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.

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