Thursday, July 30, 2009

Commonwealth of Virginia Emergency Regulations for Alternative Septic Systems Part 3

On Thursday, July 30, 2009 the third meeting of the Virginia Department of Health “Alternative Onsite Sewage Systems Emergency Regulations Ad Hoc Committee” took place. I am a participant in the process representing the homeowner’s point of view. Legislation approved in 2009 (HB 2551, Acts of Assembly, 2009, Ch 220) requires the Board of Health to promulgate emergency regulations to establish performance requirements and horizontal setbacks necessary to protect public health and the environment for alternative on-site sewage systems. The regulations must go into effect no later than April 6, 2010 and must also contain Operation and Maintenance requirements for alternative on-site sewage systems.

Truthfully, the most stimulating (and thought provoking) discussion was a brief end of the day conversation between Bob Lee from the Loudon County Department of Health, Anish Jantrania of NW Cascade and an attorney (whose permission to use his name I failed to get). At the end of the meeting the meeting facilitator, Bruce Dotson, and Allen Knapp of the VDH assigned homework to Anish Jantrania to address the list of discussion topics to clustered alternative systems. Anish quickly assembled a small group to discuss how to best accomplish this goal and I eased dropped on their general discussion.

First a little background. Cluster systems are merely a large on-site waste disposal system designed to serve groups of homes using a single type of system or a combination of collection and treatment methods. I had always had an uneasy feeling about these systems because of human nature; I felt that if enough homes were clustered together, then individuals would take advantage of the anonymity to abuse the systems, excessive use of garbage disposal, household load and household chemicals. Without having to face the direct consequences of their actions or feeling that they were forced to face the consequences of other’s actions, people would not be “good” users of the systems. However, the use of cluster systems has a number of benefits and can be appropriate in small communities with small home lot size and a variety of site conditions. Decentralized clustered systems may be more desirable for ecologically sensitive areas because of the professional management and monitoring (i.e., where advanced treatment such as nutrient removal or disinfection is necessary such as beach and lake locations) and can also achieve cost savings while also recharging local aquifers. In addition, the professional management of the system may more than compensate for the anonymity factor. This may be a preferred solution for the tidally influenced areas of the Tidewater.

Cluster on-site waste systems typically serve fewer than a hundred homes, but they can serve more. Under this approach, septic tank effluent from each home is collected and routed to another site for further treatment and soil discharge. In some designs waste is pumped directly to the treatment site and primary treatment occurs at the treatment site instead of in individual home septic tanks. Collection and movement of raw or settled wastewater to the final treatment site can be accomplished by gravity, pressure, pump or vacuum systems.

As Anish and Bob Lee made clear, the advantages of these alternative collection systems include significantly lower capital cost, less opportunity for infiltration and inflow, and increased construction and location flexibility. This can be used to solve a wide variety of site challenges in an optimal fashion while allowing the development of the site. The off-site treatment facility is still close to the wastewater sources, and may or may not have some features that resemble a traditional small sewage treatment plant. The primary goals of such a facility are to either prepare the wastewater for dispersal back to ground water or provide reuse of the treated wastewater, usually for landscape irrigation. Regardless of the particular cluster system treatment technology selected, third-party sustainable management by an entity with the technical, financial, and managerial capacity to assure proper operation is required to ensure long-term service. Professional management and operation ensures consistent operation.

Treatment facilities range from sedimentation tanks and soil dispersal facilities to advanced treatment systems with distribution to drip irrigation fields or other reuse sites. Although some facilities use technologies similar to centralized treatment plants (such as trickling filters, aerobic tanks or lagoons, constructed wetlands, etc), most designers employ low-maintenance, upset-resistant alternatives that simplify and reduce operation and maintenance requirements. Final dispersal of treated effluent is usually to the soil, due to greater treatment advantages and avoidance of NPDES permitting, monitoring, reporting, and other requirements. However, cluster systems can be designed and permitted to discharge to surface waters, if necessary. What needs to be accomplished is to make the process and time frame of permitting a clustered system equivalent to the time frame and process of permitting the dozens of individual systems. Right now, it is much simplier and quicker for a developer to permit a single use system for each home rather than to design a superior system for the development as a whole.

