Monday, July 29, 2013

The Hudson River is Not Safe and Clean

From Riverkeepers Report
Publicity material for the recent 2013 New York City Triathlon that includes a 1,500 meter swim in the Hudson River says: “Hudson is safe and clean. Water quality testing is done regularly. No vaccines, no shots, no panic attacks necessary. Calm down.” Along the 155-mile-long Hudson River Estuary only nine locations north of New York City are currently tested for sewage by local authorities, and only four locations are recognized as official swimming areas. This is far from adequate to assure that the Hudson is safe and clean. In a study published July 17, 2013 in the Journal of Water and Health, scientists at Columbia University's Earth Institute document widespread antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the Hudson River. The antibiotic-resistant bacteria found include potentially pathogenic strains of the genera Pseudomonas, Acinetobacter, Proteus and Escherichia.

Disease-causing microbes have long been found in the Hudson River by the Riverkeeper’s annual water quality studies; however, now researchers have documented antibiotic-resistant strains in specific spots, from the Tappan Zee Bridge at the top of Manhattan to the lower end of the island. The microbes identified are resistant to ampicillin and tetracycline, drugs commonly used to treat ear infections, pneumonia, salmonella and other ailments. The scientists performed several rounds of sampling at 10 locations along the Hudson, and found microbes resistant to ampicillin 84 % of the time and resistant to tetracycline 38 % of the time.

Hudson River water quality studies are performed each year by the Riverkeepers organization. Each year they sample 74 Hudson River locations, once a month, from May through October. Their sample results have shown that microbe counts go up after heavy rains, when raw sewage is commonly diverted into the river by the overflowing combined sewer system. Around 27 billion gallons of raw sewage and rainwater are released each year into the Hudson by wastewater treatment plants that cannot process the combined volume of water from the stormwater system and sewage system during heavy rains. Lacking the capacity to treat or store the volume of water the sewage-treatment plants are forced to divert the combined sewage and stormwater into the river.

Even though the Hudson is much cleaner than it was back in the 1970’s when I was a river sampler for another organization, the river still suffers from sewage-indicator bacteria. I would not recommend swimming in the Hudson in the days after any rainstorm. It is not just a matter of released sewage. Drug resistant bacteria previously only a problem in hospital populations have spread into the larger community. Rivers can incubate bacteria, allowing them to transfer their drug-resistant genes to normal bacteria according to Dr. Ronald J. Ash, a microbiologist and former professor at Washburn University, and lead author of the 2002 research paper on the topic. The portions of the Hudson with the most sewage-indicator bacteria also generally contained the most antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The worst area was Flushing Bay, near LaGuardia Airport, followed by Newtown Creek, on the border of Brooklyn and Queens; and sewage outfall pipes near Piermont Pier in Rockland County, N.Y.; West 125th Street in Manhattan; and Yonkers, in Westchester County, N.Y.

Billions of dollars would be necessary to separate the combined storm and sanitary sewer systems along the 155-miles of the Hudson River Estuary. New York City is planning on implementing Low Impact Development (LID) strategies to try to reduce the volume of stormwater runoff. The City plans to spend $187 million to replace some parking lots and city streets with porous pavement, and to plant more vegetation on rooftops and other impervious surfaces to reduce runoff during rain events. An additional $2.4 billion will be spent on infrastructure to eliminate 1.5 billion gallons of combined sewer runoff by 2030. Still, without adequate storage within the sewer system contamination of the river and flood waters during storms will persist and threaten community health.

Peopled infected with antibiotic resistant bacteria tend to shed the bacteria from the nose, feces, and skin; therefore, the bacteria can end up in municipal wastewater streams after being washed down the drain or flushed down the toilet and spread in ways beyond direct contact. Several scientists led by researchers at the University Of Maryland School Of Public Health, performed a study that was published last November showing that it is possible that municipal waste­water could be a reservoir of drug resistant micro-­organisms. The scientists tested water entering and leaving four unnamed waste water treatment plants, WWTPs. The University of Maryland scientists found, that waste water that is not fully treated with chlorine could potentially be releasing disease causing bacteria into the environment. The odds of samples testing positive for disease causing bacteria decreased as treatment progressed, and the study makes clear the need to upgrade all waste water treatment plants to advanced waste water treatment plants that use disinfection with chlorine and to eliminate the storm related untreated releases of dilute sewage by our older cities combined sewer systems.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Keystone is not the only Canadian Pipline

Enbridge Pipeline
On Wednesday, July 17th 2013 the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission unanimously approved plans by Enbridge Energy to boost the capacity of the United States portion of their Line 67 (formerly the Alberta Clipper Pipeline) in Minnesota. Enbridge still requires a Presidential Permit to expand their oil shipment across the U.S.-Canadian border and the US State Department is conducting an environmental review of the expansion plan potentially delaying or stalling the pipeline project. This request differs from the Keystone XL request because the pipeline in question is already in place and the request is to increase the capacity by upgrading the pumping stations.

