Monday, May 31, 2010

Mercury: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Part 4

Mercury: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Part 4

To avoid paying for expensive pollution controls, Portland General Electric (PGE) is planning to close the Boardman coal-burning power plant by the year 2020, about twenty years earlier than original plans.

Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) recommends that PGE look for more options. The early closure is still on the table, but DEQ thinks there needs to be more discussion, more options, more alternatives.

Ten more years of pollution seems too long.

The Boardman coal-burning power plant is Oregon's largest single source of pollution and acid rain. New federal regulations force Oregon to take a hard stand, confronting PGE about longstanding pollution. Nitrogen oxide emissions must be reduced by 84% and sulfur dioxide by 80%. The cost? About $470,000,000. Rather than upgrade, PGE is planning to close the plant.

The Boardman plant emits 5,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide, 15,000 tons of sulfur/nitrogen dioxide, and 200 pounds of mercury every year.

I'm not comfortable criticizing PGE. I have friends who work there. It's been a supporter of Morrow county and nearby Boardman. But the cost of pollution is too great.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

Apture: Search Made Easy

Apture: Search Made Easy

Apture is a new way of enhancing your experience on the internet. Browsing through a blog or article on the web, I often find myself needing more information. Typically I'd open another browser window and Google a definition or look for an image, or look for another blog or article on the same topic.

Apture makes the search process much easier, and it allows you to stay on the same original page. This is great for me, the use, but it's also great for the blogger. Anyone who blogs or writes articles for the internet wants to keep the attention of their visitors - going offsite to search for more information greatly decreases the likelihood that the visitor will return.

So, I'm experimenting with Apture, and so far, I'm impressed. provides a very short line of code which you copy and paste into the template of your blog or the body of your webpage. The html code activates a link to Apture's search capabilities as soon as someone visits the webpage. The service is free to install and use, and very easy to add to any webpage.

For the visitor, using Apture is easy. As soon as you begin to scroll down the page, a simple, inobtrusive search bar appears at the top of the page. You can enter any search terms or keywords into the search box, and the results are shown at the side of the webpage.

It's even easier to simply highlight any word or phrase on the webpage. A search button appears just above the text. Click on the search button and the results box will open up.

It's fast, convenient, free, and effective. Look for the Apture badge on the websites you visit. I hope it catches on. It's a good enhancement.

BTW: I created the screenshot and added comments using a browser-based addon called Explain and Send Screenshots. Not a very imaginative name, but it sure makes it easy to capture all or part of a webpage as an image, crop, add comments and graphics, and save as an image.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Mercury: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Part 3

Mercury: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Part 3

According to, in 2000, the EPA Administrator found that regulation of hazardous air pollutants, including mercury, from coal and oil-fired power plants was appropriate and necessary.

In 1999, EPA estimated that approximately 75 tons of mercury were found in the coal delivered to power plants each year and about two thirds of this mercury was emitted to the air, resulting in about 50 tons being emitted annually.

This seems to be an outrageously large amount of elemental mercury. This is mercury emitted in the United States...imagine the total global mercury pollution.

Natural sources of mercury — such as volcanic eruptions and emissions from the ocean—have been estimated to contribute about a third of current worldwide mercury air emissions, whereas anthropogenic (human-caused) emissions account for the remaining two-thirds. These estimates are highly uncertain. Land, water, and other surfaces can repeatedly re-emit mercury into the atmosphere after its initial release into the environment. Much of the mercury circulating through today's environment is mercury that was released years ago.

Recent estimates, which are highly uncertain, of annual total global mercury emissions from all sources, natural and anthropogenic, are about 4,400 to 7,500 metric tons emitted per year.

The U.S. is the third largest emitter of anthropogenic mercury, although its emissions, estimated to account for roughly three percent of the global total, are far lower than emissions from China, the largest source globally.

A power plant will emit 10mg of mercury to produce the electricity to run an incandescent bulb compared to only 2.4mg of mercury to run a CFL for the same time.

If a typical low-mercury CFL light bulb has about 5mg of mercury, adding 2.4mg additional mercury as a byproduct of generating the electricity required to energize the light bulb is still environmentally better than producing 10mg of mercury to energize an ordinary incandescent bulb.