There are numerous alternative treatment and/or dispersal system alternatives that can be used in areas where conventional septic systems cannot provide adequate treatment of wastewater effluent. These include mound systems, fixed-film contact units, constructed wetlands, low-pressure and drip dispersal, and advanced treatment systems. These systems, can be used in areas near sensitive surface waters or to protect sensitive groundwater resources. Alternative on-site systems are designed to promote degradation and/or treatment of wastes through biological processes, oxidation/reduction reactions, filtration, evapotranspiration, and enhanced soil application processes. Cluster systems often use suspended growth and attached growth facilities to effect better effluent steams without traditional leech fields. The cost of collecting and treatment wastewater from multiple facilities at a common treatment and dispersal/reuse site offers economies of scale that lower capital and operation/maintenance costs. Cluster systems are often designed to incorporate individual septic tanks for each property served to provide primary treatment and minimize fat, oil, grease, and solids loadings to the collection system and/or secondary treatment units.
(Note: Cluster systems that serve 20 or more people are regulated as Class V facilities under the federal Underground Injection Control Program. Thanks to the CA SWRCB for all their information and input.

Monday, July 27, 2009

How Green is Your Lawn- The Use of Pesticides

From the beginning of recorded time humans have utilized pesticides to protect their crops and food stores. Humans tried many substances as pesticides; toxic chemicals were tried in the 1600’s. Arsenic, mercury and lead were applied to crops to kill pests; the fact that these substances also killed larger animals including humans resulted in their abandonment for use as pesticides. One of the results of chemical development during World War II was the widespread manufacture and use of pesticides after the war. With the use of pesticides and herbicides to control unwanted pests came dramatic changes in agriculture and the agricultural business model and increasing crop yields in excess of 10%. Pesticides including herbicides and insecticides are used to control harmful and annoying organisms. They can be used to protect from diseases carried by mosquitoes or parasites. Herbicides can be used to kill invasive weeds in gardens, parks and public spaces, to clear roadside weeds, trees and brush. They are also used to prevent algae from taking over ponds and pools. Pesticides are used to control termites and mould that can damage buildings and homes. Pesticides are used in grocery stores and food storage facilities to prevent mice and insects that infest food such as grain. Much of our very clean and sanitary American life is the result of pesticide use. Each use of a pesticide carries some associated risk and controlled and limited use of these pesticides is believed to reduce the risks to a level deemed acceptable by the US EPA.

DDT became the most widely used pesticide in the world in the 1950’s. It’s potential to do harm was not fully recognized until, the 1960’s when it was identified as the cause of diminished populations of eagles, hawks, gulls and other birds. DDT use was banned. The recent reemergence of support by the World Health Organization for the use of DDT to prevent malaria is an example of the questions raised by pesticide use. The WHO argued that used sparingly DDT was the most effective method to control the spread of malaria and that saving human lives from malaria was more important than potential impact to lesser species. DDT’s potential as an endocrine disruptor was not full appreciated at that time and it has recently been implicated in increased incidence of breast cancer in women exposed before or at puberty in the California study. The wide spread use of herbicides and their potential presence in water resource was also ignored. The fate and transport model for understanding chemicals added to the environment has not always been fully appreciated. However, by the 1980’s alachlor, atrazine, cyanazine and metolachlor (all common corn and soybean herbicides) were being detected in surface water and near surface groundwater. The US EPA began to restrict use of these herbicides, too, and they were phased out over the next decade.

A new generation of herbicides was developed during the phase out period encouraged by the US EPA. The newer herbicides were applied at much lower levels, broke down more quickly in the environment and were less toxic to animals. Applying ounces of herbicides per acre that broke down in days rather than pounds of chemicals that persisted for weeks or months was a victory to the US EPA. These new herbicides were based on sulfonylurea an imidazolinone. The lower concentrations of the new herbicides and their breakdown products rendered them virtually invisible in water. We could not detect them and assumed they were not present. Now it seems that the degradation products of these new herbicides are far more persistent in the environment that originally believed or hoped.

Recent studies have documented endocrine disruption in a wide variety of marine gastropods, frogs, and fish associated with exposure to low levels of non specific endocrine disrupting chemicals of unknown sources. The current state of analysis only allowed the documentation of EDC presence. EDCs are a structurally diverse group that includes natural and synthetic estrogens, alkyl phenols surfactants, phthalates, bisphenol A, brominated flame retardants and some pesticides. Studies in recent years have documented a wide occurrence of endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs) throughout aquatic ecosystems. This could indicate non-point sources of contamination from run off or an additive effect, which may have serious implications for US water quality. Suspect EDCs are used in large quantities by consumers and industry. Domestic and industrial wastewater and agricultural run-off are believed to be the major sources of EDCs today. The impacts of trace concentrations of EDC on wildlife do beg the question about the potential effects on humans. Drinking water is not tested for minute quantities of endocrine disrupting chemicals; we simply do not have the knowledge of what to look for nor the technical ability to identify all the trace contaminants of that nature.