Enbridge intends to spend $40 million to upgrade three Minnesota pumping stations, at Viking, Clearbrook and Deer River, allowing them to push 27 % more oil through the 36-inch diameter Line 67 pipeline, which runs 670 miles from Hardisty, Alberta, to Superior, Wisconsin. With these improvements, the pipeline line will be able to carry up to 570,000 barrels of oil per day. The Minnesota project is part a larger plan by Enbridge to upgrade pipelines in the United States and Canada to ship more Canadian oil from the Alberta oil sands to the Midwest and beyond. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers has projected that Canadian oil output will more than double by 2030 to 6.7 million barrels per day, with most of the increase anticipated to be from the Alberta oil sands.

This is the first phase of a two phase capacity expansion for Line 67. Enbridge is planning to ultimately expand the pumping and storage of Line 67 to 800,000 barrels per day, from the current planned increase to 570,000 barrels per day. When the pipeline was initially built as the Alberta Clipper Pipeline in 2010 it was built with the 36 inch diameter pipe that could be expanded with the additions of pumping stations to someday carry the 800,000 barrels per day. Enbridge received approval to proceed with the construction of modifications for the Canadian portion of the project in February 2013 and construction of the improvements in Canada is anticipated to begin this summer.

The Enbridge Line 67 has received less publicity than the Keystone XL Pipeline, but it, too, is controversial to the environmental community. Most of the environmental controversy for this pipeline is simply the further development of the Canadian Alberta Oil Sands. Environmentalists believe that because it takes more energy to develop and process oil sands they will increase the rate of global warming. The Canadian oil sands have been known for decades, but until oil prices rose and technology improved these oil deposits were too expensive to exploit beyond the limited scope of surface mining which could reach only about 8% of the oil sands. Advances in technology in both oil sand extraction and refining techniques and rising oil prices altered the economics and have made the in-situ extraction of oil sand possible. Using Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) combined with horizontal drilling has allowed for in-situ extraction of the oil. These advances in extraction techniques have quadrupled recoverable oil reserves and moved Canada into second place in proved world oil reserves, it requires more energy to produce the oil and increases the carbon footprint of the crude as compared to oil from the Middle East or Brazil.

All current methods of mining and processing the Canadian oil sands increases the CO2 released in every gallon of gas adding to man’s carbon footprint; however Alberta, which contains the vast oil sands deposits, has committed over $1.2 billion to two carbon capture and storage, CCS, projects meant to capture, transport, and store carbon dioxide usually emitted during the oil sands production process. If these projects are completed and successful, they will reduce the carbon footprint of the Canadian oil sands to some extent.

The first project will be built by Shell Oil and it will capture one million metric tons of CO2 from the Scotford upgrader, where oil sands are processed. The Scotford upgrader processes 255,000 barrels per day of diluted bitumen. The CCS project will capture the CO2 from Shell’s oil sands mines, pipe it 50 miles north to injection wells, and then store it more than a mile underground. The Shell project is anticipated to cost about $1.35 billion 60% of which will be paid for by the government. The other CCS project is still in the preliminary planning stage and is called the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line. This project is being led by Enhance Energy Inc. and would take one million metric tons per year of CO2 produced by refineries outside of Edmonton and ship it through a 150 mile pipeline to mature oilfields in south-central Alberta where it would be used for enhanced oil recovery. The costs of this project are not available, but the government has awarded the project $455 million. The two million metric tons of carbon these projects are expected to capture are a tiny fraction of the almost 32 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide released each year from the burning of fossil fuels.

Monday, July 22, 2013

NETL Fracking Research Does Not Find Contamination

On Friday a statement was released by the Department of Energy National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) in Pittsburgh, PA about the preliminary findings of their Pittsburgh fracking study. NETL has been conducting research at a sight in the Marcellus Shale formation southwest of Pittsburgh to determine (amongst other things) if hydraulic fracturing in this geology can contaminate groundwater. According to a statement from NETL, they are still in the early stages of collecting, analyzing, and validating data from this site, but preliminary analysis did not find any of the fracking fluid within 5,000 feet of the surface. The results are far too preliminary to make any firm claims at this time and NETL expects to issue a final report on the results by the end of 2013.

In the NETL study a hydraulically fractured shale gas well was injected with four different man-made tracers at different stages of the fracking process. The preliminary results did not find any of the tracers above the 5,000 foot depth. This study is important because it adds to our knowledge of the impact of fracturing on geology, but geology varies across the Marcellus shale formation and from shale formation to formation so these results may apply only to this section of the Marcellus shale formation. In addition, the wells at the research site are likely to have been completed “by the book.”

How a well is completed may be one of the most important determinates if there will be any shallow impact from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it is more commonly known. When a well is fracked fluids made up of mostly water and chemical additives are injected at high pressure into a geologic formation. The pressure used exceeds the rock strength and the fluid opens or enlarges fractures in the rock. As the formation is fractured, a “propping agent,” such as sand or ceramic beads, is pumped into the fractures to keep them from closing as the pumping pressure is released. The fracturing fluids (water and chemical additives) are partially recovered and returned to the surface or deep well injected in some geologies. Natural gas will flow from pores and fractures in the rock into the wells allowing for enhanced access to the methane reserve. The NETL study is also performing seismic monitoring to understand the fracturing process and how naturally occurring fractures are impacted by fracking.

