Oregon poised to adopt the strictest standard for toxic water pollution in the US

January 6, 2011 by  
Filed under Water Quality

Published: Thursday, January 06, 2011, 7:53 PM Updated: Thursday, January 06, 2011, 9:43 PM

Scott Learn, The Oregonian


Scott Learn, The Oregonian

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Tribes have pushed for decades for stricter pollution rules, and Oregon is poised to implement the stricted standard for toxic water pollution in the United States.

Oregon is poised to adopt the strictest standard for toxic water pollution in the United States, driven by concerns about tribal members and others who eat large amounts of contaminated fish.

The Department of Environmental Quality proposed the new standard Thursday, nearly two decades after concerns about contamination in fish prompted studies that showed tribal members along the Columbia River eat far more fish than the general population.

The new rule, scheduled for approval in June, would dramatically tighten human health criteria for a host of pollutants, including mercury, flame retardants, PCBs, dioxins, plasticizers and pesticides.

Industry and cities worry about the costs of complying with the new rules and controlling pollution, likely to run in the millions.

“There are potentially a lot of manufacturing jobs being put at risk,” said John Ledger, an Associated Oregon Industries vice president. “It could put (businesses) in a terrible position, where they can’t locate here or expand.”

Environmental groups say the change is long overdue, but exceptions built into the proposed rules and a lack of focus on pollution from farms, timberlands and urban stormwater mean they might not reduce pollution significantly.

“We can change standards on paper, but how it plays out on the ground and whether we’re really ratcheting down pollution is what matters,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, Columbia Riverkeeper’s executive director.

The proposal presses some big hot buttons: regulating industry in a down economy; DEQ’s authority over farms and forests; protecting tribal members who have seen their health compromised and their traditional diet degraded by pollution.

Oregon’s current water quality standard is built on an assumption that people eat 17.5 grams of fish a day, about a cracker’s worth. The proposed standard boosts that to 175 grams a day, just shy of an 8-ounce meal.

That could boost cost for industry such as paper mills and for sewage treatment plants, increasing rates.

It could also lower the health risks for those who eat a lot of local fish — an estimated 100,000 Oregonians, including 20,000 children, according to a committee set up to consider the health effects of the new standard.

Two years ago, sewage treatment and business groups predicted millions in costs for industry and potentially billions for sewage treatment plants if they had to install state-of-the-art treatment systems.

A more recent study commissioned by DEQ came up with much lower estimates, about $400,000 a year in incremental compliance costs statewide. DEQ officials say they’ve built in a variance to make sure polluters can cut releases over time at a reasonable cost.

Measures could include public education campaigns, implementing “best management practices” to reduce pollution and pursuing sewer users who put pollution into sewer systems.

Janet Gillaspie, executive director of the Oregon Association of Clean Water Agencies, said she thinks DEQ has underestimated the impact of the changes, including the costs and paperwork necessary to comply with the new rule.

Kathryn VanNatta, governmental affairs manager for the Northwest Pulp and Paper Association, said variances are likely to be hard to get: “Oregon has never issued a variance,” she said, “and this proposal does not make a variance any easier.”

The variance provision could also be modified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has to approve the new standard, or challenged in court, business advocates warn.

Environmental groups, including some that have filed lawsuits over implementation of the federal Clean Water Act in Oregon, say the proposal doesn’t go far enough.

Variances and other exemptions could water down the rules to the point “there may not be much there,” said Nina Bell, executive director of Northwest Environmental Advocates.

The proposal is out for public comment through Feb. 18, with seven hearings scheduled statewide Feb. 1-10. Oregon’s Environmental Quality Commission is scheduled to approve a final standard in June.

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation led the move for a tougher standard. Carl Merkle, acting manager of the tribes’ environmental rights and protection program, said he’s still evaluating the draft.

“We don’t want to see exceptions swallowing up the rule,” Merkle said. “But we also understand that, for some dischargers, meeting these heightened standards is not going to happen overnight.”