Exposure to Mercury

Mercury in the air eventually settles into water or onto land where it can be washed into water. Once deposited, certain microorganisms can change it into methylmercury, a highly toxic form that builds up in fish, shellfish and animals that eat fish. Fish and shellfish are the main sources of methylmercury exposure to humans. Methylmercury builds up more in some types of fish and shellfish than others. The levels of methylmercury in fish and shellfish depend on what they eat, how long they live and how high they are in the food chain.

Research shows that most people's fish consumption does not cause a health concern. However, it has been demonstrated that high levels of methylmercury in the bloodstream of unborn babies and young children may harm the developing nervous system, making the child less able to think and learn.

At high levels of exposure, methylmercury's harmful effects on these animals include death, reduced reproduction, slower growth and development, and abnormal behavior.

This methylmercury is bad stuff: highly toxic, accumulating in water plants and animals, causing tragic disease and disorder.

Methylmercury [CH3Hg] is the most toxic form of mercury pollution. It affects the immune system, alters genetic and enzyme systems, and damages the nervous system, including coordination and the senses of touch, taste, and sight. Methylmercury is particularly damaging to developing embryos, which are five to ten times more sensitive than adults. Exposure to methylmercury is usually by ingestion, and it is absorbed more readily and excreted more slowly than other forms of mercury.

People are exposed to methylmercury almost entirely by eating contaminated fish and wildlife that are at the top of aquatic foodchains. The National Research Council, in its 2000 report on the toxicological effects of methylmercury, pointed out that the population at highest risk is the offspring of women who consume large amounts of fish and seafood. The report went on to estimate that more than 60,000 children are born each year at risk for adverse neurodevelopmental effects due to in utero exposure to methylmercury. In its 1997 Mercury Study Report to Congress, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that mercury also may pose a risk to some adults and wildlife populations that consume large amounts of fish that is contaminated by mercury.

How can I avoid consuming mercury in fish?

Fish are important in a healthy diet. They are a lean, low-calorie source of protein. However, some fish may contain methylmercury or other harmful chemicals at sufficiently high levels to be a concern. Federal, state and local governments issue fish consumption advisories when the fish are unsafe to eat.

Options for avoiding the mercury in mercury-contaminated fish are more limited than for fish contaminated with PCBs, dioxins and other organic contaminants. Younger fish tend to have lower concentrations of mercury than older, larger fish within the same waterbody. Mercury concentrates in the muscle tissue of fish. So, unlike PCBs, dioxins and other organic contaminants that concentrate in the skin and fat, mercury cannot be filleted or cooked out of consumable game fish.

Alkali and metal processing, incineration of coal, and medical and other waste, and mining of gold and mercury contribute greatly to mercury concentrations in some areas, but atmospheric deposition is the dominant source of mercury over most of the landscape. Once in the atmosphere, mercury is widely disseminated and can circulate for years, accounting for its wide-spread distribution.

Once in surface water, mercury enters a complex cycle in which one form can be converted to another. Mercury attached to particles can settle onto the sediments where it can diffuse into the water column, be resuspended, be buried by other sediments, or be methylated. Methylmercury can enter the food chain, or it can be released back to the atmosphere by volatilization.

Mercury and methylmercury exposure to sunlight (specifically ultra-violet light) has an overall detoxifying effect. Sunlight can break down methylmercury to Hg(II) or Hg(0), which can leave the aquatic environment and reenter the atmosphere as a gas.

Bacteria that process sulfate (SO4=) in the environment take up mercury in its inorganic form and convert it to methylmercury through metabolic processes.

These methylmercury-containing bacteria may be consumed by the next higher level in the food chain, or the bacteria may excrete the methylmercury to the water where it can quickly adsorb to plankton, which are also consumed by the next level in the food chain. Because animals accumulate methylmercury faster than they eliminate it, animals consume higher concentrations of mercury at each successive level of the food chain. Small environmental concentrations of methy-lmercury can thus readily accumulate to potentially harmful concentrations in fish, fish-eating wildlife and people. Even at very low atmospheric deposition rates in locations remote from point sources, mercury biomagnification can result in toxic effects in consumers at the top of these aquatic food chains.

The mercury that occurs naturally, plus that which has already been released and converted to methylmercury, is quite enough to be considered a cause of the world's declining health and weakening immune systems. We must halt use of coal. I'd rather deal with radioactive waste than mercury. Nuclear energy generation produces concentrated, controlled, and contained waste that can be encased in glass and buried without any possibility of leaching or contamination.

