Thursday, November 29, 2012

BP Banned from Additional Drilling Leases and New Contracts with U.S.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on Wednesday that it has temporarily suspended BP Exploration and Production, Inc., BP PLC and affiliated companies (BP) from new contracts with the federal government. This includes oil development leases in a Gulf as well as contracts with the Department of Defense.

The BP suspension will temporarily prevent the company and from getting new federal government contracts, grants or other covered transactions until the company can demonstrate to the EPA that it meets Federal business standards. The suspension does not affect existing agreements and contracts BP has with the government. In 2011 BP was the largest fuel supplier to the U.S. Department of Defense and is likely to be the largest supplier in 2012, and 2013. This past September (2012) a Division of BP products of North America Inc., was awarded a contract for fuel with a maximum $816 million, and in May 2012 BP West Coast Products, L.L.C., doing business as Arco, La Palma, Calif., was awarded a contract with a maximum $782 million for fuel. So, for the short term, BP was barred from the Gulf oil lease auction and needs to demonstrate and document good behavior and environmental practices in fulfillment of their existing contracts.

On November 15, 2012, BP agreed to plead guilty to eleven counts of Misconduct or Neglect of Ship Officers, one count of Obstruction of Congress, one misdemeanor count of a violation of the Clean Water Act, and one misdemeanor count of a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, all arising from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 people and caused the largest oil spill and EPA is calling in their press release the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history. BP agreed to pay $4.5 billion, including a record $1.26 billion criminal fine, to end all criminal charges and resolve securities claims against them. Separate from the corporate manslaughter charges, a federal grand jury has indicted two BP supervisors who were on board the Deepwater Horizon with  manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter for each of the 11 men killed in the blast, as well as a criminal violation of the clean water act.

Monday, November 26, 2012

10 Rules for Buying a Home with a Well and Septic System

Well and septic systems are simply mechanical components to a house. What makes them different is that they are specifically excluded from home inspections, are very expensive to replace and essential. There are times and instances that a well or septic system has no good replacement location and then the home owner has a large problem on their hands that will cost tens of thousands of dollars to solve. Make sure that you do not buy someone else’s problem and make it your own.  When shopping for a home, there are some “fatal flaws” that can quickly and easily be identified. This is the list of quick observations and the reasons they might be a problem for a well and septic system to quickly eliminate properties as potential big problems, require further investigation or to factor the price of repair or replacement into an offer on a house. (For updated articles on this topic see "The House has a Well...") 

1.      The house must have 2-3 acres of land.
2.      Do not buy a home with a dug or bored well.
3.      The visible well should be a 6 inch diameter pipe with a bolted cap sticking a foot out of the ground.
4.      Water from the road, driveway, and downspouts should not drain to the well.
5.      Rainwater should flow away from not to the wellhead.
6.      If the well was drilled before 1992 don’t buy the house.
7.      The well head must be at least 100 feet from the nearest edge of the septic drainfield and any backyard chicken or poultry yards and coops. 
8.      The well head must be at least 50 feet from the nearest corner of the house.
9.      Ask to see the maintenance records for the septic system and well along with water test results (having records is an indication of proper maintenance).
10.   When you make an offer on a house a satisfactory water test and a professional septic inspection should be included in your contingencies.

This is what a drilled well looks like
The well and septic system should be easily identified and pointed out. A well should be a 6 inch diameter pipe with a bolted cap sticking a foot or more above the ground surface. What I have described is a drilled well there are also dug and bored wells. Do not buy a home with a dug or bored well. Those types of wells fail sooner, are prone to go dry during droughts and because they are shallow (less than 40 feet deep) are more subject to pollution. Drilled wells are more than 40 feet deep, typically more than 100. In Virginia well drillers are required to file a drilling log with thecounty and comply with drilling regulations since 1992. If the well was drilled before 1992 don’t buy the house unless you have factored well component replacement into the price and you should be thinking about the costs and possibilities of well replacement.  While many wells will last decades, it is reported that 20 years is the average age of well failure. Older well pumps are more likely to leak lubricating oil or fail. Well casings are subject to corrosion, pitting and perforation. Septic drainfields also have a limited life. The life of a septic drainfield is dependent on how the system is managed, the frequency of septic tank pump outs, and the number of people living in a house, but 20-30 years may be the life of those systems, too.

If a property has a well and septic system and has less than 2-3 acres, do not buy it. This is simple there will not be enough room for a replacement well and septic system when the time comes (all systems fail eventually) and the well is likely to be too close to the home’s own or the neighbor’s septic system. The most common contamination problem for a well is an adjacent septic system and research done in Duchess county New York identified density of septic systems as an easy indicator of nitrate contamination to groundwater. The Dutchess County study and another study performed in North Carolina found that overall average density of on-site waste disposal (traditional septic or alternative) should not exceed one unit per 2-3 acres for an average size house to ensure water quality and recharge in groundwater supplies. The controlling factor in minimum lot size requirements in the northeast appears to be maintaining water quality, not groundwater recharge. Adequate dilution, soil filtration and time are necessary to ensure sustainable water quality. It is often surprising how close to a private well the recharge zone is.