— Scott Learn

Squaxin Island Tribe Further Testing Mushrooms as Water Quality Solution

January 5, 2011 by  
Filed under Water Quality

Targeted News Service

January 5, 2011

The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission issued the following news release:

Mushrooms might help treat one of the most widespread causes of water pollution — fecal bacteria from human and livestock waste in stormwater runoff. And if it works, the system can be used to protect the rich shellfish heritage of Puget Sound.

The Squaxin Island Tribe is teaming up with Mason Conservation District and Fungi Perfecti to test how well the vegetative growth (mycelia) of fungi filters fecal coliform bacteria out of running water.

“Several field studies have demonstrated that mushroom mycelia can capture and remove bacteria in running water,” said John Konovsky, environmental program manager for the Squaxin Island Tribe. “The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe worked with Battelle Labratories on a large treatment system and found that fungi mycelia can reduce bacteria concentrations. We’re trying to figure out just how well it works on a smaller scale.”

The tribe will put polluted water at Mason County’s Allyn wastewater treatment plant through a series of tests, and track how well the water cleans up over time. If the mushroom technique works on this small scale, it might become a very cost-effective method for removing fecal coliform from running water.

The theory is that mycelia act as biological filters. As they grow, they capture and consume bacteria from contaminated water eliminating them from the environment.

Polluted upland runoff washing into Puget Sound each winter is a common cause for closing shellfish harvest. “Shellfish growers fear this yearly cycle of pollution,” Konovsky said. “We need innovative and cost effective solutions to solve the problem.”

“Our benchmark for cleaning up Puget Sound is whether we can eat its shellfish and harvest healthy populations of salmon,” said Andy Whitener, natural resources director for the tribe. “Mushrooms might be able to help us do that. They could be another valuable weapon in our fight to clean up Puget Sound.

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Water quality, coal jobs at issue in mountains

January 3, 2011 by  
Filed under Water Quality

HUEYSVILLE Every Sunday, Rick Handshoe strolls from his mobile home across the two-lane paved highway, down the hill to Raccoon Creek, which is sometimes orange, sometimes silty, sometimes clear.

He notes whether any frogs or crawdads can be found, dead or alive, and he notes how much water is flowing from the pond built at the head of the Floyd County creek by a coal company about five years ago.

Handshoe has been watching his creek ebb and flow, die and come alive and die again, as the cycle of blasting, mining and reclamation has continued on land surrounding his retirement home. Until a year ago, his observations were just that; he couldn’t afford to send periodic water samples away to a laboratory to find out what minerals were leeching into his creek.

But for the past year, Handshoe has been armed with a new weapon: a conductivity meter given to him by the Sierra Club.

The small beige instrument, which looks like an oversized digital thermometer, measures the amount of dissolved minerals and ions by sending an electrical current through the water. It is cheap, compared to lab testing, and it can be used over and over.

And Handshoe has been using it every Sunday for a year, measuring the microSiemens of electricity passing through his water at 500, 600, 1,200, 1,600, and marking them on a calendar.

Since April, when the Environmental Protection Agency issued guidance that suggested that the target specific conductivity for Appalachian streams like Raccoon Creek should be 200 or less and began objecting to state-issued mine permits, Handshoe’s handheld meter has become a symbol of the Kentucky coal industry’s biggest environmental headache.

Since the guidance, two Kentucky mine operators have been issued an Army Corps of Engineers water-pollution permit. Both companies rejected the permits and are appealing their conditions. It’s taking 18 months or more to receive mine permits when 10 years ago, the worst case was six months, operators say.

A conductivity meter won’t tell you what’s in the water, just that there’s stuff in it.

Coal industry advocates say that’s the problem. They perform extensive tests and report monthly averages to the state over the life of their permits. They know how much manganese, iron and other minerals they’re discharging. They know how alkaline their water is, and they adjust additives every month to try to keep the water pollution within permitted levels.

