Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Christmas Tree Composting in Prince William County

Christmas is over. As a part of the yard waste collection program instituted this past fall, the cut Christmas Trees will be picked up by trash collectors on yard waste collection day, the first two full weeks ofJanuary.

Remove all ornaments, lights, decorations, tinsel, nails and the tree stand and put your cut tree (and any other holiday greenery) out by the curb where you place your usual yard waste.  The tree will be picked up for composting at the Balls Ford Road Composting Facility during your regular yard waste pickup day. You may also drop the tree off  at several locations:  

  • Balls Ford Road Compost Facility at 13000 Balls Ford Road in Manassas. Monday - Saturday, 7:30 am – 5 pm; Sunday, 8 am – 5 pm until January 9th then closed on Sundays. The facility is closed New Year's Day.
  • Prince William County Landfill at 14811 Dumfries Road in Manassas, Monday - Saturday, 6 am – 6 pm; Sunday, 8 am – 5 pm until January 9th then closed on Sundays. The facility is closed New Year's Day.
  • Leesylvania State Park located at 2001 Daniel K. Ludwig Drive in Woodbridge (off Neabsco Road). Trees may be dropped off at Shelter 2 and will be used for habitat.
  • The Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative (NOVEC), located at 5399 Wellington Branch Road in Gainesville, also has a drop-off area for Christmas trees from Dec. 26 to Jan. 13. The drop-off area is located in the front parking lot in the area outlined with the orange safety cones. 

In case you missed it, beginning last October, residents,businesses, and landscapers in Prince William County were required to separateyard waste from the regular trash for disposal (subject to a $50 per day fine).  Under the new County regulation curbside yard waste collection program began October 1 throughout Prince William County. Yard waste began to be collected separately from trash and recycling.  Yard waste must be placed in biodegradable paper bags or containers labeled “Yard Waste”.

Yard waste collection is seasonal and will run March through December (plus the annual Christmas tree pickup). Check with your trash and recycling hauler for your yard waste collection day (ours is Monday). Yard waste material will be composted at the newly expanded Balls Ford Road Compost Facility versus landfilled. This will add up to 15 years to the Prince William County Landfill’s useful life. 

For curbside collection, yard waste must be placed in compostable paper yard waste bags or loose in a  personal container labeled “Yard Waste."    Labels are available at the Prince William County Landfill and the Balls Ford Road Compost Facility, however, home-made labels are just fine. 

From late December through mid-January, Loudoun County residents can drop their Christmas trees to for recycling at several locations:

  • Leesburg: Loudoun County Landfill Recycling Dropoff Center (21101 Evergreen Mills Road)
  • Lovettsville: Game Protective Association (16 South Berlin Pike)
  • Purcellville: Franklin Park (17501 Franklin Park Drive)
  • South Riding: Town Hall (43055 Center St.)
  • Sterling: Claude Moore Park (46150 Loudoun Park Lane)


In Fairfax County Christmas trees less than eight feet tall can be set out with the trash at single-family and townhouse communities during the first two weeks of January. Due to labor shortages collectors temporarily have the option to pick up Christmas trees with trash. Contact your collection company to verify their pickup dates,

Fairfax County residents can drop off their trees for recycling at the I-66 Transfer Station or the I-95 Landfill Complex. There is a $7 fee to recycle your tree in Fairfax County. All ornaments, decorations (including tinsel) and stands must be removed prior to disposal

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Oceana takes aim at Amazon Plastic Waste

The ubiquitous use of plastic in our modern world and inadequate management of plastic waste has led to increased contamination of freshwater, estuary and marine environments. Scientists now believe that microplastics are consumed by marine life and can cause cellular necrosis, inflammation and lacerations in the digestive tracts of fish. Additionally, microplastics can pick up and accumulate chemical contaminants on their surfaces. This mixture of plastic and chemicals can accumulate in animals that eat them causing liver toxicity and disruption in the endocrine system

