Monday, August 31, 2015

Consumer Reports Study Finds Grass-Fed Beef Safer

About 48 million Americans get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die each year from food borne diseases, according to 2007 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you live in the United States you have a 1 in 6 chance to get sick (each year) from food though the United States has one of the safest food supplies in the world. Food borne diseases or food poisoning occurs when you eat food that contains bacteria, parasites, viruses, or the toxins made by these germs. Antibiotics are widely used in farming. It is reported that 80% of all antibiotics manufactured are used in food-producing animals. This use contributes to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in these animals that can contaminate the foods that come from those animals, and in turn people who consume these foods can develop antibiotic-resistant infections.

Consumer Reports funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts tested the prevalence and types of bacteria found in ground beef sold in stores across the United States as part of a series looking at food safety. Consumer Reports purchased 300 packages of ground beef weighing an average of slightly over a pound and a half from 103 grocery, natural food and warehouse stores in 26 cities throughout the U.S. They bought conventionally raised, grass-fed, organic and grass-fed organic ground beef; and tested to raw beef to see how safe it was.


Conventionally raised beef is where young cattle are shipped to feedlots where they are restricted in space and fed mostly corn and soybeans for several months to a year. They are also given antibiotics and other drugs to promote weight gain and prevent disease. In addition, they are sometimes feed other junk such as candy and feed that contains animal production waste. The animals in feedlots are crowded into pens; the average feedlot in the U.S. houses about 4,300 head of cattle, according to Food & Water Watch’s 2015 Factory Farm Nation Report.

I started buying grass fed beef back in the day when I was doing environmental evaluations of farms, dairies and concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs). I will not go into the highly gross details of that work; however, my concerns for the animal welfare, mad cow disease, and environmental impact of CAFOs pushed me to buy my meat from the first sustainable farm I inspected, and I continue to buy off the grid, sustainable, grass-fed beef from Polyface Farms here in Virginia. Cattle that are grass-fed spend their entire lives grazing eating grass and forage that grows in the pasture. In addition, hay and silage which is just compacted grass are used to supplement in winter. Grass-fed cattle require more land for pasturing as well as good management of the grazing to avoid over grazing the fields. This type of farm management protects our land and water resources. Now it turns out that grass-fed beef is healthier and safer for us to eat.

There is a whole spectrum of how beef are raised from industrial, natural (no-antibiotics), grass-fed, organic, sustainably raised. If you buy your meat from a regular grocery store or warehouse store it will either be conventional or have some sort of label indicating antibiotic free, certified organic, grass-fed, pasture raised (which can be gain fed) and grass-fed organic. Consumer reports found that based on their study that grass-fed organic meat is the safest. However, those categories are not the total universe of food. I buy food directly from farms. I prefer dealing with local farmers whose farm practices I know and trust. Certifications do not really mean that much to me. Polyface farm is not certified organic, but their beef (and other animals) are raised in the true spirit of organic. I’ll stick with them and buying from my farm neighbors whose farm practices I trust.

In their study consumer reports found that almost 100% of the ground beef tested positive for enterococcus bacteria (including almost all of the grass-fed beef). Enterococci are part of the normal inhabitants of humans and animal intestines. The genus Enterococcus includes more than 17 species, although only a few cause clinical infections in humans. So, though their presence was ubiquitous, I’m not sure that is really of concern. In the United States most cases of food poisoning are caused by common bacteria such as Staphylococcus or E. coli.

E. coli is an indicator organism for fecal matter, but does not necessarily mean the product is, in fact, contaminated by feces. E. coli are found in human stool (feces) and were found in 60% of the conventional ground beef and 40% of the grass feed ground beef tested. Research shows that conventionally raised cattle that are “finished” in feed lots have higher levels of ulcers and infections and appear to shed more E. coli than grass feed and field raised beef.

Salmonella Enteritidis may be found in the intestinal tracts of warm-blooded animals was barely found in the beef sampled. Consumer Reports did find Staphylococcus aureus can be carried on human hands, in nasal passages, or in throats. The bacteria are typically found in foods made by hand and then improperly refrigerated, but was found in about 55% of the conventional ground beef and more than 25% of the grass feed beef. Keeping food refrigerated and using proper cooking methods reduces infection by this bacterium.

