Thursday, April 17, 2014

Fracking the Northern Neck of Virginia

DNR Westmoreland State Park
Virginia has gas rich shale deposits. Bet you didn’t know that.Ruby Brabo, a County Supervisor from King George’s County spoke to the Potomac Watershed Roundtable about her concerns about the Virginia Department Mines, Minerals and Energy granting permits to hydraulically fracture in the Virginia Tidewater region, allowing oil companies to lease land and removing control for the fate of the communities effected from local government without adequate protection for the environment and watershed.

During the early Mesozoic Era about 227 million years ago several shale basins formed along the east coast of the United States and Canada. The basins filled with a variety of sediments including boulder beds, coarse-grained sandstones, red siltstones, mudstones, gray and black shale and coal. the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates a potential mean undiscovered natural gas supply of 3,860 billion cubic feet and natural gas liquids of 135 million barrels within five of the East Coast Mesozoic basins: Deep River, Dan River-Danville, Richmond basins, which are within the Piedmont Province of North Carolina and Virginia; the Taylorsville basin, which is almost entirely within the Atlantic Coastal Plain Province of Virginia and Maryland; and the southern part of the Newark basin. The Taylorsville basin is estimated to have a mean gas potential of 1,064 billion barrels.

Our ability to recover natural gas buried in shale deposits beneath the earth has increased. Advances in horizontal drilling which allows a vertically drilled well to turn and run thousands of feet laterally through the earth combined with advances in hydraulic fracturing (fracking), the pumping of millions of gallons of water and laced with thousands of gallons of chemicals into shale at high pressure have increased our ability to recover natural gas from shale. Long ignored shale gas is potentially valuable. Until recently there was no economically feasible way to extract this gas. The Taylorsville basin has not been explored using newer fracking techniques so it is not known if we have the technology to exploit these deposits, yet. Nonetheless, according to Ruby Brabo, Shore Exploration and Production Corp. has obtained mineral leases on 84,000 acres of land in Virginia.

Though fracking has been widely used for decades without problems, hydraulic fracturing or hydro fracking has changed in the past 15 years. The oldest type of hydraulic fracturing is coal bed formation fracturing that has been used for more than 65 years. The volume of water needed for hydraulic fracturing varies by site and type of formation. Fifty thousand to 350,000 gallons of water may be required to fracture one well in a coal bed formation while two to five million gallons of water injected at much higher pressure may be necessary to fracture one horizontal well in a shale formation. Virginia currently only has gas well in the coal rich Appalachian Plateau. The existing wells are vertical wells that were nitrogen fracked. This is a completely different technology than contemplated for the Taylorsville shale deposit, but apparently the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy is granting permits for these areas seemingly untroubled that the techniques to safely drill and frack this geology has not been demonstrated.

There are other problems and risks with fracking that should be addressed before hydro fracking takes place within the Commonwealth of Virginia. Water used for fracking fluids is acquired from surface water or groundwater in the local area. The Northern Neck of Virginia has only a single source of drinking water the aquifer in the coastal plain. The sediment deposits in the coastal plain is a geology that has never been fracked. Though chemicals typically represent less than 0.5% of the volume of the fracking water, that 0.5% amounts to 15,000 gallons of chemicals in the waste water recovered from the typical hydro fracking job. The chemicals serve to increases the viscosity of the water to a gel-like consistency so that it can carry the propping agent (typically sand) into the fractures to hold them open so that the gas can flow. The flow back, the recovered fracking fluid mus be properly and safely disposed of.