Failed drainfield. Picture from NC Health Department
 So, while you are walking around outside make sure that the well head is at least 100 feet from the nearest edge of the septic drainfield and 50 feet from the nearest corner of the house. It can often be difficult to identify a septic drainfield while walking in the yard. Newer systems often have plastic caps to the distribution valve, but older systems often do not- the distribution valve is buried. In Virginia (and most places) if a well is more than 100 feet deep the septic leach field need be only 50 feet away, but there are many wells like mine that have more than one water level and the shallower one is less than 100 feet deep (in my case 46 feet) making the well much more susceptible to contamination for the septic effluent leaching into the ground. If the well is too close to the drainfield, move on to the next house in your search, the well could too easily be impacted by the septic drainfield.

The final treatment for all septic systems is septic system effluent (after any intermediate treatment steps in an alternative system) is filtering of the wastewater through the soil. The method of sewage treatment with a septic system is soil organisms and soil filtration and adsorption. Whatever was flushed down the toilet or poured down the drain over the years has found its way into the drainfield and potentially to the groundwater. Not only should the well head be at least 100 feet from the nearest edge of the drainfield, the drainfield should be downhill and down gradient for the well. The land that my house sits on has a predominately southeast slope to the river at the bottom of the property. It is a fairly safe bet that the groundwater flows with the land topography towards the river.  

Two septic tank lids and filter for alternative septic system. 
Look for the septic tank. The tank should not be entirely buried and at least one port should be visible in the yard. If the tank is entirely buried- move on, do not buy the house because it is a safe bet that the tank has never been pumped and the entire septic system will have to be replaced.  The solids, scum and grease that accumulate in the septic tank need to be pumped out and disposed of every few years. If not removed, these solids will eventually overflow the septic tank, accumulate in the drain field, and clog the pores in the soil and the openings in the pipes. While some clogging of soil pores occurs slowly even in a properly functioning system, excess solids from a poorly maintained tank or a tank where enzyme additives were used instead of pumping the tank can completely close all soil pores so that no wastewater can flow into the soil. The sewage effluent will then either back up into the house, flow across the ground surface over the drain field, or find another area of release in the septic system. In some cases where the drain field has become clogged and no longer can adequately absorb the wastewater, the toilets and sinks might not drain freely. A black residue may remain at the bottom of the toilet.  If the drain field can absorb the effluent, but no longer treat it, the sewage may contaminate the groundwater or surface water with fecal coliform bacteria. On a dry day if there is a soggy area of the yard the drainfield may already be failing.

The reason a well should be more than 50 feet from a house is that in Virginia (and many other locations) building codes require that a construction site be pretreated for termites, and many homeowners spray gallons of pesticides into the ground to treat or prevent termites.  (There are other approaches to termite management, but most homeowners do not use them. Termite bates are easy to spot in the yard and indicate that chemical barriers are not used. ) The most popular professionally applied conventional chemical treatments on the market are Premise (imidacloprid), Termidor (finpronil), and Phantom (chlorfenzpyr). These chemicals 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. This all means that they breakdown faster and do not last as long, but also may allow their breakdown products to migrate to the shallow groundwater.
Sentricon termite bate station

Thursday, November 22, 2012

EPA Launches Program for Septic Systems

Last week was a busy one for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They launched “SepticSmart,” a new program encouraging homeowners to properly care for and maintain their septic systems. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 25% of U.S. households have septic systems, and it is believed by regulators that most are not properly maintained. That is more than 26 million homes whose household waste may not be properly treated by natural processes because the septic systems are not managed and maintained properly and are predominately not regulated. EPA controls the treatment of the rest of the nation’s human and household waste directly by point source regulations and permits, but at this time can only encourage proper behavior in septic system owners.

The number of households with septic systems is large and growing, approximately a third of all new homes have septic systems. EPA has become increasingly concerned over the impact of nutrient contamination into bays and estuaries and is looking for ways to reach individual homeowners. The SepticSmart program is also directed to health departments and environmental groups with recommended actions and outreach pointing out “(a)cross the country, local environmental groups, health departments, and governments face the challenges posed by improperly maintained and failing septic systems. EPA seeks to assist these local agencies in promoting homeowner education and awareness.” Improperly maintained septic systems are reported to be the largest cause of contamination to private drinking water wells, but that tends to be an extremely local phenomena (the well you are most likely to impact is your own or your next door neighbor’s). In addition, more than a third of homes with septic systems do not have drinking water wells because of the problem of contamination. The big concern that the EPA has is nutrient contamination from septic systems.

Nutrients primarily nitrogen and phosphorus are needed by plants and animals to survive, but when too many nutrients make their way into local rivers, streams and bays, they can overwhelm the ecology and create conditions that are harmful to estuary grasses and aquatic life. Excess amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus are the main cause of the Chesapeake Bay's poor health and the reason that EPA has created the Chesapeake Bay pollution diet, the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). Over the past quarter century the excess nutrient contamination to the Chesapeake Bay has decreased, but the Bay’s waters remain seriously degraded from their natural ecology. As a result, US EPA has taken control of the situation and has developed a new federally mandated TMDL to restore the local waters.

While EPA has no authority to regulate septic systems within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, they can indirectly, by requiring states to include septic system management in the compliance plans called Watershed Implementation Plans or WIPs. The TMDL allocates a pollution budget among the states which will decrease over time and the states have to issue and have EPA accept WIPs that meet EPA standards or the EPA will lower the MS4 and Wastewater Treatment Plants allowed nutrient output to meet the goal. That is the most expensive method of compliance, costing billions more than other acceptable strategies. According to the EPA model of the Chesapeake Bay, septic system account for 4.5% of the nitrogen released to the Chesapeake Bay. It is probable that in other watersheds in the country that have excess nutrient pollution (like the Mississippi River and delta) that septic systems contribute a similar amount of nutrient pollution.

