Thursday, October 30, 2014

Virginia and EPA’s CO2 Cap

from VEP
On October 14, 2014 Governor Terry McAuliffe released the 2014 Virginia Energy Plan, stating that “Virginia must implement policies that promote a genuine all of the above strategy that includes traditional energy sources, renewable sources, and energy efficiency.” This all of the above strategy is mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and indorsed by our Governor. This year the Energy Plan was amended to include an analysis of any regulations proposed or promulgated by the EPA to include: the costs to and benefits for energy producers and electric utility customers; the effect on energy markets and reliability; and the commercial availability of technology required to comply with those regulations. This change was in response to the new EPA Clean Power Plan which limits CO2 generated from the production of electricity. The proposed rules significantly reduce carbon emissions at existing plants, they are not merely incremental steps in cleaning up the atmosphere; they will significantly alter fuel choices and investments by utilities for the 21st Century, which is exactly EPA’s intention.

Back in spring of 2013 President Obama presented his vision for a U.S. Climate Action Plan at a speech at Georgetown University. The White House describes this plan as “a series of executive actions” to be implemented through regulations issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The first action under the President’s climate plan was the development of carbon emissions standards for new power plants. The next step was taken in June 2014 when the EPA proposed their Clean Power Plan, additional carbon emissions regulations for existing power plants based on authority granted under 111 (d) of the Clean Air Act. There is an unreconciled difference in the versions of the law passed by the Senate and the House and the Clean Air Act may or may not contain this authority (depending on which version of the law prevails in a court challenge), also there is question if EPA can mandate consumer behavior which is incorporated in the mandates of the Clean Power Plan.

Nonetheless, the Commonwealth must move forward with compliance because it is a multi-year process. The EPA expects to publish the final Clean Power Plan rule in June 2015. State-specific compliance plans are due to the EPA for review and approval in June 2016, or slightly later depending on the compliance and planning approach taken by the state. Mandated compliance with the interim CO2 emissions reductions begin in 2020 and continue until 2030 when the requirement for a 30% reduction of CO2 emissions from 2005 levels is to be achieved. However, the 2005 baseline has nothing to do with the mandated future CO2 emission rate targets. In the proposed regulations, 2012 is the actual baseline year chosen by the EPA to calculate the interim and final CO2 goals for each state. Also, the cap is based on assumptions for total emissions; there will be significantly more people in the U.S. in 2030 assumptions on where they will live and how much power they use may not be accurate.

The Whitehouse and EPA policy strategists point out a similarity between the carbon control regulations and the regulations to control acid rain several decades ago. However SO2 (the source of the acid rain) was allocated under a one-step calculation. This proposed EPA CO2 regulation uses a seven step process, shown in a 54 column spreadsheet; and is supplemented by the output of an Integrated Planning Model simulation, implementation of a mandated renewable energy program and an a consumer energy efficiency or demand-side management program in each state.

EPA proposed that the states have flexibility in developing their compliance plans saying that the states may choose to change from a CO2 emissions rate based compliance approach and establish a mass-based (total CO2 tonnage) cap that can be used in a regional trading program (like the RGGI program currently used by nine northeastern states). Though EPA seems to be heavily pushing the adoption of a regional carbon trading program, Virginia’s CO2 state compliance plan must be submitted to EPA by June 2016 and it would take several more years to implement such a program. Virginia would need to identify state trading partners, pass enabling legislation in Virginia (as would be required in the other states), sign multi-state MOU’s, establish trading rules and compliance testing within the state trading group, and obtain EPA approval (and possibly Congressional approval of the interstate compact). Because of these timing obstacles, the use of a regional trading program for initial compliance with the EPA Clean Power Plan regulations may not be possible. However, the report recommends that Virginia begin to explore the use of this option as soon as possible.

Within the Virginia Energy Plan 6 compliance scenarios were developed with the input of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, the State Corporation Commission, and the report consulting team to determine whether Virginia could comply with the proposed EPA Clean Power Plan. Compliance scenarios were defined using changes to the electric generation mix. A detailed model evaluating, at each generating unit in Virginia, fixed and variable operating cost, fuel cost, CO2 emissions, and location in the grid for stability and reliability of power was developed. Additionally, natural gas-fired units could not be place just anywhere, they need an adequate fuel supply.

Four of the scenarios allowed Virginia to meet the requirements of the EPA Clean Power Plan. All four of the successful scenarios include major increases in the use of natural gas fueled electrical generation and a need for expansion of the existing natural gas pipeline network into the Commonwealth. Here is the reason for Governor McAuliffe’s support of a gas pipeline. It is needed to meet the EPA Clean Power Plan CO2 emission targets within the time and technology constraints. The simple truth is that coal emits 2,268 lbs. of CO2 per Megawatt hour while the natural gas fired turbines emits 903 lbs. of CO2 per Megawatt hour. Virginia is currently at 1,438 lbs. of CO2 emitted per megawatt hour of electricity generated and we need to be at 991 lbs. of CO2 per megawatt hour in 2020 and 810 lbs. of CO2 per megawatt hour of electricity generated in 2030 to be in compliance with the EPA Clean Power Plan.

All of the successful scenarios represent a net loss of employment in the Commonwealth. Though there are increases in “green jobs” for installing renewable energy and energy efficiency programs, it is not nearly enough to make up for the loss of employment in the coal sector. Virginia accounted for 4.5% of U.S. coal production east of the Mississippi River in 2012. The jobs at the seaport at Norfolk is America's largest coal export facility are expected to be unaffected.