Determining the proper methods for the safe disposal of the large quantities of this fracking fluid that may also contain contaminants from the geological formation including brines, heavy metals, radionuclides and organic contaminants and monitoring the impact from this disposal must also be addressed before fracking is allowed in Virginia. Several of the techniques That have been utilized in other parts of the country to dispose of fracking fluid have proven unsafe and the others may not be viable or safe in Virginia. Techniques that have been tried have included deep well injection, discharged to surface waters after treatment in an waste water treatment plant designed to remove contaminants of concern, or applied to land surfaces where it can seep into the water table which is the sole source of drinking water in the Northern Neck communities. Deep well injection disposal has been associated with earthquakes, but in Virginia may simply sever as a path for contamination of the groundwater. There are no appropriate waste water treatment plants to treat the likely contaminants in Virginia, and surface application of contaminated water may be too direct a route to the aquifer in the coastal plain.

Geologists and engineers believe that in hydraulic fracturing the intervening layers of rock prevent a fissure from extending into the water table. The problems seen in drinking water wells near hydro fracking jobs typically occur when fracking fluid seeps into drinking water wells through improperly sealed or abandoned drilling wells. However, there has been no testing of proper well construction in shoreline sediment deposits. Proper well construction and abandonment standards to protect the watershed needs to be developed and enforced. Virginia does not yet have a regulatory structure to ensure proper well construction and protection of drinking water supplies. In addition, the water that is absorbed into rock formations may change the formations and the hydraulic balance in ways we do not understand and drawing large quantities of water in a short period of time may impact the groundwater whose level has been falling for decades from over pumping.

Finally, care must be taken to avoid degradation of watersheds and streams from the industry itself as large quantities of heavy equipment and supplies are moved on rural roads, recreational trails and residential roads and placed on concrete pads. The picture below from the U.S. Geological Survey, USGS, shows the amount of equipment involved in a hydro frack. The watersheds must be monitored. Sampling should take place before fracking and at regular intervals after a hydro frack job. We need to proceed slowly to make sure that we are doing it right and protecting our water resources and communities. While landowners have every right to lease their land and obtain gas royalties, We have only a small margin for error our water resources and the regional ecology. The gas will still be there if we take the time to understand fracking adequately to be able to release the gas from the shale formations without significant damage to our water resources and communities.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Occoquan River Cleanup

The Girl Scouts were out to help
Spring is finally here after a long harsh winter that refused to loosen its grip on this part of Virginia until April. Saturday, a fabulously beautiful spring day, was the 5th annual Upper Occoquan River Cleanup. This massive collection of trash from the Occoquan River happens every year and on this side of the river is the combined effort of the Prince William Trails and Streams Coalition, Trash Free Potomac Watershed, Penguin Paddling, Prince William County Parks and Recreation Department and the Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District (where I volunteer as a director.)

I spent the day at Riverview Estates where volunteers walked along the banks of the river collecting trash and the vast majority of volunteers were on the water in canoes, kayaks and platoon boats collecting floating trash. There were several locations along the Occoquan to put in and drop trash. We were one of the trash collection stations and the a lunch station for the hard working and happy volunteers.

The Occoquan River Cleanup is part of the Annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup coordinated by the Alice Ferguson Foundation working with the region’s soil and water conservation districts, community groups, employers, and schools happens this time of year. The Potomac River Watershed Cleanup is the largest regional event of its kind and happens over several weekends so that you or your group can still participate this year. It is a great single day volunteer opportunity.

Over the next several weeks there will be a series of neighborhood events that are an opportunity to spend a few hours outside with others cleaning up the trash from our water ways and road ways, planting trees and nature walks in our many regional parks to appreciate the trees. Year after year volunteers clean our roadways, streams, rivers, and streambeds of trash that started as litter and carried along by stormwater and wind into our waterways and parks. We also remove items that were illegally dumped in the woods or carried by off by storms. Don’t litter and teach your children not to litter, that is the best way to prevent trash along our roads, streams and waterways. The trash does not magically disappear, but finds its way carried by stormwater to our waterways and parklands disrupting the natural water flow and beauty of our natural world.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Fairfax County, Collecting Real Data to Model the Watershed

Potomac Watershed Round Table met on Friday, April 4th in the Fairfax County Herrity Building. The meetings are open so you are welcome to attend. As usual there were several stimulating presentations about programs operating in the Potomac Watershed and threats to our watershed. Shannon Curtis an Ecologist with the Fairfax Count Stormwater Planning Division spoke to the group about the evolution of the water monitoring program in Fairfax County Virginia and the long-term monitoring partnership between Fairfax County and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) that began in 2007.

