Thursday, August 25, 2016

Planet found Orbiting Proxima Centauri

Illustration from NASA
A team of astronomers using the European Southern Observatory's 3.6-meter telescope at La Silla, Chile, along with other telescopes around the world has discovered a roughly Earth-sized planet orbiting our nearest neighboring star, Proxima Centauri, might be habitable. At a distance of 1.295 parsecs from earth, the red-dwarf Proxima Centauri or simply Proxima is the Sun’s closest stellar neighbor and one of the best studied low-mass stars.

The science team that made the discovery, led by Guillem Anglada-Escudé of Queen Mary University of London, published its findings today in the journal Nature. The newly discovered planet is at a distance from its star that allows temperatures mild enough for liquid water to pool on its surface. The scientists determined that the new planet, dubbed Proxima b, is at least 1.3 times the mass of Earth. It orbits its star far more closely than Mercury orbits our sun, taking only 11 days to complete a single orbit.

While the new planet lies within the distance at which temperatures are right for liquid water, the so called habitable zone, scientists do not yet know if the planet has an atmosphere. It also orbits a red-dwarf star, far smaller and cooler star than our sun. The scientists believe that the planet likely presents only one face to its star instead of rotating through our familiar days and nights. And Proxima b could be subject to potentially life-extinguishing stellar flares.

Statistical surveys of exoplanets, planets orbiting other stars, by NASA's Kepler space telescope have found a large number of small planets around small stars. Despite the unknowns, the discovery of Proxima b was hailed by the NASA exoplanet hunters as a major milestone on the road to finding other possible life-bearing worlds. According to NASA, the Kepler data suggests there should be at least one potentially habitable, Earth-size planet orbiting M-type stars, like Proxima, within 10 light-years of our solar system.

So the discovery of Proxima b was "not completely unexpected, but nonetheless exciting. Coming generations of space and ground-based telescopes, including large ground telescopes now under construction, could yield more information about the planet, perhaps inspiring ideas on how to pay it a visit.



The discovery of Proxima b might inspire more interstellar research, especially if the planet proves to have an atmosphere. "It may be that the first time we get really good information is from the newer telescopes that may be coming online in a decade or two," said Bill Borucki, now retired, but a former principal investigator for Kepler and an exoplanet pioneer. The Kepler exoplanet has discovered the bulk of the more than 3,300 exoplanets found so far.

We Won Silver



The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) has recognized the Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District’s Adopt-A-Stream program as ranking number 2 (behind Fairfax) for overall amount of trash removed from our rivers for the 2016 spring river clean ups. Our Conservation District was ranked first in the mileage of waterways cleaned, which represents 35% of the total miles covered under the program in Virginia.

This year 759 volunteers cleaned 77.4 miles of stream removing 20,877 pounds of trash in Prince William County during the Occoquan River Cleanup and the 28th Annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup . The volunteers working with the Conservation District staff, community groups, employers, and schools  throughout the region spend a Saturday collecting trash in and along the rivers. Our in the water volunteers allow us to cover the more than 77 miles of rivers. The biggest day this year was April 16, 2016.  The Potomac River Watershed Cleanup is the largest regional event of its kind. We would like to thank all those who came out to help keep our waters clean.  It is a great single day volunteer opportunity.

The Adopt-A-Stream program is part of Stewardship Virginia which is one of the governor’s initiative. Unfortunately, it is necessary to hold these river cleanups annually. Year after year volunteers clean our streams, rivers, and stream beds of trash that started as litter and carried along by stormwater and wind into our waterways and parks. The trash does not magically disappear, but finds its way into our rivers and streams disrupting the natural water flow and beauty of our natural world.