Consumer Reports also looked at what they called superbugs. These are bacteria that are resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics, making them a much bigger health threat. In the 300 samples of raw ground beef tested, they found that conventional beef was twice as likely to be contaminated with these antibiotic resistant bacteria as more sustainably produced meat and three times more likely to be contaminated with the “superbug” bacteria as grass-fed organic meat. So, though Polyface Farms now charges $7.00 per pound for ground beef and I have to drive to pick it up, it is so worth it to me. We cook all our meals at home every day in order to be able to afford to eat well and ensure that our food is humanly and sustainable produced.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Regulating and Controlling Groundwater

On September 16, 2014, Governor Brown of California signed into law a three-bill legislative package, composed of AB 1739, SB 1168, and SB 1319, collectively known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. that effectively ended unrestricted groundwater pumping in California.

California is the last of the Western states to enact groundwater monitoring and regulate use, though groundwater regulation and attempts at management is still the exception here in the east. Groundwater provides 35%-65% of all water used in California- in dry years groundwater makes up much of the shortfall in irrigation allocations for farmers. In addition, almost 21 million of the total 38 million Californians depend on groundwater for all or part of their drinking water. It was the running dry of small community wells and many private drinking water wells all over the central valley that provided the public acceptance to regulate groundwater.

The Groundwater Management Act was first introduced in 1992 as Assembly Bill 3030, and then modified by Senate Bill 1938 in 2002 and Assembly Bill 359 in 2011. It was only the severity of the current drought when groundwater use was reportedly providing 65% of the water for the state and groundwater levels fell by 60 feet in some places with thousands of wells going dry that Governor Brown and the legislature found the political will to pass and implement the law. Water has always been a contentious issue in California.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act went into effect at the beginning of 2015. The Act requires the state’s Department of Water Resources to identify groundwater basins, and these basins in turn must establish local groundwater sustainability agencies and develop groundwater management and monitoring plans. These plans, which require each basin to achieve “groundwater sustainability” by 2040, must be completed within five or seven years, depending on the priority assigned to the groundwater basin by regulators.

It is expected that the local groundwater sustainability agencies will require registration of groundwater wells, require annual pumping/extraction reports from individual wells, impose limits on well extractions- develop a basis for rationing groundwater, and assess fees to support creation and adoption of a groundwater sustainability plans. The aim of the legislation is to create a regulatory structure to have groundwater basins managed within the sustainable yield of each basin and allocate the usable water. Tricky stuff.

There is certainly a need to ensure that groundwater is used sustainably, but how the law is implemented, the sustainability determined and managed and entitlement to water determined is important and could serve as an example if watersheds are able to successfully manage the groundwater sustainably through droughts and wet years in a manner that is fair and just. California historically has favored command and control forms of regulations that do not easily evolve or moderate with changing circumstances.

Now, however, we have the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite mission from NASA that has been collecting data for more than a decade and can measure if total groundwater content is stable, rising or declining. The GRACE satellites measure monthly changes in total earth water storage by converting observed gravity anomalies measured from space and can serve as a tool for groundwater management to see if the plans are actually sustainable. Though, unfortunately, the tools available to develop the water management plans are less accurate and it might be difficult to determine if the sustainability plan is actually being implement correctly is simply not a sustainable plan.Communities could become locked into detailed groundwater sustainability plans that simply dod not work.

Our groundwater, too, is at risk. Despite the water rich climate of our region, the Atlantic Coastal Plain aquifer is under stress and is being used beyond it recharge rate. It is only a matter of time until areas within the historic boundary of the aquifer begin to go dry. Groundwater in the Coastal Plain region in eastern Virginia is being used up. This has been confirmed by measurements of groundwater levels, modeling of the aquifer system by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and measurements of changes in gravity by the GRACE project at NASA.

The rate of groundwater withdrawal from the Virginia Coastal Plain is currently unsustainable. The withdrawal rate of groundwater increased continuously during the 20th century. By the 2003 the withdrawal rates from Coastal Plain aquifers in Virginia totaled approximately 117 million gallons per day. As a result, groundwater levels had declined by as much as 200 feet near the large withdrawal centers of West Point and Franklin, Virginia the home of paper mills. Since 2003 the water level has continued to fall despite the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VA DEQ) regulating groundwater withdrawals in the Virginia Coastal Plain through the VA DEQ Groundwater Withdrawal Permit Program. To make that groundwater sustainable, we need to reduce use or increase recharge.  