There are very few septic regulations in the nation and EPA does not at this time have authority to regulate non-point sources of contamination. There have been several bills before congress that would expand the Clean Water Act, but none have so far passed and in reality there is great difficulty in regulating individual homeowners and controlling the way they operate their septic systems. Septic systems are a suburban and rural, where monitoring of individual homeowner operation and maintenance of septic systems and oversight are difficult. EPA has instead effectively used the TMDL and WIPs each of the six Chesapeake Bay watershed states and Washington DC were required to develop and have approved by EPA to push for improvements in septic systems. The Virginia WIP had $1.6 billion in improvements in septic systems and Maryland had $3.7 billion (these of course will be paid for by the homeowners). The states in turn will have to find ways to reach homeowners with septic systems and behaviors that can be regulated. It would be very difficult to ban garbage disposals in private homes, or regulate what you can flush down the toilet, pour down the drain, or how many loads of laundry can be done in a day. However, it is easier to require more frequent pump outs of septic tanks and track that behavior. There are a multiple of sins in operating a septic system that can be compensated for by pumping a tank every 3 years.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Ethanol for Fuel takes 50% of Corn Crop

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on Friday that would not grant a waiver of the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) this year. The EPA reported that they performed economic analysis with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that showed waiving the mandate would reduce corn prices by approximately 1%. Economic analyses by DOE, showed that waiving the mandate would not impact household energy costs. As expanded under the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007, the RFS requires the volume of renewable fuel blended into gasoline to increase from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons by 2022.

Last year, approximately 40% of the corn crop was used for making ethanol, this year it looks like it will take almost 50% of the corn crop, or 5.05 billion bushels. The USDA has forecast total corn production for 2012 at 10.7 billion bushels, down 13% from 2011. The lowest U.S. production of corn since 2006. Yields are expected to average 122.3 bushels per acre, 24.9 bushels below the 2011 average and the lowest average yield per acre since 1995.

In wet weather and dry weather we are the largest producer of corn in the world, but we have a problem that nature and Congress created together, The Renewable Fuel Standard, RFS, creating a regulatory mandated demand for corn. In 2012 the RFS mandated ethanol consumed 5.05 billion bushels of corn. Much of the Midwest remains in drought conditions, and according to the most recent USDA report could impact the corn crop next year, too.

A significant portion of this year’s corn crop was destroyed by drought added to last year’s flood reduced yield, and lower corn inventories by 12%. The RFS diverts half of the corn crop into fuel leading to diminished supplies for livestock and food. We should not have to import corn to feed our nation either directly or feed livestock while we pay to convert corn into subsidized ethanol.

We are over using our water resources and essentially mining non-renewable water to expand our crops. Somehow the government decided for a slew of reasons that the corn crop needs to be double the demand for food and we should use corn to make ethanol to dilute gasoline. To fulfill this mandate we are using up our water resources and  we might be forced to buy corn, taking food from the mouths of poorer nations. Yes, we can buy more corn if need be. The United States is still a rich country and we will eat meat and the long list of food made from corn products and make lots of ethanol to dilute gasoline, but should we be doing that?

According to Tyler Cowen, professor of Economics at George Mason University, in his book, An Economist Gets Lunch, New Rules for Everyday Foodies, “(To put ethanol into gasoline) costs a lot more money than does traditional gasoline, once the cost of the subsidy is included. Sadly, it does not even make the environment a cleaner place. The energy expended in growing and processing the corn is an environmental cost too…the nitrogen-based fertilizers used for the corn are major polluters. Ethanol subsidies are a lose-lose policy on almost every front, except for corn farmers and some politicians.” “For millions of (people in poor countries) it is literally a matter of life and death and yet we proceed with ethanol for no good reason…(Biofuels) has thrown millions of people around the world back into food poverty.”

Energy Policy Act required EPA to implement a renewable fuels standard to ensure that transportation fuel sold in the United States contains a minimum volume of renewable fuel. Ethanol may not be as renewable as the authors of the Energy Policy Act believed. This is the second time that EPA has denied a RFS waiver. In 2008, the state of Texas was denied a waiver. Both times EPA has concluded that the mandate did not impose severe harm. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Cap and Trade in California

Data from US EPA

Cap and Trade is officially lunched in California, the first auction of carbon allowances was yesterday.The state deemed the auction a success as 23.1 million carbon allowances for 2013 sold at $10.09- the lowest market clearing price.  Back in 2006 enabling legislation (AB 32) was passed to create California’s carbon cap and trade system that was launched Wednesday despite last minute appeals by business associations to the Governor. The California Air Quality Control Board has set an annual limit, the cap, on the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions produced by large factories, power plants and oil refineries in the state. The cap is scheduled to decline 1% in the first two years and 3% each year after that so that CO2 emissions in the state will be reduced in a systematic fashion.
Though the requirement does not go into effect until January 1, 2013, yesterday, after 6 years of planning and program design, California had its first auction for 62.6 million metric tons of CO2 called carbon allowances (23.13 metric tons for 2013 and 39.45 metric tons for 2015) on  an electronic trading market. Sold were 23.1 million carbon allowances for 2013 in addition to 5.6 million allowances for 2015. The state will operate the market each quarter so that companies subject to the regulation can purchase carbon allowances.  Each business must hold the number of allowances determined by the state, based on the standard emissions from their type of business or facility, so while this program was developing there was no incentive to install technology to reduce CO2 and there was an incentive to maximize annual production. At first,  all the allowances are free for power plants and 90% of the allowances are free for businesses, but the number of allowance that  are free will decrease to 75%  in 2015 and go down from there. The total CO2 emissions for the state were only about 2% over 1990 levels in 2010 (though they had been considerably higher before the recession).

