Thursday, April 26, 2018

EPA Grants $1.9 Million to Virginia Tech

Yesterday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded $1,981,500 to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) in Blacksburg, Va., to research lead in drinking water. Virginia Tech will use this funding to create a public assisted framework to detect and control lead in drinking water, working collaboratively with the public, encouraging citizen scientists to participate in the research.

Lead in drinking water is a national problem, and according to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt it is one of the greatest environmental threats we face as a country, especially dangerous for our children. Flint Michigan was not an aberration nor was it the worst incidence of lead in drinking water supplies. Flint became famous for their lead problem because of a combination of determined residents, blatant misrepresentation by public officials, and the good luck of engaging Professor Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech. This allowed Flint to become the poster child for lead in drinking water that Washington DC failed to become ten years earlier. Last year in an examination of data, Reuters found 3,000 communities that had recently recorded lead levels at least double those in Flint during the peak of that city’s contamination crisis. Now, according to EPA Virginia Tech's research will move us one step closer to eradicating lead in drinking water.”

Lead does not exist in in most groundwater, rivers and lakes- the source water for most municipal and private water supplies. Instead, lead in drinking water is picked up from the pipes on its journey into a home. In older homes the water service lines delivering water from the water main in the street into each home were commonly made of lead. This practice began to fade by the 1950’s but was legal until 1988. Lead was also used to solder copper pipes together before 1988 (when the 1986 ban on lead in paint and solder went into effect). Also until very recently (2011 Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act) almost all drinking water fixtures were made from brass containing up to 8% lead, even if they carry a plated veneer of chrome, nickel or brushed aluminum and were sold as "lead-free." So even homes built with PVC piping in the 2000’s may have some lead in most of the faucets.

The nation’s water infrastructure the pipes, treatment plants and other critical components that deliver drinking water have grown old. In many of our cities water pipes installed when systems were built have only been replaced when they break. The building service lines that connect homes and businesses to the water mains are often the original lines. For decades instead of replacing lead pipes urban water companies have used chemicals to control lead and other chemicals from leaching into the water supply.

Many at the American Water Works Association and other scientists have questioned the wisdom of this strategy. Even when successful there is always some lead leaching into the drinking water. Many of us believe that there is no safe level of lead in drinking water. No amount of exposure to lead is safe. Our national goal is to eliminate exposure to lead especially for children, who are both more susceptible to lead poisoning and suffer more severe impacts. Even at very low levels once considered safe, lead can cause serious, irreversible damage to the developing brains and nervous systems of babies and young children.

According to Principal Investigator on the Project, Dr. Marc Edwards, “Our team will establish one of the largest citizen science engineering projects in U.S. history to help individuals and communities deal with our shared responsibility for controlling exposure to lead in drinking water through a combination of low-cost sampling, outreach, direct collaboration, and modeling,” Dr. Marc Edwards continued, “We will tap a growing ‘crowd’ of consumers who want to learn how to better protect themselves from lead, and in the process, also create new knowledge to protect others. Whether from wells or municipalities, we all consume water, and we can collectively work to reduce health risks.”

Monday, April 23, 2018

AlexRenew



In April the Potomac Watershed Roundtable met at AlexRenew in Alexandria, Virginia. In the morning meeting Karen Pallansch, the Chief Executive Officer of Alexander Renew spoke about AlexRenew, one of the most advanced waste water treatment plants in the United States. AlexRenew has more than 100 employees at their advanced waste water treatment plant that covers 35-acres in Alexandria. AlexRenew calls their plant a “Water Resource Recovery Facility” because it is far advanced of the sewage treatment plants of the past. The plant processes about 13 billion gallons of wastewater each year into clean water and reusable resources- Class A Biosolids.

During the past eleven years under the leadership of Ms. Pallansch, the waste water treatment plant was rebranded Alex Renew and saw significant treatment upgrades. Ms. Pallansch oversaw the implementation of a strategy that incorporated a successful public-developer partnership, creating a neighborhood from an area that once served as a City of Alexandria landfill. The new site, which opened in 2016, includes a LEED Platinum Environmental Center with an educational lobby. The building uses AlexRenew’s reclaimed water and is powered in part by solar energy and is where our meeting was held. Next to the building is an Envision Platinum Nutrient Management Facility topped with a multipurpose artificial turf field operated and maintained by The City’s Parks Department.

