Welcome to the blog that is going to keep you informed about water issues! Political, social, economic, human health, land use… you name it! It has been my personal goal to educate the public to the need to understand that our water health is dependent on our actions and inaction.
Your community CANprotect your water!
Exploring real world environmental concerns must also include social, economic, political, human health, and natural resource implications. This allows for a comprehensive understanding of complicated environmental matters that do not stop at man-made state lines, or international lines of delineation. Water, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), waste, industrial farming, disaster relief, air quality, carbon sequestration, energy production, and fishing industries, to name a few, all encompass multiple disciplines in both its onset and its potential solutions. Educating the public to environmental sciences as a single discipline, taught from a text, within a classroom, whose antithesis is business, does not convey the entire picture.
The GET WET! Project addresses residential water needs by collaborating with local universities, government representatives, businesses, conservation commissions, ENGOs, parents, and community volunteers to assure all interested parties are heard. Focusing on local environmental issues through school-centered, community-based curriculum increases participation and opens a dialogue regarding local resources, jobs, human health, politics, and economics. Allowing the community to decide which of the concerns they feel deserves the most attention provides an autonomy that may be more palatable.
A Nestlé bottled water factory in Stanwood, Mich., produces up to 1,200 bottles a minute and is served by seven nearby wells drawing up to 250 gallons of spring water a minute.CreditGary Howe for The New York Times
Where Nestlé Guzzles Water, Locals Doubt Claims of Negligible Impact
By STEVE FRIESSMAY 24, 2017
EVART, Mich. — The creek behind Maryann Borden’s house was once “a lovely little stream that just babbled along and never changed for decades,” she says. Now it is perhaps 12 feet across — half what it was, she reckons — with grassy islands impeding what used to be an uninterrupted flow.
“What happened?” Ms. Borden asked. “Nestlé happened. That’s what I think.” A lot of her neighbors think so, too.
Nestlé can pump more than 130 million gallons of water a year from a well near this northwestern Michigan town to bottle and sell. It’s a big business: Last year, for the first time, bottled water outsold carbonated soft drinks in the United States.
And now Nestlé wants more. It has applied to increase its pumping allowance at the well by 60 percent. The application, which the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is expected to rule on within months, has catalyzed opposition in part because of what Nestlé pays for most of the water it bottles: nothing. That is, it pays only a $200 annual permit fee to pump from wells it owns (like this one) or leases.
“Having anybody take away some of the very best water that should be going into the creeks and the Muskegon River and eventually Lake Michigan, that’s a big deal,” said Jeff Ostahowski, vice president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, who lives 25 miles from Evart. “That Nestlé does it for free? That’s just crazy.”
Actually, it is standard; landowners and commercial businesses have long had rights in much of the United States to use as much water as they want free if they drill and pump it themselves. Even customers on municipal water systems technically pay not for the water they use but for infrastructure and energy to deliver it.
Still, in a state where access to clean, affordable water, most notably in Flint and Detroit, has dominated the news, it offends many that a foreign company can profit from bottling so much for so little. Even in this deeply conservative corner of rural America, fear of environmental despoliation and a sense of being exploited is propelling many to denounce Nestlé’s demand for more.
Other major industries use far more water for the same $200 permit fee — Pfizer, for instance, used 6.9 billion gallons in 2015 for its medicine factory near Kalamazoo, according to state data — but most of that water is returned to the same watershed after use, Nestlé critics note.
The scale of Nestlé’s operation in this sparsely populated region about 180 miles northwest of Detroit is immense. The company packages an average of 4.8 million bottles of water a day — more than 3,000 a minute — with all lines running at a plant about 40 miles south of Evart, said David Sommer, the factory manager.
That plant draws water from nine wells, including two owned by the City of Evart for which it pays the local municipal water rate of $3.50 per thousand gallons. Two are on the factory site and the other five are scattered around two rural counties, including the White Pines well near Evart that is the subject of the increase request.
All that pumping produces the spring water Ice Mountain label sold across the Upper Midwest and the filtered water line Pure Life, a national line. Spring water, defined as coming from sources that flow naturally at the land’s surface, sells for more because it is perceived to be more authentic and healthier, Nestlé officials say.
“Spring water is a very different thing, a precious source,” said Nelson Switzer, chief sustainability officer for Nestlé Waters North America. “We bring that to the people, that convenience, that ability to reseal, to take it with them, to have it when they need it. That’s a very unique idea, a distinction.”
To win over the state environmental agency, Nestlé must convince officials that it is a good steward of the environment. Arlene Anderson-Vincent, Nestlé’s natural resources manager for Michigan, insisted, “We never take out more than nature’s bringing back in.”
Evart’s city manager, Zackary Szakacs, supports Nestlé, asserting that the company’s purchase of water from city-owned wells keeps costs low for the 2,000 residents of a community with a $19,000 median income. The company also pays for an environmental protection fund, new public recreational facilities and, more recently, for scientists and expertise to purify a city well Nestlé found to be tainted by perchlorate, a thyroid toxin.
