the bold graphics of Southern California Edison. Even as major manufacturers' electric vehicles (EVs) have finally hit the road and been offered to the public, they've remained largely confined to utility fleets. And few are actually owned by the people who drive them.

The two-seat, plastic-bodied EV1, launched with much fanfare in 1996, is available to consumers in California and Arizona. Although the car “lists” for $33,995, GM doesn't sell it. Because it's trying to get customers behind the wheel, and doesn't want people scared away by high battery replacement costs and other new technology worries, it leases its vehicles, with charger included, for $399 to $549 (depending on state incen

tive programs).

But the public remains wary. Corporate customers have snapped EVs up, but the average commuter has not. According to Dick Thompson, GM's manager of advanced technologies, only 415 EV1s and about the same number of electric S10 pickup trucks have been leased in the two states since the program began.

Photo: Ford Ecostar

Northeast Utilities dismantled its fleet of electric vehicles (like this Ford Ecostar) after nuclear shutdowns affected cash flow.

Chrysler is also concentrating on California with a range of electric minivans that it leases for $450 a month, including a home charger. There was no 1998 program, but in 1997, 15 vans went to the federal government for use on military bases, and three went to California utilities. According to Mike Clement, Chrysler's manager of alternative fuel vehicle sales and marketing, “We lease vehicles not because they're necessarily hard to sell, but because the technology is changing very fast. We don't want customers to have a two- or three-year-old vehicle that is out of warranty, with obsolescent, very expensive parts.” The manufacturers “retain control” of vehicles they lease, Clement says, and don't have to create the 10-year service infrastructure normally required of new models.
Southern California Edison created a stir in the rather small, insular EV world by ordering 80 Toyota RAV-4 EVs in 1997. It also makes the small sport-utility vehicle available to its employees for lease. Wendy James, the company's manager of electric transportation, says she hopes the employee program will stimulate more consumer interest.

But depending on utility customers can have its down side. Connecticut's Northeast Utilities (NU) was one of the more enthusiastic EV proponents, but had to curtail its program after temporary closure of its Millstone nuclear power plants drastically affected cash flow. NU's Charles King adds that electric deregulation has also forced NU to become more bottom-line conscious. “Utilities like ours have had to look at programs with more short-term revenue potential,” he says. Instead of full-size EVs, NU recently conducted a trial of ZAP electric bicycles, lending them to police departments and campus security offices.

CONTACT

Electric Vehicle Association of the Americas
601 California Street, Suite 502
San Francisco, CA 94108
Tel: (800) 4EV-FACT
URL: http://www.evaa.org/

—Jim Motavalli


No More Ozone Hole?

Even as the ominous hole in the Earth's all-important ozone layer continues to grow, scientists are beginning to look forward to its long-term repair.

While one study calls for continued deterioration for several more decades, the Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion 1998, released by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), predicts that by 2050 the ozone layer will return to the condition it was in before 1970, when freon was first used.

The predicted recovery depends, of course, on some serious behavior modification, specifically full implementation of the landmark Montreal Protocol, including its ultimate goal of a total ban on ozone-destroying chemicals in the 165 countries that are parties to it. In the U.S., terms of the Protocol have already been implemented, such as the banning of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in 1996. Developing countries are slated to begin their own phase-outs of these chemicals this year.

Researchers say to expect more ozone loss in the near future, though. The CFC phase-out will not be felt immediately, because it takes time for chemicals to reach the stratosphere, where ozone depletion occurs. K. M. Sarma of UNEP's Ozone Secretariat points out that the CFCs in the stratosphere will peak soon before gradually declining, since “the CFCs already released will be in the stratosphere until the middle of the next century.”

John Passacantando, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Ozone Action, agrees that the problem has still not been solved. “The lesson from the Montreal Protocol is that we did not do enough soon enough,” he says. The foot-dragging is continuing: The budget passed by Congress let stand an environmental rider postponing until 2005 the phase-out of the ozone-depleting chemical methyl bromide.