Regulators and the Legislature hope and believe that gains in energy efficiency spurred by the program will outweigh any higher costs. Certainly switching from coal power generation to natural gas fired power generation can reduce CO2 generation by utilities by 44% according to data from the US EPA.  The idea for a cap and trade program was modeled on the European Union’s Kyoto accord system. Though Europe has reduced the generation of CO2 within its borders, the consumption of carbon has not according to “The Carbon Crunch: How We’re Getting Climate Change Wrong-and How to Fix It” by Dieter Helm. In a world whose atmosphere is interconnected a cap and trade program appears to have the perverse incentive to drive energy intensive industries outside its borders.

With the Koyoto accord in place CO2 emission worldwide continued to grow. In 2011 the top four world generators of CO2 emission from fossil fuels were in descending order China, the United States, the European Union and India who edged out Russia to take the number four slot. This is a vastly different picture than existed in when the Koyoto Treaty was first contemplated and now China’s newly elected President Hu Jintao has vowed to double the country’s gross domestic product and per capita income by 2020 from 2010 levels during his term of Presidency. This means an increase in electricity production using predominately coal fired power plants in China.

From 2010 to 2011 China increased their emissions of CO2 the mostcontributing almost three quarters of the total global increase, with its emissions rising by 720 million metric tons, or 9.3% to 8.46 billion metric tons of CO2, primarily due to higher coal consumption. India’s emissions rose by 140 million metric tons or 8.7% to 1.75 billion metric tons. CO2 emissions in the United States in 2011 fell by 92 million metric tons of CO2, or 1.7% to an estimated 5.32 billion metric tons. California’s carbon market represents 342 million metric tons less the portion of transportation that are automobiles or about 4%-5% of the net CO2 emissions for the United States. Only commercial and industrial facilities that emit more than 25,000 tons of CO2 each year are subject to the cap.

Companies subject to the cap and trade regulations have four choices. The first is the intended goal; reduce CO2 emissions by improving energy efficiency, utilizing lower carbon fuels, carbon capture or other technologies. The second option is to buy carbon allowances from California at the market determined rate. California will profit under the program by selling the California carbon allowances that each company subject to the regulation will need to continue to operate in California.  The idea of the carbon allowance market is to both to price the carbon allowance and raise revenue for the state. The third option is known as "carbon offsets." Companies can pay other organizations to reduce greenhouse gases within the United States. The fourth option is to reduce CO2 producing operations within the state. California is hoping that the transfer of production to other locations will not occur, but the experience in Europe and the United Kingdom has not shown this. Taxing the carbon content of products might be a more direct method to control CO2 generation and more effective method of reducing CO2 production worldwide and would certainly generate badly needed revenue for California. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Test a Well for Chemical and Bacterial Contamination Before You Buy a Home

Picture from Moen Website

If your home or a home that you are considering buying has a drinking water well that is contaminated, it could significantly impact your health and the value of the property. Never buy a home with a contaminated or failing well. Testing a well is a very important part of a real estate transaction, and only by fully testing the water can you be certain that it is not contaminated. When buying a home with private water well you need to understand at a minimum the basics about groundwater, the age of the well, the local geology, water quality, and water quantity.  Most single family homes transactions only test a well for coliform bacteria contamination, nothing more. Total coliform bacteria is always present in manure and sewage, but is also present in soil and vegetation and surface water. The presence of coliform bacteria may indicate that the well has been impacted by a nearby septic system or manure composting; it can also mean that surface water is getting into the well either directly through a failing casing or grouting or improper construction or well cap or by other means. Absence of coliform bacteria only means that water is not contaminated by septic and surface runoff, but the water might be contaminated from other sources.

In a world not subject to chemical contamination of the aquifer (from pesticides, herbicides, solvents and fuels present in stormwater runoff) or high natural concentrations of arsenic or metals, a coliform bacteria test is a fairly decent test to determine potential outside impact to a well and sound construction. If you do not test for it you will not find it. Water contains a variety of impurities beyond the simply H2O molecules. Not all of the impurities and contaminants are bad, some make water taste good.  The US EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act does not protect private wells; however, the limits for the primary and secondary contaminants are a good standard to compare water to when testing a well.

Due to its protected location underground, most groundwater is naturally clean and free from pollution. Typically, the deeper the well the less likely is it to be contaminated from nearby industrial operations. However there are a number of threats to drinking water: improperly disposed of chemicals; animal wastes; pesticides; human wastes; wastes injected deep underground; and naturally-occurring substances can all contaminate drinking water and make it unsuitable for drinking or make the water unpleasant to drink. It is important to know the land history of a site. Homes built on former disposal sites- farm dumps, landfills or former military operations are particularly susceptible to contamination. Former agricultural properties should be tested for pesticides, fuels and solvents because farmers often have fuel tanks and repaired farm equipment with solvent that were improperly disposed of over the years.