“There’s so much water in Osceola County, it’s unbelievable,” said Mr. Szakacs, who says he has not observed changes in the waterways. “We’re so fortunate. We have a partnership with Nestlé Ice Mountain. It’s a good partnership. We’re just trying to survive so the town will live another 100 years.”
Opposition is strong, though. In April, the zoning board in Osceola Township, the unincorporated area outside Evart where the White Pines well sits, voted 5 to 0 to reject Nestlé’s application to build a $500,000 facility that would increase its current ability to pump if the state allows it.
Nestlé is appealing that ruling, saying the booster station is the most efficient way to move the increased water. If the company is unable to build the station, it may widen an existing pipeline or truck the water to the factory, Ms. Anderson-Vincent said.
There is no conclusive scientific data that Nestlé has depleted or altered the ecosystem. Even local hydrologists troubled by Nestlé’s operations acknowledge that the accusations of damage are supported largely by anecdotal observations like those of Ms. Borden or of anglers who say the creek’s stock of trout has diminished.
“We’ve heard their arguments, but we haven’t seen any of their science,” Mr. Switzer said. “Believe me, over and over we’ve asked, invited them to come in and talk with us. Let’s not forget we have 17 years of data, rigorous science with over 100 monitoring points that demonstrate rigorously that what we are doing does not have a significant impact.”
Local opponents say those assertions are misleading. Mr. Ostahowski said he and other environmentalists had never been offered a chance to review Nestlé’s raw data. They note that Nestlé’s request initially failed when it was run through the state’s Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool, a formula aimed at determining whether pumping will harm the ecosystem.
Nestlé persuaded officials to look at the data differently, arguing that the tool was too conservative, and in the second rendering the state found that the increased pumping would not harm the local environment.
Melody Kindraka, a spokeswoman for the state environmental agency, said the department “is still in the process of reviewing and verifying all the information we have received.” No timeline was given for its decision.
In these parts, though, longtime residents like Ms. Borden say common sense might be a better guide than science.
“The math doesn’t add up,” she said, staring at the creek she has lived beside since Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. “I can’t understand how they can take so much. How does it recover from that massive removal? It’s millions of gallons. It doesn’t go back into our aquifer, because they’re putting it in a bottle and shipping it somewhere else.”
Correction: May 24, 2017
An earlier version of this article misidentified the entity for which Nelson Switzer is chief sustainability officer. It is Nestlé Waters North America, not Nestlé USA.
Hidden Oaks Middle School in Stuart Florida is a school who has residents that live along the St. Lucie River. Some research states that algae from Lake Okeechobee dumps are causing problems in the lagoon and some are stating that septic system failures in the watershed are creating a food source for the algae creating a toxic megabloom.
Students from Oxbridge Academy’s (https://www.oapb.org/) Field Research Class and Quantitative and Qualitative Research class are working with middle school students from hidden Oaks Middle to help them test their private well waters for nitrates. Additional samples are taken to the BioTools Laboratory in the Jupiter area to test for sucralose, a marker for human feces. Students will be able to learn about water quality issues in their area, if their waters are compromised, and ways they might be able to protect their source waters. AnOxbridge student will be mapping the fate and transport of the quantified sucralose levels in a GIS program and presenting his results at the AWRA Conference in Oregon November 2017.
South Florida sits atop two gigantic underground stores of water: the Biscayne and Floridan Aquifers. Miamians get most of their drinking water from the upper Biscayne Aquifer, while the government has used the lower portion of the Floridian to dump waste and untreated sewage — despite the fact that multiple studies have warned that waste could one day seep into the drinking water.
According to NRC documents, CASE’s petition was dismissed for being filed “inexcusably late” in FPL’s application process.
“This was thrown out on procedural grounds,” says CASE’s president, Barry J. White. “The science is still there.”
CASE had filed a petition with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but the NRC on Friday threw out CASE’s complaint, saying the environmental group had filed too late in FPL’s approval process.
The fight stems from the energy company’s plan to build two nuclear reactors at the controversial Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station south of Miami by roughly 2030. The towers might not be operational for a decade or two, but that doesn’t mean the public should stop paying attention to them. FPL is submitting numerous proposals about the project to the government.
As part of that package, FPL told the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission that it plans to store contaminated water used to clean the reactors, as well as radioactive waste (“radwaste”) in the Boulder Zone. In October, the NRC issued a report, stating FPL’s plan would pose “no environmental impacts” to the South Florida environment.
Roughly a month later, on November 28, CASE filed a legal petition demanding that the NRC hold a hearing on FPL’s radioactive waste plan. CASE alleges the government failed to address a host of concerns about the power company’s plan.
“Everything will be put into a supposedly ‘hermetically sealed’ Boulder Zone,” White told New Times in December. “But anybody who lives in South Florida knows nothing below us is hermetically sealed.” Environmentalists say the plan could leak carcinogens such as cesium, strontium 90, and tritium right into the drinking-water aquifers.