Back in the 1980’s ecosystem monitoring by Fairfax County and others discovered that there is an ecosystem response time lag of 10-15 years (either positive of negative) to changes in the landscape. Traditional development practices cover large areas of the ground with impervious surfaces such as roads, driveways, sidewalks and buildings. Slowly, but surely this changes the ecosystem. The paved and impervious surfaces prevent rainwater from infiltrating into the ground, causing it to runoff site at velocities and volumes that are much higher than would naturally occur, carrying with it pollutants, oil and grease, and litter.

The collective force of high velocity rainwater scours streams and over time erodes stream banks carrying sediment and other pollutants into the streams, rivers, estuaries and bays. The US EPA believes that sediment and nutrient pollutions contained in runoff from urban areas is the largest source of water quality impairments to estuaries (areas near the coast where seawater mixes with freshwater) in the United States and has turned its water quality focus on these areas starting with the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and moving forward with the Gulf Coast estuaries.

Nationally, billions of dollars are being spent to implement stormwater best management practices and low impact development strategies based on computer simulations and models. In Virginia alone millions upon millions of dollars are expect to be spent on stormwater best management practices in the next 10 years. Fairfax county programs are helping to understand how well these programs work. The Fairfax County Stormwater Planning Division performed a baseline study of the condition of all the streams in Fairfax County in the late 1990;s and found at the time that three quarters of the streams were in fair, poor or very poor condition. The deterioration of the streams had resulted from the development of the county over the previous 40 years.

This finding was used to develop the stream protection and management plan. Then in 2007 Fairfax County Stormwater Planning Division and the USGS began a long-term monitoring effort to identify countywide conditions and trends in stream water quality and quantity. The first five years of data has been accumulated by the program. The information collected will be used to evaluate the benefits of past and future watershed improvement projects. There are currently twenty monitoring stations (recently expanded from 14) in the county collecting data. Fifteen of these sites are monitored manually on a monthly basis; the remaining five sites are equipped with automated stream gages which are monitored continuously.
Stream gage in Fairfax from USGS

Instruments at the five automated gages measure six indicators every 15 minutes and during storm events: water temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH, specific conductance (a measurement of the dissolved solids in the water), turbidity, and during the storm events sediment and nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) concentrations. The manual stations are sampled monthly. These gages cover and area of less than six square miles. It is hoped that this data will allow the USGS and Fairfax County to observe small and subtle changes over time.

The first five years of data (when there were only 14 gages in operation) has recently been accumulated and analyzed by the USGS and provides a baseline of the condition of the watershed based on real data and not US EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Model. The Urban loading modules of the Chesapeake Bay Model are believed to have the greatest uncertainties and this is a great opportunity to perform a “reality check” on the EPA’s oversight of the water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. EPA is using the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment mandated to the six Chesapeake Bay Watershed states (Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia) and the District of the Columbia to manage contamination in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

The TMDL sets a total Chesapeake Bay watershed limit for the entire region 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 %t reduction in sediment from the current levels. The pollution limits are then partitioned to the various jurisdictions and river basins based on the Chesapeake Bay modeling tools. Now, the data that the USGS Gages Partnership with Fairfax County can provide a baseline of the condition of the watershed based on data not modeling by the EPA. So far they have discovered that high phosphorus in the western portion of the county is a naturally occurring deposit that was formed about 200-250 million years ago during the Triassic period and unlikely to be remediated by any stormwater or agricultural best management practices.