The electricity generated in Virginia represents only about 64% of the electricity used in Virginia. In 2012 coal provided approximately 21% of the electric power in Virginia. In 2012, the four operating nuclear generating units provided about 27.4 million megawatt hours of an approximately 109 million megawatt hours of electricity used in the Commonwealth. A new nuclear generating unit is being considered by Dominion Power at the North Anna plant and would provide an additional 10.3 million megawatt hours of CO2 emission-free power once at full operation, allowing in state nuclear to provide almost 40% of total generation. The inclusion of more nuclear generation in Virginia’s portfolio will significantly alter the energy mix in the long term, decreasing the needed contribution from natural gas, but it can take more than a decade to design, obtain approvals, license and built a nuclear plant.

The EPA Clean Power Plan also requires new renewable energy generation, energy efficiency and demand side management. All the successful the compliance scenarios will require expansion of renewable energy incentive programs. Virginia has less solar power than our neighbors. Though we have net metering there is no solar carve out under the Renewable Portfolio Goal. In addition in 2012, the legislature amended the net metering law to allow utilities to charge stand-by fees to residential net metering customers to charge for transmission and distribution infrastructure. Residential consumers with a system capacity greater than 10 kilowatts must now pay $2.79 a kilowatt in monthly distribution standby charges and $1.40 kilowatt in monthly transmission standby charges. Non-residential consumers with grid connected renewable generation are exempt from these additional charges. Some believe that the standby charges are a disincentive, but most residential installation are smaller than 10 kilowatts.

As of June 2014, the total net metered capacity of solar photovoltaic systems in Virginia was just over 12 megawatts. This is far less than in neighboring Maryland, with 158 megawatts (MEA, 2014), and North Carolina with 592 megawatts. Currently, Virginia law does not allow a third party to install and own a renewable energy facility on a utility customer’s property and sell the utility customer the power produced. To make solar leasing viable, there has to be enabling legislation and financial incentives. At one time, Virginia citizens could sell their solar RECs, also known as SRECs, in North Carolina, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington, DC, to help electric utilities in those states and the District meet their renewable portfolio mandates. However, at this time, Maryland and the District of Columbia no longer allow out-of-state SRECs, and the SREC markets in Pennsylvania and North Carolina are oversupplied and the SRECs are almost worthless. The federal tax credit vanishes in 2016 and without additional financial incentives solar power is too expensive to compete.

There are numerous semiconductor technologies used to manufacture PV products. PV is an evolving technology, with incremental efficiency gains each year. As technology and manufacturing methods improve, costs continue to come down. When PV was first used commercially to power satellites in the 1950s a 1 watt cell cost $300. In 2013, residential system prices fell to an average $4.59/watt, non-residential prices fell to an average $3.57/Watt, and utility scale systems fell to an average $1.96/Watt. We are still pretty far from solar PV being cost-competitive; so the Virginia legislature will have to develop financial incentives to meet the requirements of the EPA Clean Power Plan. The same type of programs will be necessary to meet the “demand management” requirements of the Clean Power Plan rules.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Energy in Virginia

On October 14, 2014 Governor Terry McAuliffe released the 2014 Virginia Energy Plan that contained a snapshot of energy use in Virginia today using data from the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA). I thought I would share some of the highlights so you, too, can see who we are. Even as the energy mix for Virginia changes, it should not be forgotten that Virginia’s Appalachian Plain is coal country. Virginia accounted for 4.5% of U.S. coal production east of the Mississippi River in 2012, and the seaport at Norfolk is America's largest coal export facility that processed and shipped over 38% of U.S. coal exports in 2012. More than half of the energy used in Virginia is imported from outside the Commonwealth. Petroleum for transportation is a big part of that number, but we also import a significant portion of our electricity from out of state.
from EIA

Virginia’s net energy balance is negative, which also is the case for most other states. The big oil producing states and foreign countries provide most of the United Sates with petroleum products for transportation, heating and household use. The Commonwealth imported about 55% of total energy used in 2012, all of the 31.7% of energy used for transportation, in addition to the petroleum products used for heating, but also a significant portion of our electricity which in Virginia is used for lighting, heating, and cooling. Petroleum for all uses represented more than 34% of energy consumed in Virginia last year. Practically all the rest of the energy used, 66% was in the form of electricity from the various sources. The total energy used in Virginia in 2013 came from the following basic energy sources:
  • 34% from petroleum (heating and household use and transportation)
  • 20% from electricity generated outside Virginia
  • 18% from natural gas
  • 13% from nuclear-based electricity generation
  • 9% from coal
  • 6% from hydro, biomass, and other renewable sources 
The average Virginia residential electricity customer uses 14 megawatt hours per year of electricity that costs them an average of $1,584 per year. Virginia households use more electricity than the national average because electricity is used for space heating. Virginians use of electricity is similar to the use in neighboring states where electricity is also the most common heating fuel, according to EIA's Residential Energy Consumption Survey.

Virginia’s retail electric customers are served by three publically traded investor owned utilities (providing 84.1% of electricity used in the state), 13 electric cooperatives (providing 11.5% of electricity) and 16 municipal utilities (providing 4.4% of electricity). Virginia’s utilities own in-state and out-of-state generation facilities, and make contractual purchases of electricity from in-state and out-of-state producers, and spot purchases of electricity from the PJM wholesale market. Virginia’s utilities imported about 37% of the state’s 2012 electricity consumption from generation facilities outside of Virginia.

Electric utilities in Virginia are members of an interstate transmission operator known as PJM which provides independent operation of the wholesale bulk power market for our region. This system increases the reliability of the electric grid at the lowest cost by managing regional supply from lowest cost to highest cost to meet demand. This system has historically put coal powered electrical generation in the “baseload” (lowest cost and most plentiful) category, but that has been changing in response to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations targeting coal fired power plants in recent years ( Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, and the Annual Fine Particle Health Standard). In addition, EPA’s recently proposed Clean Power Plan assigns CO2 targets for each state to be phased in between 2020 and 2030. To meet these CO2 limits Virginia will have to further reduce the use of coal generated electricity.