In April of 2009 the US EPA issued the Final List of Initial Pesticide Active Ingredients and Pesticide Inert Ingredients to be Screened Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act as potential endocrine disruptors. Pesticide runoff is a large contributor of known pollutants to the watershed. Maybe we should be re-examining the risks associated with what is now known as conventional agricultural practices, and embrace (at the very least) the best management practices for controlling environmental release of agricultural chemicals and waste. Several Provinces in Canada are in the process of banning the use of herbicides for ornamental lawn use.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Second Age of Water Regulation

In the Index of Leading Environmental Indicators, 14th Edition, April 2009, Stephen Hayward highlights the short falls in the way we have been monitoring water quality in the United States. The National Water Quality Inventory Report to Congress (305(b) report) had been the primary vehicle for informing Congress and the public about general water quality conditions in the United States. In the past, this document characterized water quality based on differing local monitoring efforts. The Report was intended to identify widespread water quality problems of national significance, and describes various programs implemented to restore and protect our waters. This had served as a proxy for the quality of the waters of the nation. However, the methods states use to monitor and assess their waters and report their findings varied from state to state and even over time. Many states target their limited monitoring resources to waters they suspect are impaired and, therefore, assess only a small percentage of their waters. These may not reflect conditions in state waters as a whole. States often monitor a different set of waters from cycle to cycle.

Hundreds of organizations around the country conduct some type of water quality monitoring within the states. These include federal agencies such as the US EPA and the U.S. Geological Survey. They also include state, interstate, tribal and local water quality agencies; research organizations such as universities; industries and sewage and water treatment plants; and citizen volunteer programs. These diverse groups may collect water quality data for various purposes utilizing various levels of testing and targeting specific pollutants. The cost of water quality testing is determined by the number of pollutants tested for and at what level of detection. So, resources were used to target suspected contaminants. The final reports rendered to the US EPA were so inconsistent in their region by region scope as to be meaningless in their ability to measure water quality across the nation or to identify what has emerged as the newest concerns about water quality.

Large fish kills in the late 1990’s began a renewed process of discovery to identify the cause. Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey observed intersex in bass species collected from the Potomac River and its tributaries in West Virginia, Maryland, and Washington DC, and also quantified endocrine disrupting chemicals, EDCs, in their blood. Though extensive water testing was done, the actual source or sources of EDC was not identified. These recent studies by the US Geological Survey and Fish and Wildlife have prompted the US EPA to change its monitoring and assessment guidance to the states in an attempt to generate a more useful report of the quality of the nation’s water.

Suspect or known endocrine disrupting chemicals are associated with industrial releases; widely used by the general public every day in homes, on farms, by businesses and industry. There are the natural occurring EDC that are part of the ecosystem. Some EDCs can be released directly to the environment after passing through wastewater treatment processes, which are typically not designed to remove low levels of these kinds of pollutants from the effluent. The problem is compounded by the fact that wastewater treatment effluent is released to rivers that are used for drinking water and in some locations like California water treatment effluent is directly mixed with drinking water supplies. In addition, sludge from secondary treatment processes are land-applied providing a route for EDCs to leach or run off into nearby bodies of water. Through either waste water treatment plant effluent or run off endocrine-disrupting chemicals, including synthetic estrogens and androgens, naturally occurring estrogens, as well as many others capable of modulating normal hormonal functions and steroidal synthesis in fish and possibly other animals find their way into rivers and streams. So far studies of septic systems have not found these substances being released to the groundwater in the areas studied. However this research has just begun and only a very limited number of groundwater studies have been performed looking for EDCs.

The occurrence of intersex fish in the Potomac River, and in other areas of the US resulted in Congressional hearings in the fall or 2006 to inquire about the “State of the Science on EDCs in the Environment,” as well as the US EPA’s activities associated with EDCs. The hearings resulted in a White Paper; “AQUATIC LIFE CRITERIA FOR CONTAMINANTS OF EMERGING CONCERN” The next step of this work was the release in April of 2009 by the US EPA of the Final List of Initial Pesticide Active Ingredients and Pesticide Inert Ingredients to be screened under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act as potential endocrine disruptors. The US EPA began with the Clean Water Act. This is a new era of discovery of pollutants of concern. Though the work has just begun, the second age of water regulation has arrived.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Commonwealth of Virginia Emergency Regulations for Alternative Septic Systems Part 2

On Thursday, July 16, 2009 the second meeting of the Virginia Department of Health “Alternative Onsite Sewage Systems Emergency Regulations Ad Hoc Committee” took place. I am a participant in the process representing the homeowner’s point of view. Legislation approved in 2009 (HB 2551, Acts of Assembly, 2009, Ch 220) requires the Board of Health to promulgate emergency regulations to establish performance requirements and horizontal setbacks necessary to protect public health and the environment for alternative onsite sewage systems. The regulations must go into effect no later than April 6, 2010 and must also contain Operation and Maintenance requirements for alternative onsite sewage systems.