In addition, the monitoring has shown that stream conditions within the county have not changed much since 1998 when the Stream Protection Strategy base study was performed, though Mr. Curtis pointed out that there might be a subtle improvement in the data, but it could be a function of weather conditions, time will tell. However, during the past 15 years the county has grown in population and development increasing the pressure on the streams, so a steady stream condition might be a small victory.

Cleaning stormwater runoff is very expensive. Preventing stormwater runoff using green infrastructure and low impact development strategies appears to be effective, but is difficult to implement and maintain. Low Impact Development and green infrastructure are a series strategies for stormwater management emphasizing water capture and conservation using natural features to mimic as closely as possible natural hydraulic properties of a site. The idea is to reduce runoff with strategies like green roofs and rain gardens and move water slowly through open unpaved areas to allow infiltration of rain water into the earth. This reduces the quantity and velocity of stormwater as it leaves a site reducing the damage that uncontrolled stormwater runoff created by building roads, sidewalks, playgrounds, and structures and compacting soil can cause.

Nonetheless, the data gathering and work performed in Fairfax raises the question of whether it is possible for urban streams to ever fully recover. Those cleanup goals may not be realistic or attainable. Fairfax County is looking to discover what is the “best attainable conditions” for its streams. In addressing pollution from runoff each step requires consistent and sustained behavior modification of individual citizens working with government. Human behavior is very slow to change and maintaining stormwater best management practices is something each individual must do for the plan to succeed.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Waters of the United States

Coming soon to federal regulation
On March 31, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Army Corps) released a proposed rule to expand protection and regulation under the Clean Water Act to streams and wetlands that are merely seasonal. The text of the rule will appear in the Federal Register in April and open a 90 day comment period.

Though the EPA news release called this action a “clarification,” it is tremendous expansion of the scope of the 1972 Clean Water Act which made it illegal to discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters of the United States unless a permit was obtained. The discharge of pollutants regulated under the Clean Water Act was from so called point sources. Point sources are discrete conveyances, such as a pipe. The regulation was intended to stop the free discharge of sewage and industrial waste into our rivers.

The proposed rule expands the definition of navigable waters to apply to include wetlands, seasonal streams and any water that might at any time during the year impact or reach the navigable waters of the United States. In this way the EPA does not see this as an expansion of the Clean Water Act jurisdiction, but it is. The proposed rule will sweep in waters previously considered isolated or exempt and that are a great distance from navigable waters.

For several years EPA has attempted to expand the reach of the Clean Water Act to all waters and discharges to include all sources. Federal authority does not extend to non-point sources, such as from run off from agricultural and urban sources not part of a storm sewer system as well as other small sources such as septic systems. The EPA has been frustrated in their attempts to address what they view as the current generation of environmental problems. These problems are subtle, much less visible to the naked eye because they are from diffuse or non-point sources and often not nearly as susceptible to a top-down, command-and-control approach.

Agriculture is reported to be one or the main non-point sources of water pollution and in studies done in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and Sacramento River Delta and other locations the contamination from agriculture runoff has been the major source of contamination. Pesticide runoff is a large contributor of known pollutants to the watersheds and may be a significant contributor of endocrine disruptors to the freshwater supply. Both rain feed and irrigated agriculture are sources of contamination of fresh water. Now EPA is making another attempt to expand the Clean Water Act reach to all water and all sources of pollution.

EPA has overcome the challenges of regulating every source of contamination in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed by imposing the Chesapeake Bay pollution diet, the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) mandated to the six Chesapeake Bay Watershed states (Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia) and the District of the Columbia. The TMDL sets a total Chesapeake Bay watershed limit for the entire region 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 %t reduction in sediment from the current levels. The pollution limits are then partitioned to the various jurisdictions and river basins based on the Chesapeake Bay modeling tools and monitoring data.