Electricity generated in Virginia in 2013 came from a variety of sources including:
  • 35.7% from nuclear
  • 29.7% from natural gas
  • 28.7% came from coal
  • 4.5% from renewables
  • 1.2% from hydroelectric
  • 0.2 % petroleum entirely imported in Virginia and represents about also is the case for most other states. 
The electricity generated in Virginia represents only about 64% of the electricity used in Virginia. In 2012 Virginia produced 70,739,235 megawatt hours of electricity, but used 109,876,345 megawatts. Nuclear generation provided approximately 40% of the electricity used in Virginia most from our two nuclear power plants the remainder from the PMJ purchases. The available nuclear generated power has not changed in decades, but there are projects that may be completed within the Commonwealth and PMJ in the future.

In 2002, coal provided approximately 52% of the electric power for Virginia but had fallen to 21% in 2013 due to the increasing regulations on coal fired power plants and the extended period of relatively inexpensive natural gas. As the economics and regulatory requirements for coal-fired power have changed, retirements, fuel switches and new natural gas capacity have been announced and are expected to continue under the EPA Clean Power Plan. Total generation in the Commonwealth has shifted from 82% of total megawatt hours produced from coal and nuclear in 2008 to 76% of total megawatt hours produced from natural gas and nuclear in 2012.

The energy generation mix in Virginia continues to change as natural gas becomes more abundant and available, less expensive and prices have enjoyed a period of stable low prices. However, oil and gas prices have historically been very volatile and this is likely to occur again. Saudi Arabia with the financial reserves to withstand a multiyear price war is currently attempting to maintain their world market share of petroleum products against Kurd and ISIS black market sales, Russian and Venezuelan cash flow needs and diminishing world demand as growth in the emerging markets slows even as new techniques increase recoverable gas and oil. Oil and gas prices will fall significantly in the short term even as winter demand is upon us. It will be interesting to see what the composition of the base load will be in the next 15 years, remember before the oil supply crisis in the 1970’s petroleum, not coal made up the lion’s share of our nation’s electricity base load.
in energy equivalent units

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Measuring BMP's Effectiveness

On Tuesday, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) announced a joint project that will study and measure the water quality improvements that are actually achieved from farmers' use of conservation practices. Working together, the NRCS and the USGS will measure and quantify the benefits of voluntary agricultural practices known as best management practices or BMPs.

In Virginia the local Soil and Water Conservation Districts help implement BMPs through the Virginia Cost-Share Programs that are used as an incentive for farmers to implement BMPs. (Full disclosure: I volunteer and am Treasurer at the Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District.) The Conservation Districts provide free technical assistance to property owners that include developing conservation plans for agriculture properties, state cost share money to help pay for installing BMPs from 100% for stream exclusion fencing down to $35/acre for cover crops. The majority of BMPs have a 75% of the cost reimbursed by the Conservation Districts and the remaining 25% paid for by the farmer can be claimed as a tax credit. The Conservation Districts help farmers implement and pay for environmentally sound agricultural practices and verify that the BMPs are installed and maintained. There has long been a need for real world measurement of the effectiveness of BMPs on the watershed.

Nutrient runoff, nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment, carried by rainwater and snowmelt impacts many of our nation’s waterways including the Mississippi Delta and the Chesapeake Bay. These pollutants, released from waste water treatment plants, agricultural operations, urban and suburban runoff, septic systems and other sources, cause algae blooms that consume oxygen and create dead zones where fish and shellfish cannot survive. In Virginia and the other Chesapeake Bay states BMPs are an extremely important component of the plans for restoring the Chesapeake Bay. Measuring the water quality benefits of BMPs will allow the proper allocation of time and money to the most effective conservation practices.

Nutrient and sediment pollutants that do not come out of a stormwater pipe or waste water treatment plant pipe are washed into the rivers and streams by rain and snowmelt, and the accepted way to reduce this kind of pollution is to implement agriculture and urban best management practices. Agricultural BMPs minimize the use of fertilizers and pesticides to achieve a desired level of performance and quality of crops and pastures while protecting the environment. BMPs are also designed to reduce runoff and soil erosion and benefit water quality while maintaining or even enhancing agricultural production.

Now, the USGS will use the Natural Resources Conservation Service database generated and maintained by the state programs on conservation practices and installed BMPs at private farms combined with water monitoring to understand how well these BMPs perform overtime on a watershed scale. Ultimately the USGS will incorporate this information into its surface water quality models, which track how rivers receive and transport nutrients from natural and human sources to downstream reservoirs and estuaries. This will provide crucial information for funding and operating voluntary nutrient management strategies and programs, and provide information for watershed planning.

The partnership between USGS and NRCS was announced at the Mississippi River Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force Meeting. The NRCS stated that they will protect the privacy of individual farmers and only plan to use the data to evaluate the effectiveness of the installed BMPs. The data can be used for designing better nutrient management plans, which are likely to be required when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency extends their reach to the next level either directly or indirectly.

When hundreds of farms take action in one watershed, it can make a significant difference reducing nutrient pollution and hopefully helping to prevent algae blooms downstream. “This agreement will allow NRCS and USGS to combine resource management capabilities with science, and will give us the information we need to prioritize the most effective conservation strategies so that we can improve the quality of streams throughout the Mississippi River Basin,” said Lori Caramanian, deputy assistant secretary for Water and Science at the Department of the Interior the home of the USGS.