The Conservation District would like to thank all the residents who have volunteered, or are currently volunteering for the Adopt-A-Stream program in the District, and hope you will join us next year. The Conservation District works with the County to promote Green Communities in Prince William. Come out and help us keep our water ways free of trash. Don’t litter and teach your children not to litter and join the adopt a stream program.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Disinfection By Products in Water

The use of chlorine, chloramines and ozone to disinfect drinking water has virtually eliminated the incidence of such waterborne diseases as typhoid, cholera, and dysentery in the United States. However, research has shown that chlorine and the other oxidizing disinfectants interact with natural organic matter present in rivers and streams and our drinking water supplies to form disinfection by-products (DBPs) that increase the incidence of cancer.

Although there are hundreds of disinfection by products that can form, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) only regulates 11 that were the most common when chlorine was the disinfectant of choice and were linked to health concerns. Some research done in the late 20th century indicated that certain byproducts of water disinfection are linked to increases in bladder cancer, liver, kidney, central nervous system problems, reproductive effects and linked to anemia. The EPA established maximum contaminant levels for these by products: four trihalomethanes (THMs), five haloacetic acids (HAAs), bromate, and chlorite in order to protect public health.

Strategies to control disinfectant breakdown products can be divided into three categories: Removal of disinfection byproduct precursors. Modification and optimization of the treatment and disinfection processes to limit the formation of these breakdown products. Removal of disinfectant breakdown products after formation using such filtering media as activated carbon. However, most water utilities changed their method of disinfection because it was the cheapest method to comply with EPA standards for the regulated disinfection by-products. This resulted in many water utilities moving away from chlorine disinfection to alternatives such as chloramine, chlorine dioxide, and ozone, and increased the adoption of chloramine because of its relatively lower cost. Chloramine is a combination of chlorine and ammonia.

After its introduction, it was discovered that chloramine can make drinking water more caustic that may cause an increased deterioration of old water pipes and degradation of valves and fittings. In water systems that still have lead containing pipes or components; this causes lead and other metals to leach into drinking water. This happened rather spectacularly in Washington DC in the late 1990’s. In addition, chloramine has its own breakdown products with potential health impacts.

Thought the federal government did not ban the use of lead pipes in new construction and repairs until 1986, many cities banned lead pipe use decades earlier out of health concerns. Most existing lead pipes are closer to 75-100 years old, are in the older cities of the east coast and mid-west and should have been replaced in the normal course of preventive maintenance program. Unfortunately, that is not how we operate in the United States. A few cities, including Madison, Wisconsin, and Lansing, Michigan, have taken steps to remove all of their lead pipes. Such projects can cost tens of millions of dollars and have to be paid for by either an increase in water bills, property owners or both. It was estimated by the American Water Association that there are 6.5 million lead pipes still in service in the United States while the EPA estimates that number at around 10 million. That does not even consider all the homes in America that have copper pipes with lead solder.

The 1994 amendments to the Clean Water Act Safe Drinking Water Act to regulate disinfection by-products formed when chlorine reacts with organic matter in drinking water resulted in elevated lead levels in the distribution system in Washington DC when they changed from chlorine to chloramine for disinfection. The treatment process for the Washington DC water supply was changed to add ammonia after primary disinfection to react with the remaining chlorine to prevent the formation of disinfection byproducts (haloacetic acids and trihalomethanes). The change caused a lowering of pH in the distribution system, the water became slightly more caustic than it had been, increasing the possibility of corrosion.

Shortly after the change, increasing pipe failures and levels of lead began appearing in the homes of Washington DC residents. The more caustic chloramine-treated water picked up lead from pipes and solder resulting in elevated levels and deterioration of the pipes. This is just one of the unintended consequences of the change to chloramine. Today, there are growing number of scientists who are warning that the unregulated disinfection by products from chloramine may be more problematic than the regulated ones. One of the disinfection by products of particular concern is Nitrogenous disinfection by products(N-DBPs). They are formed when nitrogen-containing compounds (fertilizers) react with certain oxidants/disinfectants especially in systems using chloramine. These N-DBPs include nitrosamines, nitriles, and hydrazine, and some of these compounds are one to two orders of magnitude more toxic than the currently regulated disinfection by products. We need to reexamine the approach we are taking for the ever increasing number of regulations with unintended consequences.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

EPA and DOT Final Fuel Efficiency Standards for Trucks


On Tuesday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) jointly announced the final emission standards for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles. According to EPA the final standards will lower CO2 emissions by approximately 1.1 billion metric tons, save vehicle owners fuel costs of about $170 billion, and reduce oil consumption by up to two billion barrels over the lifetime of the vehicles sold under the program. Factoring in the cost of CO2 to society the EPA claims that the truck fuel efficiency standards will provide $230 billion in net benefits to society.