In short, AlexRenew is an innovative and inoffensive (it really doesn’t smell) waste water treatment plant and I had wanted to tour the facility since I read about it in Rose George’s excellent book “ The Big Necessity; the unmentionable world of Human Waste and why it matters.” I was not disappointed. You can take a virtual tour or sign up for an actual tour. 


Before the tour Ms. Pallansch briefly spoke to the group about the history and operations of Alex Renew and in broad strokes of how they will help Alexandria meet the state legislative mandated timeline for solving the combined sewer overflow problem in Alexandria. There is an area of the City, mostly around Old Town that has a Combined Sewer System. This combined system is a piped sewer system in which there is one pipe that carries both sanitary sewage and stormwater to the local wastewater treatment plant. This was how sewer systems were commonly built in the days when sanitation was simply moving sewage out of the city to the rivers and streams. Back then one piping system was cheaper and adequate for the job.

However, today when sewage is treated by waste water treatment plants, the rain water that falls in the street and enters the storm water drains is combined with the sanitary waste water entering the sewers from homes and businesses. The combined flow can overwhelm the waste water treatment plant. So, to protect the sewage system as a whole, the combined sewage and rainfall is released into the local creeks in a controlled and planned fashion out of the “Combined Sewer Overflows” which are release locations permitted and monitored by the regulators.

Now Alexandria is under mandate from the state legislature to eliminate this problem by 2025. Though the state issued a mandate, they did not offer any funding to Alexandria or the right solution. In order to accomplish this, Alexandria has transferred ownership of the outfalls and the interceptor lines (the sewer mains transporting to the raw sewage to the treatment plant) to AlexRenew. 

AlexRenew has taken the lead and based on feedback received during the Stakeholder Group process, they developed a plan that includes building a tunnel system with:
  • Storage tunnels 
  • Conveyance tunnels 
  • Diversion facilities (diversion chambers and drop shafts) 
  • Dewatering pumping stations 

AlexRenew upgrades including:
  • Wet weather pumping station 
  • Increase treatment peak capacity from 108 to 116 million gallons a day 
  • Wet weather treatment utilizing existing and improved facilities at the AlexRenew plant. 

Unfortunately, without funding from the state Alexandria residents will have to pay for the full project costs which are estimated to cost between $22-$40 per sewer connection per month to finance a project that is estimated at over $340 million.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Earth Day 2018- End Plastic Pollution

Sunday, April 22, 2018 is Earth Day, the 48th Earth Day. The first U.S. celebration of Earth Day was held on April 22, 1970.

This year’s theme is "End Plastic Pollution." The Earth Day network tells us that plastics are responsible for a vast array of ills from poisoning and injuring marine life, disrupting animal and human hormones, littering beaches and landscapes and clogging our waste streams and landfills, the exponential growth of plastics is now threatening the survival of our planet.

Plastics that we use once and discard, or single-use plastics, are a growing critical problem of global proportion. Plastics are some of the most commonly littered items in the world and they are drowning our planet. Plastics are present in furniture, construction materials, cars, appliances, electronics and countless other things. 
from "Production Use and Fate of All Plastics ever made"


In a recent scientific study published in Science Advances, lead author Roland Geyer and coauthors Jenna R. Jambeck and Lara Lavender Law estimated the amount of plastics that have been manufactured since 1950’s and determined it’s fate. The scientists found that virtually all the plastic we ever made is non-degradable and is still with us. Much of the plastic  ends up in landfills, or worn into smaller particles in the soil, in the ocean, or in our rivers, streams, lakes and estuaries.

The scientists estimated that 8,300 million metric tons of virgin plastics have been produced since the dawn of the age of plastics. As of 2015, approximately 6,300 million metric tons of plastic waste had been generated, around 9% of which had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment. Furthermore, they estimate that if current production and waste management trends continue, roughly 12,000 million metric tons of plastic waste will be in landfills or in the natural environment by 2050. If we do not make some changes it will not be too long until we are all knee deep in plastic waste. 
from "Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made"


In response to this every growing problem, Earth Day 2018 is dedicated to informing and inspiring us to change our attitudes and behavior about plastics.

Monday, April 16, 2018

You Can Fix a Well with E Coli

If you find E colie or fecal coliform in your well the first step you should take is to protect your health then try and identify the source of the E coli and eliminate it.

  1. If the sample tests positive for E coli then the first thing to do is chlorine shock not only the well, but also the inside piping and any treatment equipment to disinfect your home. 
  2. Retest the water after the chlorine has left the system in about 10 days to two weeks see if E coli is present. 
  3. If your well water tests positive again for total E coli, then the water must be treated to make it safe for consumption, while the source of is identified and eliminated if possible. 