Less is known about the sustainability of the Culpeper Basin that feed the private wells in the Rural Crescent of Prince William and areas of Loudoun and Fauquier counties; and my home. I watch how some of my neighbors use water and think of “The tragedy of the Commons,” by Garreth Hardin that was published in Science, December 13, 1968. The concept from the article that has survived is that what is a free and common resource is abused. Hardin said “Freedom in the commons brings ruin to all.” Because of fluctuations in “renewable” resources it is easy to mask or ignore signs of the beginnings of destruction of the water resources that we depend on. Fluctuations in climate or rainfall and imperfect measurements and vantage points mask trends from clear view. Also, how the resource is owned or not owned can potentially create a resource abusive atmosphere where taking what I can without regard for sustainability is rewarded for a period of time. No groundwater resource is infinite and we need to preserve and protect our groundwater by using it sustainably.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Farm Breweries in Loudoun to Use Millions of Gallons of Water

With the passage of SB 430 last year, Virginia created an easy to obtain limited brewery license for breweries that operate on a farm. Specifically these breweries must manufacture no more than 15,000 barrels of beer per calendar year, be located on a farm in Virginia, and use agricultural products that are grown on that farm in the brewing of the beer. These “limited breweries” are simply what is known nationally as craft breweries with a rural twist. This bill holds the potential to create a rural destination brewery to complement the growing wine industry in a state that remains largely agricultural.

Local counties went on to create their own ordnances beginning with Loudoun County the home of a growing wine industry. In addition to the requirements set out in the state law, Loudoun’s ordinance requires farm breweries to have at least ten acres of land; the building structure cannot exceed 12,000 square feet plus another 5,000 square feet of storage yard. Loudoun was the first county in Virginia to incorporate the state code into its local zoning ordinance and their experience will impact how these limited breweries are handled here in Prince William and elsewhere in Virginia.

Beer production is not often associated with environmental issues since it is not a “smokestack industry”. Excluding an accidental spill of a hazardous chemical such as anhydrous ammonia or chlorine (typically used to treat water), the main discharge from beer production is wastewater. However, these new limited breweries will all be built in an agricultural areas serviced by private ground water wells to supply the water and septic to treat the water and that can create a problem.

Beer is about 95% water; however the amount of water used to produce a pint of beer is far greater that the amount of water contained in the beer. Although water usage varies widely among breweries and is dependent upon specific processes, the U.S. average is about 7 gallons of water for each gallon of beer produced, but varies from 3.26-7.44 gallons of water to gallons of beer. That figure is from the 2011 study by the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER). Craft breweries tend to be on the higher end of the range because small packaging uses more water and the size of the brewery. According to the BIER study facilities with larger production volumes tend to have lower water use ratios. It seems that smaller craft breweries do not have or cannot afford water recycling equipment and staffing.

Nationally, most craft brewers obtain their water from municipal water companies. However, these farm breweries will more typically be supplied by well water, and the sustainability of our groundwater resources needs to be considered when permitting a water intensive business. Regionally, water sustainability is a growing issue. Let’s take a look at how water intensive a brewery is. Loudon recently licensed a brewery, B-Chord Brewery, in Bluemont. This brewery is currently under construction down the road from my sister-in-law and brother-in-law, and this water intensive business will be drawing their water from a series of three existing wells.

The B-Chord Brewery is permitted to manufacture 10,000 barrels of beer annually (only two thirds of the maximum under the regulation). Each beer barrel contains 31 gallons of beer; so, the B-Chord Brewery is licensed to manufacture 310,000 gallons of beer annually from about 26 acres. At the industry average water use per gallon of beer that will require 2,170,000 gallons of water each year or 41,730 gallons of water weekly. That is the equivalent water use of more than 79 people Every. Day. Forever. Loudoun County assumes that the water use ration will be a more modest 6 gallons of water needed for each gallon of beer. That is still 1,860,000 gallons of water pumped a year or the average annual water use of 69 people. All this water pumped out of the aquifer under a 26 acre parcel which may or may not be sustainable water use despite being two and a half times the required amount of land. I have ignored the water use for irrigation for the moment. The impact on groundwater resources should be considered on any future breweries.
from K. Rapp

Loudoun County has very complex geology. Western portion of the county where the B-Chord Brewery is consists of older metamorphic rocks and granite west of the Bull Run Fault that runs north-south near Route 15. Modern wells are drilled past the water table to draw water from water bearing fractures in the bedrock. The groundwater that feeds the wells exists in water–filled and interconnected fractures, pores and cavities in the rock. The size and density of the pores and fractures vary with rock type, depth and location.