The engine fuel standards phase in beginning in model year 2021 and culminate in standards for model year 2027. For the first-time this rule will regulate greenhouse gas and fuel efficiency standards for trailers starting in 2018 for EPA and in 2021 for NHTSA. The fully phased-in standards are supposed to reduce CO2 emissions and fuel consumption by 25% compared to the Phase 1 standards by imposing these standards on “glider vehicles.”

The term “glider vehicle” is used in the heavy-duty vehicle industry to describe a new chassis and cab assembly into which a third party installs a used engine, transmission, and/or rear axle to complete assembly of the vehicle. Historically, gliders have been used as a means to salvage valuable components, such as used engines, transmissions, and axles, from vehicles that were badly damaged in collisions.

Since 2010 when EPA’s current NOx and particulate standards for heavy duty engines took effect, glider sales have increased nearly 10-fold since 2004-2006, and reflects an attempt to avoid using engines that comply with EPA’s 2010 standards, and is an attempt to circumvent the Phase I regulation requirements. Most gliders manufactured today use remanufactured model year 2001 or older engines. Typically these engines have NOx and particulate matter emissions 20 to 40 times higher than today’s clean diesel engines.

In the Phase 2 of the fuel standards EPA is “clarifying” that gliders are “new vehicles” under the Clean Air Act, and are subject to EPA’s current Phase 1 greenhouse gas emission standards for new vehicles in 40 CFR part 1037, with some exemptions for small businesses that have been narrowed in the Phase 2 of the regulations. EPA intends to grandfather only existing small businesses that currently install the used engines and other used parts into gliders and limit their production.

Existing small businesses would be allowed to continue their production up to 300 assembled gliders per year without complying with Phase 1 requirements. Any additional gliders an existing small business produces beyond their existing production rates or 300 per year whichever is less would need to meet the new proposed requirements for both engines and vehicles. EPA states that these grandfathered  existing small businesses would  produce enough gliders to address legitimate purposes (e.g., salvaging engines and other parts from damaged vehicles); but an unintended consequence is it also creates what is in essence a marketable value.

In perpetuity, a limited number of businesses can produce 300 gliders each and the business name become a marketable license to produce those 300 gliders. All other businesses will need to meet the tractor standards through improvements in the engine, transmission, driveline, aerodynamic design, lower rolling resistance tires, extended idle reduction technologies, and other accessories of the tractor.

Heavy-duty trucks are the second largest segment of the U.S. transportation sector in terms of emissions and energy use. These vehicles currently account for about 20 % of greenhouse gas emissions and oil use in the U.S. transportation sector. Through the Paris climate agreement and other commitments, the United States is working to increase fuel economy standards, and reduce energy use. The final Phase 2 program promotes a new generation of cleaner, more fuel efficient trucks by encouraging the development and deployment of new and advanced technologies that the EPA reports will be cost effective.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Vanishing Groundwater

From  Famiglietti and Rodell 
In the August National Geographic is an article with great pictures about the Ogallala aquifer. The High Plains aquifer in the central United States running from South Dakota through Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma to Texas is commonly known as the Ogallala aquifer (because the Ogallala formation makes up about three quarters of the aquifer) became news and burst into public awareness due to the protests associated with the Keystone XL Pipeline.