Interestingly, the only coal-fired electrical generating plant in Oregon (my home state) is the Boardman Power Plant, about 30 miles from where I live.

The plant releases about 35 pounds of mercury for every 100 megawatts of electricity generated. In 2007 the plant generated 585 megawatts of electricity, totaling over 200 pounds of mercury.

Portland General Electric (PGE) posted a report on January 8, 2010 that described their goal of reducing those emissions to just five pounds of mercury per 100 megawatts, or about 30 pounds per year. The cost of the retrofits would be about $560 million.

Shortly thereafter, PGE announced that installing fewer emmission controls and closing the plant in 2020 would make better sense financially. The original end of life date for the plant was 2040.

Other options are still being explored and discussed, including development of alternate fuel sources such as algae.

The best answer in my opinion? Nuclear energy plants.

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Practice Interview and Single Points of Failure

Practice Interview and Single Points of Failure

I interviewed for a new job today.

It wasn't a new job, really...more of a transfer to another department, so the application process was brief: email a form requesting a transfer.

A friend at work, a co-worker in the same department in which I currently work, also applied for the same position. We've often talked before about the challenge and frustration of interviewing for a job. No matter how sure I feel, no matter how confident in my experience and skills, the interview process seems knock about 50% of the wind out of my sails even before I knock on the door. I know my friend feels the pressure, perhaps even more than I.

To help my friend, and myself, I sketched out a minimal set of questions that seem to be representative of what is typically asked during an interview. I included one question that is specific to the position I'm seeking, the one about the single points of failure. The new job would be in the Quality Control department (QC). The phrase has stuck in my head, and the more I thought about it, the more it seemed relevant to a wide range of jobs.

My plan was to set up a practice interview, with my friend and I taking turns asking each other a question and coaching each other about what might be a good response.

We ended up running out of time and we didn't practice, but I still think the questions are good.

Practice Interview Questions

1) Tell me about yourself.

2) Why do you want to work as a ___________?

3) What frustrates or challenges you about being an ________________?

4) What do you find most enjoyable about your present job?

5) What single points of failure have you found as an ________________?

6) What weaknesses do you have as an employee?

7) What strengths do you have?

8) What questions do you have for me?

The reason that I think single points of failure sticks in my mind is because it coalesces into one concept several frustrations I've experienced.

My present work assignment requires careful measurements and strict attention to detail and procedure. In many situations the procedure requires verification by a second person, or an entry into a logbook. This introduces a level of redundancy or double-checking that actually helps reassure me that I won't make a serious mistake.

However, several procedures do not require any verification. I tend to regard these tasks as slightly less critical or vital. I imagine the supervisors saying something like, If this task is not performed exactly right every time it is not really a major mistake, therefore we will save time and energy and do the task quickly, without second-person verification.

I don't believe this is an appropriate attitude, because I don't believe the consequences are necessarily always minor.

The phrase single points of failure highlights the fact that any system that allows critical tasks to be performed without some sort of redundant verification is a weakness, a weakness that can break the entire system, much like a faulty spark plug can break the performance of an automobile.

It seems reasonable to me that most employees, and certainly all managers, should view their department as a system, and they should look earnestly for single points of failure. If something is important, it should not be liable to failure through one person's mistake...there should be additional layer, or more, of protection in the form of redundant verification and double-checking.

If something is important, it should be quite difficult to break.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mercury: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Part 2

Mercury: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Part 2

The Good: CFL bulbs cost less in the long run and they consume less energy.

The Bad: CFL bulbs contain mercury, and mercury weakens, sickens, and kills people.

The Ugly:

In five years, the citizens of Hermiston, Oregon, my hometown, will have a ship-load of burned out CFL bulbs, over 210,264 bulbs, containing a total of 841,056 milligrams of mercury.

Where are we going to throw them?

Here's what I've found out:

I called our community sanitary service and asked them if they recycle CFL bulbs. After explaining what they are, and what they contain, they said they can only take bulbs that are green-tipped, the ones that contain low levels of mercury, about 4 milligrams per bulb.

That's great. Only later did I realize that the staff of Hermiston Sanitary Service will not comb through the mountain of trash they unload daily for green-tipped CFL bulbs.