This past Thursday’s meeting focused on reviewing the form and content of regulations of other states. The meeting focused particularly on existing regulatory schemes which varied more in format and detail than in basic approach. The meeting began with Operations and Maintenance schemes from the Virginia Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association and North Carolina. The requirements of the two programs was not vastly different, the true difference was in presentation. The North Carolina program clearly and simply presented the program so that any homeowner who looked up the regulation would understand that annual inspection and maintenance of the program was required. This was very clear and straight forward. I feel that regulatory requirements that are easy to identify and understand are essential to make an Operation and Maintenance program work. My own efforts at identifying what I needed to do and what was recommended I do were very instructive. Really, I needed to be an engineer with a regulatory background to figure it out. The conflicting responses I received from potential service providers were not helpful in identifying the regulations at that time.

I, like many members of the group, liked the idea of an operating permit that was issued when the system was first installed (spelling out the Operations and Maintenance requirements) and then had to be renewed by each successive home owner. The positives of a renewable operating permit was that each time the home changed hands the alternative septic system would have to be tested and the new owners would be informed of their responsibilities. I thought this was great until Allen Knapp of the VDH clearly pointed out to me the administrative quagmire that would result if the Virginia Department of Health were required to track all real estate transactions. Administrating such a program would be nearly impossible without vast resources to track the real estate market. Reflecting on his comments I realized that it would be unlikely that a bank or other lender would close on a loan for a property without a valid operating permit for the alternative septic system. Thus, unfortunately, a renewable operating permit for an alternative septic system is not a viable solution to ensuring that these systems continue to function over time and are properly maintained. Clear communication and consumer education will have to be cornerstones of the regulations.

For system performance requirements the group focused on a proposal from Anish Jantrania a former Virginia regulator and currently an engineer with Northwest Cascade, the Arizonian regulations and a light brush with the North Carolina performance regulations. Anish’s proposal was entirely qualitative while the Arizona regulations presented by Colin Bishop a former Arizona regulator and currently with BNM-US, the manufacturer of Pruaflo systems. The Arizona approach was entirely quantitative and encompassed 129 pages of detail. Since I am not a system designer of septic systems, but simply a user I learned a lot from the discussion of these two approaches. The essential point was how much leeway to allow licensed engineers in their designs. The Arizona approach was very much like snapping together a system with sized and regulated components. This is very much a Lego approach, plug and play. The qualitative approach was far more dependent on engineering judgment and practice and susceptible to abuse by the unscrupulous. After listening to various points of view I think the qualitative system design approach is most appropriate for the clustered alternative systems. The single family home applications should possibly be more tightly regulated because of the variation in use and maintenance of systems by different home owners. The regulations need to ensure that any failure by these individual systems would be contained on the homeowners own lot. Tightly constricted numeric performance requirements are best for this segment. I look forward to seeing where the VDH takes these regulations. Given the short time frame I question if they would have time to develop the scope of the Arizona regulations.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Endocrine Disruptors and Septic Systems

The endocrine system found in all mammals, birds and fish is made up of glands, hormones and receptors in various organs, and is the system that regulates all hormonal activity in animals. Disruption of the endocrine system can occur in several ways. Some chemicals can mimic a natural hormone, causing the body to over react to the hormone or responding at inappropriate times. Endocrine disrupting chemicals can block the effects of a hormone or can directly stimulate or inhibit the endocrine system, causing overproduction or underproduction of hormones. Certain drugs are used to intentionally cause some of these effects, such as birth control pills. However, in many situations involving environmental chemicals, an endocrine effect can disrupt the proper functioning and development of the animal.

In recent years, it has been proposed that some trace, environmentally persistent chemicals might be disrupting the endocrine systems of humans and wildlife. A variety of chemicals have been found to disrupt the endocrine systems of animals in laboratory studies, and compelling evidence shows that endocrine systems of certain fish and wildlife have been effected by chemical contaminants, resulting in developmental and reproductive problems (Blazer et al, 2004). However, the relationship of human diseases of the endocrine system and exposure to environmental contaminants is poorly understood and still scientifically controversial.