As highlighted by National Geographic there is a much bigger threat to the Ogallala; the aquifer is being depleted because the groundwater within much of it is predominately non-renewable. The groundwater aquifer that spans and estimated 174,000 square miles is the primary source of water for the High Plains. This was open range land until the groundwater from the aquifer was used to turn the range land into irrigated crops. However, according to John Opie in “Ogallala: Water for a Dry Land” this is essentially fossil water that was generated 10,000-25,000 years ago by the melting of the glaciers of the Rockies.

Groundwater laws and regulations vary by state. In Kansas and Nebraska the state owns the groundwater and rights to use the water were granted (in perpetuity) to property owners. Unfortunately, like water rights elsewhere rights granted for use often exceed water available. Where water is wealth, this happens over and over again. In Texas as in Virginia any groundwater you can pump from under your land is yours by right. Though the states are monitoring water usage, they do not have the political will to cut usage. While in Virginia we could limit use of groundwater to a level that would be sustainable, our aquifers are young and recharging; the High Plains aquifer could only manage the depletion of the aquifer. Farmers are selling their water in the form of cheap corn for ethanol, and their grandchildren or possibly even their children will have no water to farm. Everyone wants someone else to stop pumping groundwater. It does not seem possible to regulate and control private wells.

Science now can demonstrate the depletion. The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) and Global Land Data Assimilation System (GLDAS) to quantify groundwater depletion are satellites that are used to measure changes in gravity caused by moisture. The satellites are used to measure monthly changes in total earth water storage by converting observed gravity anomalies they measure from space into changes of equivalent water content. This method of converting the gravity data to water data was developed by Matthew Rodell & James S. Famiglietti in 1999. Dr. Famiglietti and Dr. Rodell and a group of researchers at the University of California, Irvine, the University of Texas, and the Hydrological Sciences Branch at NASA GSFC have worked in partnership to apply GRACE and GLDAS to perform real world groundwater monitoring. NASA has been collecting data for more than 13 years. Last year they published two papers using the first 10 years of collected data to quantify groundwater use, resilience and stability. The news was not good.

Though, ten years of data may not be adequate to determine accurate changes in water availability and groundwater recharge. Using GRACE data, Drs. Famiglietti and Rodell identified what appear to be  areas of water depletion in the United States. These areas include the important food producing regions in California’s Central Valley, and the southern High Plains (the southern part of the Ogallala); large areas of the southeastern U. S. that has been plagued by persistent drought, including Alabama, and portions of the Mid-Atlantic region. Based on the data since 2003, the wetter, northern half of the U.S. has become wetter, while the drier, southern half has become generally drier. As seen in the diagram above, Virginia’s aquifers are under stress. It is difficult to undo water dependent development; however, it is essential that we prevent further development that would impact water sustainability.

On the most local level, Prince William county, we need to examine the sustainability of water resources as an essential part of the Comprehensive Plan. The current version of the comprehensive plan does not even consider water sustainability, and only mentions the Rural Crescent as requiring each single family home to have 10 acres. The basic zoning that exists now in the Rural Crescent is A1- agricultural, allowing one house per 10 acres. The real problem is that highest and best use of the land in the current environment is developing homes. Cutting up the rural crescent into 10 acre parcels or building large churches, schools or even random clustered developments reduces the groundwater recharge, increases the demand for water, increase the potential for contamination, erodes the land by increasing the stormwater velocity over pavement, roadways, buildings and increases sediment flow into our rivers and our Bay.

Whether or not continued residential growth will seriously deplete groundwater supplies is an open issue that has not been studied. But the failure of groundwater supplies or extensive contamination as has happened in areas of Fairfax and Loudoun Counties; however, could destroy property values (after all who buys a house without running water?) and lead to enormous additional costs to homeowners and taxpayers and a lower quality of life for all. Loudoun Water is spending tens of millions of dollars to solve the water problems in Raspberry Falls and Selma communities alone that they are charging to all water customers.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Progress Report on Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Clean Up


Excess nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment from waste water treatment plants, agricultural operations, urban and suburban runoff, wastewater facilities, septic systems, air pollution and other sources have impaired the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal waters. These pollutants cause algae blooms that consume oxygen and create dead zones where fish and shellfish cannot survive, block sunlight that is needed for underwater grasses, and smother aquatic life on the bottom.

