For years, school enrollments in Nova Scotia have plummeted while school board budgets rose faster than inflation. Last winter, the Dexter Government asked boards to think about ways to operate with less. The boards and their colleagues in arms, the Nova Scotia Teachers' Union, reacted with a Kill the Friendly Giant strategy. In the end, the government imposed modest cuts, and the boards will continue to operate as they have for decades. It was a missed opportunity for reform. Well, before the notion of school reform goes dormant for another five years, here are two ways school boards could work better for...

Friends of Contrarian know that in recent years I've had several occasions to visit the Faroe Islands, a quirky beautiful demi-country* located halfway between Iceland and Scotland. If you sliced Gros Morne National Park into 18 pieces and plunked them into the North Atlantic, you'd have a pretty good facsimile. With barely 49,000 people, the Faroes don't often hit the news, so my ears tend to perk up when they do. A piece by BBC travel writer Tim Ecott on the network's website offers a charming nugget. While sailing from the Faroese capital of Torshavn to the island of Nolsoy, Ecott...

The European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT) on Cerro Paranal, a 2,635 m high mountain in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, combines the light from four fixed optical telescopes equipped with 8.2 meter (27 foot) lenses with that from four moveable auxiliary telescopes equipped with 1.8 meter (6 foot) lenses to produce images of the southern sky with a resolution of one milliarcsecond. This means it could distinguish the gap between the headlights of a Ford pickup parked on the Moon (if they had Fords on the Moon, and no winter parking ban). The observatory's José Francisco Salgado and...

Former health inspector Bill Bailey writes: Kudos to Lindsay. Unfortunately, because politicians’ skin is made from elephant hide, they will probably take it as a compliment. And a Halifax reader notes that this week's Rona flyer features "eco friendly" Milorganite, at $7.79 for a 16.3 kg bag, "for better results NATURALLY." As noted previously, Milorganite is the great-granddaddy of recycled, composted municipal sludge. So it's OK to spread Milwaukee's venerable composted sludge on Halifax vegetable gardens, but heaven forfend we use Halifax's modern stuff on municipal flower beds. And one more. Colin May writes: Reminds me of the arguments against incineration  20 years ago: "Heavy...

Contrarian friend Cliff White doesn’t share Lindsay Brown’s impatience with HRM Council’s decision to spend $50,000 studying the safety of fertilizer derived from the municipality’s sewage treatment plants.
Among other things, she mentions studies that go back eighty years. I'd suggest that studies going back even half that time wouldn't be testing even half the chemicals, toxins, and metal compounds likely to be found in today's sewage. Since any cursory search of the literature will show that not all of these products are removed at the treatment plant, three questions arise:
  • First, how effective are our local sewage plants are in extracting heavy metals, toxins and other chemicals before it becomes sludge and then fertilizer?
  • Second, what are the national and provincial standards for levels of these products in fertilizers?
  • Finally, are these standards adequate to protect both the environment and human health?
A quick search of the literature will show that different countries have widely different standards in this regard, suggesting that this is a legitimate area for concern. Given the reasonable scientific concern regarding sewage sludge I don't think a study of the local stuff is unwarranted.
In an earlier letter, Cliff forwarded information he extracted from a 2009 US EPA Report.
The sampling effort collected sewage sludge from 74 randomly selected publicly owned treatment works in 35 states. Samples were collected in 2006 and 2007. The TNSSS Technical Report provides results for 145 analytes, including:
  • four anions (nitrite/nitrate, fluoride, water-extractable phosphorus),
  • 28 metals,
  • four polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons,
  • two semi-volatiles,
  • 11 flame retardants,
  • 72 pharmaceuticals, and
  • 25 steroids and hormones.
Some analytes were found in all 84 samples, while others were found in none or only a few of the sewage sludge samples.
After the jump, more extracts from the report, detailing the number of samples in which various chemicals were found. That list will probably scare some readers. Certain environmentalists like to cite such lists precisely because they sound scary, and because they lend a false aura of scientific credibility to their arguments. Such lists are all but meaningless without two essential pieces of information:
  • In what concentrations were the chemicals found? (For many chemicals, minuscule amounts are both routine and harmless.)
  • What level of exposure to people, plants, or animals would result if the sludge were used for its intended purpose? (How much actually gets to people is the real worry, and Cliff's list tells you nothing about that.)
To answer these questions, scientific risk assessors use a model known as source, pathway, receptor. In the case of a person who eats carrots grown in soil treated with fertilizer derived from composted sewage sludge, the sludge is the source, eating a carrot is the pathway, and the person is the receptor. For each chemical, the risk assessor will determine the amount present in the sludge, and the amount that might make its way into a carrot and then into a person who eats the carrot. The risk depends on the actual exposure a person might experience. These calculations typically use ultra-conservative assumptions: the receptor is a developing child; the child eats only vegetables grown in soil treated with the fertilizer; Large amounts of fertilizer are used. This is exactly the kind of analysis used to set allowable levels of Cliff's scary sounding chemicals. Find the Canadian Council of Ministers of Environment (CCME) report on this process here [pdf]. Regular sampling confirms that composted Halifax sewage sludge meets these standards. Dozens of municipalities have safely used sewage sludge for decades, with less advanced equipment that that used in HRM. And let us not forget, Halifax's sewage treatment plants solved a real environmental menace--the dumping of raw sewage into Halifax Harbour. For all these reasons, real environmentalists should be delighted, and HRM Council should not waste public money pandering to anti-science zealots who will never be persuaded on this issue.

A cedar waxwing feeds on red maple blossoms in Sydney Sunday morning. Photo: Teresa McNutt...

Ross Ferry resident Jeannie Ferguson puts April and May in perspective: If Nova Scotia had better weather, we couldn't afford to live here....

As ocean stocks dwindle, humanity turns increasingly to farmed fish. But does this actually make matters worse? Graphic artist Nigel Upchurch thinks so: [Video link] It matters which farmed fish you're eating, as some species consume more than others. Salmon is the worst, as this table, from a paper by Albert G.J. Tacon and Marc Metian of the University of Hawaii, demonstrates: The red arcs represent wild fish inputs, the yellow arcs farmed fish output. The numbers inside the circles show the ratio between the two. Numbers greater than one mean more wild fish is consumed than farmed fish produced. Upchurch provides...

As the 2011 flood season ramped up across the US and Canada, TheAtlantic.com's tech blogger, Alexis Madrigal. found himself wondering how the Mississippi River system works. So he produced an explainer that lays out the complex combination of natural and human forces that create, and attempt to control, the inevitable natural process of river flooding. What is the Mississippi River? It's not actually a silly question. The Mississippi no longer fits the definition a river as "a natural watercourse flowing towards an ocean, a lake, a sea, or another river." Rather, the waterway has been shaped in many ways, big and...

Contrarian has previously voiced astonishment that environmentalists — more accurately crackpots posing as environmentalists — would oppose a recycling project that transforms harmful municipal waste into a valuable organic fertilizer here and here. We're also chagrinned the Halifax media's gullibility and lack of interest in actual scientific information about the topic. Now, a North End resident has voiced similar incredulity in a letter to District 11 councillor Jerry Blumenthal: Dear Mr. Blumenthal, For a long time, I couldn't understand why Haligonians keep comparing their city to tiny Moncton, but now I'm beginning to get it. And I'm not referring to Moncton's apparently...