The NRCS and USGS will develop conservation intensity data sets that reflect the value of BMPs in terms of improved water quality, but do not reveal private information about individual farms, ranches or forests. The private information of farmers participating in these conservation programs is protected by law and maintaining the trust among the NRCS, the Conservation Districts and the farmers is vital to the continued success of voluntary conservation on private lands. Models that the USGS will develop will allow our Conservation District to have accurate information on the effectiveness of the BPMs and enable us to use our funding to obtain the biggest improvements in water quality.

Nutrient runoff from many different sources, including urban areas and industry, impacts our nation’s waterways. By providing science-based information, NRCS and USGS can help farmers decrease nutrient runoff and improve water quality for their own communities and downstream communities and environments. Close to one-quarter of land in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is devoted to agricultural production. According the Chesapeake Bay Foundation the largest source of pollution to the Bay comes from agricultural runoff, which contributes roughly 40% of the nitrogen and 50% of the phosphorus entering the Chesapeake Bay. So to meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandated a contamination limit called the TMDL (total maximum daily load for nutrient contamination and sediment) to restore the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia and the other states will have to implement BMPs on the majority of agricultural lands and the data from USGS/NRCS program can help us implement the most cost effective strategies as widely as possible.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Pharmaceutical Contamination Impacting Our Groundwater

Water is neither created nor destroyed. All the water on earth is between 4-5 billion years old, dating from around the time when the Earth was formed. There is no mechanism on Earth for creating or destroying large quantities of water. What we've got is recycled through the water cycle over and over again. Mankind leaves contaminants in the wastewater we return to streams. For most of history this was not important because contaminants were natural and biological, populations were sparse and the water ultimately flowed to the sea and rainwater returning to our rivers was free of contamination. As populations increased we treated our wastewater to remove the biological contamination with increasing efficiency to reduce disease and environmental impact. Wastewater reuse has become an important and measurable portion of downstream water supply while becoming a complex mix of chemical and biological contamination characteristic of our modern society. This contamination is spreading to all of our water supply including groundwater.

Groundwater is the largest and most reliable source of freshwater on earth. In the United States 26% of public supplied water is from groundwater in addition, 15% of households in the United States with private wells pump directly from groundwater for their drinking water. Groundwater and surface water are connected in many ways, not all of them fully understood. When streamflow is low due to lack of precipitation (drought) or withdraws (pumping for irrigation or water supply), groundwater serves to help maintain the baseflow. When conditions are dry, rivers, streams and ponds can serve to recharge groundwater.

In addition wastewater from agricultural irrigation is used to recharge groundwater and effluent discharge from wastewater treatment plants is intentionally and accidently finding its way into groundwater. In Los Angeles waste water effluent is used to recharge the groundwater, septic systems return their effluent water to groundwater and several studies by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists Paul M. Bradley and Larry B. Barber (and others) have shown that waste water contaminants including pharmaceuticals are carried not only downstream into drinking water intakes, but into the shallow groundwater at least 65 feet from the stream.

The most recent study by Bradley and Barber et. al. was carried out at Fourmile Creek, near Des Moines, Iowa in October and December 2012. Fourmile Creek has been extensively studied by these scientists because wastewater dominates the streamflow. (Wastewater also dominates the flow of the Occoquan River and many others in our area.) Due to a drought in the Des Moines area, the wastewater represented 99% of streamflow in October and 71% of streamflow in December. Scientists chose to track the movement of pharmaceuticals between the stream and shallow groundwater because pharmaceuticals are bioactive, can be highly mobile, are good indicators of domestic wastewater, and wastewater is the only source of pharmaceuticals in Fourmile Creek.

Both stream and shallow groundwater samples were analyzed for 110 pharmaceuticals. The scientists found that 43% and 55% of pharmaceuticals analyzed for were detected in the stream’s water in in October and December, respectively. Fewer pharmaceuticals were detected in shallow groundwater; however, 16% and 6% of the pharmaceuticals were detected at a distance of 65 feet from the stream bank during October and December, respectively. The pharmaceuticals detected included antivirals and antibiotics, muscle relaxants, and antidepressants and tranquilizers, as well as medications for treating cancer, diabetes, and hypertension; in concentrations as high as 87 nanogram per liter (ng/L).

Both carbamazepine and sulfamethoxazole (a common antibiotic) were found in shallow groundwater at detectable levels at 65 feet from the river bank. The levels of these pharmaceuticals were higher close to the riverbank during the drier period, and appeared to fluctuate in response to drought; the larger portions of the river flow were made up of wastewater the higher the concentrations of sulfamethoxazole and carbamazepine in the groundwater. However as distance increased, the concentrations dropped, but it appeared that the rate of biodegradation of wastewater contaminants in groundwater is slower than in surface water and trace contamination of the groundwater may become ubiquitous.

USGS scientists have previously documented adverse impact to trace levels of sulfamethoxazole far below levels used to treat diseases on native soil bacteria. Since many studies by the USGS have found sulfamethoxazole in surface waters, the scientists conducted a series of laboratory experiments to determine the effect of the antibiotic on native soil bacteria. They found that sulfamethoxazole concentrations commonly found in aquatic environments (approximately 1 microgram per liter [ug/L]) delayed the start of cell growth, limited denitrification (a critical component of global nitrogen cycles), and altered bacterial community composition. In short, our contamination of water supplies with traces of antibiotics may impact the ability of the earth to feed us.