An FPL spokesperson Friday provided the following statement to New Times:
After an exhaustive and comprehensive review of the proposed Turkey Point Units 6 & 7 project, including the plans to safely use reclaimed water for cooling, the independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s staff concluded ‘…there are no environmental impacts to preclude issuing Combined Licenses to build and operate two reactors next to the existing Turkey Point nuclear power plant.”
But CASE’s November complaint cited both government data and FPL’s own engineers, who admitted in separate hearings that waste could leak upward from the Boulder Zone into the Biscayne Aquifer.
For one, the United States Ground Water Atlas, a government document, warns the Boulder Zone “is thought to be connected to the Atlantic Ocean, possibly about 25 miles east of Miami, where the sea floor is almost 2,800 feet deep along the Straits of Florida.” CASE’s petition says the NRC failed to address this issue.
Likewise, “an upward hydraulic gradient from the Floridan [Aquifer] to the Biscayne [Aquifer],” an FPL engineer testified in January 2016. “The Floridan is under pressure. Therefore, you have flow from the Floridan into the Biscayne and not vice versa.”
Since filing that complaint, CASE also uncovered yet another government study, which confirms the Boulder Zone can leak into “underground sources of drinking water” in South Florida.
The 2015 study, from the United States Geological Survey, says that numerous tectonic faults and other fissures exist under Biscayne Bay and the “Miami Terrace,” the seafloor immediately east of the Miami shoreline.
The report states flatly:
Recent studies by the U.S. Geological Survey of seismic-reflection profiles acquired in onshore canals and offshore in Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic continental shelf have indicated the presence of tectonic faults (one strike-slip fault and multiple reverse faults) and karst collapse structures, and these studies substantiate the utility of this approach for locating feasible vertical-fluid flow pathways. The strike-slip fault and karst collapse structures span confining units of the Floridan aquifer system and could provide high permeability passageways for groundwater movement. If present at or near wastewater injection utilities, these features represent a plausible physical system for the upward migration of effluent injected into the Boulder Zone to overlying U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated underground sources of drinking water in the upper part of the Floridan aquifer system.
“The evidence is so strong that it’s doubtful the zone is ‘hermetically sealed,'” White says.
FPL contends that any radioactive-waste discharges will be carefully monitored to ensure they won’t leak. But the company’s credibility with the public is not in good shape. Early last year, Miami-Dade County officials said cooling canals from Turkey Point were already leaking waste into Biscayne Bay — the ordeal, and FPL’s alleged refusal to take proper responsibility for the damage, led to a lawsuit.
Now, White says, he and CASE plan to lobby state lawmakers to try to outlaw injections into the Boulder Zone through state law. To put things mildly, CASE is fighting an uphill battle: FPL is one of the largest campaign donors in Florida politics.
Keith Matheny , Detroit Free PressPublished 11:15 p.m. ET April 22, 2017 | Updated 8:11 a.m. ET April 23, 2017
Michigan utilities, industries and farmers use trillions of gallons of ground and surface water per year, essentially for free
While Swiss-based food giant Nestlé’s northern Michigan bottled water operations have raised public ire with its request to greatly expand the amount of groundwater it pumps, it’s far from alone in using Michigan waters to make its profits flow.
Utilities, industries and farmers use trillions of gallons of Michigan ground and surface water each year, essentially for free, a Free Press review of data from the state Department of Environmental Quality shows.
The state’s largest groundwater extractor — by far — is Pfizer’s pharmaceutical manufacturing operation near Kalamazoo, at more than 6.9 billion gallons in 2015, according to DEQ data. That annual groundwater withdrawal exceeds the total water volume of Orchard Lake in Oakland County, or Wayne County’s Belleville Lake.
Nestlé Waters North America and its Ice Mountain bottled water plant in Mecosta County ranks 23rd for its volume of state groundwater extracted each year, behind cement and mineral plants, paper companies, utilities, the Post Foods cereal company near Battle Creek, and others.
The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s use of 214.24 billion gallons of surface water per year places it behind the Donald C. Cook Nuclear Plant in Berrien County; DTE Energy’s Monroe and St. Clair power plants, and Consumers Energy’s plants in Ottawa and Bay counties.
That industries, utilities and farms use water at virtually no charge is not unique to Michigan, but part of long-standing U.S. water policy. Those who have access to a water supply — even large, for-profit corporations — are generally free to use it, so long as their use poses no harm to neighbors or the environment. The only price tag comes from relatively small government fees to help pay for regulation, and costs associated with the infrastructure needed to treat and move the water.
It’s the way things have always worked, but some are beginning to argue that needs to change. Fresh water, particularly in the 21st Century, is considered the world’s most valuable commodity by many, only growing in importance as global water supplies become more challenged. And yet it’s not priced that way when it comes to withdrawing it from the ground and waterways.