When a well pumps, a cone of depression develops in the water table around the well as the water is pumped out of the well. When several wells are operated in a limited area the cone of depression in one well may affect the water level in another. Continued high volume pumping of three wells on the B-Chord Brewery property could possibly cause the water table to drop and potentially dewater the wells in the immediate area. In addition, this could change the gradient of the water table and draw the base flow from nearby creeks. In truth, Loudoun County does not know the water content of the aquifer and what is the sustainable withdrawal rate for the groundwater in this area. There are groundwater models and data available that could model what is sustainable use is and this should be done before allowing any additonal high volume pumping of the wells impacts the water table.

You may be thinking there haven’t been any problems with the recent proliferation of wineries, and that is true. While wineries are also water intensive, most of the water use is for irrigation which is supplied to a large extent by rainfall and the waste water from washing crush tanks and bottles. The water used in the actual making of the wine is 1.5-3 gallons of water per gallon of wine and most of that is used for washing tanks and bottles. The grapes themselves contain the liquid. Basically an acre of land grows 3.3 tons of wine grapes. Each ton of grapes produces 780 bottles of wine. There are 12 bottles in a case and a boutique winery produces less than 10,000 cases a year which translates into 23,810 gallons of wine. So, the water needed to make 10,000 cases of wine would be 71,430 gallons of water which is less than the annual water use of three people. In addition, the land necessary to grow the grapes for 10,000 cases of wine would be a little less than 47 acres-a far less intense water use.

To make beer you have to malt a base grain usually barley but rye, maize, rice and oatmeal can also be used. In the first stage the grain is malted to convert the carbohydrates to dextrin and maltose which is a several day process requiring lots of water. The malt is crushed using iron rollers and transferred to the mash tank. Water is also needed to extract the sugars from the grain in the mash tank. The resulting liquor, known as sweet wort, is then boiled in a copper vessel with hops, which give a bitter flavor and helps to preserve the beer. The hops are then separated from the wort and it is passed through chillers into fermenting vessels where the yeast is added to convert the sugars into alcohol. The beer is then chilled, centrifuged and filtered to clarify it; it is then ready for bottling or drinking.
from the IEHS

Despite significant improvement this century water consumption and wastewater disposal are the biggest environmental hurdles that breweries and the brewing process face. Many breweries in other parts of the county have found innovative solutions for water and wastewater management that can be adapted to our local needs. These solutions go beyond facility water conservation programs to find collaborative, sustainable solutions for the community and for the environment and needs to be part of the development of the industry in our communities. We need to ensure that our use of our local water resources remains sustainable. 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Why WSSC Pipes Are Failing

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) provides water and sewer service to nearly 1,000 square miles in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties in Maryland. Established in 1918, WSSC is one of the largest water and wastewater utilities in the nation, with a network of nearly 5,600 miles of fresh water pipeline and over 5,400 miles of sewer pipeline. WSSC supplies water and sewer service to 1.8 million residents in approximately 460,000 households and businesses.

In addition to the water and sewer pipeline systems, WSSC operates 3 reservoirs, the Triadelphia, Rocky Gorge, and Little Seneca, that have a total holding capacity of 14 billion gallons. A regional reservoir, the Jennings Randolph Reservoir, holds an additional 13 billion gallons of water is shared with the other two regional water utilities, Fairfax Water and the Washington Aqueduct.

WSSC also operates 2 water filtration and treatment plants – The Patuxent (max 56 million gallons per day and the Potomac (max 285 million gallons a day) plants that together produce an average of 167 million gallons per day of safe drinking water. Despite the recent brown or rust colored water problems reported over the past 6 months in Montgomery County, the water reportedly remains safe if unappealing. The brown water problem is become symbolic of the problems with WSSC. About 15 years ago WSSC ceased flushing the water distribution system with chlorine each spring.

Though WSSC operates 6 wastewater treatment plants – Western Branch, Piscataway, Parkway, Seneca, Damascus, and Hyattstown with a total capacity to handle 71.08 million gallons of wastewater per day, most of their waste water is treated at Blue Plains. The Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant, operated by DC Water, handles as much as an additional 169 million gallons a day of waste water under a cost sharing agreement with the WSSC, treating on average approximately 65% of WSSC’s wastewater annually.

When WSSC was founded Prince George’s and Montgomery counties were mostly rural. The utility was overseen by the two County Councils. During the 1960s and continuing through the late 1980s, WSSC experienced growth rates that were unprecedented. For most of that time WSSC charged only nominal fees for new customers to join the system instead of the actual cost to run the piping, instead WSSC used debt to finance the expansion of the system. In the mistaken belief that growth and increasing revenues would solve the debt problem. However, by the end of the last century, debt service (principal and interest) on bonds used to finance the system expansion accounted for one-half of WSSC’s total revenues and revenues were falling.

