Over the past week I’ve been reading Nate Silver’s book, “The Signal and the Noise, Why So Many Predictions Fail, but Some Don’t“.  Early on, he includes this completely on-point quote that he attributes to the great author Douglas Adams:

“The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that can not possibly go wrong is that when a thing that can not possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair”.

I dedicate this post to my friends at One Ashburton Place.

Following months of internal review, the USEPA has decided to broaden its interpretation of the “PCB bulk products” definition under the PCB regulations, 40 CFR 761 (see EPA memorandum).  This change benefits the regulated community by simplifying the removal of PCBs from buildings.


On February 29th this year, EPA published a Federal Register notice soliciting comments on a proposal to reinterpret its definition of PCB bulk product waste.  PCB bulk product waste includes building materials like PCB containing caulk, paints and other surface finishes.  The PCB regulations are relatively lenient towards the management of these materials, allowing them to be removed and disposed of in municipal landfills without the notification or specific permission of EPA.  These PCB bulk products often have a PCB content of 10% PCB or even greater.

PCB bulk products frequently contaminate abutting building materials, such as brick, concrete and wood.   However, these abutting materials have not been considered to be bulk products under the regulations, instead they were classified as “remediation waste”.  Although this remediation waste generally contained much lower PCB concentrations than the bulk product contamination source, it was subject to stricter management requirements.  These management requirements included notifying of EPA of its presence, obtaining approval of a remediation plan and disposal of the material at a TSCA permitted landfill.  The new interpretation partially levels the playing field.


Going forward, the materials that became PCB contaminated due to their proximity to bulk products may also be managed as PCB bulk products instead of being managed as remediation waste; this is a significant improvement over the previous interpretation.  However, there is an important consideration to keep in mind when planning a PCB bulk product removal project.  The reinterpretation only applies when the original bulk product is still adhering to the contaminated abutting material at the time the material is designated for disposal.  If this designation does not take place before the bulk product is removed, then like Cinderella’s carriage turning back into a pumpkin, the abutting PCBs turn back into a remediation waste.

For help on differentiating between PCB remediation waste and PCB bulk products, please reach me at okun@oto-env.com.

The Berkshires are a wonderful place to visit in June.  The winter’s skiers have gone home and Tanglewood’s visitors have yet to arrive; peace prevails.  Light traffic permits a leisurely drive along the Housatonic River with time to enjoy the view of rolling hills and picturesque countryside. 

Lenox and the surrounding towns were once considered the “Newport of the Berkshires.” It’s here that members of New York and Boston Society summered for the ‘health benefits’ the fresh air provided.  Their ‘cottages’ rivaled the mansions of Newport. The preservation effort that has taken place allows one to experience the charm of a bygone era.  The gardens of lovingly restored country homes abound with lavish peony blooms. Gravel roads meander through woodlands, lush with fern and myrtle.

It was the perfect setting for Bill and I to celebrate our 25th anniversary. We had the pleasure of staying at Blantyre the former summer ‘cottage’ of the Patterson family.  We were greeted by the staff and owner Ann Fitzpatrick Brown as our bags were whisked away and within minutes we found ourselves relaxing in over-stuffed chairs enjoying fruit, cheese, and drinking champagne from antique flutes.  The Tutor inspired ‘cottage’ is meticulously decorated and filled antiques that somehow instantly feel like old friends.  The Gilded Age feel is made complete with period service and entertainment that blend seamlessly with modern convenience.  Books and welcoming sofas fill the hallways, croquet and shuffleboard await; the spa beckons to the weary traveler.

Something I particularly enjoyed was the whimsical Jay Strongwater salt and pepper collection.  Bunnies, birds, dogs and strawberries; a different set appeared with every meal. Despite the grand surroundings, much of Blantyre’s charm is the staff’s ability to set you immediately at ease.  It’s like being a guest in Jay Gatsby’s house.

A tour of the grounds reveals the former carriage house stables and potting shed now housing guest rooms and a luxurious heated pool and spa. The expansive lawns and wooded trails are a pleasure to explore.  Blantyre not only offers a glimpse into the past, it allows one to experience it.  Located in the charming Berkshire town of Lenox, MA, it was the perfect way to celebrate our anniversary.