Plastic is to be found littering beaches and landscapes and clogging our waste streams and landfills, the exponential growth of plastics is now threatening the survival of our planet. Our oceans and seas are the largest sink of persistent plastic waste, an estimated 80% of the microplastics pollution in the oceans comes from the land. Stopping this pollution is essential. According to Oceana, the largest international advocacy organizationfocused solely on ocean conservation, during the pandemic plastic packaging waste exploded; and they are taking aim at Amazon. 

open report

On December 15, 2021 Oceana released their report that estimates Amazon delivered packages generated 599 million pounds of plastic packaging waste in 2020.  Wow. Oceana states that this is a 29% increase over 2019. They also found, based on data from a peer-reviewed study on plastic waste pollution published in Science in 2020, that up to 23.5 million pounds of this plastic waste found its way into the world’s waterways and seas.

They state in their press release: “Our report found that Amazon’s plastic packaging pollution problem is growing at a frightening rate at a time when the oceans need corporate leaders like Amazon to step up and meaningfully commit to reducing their use of single-use plastic. Amazon has shown it can do this in large markets like India and Germany. It now needs to commit to do so worldwide,” according to Matt Littlejohn, Oceana’s Senior Vice President for Strategic Initiatives.

Oceana found that Amazon’s recycling promises and claims do not always add up and do not reduce the company’s very large plastic packaging waste footprint. The type of plastic packaging used by Amazon – plastic film – is not accepted by municipal recycling programs in this region or most areas in the United States. In 2018 scientists estimated that over 9 billion metric tons of virgin plastics have been produced since the dawn of the age of plastics and found that only around 9% of plastic has been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment. The amount of plastic waste keeps growing.

We care because plastic pollution is devastating the world’s oceans. Sea birds, marine mammals, and sea turtles have ingested or become entangled in plastic and according to Oceana plastic film is one of the deadliest forms of plastic for marine life.  The biggest challenge to solving the plastic pollution problem is human behavior, both corporate and individual.

We need to make changes. Start with your own behavior and reduce your consumption of plastic today. Also, begin advocating for corporations like Amazon to change their behavior. Oceana is trying to push both regulators and Amazon to make big changes.

According to the Oceana report, Amazon plans to eliminate single use plastic packaging in Germany and has eliminated single-use plastic packaging in India by turning to returnable and reusable packaging in that market. I know this is inconvenient, but this is planetary survival. Oceana wants Amazon to expand the plastic-free approach in worldwide. If we do nothing, much of the world will be knee deep in plastic in a generation. We must reduce plastic waste. We can’t just lay the problem at Amazon’s feet we all must partner in this effort. Here are the 5 things you can do to reduce plastic waste:

  • Eliminate single-use plastic- water bottles, straws, disposal plates. However, think what you substitute. A steel water bottle needs to be used 500 times for its carbon footprint to shrink below the carbon footprint of a single use PET plastic bottle. A permanent plastic bottle is a better substitute.
  • Reduce the Packaging you buy. By buying large containers and avoiding single serve containers. Use bar soap instead of a pump bottle. When you order items online pay attention to how it’s packaged.
  • Buy your Products in concentrated form. Buy your detergents and soaps in concentrated form, less packaging and less weight to ship. You can dilute it at home.
  • Do not buy any products with mixed material packaging. These materials cannot be recycled. These include the food pouches especially popular in baby food and bags used for chips, pretzels and the like. Also, avoid using those black plastic food containers which are not easily sorted by the infrared sorting lights in recycling plants and are often simply trashed.
  • Finally, consider consuming less packaged food, and fewer plastic items. Yet, though I hesitated, I still bought a plastic sleeve for my vaccination card that came wrapped in plastic film. I need to do better, too.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Drinking Water to be Studied for PFAS

On Monday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announcedthe Fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR 5) to establish nationwide monitoring for 29 per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and lithium in drinking water. This action is essential to EPA’s “PFAS Strategic Roadmap.”