A study released last summer by Columbia University and NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies uses computer models to predict that the ozone hole will keep growing until 2020. Indeed, last September the hole over the Antarctic was determined to be both bigger and deeper than ever previously measured, says Kymberly Escobar of Ozone Action. Increases in ultraviolet-B radiation have also been measured in Alaska, the first major evidence of ozone depletion in a populated area.

Chlorofluorocarbon sprays are on the scrap heap in the U.S., but it will take 50 or more years for the ozone layer to fully recover.

Polar ozone holes are created by chemical reactions that occur at temperatures so low that they used to be only reached over the colder Antarctic, says Dr. Drew Shindell, a Goddard Institute atmospheric physicist. In the past, the Arctic had been too warm for these reactions, but they are occurring there now, notes Shindell, possibly because global warming is accompanied by stratospheric cooling. He suggests that “for 10 to 20 years, ozone depletion will get worse. But eventually, there will be so few ozone-depleting gases that it will have to recover.”

CONTACTS

Ozone Action
1621 Connecticut Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20009
Tel: (202) 265-6738
URL: http://www.ozone.org

Columbia University Office of Public Affairs
304 Low Library, Mail Code 4321
535 West 116th Street
New York, NY 10027
Tel: (212) 854-5573

—Elizabeth Levy


Talking Turkey

Bagging 10 to 20 wild turkeys with a single shot is getting to be old hat for Curtis Taylor.

Taylor and his team from West Virginia's Division of Natural Resources have bagged approximately 3,000 out-of-place wild turkeys since 1973, aided by a rocket-charged cannon net. They've even removed gobblers from the runways at Raleigh County Memorial Airport.

But don't fret. They're not doing anything lethal: Taylor and his crew capture and relocate the birds to carefully chosen wooded areas where they are released. Taylor calls such restoration of wild turkeys to their natural habitats in the United States a “success story” for wildlife conservation, but acknowledges that all available habitats in his part of the country are now full, and have been since 1987.

Other states have also seen their turkey populations reach saturation point. Sixty years ago, five American subspecies of wild turkey were driven from their natural habitats or hunted to near-extinction. But 49 states have since initiated wild turkey restoration programs. Indeed, by 1973, 1.3 million wild turkeys had returned to roam woodlands, prairies, and deserts across the U.S. Today, there are an estimated 4.2 million in the U.S.

The state programs are so successful, in fact, that many of the birds are spilling out of their presumed natural habitats onto runways, backyards, city streets and farmlands from northern California to Rhode Island.

The surprising meanderings of gobblers have many turkey experts muddled. Brian Burhans, a Pineland Stewards biologist and conservationist

with the National Wild Turkey Federation in South Carolina, contends that wild turkeys are incompatible with urban settings. “A true wild turkey will not acclimate to humans,” he maintains. Burhans believes that runaway, pen-fed wild turkeys may be the real objects of urban sightings.

Wild turkeys are becoming a common sight in the U.S., even in heavily-trafficked urban areas.

But Taylor, a recognized expert in wild turkey restoration, says that wild turkeys are definitely being spotted more and more in urban settings. “I have even seen wild turkeys within sight of the state capitol,” he says.

Such confusion only reminds Ron Seiss, a wild turkey coordinator in Mississippi, that the field of wildlife restoration is still very young. Seiss, who works for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, recalls that the earliest wild turkey studies were conducted when the birds were living on marginal habitat, forced into retreat, and facing certain extinction from market hunting and deforestation. “I don't think the wild turkey is shy—just historically wary,” says Seiss. “The behavior of the bird hasn't changed. Our understanding of it has.”

CONTACT

National Wild Turkey Federation
770 Augusta Road
Edgefield, SC 29824
Tel: (800) THE-NWTF
URL: http://www.nwtf.com/

—Claude Morgan