Friday, October 23, 2015

Allergic to Volkswagen

(Nitrogen-fertlized grass on left, native habitat protected by carefully-managed grazing on right.)

This is more of a marker/prediction:  we'll be hearing about the environmental effects of VW's illegal NOx emissions. Atmospheric NOx emissions are a big deal in California, as they're accepted by wildlife agencies to be something that kills endangered species by replacing their native habitat with NOx-fertilized, invasive rye grass. You can't do that without a permit under the Endangered Species Act.

I spent quite a few years working on a permit system for a Habitat Conservation Plan in Silicon Valley. Development that causes vehicle emissions is allowed because it's mitigated for, based on expected (legal) emission levels. Actions like illegal, unpermitted emission are not protected by the permit that I personally spent time on - VW is actually interfering with our solution.

I think all NOx emissions not made pursuant to a Habitat Conservation Plan permit in California are in a legal gray area (at least), but completely illegal emissions like VW's are unquestionably illegal. Solving the environmental problem needs to be part of the overall solution that VW provides.

And as for allergies - guess what rye grass does. This health impact hasn't been included in estimating how many people have been hospitalized and killed by VW, as well the number it will keep killing in the year or two the company estimates it will use to fix the cars instead of replacing them.


Everett F Sargent said...

"invasive rye grass"

And there I was thinking that homo sapien was THE invasive species.

izenmeme said...

@-"And there I was thinking that homo sapien was THE invasive species."

Humans are the main tool the Grasses have used to become the dominant plant type on the planet land surface.

Hank Roberts said...

Excellent point about nitrogen pollution.

Not many people know that California wasn't golden brown in summer until the Spaniards and their cattle spread the European annual grasses. I recall botanists looked at the intersections of the oldest fences -- on the original Spanish land grants -- and found little areas of native grasses (cows don't like to eat into corners, apparently). Excess nitrogen isn't helping that at all.

The same problem with excess fertilizer makes recovery from forest fires worse, because the annuals love fire and are well adapted to it, with widespread shallow roots to catch every drop of dew and all the nitrogen and minerals in the first winter runoff after a fire.

There's a cute trick I learned is being tried to discourage that -- spraying sugar water or other readily available carbon on burns before the first winter snows. The soil microbes grab that and then have enough energy to capture much of the fertilizer/ash during the winter and spring, cheating the cheatgrass and medusahead and their ilk of that first flush of nutrients.

With that kind of interference, the invasive annuals don't make huge progress the first year or two after the fire (so don't set up conditions as favorable to burning again, and again).

I watched a little fire move through a cheatgrass patch some years ago. It sounded like popcorn -- and on the black sooty ground behind the advancing flame front there were thousands of little green and yellow seeds that had popped out of the flame in all directions. Damnable stuff.

(Meanwhile the native plants after a fire are barely poking above ground the first year or two, as they're very deep rooted and putting up a leaf or two, nothing more, til the roots are in good shape again -- adapted for occasional fire rather than almost-every-summer burns.

Russell Seitz said...

As lightning is a primary inorganic source of atmospheric NOx , Brian should prevail on Jerry Brown to criminalize worship of Zeus, Thor, and other popular Hollywood dieties, lest empowering them lead to rye grass proliferation : to avoid multicultural indignation, he'd better ban Ceres and Tlaloc as well.

izenmeme said...

@-"As lightning is a primary inorganic source of atmospheric NOx ,..."

Lightning generates about 10% of the NOx. Fabaceae and humans are about equally responsible for most of it.

It is either get rid of Volkswagens or sweet peas.

Russell Seitz said...

Hmmm ....Inorganic sweet peas!

What sort of fulminating neurotransmitter nactivist are you? 10% ain't hay .

wheelism said...

LOL...Russell, you're a treasure.

Everett F Sargent said...

"It is either get rid of Volkswagens or sweet peas."

Volkswagens should be Ovenized!
(trust me on this one, just view the image)

izenmeme said...

@-"Hmmm ....Inorganic sweet peas!"

While the Fabaceae, or more precisely their symbiotic Diazotrophs, fix atmospheric Nitrogen by creating ammonium-organic complexes using energy from metabolic pathways, the decay of these compounds to airborne NOx is a largely inorganic process of chemical decomposition.

Hank Roberts said...

Pity we had to build engines with such high compression, thus such high temperatures, that they burn the nitrogen in the air.

Had to? Well:

"... there was a demand for high-compression designs since they provided increased horsepower and fuel efficiency. The latter was particularly appealing in light of America’s forecasted fuel famine.

In 1921, after a long string of inadequate solutions, a clever but chronically catastrophic chemist named Thomas Midgley developed a fuel additive which eliminated ping problems while increasing fuel efficiency...."

Yeah. The lead industry. Heard of them before?

Remember external combustion? Low enough temperature that the flame doesn't burn nitrogen, entirely adequate to boil water ....

Hank Roberts said...

P.S., for those who don't click links and read, the bottom line:

"... in the early years of Ethyl’s availability, basic refinery advances boosted the base octane of fuel by 20-30 points, whereas Ethyl additive only boosted it by about nine points. In retrospect, Ethyl’s octane improvements were somewhat overstated, and the product owed most of its success to crafty marketing, misleading research, and chronic government incompetence...."

See also, op. cit.:
Am J Public Health. 2000 January; 90(1): 36–46.
PMCID: PMC1446124
"Cater to the children": the role of the lead industry in a public health tragedy, 1900-1955.