Possible sources of E. coli contamination are septic tanks leaks, septic leach field or system failure, animal manure storage systems or in some areas with installed sewer systems and wells, sewer pipe leaks. There are instances when a neighborhood is hooked up to sewers, some of the homes do not pump out the old septic tanks and years later are found leaking.

Shallow groundwater is most easily contaminated by septic leaks, septic system failures, animal waste and sewer leaks. Nonetheless, in certain geology shallow sources of contamination can find their way into deeper groundwater. In fractured rock systems with limited overburden like we have here in the western portion of Prince William county, a fracture can carry contamination to deeper groundwater and spread the contamination.

Very shallow groundwater wells- dug or bored wells often become contaminated when the shallow aquifer becomes contaminated. These types of are prone to go dry during droughts and because they are shallow (less than 40 feet deep) are more subject to pollution. Drilled wells have more protection since they are more than 40 feet deep, typically more than 100 feet deep.

Well construction defects such as insufficient well casing depth, improper sealing of the space between the well casing and the borehole, corroded or cracked well casings, and poor well seals or caps can allow sewage, surface water, or insects to carry coliform bacteria into the well.

To prevent contamination to a well, regulations in Virginia and several other states have specified well construction standards since 1992. To provide the best natural protection these regulation require that the well should be 100 feet from the nearest edge of the septic drainfield and 50 feet from the nearest corner of the house. If the land area is small, the way to accomplish this is to separate the two as far as possible, with the septic drainfield downgradient of the well and go deep with the well. Obtaining the needed separation with vertical distance.

In Virginia (and most places) if a well is more than 100 feet deep the septic leach field need be only 50 feet away, but there are many wells like mine that have more than one water level and the shallower one is less than 100 feet deep (in my case 46 feet) making the well much more susceptible to contamination for the septic effluent leaching into the ground. You must make sure that the well is lined, grouted and the geology protects you from the drainfield to protect the well from the shallow ground water and being impacted by the septic system.

Septic drainfields also have a limited life. The life of a septic drainfield is dependent on how the system is managed, the frequency of septic tank pump outs, and the number of people living in a house, but 25-30 years is the typical life of those systems. After decades of use a septic drainfield can become a long term source of fecal or E coli contamination

Fecal coliform is the group of the total coliform that is considered to be present specifically in the gut and feces of warm-blooded animals. E. coli is considered to be the species of coliform bacteria that is the best indicator of fecal pollution and the possible presence of pathogens.

Back in the day we always recommended that a well that was contaminated with E coli be replaced with a new well. That is not always possible or desirable. I have observed several instances where E coli was eliminated from a well after repair of a failing septic system, but that takes time; so in the meantime the water must be treated to make it safe for consumption. Replacing a well can cost between $10,000 and $20,000, and cannot always be done.

Continuous disinfection of the water is necessary to protect you from fecal bacteria and E. coli. This is easily accomplished by installing either a UV (ultra violet) light or chlorine disinfection system. Your choice of systems should be based on personal preference and what other contaminants are present in your water. Both UV light and continuous chlorination do a good job of killing coliform bacteria including fecal coliform and E coli. However, chlorine treatment will control nuisance organisms such as iron, manganese, iron and manganese reducing bacteria and sulfate-reducing bacteria. Chlorine in water at the concentrations used for treatment is not poisonous to humans or animals. However, chlorine can impact the smell and/or taste of water even in very low concentrations. Household chlorination systems often use higher chlorine concentration than the typical 0.3 - 0.5 ppm (parts per million) concentration used for chlorination of public water supplies because the contact time is much shorter in home systems. UV light systems require filtration before the UV light maximize the functioning of the UV light system.

Both UV light and chlorine disinfection require additional treatment. Neither method of disinfection kills Giardia or Cryptosporidium, two microscopic parasites that can be found in surface water and groundwater that has been impacted by sewage. Both parasites produce cysts that cause illness and sometimes death. Giardia are often found in human, and dog feces. Cattle feces appear to be the primary source of Cryptosporidium, although these parasites have also been found in humans and other animals. Membrane filtration is the usual treatment for these parasites- a one micron or smaller membrane is required for this. There are new filter systems that combine carbon and one micron or smaller membrane a a special filter designed for this purpose.