While WSSC was incurring a pile of debt to expand the system, the differences between the commissioners appointed by Prince George’s and Montgomery counties resulted in deadlocked decision-making, preventing the needed investment in repairing, replacing and rehabilitating the oldest parts of WSSC’s water and sewer systems, which were approaching the end of their useful life. WSSC had also lost a class action suit when they tried to impose increased hookup charges and capital charges as a System Expansion Offset Charge. In its 1984 decision, the court found that WSSC did not have the authority to adopt the charge and that the System Expansion Offset Charge as adopted was unreasonable.

Though the General Assembly finally gave WSSC the explicit authority to impose a system expansion charge, but by that time WSSC had already inherited a legacy of debt-financed expansion costs and an operating culture that did not have preventive maintenance and viewed inappropriate cutting of system maintenance and upgrade as cost savings, rather than what they were. No investment in the infrastructure took place unless it broke or was a mandated upgrade by the regulators. The majority of the investment in the systems was spent at the central waste water treatment plants and water treatment plants.

About 15 years ago WSSC went so far as to cut the annual flushing of the water distribution system. Flushing of the water distribution system removes sediments comprised mostly of minerals (including iron and manganese) which have accumulated over time in the pipes. An annual flushing program helps to keep fresh and clear water throughout the distribution system. Removing the residue ensures that when the water arrives in your home, it is the same high quality as when it left the water treatment plant. While these programs continued with Fairfax Water and DC Water, WSSC stopped. The recent increasing occurrence of brown or rust colored water in Montgomery county is probably the result.

WSSC representatives initially claimed the brown water was caused by an increase in the sodium from the winter’s road salt triggered increased leaching of manganese from the soil, into groundwater and then into the Potomac River. Iron and manganese can cause discolored water, but would have been seen in the water exiting the water treatment plant, though reportedly elevated sodium and manganese levels were seen in the finished water, it was within drinking water standards and clear. In addition, neither Fairfax Water nor DC Water customers have been experiencing increased incidences of brown water. If the water was clear leaving the water treatment plant the problem was in the distribution system. Now, WSSC has revised their theory and believes that the salty snowmelt and elevated sodium levels loosened the buildup of rust and manganese in their distribution system. The root cause, the failure to flush the distribution system for years, has caught up with them. Despite the appearance, WSSC reports that the water remains safe if unappealing. This is just one symptom of the problems at WSSC.

WSSC officials say the amount of water pumped, sold and paid for, dropped from a daily average of 130 million gallons in 2004 to 95 million gallons in 2013 due to federally mandated water conservation like low flow toilets and water saving appliances and water awareness brought on by drought. Water consumption which has been the basis of revenue is falling as costs are mounting to upgrade sewer systems and repair and replace aging water pipes and sewer pipes, some more than a century old, that are bursting after decades of decay and neglect. Meanwhile, WSSC’s costs for electricity, chemicals and labor have continued to rise with inflation.

A crisis is brewing because the sustainability of WSSC is eroding. Much of the WSSC’s service areas was built out in the building boom of 1960s and continuing through the late 1980s. The pipes installed in 1960 are 55 years old, in the next decades WSSC will have to replace a significant portion of their piping systems. Over the next 10 years WSSC will have to replace over 2,000 miles of water pipe and similar amount or sewer pipes at an average cost of $1.4 per mile of pipe (2009 WSSC figure) that is almost $6 billion to replace the piping that has exceeded it design life. However, WSSC estimates that they will have to spend about $2.6 billion dollars in the next five years on capital improvement projects and has been studying how to pay for those needs. Issuing more debt and extending the maturities of the existing and future debt to 30 years will simply push their problems down the road a few more years and not develop a plan to renew the water and sewage systems for this century. This is in addition to operating costs, upgrades necessary to water treatment and Blue Plains.


Customers of WSSC might want to consider their own water treatment systems. Chlorination, the oldest method of disinfection can also be used to solve the most vexing problems with minerals. Chlorine will oxidize iron and manganese so they can be filtered out and also oxidize hydrogen sulfide to reduce or eliminate the rotten egg order that can render water here undrinkable. Chlorination followed by a media filter or a rechargeable carbon filter to capture particles and precipitate and the free chlorine can produce pleasant, sanitary water.