“The value of water and pricing, not to mention privatization and commodification of water, are turned upside-down,” said Jim Olson, an environment, water and public interest lawyer and founder of the Traverse City-based nonprofit For Love of Water, or FLOW.
“Companies who sell water gain high profits off the backs of a nonprofit, cost-based system. It’s ridiculous; a gross imbalance; water injustice.”
It’s enabled, in part, because Americans are spoiled when it comes to abundant, affordable water, said Robert Glennon, a University of Arizona law professor and author of “Unquenchable — America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It.”
“We wake up in the morning, we turn on the tap, and out comes as much fresh water as we want, for less than we pay for cell phone service or cable television,” he said.
But even in a water-abundant place like Michigan, the supply is finite.
“Think of the groundwater aquifer as a giant milkshake glass, and each well as another straw in the glass,” Glennon said. “What Michigan and other states permit is a limitless number of straws in the glass. That’s a recipe for disaster. It’s absolutely unsustainable.”
Water use isn’t as much of a concern when it’s returned in an unpolluted form back to the water system where it came. It’s so-called consumptive uses, where the water is gone from the watershed after it’s used, that are of most concern.
Pfizer, for all the groundwater it extracts, consumes only about 2% to 3% of the water it uses.
“Pfizer operates its largest manufacturing plant in the world in Kalamazoo County, producing active pharmaceutical ingredients and sterile injectable medicines,” company spokeswoman Kimberly Bencker said in an e-mailed statement. “These manufacturing processes require large amounts of water — between 12 million and 15 million gallons daily. Fortunately, nearly all of that water is returned, after treatment, to the environment, and we’re able to do so safely, rapidly and in compliance with environmental regulations.”
Power plants, many using hundreds of billions of gallons of Great Lakes water per year for cooling and other uses, generally return all but a small percentage of that water to its source, said Andrew LeBaron, an environmental quality analyst with the DEQ’s water resources division.
“For power plants, it varies quite a bit what that consumptive rate might be,” he said. “It ranges from a fraction of a percent up to 80%, depending on the power plant. Any of the groundwater-fed ones would be nearer the 80% (consumptive rate).”
Perhaps counterintuitively, agricultural irrigation is considered one of the larger consumptive uses of large-scale water withdrawals. That’s because a significant percentage of the water, once it flows to crops, is lost to the local water system through plant absorption, evaporation and runoff. The 1,452 farms reporting large-scale water withdrawals to the state Department of Agriculture and Rural Development used 98 billion gallons of mostly groundwater in 2014.
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The DEQ generally doesn’t judge the purpose for which a company wants a large amount of water. Instead, it works to assure that large withdrawals do not cause an “adverse resource impact”: Harm to fish, streams, wetlands, and other animals and their habitats.
Since 2006, Part 327 of the state Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act requires that large water withdrawals cause no significant reduction of nearby stream flows or fish populations. The state in 2009 began use of an online Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool to help prospective large-scale water withdrawers, those intending to pump more than 100,000 gallons of water per day.
“There’s a user interface; it asks you whether your withdrawal will be from surface or groundwater,” said James Milne, great lakes shorelands unit supervisor for the DEQ’s water resources division.
“If it’s groundwater, are you putting a well into bedrock or a glacial aquifer? It asks for the location of your withdrawal, the pumping rate and the schedule of when you will be pumping.”
The tool then serves as a conservative screen, utilizing groundwater and fish population models to assess the potential for an adverse resource impact to fish or stream flows from the proposed withdrawal.
“If you pass the screening tool, you’re able to register your withdrawal with the state, and you’re good to go,” Milne said. “If you don’t pass the screening tool, you have to request a site-specific review by DEQ.”
In those instances, DEQ staff looks more deeply at the proposal to see whether the model reached the wrong conclusion.
That’s what happened with Nestlé’s proposal to increase flows from 250 gallons per minute to 400 gallons per minute at an Osceola Township groundwater well, as part of a proposed expansion of its Ice Mountain bottled water plant in Stanwood. The state’s Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool initially rejected the proposed increase; Nestlé officials requested a site-specific review, and, relying largely on the company’s own stream impact data, DEQ staff ultimately recommended approval of the increased pumping. The agency has yet to grant the permit.
The Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool sounds like a great resource, Glennon said. But “the devil is in the details,” he said.
“If the staff is simply trying to conform the model to what the actual, real-world-time pumping does, that would be consistent with good, scientific practice,” he said. “But if the model is good, and for some political reason, they want a different result, that’s terrible.”
Those pumping even more water, more than 2 million gallons per day, require a Part 327 permit from the state that not only looks at fish and stream-flow impacts but whether the withdrawal meets additional state and federal requirements related to economic and social development and environmental protection, Milne said. A dozen such permits have been issued so far, including for eight municipal water supplies, for St. Mary’s cement plant near Charlevoix and the Lafarge Presque Isle Quarry.