The ordinary Hermistonian will likely throw their burned-out CFL bulb into their curbside garbage can, which will end up at the bottom of a mountain of garbage, which will be bulldozed into the ground, which will leach into the Umatilla River, as well as our groundwater, which will release 841,056 milligrams of mercury into our land, food, clothes, water, and air.

Sometime in the next five years.

Hermiston Sanitary Service will only accept green-tipped, low-mercury bulbs. What about the other kind, the high-mercury bulbs, the ones that are actually sold in Hermiston?

I called Walmart. They said they would accept NONE.

I called Smitty's True Value Hardware store. They said they would accept NONE.

I called the Home Depot. THEY HAPPILY ACCEPT ALL FLUORESCENT LIGHTS AND CFL BULBS, GREEN-TIPPED OR NOT, LOW OR HIGH-MERCURY. This is a free, in-store service. It costs us nothing!

Well done, Home Depot!

So, here's the deal, Hermiston. It's up to us, and us alone:

Let's take our burned out mercury-containing CFL bulbs to Home Depot, and while we're there, let's buy something!

I'll go one further:



I will only pick up bulbs in Hermiston, and they must not be from a business or industry. Businesses and industries are required by law to manage hazardous waste. I can help households and charities.

Put your CFL bulb in a box, label it CFL, and call me:

Milt Reynolds

At my next opportunity, I'll come get it and take it to Home Depot. Gladly. With a smile. At no charge.

Get green.

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Sunday, May 2, 2010

Mercury: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Part 1

Mercury: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Part 1

I'm green.

My green is pale, but it's slowly growing darker. The more green I become, the more I dislike careless use and management of harmful chemicals in our water, food, medicine, and now...our light bulbs.

Dislike is too wimpy. I am growing angry with careless regard for hazardous chemicals.

My lightbulbs contain mercury. Your lightbulbs contain mercury if they are fluorescent, including the new Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs (CFL). They require 75% less energy than regular incandescent light bulbs, and they last up to 10 times longer. My electric utility company gave everyone in Hermiston a free box of ten CFL's. They're great.

But they contain mercury.

I've told you the good: CFL bulbs cost less in the long run and they consume less energy.

Here's the bad:

Mercury, the elemental mercury in the CFL bulbs, can cause:

  • Tremors
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • nervousness
  • Excessive shyness
  • Insomnia
  • Weakness
  • Muscle atrophy
  • Twitching
  • Headaches
  • Alzheimers
  • Autism
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Infertility
  • Vision loss
  • Numbness
  • Learning disabilities
  • Kidney damage
  • Respiratory failure
  • Death

Here's the ugly:

I realize these examples involve larger quantities of mercury, but there is much reason to believe that ANY amount of mercury in the body is harmful.

Thankfully, my CFL bulbs contain a very small amount of mercury, anywhere from 4 to 14 milligrams. One mercury thermometer contains 500 milligrams of mercury.

Low-mercury CFL bulbs contain about 4 milligrams of mercury...about the size of the tip of a ballpoint pen. A green cap marks the end of the low-mercury CFL bulbs.

Standard CFL bulbs contain 8 to 14 milligrams of mercury.

Mercury thermometers contain much more mercury: 500 milligrams.

I wandered the aisle at Walmart and found no green-tipped CFL bulbs...they are all the standard bulbs, with 8 to 14 milligrams of mercury in each one.

How much is too much?

Animal testing shows exposure to mercury at levels that are anything above .23 milligrams per kilogram of weight, per day (for more than fourteen days, but less than a year) may cause observable adverse effects.

I weigh 180 pounds (82 kilograms). The No-Observed-Adverse-Effect-Level for me would be about 18 milligrams of mercury. I could expose myself daily to four broken CFL bulbs with no adverse effects.


For a ten-pound baby, the NOAEL would be about 4 milligrams of mercury: one broken CFL bulb.


Let's extrapolate:

I have ten CFL bulbs that will burn out in about five years. Each bulb has 4 milligrams of mercury. (Probably more, but I'll practice the power of positive thinking.)

There are 21,264 households in Hermiston.

In five years, 210,264 CFL bulbs will burn out.

In five years, Hermiston will need to dispose of 841,056 milligrams of mercury.

Next post: What do we do with the burned out CFL bulbs?

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