Recently, concern has emerged about a group of trace organic compounds identified in the aquatic environment which might affect reproduction and development of wildlife species and humans due to endocrine disruption. EDCs are a structurally diverse group that includes natural and synthetic estrogens, alkyl phenols surfactants, phthalates, bisphenol A, brominated flame retardants and some pesticides. Studies in recent years have documented a wide occurrence of endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs) in aquatic ecosystems not solely associated with waste water treatment plants. This could indicate non-point sources of contamination, which may have serious implications for groundwater quality. The use of groundwater has been increasing not only for private wells and agriculture but also for municipal supply. USGS hydrologists believe that the potential for EDC contaminated surface water and run off to impact groundwater has increased. A second area of concern is for EDCs to impact groundwater through the leaching of septic system effluents. Septic systems are utilized at 25-30% of all households. Non-sewer subdivisions which represent a fairly high density use of septic may have an increased susceptibility to contamination of the groundwater by EDCs. Suspect EDCs are used in large quantities by consumers and industry. Domestic and industrial wastewater and agricultural run-off are recognized as the major sources of EDCs.

During the late 1990’s in research performed by several studies identified EDCs not only in wastewater effluents, but also at low concentrations in surface and groundwater in use for drinking water supply, and at very low concentrations in tap water samples. In a study performed in 2004-2006 at the University of Wisconsin using EDC estrogenic activity as a test for EDC activity found all surface waters tested contained some levels of estrogenic EDC activity. Water from high capacity groundwater wells did not contain any measurable estrogenic EDC activity. Estrogenic activity was detected in 20 of 21 septic effluent samples, although concentrations were markedly reduced in systems utilizing either sand filtration or aerobic pretreatment as compared to traditional systems. In general, concentrations in conventional systems were comparable to those measured in previous studies of municipal wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) influent, and concentrations in systems after advanced treatment were comparable to previously measured concentrations in WWTP effluent. The data indicates that septic systems using advanced treatment can reduce EDCs in treated effluent to similar concentrations as municipal WWTPs.

Although low levels of activity was detected in soil water directly beneath one septic system, no estrogenic activity was found in groundwater in this study. There appears to be no infiltration of estrogenic endocrine disrupting chemicals from the surface waters into the associated ground waters. Advanced pretreatment technologies (aerobic, sand filtration) appear to be quite effective at removing estrogenic compounds from septic effluent. Additional removal of EDCs occurs in unsaturated soils beneath septic leach fields; no EDCs were detected in groundwater beneath the systems without advanced pretreatment.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Inspector Marlowe


In the United States there are four groups of termites of concern: subterranean (including the Formosan termite), drywood, dampwood and powderpost. Subterranean termites and drywood termites are the two general types. Subterranean termites "nest" in the soil and from there they can attack structures by building shelter tubes from the soil to the wood in structures. Combined termites cause $1.5 billion in damage annually in the United States.

The most popular professionally applied conventional chemical treatments on the market are Premise (imidacloprid), Termidor (finpronil), and Phantom (chlorfenzpyr) range from slightly toxic to very toxic and vary in their solubility and affinity for soil. They are less environmentally persistent and more rapidly biodegradable, than previous generations of chemicals they work by acting as insect endocrine disruptors. They breakdown faster and do not last as long, but are still of concern and the EPA is taking a renewed look at endocrine disruptors that may impact other species and imidacloprid the active ingredient in Premise is on the final list. Ridding an infested house of termites or preventing termite infestation using the lest toxic method requires an integrated pest management approach that includes a series of methods for preventing or managing pest populations based on an ecological understanding of the problem. The US EPA has developed their Pesticide Environmental Stewardship Program (PESP) to encourage these methods.

The treatment options are bating with spot treatment and traditional chemical barriers. Termite baits use small amounts of insecticide to knock out populations of termites foraging in and around the structure. Some baits may even eradicate entire termite colonies. Termite baits consist of paper, cardboard, or other termite food, combined with a slow-acting substance lethal to termites. When needed, my baits will be laced with Termidor. Regardless of which bait is used, the process is lengthy and four or five times as expensive as chemical treatment, but uses less than 1% of the chemicals used in traditional treatment. Baits offer termites an easily accessed location to feed on wooden stakes, cardboard, or some other cellulose-based material. The toxicant-laced bait can either be installed initially, or substituted after termites have been detected in an untreated monitoring device. The more baits installed, the better the chances of locating termites. Planning, patience, and persistence are requisites for successfully using termite baits. This is a long term commitment and a slow solution if you already have termites