Michigan’s Part 327 is focused on additional, new withdrawals from a surface water or groundwater aquifer. Those pumping water prior to 2009 — no matter how much — are grandfathered in, their withdrawal considered part of the baseline.
“If there’s an adverse resource impact, obviously we can’t authorize any further withdrawals,” LeBaron said. “(But) anybody who had been approved previously, the presumption is you will not cause an adverse resource impact.
“Those baseline capacity withdrawals, the ones prior to this accounting system, are basically exempt from the prohibition of causing an adverse resource impact.”
That means that even if Michigan’s water situation dramatically worsens over the next century, those grandfathered-in, big withdrawers of water are locked in. “It’s not proscribed in the law as far as how to go back and revisit it,” LeBaron said.
State law allows for a stakeholder process in which those utilizing water from a particular water body or aquifer meet with a prospective new withdrawer, and attempt to “manage their water on the local level,” Milne said. To date, the process hasn’t been used.
Water isn’t priced in relationship to its value because basically, no one wants it that way — not residential consumers, not industries, not farmers, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow in the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution’s Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, a nonprofit public policy organization.
“It’s an enormously controversial issue,” she said. “The United Nations treats the water that’s needed to sustain human life as a universal human right. But obviously, the provision of water requires very expensive public expenditures — and maintenance; it’s not just the building of the infrastructure initially. And you have very powerful lobbying from industries, from agriculture, from energy, to keep the cost of water low — even when it can be demonstrated they are using the water in atrociously wasteful, unsustainable and unreasonable ways.”
A better way, Felbab-Brown said, may be a tiered pricing program that allows families to have the 50 liters of water per person, per day that’s estimated to be needed for human survival at no charge, with additional water use — by them, by a business, or anyone — then priced on a rising scale based on water volumes used, and factoring in whether the use “serves public goals” or is purely profit-driven or “particularly wasteful.”
“You’d have to get past the initial and enormous problem of the public at large accepting that water is priced. And we are very, very far away from that,” she said.
“Persuading residents that they need to pay for what’s not an unlimited good — even though it’s falling from the sky — is very, very difficult. But in my view, it’s necessary.”
Circumstances in coming years — locally, nationally and globally — may be what causes the paradigm shift, Felbab-Brown said.
“What has, around the world, driven acceptance of water pricing is not enlightenment or benevolence, but dealing with acute water shortages,” she said.
Contact Keith Matheny: 313-222-5021 or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @keithmatheny.
Michigan’s biggest water users
Total water use (per year, 2015)
Donald C. Cook Nuclear Plant, Berrien County, 765.42 billion gallons (from Great Lakes)
DTE’s Monroe Power Plant, Monroe County, 559.05 billion gallons (from Great Lakes)
DTE’s St. Clair Power Plant, St. Clair County, 293.08 billlion gallons (from Great Lakes)
Total inland surface water use
Consumers Energy Karn-Weadock Complex, Bay County, 174.02 billion gallons
Consumers Energy BC Cobb Plant, Muskegon County, 83.87 billion gallons
Dearborn Industrial Generation, Wayne County, 66.2 billion gallons
Total groundwater use
Pfizer, Kalamazoo County, 6.934 billion gallons
St. Mary’s Cement, Charlevoix County, 4.261 billion gallons
Sylvania Minerals, Monroe County, 3.374 billion gallons
Source: Michigan Department of Environmental Quality
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PFASs — used in clothing, carpets, cookware, and more — contaminate wells across the United States.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York met with Hoosick Falls officials and other state authorities to tour the Village of Hoosick Falls water treatment plant in this March 2016 photo. The Hoosick Falls water source was contaminated with the chemical PFOA. Photo courtesy of New York Governor’s Office
By Brett Walton, Circle of Blue
The early 1990s were the start of a sizzling decade for ChemFab, a producer of specialized plastics. The company’s water-repelling, heat-resistant fabrics were everywhere. Beta cloth, an insulator, lined the payload bay of the Space Shuttle Columbia. The roofs of the Metrodome and Georgia Dome, professional sports stadiums in Minneapolis and Atlanta, were draped with fabric coated with PTFE, a slick polymer. BusinessWeek took notice, naming the Merrimack, New Hampshire-based firm a Hot 100 growth company in 1991 after profits climbed 185 percent in three years.
The good fortune kept going in 2000 when the French industrial giant Saint-Gobain, a world leader in plastics, purchased ChemFab. After the acquisition, the product line continued to impress. The Dallas Cowboys, self-proclaimed as America’s football team, now play home games at AT&T Stadium beneath 19,000 square meters of Saint-Gobain’s gossamer Sheerfill fabric, which covers the retractable roof.
In several New England states, though, the company’s shine has worn away in the last year. State officials identified Saint-Gobain’s Merrimack facility, along with sister production sites in New York and Vermont, as sources of chemical contamination of household wells and public drinking water supplies.