The Safe Drinking Water Act, (SDWA), is the Federal law that protects the public from drinking water contaminants that pose a known health concern. Only 91 contaminants are regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, yet according to the EPA, more than 80,000 chemicals are used within the United States. Not every drinking water contaminant with health consequence gets regulated because they may not be widely present in source waters. And not every regulated contaminant has health consequence. Some contaminants are regulated to control taste and odor. Though the SDWA was adopted in 1974, it has had significant amendments in 1986 and 1996.

The 1996 amendments to the SDWA created the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, UCMR. This is the tool the EPA uses to determine if there are contaminants likely to pose a risk to the health of the nation. A contaminant is identified as being of a possible health concern in drinking water, by states, water systems, scientists or other sources.  Health information is collected and if appropriate, occurrence and exposure information are collected using the UCMR data collection program for preliminary risk assessment then a determination is then made on whether there exists an opportunity to reduce public health risks by regulation and the contaminant is then added to the Drinking Water Contaminant Candidate List. Once every five years, EPA issue a new list of no more than 30 unregulated contaminants to be monitored by public water systems. The national sampling program provides the EPA with a scientifically valid database on the occurrence of these emerging contaminants in drinking water supplies.

This time 29 of the 30 contaminants on the list are PFAS known as “forever chemicals” because they build up in our blood and organs, bioaccumulate, and do not break down in the environment. Currently, EPA has a health advisory level of 70 ppt as a screening level for groundwater contamination, not a health based maximum contaminant level (MCL) for drinking water. They have not yet established a health based MCL. The compounds in EPA’s list are a fraction of the entire PFAS class of thousands of different chemicals with hundreds in current use. Studies have found that exposure to very low levels of PFAS can increase the risk of cancerharm fetal development and reduce vaccine effectiveness.

States that have found extensive PFAS drinking water contamination have set more health-protective limits or lower advisory levels than the EPA to protect their residents. For example, New Jersey has set a legal limit of 13 ppt for perfluorononanoic acid, or PFNA, and proposed enforceable limits of 14 ppt for PFOA and 13 ppt for PFOS. Other states such as Washington, Michigan, and North Carolina evaluating the extent of contamination in drinking water and can now use the UCMR to make their determination.

In February of 2021 the EPA made the final determinations to regulate two PFAS chemicals- perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in drinking water and to not regulate six other PFAS contaminants that had been under consideration. The list of contaminants in the UCMR are:

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Aboveground Storage Tanks

For almost a week in 2014 Charleston  West Virginia and the surrounding communities were without drinking water because of a chemical spill into Elk River.  By all accounts a former fuel storage tank leaked about 7,500 gallons of MCHM into the Elk River a mile and a half up river from the water intake for the drinking water supply for Charleston. The water company treatment and  filters could not remove the MCHM which is actually the acronym for 4-methylcyclohexane methanol a modestly water soluble octanol used in air freshener and for washing coal. The water company was forced to issue a do not use for drinking, cooking or bathing warning to their water customers.

The chemical storage facility was owned by a private company, Freedom Industries, Inc. The site of the leak was once a Pennzoil-Quaker State gasoline and diesel storage terminal that was sold in 2001. These old tanks (reportedly installed around 1938) were apparently put to new use storing chemicals. Though it was common in the past to have fuel storage tanks on rivers, it was not the safest of ideas. When Pennzoil-Quaker State closed the facility and sold it, the new owners though it was okay to store solvent in an old 35,000 gallon above ground riveted storage tank that clearly had inadequate secondary containment to prevent a spill into the river. This was all legal.

Back in January 1988 about 800,000 gallons of diesel fuel was released from an Ashland Oil company storage tank that ruptured 20 miles upriver from downtown Pittsburgh. The 40-year-old tank was within a containment dike that reportedly held 2.5 million gallons but failed to stop the overspill from running into the river. The oil spill shut down drinking water for days (including mine in Greentree). The problem then and now is that the secondary containment that was historically used for fuel storage was motivated to prevent fires, not prevent leakage into the river.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate most aboveground fuel storage tanks (AST) and there are no national standards for secondary containment and spill prevention. In addition, tanks have no maximum life and there are tanks more than 75 years old that continue to be used. This is outrageous and  endangers our rivers and groundwater. Unless you have a permit to discharge to surface waters you are not required to have a spill prevention plan. All fuel and chemical storage tanks whether aboveground or underground should be required to have adequate secondary containment and spill prevention plans, be registered and hold spill insurance. There are two types of ASTs: vertical  and horizontal. Horizontal ASTs typically hold from a few hundred gallons up to 20,000 gallons, while the storage capacity of vertical ASTs ranges from several thousand gallons to over 10 million gallons. Nothing is fail safe, but there are no controls on these tanks and they pose a risk to our water supplies that needs to be addressed.

