The Islands of Radix Center

by Tom Ellis

ALBANY, NY: Scott Kellogg and Justina Thompson spoke at the September 19th SPB dinner. Scott is the executive director of the Radix Center at 153 Grand Street in the South End of Albany. Justina is a 19-year-old student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute majoring in sustainability studies. Both are highly enthusiastic about their work and are accomplished experts in environmental education.

Before they began, Grace Nichols spoke briefly saying insect populations are rapidly declining for multiple reasons. These die-offs are leading to declines in bird and bat populations that feed on insects.

Scott began describing the mission of the Radix Center. One purpose is to bring in school children to familiarize them with the center’s programs and get them involved. High school students participate; they perform bookkeeping and environmental activities. Among it’s many activities, the Radix Ctr. runs a farmers’ market, and does advocacy in the South End on the “bomb trains” [that bring crude oil to the port of Albany] and the heavy truck traffic. The Radix Ctr. also has a greenhouse. He said that during the past summer, Radix Ctr. staff and volunteers build a floating island and placed it in the Hudson River.

He spoke about storm-water discharges that send vast quantities of debris into the river. This is due in part to the vast amount of concrete, asphalt, roofs, and structures that cover much of the ground in urban areas, making it difficult or impossible for heavy rains to enter the soils as is much more easily done in rural areas where nearly all the land is still in its natural state.

Combined sewer overflows are an urban fact. He asked: “What do we do?” The city of Albany, he said, is under increasing pressure to reduce the sewage outflows into the Hudson.

Rainwater harvesting, he said, is a way to catch rainwater from roofs, store it, and then slowly release it into the ground.

He said constructing and deploying floating islands in rivers is a way to clean sewage from the river. Floating islands act like tiny wetlands; as sewage flows through the roots of the plants on the islands, the roots pick up sewage.

Scott said he has been building floating islands.for several years; He uses plastic water bottles. pool tubing, plastic fencing materials, netting, bamboo, and black tubing.

The Hudson, he said, is far cleaner than thirty years ago but still not swim-able or fish-able. He said students help build the islands, the technology is highly scale-able, the islands are anchored to the bottom of the river with concrete blocks, some were deployed in late July and are doing well, and the islands will be hauled in late October before the river freezes. Earlier that day, he said, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) had awarded the Radix Ctr. a $22,000 justice center educational literacy grant.

This was the perfect lead-in to Justina’s comments. Justina said she hopes to eventually obtain a doctorate in science and technology studies at RPI. After taking a college course that

introduced her to the Radix Center’s floating islands, she taught sustainable education at the center last summer. She is from Long Island.

Justina loves to enhance the environmental literacy of students of any age and said she “is already doing thew work I hope to do for the rest of my life.” She said Scott bought a large abandoned lot in 2009 and ripped up the artificial ground cover.

“Even the smallest bit of exposure [for someone] to ecological topics,” she said, may not have immediate results but asked, “who can now see the five-to-ten year impacts.”

She said she and her students took field trips each Friday. One was to Peebles Island [State Park where the Mohawk and Hudson rivers merge] for kayaking. “Take time to connect with students so they know you are interested,” she said. Another trip was to Tivoli Lake Preserve and it’s community garden. She said, “Ask people: How can we do this better? How do we reuse what we already have to improve the Earth?” A third trip was to the Ezra Prentice Homes [within a hundred feet of the parked “bomb trains” at the Port of Albany and on both sides of South Pearl Street through which hundreds of trucks pass through daily] to examine the air quality data. Students walked along the new adjacent rail trail.

Justina is exceptionally excited about her work. She loves to lead by example and said she is sometimes told she inspires others. On the rail trail, when the children did not know what to do, she encouraged them to sit still and observe and experience nature, to “slow down and look around.” She said, “If you worry too much, it means you are thinking too much about the past or the future.” She said it “is great to see what kids are intrigued by.”

The Radix Center, she said, has a cider press. Visitors can pick the apples, put them through the press and soon drink the cider. The three principles of permaculture, she said, are people care, Earth care, and we share. At the Radix Center, she said, we also compost; students pick up the compost from the nearby community. The Radix Center has a community open house at 1:00 p.m. on the final Sunday of each month.

During the questions and comments, Scott said the Radix Center will soon build a classroom on site. Justina said there are four floating islands in the Hudson now. Scott said that at sewage treatment plants, oxygen is blasted into sewage so bacteria can break it down. Sewage treatment, he said, is not high-tech. The Hudson River floating islands are not catching sewage flowing from the large C-pipe but they could be if the C-pipe was encircled with floating islands.

Speaking of pollution in general, Scott said “mopping up the mess doesn’t do much until we shut off the tap. Urban sprawl must be curtailed.” We need “to look at this from a whole systems perspective.” Willow Tree branches can be cut, placed in water, and will root. He said that for all new construction in Albany, dual sewer pipes must be installed even though one of the pipes will not be used until an entire second sets of pipes is completed to separate the storm water and sewers. Scot said “there is no away place.” He recognizes that sewers brought enormous health improvements to millions of people but ideally favors eventually eliminating sewers while recognizing that doing so will be very difficult in urbanized environments.


Published in September-October 2018 Save the Pine Bush Newsletter