The nightmare scenario is what happened in Sterling, Virginia as documented by Rosemary Stephen in her article “Trichloroethylene(TCE) Water Contamination.”  The short story is that for twenty or thirty years homeowners in a community in Sterling, Virginia (a community in Loudoun County) were drinking water contaminated with TCE and its degradation products. The homes had been built on and old landfill and back in 1988 the Loudoun County Department of Health and the EPA had found traces of TCE, its degradation products and pesticides in three residential wells, but because the contamination was below the regulated maximum contaminant level (MCL) no further investigation was performed. Apparently, the oddity of finding a solvent in groundwater in a residential community did not immediately prompt further investigation. The water was within safe limits and thus was fine.

However, the water in the neighborhood was not fine. In 2005, 68 more wells (in the community) were tested by the Health Department. “Forty-five wells tested positive for TCE; 17 of these wells contained concentration of TCE above the maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 5 micrograms per liter (mcg/L) while 28 wells contained TCE, but below the MCL.”  The site was declared a CERCLA (Superfund) site in 2008. Between 1988 and 2005 no testing was done on the individual homeowner wells. The water was consumed by the young and old and the homes were bought and sold. If your home had been declared within a Superfund site, it is very likely that the value of the home would be impacted.

To be prudent and smart you need to test the well for likely sources of contamination. When I was working as an Environmental Engineer, the biggest challenge was to adequately research the history of a property and then test the soil and groundwater for contamination in the areas most likely to be contaminated. Testing is very expensive, so it is virtually impossible to fully test soil and groundwater.  In buying a single family home, you do not have any of this information or resources available to you. Neighbors can be useful or just have no understanding of environmental and groundwater issues and tell you nonsense they’ve heard. If someone asked me about groundwater in my community or my opinion about any specific well, I would tell them, but they would not know my level of expertise. While there are some good historical records available for industrial and commercial properties there is very little information available for residential properties. The department of health often has some useful information about water quality in the county and septic systems, but rarely has any water analysis data available.  Chemical analysis can be very expensive, and there is no requirement that private wells be tested at all and most health departments do not have budgets for testing water quality.  

However there are screening packages available from National Testing Laboratories that could serve to screen water wells for all the primary and secondary contaminants before you purchase a home. Their WaterCheck with pesticides package is a broad stroke test, testing the water for 103 items including Bacteria (Total Coliform and E-Coli), 19 heavy metals and minerals including lead, iron, arsenic and copper (many which are naturally occurring, but can impact health); 6 other inorganic compounds including nitrates and nitrites (can indicate fertilizer residue or animal waste); 5 physical factors including pH, hardness, alkalinity; 4 Trihalomethanes (THMs) and 47 Volatile Organic Chemicals (VOCs) including Benzene, Methyl Tert-Butyl Ether (MTBE) and Trichloroethene (TCE). The pesticide option adds 20 pesticides, herbicides and PCBs.  WaterCheck with the pesticide option costs $217. You will also have to pay overnight shipping cost ($40-$70) to return the package.   

In order to complete the analysis before you are committed to purchase a home, you will need to purchase the WaterCheck package before you put an offer on a home. Have the package ready, read the instructions and include in the purchase offer a water analysis clause that specifies that the contingency period must be long enough to allow for the analysis and the water quality must be acceptable to you. At least that is what I used; I did not specify that the water quality must be within all primary MCLs and within recommended secondary contaminant levels because some of the secondary contaminants are common minerals in groundwater and are regionally high. Make sure that you test the water before any treatment equipment that the home may have, activated carbon filters and distillation units can remove some solvent and hydrocarbons from the water. If any water treatment systems exist in a home you want to test the water before treatment and after treatment so that you understand what the water is being treated for and if the treatment is effective.  

My water tested "hard," but I was fine with that. The levels of all other secondary contaminants were within recommended limits. All primary contaminants were below the MCL and all hydrocarbons and solvents were not detected at any level. There is no good explanation for the presence of volatile organic chemicals in a drinking water well. Even extremely low levels may indicate a significant problem.  Also, be aware that a common nuisance contaminant in this part of the county is iron bacteria. Iron Bacteria can cause both unpleasant odors and taste to your water as well as cause clog screens and ultimately foul a pump. There is no EPA approved analysis for these bacteria, but there are assay tests. An easy way to see if there are iron bacteria in a home is to stick your hand in the toilet tank and feel the flapper. Iron bacteria leave slime on the flapper and you can feel it with your fingers. Of course if the tank is brown or orange there is likely an iron problem or the iron bacteria has gotten completely out of hand. Once iron bacteria are in a well, it is really hard to get rid of, but fairly easy to control with annual disinfection.  When I bought a home I wanted the water to be acceptable as it was. Water systems are dynamic and do change, and over time I discovered that slime was appearing on my toilet flappers and have had to address the iron bacteria and the annoyance of the annual treatment (which causes all the manganese and iron particles that treatment freed from the well to remain in the water supply until the well fully clears).

To ensure that you will have adequate time to test water quality before releasing all contingencies, you will need to check with the laboratory for turnaround time to make sure your contingency period is long enough. Do not let a realtor pressure you to skip this test because it could take a couple of weeks. When I bought my home in 2007 I could only negotiate a 10 day contingency period and had to pay a huge premium to have the well analysis done on a rush basis. Remember the mortgage takes longer so just include the time- fight for it; this is the most money you will ever spend. While you are at it, check when the last time the septic tank was pumped and the septic system inspected.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Hurricane Sandy and the NY Barrier Island Estuaries

Old Inlet near Pelican Island is where Fire Island was cut in half by the storm

The storm surge, waves and wind of Hurricane Sandy brought destruction to the ocean front communities of New Jersey and New York. As a child I spent many a weekend visiting Neponsit driving from Ditmas Avenue in Brooklyn a straight shot down Flatbush Avenue to the causeway. Neponsit, the western most part of the Rockaways, is part of Queens borough- though still part of the same barrier island (sandbar) that contains Breezy Point. For residents that think I invaded their strictly private beach, I had cousins that lived in Neponsit a couple of houses from the ocean. Crossing over to the sand bar always seemed like entering another world with the beautiful homes and white beaches, but after Hurricane Donna and the winter storm the following year, I understood both the magic of the Ocean and its power and danger.