Many manufacturers make whole house filters, typically they make a casings in 10, 20 or 30 inch and make different cartridges to address the various problems. To ensure that a filter removes Cryptosporidium, you can look for "NSF 53" or "NSF 58" and the words "cyst reduction" or "cyst removal." Reverse osmosis can also accomplish parasite removal, but typically only treats one sink rather than a whole house, wastes a lot of water, and if your water is at all hard requires a water softening system.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Antibiotics on the Farm

In January the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) ban on using antibiotics as growth promoters as an animal feed supplement went into effect in the United States. The new FDA rules, prohibiting the over-the-counter sale to farmers of medically important antimicrobial drugs for humans, were enacted in an effort to stem the growing resistance of bacteria to antibiotics. More still needs to be done. For decades, antibiotics have also been given to healthy animals to help prevent the diseases they might contract in crowded, unsanitary factory conditions- so called “therapeutic use.”

Under the new FDA rules, farmers will still be allowed to use antibiotics for therapeutic uses with a prescriptions from a veterinarian. There is concern that meat producers will use the same amount of antibiotics, not changing their practices but instead claiming that all antibiotic use is for disease prevention. The FDA is working with farmers to promote good farm hygiene practices that include immunization, clean water, and improved sanitation that can cut down on therapeutic use of antibiotics. To further reduce this therapeutic use that also significantly contributes to antibiotic resistance, routine use of antibiotics in this way must stop.

Farmers began adding small amounts of certain antibiotics to animal feeds early in the 1950s after it was observed that livestock eating antibiotic supplements gained weight more rapidly. How antibiotics promote growth is not fully understood. According to the FDA, by 2014 17,000 tons of antibiotics (80% of all antibiotic sales) were sold in the United States for livestock. Sales of antibiotics for farm use fell 10% in 2015 when fast food restaurants began to eliminate the use of poultry and meat raised with antibiotics lead by Chipotle, Panera Bread and Chick-fil-A and ultimately joined by the 25 largest fast food companies. In Europe, antibiotic growth promoters have not been allowed since 2006.

The antibiotic free movement began with chicken producers to meet the needs of fast-food chains that began voluntarily committing to antibiotic-fee policies in response to consumer demand. The challenge is whether the beef and pork growers can follow suit. These animals are longer-lived and move from farm to feedlot in their lifetime exposing them to more disease risks. Eliminating the prophylactic use of therapeutic antibiotics will be more challenging than it has been in poultry, but is essential for all our health. You can join the antibiotic free movement by buying meat and poultry raised without antibiotics and only eating at restaurants that are going antibiotic free.

To learn more read Maryn McKenna’s excellent book “Big Chicken,” the fascinating history of antibiotic use in agriculture and the changes happening to curb their abuse and overuse.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Anacostia Sewage Storage Tunnel Completed



from DC Water
Just in time for the spring rains, DC Water formerly the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority put its 7-mile-long sewer tunnel into operation. The newly completed tunnel segment is 7 miles long and 23-feet in diameter. Nannie, the tunnel boring machine named after the famous District educator, The Anacostia River Tunnel is now connected to the Blue Plains Tunnel at Poplar Point, adjacent to the Frederick Douglass Bridge. The newly completed tunnel system will capture and hold up to 100 million gallons of combined sewage in heavy rainfalls and deliver it to the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant for treatment.

Combined with the new 225 million-gallon-per-day Wet Weather Treatment Facility at Blue Plains, this tunnel portion will reduce combined sewer overflows by more than 80%. Mining for the next tunnel segment, the Northeast Boundary Tunnel, will begin this spring and is scheduled for completion in 2023.

Due to the age of the Washington DC sewer system, parts of those systems are what is called combined systems where sewer and stormwater are carried through the same pipes. Practically every time it rains, untreated sewage and rainwater (combined sewage) is discharged into Washington DC’s rivers and creeks. The storage tunnel system are $2.7 billion part of a $7.8 billion 20 year improvement program called the Clean Rivers Project that will install "diversion facilities" at strategic locations to capture this untreated sewage and divert it at completion a total of 157 million gallon tunnel system where it can be stored and conveyed to the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant for treatment when the capacity is available.

The Clean Rivers Project was conceived and agreed to under a consent order from the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, to meet new effluent limits for total nitrogen released and better control of the system during rain storms. The Clean Rivers Project is comprised of a system of deep tunnels, sewers and diversion facilities to capture combined sewer overflows and deliver them to DC Water’s Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant when the capacity is available to treat them.