On a recent trip to the Berkshires my husband and I had the pleasure of staying at Blantyre.  A “Relais et Chateaux” and Forbes 5 Star property located in the charming Berkshire town of Lenox, MA.  While discussing options for afternoon sight seeing, Blantyre’s wine director, Christelle Cotar, invited us to tour the cellar of Blantyre.  Based on the wine list, which reads like a history book and is similar in size, we knew this was an opportunity not to be missed.

The cellar, which was voted one of Boston’s Best by Destination Cellars (a distribution and travel company based in Virginia,) consisted of a whopping 17,000 bottles that Cotar and head sommelier, Luc Chevalier, grew from a mere 4,000 bottles in 2004.  The over 2,500 selections were housed in five pristine climate controlled cellars.

Cotar was particularly proud of her half-bottle and rehoboam selections.  She explained how the half bottles allow diners more flexibility. For example, a couple could have Sancerre with the scallops, Cabernet with beef and Sauternes with dessert.  The rehoboam bottles, she pointed out, hold the equivalent of six bottles.  She went on to explain the uncorking and presentation of the rehoboam.  First, Cotar decants to allow the wine to breath; next she washes the rehoboam bottle; and then returns the decanted wine to the now clean rehoboam bottle.  The wine is served from the rehoboam.   She beamed when she told us that with this method there is no sediment and guests are thrilled with the display.

I admit, my knowledge of wine is very limited and it was only recently that I began to enjoy it.  While you might think this tour would be wasted on someone like me; I assure you it was not.  The tour was a crash course in wine collecting that explained the smiles I see when diners are presented with a selection, the thoughtful looks they give when tasting and the satisfaction when the selection is approved.  The experience is similar to that of a gardener who plants a seed, nurtures the plants for a long period and then basks in the joy of the harvest.  This tour will forever mark the time and place my wine collecting interest began.

A more detailed description of Blantyre’s wine cellar can be found in Connecticut’s Cottages and Gardens article entitled The Cellar of Blantyre.


This past Saturday I participated in Nuestra’s Cleanest Streets Contest.  Nuestra (Nuestra Comunidad Development Corporation or NCDC) is a developer of low income housing and creator of economic opportunity for the communities of Roxbury and North Dorchester.  Their annual cleanest streets contest is their premier community building event.

This contest is one of the ways Nuestra builds positive relationships amongst residents and develops neighborhood networks. Their hope is that as community members work together over the course of the day, they will develop the level of comfort with each other needed to tackle some of the other challenges in their communities.

Nuestra’s staff identifies emerging community leaders to serve as Cleanup Street Captains; these leaders help plan and support the contest. Street Captains canvass their neighborhood to recruit volunteers. Street Captains also ensure that volunteers have t-shirts, figure out what tools are needed, and pick out flats of flowers to beautify their streets. Towards the end of the contest, judges visit the different streets and decide which street will get the title of most improved street. The day ends with a celebratory BBQ to recognize the hard work of all of the community volunteers.

After I arrived in the morning I promptly donned my bright green hi visibility T-shirt (this identified me as an official cleanup volunteer), was handed a broom and was assigned to a 200 foot section of Blue Hill Avenue as my cleanup project for the day.  As an environmental scientist, I have always thought of environmental cleanup as my full-time day-job.  But this was clearly different!

Once you seriously go at the job of cleaning a street, it is amazing how much trash and debris turns up.  Over the next three hours I filled three big green trash bags full of litter.  I dug the weeds out of a sidewalk opening where a tree may have once grown and planted a couple of flats of yellow marigolds; much better than the weeds!  When I was done I looked around and decided while some of the other cleanup crews may have achieved more than I did, I could still be proud of my work.

As I was planting my last marigold, my Street Captain came by and told me it was time to clean myself up and join the BBQ party that was already getting going.  It was a bright sunny day with a nice breeze and the event was very well attended.  Lots of kids running around and enjoying themselves; it was a great way to spend the day.  Thanks to NCDC for the opportunity, I’m already looking forward to next year’s contest!