Perfluorinated alkyl substances, or PFASs, that were used in the manufacture of a number of consumer and industrial goods at the facilities were detected in groundwater above the level that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says is potentially damaging to human health. The contamination zone around the Merrimack facility spreads across 30 to 40 square miles, an area of nearly unprecedented size for groundwater pollution from a single site, according to Brandon Kernen, a hydrologist in the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, who is investigating water contamination.
Saint-Gobain’s chemical releases are part of a much larger problem. PFASs in groundwater have been traced across the country to military bases, fire stations, landfills, hospitals, and schools — large institutions that use foams, waxes, or cleaners that contain the chemicals. In fact, the closer regulators and scientists look at drinking water supplies, the more PFASs they find.
“It’s not another contaminant du jour,” Kernen says, noting the ubiquity of PFASs in household and industrial products and the tenacity with which they remain in the environment. “It’s something we’re going to be dealing with for quite a while.”
In short, the miracle compounds of 20th-century chemistry are causing an ecological, legal, and regulatory mess today. Like PCBs and pesticides, authorities are discovering how deeply another chemical that contributed to the ease and convenience of contemporary life has embedded itself in rivers, lakes, aquifers, and soils — as well as in human bodies.
In February, 3,500 residents sickened by the chemicals in Parkersburg, West Virginia, won a $US 671 million lawsuit against DuPont, which contaminated local water sources with PFAS waste for decades. Similar class-action lawsuits are being pursued against Saint-Gobain by residents of Hoosick Falls, New York, and Bennington, Vermont, and against firefighting foam manufacturers and military bases that used the foams by residents of two eastern Pennsylvania counties where wells have been tainted. Meanwhile, Lake Elmo, Minnesota, is suing chemical manufacturer 3M to recover millions of dollars the city spent on a new well and pipes after PFASs were found in an existing well.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, noted in a January 2017 report that the Defense Department will likely incur significant costs to clean up PFASs at military bases. Navy officials said that the price tag for cleaning up the chemicals at active and closed bases could be billions of dollars.
A Modern Problem
When chemists began producing them after World War Two, perfluorinated compounds — long chains of carbon bonded to fluorine atoms and other elements — were the industrial equivalent of a wonder drug. The compounds repelled water, stains, and dirt like invisible armor. They were strong, durable, and flexible. For a go-go society with a consumer economy set to boil, the chemical properties were a perfect match.
The market for PFASs cracked wide open. Sold under brand names such as Teflon, Gore-Tex, Scotchgard, and Stainmaster, PFASs were incorporated into a dazzling range of household products: nonstick skillets, water-repelling jackets, stain-resistant carpets, floor cleaners, waxes, paints, and insect traps. High-tech industries added them to circuit boards and semiconductors, automotive wiring and solar panels. Food packaging companies put them on pizza boxes, burger wrappers, and microwavable popcorn bags, to reject grease. Fire departments used them to put out oil fires.
Today, PFASs are earning a new reputation — as a health risk and a menace to drinking water.
Because the carbon-fluorine bond is one of the most stable in chemistry, PFASs do not easily break down. They linger; then, if consumed, they accumulate in the blood, liver, and kidneys. Human studies show that PFASs harm the development of a fetus, resulting in low birth weight and hormonal disruption. In studies of laboratory animals, they are also associated with cancers of the thyroid, liver, and pancreas.
Many of the human health effects are derived from a study of some 69,000 people in Ohio and West Virginia who lived near DuPont’s Washington Works production facility in West Virginia, and were exposed to PFOA in drinking water. PFOA is the perfluorinated compound used to make Teflon.
The C8 study — named for the eight carbon atoms in PFOA — found links between elevated PFOA levels in blood and a number of ailments: kidney cancer, high cholesterol, colitis, and thyroid disease.
Military Bases and Congressional Representatives on Notice
Industrial plants such as the DuPont Washington Works facility and 3M factories in Oakdale, Minnesota, and Decatur, Alabama, were among the first sites to be scrutinized. Military bases are a more recent target. Groundwater contamination at bases is widespread due to a certain type of foams — class B aqueous film forming foams — that are used to put out petroleum fires. James Brindle, a Defense Department spokesman, told Circle of Blue that the department does not yet have cleanup cost figures that it can release publicly.
Brindle said that as of last November department officials had identified 356 active military installations and bases slated for closure that have one or more areas of suspected PFAS contamination due to firefighting foams. He said the contaminated areas are in various stages of assessment and response.
Members of Congress have taken up the cause. In March, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a first-term Republican from Pennsylvania, asked the House committee that controls the Defense Department’s budget to fund a national health study and a cleanup of public and private wells contaminated by military bases. In his eastern Pennsylvania district, 22 public water supply wells and more than 140 household wells have been shut down because of PFAS contamination linked to two naval air stations and a National Guard air station.