The US EPA has mandated these levels and allowed the states (and District of Columbia) to determine how to achieve them (with the EPA’s approval) by threatening to use what they call “back stop measures”, but are simply reductions in the allowed (permitted) releases from point source permits (waste water treatment plants, municipal separate storm sewer systems, and confined animal feed lots) to achieve the TMDL Essentially, they have said do this in a way we find acceptable or we will impose the most direct and expensive method to achieve our clean water goals.

Now, EPA wants to expand their authority to every bit of water in the US and will be able to effectively and directly regulate all sources of pollution without working through the states. If adopted as proposed, this rule will be felt throughout the U.S and in all areas of our economy and lives not previously directly touched by the EPA. It will have a profound impact on many locally regulated activities, including home building, mining, road construction, commercial property development and water infrastructure projects. The capricious application of the federal command and control regulatory scheme will directly impact all our lives.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Sustainable Water for California

from Drought Monitor March 25 2014
Despite recent storms dropping several feet of snow in the mountains, the water content of the snowpack in California was at 32% of normal last Tuesday. The recent rains in northern California have added less than an inch of water; and according to the National Weather Service, the weather is expected to be warm and dry, the rainy season is at an end. After three years of drought, the situation is becoming critical as over a dozen of the small towns with single source water supplies are in danger of running out of water as their wells and reservoirs may go dry before summer’s end. Ninety-nine point eight percent of the state is in a drought from moderate drought through extreme drought to exceptional drought.

The climate of earth has changed over the centuries. The Sahara was not always a desert, once rivers flowed and lakes existed. A 200 year period of drought is believed to have contributed to the collapse of the Mayan civilization. So scientists’ concerns that California and the entire western region will have less precipitation, diminished snow pack and less springtime runoff in the future must be planned for. California must find sustainable water management solutions in the face of a drier future. The drought in California will affect all of us in the cost of food and energy.

California grows $45 billion dollars of food a year, and some nuts and fruits are only grown in California. Without irrigation, crops could never be grown in the arid and semi-arid lands of California where irrigation consumes more than 75% of the water supply. The system of water rights that developed in the west assured for generations the allocation of water to agriculture. The water rights system as conceived and administered in the western states was not designed to conserve water. It was developed in a time when population was still sparse, water supplies were believed to be plentiful and development and growth was to be encouraged. This water rights scheme has resulted in non-sustainable use of groundwater and unsustainable agricultural practices.

Micro-irrigation also known as drip irrigation has the potential to increase yields and decrease water, fertilizer, and labor requirements if managed properly. However, the costs involved in implementing drip irrigation in California can be substantial, not just the $800-$2,000 for the tubing, filters and pumps, but also the irrigation infrastructure that would allow controlled constant delivery of filtered water. On demand water availability for irrigation may be an insurmountable hurdle within the current water infrastructure and  water allocation and rights system in California. This has to change, but the massive water infrastructure of California is not flexible and our political system and human nature have not excelled in the past at sensible choices for the future.

The Pacific Institute an Oakland based NGO is an expert on freshwater issues, especially those in California. They have just launched a new website- California Drought. The website is a central location for tools, research, and information on the drought. The site brings together information on technologies and policies that have been developed to respond to droughts in other parts of the country and world and in previous droughts in California. It is necessary that all communities within California make sure that their water supplies are robust and that they respond to the changes in water availability.

During drought conserving water is the first step. It is the quickest and cheapest way to reduce water demand. Changes in plumbing standards have produced low flow plumbing fixtures that can slash indoor water use. There are tremendous differences in water consumption of appliances and fixtures based on their age and design, according to the Handbook of Water Use and Conservation by A. Vickers.  Before the advent of low flush toilets, flushing was the largest use of water for each person. If you have new toilets and are home all day, your daily water use for flushing would be 8.2 gallons versus 25.5 gallons for an older toilet. That is a significant water savings.