I consider myself blessed; with two really great daughters that are now in their twenties, I’m finding I have two great friends.  My younger daughter does our house cleaning once a week (yes!).  This week she suggested we try using a lemon to clean the master bathtub faucet and shower doors.

This interesting idea came from a blog she found on Pintrest called Broccoli Cupcake – Where Healthy Meets Happy. In her post titled, Spring Cleaning – Natural Cleaning Tips the blogger reported that she cleans her bathroom with nothing more than lemon, vinegar and baking soda. She included step by step instructions in addition to before and after pictures.

Now just for the record, I have tried every grocery and hardware store cleaning product on the market to clean whatever this crud buildup is and this bathroom has resisted all of it!  I used bleaches, cleansers, foams, hard water clears, rust stain removers, oxygen cleaners, and even wool pads, and rubbing compounds.  I had given in to the idea that I would have to demo the tub/shower and install a new one.  I even had our water tested thinking that a water softener would stop this from happening in the future (it turned out we did not have hard water).

By that point I had given up and I am embarrassed to admit for many years I just did not bother trying to get the faucet and shower doors clean.  The chrome faucet was a dull white and the shower doors, once clear glass, were now opaque.

Since I have been using vinegar to wash the ceramic and porcelain floors, glass, mirrors and in the laundry and dishwasher for a number of years (with great results) I thought “why not give a lemon a try?” A few minutes after rubbing the faucet with a lemon wedge, I half halfheartedly used an old tooth brush to scrub the faucet and could not believe my eyes – the faucet began to shine!  That lemon had more cleaning power than all the store cleaners combined!

Thrilled and motivated, next I tackled the shower doors which I can actually see through once again!  The cleaning power in that lemon was astonishing. That little lemon saved me thousands of dollars – no need to remodel now!

Next week we go full force using all three of Broccoli Cupcake’s recommended natural products to clean the bathroom – Vinegar, baking soda, and lemon.  No more harmful fumes and no more white stains.  And when I run out of floor cleaner for my hardwood floors, I’ll give Broccoil Cupcake’s black tea suggestion a try. It’s simple – boil a kettle and add three bags of Stash black tea. Allow to steep and then bust out your mop (or mop cover). Soak in the tea and then wipe down your already swept floors.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) has issued a long awaited report on health effects from Wind turbines.  Over the past few years the Commonwealth has been taking a hard look at a range of energy alternatives.  In January of 2011, MassDEP and the Department of Public Health convened an expert scientific panel to look to evaluate the scientific literature and address the concerns expressed by the public. The panel’s finding, as documented in a report, was envisioned to help local officials by providing guidance and clarity on the science.

The panel’s charge was to review the scientific literature to identify and evaluate documented or potential human health impacts or risks that may be associated with exposure to wind turbines, and issue a report that will facilitate discussion of wind turbines and public health based on sound science. The panel was also to identify documented best practices that could reduce the potential for human health impacts.

The panel did not include new research studies, such as epidemiologic studies or investigations of the health status of populations living near wind turbines. The panel’s work was aimed at establishing the current state of science and health impacts associated with wind turbines from studies of the literature.

The agencies sought to create an independent panel by identifying technically qualified individuals and questioning them about their experience with wind turbines.   The questioning was directed at discovering their views and/or positions on wind turbines and health effects. The goal of the selection process was to help ensure that panel members did not come into the process with biases.   No member of the Wind Turbine Science Panel reported being directly or indirectly employed by or receiving funding from the wind turbine industry. In addition, no member of the panel expressed a particular position about wind turbines and health effects.