My property has a creek that is part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. My drinking water comes from the groundwater beneath my land. I am the steward of this portion of the water shed and as such I will not pump a hundred gallons or more of chemicals into the soil every few years. So I have embarked on a preventative program of baiting which requires monitoring of the baits every 60 days to see if they have attracted any termites. Before baiting I needed to determine if the property had been impacted by termites. The baits would be placed without chemicals if the structure was free of termites. Thus, I meet Inspector Marlowe and his owner Stephen Dodge of ProTech Termite and Pest Control. For several years running Inspector Marlowe was the prize winning termite detection dog. His is a beagle of advanced age and getting ready to retire and be replaced by a younger associate. He was a sweet dog and still very active and enthusiastic. When Steve put on the fanny pack with the dog kibble in it, Marlowe was ready to hunt.

The fist thing Marlowe did was to roll around in the grass to hide his sent. This is an instinctive move with beagles who I think tend to smell like Frito chips. Then it was onto the house and the hunt for termites. The whole experience was like watching someone walk their dog though your house. Marlowe covered the entire footprint of the house, every corner, wall and box in the basement. It was simple, quick and a bit funny. No intrusions were found on the lower level so there was no need to search the upper floors. How certain am I that Marlowe was effective?

Normally when you have a termite inspection, a pest management professional conducting a visual inspection relies on finding live termites, mud tubes, and/or damaged wood to confirm a suspected infestation. Dogs rely on smell, not vision, to detect a wide array of materials, including explosives, narcotics, missing people. Dogs can be trained to a high level of accuracy. A study was performed by Shawn E. Brooks, Faith M. Oi and Philip G. Koehler at the University of Florida. Florida has a huge termite problem and is a leader in the study of termite treatment options. Their paper “Ability of Canine Termite Detectors to Locate Live Termites and Discriminate Them from Non-Termite Material” was published in 2003. They tested dogs specifically trained to detect termites in the methods used by law enforcement to train explosive detecting dogs. In field trials the dogs reliably located termites in 96.67% of the containers (positive indications). The dogs responded to 1.73% of the empty containers (false indications). In all dogs trained daily for 3 weeks to 3 months were able to accurately locate termites in 95.93% of the time. This is much higher than the human ability to detect termites. As recommended by the study Marlowe has gone to termite refresher camp.

It is essential to continue monitoring for termites in the baits and add Termidor as needed. The success of the treatment method needs to be assessed occasionally, monitoring will detect any infestations as early as possible. So I look forward to meeting Marlowe’s successor in the future.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Endocrine Disruptors in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed

Chemicals are a fact of modern life they exist in pharmaceuticals, household products, personal care products, plastics, pesticides, industrial chemicals, human and animal waste; they are in short, all around us. There are some chemicals that can mimic, block, or otherwise alter animal hormone responses, sometimes affecting their reproduction, development, and behavior, this is actually, how some pest control treatments are designed to work. A diverse group of chemicals called endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) come from a variety of sources. These chemical have vastly different molecular structures. These chemicals become of great concern when they are discovered to be human endocrine disruptors as DDT, dioxin, the drug DES and PCBs were in the past. Traces of endocrine disrupting chemicals are seemingly found in every part of our world, including dust, soil, water, air, food, manufactured products, wildlife, and even ourselves.

There are countless natural occurring phytochemicals so far thousands have been isolated from plants in addition there are estimated to be over 80,000 artificial chemicals in the world today. The structural diversity is enormous and it is not known which of these substances might adversely affect living things in subtle ways. Testing for new chemicals is for gross and acute impact, subtle impact is very difficult to identify. One thing is certain, the growing class of known endocrine disrupting chemicals can disturb a staggering range of hormonal processes. Like natural hormones, some EDCs bind directly with hormone receptors. The impostors can mimic or block hormone messages with the same, weaker, or stronger responses. Others are more subtle, they interfere with hormone maintenance to prevent or enhance hormones from being made, broken apart, or carried in the bloodstream.

When the USGS began looking into skin lesions on bass in the southern branch of the Potomac River, they found fish suffering from a variety of lesions. Some fish had bacterial lesions, some fungal lesions, and some fish had parasite. The USGS concluded that there was no specific cause of the lesions and that the fish appeared to be immunosupressed so that any pathogen in the water could attack the fish. A series of studies were performed over a period of years. During the investigation it was discovered that male fish had immature female egg cells in their testes and the females had lowered levels of an essential protein in the formation of eggs. The bass suffering from lesions were intersexed. It had previously been demonstrated that estrogen and estrogen mimicking compounds can cause intersex. The occurrence of intersex among the lesioned fish prompted further studies. How estrogen related compounds could be impacting the immune systems in these fish was studied by one group while several groups within the Fish and Wildlife Service and US Geological Survey studied the relationship between waste water treatment plants, other chemicals, and the impacted fish.