In response to the two incidents above West Virginia and Pennsylvania are two of the 10 states that have established comprehensive programs that impose registration, inspection, and design and siting requirements to prevent releases from aboveground chemical storage facilities. The other eight states are Massachusetts, New York, Delaware, New Jersey, Florida, Kansas, South Dakota, and Minnesota. There are no regulations for aboveground storage tanks in Virginia.

In a new report from the Center for Progressive Reform, they found that the number of unregulated aboveground chemical storage tanks in the Commonwealth are between 2,720 and 5,405.  In addition, their analysis of data from Virginia DEQ’s Pollution Response Program data found that between 2000 and 2020, there were more than 4,800 tank-related instances of spills, releases, improper storage, and illegal dumping, of which over 1,400 explicitly involved aboveground storage tanks. That amounts to an average of nearly 230 tank-related incidents in the Commonwealth each year. The seven most impacted cities and counties are home to roughly a third of Virginians.

According to the Center for Progressive Reform: “First, AST programs collect and track critical information about regulated tanks. Registering tank location, ownership, contents, and other information is a common feature of almost all programs. Second, programs impose measures to prevent spills. These provisions typically include design criteria, secondary containment measures, and inspection requirements. Compliance with these standards is often a prerequisite to obtaining an operating permit. Third, an AST program often requires spill planning and response measures, such as response plans and demonstrating financial capability to cover the costs of response to a chemical leak and its impacts. Finally, AST programs often function to inform the public, state regulators, drinking water utilities, emergency planners, and first responders.”

I whole heartily agree that now is the time for Virginia to develop a sensible plan for registering and monitoring aboveground storage tanks. I think a simple program might work for Virginia without the need for federal action. Virginia must:

  • Register all aboveground tanks
  • Limit their lifetime
  • Require environmental pollution insurance
  • Require secondary containment

If you wish to read the entire report from the Center for Progressive Reform it can be found at this link.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Dug Well Design to Safely Access Shallow Groundwater

 The following is from a news release from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS):

There are three basic styles of modern well construction: Drilled Bedrock Wells or Fractured Rock Wells, Sand and Gravel Wells, Large Diameter Dug and Bored Wells. How you should build a well is determined by type of well (dug or drilled), the local geology (sand, gravel, fractured rock, bed rock, etc.) local precipitation and environmental conditions.

The drilled bedrock or fractured rock wells have become the dominant well in most of the country. Dug and bored wells are generally around three foot in diameter and are less frequently used today because they are very susceptible to contamination.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS): Dug wells typically have problems with well yield (having enough water for a modern household) and bacteria (contamination). “Traditional dug wells did not produce a lot of water and often ran dry in the summer or in drought, leaving the owner without water. Also, because the older dug wells had many joints in them, bacteria were able to get into the water, and people sometimes got sick. The new drilled wells that went deeper to the bedrock aquifer didn’t have these problems, so people switched (to drilled wells).” 

Joe Ayotte , the Chief of the Environmental Hydrology Section at the USGS New England Water Science Center and  his team have patented a new design for a dug well to solve these problems with supply and contamination. They call their new design a “Novel Dug Well.” The USGS was not trying to revive a quant old well, instead they were trying to solve a newly discovered problem.