The typical American uses the most water for flushing, showering, washing hands and brushing teeth, and laundry. Buying water efficient appliances and fixtures, maintaining the fixtures and repairing any leaks can significantly reduce our water use. By replacing appliances and fixtures with water efficient fixtures and eliminating outdoor use of water the typical American could reduce their water use to about 38 gallons per person per day without significantly changing their lives. Notice this eliminates outdoor watering. The time for green lawns in California is done. Outdoor watering in the semi-arid climate of California can more than double household water use according the US Geological Survey.

After conservation the next step in changing water use is utilizing all the alternative resources both though soft structure and capital structures. California needs to expand the use of recycled/treated wastewater, eventually eliminating the discharge of treated wastewater into the ocean and capture and treat all storm water. There may also be a role for other strategies, properly managed such as desalinization, the exploitation of groundwater, building additional reservoirs and damns and Governor Brown’s $15 billion plan to bore a pair of 30-mile tunnels east of Sacramento to channel Sierra.

Seawater desalination, by a reverse osmosis process, in which filter sea-water is forced through a fine membrane at up to 1,000 psi to remove salt and other impurities producing freshwater and a highly saline wastewater product referred to as brine is very reliable, but expensive. A relatively small desalination plant, a 50-million gallon a day seawater desalination plant that will supply the San Diego region with approximately 7% of its drinking water needs in Carlsbad, CA cost $1 billion to build and will require 15,000 kilowatt hours of energy for every million gallons of water produced to operate the equipment that is 273,750,000 kW-hours per year. That is extremely expensive water and can only reasonably be used after all conservation and reuse options have been implemented.

A cheaper and just as reliable source of water is to process and treat waste water and storm water. There is no reason that wastewater and water captured in stormwater systems in the cities should be released to the sea. For 30 years Los Angeles County has recycled the water from wastewater treatments plants. This water from both secondary and tertiary treated wastewater is discharged into spreading basins to recharge groundwater. Groundwater recharge can be done by surface spreading or direct injection wells. Recharging an aquifer has lower capital costs than dam and reservoir construction, but requires similar distribution networks and pumping costs tend to be higher. Monitoring water quality and availability are essential.

A private company, Cadiz, wants to tap an aquifer beneath 34,000 acres of the eastern Mojave and sell the water to suburbs and subdivisions in the Los Angeles Basin. Cadiz has proposed pumping 16.3 billion gallons a year from the Mojave to the coast of southern California through a 43-mile pipeline that Cadiz wants to build, and then merge into the Colorado River Aqueduct into Los Angeles. The groundwater took a millennium to seep down from the mountains and is not being recharged at anything approaching that rate. The result will be a drop in groundwater levels and subsidence. It is, however, legal even if it is wrong and unfair. Groundwater in California is complicated. Monitoring water availability and allocations and potential water rights of overlying landowners are not part of the California groundwater ownership and there is no allocation of groundwater the way that surface water rights are allocated.

NASA scientists, university researchers and the California Department of Water Resources water managers are now working together to apply advanced remote sensing and improved forecast modeling to better assess water resources, monitor drought conditions and water supplies, plan for drought response and mitigation, and measure drought impacts. NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) and Global Land Data Assimilation System to quantify groundwater depletion program will launch the next generation of satellites able to monitor groundwater changes on a weekly basis and be able to interpret the date in a more timely fashion to manage water resources in real time. Our increased knowledge about and ability to monitor water and groundwater and their interactions along with this drought provides California with an opportunity to address longstanding and intensifying water resource concerns. It can be an important turning point in California’s history or the beginning of the end.