Neponsit is part of the New York estuary. Estuaries occur in quiet, partly enclosed coastal regions where rivers meet the sea. Estuaries are the mixing zone where the fresh water and sediments from rivers meets the seawater and tidal forces.  The ecological balance within the estuary can be very complex, affected by the volume and rate of fresh water flow from the river, the type and quantity of sediments in the river, the topography of the coastline, the tidal range, and the strength and direction of prevailing wind and waves. With all the variations possible there are actually only four major types of estuaries in the world: Drowned River Valleys; Tectonic Estuaries; Sand Bar or Barrier Island Estuaries; and Fjords. New York harbor, New Jersey and Long Island are barrier Island estuaries.

Barrier islands in the United States occur along the east coast and the Gulf. Barrier islands were created by the waves depositing sand along the eastern coast and Gulf when sea level began to rise 18,000 years ago. As sea level continues to rise, year after year for hundreds of centuries the seaward side of the barrier island has been eroded away by waves and wind. Sea level continues to rise (reportedly at an accelerated pace) and waves continue to erode away the seaward side of the barrier islands while winds carry sand and silt to be deposited on the landward side in the marshes and harbors. This is a continual process that left to nature would find the barrier islands moving landward each year allowing storms to dissipate their energy across them while protecting the mainland. These islands along the shore have not been for the most part left to nature. We have developed them, and to maintain them we are locked in the endless programs of dredging and beach restoration to maintain the white sand beaches that are tourist attractions.

In nature, barrier islands provide protection for the mainland against flooding. However when we build beach front property on the barrier islands it is only protected by the fragile sand dunes. Erosion of beaches and dunes that serve as the defense for these coastal communities against storm surge and flooding, increase the risk of destruction of coastal property, infrastructure, and public safety during storms. The recent storm surge from Hurricane Sandy at 13 feet above normal tides dwarfed the 6 foot surge of Hurricane Donna in 1960. Many of the sandy beaches along the Atlantic Coast have become increasingly vulnerable to storm damage due to erosion of the beaches during past storms, despite the constant beach restoration projects. Hurricanes Sandy, Irene (2011) and Ida (2009), as well as large northeaster storms in 2007 and 2005 appear to be winning the battle of the beaches.

Elevated water levels and waves during tropical storms can lead to dramatic coastal change through erosion of beaches and dunes. Wave dominated estuaries often have a sand bar or sand spit across the mouth of the estuary. This sand bar breaks the force of the waves and physically protects the estuarine lagoon from wind and waves. That is their purpose in nature, but when you build multi-million dollar homes and high rises with roads that serve as passageways for waters of the tidal surge on the sand bar and use the tributaries for disposal of human and chemical waste, the resilience of the estuary is destroyed.

Like all estuaries, barrier islands are an incredibly complex ecosystem that we are only beginning to understand. Estuaries are productive ecosystems and habitats determined by geology, salinity and climate. In the United States the ecology of estuaries has been severely damaged by man because most of our large coastal cities are built where rivers meet the oceans on estuaries. Over half of the population of the country lives within cities and suburbs build within or adjacent to these estuaries. Diverting fresh water from tributaries for irrigation and drinking water supplies changes flow, quantity of fresh water entering the estuary, and impacts the balance within the ecology. Excess nutrients and sediment from sewage treatment plants, farm fields and animal pastures, urban and suburban run off from roads and landscaping can cause eutrophication. As the ecosystem of estuaries declines, species die out, coastlines experience excessive erosion by wind, tidal action and ice. The day will come when we no longer have the resources to continue to rebuild on the Barrier Islands- for now just add it to the tab.

Neponsit Before Hurricane Sandy USGS

Neponsit After Hurricane Sandy USGS

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Flood Waters in New York

Hurricane Sandy passed through Virginia slamming the Eastern Shore with tide surges of up to 7 feet breaching the sand dunes and flooding towns all along the Eastern Shore, from Cape Charles to Chincoteague. Here in the eastern Piedmont the hurricane brought winds and rains, knocking out power, a bad storm and nothing more. I was born in New York and spent a large part of my youth there so last week we stayed planted in front of the TV watching the storm’s progress (powered by our generator) on the Weather Channel and of all stations CNBC which had some of the most up to date New York and New Jersey images. The winds and rain took down a few trees in our yard, ripped branches from others and several of my plum trees were blown part way out of the ground and needed to be staked. A few shingles were blown off the roof. The winds and rain battered the house and garden, but Sandy pretty much missed us and five guys with chain saws and shovels have pretty much brought the garden back to normal. My cousin in the Five Towns found a hot spot in a Verizon store to send me an email saying “Atlantic Beach, Long Beach are destroyed. People have boats in their yard that before the storm were at least two blocks away in the water. Cars are ruined, houses have water and fish swimming inside! Nerves are unraveling all around us. Getting gas for the car was at least an hour wait. By the way all of the talk about a quick one has seen FEMA and not much has improved except some local power has been restored.”