Monday, August 17, 2015

It is Not Your Imagination, WSSC Pipe Failure Has Increased


Last Wednesday, August 12, 2015, a 20-inch pressurized sewer main on Rose Theatre Circle in Olney broke causing 270,791 gallons of raw sewage to flow from the pipe and from sewer manholes. Within three and a half hours of the break the Olney Wastewater Pumping Station was shut down to stop the sewage flow so the pipe could be repaired. However, shutting down the Olney Wastewater Pumping Station did not stop the sewage from entering the system and manholes in the area began to overflow with sewage after a couple of hours and did not stop until after the Olney pumping station was put back in service. WSSC brought in septic haulers that were able to prevent approximately an additional 123,425 gallons of sewage from overflowing into the nearby waterways.

This sewage spill may sound a bit familiar, but it is new. What you are recalling is that on Tuesday, July 28, 2015 a different section of the same 20 inch pressurized sewer main began leaking. It was Wednesday morning, July 29th before WSSC stopped the leak and by then about 460,000 gallons of raw sewage had been spilled. Within an hour the same 20 inch sewer main had sprung another leak about 100 feet away and another 534,000 gallons of sewage was spilled before that leak was stopped. WSSC repair crews located the second leak and repairs to the main were completed on Thursday, July 30th. Now less than 2 weeks later another section of the pipe is leaking.

This is the third break in this sewer 20 inch diameter pressurized sewer pipe in two weeks. Though there were 160 sewer “overflows” in 2014, most of these were caused by blockages in the pipes from grease, tree roots, and debris not pipe failure. Sewer pipe failure, though less frequent cause’s larger spills, this is especially true of sewer pipes that flow under pressure. On Friday WSSC used closed circuit television cameras to examine the pressured sewer main and surprise, it found severe deterioration of the pipe. WSSC has hired a consultant to inspect the condition of the entire main and see if there are more leaks and is planning to develop a comprehensive solution that will eliminate future breaks. WSSC plans to insert a camera inside the pipe to better assess the condition of the sewer main to help determine a long-term solution. After three breaks in the same sewer main, replacing the entire sewer main seems like a sensible long-term solution.

WSSC emphasizes that the water and wastewater systems are separate. The sewage spill will not impact drinking water in anyway. However, the drinking water distribution system is in only slightly better condition than the sewer system. Last Wednesday while dealing with the Olney sewer problem, WSSC had two 90-year-old water main pipes break. The first break, in a 12 inch water main located on East-West Highway at Route 1 in Prince George’s County, was repaired fairly quickly restoring water service to all area customers. The second break in a 10 inch water main, at Flower Avenue and Piney Branch Road in Montgomery County, needed to have Washington Gas fix a gas line before repairs can be completed.

These pipe breaks last week during the summer serve to highlight the issue of aging infrastructure in WSSC’s system. Though, WSSC is currently replacing about 55 miles of water mains per year and 274 miles of sewer pipe over a 12 year period, that is not enough. That rate of pipe replacement would replace the sewer system in 236 years and the water system in 101 years. Pipes do not last that long. WSSC reports that approximately 37% of the water system delivery pipes are over 50 years old. Though age is not the only factor that causes pipe failure, most of the system’s pipes were designed for an average lifespan of 65 years. The break rate for pipes increases after 60 years. Age alone, however, cannot always be used as an indicator of failure, but it is a good predictor in warm weather breaks. There is a relationship between water temperature and pipe breaks. A sudden temperature drop provides a kind of shock to the pipes. Water temperature below 40 degrees Fahrenheit can also cause pipes to become more brittle, and break. That leads to increased pipe breaks in the winter, and why water utilities typically report their February number of breaks- when most breaks take place.

Established in 1918, WSSC is one of the largest water and wastewater utilities in the nation, with a network of nearly 5,600 miles of fresh water pipeline and over 5,400 miles of sewer pipeline. For decades WSSC has deferred maintaining their piping systems, choosing instead to repair pipes as they failed. It is not your imagination, the piping is failing more frequently and is about to get worse. Much of the WSSC’s service areas was built out in the building boom of 1960s and continuing through the late 1980s. The pipes installed in 1960 are 55 years old, in the next decades WSSC will have to replace a significant portion of their piping systems. Over the next 10 years WSSC will have to replace over 2,000 miles of water pipe and similar amount or sewer pipes. WSSC estimates that they will have to spend over $2.6 billion dollars in the next five years on capital improvement projects and has been studying how to pay for those needs.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Oops, EPA Spills 3 Million Gallons of Waste

from EPA
On August 5, 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was conducting an investigation of the Gold King Mine in Colorado. There had been an ongoing slow release of water from the mine and EPA’s planned to investigate the leak, treat the mine water and to assess the feasibility of further mine remediation. While trying to excavate the loose material that had collapsed into the cave entry to install a pipe, the material gave way, opening the mine tunnel and spilling the millions of gallons of contaminated water that was stored behind the collapsed material into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River. The creek and river flowed orange. The mine had not been operated for more than 90 years and had been sealed, but groundwater tends to rise is sealed mines creating a potential for water pollution.