Joe Ayotte, the Chief of the Environmental Hydrology Section at the USGS New England Water Science Center has been studying groundwater throughout New England for much of his career. He has found that certain contaminants, like arsenic and uranium, is in the groundwater that many New Englanders use for drinking water purposes. Turns out, the bedrock in much of New England has naturally occurring arsenic and uranium, both of which are elements that are linked to negative health conditions like kidney disease and cancer and negative birth outcomes. I am interested in his work because in many areas Virginia bedrock has naturally occurring uranium and the Virginia Rural Household Water Quality Program has been collecting data looking for arsenic in our groundwater.

Since the problems with the shallow aquifer stemmed from the lack of water in traditional dug wells and the bacteria introduced by the older design, the team from the USGS lead by Mr. Ayotte set out to redesign the dug well to solve these issues.

With colleagues throughout the USGS, Mr. Ayotte came up with  a design for a “Novel Dug Well,” as he called it, that successfully combined a large area of inflow with ample storage to provide sufficient water yield needed by well owners. The well has even proven to be drought resilient. Furthermore, the casing he uses has no joints and is sealed with a sanitary cap to prevent bacteria from gaining access. This enables well owners to access shallow aquifers that avoid the arsenic and uranium problems from the bedrock aquifer.

Once the redesign tested successful, the USGS team received a patent for their new well design. The technology is available for licensing to entities or persons who can manufacture and make use of the research. This could enable well users to reduce exposure to potential deep aquifer contaminants and providing an alternative water supply.

Depending on geology there are other designs available today for shallow wells. More traditional large diameter shallow wells are constructed by machine and are generally of one of two varieties; a bored well with concrete collar or a bored well with a buried slab. In the concrete collar construction the casing is generally 4 or 5 foot sections of precast concrete that are placed on top of each other and allows water to seep into the well through the joints between these sections. Because of the possibility of surface infiltration near the well, the upper 10+ feet around the well is grouted with concrete or has a bentonite seal, but frankly the USGS design seen below appears to be a better option.

from USGS public domain

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Increasing Salinization of our Drinking Water

According to the Izaak Walton League of America in Virginia: “The data collected by Virginia Save Our Streams volunteers shows, without a doubt, that urbanization and development have had a significant impact on the water quality of streams in Virginia. Impervious surfaces like roads and roofs drive tremendous amounts of polluted runoff into gutters, storm drains, streams, and rivers. This water runs untreated into critical sources of drinking water like the Potomac River and reservoirs. Although this water will be treated before it enters people’s homes, some chemical pollutants are difficult to remove.”

One of those pollutants is chloride from sodium chloride. Analyses from three different studies at multiple locations have found increasing freshwater salinization in Northern Virginia. Chloride salts dissolve easily in water. High concentrations can impede the ability of freshwater animals (including humans) and plants to control their water and salt content (osmoregulation) and certainly affects taste. Concentrations in the Potomac River have risen almost 10 fold since 1940. The rise is especially noticeable since 2000 in winter months, where average concentrations have increased to 37.8 mg/L in the 2010s.

from ICPRB the increasing blue and green show the increasing Cl concentrations

Road salting during snow and ice storms is now considered the largest source of chlorides to the Potomac and its tributaries in the Washington, D.C. region (e.g., Porter et al. 2020). Concentrations are also rising in the other three seasons. According to the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) this may indicate that groundwater is holding chlorides deposited during winter and slowly releasing them to the river as baseflow during drier months. Evaporation from the river surface during warm weather could also concentrate chloride in the water.

Salts are very effective at deicing roads; however, after application, the salts are washed off into local waterways or seep through soils into groundwater systems with negative impacts on water quality and the environment. Salts pollute drinking water sources and are very costly to remove. The only available technology to remove salt from the source water is reverse osmosis which is extremely costly and requires a significant amount of energy to run.   

Weathering of rocks and sediment, natural sources of chloride in rivers, contribute to the problem but high concentrations  come from winter road salting, fertilizer runoff, water softeners and oil and gas production. Due to their corrosive nature, salts also increase the costs of maintenance, repair, and replacement of infrastructure like roads, sidewalks, driveways, bridges, and pipes which are subject to stress cracking. Improved management and use of salts during winter weather events can maintain public safety and hopefully minimize the negative impacts of salty runoff. However, adding more paved surfaces to treat increases the challenge. Despite VDOT efforts to brine the roads, the salt level in the Occoquan Reservoir continues to rise. 