As has been shown by research performed at other locations and by Duke University and other researchers, how carefully a well is completed and the surrounding geology determines the potential for fracking to impact groundwater. In the study in Northeast Pennsylvania the Duke scientists found that natural gas, derived both naturally and at least in part from the shale gas was present in some of the shallow groundwater wells less than a mile away from natural gas wells. Dr. Rob Jackson the lead author pointed out that the two simplest explanations for the higher dissolved gas concentrations measured in the drinking water were faulty or inadequate steel casings and/or imperfections in the cement sealing (also known as the grouting) between casings and rock that keep fluids from moving up the outside of the well. In 2010, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued 90 violations for faulty casing and cementing on 64 Marcellus shale gas wells; 119 violations were issued in 2011.

In another study by Duke University and the US Geological Survey no evidence of drinking water contamination from methane from shale gas was found in a part of the Fayetteville Shale in Arkansas (2). That shale has a less fractured geology than the Marcellus and good confining layers above and below the drinking water aquifers.

In Wyoming where the water table is deep and the shale gas shallow the drinking water has been impacted, but the cause of the impact is still under investigation. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, reported in 2011 that they found glycols, alcohols, methane and benzene in a well drilled to the water aquifer in Wyoming within the Pavillion field. Initially EPA reported that the contaminants found were consistent with gas production and hydraulic fracturing fluids and likely due to fracking, but has since backed off that conclusion stating “the source of those contaminants has not been determined.” EPA now states that their efforts to evaluate potential migration pathways from deeper gas production zones to shallower domestic water wells in the Pavillion gas field are inconclusive. EPA has turned the investigation over to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality and the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission who will assess the need for any further action to protect drinking water resources.

EPA does not plan to finalize or seek peer review of its draft Pavillion groundwater report released in December, 2011. Nor does the agency plan to rely upon the conclusions in the draft report and is backing away from a report that initially claimed to show fracking contaminated groundwater. EPA is moving forward on a major research program on the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water in different areas of the country and will release a draft report in late 2014. EPA will look to the results of that national program as the basis for its scientific conclusions and recommendations on hydraulic fracturing.

Meanwhile the NETL preliminary results are all over the news as the final word instead of simply another piece of knowledge in a recent slew of studies. Ultimately, we need to understand why, in some cases, shale gas extraction appears to contaminate groundwater and how to ensure that contamination does not happen with a high level of certainty in susceptible geology. Well construction and maintenance needs to be studied, optimized and carefully regulated before further expansion of shale gas development.

1. Jackson, RB, Vengosh, A, Darrah, TH, Warner, NR, Down, A, Poreda, RJ, Osborn, SG, Zhao, K, Karr, JD (2013) Increased stray gas abundance in a subset of drinking water wells near Marcellus shale gas extraction PNAS 2013 ; published ahead of print June 24, 2013, doi:10.1073/pnas.1221635110

2. Kresse TM, et al. (2012) Shallow Groundwater Quality and Geochemistry in the Fayetteville Shale Gas-Production Area, North-Central Arkansas, 2011 (USGS), US Geological Survey Scientific Report 2012–5273 (Lafayette Publishing Service Center, Lafayette, LA).

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Water Stays On In Prince George County

From Middlesex County
Last Thursday sensors that had just recently been installed on a water main began hearing the pings they were listening for indicating an imminent failure of a concrete water main in Prince Georges County. Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, WSSC, immediately planned a shut-down and replacement of the section of piping that began Tuesday evening. WSSC announced that water in the affected area of Prince George’s County was expected to be out for several days as the concrete water main is replaced with a more durable steel pipe because the nearest valve that would have limited the shutdown had failed. However, two WSSC employees were able to repair the 48 year old valve in place and the repair held. Diminished water supply remains in Southwest Prince George County. Mandatory water restrictions remain in place for the area to preserve the reduced water supply to the system. WSSC had warned the public that there would be no water for up to 5 days. Though it was responsible to warn the public of that possibility, especially after the valve failures during the fourth of July water main replacement in 2010, they have impaired their credibility for future warnings.

This shut down is how the sensor system that cost more than $21 million over the past six years is supposed to work. If you will recall, one of these massive water mains in the WSSC system exploded back in March in Chevy Chase without warning despite sensors being present in that section of piping. According to the Washington Post the March 18, 2013 pipe explosion created a 50-by-70-foot crater in Chevy Chase Lake Drive and adjacent stream bank, and the lack of warning was because the failure occurred in a joint. In  2010 a water main needed to be replaced over the fourth of July weekend forcing water restrictions on Montgomery and Prince George counties as the replacement did not go smoothly due to valve failures. In addition, in late 2008, a concrete main 66 inches in diameter burst in Bethesda, causing a torrent of frigid water that stranded cars and drivers. Other large water-main breaks in the past several years have led to advisories to boil-water for homes, businesses and hospitals as well as the temporary closure of schools and day-care centers.

The WSSC has approximately 350 miles of concrete mains designed to carry high volumes of pressurized water. These concrete water mains came into use in the United States and other nations in the late 1950’s and continued in use for water systems into the mid 1970’s when they were found to suffer from early failures. Water systems are built by the lowest bid contractor. During the rapid growth during the 1960’s concrete pipes reinforced and wrapped with steel wire were the least expensive method to build out the water infrastructure in the rapidly expanding communities, and the only option at the time for the largest diameter pipes.