New York’s Democratic senators, meanwhile, introduced legislation three days earlier to require the EPA to set maximum levels in drinking water for PFOA and PFOS, the best-known of the roughly 3,000 perfluorinated compounds on the market.
Alan Roberson, executive director of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, said that Congress, given that it passes only a fraction of the bills that are introduced each session, probably will not force EPA action on PFASs. That is unless public outcry becomes so fervid that lawmakers cannot ignore it: “Unless something explodes, unless PFASs become the new Flint,” Roberson told Circle of Blue.
No Federal Regulation
Federal authorities offer guidance to local officials for responding to evidence of contamination, but the EPA does not regulate PFASs in drinking water, nor has the agency listed the chemicals under federal statutes for hazardous waste cleanup. In May 2016, the EPA significantly lowered a non-binding health advisory for PFOA and PFOS, saying that a combined concentration in drinking water above 70 parts per trillion is dangerous to health, especially for women who are breast feeding.
The EPA also has proposed the Saint-Gobain facility in Hoosick Falls for Superfund designation. And the agency worked with industry to phase out production of PFOA and PFOS. In their place companies are using shorter-chain compounds, which are supposed to break down more easily but critics claim they have not been properly vetted.
The lack of federal standards, meanwhile, is confusing water providers. John Lovie, vice president of Whidbey Island Water Systems Association, a group of Washington state water utilities that is dealing with PFAS contamination of wells near Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, understands that the EPA is under difficult circumstances, but thinks that the health advisory did not provide enough guidance.
“People don’t know how to react,” he told Circle of Blue.
For the hundreds of small water systems on Whidbey — all but three of which serve fewer than 1,000 people — deciding whether to act is often a matter of dollars. “The money is just not there,” Lovie said. And, as seen in the thousands of PFAS chemicals, there is a universe of unregulated but potentially dangerous chemicals that will pose severe hardship if small systems must pay for treatment without financial assistance.
“It’s hard enough dealing with regulated contaminants,” Lovie said. “This foreshadows the issues that small systems are going to have with unregulated contaminants.”
The grey area between regulated and unregulated complicates the cleanup process, argue Jeff Kray and Sarah Wightman, lawyers at Marten Law, a firm that handles environmental cases. Without national standards “it will remain unnecessarily difficult for drinking water suppliers, owners of contaminated land, and others concerned about the potential public health consequences of PFASs to address the sources of PFAS contamination and recover cleanup costs from responsible parties.”
In the absence of federal rules, state leaders are on their own to set standards. A few have.
On February 16, a New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection science advisory body endorsed a 14 parts per trillion standard for PFOA and submitted the recommendation to the department’s commissioner. A decision whether to accept that standard and begin the rulemaking process is expected soon, according to Larry Hajna, department spokesman. The state is also developing a separate PFOS standard.
New Jersey has been sampling drinking water systems for PFASs for a decade. State officials, aware of several DuPont facilities within their jurisdiction, were spooked by the West Virginia C8 investigation, Hajna said. From 2006 to 2016 the state tested more than 1,000 water samples from 80 public water systems. PFASs were found in samples from 60 percent of the systems. Still, only now is the state acting — and the regulations affect drinking water providers not the chemical manufacturers.
If adopted, New Jersey’s standard would follow the lead of Vermont and New Hampshire, both of which operate under state-approved PFAS limits. New Hampshire has a groundwater standard that matches the EPA’s 70 parts per trillion health advisory, while Vermont’s is stricter, at 20 parts per trillion.
Blowing in the Wind
One of the most rigorous PFAS investigations today is taking place in New Hampshire. Just over a year ago, after the Saint-Gobain facility made headlines, the Department of Environmental Services used hazardous waste records and data on fire stations and landfills to identify about 20 sites in the state most at risk for PFAS contamination. Their findings to date reveal a dispersed but significant problem.
The Saint-Gobain site, for one, is unusual. When the PTFE-coated fabrics that were the source of the PFAS contamination were dried in the facility’s blower stacks, chemicals were lifted into the air. Once airborne, the particles eventually settled onto the ground where they dissolved in rain and were absorbed in the soil, eventually flowing downward into groundwater.
This sort of air deposition “blows up the traditional approach to investigating groundwater contamination,” which typically involves a land-based source with a defined flow pattern, Kernen said. “The wind blows every which way. It complicates the issue.”
Other tests showed the diversity of pollution pathways.
The Kingston Fire Department, for example, wanted to open its well to citizens during last summer’s drought as emergency water source. But state tests found the well exceeded the 70 parts per trillion standard for PFOA and PFOS, as did three private wells in the neighborhood. Firefighting foams are the suspected contamination source.
But that’s not all. Other wells near the Kingston fire station showed hundreds of parts per trillion of unregulated PFAS compounds, Kernen said. That presented an uncomfortable situation for state authorities when they explained the test results to the homeowners and could offer no recommendations for how to act. “We had to say ‘You meet drinking water standards, but we detected all this other stuff at these levels and we don’t have any health information for you,’” Kernen recalled.