Other impacts of water pollution have been to the aquatic ecology. For over 15 years the USGS has been studying fish kills. Work done by Vicki Blazer and others has documented endocrine disruption and immune-suppression in aquatic life as contributing to fish kills. The earliest work did not find a cause. Dr. Blazer and others believe that methodology used to detect these chemicals in past studies may not have been sensitive enough, and may indeed be above the concentration thought to impact these fish. Dr. Blazer and others believe based on research studies in more than 25 fish species, that 1 ng/L (parts per trillion) may be the “no effects level” for estrogen concentrations in stream water on fish. We eat the fish, we drink the water, and we intentionally recharge groundwater with our waste water and pass all manner of chemicals and pharmaceuticals through our septic systems. For many of us, the closest septic system to your well is our own septic system. Any drugs you take (or flush down the toilet), chemicals you spray in your yard, use or pour down the drain may reappear in trace levels in your well especially during dry months or drought.

Water is our most valuable resource and how we manage its use or allow its abuse may determine the fate of our country and mankind. Groundwater is an important natural resource, especially in those parts of the country that don't have ample surface-water sources, such as the arid West and in times of drought. Groundwater is a renewable resource, but not in the way that sun light is. Groundwater recharges at various rates from precipitation and surface water. Wastewater reuse is necessary to meet water supply needs, but we are contaminating our environment and our drinking water supplies with what we do not remove from our wastewater.

Wastewater has become a complex mixture of chemical and biological contamination. Pharmaceutical contamination in wastewater is a particular problem because the pharmaceuticals are highly soluble in water, highly mobile in the water compared to other wastewater contaminants, and pharmaceuticals are designed to be highly bioreactive with long shelf-lives. At the low levels found they can be toxic to stream ecology, cause endocrine disruption, immune-modulation and suppression and serve for antibiotic resistance selection. Water contamination will challenge mankind’s survival long before climate change.

Related blog posts and articles:

Endocrine Disruption and What’s in the Potomac River Watershed

Is Our Drinking Water Safe?  

Barber, L., Keefe, S., LeBlanc, D., Bradley, P., Chapelle, F., Meyer, M., Loftin, K., Kolpin, D., Rubio, F., 2009. Fate of sulfamethoxazole, 4-nonylphenol, and 17bestradiol in groundwater contaminated by wastewater treatment plant effluent. Environ. Sci. Technol. 43, 4843e4850.

Barber, L., Antweiler, R., Flynn, J., Keefe, S., Kolpin, D., Roth, D., Schnoebelen, D., Taylor, H., Verplanck, P., 2011a. Lagrangian mass-flow investigations of inorganic contaminants in wastewater-impacted streams. Environ. Sci. Technol. 45, 2575e2583.

Barber, L., Keefe, S., Brown, G., Furlong, E., Gray, J., Kolpin, D., Meyer, M., Sandstrom, M., Zaugg, S., 2013. Persistence and potential effects of complex organic contaminant mixtures in wastewater-impacted streams. Environ. Sci. Technol. 47, 2177e2188.

Bradley, P., Barber, L., Kolpin, D., McMahon, P., Chapelle, F., 2007. Biotransformation of caffeine, cotinine, and nicotine in stream sedimentseImplications for use as wastewater indicators. Environ. Toxicol. Chem. 26, 1116e1121.

Bradley, P., Barber, L., Kolpin, D., McMahon, P., Chapelle, F., 2008. Potential for 4-nnonylphenol biodegradation in stream sediments. Environ. Toxicol. Chem. 27, 260e265.


Bradley, P., Barber, L., Duris, J., Foreman, W., Furlong, E., Hubbard, L., Hutchinson, K., Keef, S., Kolpin, D., 2014. Riverbank filtration potential of pharmaceuticals in a wastewater-impacted stream. Environ.Poll. 193, 173-180.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Mold in the Richmond Veterans Hospital

According to the Institute of Medicine of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) there is sufficient evidence to link indoor exposure to mold with upper respiratory tract symptoms, cough, and wheeze in otherwise healthy people; with asthma symptoms in people with asthma; and with hypersensitivity pneumonitis in people with stressed or compromised immune systems. In addition there is evidence linking indoor mold exposure and respiratory illness. While molds are present at low levels in air, a mold problem in any building can be unpleasant or even sickening to the occupants, but as will be shown below, exposing hospital patients to a “moldy” environment can increase the risk of infection in some patients and therefore requires rigorous remediation.

Last March the McGuire Veterans Administration Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia hired an environmental consulting firm to perform an Indoor Air Quality Assessment in response to complaints from employees and patients about perceive poor indoor air quality and a recommendation from an outside group. The consultants performed a visual assessment of wards 1U, 1V and 1W and the Nurses Stations, checked the filters in the HVAC systems and made sure that the HVAC systems appeared to be clean. They also recorded the Temperature, Relative Humidity, Carbon Monoxide and Carbon Dioxide and used the test device called Micro 5 five minute low volume spore traps to collect 14 interior hallway samples and one exterior sample to measure total airborne fungal spore levels at a particular point in time in an attempt to identify if the hospital had a mold problem that might be impacting the employees and patients.

Currently, there are no federal standards (OSHA, NIOSH, EPA or CDC) for airborne concentrations of mold or mold spores.There are however OSHA , EPA and CDC guidlines for mold remediation wich implicity acknowledges the seriousness of mold contamination. Scientific research on the relationship between mold exposures and health effects continues, but there are yet to be determined absolute levels of exposure that are of no concern and threshold numeric levels likely to impact exposed populations. Molds are part of the natural environment. Molds are fungi that can be found anywhere - inside or outside all year long. About 1,000 species of mold can be found in the United States, with more than 100,000 known species worldwide. In recent years indoor air quality experts, the World Health Organization (WHO), Industrial hygienists and several scientific groups have developed standard approaches to investigating mold problems. Spore traps have become the dominant way of airborne mold sampling, but only test for a handful of spore species that most commonly indicate a problem.