This type of steel reinforced concrete pipe has failed catastrophically across the nation decades before their promised 100-year life expectancy would have predicted. Though the actual failure rate is still small at fewer than 1,000 known incidents in the 28,000 miles of this type of pipe installed nationwide, it is expected to increase as these pipes age. Unfortunately, WSSC has the second largest number of miles of this type of piping in the nation. In addition, the low-bidder supplier, Interpace, may have produced inferior pipe- most of the recorded failures of this type of pipe were in the Class IV wire Pre-stressed Concrete Cylinder pipe manufactured by Interpace. The company was successfully sued by WSSC and others and is now out of business. Nine of the WSSC’s concrete mains have blown apart since 1996.

The large diameter concrete pipes are the trunk lines or backbone of the WSSC’s 5,600-mile water distribution system for Montgomery’s and Prince George’s counties. The large transmission mains carry water from the treatment plants and feed the smaller pipes that reach into neighborhoods, homes and businesses. The pressure in the mains keeps the water pure and flowing. WSSC estimated that it would cost $2.9 billion to replace all 350 miles of large diameter concrete mains and instead they installed the sensor system to warn of an imminent rupture.

Fairfax Water has 109 miles of concrete pipe and has experienced 3 breaks since 1996. Only a small fraction of their concrete pipe is the large diameter pipe supplied by Interpace. Fairfax Water replaced about five miles of concrete Interpace pipe a decade ago. Moreover, most of Fairfax Water’s concrete mains are three feet in diameter or less. Not only would failure would be far less catastrophic, but the smaller pipes have experienced less failure.

In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the results of their 2011 Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment. 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 drinking water to 297 million Americans 24 hours a day 7days a week. That estimate only covers infrastructure needs to maintain current systems and excludes costs for raw water supply (dams and reservoirs), water system expansions necessary for population growth, and water system operation and maintenance costs. These costs are not included in the EPA estimate, but do appear as part of the estimates of the American Water Works Association, AWWA, who estimated that the cost would be significantly higher than the EPA estimate, and could top $1 trillion. In addition, AWWA believes that WSSC may have the largest problem of failed Class IV wire Pre-stressed Concrete Cylinder pipes in the nation, but certainly in the east. We can not take for granted 24/7 water, sewer and electricity, or we will not have them.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The EPA and Sustainable Communities

I spoke with Charlie Bartsch who is Senior Advisor for Economic Development to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Assistant Administrator for the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response to catch up and find out what the former Director of Brownfield Studies at the Northeast-Midwest Institute was doing at the EPA. Despite the political appointment and ridiculously long title, Charlie is working to help communities think creatively and bring strategies for redevelopment and revitalization to the areas surrounding their Brownfield sites.

In simplistic terms, a Brownfield is an environmentally contaminated property. Even when redevelopment is performed by private industry, local governments and communities need to work together to encourage and facilitate the remediation, redevelopment and full utilization of Brownfield sites. The largest obstacles to redevelopment need to be removed or overcome to achieve this goal. The most obvious impediment is the contamination itself. The costs and time involved to remediate a site to pristine environmental conditions can be prohibitive. However, over the past two decades, the trend in the United States has been to develop risk based cleanup standards and voluntary cleanup programs intended in part to encourage Brownfield redevelopment. These programs reduced the cost of cleanup while intending to enforce cleanup levels, which are protective of human health and the environment. These programs differ in their application from region to region and agency to agency, but facilitate the remediation and redevelopment of contaminated properties. Though, cleanup to a lesser level costs less, it still costs more to redevelopment a contaminated property. The money to research and test a site to determine how contaminated the site is can be prohibitively expensive. In addition, there is the need to ensure that risk based cleanups will remain protective over time which can involve on-going increased property operating costs.

During the early days of the 21st century when real estate was white hot there was enough value in the contaminated properties in places like California, New York, and Massachusetts to be able to purchase a contaminated property at a discount and remediate and redevelop a site and we glossed over the durability of a cleanup and future operating cost associated with the cleanup. However, that was then. These days and especially in communities that are not in the markets with the most expensive real estate it is a tremendous challenge to not only redevelop a contaminated, but to revitalize a community. These languishing properties were contaminated by industry that in most cases long ago left town or by public works that have been replaced. Not only is a community left with an abandoned eyesore and contaminated property, but the community is left searching for economic vitality to revitalize the community.

One of the programs that Charlie is working with is what the EPA is calling The Brownfield Area-Wide Planning Program. In the area-wide planning approach to redevelopments the strategy is for the community to lead in the revitalization of the area surrounding the brownfield site. The thinking now goes that revitalization of the area surrounding the site is as critical to the successful reuse of the property as environmental assessment, cleanup, and redevelopment of the contaminated property site. It is believed that the area-wide planning approach will enhance EPA's core Brownfields assistance programs which had stalled in the great recession when the economics of Brownfield redevelopment and the lack of financing became insurmountable hurdles, especially in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. So EPA is using small grants of $175,000-$200,000 to try to jump start economic redevelopment by encouraging “continued meaningful involvement in a locally-driven planning process” that will result in a strategy for making Brownfields site assessment, cleanup and/or redevelopment decisions for the future.