Since the 1980’s the six bay states- Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York-and Washington DC have been trying to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Though the nutrient contamination levels of the Chesapeake Bay have decreased over the past thirty years, the Bay’s waters remain degraded. As a result, 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 local waters.

The TMDL sets a total Chesapeake Bay watershed limit for the six states and Washington DC of 185.9 million pounds of nitrogen, 12.5 million pounds of phosphorus and 6.45 billion pounds of sediment per year which is a 25% reduction in nitrogen, 24% reduction in phosphorus and 20 % reduction in sediment from the 2011 levels. The pollution limits were then partitioned to the various states and river basins based on the Chesapeake Bay computer modeling tools and monitoring data.

The six states and Washington DC were required to submit and have approved by the EPA a detailed plan of how they intend to achieve their assigned pollution reduction goals. These plans are called the Watershed Implementation Plans, WIPs, and lay out a series of pollution control measures that need to be put in place by 2025, with 60% of the steps completed by 2017. While it will take years after 2025 for the Bay and its tributaries to fully heal, EPA expects that once the required pollution control measures are in place there will be gradual and continued improvement in water quality as the the nutrient and sediment run off is reduced and there is better control storm water so that the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem can heal itself.

About half of the 39,490 square mile land area of Virginia is drained by the creeks, streams and rivers that comprise the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and two-thirds of the state's population lives within the watershed. To develop a remediation plan acceptable to the EPA and likely to achieve the goals of the revised WIP, the state legislature passed a series of laws and the state implemented a series of regulations addressing among other items: nutrient management plans, septic regulations, limitations of the sale and use of lawn maintenance fertilizer, banning deicing agents containing urea, nitrogen, or phosphorus intended for application on parking lots roadways, and sidewalks, or other paved surfaces, etc.

The EPA reviews our progress every two years against milestones. The two-year milestones are short-term objectives under the Chesapeake Bay TMDL used to assess progress towards our mandated restoration goals to allow the state some flexibly to adapt the Watershed Implementation Plans to meet the goals. Overall Virginia was found to have achieved its state-wide 2015 milestone targets for nitrogen and phosphorus, but did not meet its state-wide target for sediment as a result of being off track for sediment in the Agriculture and Urban/Suburban Stormwater sectors. Reductions in the Wastewater sector remain ahead of schedule for all three pollutants.

The EPA review of progress toward meeting 2014-2015 milestones shows Virginia achieved most of its numeric milestones. Virginia met its state-wide targets, in part, because of greater than expected wastewater reductions achieved by having completed wastewater treatment plant improvements and expansions ahead of population growth.

Based on Virginia’s anticipated reductions for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment planned for the 2016-2017 milestone period, Virginia is expected to catch up and be on track to meet all its state-wide targets for 2017. To catch up Virginia needs to increase implementation of pollution reduction measures in the Agriculture, Urban/Suburban Stormwater and Septic sectors. The sources of pollution in these areas are non-point source pollution (NPS), diffuse sources of pollution. These pollutants do not come out of a pipe, but are carried to streams and rivers by runoff of rain and snowmelt. The way to reduce impact of this non-point source pollution on the environment is to implement what has been called “best management practices.” There are BMPs to minimize the use of fertilizers and pesticides; and BMPs to reduce runoff and slow rain water while maintaining or even enhancing agricultural production. Now Virginia is expanding these BMPs to suburban neighborhoods. Virginia’s anticipated reductions for the 2016-2017 milestone period should keep it on track to meet the 2017 target of having practices in place to achieve 60% of the reductions necessary for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution. 
image from Chesapeake Bay Program


EPA will maintain “Enhanced Oversight” of Virginia for the Urban/Suburban Stormwater and will continue to monitor Virginia’s progress in closing the nutrients and sediment gap in the 2016-2017 milestone period. EPA will maintain “Ongoing Oversight” of the Virginia sectors for Agriculture, Wastewater and Offsets and Trading which are doing much better at tracking the milestones agreed to with the EPA.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Turn Sewage into Electricity

I am a huge fan of science fiction and fantasy. I will suspend belief and enjoy the stories, but sometimes it does irk me that base camps are built and entire planets colonized without waste water treatment. Where there are humans there is waste and we need to address that problem in real life if not in stories.