The ICPRB has been working with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ) and the Northern Virginia Regional Commission to decrease salt levels in area streams, hoping to prevent the need to invest billions of dollars in desalination equipment in the region’s water treatment plants. The plan is to implement a voluntary management of the use of salts for roadways and walkways through the implementation of the Salt Management Strategy just published by the ICPRB and VDEQ. The central purpose of the Salt Management Strategy is to try and reverse the trend of increasing salt levels and reduce the amount of salt in area waters to ensure protection of aquatic life and drinking water while continuing to maintain public safety and accessibility during the winter. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Water Infrastructure Grants

Under the recently passed Infrastructure Bill, EPA will allocate $7.4 billion to states, Tribes, and territories for 2022, with nearly half of this funding available as grants or principal forgiveness loans that are intended to remove barriers to investing in essential water infrastructure in underserved communities across rural America and in urban centers. The states are just now being notified of the 2022 allocations which is the first of five years of $43 billion EPA funding that states will receive through the “Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.”

The 2022 allocation includes $126,383,000 for Virginia, $144,181,000 for Maryland $144,181,000 for Maryland , $240,381,000 for Pennsylvania, $83,211,000 for West Virginia, $63,041,000 for Delaware, and $63,041,000 for the District of Columbia in our region. This is money for water infrastructure improvements will be awarded though the Drinking Water State Revolving Funds, and is intended to  emphasize supporting underserved communities. For more than 30 years, the State Revolving Funds have been the foundation of water infrastructure investments, providing low-cost financing for local projects across America. However, according to the EPA “many vulnerable communities facing water challenges have not received their fair share of federal water infrastructure funding. Under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, states have a unique opportunity to correct this disparity.”

"EPA Administrator Regan recently completed what the EPA called a “Journey to Justice” tour across the American South where he heard from families and advocates about their struggles with exposure to water pollution in their communities. For children, exposure to lead can cause irreversible and life-long health effects, including decreasing IQ, focus, and academic achievement. At the same time, families that live near high levels of contaminants such as PFAS or “forever chemicals” are at risk to develop adverse health outcomes.” The south is the only place where underserved communities exist. 

Many lead problems are in older cities of the north and mid-Atlantic. The nation has underinvested in water infrastructure for too long. Insufficient water infrastructure threatens America’s security, and it risks people’s health, jobs, peace of mind, and future prosperity. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law allocates around $50 billion to EPA to improve our nation’s drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure. This is an opportunity to fix some of the failing infrastructure in communities least able to afford it:

Safe Drinking Water- $11.7 billion to the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and $15 billion to the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund for Lead Service Line Replacement. $4 billion to the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund for Emerging Contaminants. $5 billion to Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Grants to address emerging contaminants.

Clean Water for Communities- $11.7 billion for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and $1 billion for the Clean Water Revolving Fund for Emerging Contaminants.

Protected Regional Waters- $1.7 billion for Geographic Programs and $267 million for the National Estuary Program, Gulf Hypoxia Program, and more hopefully that includes our own Chesapeake Bay. 

For more details on the the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, please check out EPA’s page on the topic.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

ICPRB Needs to Model Toxic Algae Blooms

Each summer for the past few years, toxic blue green algae has been found in in our region. The problem appears to be growing worse. This past summer the Virginia Department of Health issued a Harmful Algae Bloom (HAB) Advisory for a 53-mile stretch of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River in August. Samples taken from algal mats on the river bottom contained harmful levels of toxins produced by cyanobacteria. Other areas of Virginia reported non-toxic algae blooms and there were several crowd sourced reports of algae in August.

Algae blooms also called harmful algal bloom (HAB) or 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, suburban lawns and farms. The excess nutrient pollution combined with mild weather encourages the explosive growth of algae fed by excessive nutrient pollution. However, toxic algal blooms are relatively new.