The Clean Rivers project was amended in 2007 to include the construction of Enhanced nitrogen removal, ENR, facilities for additional $950 million. The new ENR facilities have the capacity to provide complete treatment for flow rates up 555 million gallons per day for the first 4 hours, 511 million gallons per day for the next 24 hours and at a rate of 450 mgd. When all the Clean River Project and ENR facilities components are completed, the Blue Plains Advanced Waste Water Treatment Plant is projected to be able to meet the nitrogen release standard under the NPDES operating permit, reduce the number of uncontrolled storm related releases of waste, but still not meet the Chesapeake Bay TMDL. Buried in Appendix B of the Watershed Implementation Plan II, WIP II, for Washington DC is the fact that they cannot meet the EPA mandated TMDL for the Chesapeake Bay for the combined sewer system and Blue Plains Waste Water Treatment plant with the existing programs. More needs to be done.

As part of the Clean Rivers Project, DC Water is also included installing Green Infrastructure to assist with the reduction of combined sewer overflows to the Potomac River and Rock Creek. These projects, begun in 2012with EPA approval will be evaluated for effectiveness in reducing stormwater runoff using techniques that mimic natural control measures to meet water quality goals under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, NPDES, permit. If successful, these techniques could be used to help address the combined sewer overflow problems in the District (and Alexandria), potentially reducing costs and/or improving control of stormwater overflows to meet the Chesapeake Bay TMDL. The Anacostia River and Potomac River tunnel systems include more than 18 miles of tunnels and are constructed more than 100 feet below the ground.



Thursday, April 5, 2018

Farming: a Major Contributor to Air Pollution in California

Nitrogen oxides (NOx = NO + NO2) are a primary component of air pollution. These nitrogen gases react in the atmosphere to form tiny particulate matter that have been linked to upper respiratory disease, asthma, cancer, birth defects, cardiovascular disease, and sudden infant death syndrome . Nitrogen oxides are a major precursor to the formation of particulates.

Particulate matter has immediate health impacts: itchy, watery eyes, increased respiratory symptoms such as irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breathing and aggravated asthma. Health effects can result from both short-term and long-term exposure to particulate pollution. Exposure to particles can also trigger heart attacks and cause premature death in people with pre-existing cardiac or respiratory disease.

As NOx emissions from fossil fuel combustion have been reduced in the past decades recent studies have found that nitrogen oxide air pollution from and soil are a major contributor to air pollution. Studies in the United States Midwest have found that 30% of the nitrogen oxide emission is from agriculture. California is considered the world’s sixth largest economy in terms of gross national product and grows about two-thirds of the fruit and nuts and one third of the vegetables grown in the United States. Nonetheless, in the current California Air Resource Board (CARB) NOx inventory, emissions from cars and trucks are officially thought to be responsible for 83% of NOx emissions and soil emissions from agriculture are currently considered negligible.

Though the CARB has instituted policies to reduce NOx pollution from fossil fuel sources, they have not regulated NOx emissions from agriculture and observed levels of NOx around the state were often higher than could be explained particularly in the agriculture-heavy Central Valley of California with many locations remaining “non-attainment” areas for federal particulate air pollution standards. Although some NOx occurs naturally in soils, the majority of NOx gases released from agricultural land are due to nitrogen-based fertilizers applied to crops. About half of the fertilizers end up lost the atmosphere due to poor application techniques.

In a new study published in Science Advances titled “Agriculture is a major source of NOx pollution in California,” Maya Almaraz et al find that agricultural soils contribute a substantial amount of NOx to the atmosphere in California. The scientists used modeling techniques to estimate the NOx emission from California soils. Dr. Almaraz and her colleagues used the amount of fertilizers applied to the soil, soil texture, moisture, temperature, precipitation and crop harvest as factors in the model. They also collected air samples in the agricultural Central Valley of California refine and verify the model. They determined that agricultural land is responsible for between 20% and 32% of NOx air pollution in California. This is a major revision of the previous estimates and increases the estimated NOx released in the state significantly. This places fertilized agricultural lands second behind motor vehicles as sources of NOx pollution.

The scientists expect to see a significant increase as nitrogen based fertilizer use increases to keep pace with food demands in a changing climate. These findings suggest the need to reconsider the role of soil NOx sources and develop implement “best management farming practices” targeted at reducing nitrogen based fertilizer waste and air release.