EPA’s Brownfield Area-Wide Planning program is part of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities collaboration among EPA and the Departments of Transportation (DOT) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched by President Obama in 2009. The Partnership for Sustainable Communities ensures that the agencies consider affordable housing, transportation, and environmental protection together to create healthier communities. To date, the three agency program has provided more than $4 billion in funding for projects. You can search the link to see where the money has been spent. The EPA Area-Wide program was launched in 2010 when EPA selected 23 communities to receive grants and direct technical assistance to work towards these goals. The Brownfields Area-Wide (BF AWP) Planning program aims to promote community revitalization by using cleanups to stimulate local economies and protect people’s health and the environment. EPA’s Brownfields program encourages the redevelopment of abandoned and potentially contaminated waste sites across the country.

The grant recipients varied across the board and a quick look at the two ends of the spectrum can give you a flavor of the program. The City of Kalispell, Montana is the home to approximately 1,300 people. The grant given to the city was targeted to focus on the Core Revitalization Area (CRA), which generally follows historic railroad tracks and contains multiple brownfields. The CRA project began in 2004 when the community decided to develop a downtown strategy to revitalize the central core of Kalispell. This EPA grant- area-wide plan was targeted to identify and rank brownfields along the rail corridor in terms of health risk and revitalization need, develop a market study and needs assessment to facilitate brownfields site reuse planning, and allow the city to more fully involve the community in the planning process.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Neighborhood Parks Council (NPC) of San Francisco, CA. The EPA grant to NPC was intended to will facilitate community involvement in area-wide planning of the Blue Greenway which is imagined as a 13-mile corridor along the city’s Southeastern waterfront, where open spaces will be linked together for new recreational opportunities, nature discovery, and public access to the waterfront. This area adjacent to the Bay was the industrial heart of the city from the 1850s to the mid-1900s and included heavy industrial uses, sewer treatment facilities, and power generation facilities. This is a poor neighborhood with a poverty rate at 21% and unemployment of 19% sitting adjacent to the waterfront, but blighted by the abandoned properties. The NPC has led the effort to create the Blue Greenway Project since 2003. The area-wide planning grant was intended to leverage existing efforts to address the threats to human health and the environment posed by the historic contamination, and identifying reuses for brownfield sites.

As Charlie explained to me, EPA does not have established metrics to measure the success of the Brownfields Area-Wide Planning Pilot Project. However, Charlie did list a series of goals for the program that would demonstrate success.
  • Lead to success in redeveloping these economically and environmentally damaged locations. 
  • Modify and advance local government thinking and knowledge about Brownfields and the redevelopment process.
  • Facilitate the removal of stigma from the Brownfields and adjacent communities.
  • Cross fertilization of knowledge and ideas across communities and getting everyone to think more creatively about resources and infrastructure.
  • Encourage everyone of the communities to grow smarter and determine what is feasible and desirable. 

The first 23 communities that have received grants have pretty much spent the money and we will all look forward to hearing what they have learned and accomplished with the grants. EPA reports Brownfields grants and investments have leveraged more than $19 billion in cleanup and redevelopment over the years, creating 87,000 jobs from both public and private sources though it is unclear how this was measured, but that would be a cost of under $220,000 per job. This past spring, EPA announced that the second round of grants had been awarded. Approximately $4 million in grants had been given to 20 communities to assist with planning for cleanup and reuse of Brownfields properties.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Do Not Put R-22a in Your Air Conditioner

EPA has taken legal action against them

R-22a, also known as 22a Refrigerant and R-290, is propane often mixed with other hydrocarbons and a substance with an odor like pine scent. It is flammable and potentially explosive and is not a replacement for R-22 also known as HCFC-22 Freon refrigerant which is chlorodifluoromethane. The use of R-22 has been phased out and is not used in new air conditioning systems and heat pumps.

R-22 (also known as HCFC-22) had been the refrigerant of choice for residential heat pump and air-conditioning systems for more than four decades. Unfortunately for the environment, releases of R-22, from leaks, contribute to ozone depletion. As the manufacture of R-22 is phased out over the coming years as part of the international agreement to end production of HCFCs, new residential air conditioning systems are now designed to use more ozone-friendly refrigerants.

Existing air conditioning and heat pump units that use R-22 can continue to be serviced with R-22. There is no U.S Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, requirement to change or convert R-22 units for use with a non-ozone-depleting substitute refrigerant. Such changes are allowed, if the equipment has been properly modified and the alternative refrigerant has been approved for that type of use. R-407C is allowed for retrofits but R-410A is not allowed in retrofits due to its higher working pressures. No change to existing equipment is required, you can just continue to use R-22 because the new substitute refrigerants would not work well without making some changes to system components. R-22a which is being sold as a direct substitute without modification has not been approved by the EPA for substitution into older air conditioning equipment.

According to the EPA, the Clean Air Act (CAA) prohibits the introduction into interstate commerce of substitutes that have not been submitted, reviewed and approved by the EPA and R-22a has NOT been approved. It is illegal to sell R-22a for residential home air conditioners. There is no approved product "R-22a” which is a manufacturer brand name for R-290, propane. In a recent news release the EPA states that R-22a is a potential explosive hazard in home air conditioning systems.

Though EPA has approved the use of propane as a substitute refrigerant in industrial process refrigeration systems and stand-alone retail food refrigerators and freezers that are specifically designed to use flammable hydrocarbon refrigerants, EPA has NOT approved any flammable substitute for home and small commercial air conditioning systems designed to use HCFC-22 or R-22. Home air conditioning systems are not designed to handle propane or other similar flammable refrigerants. The use of these substances poses a potential fire or explosion hazard for homeowners and service technicians.