The study found the problem of endocrine disruption in fish to be widespread in the limited study area of a portion of the Chesapeake Water Shed, but increased in proximity to and downstream of the waste water treatment plants. Chemical sampling that took place along with the fish sampling found higher concentrations of waste water chemicals near the waste water plants. Pesticides currently used in agriculture were detected at all locations. Hormones were not detected in the samples, but analysis using yeast screening assays found estrogenic endocrine-disrupting chemicals at all locations their specific source is not yet known. Though they cannot identify a single chemical or group of chemicals responsible, the US FW and US GS have embarked on further study to gain greater understanding of the implications to the earth’s ecosystem.

The implications to the fish populations are apparent, but the waters where the study took place are part of the water supply for the region. The impact on human health and the ecosystem needs to be discovered. In addition to finding intersexed fish, the researchers have found male amphibians with ovaries and female frogs with male genitalia and frogs with six legs and other mutations. The endocrine system of fish is similar to the human endocrine system. The US FW and US GS research on the Potomac River poses some troubling questions for the 2 million people who rely on the Washington Aqueduct for their drinking water as well as the millions of people in other parts of the country with similar observed occurrences of endocrine disruption. The impact on human life is not known, but according to Dr. Robert Lawrence of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health there is the potential to for humans to develop premature breast cancer, have problems with reproduction, and develop congenital anomalies of the male genitalia. These kinds of impacts are happening at a broad and low level in society so that the occurrence is not alarming to the general public or easily noted without detailed statistics.
In April of 2009 the US EPA issued the Final List of Initial Pesticide Active Ingredients and Pesticide Inert Ingredients to be Screened Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act as potential endocrine disruptors. Pesticide runoff is a large contributor of known pollutants to the watershed. Water is the fluid of life. Do you know where your water’s been and what’s in it?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Private Drinking Well Components


Ground water is ubiquitous. About 15% of American households get their drinking water from private wells the majority of these wells are drilled wells that penetrate about 100-400 feet into the bedrock. To provide a reliable supply of water, a drilled well must intersect bedrock fractures containing ground water and recharge at a rate greater than the typical domestic demand of 5-10 gallons per minute. There are two types of pumps; a jet pump and a submersible pump. Most modern drilled wells are built with a submersible pump so that the ground water is not exposed to potential contaminants before it reaches your home. This is accomplished by utilizing a pitless adapter within the well. This adapter is designed to provide a sanitary seal at the point where the discharge water line leaves the well to enter your home. The device attaches directly to the casing below the frost line and provides a watertight subsurface connection, protecting the well from frost and contamination. In older pump installations, above ground jet pumps were often used, which potentially allowed the introduction of contaminants at the surface concrete well cap.

The essential components of a modern drilled well system are: a submersible pump, a check valve (and additional valve every 100 feet), a pitless adaptor, a well cap, electrical wiring including a control box, pressure switch, and interior water delivery system. There are additional fittings and cut-off switches for system protection, but the above are the basics. To keep the home supplied with water the system and well must remain operational. The components within the basement provide consistent water pressure at the fixtures. The pump moves water to the basement water pressure tank, inside the tank is an air bladder that becomes compressed as water is pumped in. The pressure tank moves the water through the house pipes so that the pump does not have to run every time you open a faucet. The pressure tank maintains the water pressure between 40-60 psi. After the pressure drops to 40 psi, the switch turns on the pump and the pressure in the tank increases. The 40 psi can feel a little anemic.

The submersible pump is a long cylindrical unit that fits within the 6 inch diameter well casing. The bottom portion consists of the sealed pump motor connected to a series of impellers separated by a diffuser that drives the water up the pipe to the plumbing system through the pitless adaptor and a pipe that runs from the well beneath the ground to the basement. Submersible pumps are more efficient than jet pumps and should last longer, but silt, sand, algae and excessive mineral content can impact their life. A submersible pump operating in low-sediment water may have a 15 year life while the same pump in high sediment water and without adequate sediment and check valve protection may fail in 5 or 6 years. The sediment and mineral content in groundwater acts as an abrasive that wears out the pump bearings and other moving parts and causes the pump to fail prematurely. The check valves will protect the water pump from loss of prime and having to work as hard each time the pump is activated.