Super Storm Sandy made landfall near Atlantic City taking down the famed boardwalk, the winds and high tide left death, destruction and flooding in her wake. The flood waters have receded and power is being restored. So the big cleanup begins. Floodwaters can contain a wide number of toxins and pathogens in the older cities like New York, areas of Long Island and New Jersey and Baltimore. Chemicals long forgotten layered in underground NYC- oil residues containing metals and electrical insulating fluids from long ago, storm water carrying oils and grease from cars and machinery, gas stations, solvents from dry cleaners. Pesticides, solvents, paints and other products stored in flooded areas may also find their way into the waters. Most importantly the combined sewer systems of New York and New Jersey were unable to handle flows and power to treat sewage was in many places was knocked out. The floodwaters contain a mix of excess stormwater and untreated sewage. The floodwaters can be over 99% water and sight or smell alone is not enough to judge water quality. Coliform bacteria which include E. coli (Escherichia coli) or fecal coliform types that indicate contamination by animal manure or sewage can be impossible to detect by taste or smell. However such waters may contain one or more of a variety of potentially pathogenic microorganisms such as Salmonella, Shigella, enteric viruses, Giardia or Cryptosporidium that may be present in human or animal manure and can cause severe illness.  

Few would think of drinking the dirty flood waters, most drinking water sources in the New York/ New Jersey area are safe. Wading through the standing water, working in it to clean up the destruction from Sandy, or walking through or playing in streets full of standing water can risk contracting a skin rash or water-borne illness from pathogenic microorganisms. It is important to protect your health and your children in this long crisis period. Children are especially susceptible to illness. My cousin was in that Verizon store keeping her grandsons busy and out of trouble. FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) posted the following tips gathered from their storm and flooding experience to keep children safe.

Parents or other caregivers should directly supervise children - this prevents them from playing in or around floodwaters. It doesn't take long and it doesn't take much water for children to drown and remember that the water potentially contains contaminants.
Watch for live wires or power sources - electricity from streetlights and downed power lines may be active and may cause a deadly shock through contact with standing water or direct contact with live lines especially as power is being restored.
Keep children from playing around drainage ditches, storm drains, river channels, or any place with moving/standing water - children can fall in, get stuck, or drown.
Be aware of what’s in the water - standing or flood waters can be contaminated and cause children to become sick. Playing in water could also result in being bitten by rodents or other wildlife.

As the storm waters recede it is possible to begin the cleanup. The New York City Department of Environmental Protection has temporarily suspender permitting requirements for businesses and homeowners seeking to discharge water from flooded properties into the City’s sewer system.New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) provided Water-On-the-Go drinking fountains with free portable water to six Manhattan locations with high incidence of power failure as well as to the Rockaways. Water-On-the-Go will serve residents in these areas from 9:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. daily until power is restored to these areas. My other cousin in uptown Manhattan made it through entirely unscathed and never lost power. She tells me that the coffee shops were very crowed and many restaurants were closed, Manhattan is entirely dependent on deliveries over bridges and through tunnels and none were coming in.

New York City drinking water remains safe to drink for most areas. Since the start of Hurricane Sandy, the DEP has performed thousands of tests on drinking water samples from throughout the city and continues to monitor water quality. The city has set up mobile phone charging stations, so that those with smart phones can stay in touch and get information from FEMA and NY State and City websites as the cell phone companies restore service. Resourceful New Yorkers have found coffee shops in uptown with electricity, Wi-Fi and water and in stores on Long Island. In many flooded areas of the city that remain without water and power many will not leave their homes for shelters-they are afraid of sleeping in a shelter and of what will happen to their homes while they are gone. Neither their person nor their property is safe without their constant vigilance. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Is the Water Well Safe? Is the Water Well Good?

When I alerted all of the homeowners of my little neighborhood of the Prince William County Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) Office drinking water clinic for testing well water next week, one of my neighbors told me “I don’t have to test my water until I sell the house.” I was absolutely silenced by that comment. How do you respond to that?  In fact my neighbor does not ever have to test her water in Virginia. It is only that many mortgage companies require a basic test of water potability to close a mortgage. This most basic test of potability consists of a bacterial test and is written into most purchase contracts. My neighbor has lived in their house for 8 years with no intention of moving, so in essence she told me that she does not intend to ever test her drinking water. Because she does not “have to,” my neighbor has no intention of monitoring the most basic health risk- contaminated water. In fact a malfunctioning well (either due to contamination or component failure) can be expensive to repair or replace, but the harm from contamination is only likely to impact your family’s health and Virginia lets you do as you want. As long as the well continues to pump water you can ignore it.

The most basic water test usually performed at purchase or commissioning of a well is for total coliform bacteria. Total coliform bacteria is always present in manure and sewage, but is also present in soil and vegetation and surface water and while it may indicate that the well has been impacted by a nearby septic system or manure composting, it can also mean that surface water is getting into the well either directly through a failing casing or grouting or improper construction or well cap or by other means (karst terrain). In a world not subject to chemical contamination of the aquifer (from pesticides, herbicides, solvents and fuels present in stormwater runoff) or high natural concentrations of arsenic or metals, a coliform bacteria test is a fairly decent test to determine potential outside impact to a well and sound construction. Well water that test positive for coliform is often tested for E. coli (Escherichia coli) or fecal coliform types of coliform bacteria. E. coli or fecal coliform bacteria are present only in the digestive systems of humans and animals and a positive test result indicates contamination by animal manure or sewage. If a well tests positive for E. coli or fecal coliform the water is unsafe to drink (it is “poopie” water). Such wastes may include one or more of a variety of potentially pathogenic microorganisms such as Salmonella, Shigella, enteric viruses, Giardia or Cryptosporidium that may be present in human or animal manure and can cause severe illness. People have died from drinking water contaminated with cryptosporidium.