But they say the conductivity benchmark of 200 to 500 microSiemens is impossible to meet by a coal mine or any other industry. Even runoff from building a house or salting a road in winter can raise the conductivity of nearby streams.

“I would like to think that you’ve got more than a guy rolling around with a handheld conductivity meter calling that real science,” said Paul Jackson of Perry County Coal, a subsidiary of TECO Coal.

Handshoe recognizes the strangeness of the situation.

He says he’s not pretending to know anything about water chemistry and biology, but he is learning. He has a GED and retired with disability after a back injury from the Kentucky State Police as a radio technician. He worked on transmission towers.

Handshoe says his goal is simply to know what’s in Raccoon Creek’s water, and he hopes to use that information to make sure it is safe and healthy for his neighbor’s kids to play in and for fish to swim in.

Environmental scientists consider conductivity measurements “a good first-cut test” to determine where to spend money on more expensive testing, said Rick Clewett, political director for the Cumberland Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Industry representatives say their regulators haven’t provided any options short of shutting down mines to solve the conductivity problem.

Conductivity is an important measure when it applies to the right kind of shallow, intermittent or headwater stream common in Appalachia, said Kentucky Environmental Protection Commissioner Bruce Scott. But it must be taken in context of other measures.

Jackson, of Perry County Coal, said streams are in better shape than they were years ago.

“I’ve seen streams clear up. I fish constantly, year-round, and I know there’s no significant impact to what we’re doing. I defy some of these people to say that streams aren’t better than what they were” decades ago before so-called “shoot-and-shove” mining was stopped, Jackson said.

Coal executives have taken to testing city tap water in Hazard (855 microSiemens on a dry November day), bottled drinking water (350 microSiemens), even Budweiser (1,250 microSiemens), to show that conductivity on its own isn’t a good measure of the ability of liquids to support life.

They say the EPA, in holding up permits based largely on data from what’s called the Pond-Passmore study of mayflies, is choosing one insect over the jobs of hundreds or thousands of Eastern Kentucky mine workers. The study found that conductivity of water in a particular kind of headwater stream in West Virginia correlated with the presence of certain species of mayflies that are low on the food chain and generally considered indicators of overall stream health.

“The argument was very broad” initially, said Gene Kitts, vice president of operations for ICG, Kentucky’s largest surface-mine coal producer. “They finally narrowed it down to an argument that they apparently thought had a chance of sticking, which was conductivity and its alleged effects on stream quality.

“They seemed to emphasize that any change to the stream itself is impairment.”

West Virginia and Kentucky, along with the National Mining Association, the Kentucky Coal Association and others, have sued the EPA over permits that it allowed one day and objected to the next, after the conductivity benchmark was issued.

If the conductivity benchmark continues to hold up mining permits, TECO Coal, a Florida power company subsidiary, will have to start laying off workers within a year, said Bob Zik, vice president of operations for TECO Coal.

“It’s not going to go boom,” he said. “As people run out of permits, it’s going to slowly start decreasing.”

Because of uncertainty of regulations, companies aren’t investing the capital in machines and equipment to maintain production and hiring levels that they’ve had over the past few years, Zik said.

Black Mountain Resources, bought this year by Massey Energy of Virginia, is waiting for a revision to a permit governing its Harlan County processing plant, which serves the company’s underground coal mines.

If it is required to stop working because it can’t meet conductivity benchmarks, said vice president of operations Ross Kegan, stoppages could affect the entire company in five to six years.

ICG has withdrawn two Eastern Kentucky permit applications that the EPA commented on, Kitts said. A third, in southern West Virginia, has been resubmitted in an attempt to comply with EPA directives, and a fourth, a modification of an existing fill in Knott County, Ky., is still in process, he said.

“We have had situations where we have cut back on production, laid people off and idled equipment due to delays” in getting Army Corps of Engineers pollution permits that have been delayed by the EPA, Kitts said. “We have changed mining plans, scaled back plans to a certain extent, to work around the permitting situation.”