For the plumbing system to function properly, the recharge rate in the well would have to equal at least the pump rate. The recharge rate or the well recovery rate is the rate that water actually flows into the well through the rock fissures. If the well can not recharge at the same rate at which water is being removed than the well, the system would suffer intermittent episodes of severe water pressure loss. The information on your wells performance can be obtained from the water well completion report on file with the department of health. The “stabilized yield” is the recharge rate. Since, water quality and water supply were primary selection criteria in my home search, my recharge rate is huge. I have a very strong well. However, the water pressure in the house is only adequate with either one shower running or the utility sink, tub and shower. A water pressure loss can result from a pump that is too small for demand, inadequate or a failing pressure tank, or a buildup of scale in the pipes. For example, if pressure was reduced when additional demand - turning on the dishwasher when someone was taking a shower that would be an indication that the water supply (either the pump or recharge rate) is inadequate for the household demand. Though, the pressure tank can smooth small flow demands, it cannot compensate for flow greater than the pump or well capacity. So a system that seems to have not quite strong enough pressure at all times, but continues to perform in that range while multiple faucets or plumbing draws are on-going could have a pressure tank problem.

If the system is working properly and there is adequate pressure in the pressure tank possible solutions to a water pressure problems are to install a constant pressure valve between the pump and the pressure tank. This is a relatively simple and cheap solution that may solve many problems, but not flow rate/demand problems. Adding an additional pressure tank capacity could smooth demand somewhat but only to the extent of the additional tank. The final solution is the most expensive; the pump could be replaced with a variable speed pump. The motor of this kind of pump can run up to twice as fast as a single speed pump. The speed of the pump is regulated by the water demand and adjusts the pump’s flow rate. If the well has enough supply a constant higher pressure could be delivered to the house. This is an expensive solution, one I think of as a luxury, but it can result in higher water pressure throughout the house.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Commonwealth of Virginia Emergency Regulations for Alternative Septic Systems

On Thursday, June 25, 2009 the Virginia Department of Health convened its “Alternative Onsite Sewage Systems Emergency Regulations Ad Hoc Committee.” I am a participant in the process representing the citizens of Virginia. Legislation approved in 2009 (HB 2551, Acts of Assembly, 2009, Ch 220) requires the Board of Health to promulgate emergency regulations to establish performance requirements and horizontal setbacks necessary to protect public health and the environment for alternative onsite sewage systems. The regulations must go into effect no later than April 6, 2010 and must also contain operation and maintenance requirements for alternative onsite sewage systems. The Department of Health has clearly studied the issue for a period of time; however, their difficulty in promulgating regulations became clear at the meeting. The need to balance the requirements necessary to assure public health and the protection of the waters of the Commonwealth with costs and enforceability is a daunting task.

The problem is that alternative septic systems will not continue to function as designed without regular maintenance. I had my alternative Delta Whitewater three tank system serviced a couple of weeks back, I then sampled the third tank and found that it was functioning better than the 70-30 design parameter. Within two weeks (and on the day of the meeting at the Virginia Department of Health) the compressor failed. It took less than 24 hours for the septic service company to replace the compressor and have the system literally humming again. I am fairly confident that there was no significant loss of function in the aerobic tank during its short down time given the low load on the system at this time. This episode was troubling precisely because of the coincidence. The manufacturer assured me that intermittent system breakdowns are not usual, but the distributor of the equipment and the provider of my service contract told me that there have been several breakdowns of compressors. I have to admit that I have a finicky piece of expensive equipment in my back yard that requires attention and regular service to continue operating over the next 30 years. How do we create regulations that will ensure that all of these alternative systems in the Commonwealth are maintained in an appropriate manner? The fact that these systems alarm rather than lie quietly until they back up into the house is a true advantage.

The Piedmont Environment Council fought against this legislation to protect the waters of Virginia. The PEC felt that localities should be able to ban these types of systems rather than risk allowing systems that are not maintained. I disagreed with W. Todd Benson of the PEC because I believe we need these regulations and I believe that these systems are superior to traditional septic systems. The vast majority of septic systems on the Chesapeake Bay watershed are traditional systems. Since 1985 the nitrogen releases by these systems has increased almost 25% this is the only category that has increased over this period of time. While the population has grown, it has not grown by 25% over this time. I believe that the septic systems that were installed in the post world war housing booms are failing. These systems need to be replaced and the replacements need to be maintained. Alternative septic systems in either clusters or individual units could reduce this increasing contaminant source, but only if the systems were properly maintained and monitored. So developing a functional and effective set of regulations for alternative septic systems could contribute to the improvement of the Chesapeake Watershed. It is a small step, but it is an important first step in understanding how to regulate non-point source contamination.