Initially, the EPA’s estimated that 1 million gallons of acidic waste water contaminated with heavy metals (iron, zinc, copper, arsenic, cadmium, lead, manganese) was released from the Gold King Mine. However, the U.S Geological Survey (USGS) used their stream gauges and measured increased flows last Wednesday and calculated that 3,043,067 gallons of contaminated water had actually been released by the EPA. A stream gage is an instrument that measures volume by measuring flow, which is very precise and EPA conceded that the USGS was correct. Oops.

This spill impacted drinking water supplies for Durango and the surrounding area as well as downstream communities. Homeowners along the Animas River near Durango have deluged the La Plata County health department with requests for well tests to see if their drinking water is safe. Many have reported that their well water is discolored. The reservoir in Durango was able to close the intake on the Animas River before the contaminated plume entered the reservoir and are hoping to be able to continue to supply water to the city during the emergency from the water supply on hand. However, pollution seeping into the water table has contaminated rural wells used for drinking, irrigation and livestock, and the river is closed to recreation and water sports that are the lifeblood or the summer tourism industry. Colorado declared a disaster. New Mexico also declared a disaster. California and Arizona water officials are concerned about water supply implications.

EPA deployed a large response team (both technical and community relations) to Durango and Silverton, Colorado and to several locations in New Mexico, Utah and the Navajo Reservation to play both parts as federal regulator and responsible party, coordinate with the affected states, tribes and communities and to address impacts to the environment and water supplies. EPA reported on Monday that aerial and ground reconnaissance showed that the orange plume of waste water had dissipated downstream as it has become diluted by the larger flow of the river. EPA reported that there is no visible leading edge of contamination in downstream sections of the San Juan River or Lake Powell.

However, on Monday EPA officials also posted data showing contamination at 6.13 ppb for cadmium, above a state limit of 5 ppb; 264 ppb for arsenic, above a state limit of 10; 326,000 ppb for iron, above a limit of 1,000; 1,120 ppb for copper, above a limit of 1,000 ppb; and 3,040 ppb for manganese, above a limit of 50. Though, the plume had been diluted, it was still unsuitable as supply for drinking water.

Now that the cave entry has been breached waste water continues to flow out of the mine. EPA has constructed four ponds at the mine site and which are treating water. The pH (acidity) of the water is being raised with the addition of lime and sodium hydroxide solution which also has the effect of increasing the sedimentation of the metals in the ponds. In addition other chemicals are being added to increase the amount of sedimentation. The EPA reports that the treated water that is being discharged to Cement Creek has a pH of 5.5, still slightly acidic. Over the next several days, EPA reports that they will make upgrades to the system to ensure its continued operation.
from EPA

EPA continues to collect water quality samples from nine locations in the river near intakes for Aztec, Farmington, the Lower Valley Water Users Association, the Morning Star Water Supply System and the North Star Water User Association. Each of these locations will continue to be monitored as the spill makes its way past these areas. EPA has assigned two water quality experts in New Mexico to assist the five drinking water systems.

The river will be closed at least another week. The Colorado Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish are monitoring effects on wildlife and aquatic life in the affected area. The Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment is assisting with drinking water concerns. The disaster declarations in Colorado and New Mexico will make the state and its residents eligible for federal emergency funds to help deal with any financial damage from the spill.

EPA is taking responsibility for the discharge and impacts to affected communities. Claims can be made by submitting a signed electronic versions of Standard Form 95 to EPA for the Gold King Mine Release via email at R8_GKM_Claims@epa.gov. Claims must be presented to EPA within two years after the claim accrues.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Do Not Grow Old Ahead of Me

I am in my sixties, no longer middle age. My husband and I were born only a few months apart, and so we have served as a peer group of two for me to determine what 30, 40, 50, or 60 should look like. I laughed at people who claimed to be “young for their age” since my husband served as evidence that I was pretty much always my age. However, a recent paper from a team of scientists from the U.S., UK, Israel and New Zealand finds that people do indeed age at different rates.