There have been recent papers, presentations, and scientific articles that address whether an interior space is “moldy.” What emerges from these evaluations is that the most common indicator of mold problems in a damp environment is the elevated presence of two related species in particular Aspergillus/Penicillium. These spores are the primary colonizers according to the World Health Organization (WHO – 2009) and often amplify in the indoor environment in response to increased moisture. In addition, it is well documented in studies funded by the National Institute of Health that elevated concentrations of Aspergillus species of fungus in critical-care areas of hospitals, may result in an increased risk of infection in immuno-compromised patients (Kordbacheh et al. 2005; Lee et al. 2007). The CDC states that “the types of health problems caused by Aspergillus include allergic reactions, lung infections, and infections in other organs.” Thus, in the chart below and the discussion that follows, I only examine Aspergillus/Penicillium and total spore count in the 15 samples taken to determine if the sampling results are indicative of a mold problem at the McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, VA.
When evaluating fungal spore levels there are three basic approaches to determine if the spore levels measured in a spore trap are of concern: comparing the finding to a reference sample, typically outdoor sample is taken, comparing the value to a control sample from similar building(s) that has not been impacted, or comparing the findings against a data base of mold impacted buildings.

When doing a spore trap sampling it is common with residential and small commercial investigations to sample the outdoor air as a reference sample as was done in this instance. However, air residence time in larger buildings can be hours or several days depending on the size of the building and air flow circulation and whether air filtration systems are operating. In modern buildings with active mechanical ventilation systems the indoor concentration of airborne spore is generally expected to be between 20-70% of the outdoor concentration with an assumed average of 50%. It is important to note that the comparison should be the relative concentration of each spore type and not just the total spore concentration (Spurgeon, 2004). As you can see in the chart above only one sample location (1W-103) had an Aspergillus/Penicillium spore count within the expected range compared to the exterior, all of the other samples were 100% to 2,950%. For the total spore count only the samples with the highest levels of Aspergillus/Penicillium (1U-141 and 1U-138) exceeded the expected range. By comparison to an exterior (reference) sample elevated levels of Aspergillus/Penicillium spores are of concern.

In large commercial complexes control samples can often be obtained from unimpacted buildings or unimpacted wings of buildings. Though the total spore count in most of the samples is significantly below the exterior sample, the elevated levels of Aspergillus/Penicillium and two samples showing elevated total spore levels indicate that there are areas within the building that are more impacted by fungal spores than others. The data indicates a hot spot that is more significantly impacted than other areas, though elevated levels of Aspergillus/Penicillium are ubiquitous. These hot spots should be more fully delineated. Remediation of the area should take place after identifying and eliminating the sources of moisture.

The final method of evaluating fungal spore data is by comparing the samples taken to a database of sampling results for buildings that have been tested. The concentration of airborne contaminants can be characterized by a lognormal distribution with a geometric mean concentration and standard deviation. Joe Spurgeon, PhD, CIH performed an analysis on the data from three studies to find the Aspergillus/Penicillium level for a “moldy” environment. Dr. Spurgeon created the table below from three separate groups of data:

Aspergillus/Penicillium levels considered as indicative of a “moldy” environment from three independent studies:

1. Baxter data: Asp/Pen ≥ 950 spores/m3
2. Rimkus data: Asp/Pen ≥1,000 spores/m3
3. Spurgeon data: Asp/Pen ≥ 1,000‐1,100 spores/m3

The sample from 1U-141 location would be classified by this database comparative approach as a moldy environment. In addition, that sample was in the 95-99 percentile for Aspergillus/Penicillium compared to all building samples represented in the database. Clearly the extent and source of the Aspergillus/Penicillium fungal spores needs to be identified, isolated and remediated.

In all methods of evaluation, the levels of Aspergillus/Penicillium identified at the McGuire VA Medical Center indicate a localized but significant mold problem that might impact the health of patients and staff. Additional tests should be performed to delineate the extent of the problem. The area of impact should be remediated following U.S. EPA and the CDC guidelines and confirmation testing performed. It is my understanding that the on-site Administrator has chosen to take no action, but this could potentially impact the health and comfort of the staff and our most vulnerable patients.

While there are currently no  federal regulations setting a threshold level for mold concentrations that would require remediation, available research shows that such a level is already and increasingly knowable. It is only a matter of time until such knowledge is embodied in a regulation and it is better to act now on what we already now then to risk harm while awaiting regulation to force action. We have established the Veterans Administration hospital system especially for veterans due to their extraordinary service to our county and a problem like this which puts their heath at further risk should not be ignored.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Chesapeake Bay Watershed has Plenty of Water this Year

The lead editorial in Science magazine last month began “The Western Hemisphere is experiencing a drought of crisis proportions. In Central America crops are failing, millions are in danger of starvation...” Editor Marcia McNutt goes on to illustrate the extent and severity of the drought and then to talk about the advances being made in measuring water availability using the Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites to measure large scale changes in groundwater and moisture from space and a new method for measuring groundwater extraction by measuring regional land uplift (Borsa et al., Ongoing drought-induced uplift in the western United States, Science vol. 345 issue 6204 page 1587). These new methods are allowing scientists to begin to measure the amount of groundwater extracted from an aquifer and the remaining water. This is a first step in managing surface and groundwater together. Both surface and groundwater are part of one connected system responding on different timescales to precipitation based on specific geology. The availability of water resources are not constant and certainly not unlimited.