Monday, March 31, 2014

President Obama to Reduce Methane Emissions

On Friday the Whitehouse announced that the President, will continue to fight against climate change using executive fiat. The next step for the White House climate plan, originally introduced in a speech at Georgetown University in June 2013, is an “interagency methane strategy.” Towards this goal, the Whitehouse is directing federal agencies to clamp down on emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas, though U.S. methane emissions have fallen 11% since 1990.
data from US EPA
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), methane is more than 20 times as effective as CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere. If you recall it is the greenhouse effect that is expected to increase the sensitivity of the climate to carbon dioxide, methane and the other greenhouse gases. Though in its September 2013 report the IPCC eliminated attempts to estimate the “most likely” sensitivity of the climate to the expected manmade doubling of the carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere because according to British climate scientist Nic Lewis “the best observational evidence indicates our climate is considerably less sensitive to greenhouse gases than climate scientists had previously thought.” All the climate models had failed to predict that for the last 15 years there has been essentially no net warming. Global Warming has been having what the IPCC calls a hiatus.

Over the last two hundred and fifty years, the concentration of methane in our atmosphere has increased by 151% to 1.8 parts per million. Methane is the primary component in natural gas, methane is emitted to the atmosphere during the production, processing, storage, transmission, and distribution of natural gas and because gas is often found alongside petroleum which is much more valuable, methane is sometimes vented to the atmosphere rather than captured during oil production. Methane is also produced from the decomposition of human and animal waste as well as garbage and is the major component of landfill gas. Methane is also released from the natural biological process of enteric fermentation which is fermentation that takes place in the digestive systems of animals. In particular, ruminant animals that have two stomachs and eat grasses (cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, and camels) produce and release methane from the microbial fermentation that breaks down the grass and hay into soluble products that can be utilized by the animal. Also, when natural gas and other petroleum products are used as a fuel incomplete combustion releases traces of methane.

Methane emissions come from diverse sources and sectors of the economy, unevenly dispersed across the landscape and not well tracked. These uncertainties have resulted in estimates of current and projected methane emissions by simplified models and rules of thumb for the source of methane emissions. Nonetheless, the estimates below are the best available and the Administration has launched a methane mitigation plan.

The President’s Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions targets reductions in methane emissions from landfills, coal mining, and agriculture, and oil and gas systems that include action on four fronts:

  1. Landfills: This summer, the EPA will propose regulation to reduce methane from new landfills and begin the process to tighten the methane standards for existing landfills.
  2. Coal Mines: In April 2014, the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management will begin the process of developing a program for the capture and disposal of waste mine methane on lands leased by the Federal government. 
  3. Agriculture: In June 2014, in partnership with the dairy industry, the U. S. Department of Agriculture, the EPA and U.S. Department of Energy will jointly release a “Biogas Roadmap” outlining voluntary strategies to reduce U.S. dairy sector greenhouse gas emissions by 25 % by 2020. Maybe the administration will reduce the U.S. consumption of dairy products, beef, buffalo, sheep and goats and thus reduce the herds of rumens. 
  4. Oil and Gas: This spring EPA will assess potential sources of methane and other greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas industry and in the fall of 2014, EPA will determine how best to pursue further methane reductions from these sources. EPA is expected to develop additional regulations if necessary by the end of 2016. Later this year, the Bureau of Land Management will update the rules to reduce venting and flaring from oil and gas production on public lands. In addition the Administration will identify “downstream” methane reduction opportunities. Through the Natural Gas STAR program, EPA will work with the industry to expand voluntary efforts to reduce methane emissions.

One downstream area for reduction of methane is our natural gas distribution systems. In 2012 and 2013 two scientists mapped the gas leaks under Boston and Washington DC using a new, high-precision methane analyzer provided by Picarro installed in a GPS-equipped car. They found that there were approximately 4.3 leaks per mile of street in both cities. Levels of methane in the surface air on some streets exceeded 15 times the normal atmospheric background value.

For some time we have failed to maintain our unseen infrastructure systems as a way to cut costs. We have failed to maintain and upgrade the oil and gas distribution system. Gas distribution companies are well aware of the leaks in the system. The companies calculate the difference between the gas pumped into the distribution system and what is metered at the end user. This is referred to as "lost and unaccounted-for" gas is often a surcharge on customer bills. These leaks are wasteful, dangerous and a significant source of greenhouse gas released into the environment.