Propane can be a good refrigerant and the EPA has approved its use as R-290 for commercial and industrial refrigerators and freezers that are systems designed to safely use it. Though EPA ignored for a long time the growing illegal use of propane in home air conditioning systems, they are now deciding what actions should be taken to stop this because it is dangerous. If informed, most certified air conditioning system technician will refuse to work on a system that contains either R-22a (propane) or R-22a mixed in with R-22 (chlorodifluoromethane), so if you try to top off your air conditioning system refridgerant charge with R-22a to save money, you are on your own for maintenance and repair.

Theoretically, there should be no oxygen and no source of ignation in air conditioning and condenser lines, but in real life it happens. EPA reports of explosions and injuries that have occurred both overseas and in the U.S. as a result of the use of propane and other unapproved refrigerants in air conditioning systems. They are investigating and say they will take enforcement actions if appropriate. In the meantime, try not to become an unfortunate statistic to save on the cost of HCFC-22 or R-22.

Remember if you have propane in your system and a part has to be replaced or repaired, welding any portion of the system without first removing the propane could result in an explosion. Any leak in the system could result in explosive gas accumulating in an enclosed area. For safety the air conditioning system should be completely emptied prior to any repair, and since there is no normal recovery equipment for propane, that means completely venting to the atmosphere (allowed for pure propane but not for a propane and chlorodifluoromethane mix) and completely recharging the system. There is no established legal route to recover and dispose of a mixture of R-22 (HCFC-22) and R-22a. Mixed gasses of unknown percent of mix cannot be reclaimed, they have to be safely destroyed.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Drought Water Restriction Apply to Well Owners

If you own a well in a region besieged by drought you need to follow drought water restrictions and reduce you water use to prevent your well from going dry. Wells are not immune to drought though you may be legally exempt from water use restrictions. A deeper well may be slower to be impacted by drought conditions, it may also take longer to recover. The groundwater level fluctuates based on the amount of water added through precipitation and the amount removed by springs, stream flow and pumping. During dry periods there is little rainfall to refill the groundwater, but water use continues and sometimes increases. Not too surprisingly, during a drought, the groundwater level in a well drops. Areas with a history of low well yields, or low yielding wells are most susceptible to going dry during droughts, but most wells are susceptible to problems during drought.

The water level in an aquifer can be lowered if nearby wells are withdrawing too much water the impact of over-pumping is determined both by geology and pumping volume. This often happens during drought when there is too little rain when wells are used to irrigate crops, water live stock and water lawns and ornamental gardens. It is important during severe drought for well owners to respond to drought declarations and restrictions. There are locations where the water use restrictions do not apply to private well owners, but private wells are not exempt from the limits of nature. The most likely result of excessive use of well water during a drought will be your well going dry, but excessive water use could impact nearby wells. The ability to impact neighbors depends on geology and pumping rate, but you may need to work with your neighbors to manage your water supply.

Groundwater is found in aquifers below the surface of the Earth. This water supplies all wells- private, public and irrigation. The amount of groundwater that can be sustainably used is determined by the amount of rain and snow melt that recharges the groundwater each year and the storage capacity of the geology for variation between wet and dry years. Nature determines the amount of water that is available- geology, weather and climate. We, mankind, determine the amount of water that is used. The groundwater level fluctuates based on the amount of water added through precipitation and the amount removed through wells, but also by, springs, streams, and lakes. During dry periods, there is little rainfall to refill the groundwater, but water use continues. Not too surprisingly, during a drought, the groundwater level will drop.

Areas with a history of low yielding wells are most susceptible to problems during droughts. To provide a reliable supply of water, a well must intersect fractures and the spaces between rocks that contain ground water. This water flows into the drilled well at what is called the recharge rate. The recharge rate is the well yield and is typically measured when the well is drilled. To adequately supply a home, the volume of water in the well and the recharge rate combined must meet the household demand. Overnight there is little demand, but toilet use, showers (or baths), laundry create a peak demand during the mornings. The typical domestic demand can be met with a well that produces 5-8 gallons per minute, but adequate water storage either in the well bore itself or a cistern can allow a low producing well to adequately supply a home. Be aware that over time the yield of a well tends to fall as a well gets older. Groundwater enters a well through fractures in the bedrock and overtime debris, particles, and minerals clog up the fractures and the well production falls. According to Marcus Haynes of the Prince William Health District, the drop in water recharge rate could be 40-50% or more over 20-30 years. So, what was an adequate well 20 years ago may no longer be. It is usually during a dry summer that this is discovered.

The water level in a 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 streams draws water. Natural groundwater levels usually reach their lowest point in late September or October when fall rains begin to recharge the groundwater again. In a drought year the water level in a well might not recover and continue to decline into the next year. An extended drought can lower the water level below the level of the pump, reduce flow to the well or dry out the well completely.