The paper: “Quantification of biological aging in young adults,” by Daniel Belsky, Avshalom Caspi, et al. was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This paper served as a progress report on an aging study, the Dunedin Study, which is an ongoing longitudinal study funded by the New Zealand Health Research Council, U.S. National Institute on Aging, UK Medical Research Council, Jacobs Foundation and the Yad Hanadiv Rothschild Foundation. Much like the Framingham Heart Study that began in 1948 and has gone on to study subsequent generations’ cardiovascular health this study envisions studying the aging process over a lifetime.

The study covers the aging process in in a group of just over a thousand people born in 1972 or 1973 in Dunedin, New Zealand from age 26 to 38 years old and reports on 954 of the original 1,037 Dunedin study participants. Thirty of the subjects had died by age 38: 12 by illnesses, 10 by accidents and eight by suicide or drug overdose. Another 26 did not take part in the study at age 38 and twenty-seven participants had insufficient data to be included, but could be included in later years.

At age 38 in 2012 the study measured a panel of 18 biological measures that include such things as blood pressure, lung function, cholesterol, body mass index, inflammation and the integrity of their DNA (including the length of their telomeres) that were combined to determine whether people are aging faster or slower than their peers.

The aging process isn’t all genetic. Studies of twins have found that only about 20 % of aging can be attributed to genes. According to Dr. Belsky from the Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development at Duke University and the lead author of the paper, there’s a great deal of environmental influence in the aging process. It has long been known that socioeconomically disadvantaged populations suffer increased illness as they grow older and the poor die younger.

The study found that though most participants aged at a rate that was near to one biological year per calendar year, some participants were found to be aging as fast as three years per calendar year, and some were aging at zero years per year, in effect staying younger than their age. My apologies to those slow agers- you do exist.

Measuring aging is controversial. In the Dunedin Study they measured aging in two ways. First, they used a series of biomarkers that they calibrated on a large, mixed-age sample. Then they applied this algorithm to the biomarker data collected when the Dunedin Study participants were all chronologically 38 years old to calculate their “true” Biological Age. Second, the researchers performed a longitudinal analysis of 18 biomarkers in the participants when they were 26 years old, 32 years old and 38 years old. They used this longitudinal data to model how each individual changed over the 12-year study period to calculate their personal rate of aging.

Rate of aging and biological age are two different approaches to quantifying aging. The rate of aging captures real-time changes in human physiology across multiple body systems using all 18 biomarkers recorded in the Dunedin Study databank. The other approach, biological age, provides a point-in-time snapshot of physiological condition examined against the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) cross-sectional data. NHANES is a program of CDC studies designed to assess the health and nutritional status of adults and children in the United States. Both approaches yielded consistent results.

The study participants with an older biological age also have shown a faster rate of aging over the preceding 12 years. The scientists estimate that about half of the difference between biological age and chronological age at 38 had accumulated over the past 12 years. Their analysis showed that biological age can provide a summary of accumulated aging at a single point in time.

Further, the biological measures of study participants’ aging were mirrored in their functional status, brain health, self-awareness of their own physical well-being, and their facial appearance. Study members who had an older biological age than their chronical age and who experienced a faster rate of aging scored lower on tests of balance, strength, and motor coordination, and reported more physical limitations. These biologically older participants also scored lower on IQ tests when they were aged 38 years, showed actual decline in full-scale IQ score from childhood to age-38 follow-up, and exhibited signs of elevated risk for stroke and for dementia measured from images of micro vessels in their eyes. Furthermore, those with an older biological age and who experienced a faster rate of aging reported feeling in worse health. People who did not know the study members beyond a facial photograph were able to see differences in the aging of their faces.

The Dunedin Study will continue to follow the study group. The next evaluation will be when they are 45. The researchers are charting the participants’ diet, exercise and other behaviors to try and evaluate which behaviors are working to slow down aging. The ultimate goal, of course, is to be able to intervene in the aging process itself, rather than addressing killers like heart disease or cancer in isolation, Dr. Belsky said; “As we get older, our risk grows for all kinds of different diseases. To prevent multiple diseases simultaneously, aging itself has to be the target. Otherwise, it’s a game of whack-a-mole.”

The greatest gift in life would be for my true love and I to grow old slowly together. I miss quote and take great liberties with Robert Browning’s poem “Rabbi Ben Ezra:”

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand; trust God: be not afraid.

Henceforth I summon age,
Life’s journey having reached this stage
Once more upon our adventure fearless and unafraid. 
Together: We shall face the last of life, for which the first was made. 

CITATION: “Quantification of biological aging in young adults,” Daniel Belsky, Avshalom Caspi, et al. PNAS, July 7, 2015. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1506264112