At another site, near a car wash, testing of a monitoring well showed more than 9,000 parts per trillion of unregulated PFAS compounds. The car wash, not connected to a sewer, had a permit to discharge wastewater to groundwater. Officials told some 800 waste sites — landfills, hazardous materials, and facilities with groundwater discharge permits — to include PFAS sampling in their routine groundwater monitoring.
The state also collected voluntary samples from private well owners. Kernen noted one important trend: a relatively high number of positive detections from schools and health care facilities. The state has not done a scientific analysis, but Kernen’s hypothesis is that these places mop the floors every day and then dump the suds either down the drain, where they flow into a septic tank that percolates into the groundwater, or outside, where they also soak into groundwater. PFASs are a component of high-strength floor cleaners and waxes.
The cost of addressing the contamination is still unknown, partly because new problem areas keep emerging. New Hampshire has spent roughly $US 30 million on remediation projects, half of which went to the Saint-Gobain site. Some 500 homes whose wells were polluted were connected to a public water system. At least 600 homes have been put on bottled water. The state is trying to recover its costs from Saint-Gobain. A company spokeswoman would not comment on the financial details but noted that Saint-Gobain will fund the design work to extend public water to 61 properties in the town of Bedford.
Water is our most precious natural resource. The average American uses about 2,088 gallons in 24 hours. That’s not only tap water, but includes food, clothes, and even newspapers/magazines, which all have a cost in water. For example, a half-pound burger comes from a cow that consumed 220 gallons of water; it takes about 700 gallons to make a shirt; a pair of pants take about 2,000 gallons from seed to cotton; and a newspaper/magazine is made of trees, ink, and printing presses, which soar water usage. Life is thirsty and drinks way more water than we realize. Earth’s population grows 1.2% every year, but the total amount of water on earth remains the same. This is all we have, so we need to be careful how we use it.
Americans have plenty of potable water, but it doesn’t all taste good. Soil impurities, algae, bacteria, and chlorine used in treatment, often make sinks smell like fish tanks. What’s in a glass of water? That can vary widely from city to city and house to house. Here are a few items that might show up:
Pesticides: Insecticides/herbicides can wash into rivers and lakes and seep into groundwater.
Fluoride: As rocks erode, they naturally release fluoride into soil, air, and most water sources. Because it can prevent tooth decay, many communities add extra fluoride to the drinking supply.
Chlorine: Water treatment facilities add chlorine as a disinfectant, and it’s safe at low levels. But some disinfectants produce byproducts that have been linked to miscarriages.
Arsenic: Arsenic occurs naturally in rocks and soil, and is linked to increased risk of cancer. A water treatment plant should remove the poison, but private well owners must periodically test for it.
Lead: Old, corroded metal pipelines can deposit this neurotoxin into drinking water, as in Flint, Michigan. Children who ingest lead can develop permanent learning disabilities.
Algae: Agricultural runoff or warm water can stimulate fish-killing algae blooms. Algae in drinking water is just a nuisance and a musty, fish taste remains even after the treatment plant.
Fracking wells inject over 100 billion gallons of high pressure fluid blasts into the U.S. each year. The mixture of chemicals crack underlying shale, releasing oil and natural gas trapped inside. Because Florida sits on a giant bed of porous limestone, environmentalists are concerned that fracking in
Florida could result in acid and other fracking chemicals leaking into drinking water. Florida lawmakers are currently considering an all-out fracking ban. Scientists have linked individual cases of contamination to fracking, but a 2016 EPA report on its safety was inconclusive. Companies do not have to disclose what is actually in the mixture. These chemicals are trade secrets, so it can be difficult for scientists to gauge risk. Some components are: Methanol – an alcohol often found in antifreeze that winterizes fracking fluid. If you drink it, you could go blind or die. 2-Butoxyethanol –This solvent keeps the fluid stable at high temperatures. Inhaled, it can damage lungs and red blood cells. Sodium Chloride (Aka: table salt) – Even small amounts seeping into rivers and lakes can kill freshwater fish. Diesel – Makes the fluid slick, lowering friction. But its cancer-causing components might contaminate groundwater. Another result of fracking – earthquakes. Fracking has made Oklahoma 2017’s most high-risk state for earthquakes. Water is not everywhere, but it is pretty much involved in everything. The quality of the water we drink and quantity we use is important for us and future generations. We must protect our natural environment and our most precious natural resource.
Sun Sentinel IFL Science Popular Science
January 24, 2017 February 3, 2017 March/April 2017
Today in Stuart, FL middle grade students at Hidden Oaks Middle School started their journey to learn about how to protect their source water. They will begin to be part of a larger community as they assume the roles of scientist, researcher, and reporter of water quality issues in their area. This year, specifically, they will be focusing on groundwater. Additional samples will be taken to the BioTools lab in Jupiter to focus on sucralose and the quantification of septic system contamination in the St. Lucie River.