For a well to function and to supply water to the home, the pump must be within the saturated zone. The groundwater level can drop below the pump level especially during the summer or during a drought. If your well begins to pump air, if the pump seems to run constantly, or if you notice surging or bubbles in the water the groundwater level might be dropping below the pump. A temporary fix might be to lower the pump in the well, but this will do nothing to increase overall water availability. A typical six and a quarter inch well stores about a gallon and a half of water per vertical foot. Lowering the pump will not increase the amount of water in the well. If the well cannot recharge at the same rate at which water is being pumped out of the well, and does not have enough storage in the well, the home will suffer intermittent episodes of severe water pressure loss or possibly even total water loss. If you have water first thing in the morning and again when you get home from work, but the supply seems to run out especially when doing laundry or taking a shower your well is no longer adequate to supply the home. If this happens during a drought, water conservation measures and reducing overall household water use might be enough to survive a reduced recharge due to drought and recover when the rains finally come. However, wells that begin to produce cloudy, muddy, or sandy water may be drying out completely.

In the well, a diminished water supply can be caused by drop in water level in the well due to drought or over pumping of the aquifer, or the well could be failing (do not forget that equipment problems are the most common cause of well failure). Once your well has been impacted you are going to have to take action, addressing the problem could be as simple as implementing water conservation strategies and measures, or could require replacing water fixtures, lowering a pump or deepening or replacing the well. Your well is not unlimited and you need to be aware of your water use. The US Geological Survey, USGS, collected and compiled daily water use data for the nation and there are tremendous differences regionally and even from state to state. In Maryland average domestic water use was reported to be 109 gallons/day per person while here in Virginia the average water usage was 75 gallons/day per person. Pennsylvania to the north uses an average of 57 gallons/day per person. Ironically enough, in Nevada, an arid state, the average daily water use is 190 gallons/person. While it is clear that climate has an impact on water use, the USGS offers no explanation why Maryland uses more water than neighboring Virginia or Pennsylvania.

Water use within the home can be significantly reduced through changes in habits and by installing water-saving devices. If you have low flow toilets and are home all day, your daily water use for flushing would be 8.2 gallons versus 25.5 gallons for an older toilet. Laundry is the second largest use of water after toilets. A top loading washing machine uses 43-51 gallons per load while a full size front load machine uses 27 gallons per load and some machines have low volume cycles for small loads that use less. Replacing a top load washing machine with a front load machine saves 24 gallons of water per load of laundry. A standard dishwasher uses 7-14 gallons per load while a water efficient dishwasher uses 4.5 gallons per load. For bathing and brushing teeth low flow faucets and showerheads and behavior modification (not running the water while you brush your teeth or shorter showers can save about a third of the water typically used for personal hygiene, reducing the typical 28 gallons a day to 19 gallons a day. Do not forget to check your home for plumbing leaks both large and small. According to the U.S. EPA, one out of every 10 homes has a leak that is wasting at least 90 gallons of water per day.

In emergency situations, changes in water use habits can provide quick reductions in water use, but low flush toilets and a front load washing machine will reduce your water use by 25%-50% depending on your water use habits. If you have water supply problems it is advisable to hire a well driller or a licensed well and pump service company to determine your water level and recharge rate. They can tell you the amount of water that you are dealing with and you can determine your best response. As a well owner I believe that my water regular water use, my water overhead should be as low as possible, my home has all low flow water fixtures, but if a well is truly failing, well repair or replacement is your first expenditure. The USGS maintains a series of monitoring wells that in many parts of the country can be accessed on-line to get a general idea of the groundwater conditions in your region. There are a group of 20 groundwater monitoring wells in Virginia that measure groundwater conditions daily and can be viewed online. One of the Virginia wells is just up the road from me in the same groundwater basin and serves as my proxy for my groundwater conditions.

If you are in Virginia and you need help or advise with a well issue you can call or email the Virginia Master Well Owner’s Network for help there are volunteers and extension agents available to help you. My name and email are in the bottom third of the list with the volunteers and I am happy to help anytime.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Chesapeake Bay Gets a C- Overall Health is Improving

For the past seven years the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science has issued a report card for the Chesapeake Bay, evaluating the environmental health of the estuary. In the past the grade was based on three water quality indicators and three biotic indicators, which had then been averaged into an overall Bay Health Index and grade. This year the method was changed.  Total nitrogen and total phosphorus load (important indicators form the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandated Chesapeake Bay total maximum daily load of those nutrients) were added and phytoplankton (whose growth in excess is a major contributing factor to the summer dead zone) was eliminated. In addition, each of what are now seven indicators is weighted equally in measuring the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Part of the reason for the change was the data collected under the EPA mandate does not include phytoplankton. According to the scientists and their grading scale we got a “C”. The overall health of Chesapeake Bay improved from 2011 to 2012. In 2011 the overall grade was a 40%, and now is 47%.
From 2012 Chesapeake Bay Report Card

One drawback of the annual reporting framework is the lack of context- an indication of whether Bay health is improving or getting worse. Now with this change in the grading method looking back is more important than ever. This year, Professor Bill Dennis and the other researcher of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science have graded all 15 reporting regions of the Chesapeake Bay for the years 1986 to 2011 to look for trends in the data using a consistent methodology. Four out of the fifteen regions had a significantly improving trend. The four reporting regions with significantly improving trends were the Upper Western Shore, Upper Bay, James River and Elizabeth River. One region, the York River, showed a slightly improving trend, although it was not statistically significant. Unfortunately, the MidBay with moderate ecosystem health (its overall grade is a C) is the onlyregion with a declining health trend since 1986 that seemed to be driven by declinesin benthic community and aquatic grasses despite improvements in water clarityand total nitrogen load.  