Not all algal blooms are toxic or hazardous. Only the certain species of blue-green algae form the toxin, for reasons that aren't fully understood. Toxic bacteria were not a problem until the 21st century, though algae blooms have been a problem on Lake Erie, the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay and other areas for over half a century. Only algae that contains microcystine or cyanobacteria, a toxin produced by microcystis, a type of blue-green algae that spreads in the summer are hazardous. In 2014 routine water testing in Toledo, Ohio found two samples that tested positive for microcystin at concentrations higher than the VDH advisory level of 1 microgram per liter for potable water. This shut down their water supply for days.

In the 21st century toxic or hazardous algal blooms have become a concern in our region. They occur when algae grow out of control when there are favorable environmental conditions. Hazardous algal blooms, the ones that contain the toxins, can lead to the poisoning of fish, shellfish, birds, livestock, domestic pets and other aquatic organisms that can lead to human health impact from eating fish or shellfish exposed to toxins as well as drinking water contaminated by toxins. Our existing water treatment plants do not remove the toxins and toxic algal blooms could disrupt water supply in our region.

This past summer in mid-July the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) found extensive multi-species benthic algal mats in the North Fork Shenandoah River. Analysis found that the mats contained several cyanobacteria and high levels of cyanotoxins. Tropical Storm Ida came through the North Fork Shenandoah River watershed on September 2, 2021, with severe winds and dumping almost 4 inches of rain on parts of the watershed sharply raising river flow rates.

Anticipating the storm’s potential to scour the algal mats from the river and wash them downstream, the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River (ICPRB) ran its emergency spill model to attempt to track the algae as it was carried downstream by storm flows. The ICPRB then implemented sampling to determine if measurable algal toxin levels reached the Potomac River mainstem after the storm. Samples were collected near the mouth of the Shenandoah River when their models indicated the scoured North Fork algal material would be passing.

The North Fork Shenandoah River is the raw water source for several towns including Woodstock, Strasburg, and Winchester, VA. Two toxins were detected in raw and/or finished water samples at Strasburg on August 3rd, 9th , and 12th but not detected in subsequent samples. Cylindrospermopsin was detected in one finished water sample at Strasburg on August 3rd (0.062 µg/L).

Neither toxin exceeded VDH’s advisory thresholds. Microcystin, nodularin and saxitoxin were not detected in any samples. The relatively low cyanotoxin levels in the water column and water supply intake samples suggested to the scientists at the ICPRB that the algal mats were still intact for the most part and were not releasing measurable toxins to the water column.

The Scientists believe that the North Fork algae bloom was washed out by Tropical Storm Ida before the die-off of the bacteria and release of the toxins and that the rainfall associated with the storm served to dilute the concentration of toxic bacteria. Tropical Storm Ida’s very high flows diluted the cyanotoxins in the scoured algal mats to non-detectable levels before they reached the Potomac mainstem.

However, the scientists suggest that “this might not be the case when streamflows are lower, as is more typical of late summer and early autumn, and cyanobacteria blooms are senescing. Further investigation of the downstream transport of cyanotoxins in the Potomac River and its tributaries could be done with river flow models that are more advanced than the spill model used.” While the spill model was adequate for the purposes of this rapid response sampling, the spill model is a relatively simple with built-in assumptions that cannot be changed to reflect actual river conditions. “Additional field observations and algal bloom sampling would also provide a better understanding of how rapidly cyanotoxins decompose once they are released into the water column and exposed to different river conditions.”

A new model needs to be built to reflect the behavior of the river and the cyanotixins to help prepare all the local water agencies for future toxic or hazardous algal events. With the increase in these events in our region we must be prepared for toxic bacteria impacting our regional water availability. Sadly, we need to be able to predict when toxic bacteria may force the Washington Aqueduct, WSSC, Fairfax Water and Loudoun Water to close their Potomac River intakes. Our water companies will need to be prepared with enough water storage to ride out a potential annual toxic bacteria event. Welcome to our new world.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Staff Recommends No Overlay District for the Occoquan

Last fall, the Prince William County Board of Supervisors issued Directive No. 20-86 for county staff to develop a protection overlay district for the Occoquan Reservoir. County Staff has completed their study and according to a memo from Thomas Smith, Director of Public Works department, They recommend that an overlay district NOT be considered at this time.