In Virginia and most other states, regulations for private well construction and testing apply only to newly constructed wells. In addition to various construction requirements (which include setback distance requirements from certain potential pollution sources such as septic tanks and leach fields), newly-constructed wells must be tested for the presence or absence of coliform bacteria. Although some municipalities and counties in other states have private well testing programs, only New Jersey has a statewide private well testing program which requires regular testing of private well water and treatment of the water if any of the standards are exceeded. Everywhere else in the country you are on your own to ensure that you are drinking safe and clean water.

The issue of whether water is safe to drink is separate from whether the water is free of unpleasant contaminants like iron, manganese, chloride, and low levels of sulfur or if the well can deliver adequate amounts of water.  Groundwater can change over time, become contaminated or dry up from inadequate recharge or overuse and wells do not last forever.  There are three aspects to a private well- the well and well system, the water quality and the water quantity. Failure of any of these can impact your life and the value of your home. The well is essentially a hole in the ground. Shallow wells (those less than 50 foot deep) are generally dug or bored into the ground and have larger diameters (2-4 foot). Shallow wells are more prone to contamination and drought and bored wells have the shortest life. Deeper wells are called drilled wells because they are drilled into the ground to depths from 50-450 feet or more and because of the need for drilling rigs cost much more to build. The diameter of a drilled well is 6-8 inches.

Generally, drilled wells provide a safer source of drinking water, and are less often impacted by drought. In igneous and metamorphic rock systems like the Piedmont of Virginia, the fractures and fault lines formed in the rocks store and transmit groundwater. The size and number of water bearing fractures varies and there is a wide variation in well yields from under 1 gallon per minute to over 50 gallons a minute depending on location and specific site geology. Fractures can become fouled with mineral deposits or iron bacteria or simply go dry over time. The specific geology and water quality will determine the life span of a well. Aquifers can go dry unexpectedly, but all wells will fail over time. The lifespan of a drilled well is assumed to be 20-50 years, but varies tremendously based on site specific conditions. I personally know of a drilled well that lasted almost 65 years before the well stopped producing water, but if you are buying a home with a well over 20 years old you will need to budget for drilling a new well. Make sure that is considered in the price you pay and that the property has another location to drill a well.  

The well system consists of the well, the well casing, the inlet for water, and the pumping system. The casing is the structure around the well hole to prevent its collapsing. It could be a steel or plastic casing or an open hole in the bedrock. In this part of Virginia, the Piedmont, the top of the well is lined with steel for 50 feet and then the well is open in the bedrock allowing the water to flow into the well. The well casing will rust over time. The well casing should be 1-2 feet above the land surface to make sure that during storms and flooding that nothing washes down the well. There should be no holes or cracks in the visible portion of the casing and the well cap should be tightly bolted closed.

The pumping system includes the pump, piping and electrical connections to pump water from the well into the house and a pressure tank to maintain constant water pressure in the house. Shallow wells usually use centrifugal pumps and are often located in a pump house or the basement. Drilled wells have submersible pumps. The pump and pumping systems are the most likely components to fail in a well. The average life of a submersible pump is variously reported as 12-15 years, but many pumps fail in the first few years. 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 and each and every component must work properly for your well to function properly.

In addition, in order for a well to keep supplying water to your home the components within the basement must all continue to work. These components provide constant water pressure at the fixtures in the house and the electrical switch that turns on the pump. The pump moves water to the basement water pressure tank, inside the tank is an air bladder that becomes compressed as water is pumped into the tank. The pressure in the tank moves the water through the house pipes so that the pump does not have to run every time you open a faucet. Bladders and electrical switches will fail over time and valves and switches and impellers on the pump can break, foul or find any number of ways to fail. You have to assume that pump systems that are older than 12 years are on borrowed time. It does not mean that a pump system cannot last 25 years or more, but I would not bet on it. Also, if your pump fails consider replacing other components of the system at the same time.

If buying a home with a well you need to consider the construction, condition, age and location of the well in addition to water quality and quantity. Make sure that the well is uphill (up gradient) and at least 50 feet (preferably 100 feet) from potential pollution sources like septic tanks, septic drain fields, stormwater drainage ditches and sources of contaminated runoff. Clay loams or silty clay soils filter pollutants and protect an aquifer. If there is not a lot of top soil and overburden or the soils are sandy, make sure that the well is deep and test the well for chemical contaminants before purchase. A shallow water table and fractured bedrock may provide larger quantities of water, but the shallow fractured rock systems are easily contaminated.

When testing your water you need to consider nearby likely sources of contamination and test for those contaminants, but the contaminants that occur in nature and from human and animal waste that can impact health need to be tested for:  E. coli or fecal coliform and total coliform, nitrate, sodium, sulphate, lead, floride and copper. In addition, water taste and aesthetics are impacted by hardness (calcium carbonate), chloride, iron, manganese and pH and you should test your water for these before you buy a home or purchase a treatment system.