Phyllis Fitzgerald is a technical coordinator for the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District in Kentucky.

Monday, 3 Mar 2003

LOUISVILLE, Ky.

As I approached early retirement from my last job working for a gas and electric utility, I pondered my next career — a necessity after mortgaging my future to put five kids through college. Should I do something easy, or should I do something that will “make the world better”? After about three minutes of strenuous thought, I answered my question, and soon thereafter landed right in the middle of my own “brier patch.”

Through the years, in all of my jobs (and I’ve had many, from teaching to managing an environmental organization), I’ve been an environmentalist, right down to my toenails — more specifically, the “waste-not, want-not” variety. (And my kids don’t call me “Mother Earth” for nothing!) Wasting energy, land, food, trees, water, soil, time, talent, natural and human resources — by abuse or misuse — is, in my view, utterly disrespectful to the earth and its inhabitants.

I grieve over the quality of air that my grandchildren breathe, and it has made me determined to help find ways to make it better. At least until they carry me feet first to that great big compost pile in the sky. Grieve is probably not the right word. What do you call it when you put grief together with hurt, outrage, and disbelief that (seemingly) intelligent people would foul their own nests and not seem to notice or care that this fouling must be endured by everyone else, including their own descendants.

To productively harness my grief/outrage/disbelief, I took a job as technical coordinator for the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District, where I work to find non-traditional, non-regulatory ways to reduce air emissions.

Other employees in the agency are charged with regulating or monitoring the amount of SO2, NOx, CO2, CO, ozone, dust, odors, and toxic and hazardous chemicals emitted from this industry or that paint shop. Or they may inspect manufacturing facilities, write permits, investigate public odor complaints, monitor gas stations, check air quality, or even present educational programs. These tasks are all prescribed or regulated.

I search for non-traditional ways of lowering emissions, especially in the transportation, land use, and energy fields, looking at the ways that people live their lives. What are the habits of the population, or the history of land use, and what is the impact on air quality? Are we being wasteful? Is it possible to convince people to change habits to be less wasteful? Actually, nearly everything impacts the air, from driving a car to growing and processing food to caring for your lawn. What a challenge!

For instance, when I go out for lunch, should I turn off the fluorescent lights in my office? (Yes.) Will it save energy? (Yes!) Will it cause the ballasts to wear out too quickly? (Probably not.) [Editor’s note: See Ask Umbra and Letters for more on this juicy topic.] And what about my computer monitor? (I let it go to sleep if I leave my desk during the day, but I turn it off at night.) Or the heat or air conditioning — should I turn it down while I am out? (Can’t do that here, but I do it at home.) These are all relevant questions to ask in the search for wasteful actions. Power plants — even the cleaner ones — are major emitters of greenhouse gases. But here’s the rub: I can’t say that the power plant is polluting if I am the one “ordering” the power by plugging in the appliance or flipping the switch. They burn coal (most of Kentucky’s power comes from coal) because we want power. I have always believed that I am the polluter if I waste electricity (or anything else, for that matter), not the company that made it. But, of course, the power company has a duty to produce the power within emissions limits set by the Clean Air Act of 1990.

Tomorrow I will be working on our Lawn Care for Cleaner Air program, which has been quite an exciting project. My surprise and disbelief that gasoline-powered lawnmowers, weeders, trimmers, etc., pollute as much as cars — or in some cases, even more — helped give birth to a program to educate people about how much this equipment contributes to our summer ozone problem. The education/outreach program is being received well, and it’s leading to a number of lawns being transformed into low-maintenance green spaces.

We have had some opportunities to think “outside the box” to explore ways to reduce wasted resources that impact the air, especially coal and gasoline. Each new learning experience brings its surprises, but it’s my “brier patch,” and I’m walking down this road “just lickety-split,” looking for more ways to help clean the air.

The opinions expressed in this diary are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Louisville Metro government or Air Pollution Control District.