Among the key findings of the panel were:

  • There is no evidence for a set of health effects from exposure to wind turbines that could be characterized as a “Wind Turbine Syndrome.”
  • Claims that infrasound from wind turbines directly impacts the vestibular system have not been demonstrated scientifically. Available evidence shows that the infrasound levels near wind turbines cannot impact the vestibular system.
  • The weight of the evidence suggests no association between noise from wind turbines and measures of psychological distress or mental health problems.
  • None of the limited epidemiological evidence reviewed suggests an association between noise from wind turbines and pain and stiffness, diabetes, high blood pressure, tinnitus, hearing impairment, cardiovascular disease, and headache/migraine.
  • There is limited epidemiologic evidence suggesting an association between exposure to wind turbines and annoyance. There is insufficient epidemiologic evidence to determine whether there is an association between noise from wind turbines and annoyance independent from the effects of seeing a wind turbine and vice versa.
  • There is limited evidence from epidemiologic studies suggesting an association between noise from wind turbines and sleep disruption. In other words, it is possible that noise from some wind turbines can cause sleep disruption. Whether annoyance from wind turbines leads to sleep issues or stress has not been sufficiently quantified. While not based on evidence from wind turbines, there is evidence that sleep disruption can adversely affect mood, cognitive functioning, and overall sense of health and well-being.
  • Scientific evidence suggests that shadow flicker does not pose a risk for eliciting seizures as a result of photic stimulation. There is limited scientific evidence of an association between annoyance from prolonged shadow flicker (exceeding 30 minutes per day) and potential transitory cognitive and physical health effects.

The panel did not investigate reported problems at any particular turbine installation, though they did receive extensive public comment, including from residents who live near wind turbines. Instead, they were tasked with reviewing the extensive existing information within their areas of expertise to determine the potential for health effects. They looked at both peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed studies.

A public comment period on the report is now open until Monday, March 19 at 5p.m. Electronic comments can be submitted to: WindTurbineDocket.MassDEP@MassMail.State.MA.US

Written comments can be submitted to:

MassDEP Wind Turbine Docket
One Winter Street
Fourth Floor
Boston, MA 02108

Verbal and written comments may also be submitted at the following three public meetings:

  • Tuesday, February 14, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. – Gardner Auditorium in the Statehouse, 24 Beacon Street, Boston (Please note the updated location, moved from MA DOT to the Gardner Auditorium).
  • Thursday, February 16, from 5-8 p.m. – Bourne High School, Beth Bourne Auditorium, 75 Waterhouse Road, Bourne.

Tuesday, February 28, from 5-8 p.m. – The Lee Middle and High School Auditorium, 300 Greylock Street, Lee. Snow date: February 29th.

TED and The Khan Academy Method:

Homework Help or the Future of Learning?

Written by Kimberly Carr

For those who are not familiar, TED is a non-profit organization devoted to “ideas worth spreading.”  The acronym “TED” signifies the meeting of three professional worlds: technology, engineering, and design.  The folks at TED “believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world.”  At its two annual conferences in Long Beach/ Palm Springs and Edinburgh, Scotland, TED brings together some of the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give “the talk of their lives” in 18 minutes or less.

One TED presenter was a man named Salman Khan, who founded a remarkable non-profit called “Khan Academy.”  The academy started out simply as a way to tutor his nephews by using his own YouTube videos.  Some surprising things happened when Salman Khan posted his videos to YouTube.  First, his nephews, apparently, preferred video Uncle Salmon to real life Uncle Salman, but more than that, these videos sparked an idea worth spreading.  That idea being that a simple video could help struggling kids to succeed in school.

This instance is the very thing that inspired “Khan Academy”, which aims to change education for the better by providing world-class education to anyone anywhere.  Khan Academy’s website provides cross-curricular resources and videos on a vast number of subjects and learning levels.  The website states, “It doesn’t matter if you are a student, teacher, home-schooler, principal, adults returning to the classroom after 20 years, or a friendly alien just trying to get a leg up on earthly biology.  The Khan Academy’s materials and resources are available to you completely free of charge.”