The Occoquan Reservoir is essential to our drinking water supply. Fairfax Water supplies drinking water to around two million people in Fairfax County, Loudoun County and Prince William County. The Occoquan Reservoir supplies the source water to the Griffith water treatment plant which provides about 40% of the drinking water from Fairfax Water and serves eastern Fairfax County and the East System of Prince William County which serves Woodbridge, Occoquan, Dumfries, Triangle and Hoadly Manor.

The Occoquan Watershed encompasses 248 square miles of Prince William County- 66% of the land area of the county. According to Mr. Smith, currently, 9.8% of the watershed is covered in impervious surface and over half is designated as rural and predominately zoned A-1. The rural and open land nature of the watershed has served to protect the Occoquan Reservoir from contamination.

 Development in the watershed triggers a number of problems that begin with storm water runoff as the primary driver, though wastewater from the Upper Occoquan Service Authority and septic systems also contribute to the deterioration of the water quality. Pollution from runoff, called non-point source pollution is the most imminent threat to the health of the Occoquan Reservoir and our drinking water supply. An overlay district could have been used to limit the types and amount of development on land within the watershed to continue to protect the Occoquan Reservoir.

According to Mr. Smith; non-point source pollution is addressed by stormwater management , erosion and sediment controls and implementation of the Chesapeake Bay Resource Protection Areas. In 2014 the County stormwater management requirements were replaced with the more stringent Virginia Stormwater Management Program. This coming year County will be updating its Chesapeake Bay Preservation Area regulations to comply with the recent changes in the State regulations. In addition, the municipal stormwater management permit for the discharge of stormwater into waterways is scheduled for renewal in June 2022. 

Mr. Smith says: “Most of the traditional pollutants of concern are being addressed by the Upper Occoquan Sewage Authority Regional water Reclamation Plant and the existing non-point source programs and regulations. Today, the main concern for the reservoir is the increasing salinity…” Studies at multiple locations have found increasing freshwater salinization in Northern Virginia. Sewage contains salt from water softeners and our diets, but the main source of salt is believed to be from roads and paved surfaces.

Salts are very effective at deicing roads; however, after application, the salts are washed off into local waterways or seep through soils into groundwater systems. Salts pollute drinking water sources and are very costly to remove. The only available technology to remove salt from the source water is reverse osmosis which according to Mr. Smith would cost $1 billion to implement at Fairfax Water and requires a significant amount of energy to run. This would increase water rates for all customers. 

Road salting during snow and ice storms is now also considered the largest source of salt to the Potomac and its tributaries in the Washington, D.C. region (e.g., Porter et al. 2020). The ICPRB has been working with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ) and the Northern Virginia Regional Commission to decrease salt levels in area streams. The plan is to implement a voluntary management of the use of salts for roadways and walkways through the implementation of the Salt Management Strategy published last year by the ICPRB and VDEQ.

Mr. Smith concludes his memo to the Board of Supervisors with the statement that “Many of the original pollutants of concern for the reservoir have been addressed through point source controls and …stormwater management requirements, erosion and sediment controls, Chesapeake Bay Resource Protection Areas, illicit discharge monitoring and enforcement and public education programs."

The  current pollutant problems identified in the memo are endocrine disrupting compounds, PFAS and salinity which he states need to be addressed on a regional basis. Virginia Tech is currently engaged in a study of the source of the salinity in the Occoquan Reservoir. Mr. Smith recommends waiting until the salinity study is completed, the Chesapeake Bay ordinance updated and the implementation of the Salt Management Strategy be completed before considering an Occoquan Overlay District.   However, the importance to the protection to the Occoquan Reservoir that only 9.8% of the watershed is covered in impervious surface and remains predominately open land and rural was ignored. The comprehensive plan amendments currently under consideration will  impact the Occoquan Watershed.