The organisms that live at the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay and its streams and rivers like clams, worms, oysters and mussels are examples of benthic organisms. Scientists believe that the health of the benthic community organisms provide a good snapshot of environmental conditions in the Bay and its streams and rivers. Most benthic creatures are fairly stationary and reflect pollution or unhealthy water conditions in particular locations. Benthic communities are exposed to many stressors, including low oxygen levels caused by excess growth of phytoplankton, excess sediment and chemical contaminants. Some reasons that the benthic community would be poor are:
  • In summer, high temperatures and nutrient pollution often lead to low-oxygen areas at the bottom of the Bay and its rivers.
  • Excess sediment suspended in the water can block sunlight from reaching bay grasses growing at the bottom. When sediment finally settles, it can bury oyster bars and other benthic species.
  • Many chemical contaminants that are not part of the Chesapeake Bay pollution diet concentrate and bind to bottom sediments, remaining there for years. Benthic species become contaminated when they feed and live in these toxic sediments.
  • Heavy spring rains particularly those associated with flash floods are generally responsible for high nutrient runoff and earlier and larger dead zones in the mid Bay’s tidal waters. This usually results in greater degradation in the benthic community. The 2012 dead zone was the 2nd smallest since 1985 and has been followed by the prediction that the 2013 dead zone will be smaller than average this summer. Professor Bill Dennis of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science attributes this smaller dead zone to the cool and relatively dry spring followed by late arriving rains. Yet even with this good news, the mid bay region has deteriorated. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

2013 Dead Zone

The NOAA-funded forecast, for the Chesapeake Bay, calls for a smaller than average dead zone in the nation's largest estuary this summer. Professor Bill Dennis of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science attributes this smaller dead zone to the cool and relatively dry spring followed by late arriving rains. The spring load of nutrients into the bay was light and locked in a lighter load of nutrients in the water layers within the Chesapeake Bay for the summer. The forecast is based to a large extent on the quantity and timing of rainfall in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, but the overall health of the Chesapeake Bay is also a contributing factor. So, there is hope that this forecast also reflects that the overall condition of the bay may be improving.

Dead zones have become a yearly occurrence in the Chesapeake Bay and other estuaries. Dead zones form in summers when higher temperatures reduce the oxygen holding capacity of the water, the air is still and especially in years of heavy rains that carry excess nutrient pollution from cities and farms. The excess nutrient pollution combined with mild weather encourages the explosive growth of phytoplankton, which is a single-celled algae. While the phytoplankton produces oxygen during photosynthesis, when there is excessive growth of algae the light is chocked out and the algae die and fall from the warmer fresh water into the colder sea water. The phytoplankton is decomposed by bacteria, which consumes the already depleted oxygen in the lower salt level, leaving dead oysters, clams, fish and crabs in their wake.

In a wedge estuary such as Chesapeake Bay where the layers of fresh and salt water are not well mixed, there are several sources of dissolved oxygen. The most important is the atmosphere. At sea level, air contains about 21% oxygen, while the Bay’s waters contain only a small fraction of a percent. This large difference between the amount of oxygen results in oxygen naturally dissolving into the water. This process is further enhanced by the wind, which mixes the surface of the water. Scientists are still studying the impact of the winds in delivering oxygen to various water layers. The other important sources of oxygen in the water are phytoplankton and aquatic grasses which produce oxygen during photosynthesis, but when they die consume oxygen during decomposition by bacteria. Finally, dissolved oxygen flows into the Bay with the water coming from streams, rivers, and the Atlantic Ocean.
Stream flow into the Chesapeake Bay is currently at “normal” levels after a relatively dry early spring. Overall, data from the U.S. Geological Survey, USGS, shows that the dry years of 2000-2004 are behind us and we may be entering a wet period. The Chesapeake Bay Program in partnership with USGS, monitors stream flow, nutrients and sediment in the rivers throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. There are 85 sites in the network; currently being monitored; however, only 31 of these sites have enough long-term data to be used to forecast trends. In the mid-1980s, the Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP), a partnership between the Commonwealths of Pennsylvania and Virginia, the State of Maryland, the District of Columbia, the Federal Government, and the Chesapeake Bay Commission, began efforts to reduce nutrients and sediments in the bay. Improvement in water-quality conditions in the bay has been slower than promised; however, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, stepped in to put the entire region on a pollution diet. The Chesapeake Bay pollution diet, the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) was mandated by the EPA to the six Chesapeake Bay Watershed states and the District of the Columbia. TMDLs for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment were assigned by the EPA to each segment of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed in all six Chesapeake Bay watershed states.

Dead zones have become common summer events caused by man, human waste, and the waste and excess nutrients from agriculture necessary to feed us and ornamental gardens to please us. It has be predicted by Researchers from Texas A&M University that the Gulf of Mexico dead zone currently estimated at 3,300 square miles will exceed the typical summer average of 5,600 square miles. The scientists are predicting more than 9,400 square miles of dead zone in the coastal waters of the estuary due to the heavy rains in the upper  Mississippi that flooded fields and towns during the spring carrying with the flood waters the excess nutrients from farms, yards, septic systems and sewage treatment plants in its wake. The Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone is not expected to peak until late August.
From IAN UMCES source of nitrogen pollution in Chesapeake