We chose to live in this little corner of Virginia for the water (on my part) and proximity to my husband’s home or origin. While several counties of Virginia were abnormally dry this past September (according to the Drought Monitor), the dry area was south of us. Groundwater levels in the monitoring well down the road have been normal for most of the year. We seem to be doing just fine this year sitting as we do between the Potomac River and Bull Run and have plenty of water. The National Weather Service’s Middle Atlantic River Forecast Center (MARFC) reports a Potomac basin total precipitation of 28.3 inches of precipitation so far this year thought that is 2.3 inches below normal- 2.2 inches of that shortfall, was in September. Both MARFC and the NOAA are prediction a wet fall along the Potomac watershed and the south in general. Texas is finally seeing relief and recovery from their drought. The drought is California is expected to continue north of the Colorado River. 
from the climate prediction center


The Potomac River is the fourth largest river along the Atlantic seaboard and the lifeblood of our region. The Potomac River starts life as a spring at the Fairfax Stone in West Virginia. The river flows approximately 385 miles to the Chesapeake Bay increasing in size and flow from its tributary streams and rivers in West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the District of Columbia growing to become the Bay's second largest Tributary. The River provides more than 500 million gallons of freshwater daily to those living in its watershed, in addition to irrigation water, and the more than 2 billion gallons of water a day for power plants.

The Potomac River is one of the least dammed large river systems in the Eastern United States. The combined storage capacity of all major reservoirs upstream of Washington, DC makes up less than 7% of median flow. Nonetheless, the Potomac River’s flow needs to be managed to assure the 500 million gallons per day the river supplies for drinking water to the region and the approximately 100 million gallons necessary for essential environmental services. The Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) was created to manage and allocate the flow of the Potomac River. They reported last week, that despite a dry September recent rains have ensured that there is sufficient flow in the Potomac River to meet the Washington metropolitan area’s water supply demand without the need for water releases from the upstream reservoirs- Little Seneca and Jennings Randolph to keep the river at adequate flow.

The ICPRB manages the water withdrawals from the Potomac River by having Fairfax Water utilize their Occoquan Reservoir water treatment plant to maintain adequate flow to the Chesapeake Bay and having the other water utilities utilize their storage. The ICPRB reports it’s very unlikely (1-3% likelihood) that river flow will have to be augmented with water released from either the Little Seneca or Jennings Randolph reservoirs this year. Our region is well‐protected from a water supply shortage because of carefully designed drought‐contingency plans and continued strong precipitation. In addition to help maintain a consistent water supply, WSSC (the Maryland water utility) has their Patuxent reservoirs with a capacity of more than 10 billion gallons that is currently over 80% full and more reservoirs are planned for the entire system to ensure the water supply for the region can endure a prolonged drought. Back in the 1960’s during a severe and extended drought, when the population was only a fraction of what it is now, water withdrawals to supply drinking water to the three water utilities in the region from only the Potomac River reduced flows in the Potomac to such an extent that the River practically ran dry, leaving only mud between Great Falls and the tidal river.
Each fall when the Potomac is at its lowest flow the ICPRB maintains daily monitoring of the flow at Point of Rocks and Little Falls to always be prepared for the possibility that more serious drought conditions may develop in the upcoming weeks. At present, there is sufficient flow in the Potomac River to meet the Washington metropolitan area’s water demands, but the ICPRB remains diligent and watchful because weather as we know is changeable. 

from ICPRB
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reports that groundwater levels are generally near normal for the region with both above and below normal levels scattered throughout the area. If your water is supplied by a well, you need to be aware of the factors that impact your water supply and regularly practice household water conservation to live within your water resources when necessary. Unfortunately, we do not have the ICPRB to help us manage our water resources and use. There are dry years and wet years and water will vary, though it is not always obvious. The groundwater aquifer you tap for water is not seen so you have to be aware of your water budget and live within it, something that transplants from the suburbs and city are not always aware of. 


My groundwater is very young, basically the groundwater levels in my well and the nearby USGS monitoring wells respond within a day to a rain storm despite being more than 100 feet deep. In many groundwater systems are not as directly tied to precipitation and so that is not true. Many well owners think of their water supply as unlimited until the well fails. Your well is not unlimited and you need to be aware of your water use. You need to be aware of the relationship between groundwater and surface water and how your well responds to drought and rainfall. During dry periods when my garden is in most need, my well is most vulnerable. I will only water my herbs and new plantings. Everything else in my garden has got to make it on what our climate provides (though I would probably try to save the cherry and plum trees in a drought- but not at the risk of my water supply).

USGS monitoring well 49V 1 shows a response to rainfall

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Protect Your Well and Solve One Coliform Problem-$100

My Well
I received a comment/question on my blog that said: “There is a hole in the half moon well plate thru which one can pour Clorox if needed. It is (usually) plugged, but the plug on my well plate was missing and (apparently, from the smell) an animal crawled in and died... (I tried) 2 heavy treatments with pool chlorine (10%), (but it just) stopped the smell for 6 days. “

What the writer describes is not a well cap appropriate for a drinking water well. It may be a well seal also known as a split caps and are used for venting a well, with the hole he refers to is not for putting chlorine in a well, but is an air vent. These types of caps are not suitable for outdoor use if it is even a sanitary well cap. A sanitary split cap is only appropriate for indoor use in an enclosed well house or basement. Sanitary split caps are usually equipped with a threaded hole, instead of a plug where an air vent should be installed. However, the writer describes his well cap as having a “half-moon well pate.” A properly sealed well does not have any kind of half-moon well plate. There is a type of well cap used on monitoring well with a port, but these were never intended for drinking water well. Also, a long time ago, there were wells where they used to drip oil or lubricant into the well, but that has not been done in decades. The caps on those wells were just ports.