Distribution companies try to prioritize finding and fixing leaks likely to be explosion hazards, where gas is collecting and concentrating and ignore the small losses from deteriorating iron pipe and the deteriorating distribution system in our cities. Natural gas distribution leaks and explosions cause an average of 17 fatalities, 68 injuries, and $133 million in property damage each year, according to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. In 2010 a natural gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, CA, just south of San Francisco. There was no warning and eight people were killed, 58 were injured and 38 homes, the entire section of a neighborhood, destroyed. In 2011, a leak from an 83-year-old cast-iron main in Allentown, Pa., caused an explosion that killed five people. And just last month a gas explosion killed eight people in East Harlem.

Detecting and reducing gas leaks are critical for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving air quality in cities and consumer safety, and ultimately saving future generations of consumers from loss of life, property and wasted money. Right now, repairing our infrastructure will be very expensive, but as the pipes that distribute gas (and the other essential utilities of water, sewer, and electricity) continue to age failure will become more frequent. Infrastructure is the foundation of our economy, connecting businesses, communities, and people, making us a first world country-we need to repair and maintain it.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Landslide in Oso Washington Death Toll Grows

At about 11 am a large landslide occurred in northwest Washington State last Saturday. According to the U. S Geological Survey, USGS, the recent heavy rain conditions and soil saturation of the glacial deposits in that area led to the landslide. This was a falling rock, mud and debris flow-the most common type and often the most deadly type of landslide. The hillside collapsed at a speed that caught the local community unaware. Landslide debris covered about 30 houses and 0.8 miles of State Route 530. Flow also dammed and partially blocked the North Fork Stillaguamish River, creating a potential for flooding at the blockage. A pool of water currently 20-30 feet deep has formed behind the blockage a naturally formed dam. There is danger of flooding when this dam gives. There are still over 100 people reported missing the number is reported to be up to 176, but that number contains many duplicates from consolidating all the lists of the missing. It is unlikely any will be found alive. According to the Snohomish County Twitter feed, 16 bodies have been recovered and they believe that they have located an additional 8 bodies.
There are many types of landslides, and this event in Washington was a “debris flow,” also commonly referred to as a “mud slide” or “mud flow.” A debris flow is a flowing mixture of water-saturated debris that moves downslope under the force of gravity. Debris flows consist of material varying in size from clay to boulders that are tens of meters in size. When moving, they resemble masses of wet concrete and tend to flow downslope along channels or stream valleys. These mud slides can flow at up to 30 miles an hour and gives people little time or warning to get out of the way. These types of landslides occur most frequently in California, but the glacial deposits of sand and silt and weeks of rain created the conditions for a landslide. The hillside that collapsed had a history of slides and a study performed for the Washington Department of Ecology in 1997 identified the potential for a large catastrophic failure of the slope. Nonetheless, development of the area proceeded.

Hundreds of thousands of landslides of some scale occur in the United States each year from the tiny to the massive. Landslides occur in all 50 states and U.S. territories, and cause $1-2 billion in damages and more than 25 fatalities on average each year. Falling rocks, mud, and debris flows are the most common and deadly of the landslides, and yet there is still much to learn about how and why they happen. Any area composed of very weak or fractured materials resting on a steep slope can have a landslide when the conditions are right. Those conditions are predominately excess weight from heavy rains and melting snow that causes the slopes to fail. The rock and soil slopes are weakened though saturation by snowmelt and of heavy rains and literally begin to flow. Earthquakes of magnitude 4.0 and greater have been known to trigger landslides.

There is so much we do not know about our earth. The USGS science is helping answer questions such as where, when and how often landslides occur, and how fast and far they might move. USGS scientists produce maps of areas susceptible to landslides and identify what sort of rainfall conditions will lead to such events. You can watch the video about the USGS Landslide Program and check the maps to know if your area is suspect able to landslides.