In real life, the military needs to address sewage and other waste water when they set up base camps and have field operations. The largest shipments of supplies sent to the tactical edge in places like Afghanistan and Iraq are water and fuel. So, last month the Cambrian Innovations in partnership with the U.S. Army announced a project to demonstrate BioVolt™, a self-powered wastewater treatment system. They began field tests of an extremely small scale waste water treatment plant at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Maryland and are evaluating the system for use at forward operating bases and other off-grid locations.

The BioVolt wastewater treatment system is a living, breathing organism, The BioVolt treatment system uses naturally occurring electrically charged bacteria to digest biologic waste, treating wastewater with zero electrical input from the grid for aeration. BioVolt uses a fuel cell powered by the bacteria that convert energy in sewage to electricity – and cleaned the waste water at the same time.

Managing water and wastewater has traditionally been a very energy intensive process. It is reported by New Scientist that 3% of energy consumed in the United States goes to water treatment. BioVolt has the potential to decouple water and energy infrastructure, which can be extremely useful to the Army, disaster relief, and off-grid water treatment and maybe a future where water infrastructure fails us.

BioVolt uses strains of two microbes, Geobacter and Shewanella oneidensis to process the sludge. The proprietary mix of bacteria liberate some electrons as they respire, effectively turning the whole digestion tank into a battery. This has the added benefit of slowing bacterial growth, so that at the end of the process you have electricity and no microbe cake.

The system is containerized, mobile, and can be easily scaled for expanded capacity with additional units. The demonstration project is sized to treat about 600 gallons a day of sewage and convert it into clean water for at least 15 people at the 40 gallons a day necessary to personal use. Not only does BioVolt generates the electricity to power itself – plus a bit left over for other use.

Traditional waste water treatment systems use bacteria to metabolize the organic material in waste water. At the end of the process, the microbes can make up a third by weight of the leftovers to be disposed of. Before being put in landfill or used as an agricultural amendment, this “microbe cake” or Biosolids as it is known in the industry, needs to be heat-sterilized and chemically treated, which uses a lot of energy and still requires disposal space.

However, sewage sludge contains far more than pure human excrement. Anything that goes down the drain is in the sewage- oil and grease, chemicals, cleaners, etc. In addition, sewage may contain pathogens and pharmaceuticals. People excrete sickness and everything they consume. Sewage can contain it all-bacteria, viruses, synthetic organic chemicals and human waste. Just sterilizing the Biosolids may not be enough.

BioVolt reduces the amount of sludge but may not be effective at removing pharmaceutical contaminants from waste water. A number of other teams are working on their own versions of these cells. In San Diego Orianna Bretschger at the J. Craig Venter Institute, is testing is testing a system that can remove some pharmaceuticals – synthetic oestrogens, and is looking at ways to remove pain relief drugs from waste water. In the future where real life and science fiction come together we may all have our own self-contained and powered waste water treatment plants that recycle water.

Cambrian Innovations currently has the EcoVolt  system on the market. This system used for industry bulk BOD removal at breweries and similar operations removes over 85% of  BOD while producing a high-quality biogas that is over 80% methane. The EcoVolt treatment system also uses electrically charged microorganisms (bacteria) to digest waste.  Through combined heat and power cogeneration, a typical installation will generate net 30-200 kW of power, cutting carbon footprints and turning an environmental liability into a revenue stream. The EcoVolt solution is in use at the Bear Republic brewery in Cloverdale, CA, eliminating thousands of metric tons of CO2 per year