I was very sorry to read the writer’s story because fixing the problem is going to cost thousands of dollars. To restore drinkable water the writer is going to have to clean out the well or if cleaning proves ineffective, the well will have to be replaced to restore drinkable water to the home. It is much simpler to install a sanitary well cap than to fix a problem like the one described by the writer. For want of a $100 sanitary well cap the well was probably ruined. A “well professional” he called said that in his twenty years of experience it was the worst smelling water he had ever come across. That comment convinced me it wasn't hydrogen sulfide, but indeed dead animal(s), though chlorination will alleviate a hydrogen sulfide smell for a while it is not always easy to diagnose a problem by email or even smell, testing the well water to be certain can be expensive, also . It is much simpler to maintain your well and cap then resolve a problem like the one the writer described.
example of a sanitary well cap


A sanitary well cap is also called a vermin proof cap for good reason. Standard well caps usually have screws around the side that hold a one-piece cap onto the top of the well casing (pipe). This allows insects, small animals like mice or surface water to enter the well. If you a single piece cap or any kind of cap with a plug or plate, replace it now! If the well cap does not properly seal the well, insects or vermin can crawl through gaps around the casing or through unscreened vents or open holes and build a nest inside the well casing and cap in the wire tangle at the top. Bacteria can reach unhealthy levels when enough droppings or dead bodies fall into the well water- long before the water smells or tastes bad. Once the smell is really noticeable the well may be beyond repair. In case you do not know, groundwater fills the spaces between rocks, sand and dirt. It is hardly ever a flowing body of water. The well is drilled into the ground and generally lined with pipe for the first 50 feet. Below that, it is a borehole in the rocks that fills with water from fractures which are way too small to allow dead bodies (even insect bodies) to flow through. The dead animal or animals came down from the top of the well and that is the only way to clear a well.

There are two basic methods for cleaning a well—mechanical and chemical. Generally a combination of the two is the most effective approach and the trick is finding a company qualified and with the equipment to perform the work. The universe of “well professionals” is a mixed one. Someone who understands pumps, piping and pressure tanks may have limited knowledge of geology and water chemistry or simply not have access to the right equipment. In many places anyone can call themselves a well professional. Even licensed well drillers and water system professionals have a limited range of knowledge and it can be tough to find someone who specializes in well restoration. In addition, if a well is too old and the steel casing is corroded it may not survive cleaning and you may end up replacing the well anyway. A water well system contractor who has both the training and equipment can help you decide which methods to use, depending on the condition of the well.

  • Mechanical processes for and removing debris from the well include: pressurized air, steam or water; wire brushes or scrapers; agitation of water in the well; and sonic waves.
  • Chemical cleaning often involves the use of various acids to loosen or dissolve debris so that it can be pumped out of the well. Depending on the nature of the cleaning job, there are also polymers and “caustic” chemicals (like chlorine) to remove debris. Chlorine is great for disinfecting, but not necessarily for cleaning or ridding a well of a dead animal or animals.

The age, condition and construction of a well will determine which methods can be used to clean it. If a well’s water intake areas or the well casing have corroded significantly over time, they may be damaged or destroyed by more aggressive cleaning practices. In such cases, it is probably best to save your money and proceed directly to drilling a new well. Well cleaning should be followed immediately by a thorough disinfection of the well system and should be completed by the water well contractor to ensure that it is done properly. Make sure you work with a qualified water well system contractor/driller who is licensed and qualified and has experience cleaning wells (or drilling new ones) in your area. Knowledge of local geology is important.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates public water systems. However, the responsibility for ensuring the safety and consistent supply of water from the 21 million private wells belongs to the well owner. A properly sealed well cap protects against all types of contamination. It is the first line of protection against pollution and contamination of your well. If you drill a well or own one, make sure your well has a sanitary well cap, which is a two piece cap with a rubber gasket seal between the two pieces. The rubber seal is the key component for keeping vermin, bug and environmental pollutants out of the well. A Sanitary well cap also has a vent screen, or more likely two vented screens between the gasket and the electrical wiring (conduit) port. A vented screen is necessary to equalize the pressure difference between the inside and outside of the well as the water is pumped, so you do not create a vacuum and draw dirt and contaminants into the well.
from Montana Water Quality District
Well caps keep out insects and vermin that prefer a dark, damp environment to nest and prevent surface pollutants from entering the well. Insects can cause major problems in a well. Bacteria levels of the water can rise from their droppings, and sometimes the bugs themselves can get trapped in the wells, die, and decompose in the well water. So, the first thing you should do as a well owner is make sure you have a sanitary well cap and the gasket and screens are in good condition, and the cap is properly bolted. Check your well a couple of times a year to make sure the cap remains sound.

My cast iron sanitary well cap was only nine years old when I decided to replace it with a cast aluminum well cap. The gasket had deteriorated and the rust on the well cap was preventing me from getting a good seal, so I replaced it.  The next thing you should do is make sure that the ground surface slopes sway from the well casing in all directions to keep surface water from flowing down the well pipe. The grouting does deteriorate over time (especially if you hit it with the lawn mower) and keeping water away from the well head helps prevent contamination. The well in the stone surround at the top is my well. The well is too close to the driveway. The stone surround and an adjustment to the driveway slope directs water from the drive down slope and the stone surround keeps people from backing into the well when they turn around.

A neighbor of mine had coliform bacteria (but not fecal coliform or E. coli) appear in their well. They replaced their well cap and repacked the soil around the well area so snow melt and rain would not flow to the well head. Though, their well had been grouted at construction, grout flaws and failure from damage (hitting the well with the lawn mower or the UPS truck backing up for instance) can undermine the seal that the grout provides. It is not possible to grout or re-grout an existing well. However, these two simple steps- a new well cap and packing the soil around the well area so water flows away from the well solved their problem, The continued effectiveness of the solution was confirmed at the county water clinic this past spring. Of course my neighbors knew they had a problem because they tested their well regularly to make sure the water was safe to drink. You are your own water supply company. You need to take care of your well and test your water – not once, but regularly.