Khan Academy currently has over 2700 videos (and that number continues to grow) and a world of exercises with help along the way.  If you need a hint, every single problem can be broken down, step-by-step, with one click.  The website also instantly generates statistics based on your progress, so that you can see whether or not you’ve been hitting your goals.  Finally, teachers and coaches can access all of their students’ data and get a summary of class performance as a whole (or dive into a particular student’s profile to better tailor lessons in the classroom.  Students working with Khan Academy at their side will be better prepared for classroom learning and can earn badges and points for learning.  The more students challenge themselves, the more “bragging rights” they will get.  “We’ve heard of students spending hour after hour watching physics videos and 5th graders relentlessly tackling college-level math to earn Khan Academy badges.”  Khan also reports that an incredibly impressive number of students were active on the Academy website on Christmas day.

The point is, kids are highly motivated and more successful using Khan Academy’s growing number of web resources.  But out of all of the impressive things Salman Khan had to say about Khan Academy, what really stuck with me was the idea that perhaps this method could be the future of learning—could literally flip education as we know it upside-down.  What I mean is this.  Currently, when students learn about a new topic, let’s say, long division, the teacher lectures about plugging numbers into an algorithm, but at the end of the day, students go home and are expected to apply this new knowledge of long division to their homework.

Instead, teachers could assign “lectures” (or Khan videos) for homework. This strategy embraces diverse learning styles and levels by allowing the students to work at their own pace.  Students would quite literally be in control of their own instruction.  They can watch the video lectures on their own time, rewind if they are confused, pause to try something or catch up, and learn at their own desired pace.  In the classroom, students can work on developing a deeper understanding with the support of the teacher.

As an educator, I think this method is absolutely ingenious and I can’t wait to try it out.  Something that started out as “homework help” really could become so much more.  Technology, mixed with the power of ideas, really could revolutionize education as we know it.

View Salman Khan’s inspiring TED Talk here.

What’s your idea of a great vacation destination?  Exploring the Mayan ruins?  Swimming with stingrays in the Cayman Islands?  Or perhaps doing a bit of skiing in Vale, Colorado?  Consider visiting an engineering marvel, a hotel that is built anew each year.  Yes, you read that right.  This hotel is demolished and reconstructed year after year so it’s never the same place twice.  I’m talking about Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden.

Not only is Ice Hotel an engineering marvel it is completely recycled each year.  Blocks of frozen river ice from Lake Torne are cut and stored in an icehouse for the upcoming season.  Each year the hotel is built on the riverbank and in the spring the ice melts, returning to the river.

Construction starts in November and is completed two months later and is completely dependant on the weather temperatures.  Metal forms fitted with skis are re-used each year to create the rooms with in the hotel.  With the aid of snow machines, the forms are covered with a layer of what the engineers call ‘snice’.  Snice is the perfect building consistency of snow and ice.  When the snice layer reaches the proper thickness, it will have the strength of concrete. The forms will be pulled out revealing this season’s rooms.  In 2004 Ice Hotel covered an area the size of two football fields, the lobby was 15’ high by 18’ wide and included a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.

Ice artists from around the world decorate the guest rooms and suites making each one unique.  The ice artists have the challenge of calculating exactly how much ice they will need to create all the furniture for each room because once the room is complete no more ice can be added.  Everything – beds, tables, desks, and chairs even artwork, chandeliers, columns and the bar glassware is made of ice.  Fully wired with fiber optic and diode lighting the hotel glows with a cool blue green light.

Upon completion the hotel will have a full lobby, bar, theater, more than 60 guest rooms, several guest suites and at least one luxury suite.  The entire hotel is a work of art and during the day all rooms, including the guest rooms and suits are open for all to tour and enjoy.   Late in the afternoon the hotel closes to the public and guests staying the night have access to their rooms.  Guests will sleep on beds covered in reindeer skins in sleeping bags.  More than 100 guests come to the hotel to be married each year!

Words cannot describe the beauty of this extreme engineering marvel.  Imagine arriving by dog sled, touring an amazing international art exhibit, dinner, drinks and a show and capping off the evening with a peaceful sleep in solitude.

Welcome to 2007 Ice Hotel – Photo courtesy of Mia Huntley
Friendly concierge welcomes guests to the hotel – Photo courtesy of Mia Huntley
Ice crystal chandelier against a fiber optic back lit wall – Photo courtesy of Mia HuntleyFor more information check out these sites:

For more information check out these sites: