Monday, February 29, 2016

Lead Pipes in Our Cities and Communities

The nation’s water infrastructure the pipes, treatment plants and other critical components that deliver drinking water and remove and treat waste water have grown old. In many of our cities water pipes installed when systems were built have only been replaced when they break. The building service lines that connect homes and businesses to the water mains are often the original lines.

The cities distribution system usually stops at the property line when the homeowner or building owner becomes responsible. In some cities and communities (like Fairfax, VA) the property owner is responsible for the entire service line from the water main to the house (or other building). As Flint Michigan has made all of America aware many of our oldest water systems have lead service lines or lead solder in copper lines.

For decades instead of replacing lead pipes urban water companies (especially in poor cities) have used chemicals to control lead and other chemicals from leaching into the water supply. Many at the American Water Works Association and other trade groups have questioned the wisdom of this strategy, there is always some lead leaching and many of us believe that there is no safe level of lead in drinking water.

In 1986 lead pipes were finally banned in new construction and repairs by the federal government, but many cities banned lead pipe use much earlier out of health concerns. Most existing lead pipes are closer to years old, are in the older cities of the east coast and mid-west and should have been replaced in the normal course of preventive maintenance program. Unfortunately, that is not how we operate in the United States. A few cities, including Madison, Wisconsin, and Lansing, Michigan, have taken steps to remove all of their lead pipes. Such projects can cost tens of millions of dollars and have to paid for by including an increase in water bills and also paid by property owners. It was estimated by the American Water Association that there are 6.5 million lead pipes still in service in the United States while the EPA estimates that number at around 10 million. That does not even consider all the homes in America that have copper pipes with lead solder.

In 1991, EPA published a regulation to control lead and copper in drinking water. This regulation is known as the Lead and Copper Rule (also referred to as the LCR). The rule has undergone various revisions, but requires that: (1) water utilities optimize their treatment system to control corrosion in customers plumbing; (2) determine the tap water levels of lead and copper for customers who have lead service lines or lead-based solder in their plumbing systems; (3) rule out the source water as the source of significant lead levels; (4) if lead levels exceed action levels (0.010 mg/L) the supplier is required to educate their customers about lead and actions they can take to reduce their exposure to lead. If a water utilities’ corrosion control treatment plan continues to fail to reduce lead below lead action level it must begin replacing the lead service lines under its ownership.

In the 1990’s and early 2000’s when the lead action level was lowered, water utilities discovered that just as changes in water chemistry can disturb the protective biofilm, removing lead lines improperly, or taking out only a portion of a line ends up disturbing the coating intended to prevent lead leaching inside old pipes. Replacing only a section can induce a chemical reaction from the addition of other metals, like copper, in new sections of pipe. Lawsuits were recently filed in Flint, Michigan and Chicago, Illinois for failure to remove all their lead pipes. Many other utilities could face such lawsuits because we are a nation that waits for system or component failure before we replace something.

WSSC, DC Water, and Fairfax water have had lead testing programs in place since 1990’s. The problems of lead in household drinking water in Washington DC has been previously discussed. In light of the national conversation over concerns of lead in public drinking water, that there have been no problems identified in the Fairfax Water system nor the WSS system. Testing in the Fairfax Water system has not found elevated levels of lead in the drinking water. Since testing began in the early 1990s, Fairfax Water’s levels have tested well within the EPA’s compliance standards. In the most recent Lead and Copper Rule sampling period for Fairfax Water, 100 % of the samples tested were significantly below the EPA action level of 15 ppb. In fact, during the sampling period, 100 % of the Fairfax Water samples contained less than 1.5 ppb of lead. For a fee, concerned homeowners can have Fairfax Water analyze their water sample for lead.

WSSC has an older system that was established in 1918. In 2005, WSSC conducted a search to find and replace any lead pipes in the WSSC system, but the WSSC system extends only to the property line. Recall that in the early 2000’s it was discovered that replacing only a section of a lead service line can induce a chemical reaction from the addition of other metals, like copper, in new sections of pipe. In addition, many homes built before the 1986 EPA ban of lead solder may still contain sources of lead in the solder that was used to connect copper plumbing inside their homes. In accordance with EPA regulations, every three years WSSC conducts random sampling in certain homes built prior to the EPA ban. Based on the latest round of sampling in 2014, results for all homes tested were below 15 parts per billion (ppb) for lead, which is the EPA action level. Ninety-eight percent of those tested were below 2 ppb.

WSSC adds a corrosion inhibitor to their water. This corrosion inhibitor works by creating a coating on pipes that prevents them from leaching lead, but it’s still possible that some homes built prior to 1960 may still have lead service lines on their property. It is the homeowner’s responsibility to test their pipes and replace them. Concerned customers should contact WSSC’s Water Quality Center at 301-206-7575 about having their water tested.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

New Delhi without Water

More than half of the 16 million people who live in New Delhi, India's capital, had been without water for at least four days after protesters seized and then sabotaged a canal which supplies 60% of New Delhi’s water. By Wednesday water was briefly supplied to parts of Central and North Delhi for around half-an-hour in the morning while in some areas of West Delhi, residents said they received water for only 15 minutes. The water was described as dirty and unfit for use.

Over the weekend, protesters in Haryana seized the canal carrying water to New Delhi amid demonstrations by the Jat community demanding inclusion of the group in caste quotas for jobs and education opportunities that have been available to lower castes since 1991. The land-owning Jat community has traditionally been seen as upper caste. According to the BBC 5,000 soldiers were deployed in the region to restore order, and take control of the canal’s gates. However, the protests had damaged the canal’s gates and repairs are still ongoing.

At least a dozen people were reported killed in the violence in Haryana State which surrounds New Delhi on three sides, and fears of water shortages led New Delhi to close its schools to conserve its supply. The main thoroughfare in the area, Grand Trunk Road, which had been reopened on Sunday, was reported by the New York Times to be blocked again by fighting on Monday.

India’s Constitution guarantees equality to all, but it also enshrines caste-based affirmative action for the lowest social group, the Dalits, for indigenous forest-dwellers, known as scheduled tribes, and the Other Backward Classes. Now the Jat and other groups are demanding to be classified as “Other Backward Classes,” demanding to be ranked lower on the socioeconomic ladder in order to have job and education preferences and advance themselves economically.

For the last few days 10 million people have been without running water. Water is being delivered by tanker truck, sadly common in India. The government is reportedly using existing reserves and other water bodies to meet the need. Engineers were able to restore some water flow to northern and central parts of New Delhi, and hoped to reach western neighborhoods by Wednesday according to a news release from the water minister, though at best they are hoping to reach 500 million gallons a day- less than 60% of the normal usage. The Times of India reports that it will take two weeks to fully restore water flow to the 900 million gallon a day level that the city usually has, and sEW DELHI: Water supply in the city is likely to take two weeks to be fully restored as Jat protesters have extensively damaged the Munak canal, Delhi's lifeline, which accounts for close to 45% of the supply, at several places EW DELHI: Water supply in the city is likely to take two weeks to be fully restored as Jat protesters have extensively damaged the Munak canal, Delhi's lifeline, which accounts for close to 45% of the supply, at several placesWatWeveral days without pressure in the system will result in widespread contamination seeping into the water delivery system.

According to the New York Times, 70 water tankers have been sent to western areas of the city where taps have been dry. Yet, even when the Munak canal flow is unimpeded, the overall water supply is not enough to maintain 24/7 water flowing to all households. Water shortages when the taps are dry are common during the dry seasons, and the riverside shanties and slums do not have running water, but instead either draw from the river directly untreated water or depend routinely on water trucks.

The rich often have private water storage tanks and other individual and groups in New Delhi draw directly from private groundwater wells. Each year they use more groundwater than has been recharged, overdrawing the aquifer. There has been so much overuse of the groundwater aquifer that the city's groundwater level has fallen by 13 feet in the last decade, according to the Central Ground Water Board. The water supply in New Delhi is nearing a crisis and the entire system is vulnerable to increasing frequency of emergencies.

For comparison purposes, Fairfax Water supplies drinking water to 1.7 million Virginians in the Washington Metropolitan area. On average, Fairfax Water produces 160 million gallons of water per day using either or both the Corbalis water treatment plant that draws raw water from the Potomac River and the Griffith water treatment plant that draws water from the Occoquan Reservoir. The combined total capacity of both plants is 345 million gallons/day to serve 1.7 million people (actual usage of 94 gallons a day per person minus system loss, but with redundant capacity from two water sources). While the New Delhi water supply of 900 million gallons a day serves a city with a population of 16 million people (56 gallons a day per person less system loss) and lacks adequate redundancy.

Nonetheless, the water infrastructure in our oldest cities has not been maintained and upgraded as needed. Without 24/7 water our great nation falls.  

Monday, February 22, 2016

Finding the Cause of Dirty Water in Your Well

Brownish or dirty looking water can be caused by many things. Without additional information, it is impossible to determine the cause and find a solution. With a little effort and money you can narrow down the possibilities. The major causes of brownish or dirty water are:
  1. Surface infiltration or other contamination 
  2. Well collapsing or water level dropping 
  3. Iron (and/or manganese) in the water
  4. Rust or breakdown of the metals in in the household piping or fixtures 
Earthquakes can also cause a change in water, either by loosening fine grains of silt and soil or lowering the water level.
A complete water test to determine the source and extent of your problem and possible treatments or solutions should at a minimum be analyzed for: iron, manganese, nitrate, lead, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. Coli bacteria. Your observations and this analysis is your tool for honing in on likely causes of the problem and a solution. You should not skip this step. A private well should be tested regularly to identify any problem, confirm that the water remain potable and help you maintain your well.

Surface infiltration of water is due to impaired pump and casing system. A properly designed and functioning well with a sanitary well cap should not be impacted by rain. The well consists of the well cap, well casing and grouting, and the borehole. Surface flooding, excessive rain or snow melt could flow down the casing area if the grouting is damaged or the well cap not sealed properly. This of course would also allow bacteria from the surface to enter the well. Testing the well for bacteria could determine if the water were safe to drink and would indicate if there was surface infiltration.

A bacteria test checks for the presence of total coliform bacteria and fecal coliform bacteria. These bacteria are not normally present in deeper groundwater sources. They are associated with warm-blooded animals, so they are normally found in surface water and in shallow groundwater(less than 20-40 feet deep). Most bacteria (with the exception of fecal and e-coli) are not harmful to humans, but are used as indicators of the safety of the water and coliform bacteria present could indicate surface infiltration of water. Typically, a well with surface infiltration has an episodic discoloration of the water often associated with rainfall and snow melt. An inspection of the well and pump system might visually locate any obvious flaws but the presence of coliform surface bacteria would certainly identify where to begin looking.

If however, you have occasional brown or discolored water and E. coli bacteria is present, you are drinking water impacted by a septic system. The closest system to your well is probably yours, but could also be a neighbor’s failing septic system. Stop drinking the water immediately and call the Department of Health for assistance. The only way to restore sanitary water is to repair the septic system or replace the well. Simply disinfecting the water leaves you drinking everything else that may have found its way into the septic system including soaps, cleanser, solvents, grease, etc.

The second likely source of brown water is from the well itself. It is typical in Virginia not to have well casing beyond 40-50 feet deep. The most common modern well installation is to have a pump that installed in the well and looks a little like an outboard motor on a stick. Changes in water level or supply could result in the pump pulling up a bit of mud or the pump could have wracked a bit and is hitting the side of the well hole. So that water that suddenly turns brown may indicate a problem with the well structure or water level. Your well could be going dry. If your well is going dry, then the first signs of a problem might be brownish water appearing seasonally when there is a lot of water use at the end of a day.

In many geologies groundwater enters a well through fractures in the bedrock and overtime debris, particles, and minerals clog up the fractures and the well production falls. The Prince William Health Department reports that the drop in water recharge rate could be 40-50% or more over 20-30 years. A low yielding well might have a functional life of only 25 years. Over time sediment and mineral scale build up inside the well closing the fractures that allow water to flow into the borehole. Your might want to estimate your well’s recharge.

A well recharge can be estimated by running water from the pump and measuring the top of the water level in the well. (You might have to hire a professional that has a water level monitor tool if you cannot see the top of the water column.) If the water level does not change, then the well recharges faster than the pump rate. If the level is falling then the each foot in a typical 6 inch cased well represents about 1.5 gallons. Turning on the hoses and running a well dry might also be possible if the well recharge has fallen significantly and your well is essentially using the water stored in the column as a reservoir. A more accurate rate to determine the recharge rate is to use a compressor to blow all the water (and deposits at the bottom of the well) out of the well and time how long it takes the well column to recharge.

You have to call a well driller for this. Make sure that the service provider is licensed to service wells in Virginia (not all states require well drillers and well repair companies to be licensed). In Virginia a well driller should have at least a Class B contractor license and the service provider must be Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation, DPOR, certified Well Water Providers. Since 1992 private drinking water well construction has been regulated in Virginia and well drillers have to be licensed. In many other places well drilling and water wells are still not regulated. The well driller can also examine the condition of the casing, wiring, pump and the well components in the house.

The water level in a groundwater well usually fluctuates naturally during the year. Groundwater levels tend to be highest in the early spring in response to winter snowmelt and spring rainfall when the groundwater is recharged. Groundwater levels begin to fall in May and typically continue to decline during summer as plants and trees use the available shallow groundwater to grow and streamflow draws water. Natural groundwater levels usually reach their lowest point in late September or October when fall rains begin to recharge the groundwater again. The natural fluctuations of groundwater levels are most pronounced in shallow wells that are most susceptible to drought. However, deeper wells can be impacted by an extended drought and take longer to recover. Also, groundwater levels can fall regionally over time through overuse of the aquifer. Land use changes that significantly increase impervious cover and stormwater velocity preventing recharge from occurring over a wide area and can make existing wells more susceptible to drought.

Another source of brown water is iron (and/or manganese) in the water. Iron and manganese can give water an unpleasant taste, odor and color and can also cause reddish-brown stains on laundry, tiles, dishes, glassware, and concrete. Manganese causes brownish-black stains on the same items. Iron and manganese exist in many different chemical forms, and are naturally occurring elements commonly found in groundwater in many parts of the country. Interestingly enough, few surface water sources have high levels of these metals. At levels naturally present in groundwater iron and manganese do not present a health hazard. However, their presence in well water can cause unpleasant taste, staining and accumulation of mineral solids that can clog water treatment equipment and plumbing and appear as be left as granules or sediment in tubs.

Under guidelines for public water supplies set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), iron and manganese are considered secondary contaminants. Secondary standards apply to substances in water that cause offensive taste, odor, color, corrosion, foaming, or staining but have no direct impact on health. The standard Secondary Maximum Contaminant Level (SMCL) for iron is 0.3 milligrams per liter (mg/L or ppm) and 0.05 mg/L for manganese. This level of iron and manganese are easily detected by taste, smell or appearance.

The type of iron present is important when considering water treatment. Water that comes out of the faucet clear, but turns red or brown after standing is “ferrous” iron, commonly referred to as “clear-water” iron. Water which is rust colored, red or yellow when first drawn is “ferric” iron, often referred to as “red- water” iron. Iron can form compounds with naturally occurring acids, and exist as “organic” iron. Organic iron is usually yellow or brown, but may be colorless. A combination of acid and iron, or organic iron, can be found in shallow wells and surface water. Although this kind of iron can be colorless, it is usually yellow or brown.

Also, when iron exists along with certain kinds of bacteria you may get bacterial iron that leaves a reddish brown or yellow slime that can clog plumbing and cause an offensive odor. You may notice this slime or sludge in your toilet tank when you remove the lid. Before you attempt to solve any water problem that appears to be iron-related, it is important to have your water tested. A complete water test to determine the extent of your iron problem and possible treatment solutions should include tests for iron concentration, iron bacteria, pH, dissolved solids, hardness as well as the tests for total coliform, fecal coliform and e-coli bacteria. The test results properly interpreted will allow you to address the underlying problem and spend your money to correct the right problem.

Finally, rust or breakdown of the metals in in the household piping or fixtures can cause water to appear brown or dirty. Corrosive water over time will cause a breakdown in metal components. If you have plastic piping this is not often a problem, but older pipes and well casings are subject to corrosion that can make the water unsafe to drink. With a well this is not usually episodic, but if this is happening to you and you are on public water it could be a sign of breakdown of the connector lines and fluctuations in the pH and corrosiveness of the water. Old pipes held together by biofilms and prayers are very susceptible to small changes in water chemistry. In homes with wells, and metal casings and pipes can be impacted over time by corrosive water. Lead in old solder and plumbing fixtures is the identifier in the analysis that damaged pipes and or plumbing fixtures are causing the problem.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Reemergence of a Virus is Killing Bees


The reemergence of an old virus in a much more dangerous form is threating both wild and managed pollinator populations in the United States and the rest of the world. Pollination is essential for fertilization and for plants to produce seeds and fruit. Without pollination there would be no fruits, no vegetable and no seeds. Though, grasses, conifers, and many deciduous trees are wind-pollinated, most flowering plants that we eat need birds and insects for pollination. The vast majority of plants are pollinated by insects. Some wasps, flies, beetles, ants, butterflies and moths pollinate various flowers, but bees are responsible for the vast majority of pollination. Commercial agriculture uses honeybees raised to pollinate its crops. The native bumble bee is an effective pollinator for dawn blooming flowers like squash and pumpkin.

The honeybee is an immigrant from Europe and an essential element to our monoculture form of agriculture. It is not really surprising since most of our crops and many of our garden plants evolved in areas where honeybees were native, and both crops and insects were brought to the United States with the colonists to become essential parts of our agricultural system. With modern agriculture’s vast fields and groves of a single kind of plant all flowering at the same time; farmers can’t depend on feral bees that happen to nest near crop fields. It was estimated by a Cornell University study that the value of honeybee pollination in the United States is more than $14.6 billion annually.

Over winter, there had always been a certain amount of loss in the honey bee colonies, but during the winter of 2006-2007, a large number of bee colonies died out. Losses were reported to be between 30% to 90% in the impacted beekeeping operations. While many of the colonies lost during this time period exhibited the symptoms from parasitic mites, many were lost, from unknown cause. The next winter, the number of impacted honey bee operations spread across the country. Honeybee colonies died out at even higher rates. The phenomenon was termed Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD and got the attention of researchers and their government and business sources of funding.

The impacted colonies had low levels of parasitic mites and minimal evidence of wax moth or small hive beetle damage that offered no obvious cause. Since that time researchers have investigated the factors that have contributed to the decline in the honeybee population. Using DNA analysis scientists have now discovered that a reemergence of deformed wing virus (DWV) an endemic honeybee pathogen is an underlying cause of the Colony Collapse. Deformed Wing virus has reemerged in a much more dangerous way. Previous ways to spread the disease were not as effective. A parasitic mite called Varroa destructor native to the Asian honeybee population was introduced into the European honeybee population.

Although separately the virus and the mite were not major threats to honeybee populations, when the Varroa destructor mite carries the deformed wing disease, the combination is deadly, and has wiped out millions of honeybees over the past two decades. The Varroa destructor mite can inject the deformed wing virus directly into the hemolymph system which is an open circulation system where the insect’s “blood” flows freely within body cavities. The infected hemolymph makes direct contact with all internal tissues and organs effectively circumventing the barriers to transmission within and among honeybee colonies. In addition, scientists say there is evidence that Varroa destructor also increases the virulence of Deformed Wing virus turning relatively asymptomatic infection into severe infections associated with disease symptoms and increasing honeybee colony death over winter.

Deformed wing virus not only causes colony mortality in the managed European honeybee population, but also affect feral populations and has been idenfied by researchers as an emerging disease in wild pollinators including bumble bees. Transmission of the deformed wing virus was amplified by in the European honeybee population by the sale and transport of honeybees between Asia and Europe just as the Varroa destructor mite was emerging. Commercial pollinator populations in Europe, Asia and North and South America are interconnected via trade and movement of pollinators. This has resulted in a fairly rapid spread of the deformed winged virus and Varroa destructor mite to the U.S. where honeybee population has been decimated.

Data shows that the recent spread of deformed wing virus and Varroa destructor traveled to Europe from both Asia and Pakistan, and then from there to North America which has emerged as the main hub of transmission to the Americas and Oceania. The virus has little host specificity and is easily transmitted to wild pollinators. DNA research confirms that there is a global pandemic and that deformed wing virus not only kills off managed honeybee populations but also affect feral honey population and has been identified as an emerging disease in wild pollinators, threatening the bumble bee populations.

To prevent the destruction of honeybees and save the native pollinator populations that have been spared on islands such as Hawaii, New Zeland and Australia scientists are now calling for tighter controls. They recommend health screening and regulating the transport and movement of honeybees to maintain the Varroa destructor free refuges so that the European honeybee and native pollinators can be saved.

L. Wilfert, G. Long, H. C. Leggett, P. Schmid-Hempel, R. Butlin, S. J. M. Martin, M. Boots. Deformed wing virus is a recent global epidemic in honeybees driven by Varroa mites. Science, 2016; 351 (6273): 594-597


Monday, February 15, 2016

Prince William Well Water 2012-2015

With the “poisoned” water in Flint, Michigan all over the news, I have been thinking about the safety of my water supply. Like 1,500,000 Virginians I drink water from a private well and it is my responsibility to make sure my water is safe to drink.

The Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) Office will be holding its annual drinking water clinic for well owners in Prince William and Loudoun Counties. Water samples will be analyzed for 14 chemical and bacteriological contaminants and the cost $55 this year. Samples will be analyzed for: iron, manganese, nitrate, lead, arsenic, fluoride, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. Coli bacteria.

The Kickoff Meeting will be on March 28, 2016 at 7 - 8:30 pm at the Old Courthouse, 9248 Lee Avenue in Manassas. 
The samples should be taken early Wednesday morning and then dropped off on Wednesday March 30, 2016, between 6:30am and 10am at the VCE Prince William Office, at 8033 Ashton, Suite 105, Manassas.
Results Interpretation Meeting will be held on May 11, 2016 at 7 pm once more at the Old Courthouse 9248 Lee Avenue, Manassas.

Over the past 3 years 144 well water samples analyzed in Prince William County’s annual water clinic. The vast majority (over 80%) of wells were reported to be drilled wells, though 11% of residents did not know the type of well they had. The well owners reported that well depth ranged from 20 to 2,000 feet and well age: 1 to 57 years, though I question whether anyone really had a private well that was 2,000 feet deep- I think the person probably meant 200. Sixty nine percent of participants reported have some sort of treatment system on their well. Most were sediment filters and water softeners.

The most common contaminants found in the household water wells in Prince William County were sodium, coliform bacteria, low pH (below 6.5), elevated hardness and lead. The presence of total coliform bacteria is often an indication that surface water is entering the well and other more harmful microorganisms may be present. Total coliform bacteria were found in 35% of the Prince William county wells sampled. E. Coli bacteria were found in 7% of the wells tested. E. Coli is a sign that human or animal waste is entering the water supply and is most likely an indication that your well has been impacted by a nearby septic system and you are drinking water with sewage in it. Sodium above 20 mg/L was found in 40% of the samples. This sodium is most likely from water softeners which use a salt solution to soften the water rather than from salt water intrusion. Hard water is high in calcium and magnesium, and was found in 22% of the Prince William wells tested. Low pH water occurs naturally in parts of Virginia and appeared in 16% of the well samples. Although not a concern in and of itself, low pH water can cause water to become corrosive and cause metals such as copper and lead to leach  from older plumbing systems and plumbing fixtures. Lead above the 0.015 mg/L safe drinking water act level was  found in 19% of the first draw samples. Don’t you want to join us to have your well tested?

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Not So Fast- Supreme Court and Congress Delay Regulations

On Tuesday, February 9th 2016 the Supreme Court of the United States granted a stay request preventing the Environmental Protection Agency from beginning implementation of the Clean Carbon Plan while the legality of the regulation is challenged by a group that includes half the states. Though the DC District Court denied the stay, the U.S. Supreme Court granted the stay through the appeal process. This means that questions about the legality of the program will be adjudicated before the implementation of the program begins. The DC District Court is scheduled to begin hearing the case in June 2016 and the appeal of the decision by the losing side will not be heard by the Supreme Court until 2017.

This endangers the regulation. The next President of the United States could make significant changes to the regulation before implementation can begin even if the Clean Power Plan is upheld by the Supreme Court. The Clean Power Plan requires electrical generators in the nation to cut their CO2 emissions by 30% from 2005 levels or 18% from 2013 levels using a combination of approaches within each state, but essentially boils down to replacing coal fired electricity generation with natural gas generation and building lots of solar and wind power farms. Under the regulation the plans for compliance or the request for an extension were due to the EPA by September 2016. Now, at least in the half of the states that have challenged the law, that moves planning for compliance forward; and at least in Virginia allows us enough time to consider more carefully the environmental impact of the natural gas pipelines necessary to comply with the regulation under the Governor’s plan.

Power plants are the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States accounting for about 33% of greenhouse gas release (and slightly more of carbon dioxide). Greenhouse gases are: carbon dioxide (CO2), fluorinated gases, nitrous oxide and methane (CH4). According to the EPA CO2 represents 84% of mass of greenhouse gas emissions and that the climate models indicate to be the cause of climate change. The Clean Power Plan is viewed by many as an essential component along with Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE standards, for cars and trucks to meet the President’s pledge to reduce the United States’ greenhouse emissions 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. Neither of these are based in law, but rather in regulation, and quite frankly they are inadequate to achieve the pledged goal.

Big government and detailed regulations are not the only ways of achieving greenhouse gas reductions. A simpler and more straightforward approach is a carbon tax. The carbon tax simply means that a tax would be applied per ton of carbon emitted, and the tax would be the same for heating, transportation, electricity generation, beef production, methane leaks (see California) or any other use. Many economists (including my husband) say a carbon tax is the most economically efficient approach and interferes the least with the normal operation of market forces. Also, we need additional revenue to ensure the survival of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and the restoration of the water, electric and road infrastructure our grandparent built.

There have also been several other regulations that have been halted, for now. Back in October 2015 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued an nationwide stay against the enforcement of a an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regulation defining the scope of the “waters of the United States” subject to federal regulatory jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act. The rule revised and expanded the definition of the waters of the United States  regulated under the Clean Water Act. The revisions were made in response to a 2001 and 2006 Supreme Court rulings that interpreted the regulatory scope of the Clean Water Act more narrowly than the Agency had.

Tucked into the Omnibus Appropriations Act covering the funding of the federal government during fiscal year 2016 passed by congress and signed into law by the President in December to become Public Law No: 114-113 were several items. The Omnibus Appropriations Act restricts the application of the Clean Water Act in certain agricultural areas and isolated bodies of water, including farm ponds and irrigation ditches.

In addition the Omnibus Appropriation Act prohibits funding for the “light bulb” standard regulations, requires that dietary guidelines issued are based on significant scientific agreement and are focused on nutritional and dietary information to ensure a balanced and scientific process in the future. Also, the act prohibits the distribution of genetically engineered salmon until the FDA publishes final labeling guidelines.

Last November the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the sale of genetically engineered salmon called the AquaAdvantage salmon in the United States. As originally approved not only would genetically engineered salmon be able to be sold in the United States, the law did not require food containing ingredients derived from these salmon to be labeled as genetically engineered or genetically modified. The Omnibus Appropriations Act contained provisions requiring labeling of these fish. Now the FDA has issued an alert banning the import of any food that contains genetically engineered salmon, until FDA publishes final labeling guidelines that would inform consumers of such content.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Cleaning the Chesapeke Bay - Report Card


The Chesapeake Bay Program (a part of the U.S. EPA) has issued a report on the health of the Bay. Though they are optimistic, they are using 2010 -2012 data which makes the report almost meaningless in judging our progress under the Watershed Implementation Plans mandated by the EPA as the Chesapeake Bay pollution diet, the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. Each of the six Chesapeake Bay Watershed states (Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia) and the District of the Columbia are required to have a Watershed Implementation Plan approved by the EPA to achieve their mandated pollution reduction goal.

The Chesapeake Bay Model is the basis for the Watershed Implementation Plans. It is really tricky to actually measure the progress. The best real world data comes from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Relatively unnoticed, the USGS issued their report on the monitoring results for the Chesapeake Bay for the 2014 water year last week. The USGS obtains the data from the Chesapeake Bay Non-tidal Water-Quality Monitoring Network is a partnership among the States in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the USGS, and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission. This group has created a network of monitoring stations to measure nutrient and sediment pollutant loads and changes in pollutant loads over time.

The initial network formed in 1985 had nine river monitoring stations. In 2004, the Chesapeake Bay Program formalized the network, and a period of expansion followed at the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program was developing the mandated . In 2010 and 2011, the network was further expanded to address the needs of the EPA mandated TMDL. The network currently has 117 sites designed to measure changes in nitrogen, phosphorus, and suspended sediment in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and suspended-sediment loads and trends are determined based on continuous streamflow monitoring, extensive water-quality sampling, and statistical analysis. The USGS computes the loads and trends and makes the data available on the Web.

Because there is a relationship between rainfall and nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution the USGS attempts to normalized the flow data before they look at the tends in the data. They use an algorithm to estimate the trend in “flow-normalized load,” trying to minimizes the confounding effect of any concurrent trend in discharge. In addition, this year there was a change in data used.

Historically, the USGS did not compute trends for water monitoring stations having recorded data for less than 10 years. However, in 2014 a large number of newer stations had records that reached 9 years. Because of the needs of the Chesapeake Bay Program for the most comprehensive analyses available ahead of the “Mid-Point Assessment” for the bay total maximum daily load set for 2017, the USGS elected to compute and include trends for stations having only 9 years of data (2006-2014) in the 2014 water year results. This data dominates the short term trend analysis performed by the USGS.

Overall, the short term analysis showed trends in nitrogen, phosphorus and suspended-sediment loads for the Chesapeake Bay monitoring stations that were more often degrading than improving. You can dress this up and put a ribbon and bow on it and point out that since 1985 the trends in nutrient and sediment pollution had been predominantly improving in nitrogen pollution, and evenly divided in phosphorus pollution and more often improving for suspended-sediment load, but still it is puzzling why the recent trends have been in the wrong direction.
Nitrogen Load from USGS

Phosphorus Loads from USGS

Sediment loads from USGS 

 
from USGS

Maybe, the problem is the flow normalization methods and heavy rain and run-off impacts, or maybe we have not yet begun to see the results of the steps taken under the Watershed Implementation Plans. Next year EPA will measure the results of the Watershed Implementation Plans progress, it will be interesting to understand how the progress will be judged.

The EPA has call “resilience” an indication of the state of the ecosystem. Nick DiPasquale, the director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, said “Over the years, in any number of ways, we’ve seen evidence that when we make the right decisions and take the right actions, the ecosystem is resilient enough to come back. We’ve restored rockfish populations, improved crab management and numbers and, more recently, have seen restored grass beds survive and new ones emerge despite heavy rains and sediment-laden runoff. These signs of resilience are indicators that we are on the right track. They mean our collective work to restore, protect and engage people in Bay issues can have an impact.”

The Chesapeake Bay is a complex, sensitive and dynamic ecosystem and it is impossible to define the current state of the Chesapeake Bay in short, simple terms. To understand the health of the Bay watershed, we must consider all of these indicators and their long-term trends and the trends are not looking good.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Flint Michigan and America Bad Decisions Everywhere

When President Obama declared that an emergency exists in the State of Michigan with the water supply of Flint he stated that safe affordable water was a right. However, trying to keep the cost of water as low as possible in Flint, Michigan a city with a population of about 100,000 plagued in recent decades by poverty, aging infrastructure and a declining population and budget shortfalls, is the underlying cause of the current tragedy. This is a man-made disaster that could have been prevented at many points along the chain of decisions and events that caused it.

Flint, Michigan is a city that in the late 19th century was a hub for the manufacture of carriages, by 1900 Flint was producing more than 100,000 horse-drawn carriages each year. The body, spring, and wheel companies for the carriage industry became suppliers for the Buick Motor Company, which moved to Flint in 1903. In 1908 William Durant consolidated the major manufacturing units in Flint into the General Motors Company. For the next half a century the city’s growth paralleled the success of the automotive industry. In 1950 Flint was the site of the largest single General Motors manufacturing complex. However, the closing or relocation elsewhere of various General Motors plants in Flint in the 1980s and early ’90s left the city with a shrinking economy and dwindling population.

During the early development of the automotive industry, Flint built out its water and sewage infrastructure. More than a hundred years ago and into the early part of the 20th century, it was common practice to use lead pipes to connect homes and businesses to the water mains under the street, despite the fact that the toxic nature of lead was already known. If the pipes had been replaced over the past 100 years there would have been not lead piping to leach lead into the system and poison the residents, especially children. .

The current crisis began when the city of Flint decided to switch to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) as the City’s permanent water source in a cost saving measure as wholesale water rates from the old Detroit system kept growing in an attempt to support rising maintenance, repair and operating costs in that system. KWA would supply water to the members by building a new pipeline from Lake Huron. While waiting for KWA pipeline to be completed, the City of Flint planned to use the Flint River as a temporary alternative water source.

Here is where the problems began. Though the Flint Water Treatment staff, LAN engineering consultants and the DEQ understood that the Flint River would be subject to variations due to temperature changes, rain events and would have higher organic carbon levels than Lake Huron water and would be more difficulty to treat, they thought that Flint had the equipment (after a Water Treatment Plant upgrade) and the capacity to meet the demands of treating river water. They were wrong.

First, Flint struggled to meet the Safe Drinking Water Act levels at the water treatment plant. Then residents noticed changes in the smell, color, and taste of the water coming out of their taps. Tests showed high levels of bacteria that forced the city to issue boil advisories. In response, the city upped its chlorine levels to kill the pathogens. This created too many disinfectant byproducts, which are carcinogens. Then the corrosive water began leaching lead, other metals and whatever else was in the biofilm on the old pipes into the water in the homes. Flint’s water department could have averted disaster by having a corrosion management plan and using additives to diminish the corrosiveness of the water at negligible cost. They did not have a corrosion management plan and did not think it was necessary.

For decades instead of replacing lead pipes urban water companies (especially in poor cities) have used chemicals to control lead and other chemicals from leaching into the water supply. Many at the American Water Works Association and other trade groups have questioned the wisdom of this strategy, there is always some lead leaching and many of us believe that there is no safe level of lead in drinking water.

Most existing lead pipes are over 100 years old, are in the older cities of the east coast and mid-west and should have been replaced in the normal course of preventive maintenance program. Unfortunately, that is not how we operate in the United States. A few cities, including Madison, Wisconsin, and Lansing, Michigan, have taken steps to remove all of their lead pipes. Such projects can cost tens of millions of dollars and have to paid for by including an increase in water bills and also paid by property owners. It was estimated by the American Water Association that there are 6.5 million lead pipes still in service in the United States- most more than 100 years old.

The last U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment was done in 2011 and released in 2013. The survey showed that $384 billion in improvements are needed for the nation’s drinking water infrastructure through 2030 for systems to continue providing safe unlimited drinking water 24 hours a day/ 7 days a week to the 297 million Americans who depend on them.

The lion’s share of the costs estimated by the EPA is for treatment ($72.5 billion to expand or rehabilitate infrastructure to reduce contamination) and distribution ($247.5 billion to replace or refurbish aging or deteriorating water mains). This estimate may not even include the cost of replacing lead connector pipes because in many locations the piping from the home or building to the water main is the responsibility of the home/building owner. In Michigan the responsibility is shared with the city.

The water bill that most pay barely covers the cost of delivering the water and essential repairs for all those water main failures. There seems to be significant resistance to increasing water bills to pay the true cost of water and the system to deliver that water in a safe and sanitary way. As a matter of fact there were public protests over having to pay delinquent water bills in Detroit in 2014. Protesters claimed clean water as a right that should be free. No one maintains a system that is “free” and  few value what is free.

Last August, the National Drinking Water Advisory Council created by the Environmental Protection Agency recommended changes to the almost quarter century old Lead and Copper Rule that would accelerate the replacement of lead service lines (those that run from the mains to consumers’ properties) nationwide. “There is no safe level of lead,” the council’s working group wrote in its report. The lead pipes need to be removed from our cities and our homes.(When was the last time you thought about replacing your water connection line?) Safe drinking water regulations need to address, management, maintenance and replacement of water infrastructure.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Stop HB 1389

The oil and gas industry has found a champion to prevent the disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking oil and gas wells in Virginia. Last week on Tuesday, January 26th a half an hour after adjournment in the 3rd Floor East Conference Room, Delegate Robinson introduced her bill to allow industry to avoid disclosure of the chemicals in fracking fluid. This was submitted after the deadline and introduced in a committee that she sits in on. The bill is HB 1389, carried by Delegate Robinson and you can help us by asking your delegate to vote NO on HB 1389.

HB 1389 summary: “Virginia Freedom of Information Act; record exclusion for trade secrets submitted to the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. Excludes from the mandatory disclosure provisions of FOIA trade secrets, as defined in the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (§ 59.1-336 et seq.), submitted to the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy as part of the required permit or permit modification to commence ground-disturbing activities. The bill provides that in order for such trade secrets to be excluded, the submitting party shall (i) invoke this exclusion upon submission of the data or materials for which protection from disclosure is sought, (ii) identify the data or materials for which protection is sought, and (iii) state the reasons why protection is necessary.”

This raises concerns. Drilling companies use a variety of chemicals in their drilling process, which have been undisclosed in the past because they are considered ‘trade secrets’. Without knowledge of what chemicals are being injected into these well the impact can these chemicals can have on the surrounding environment and populations cannot be judged or easily discovered. Even if some impact is seen or suspected, it is necessary to know what chemicals you are looking for. If there is an accidental spill, first responders need to know what safety equipment and protective clothing are necessary to protect the public and our property. We are beyond the time for these trade secrets, it is more important to protect our water resources, our environment and our people.

As a Director of the Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District I have been a member of the Sub-Committee on Fracking for the Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, VASWCD. In a series of regular meetings during the past year we examined the fracking processes in Virginia and the Eastern Virginia Groundwater Management Area and to developed a policy that was ultimately approved by the VASWCD Board and adopted by vote of the membership at our annual meeting in Richmond.

The Fracking Sub-Committee was lead by Chip Jones of Northern Neck and included: Andrew Gilmer, Clinch Valley; Wayne Webb, Lord Fairfax; Deirdre Clark, John Marshall; Kris Dennen, Loudoun; Janet Gayle Harris, Tri-County/City; Elizabeth Ward, Prince William; Henry Snodgrass, Holston River; Nicole Anderson Ellis, Henricopolis; Matt Kowalski, Lord Fairfax; Mark Monson, Thomas Jefferson SWCD; and Harrison Daniel, Northern Neck. We were assisted by the VASWCD staff.

The VASWCD Policy on Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking) in the Eastern Virginia Groundwater Management Area supports revision of Virginia Oil & Gas Act managed by the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to include:

1. Postponing the issuance of any permits for hydraulic fracturing of gas and/or oil-bearing formations in Virginia/Eastern Virginia Groundwater Management Area until such a time as a baseline of groundwater flow systems and their relationships to the underlying geology can be conducted, interpreted, and reported. The research and interpretation should be conducted by a group of non-partial professionals with the appropriate expertise (e.g. USGS).

2. Performing a comprehensive review of Virginia regulations concerning resource extraction, specifically updating regulations to incorporate standards for the hydraulic fracturing of gas and/or oil-bearing formations. This review should include consideration of the safe handling and disposal of all products of the fracking process including well cuttings and used fracturing fluids.

3. Strengthening the regulatory process by requiring VDMME & VDEQ to have joint permit approval authority throughout Virginia. If Virginia regulatory authority is structured such that joint permit approval is not feasible, then DMME should not issue fracking permits unless all DEQ recommendations are also required by DMME for issuance of a permit.

4. Requiring certain minimum engineering/management practices (BMPs) to safeguard Virginia citizens and resources, including but not limited to: continuous monitoring, full public disclosure of all chemical ingredients and chemical breakdown products and volumes, and emergency cleanup plans.

5. Require bonding in amounts adequate to address comprehensive oversight of each operation and full site remediation.

6. Ensure that DMME, DEQ, and other regulatory agencies with oversight of the hydraulic fracturing industry are funded and staffed at appropriate levels to monitor all extraction operations and enforce all regulations.

ISSUE: Several leases for oil and gas drilling have been obtained in the Taylorsville Basin, which is located in the Coastal Plain of Virginia. Currently, the region does not have any active wells and has only had exploratory drilling done in the past. Proximity to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, as well as fragile geology of groundwater aquifers, causes concern of possible water contamination during the drilling and hydraulic fracturing process.

CONCERNS:

Hydraulic fracturing requires massive amounts of water, sometimes in the excess of millions of gallons, to create a gas producing well. Where will that water come from?

Procedures for the safe management and /or disposal of waste products, including recovered contaminated injection water, have not been identified. Fracking processes, as well as the post-fracking injection of fracking fluids, have been identified as contributors and/or causes of seismic activity in several states.

d. Drilling companies use a variety of chemicals in their drilling process, which is undisclosed because they are considered ‘trade secrets’. We do not know what impact can these chemicals have by themselves on the surrounding environment and population.

e. If drilling were to be approved in the Taylorsville Basin, the minimum engineering/management procedures that must be implemented are:

  1. Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy and the Department of Environmental Quality must have joint approval authority for permits.
  2. Monitoring wells must be in place in close proximity to drilling sites to ensure groundwater quality is maintained.
  3. All chemicals used in the process must be publicly disclosed with such information being registered with the Virginia Departments of Mines, Minerals, and Energy, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.
  4. All recommendations to the drilling permit application by DEQ MUST be implemented before DMME grants final approval.
  5. Surface and ground water cleanup plans shall be developed for the drilling site and all downstream impacts.
  6. Sufficient bond, paid by the drilling company, shall be in place to cover any potential cleanup costs of contaminated areas at the drilling site and associated impact areas, and to address the requirements of the surface and groundwater remediation plans. Bonding should also be sufficient to cover physical damage and economic impact from environmental contamination.


The Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts supports postponing the issuance of any permits for hydraulic fracturing of gas and/or oil-bearing formations in the Eastern Virginia Groundwater Management Area until all of the concerns noted above have been addressed and appropriate mechanisms are in place to assure the protection of the environmental quality of the region.