Mines can sometimes use existing permitted fills to accept spoil from newly mined areas, he said.

Two Kentucky companies have been offered Army Corps of Engineers water impact permits since the April conductivity guidelines, but the companies have not accepted them.

The two companies, Czar Coal Corp. and Sapphire Mining, a subsidiary of United Coal, did not return phone calls seeking comment, but Army Corps of Engineers regulator Lee Ann Devine said the companies are appealing the permit requirements partly based on issues surrounding conductivity. It’s not that the permit requirements can’t be met, Devine said, but that the companies think that achieving the requirements isn’t economically feasible.

Research, by the University of Kentucky and others, shows promising results in reducing the conductivity of runoff from rebuilt surface mines. Using “weeping berms” that allow waters to seep through loose soil instead of spilling out of a sediment holding pond, for example, shows promise, said Scott, the state environmental protection commissioner. The problem is that permits must be approved before such methods can be tested in the real world, he said.

Many permits last for a given number of years and then must be renewed. The EPA has objected to 21 that the state approved in the past year, Scott said. Last month, the state sent the EPA a revised permit for Laurel Mountain Resources (formerly Miller Brothers Coal), which wants to add a sediment pond and several other ponds to its land around Handshoe’s Raccoon Creek. Last month, the state was revising 11 more permits to accommodate the conductivity benchmark, among other EPA objections, Scott said.

The Sierra Club provided Handshoe’s conductivity meter a year ago, before EPA benchmarks were handed down in April, and the club itself has tested water in Eastern Kentucky.

The club’s tests of Raccoon Creek in November, done as a favor to Handshoe, found high levels of aluminum, manganese and zinc, and high alkalinity and the presence of caustic soda, or lye, added to the water by the coal company to lower the acidity of the water.

Sierra Club Water Sentinels head Tim Guilfoile said he was glad not to find high levels of mercury or selenium, which can cause deformities and reproductive problems in aquatic life.

Clewett said the legal realm of conductivity isn’t a sure thing yet, so it’s unclear whether benchmarks set in April will stick.

“Things haven’t really shaken out there yet,” he said.

If they do stick, then environmentalists might have a cheaper tool in their box, but time will tell.

Cities take issue with water-quality proposal

December 30, 2010 by  
Filed under Water Quality

Cities are fighting proposed state water standards that they say would show no benefits while costing up to $6 billion.

State regulators must review water-quality rules every three years to ensure they provide as much protection as national standards. The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources has recommended lower levels of heavy metals such as zinc, copper and chromium in treated sewage to help protect shellfish and other aquatic life.

Other states have met the standards, said Nikki Schimizzi, a senior DENR environmental specialist. North Carolina is the only state in the region that has not adopted them, she said.

Cities worry about the potential for burdensome costs to utilities customers. The N.C. League of Municipalities, which did a financial study of the proposals, said costs to local governments could range from $590 million to more than $6 billion over 20 years.

The proposed standards aren’t based on real-life conditions in state waters, said Erin Wynia, a policy analyst for the league. Only the most expensive interventions would get treatment plants to the proposed limits, she said.

Regulators are collecting information on costs for an analysis that must be approved by the state Office of Budget and Management. Then, the proposed rules would go through public hearings and a vote of the state Environmental Management Commission. The process will take a year or more.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the new limits for zinc and copper would help protect the state’s freshwater mussels. The new standards also could help protect sensitive species not tested now, fish and wildlife officials said.

USDA seeks project proposals to improve water quality in Mississippi River Basin

December 20, 2010 by  
Filed under Water Quality

As part of its Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative, USDA is providing up to $40 million in financial assistance for new partnership projects in 43 priority watersheds in 13 states, including Arkansas.

USDA will use a competitive process to distribute the available funding through existing conservation programs such as the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative (CCPI) and the Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program (WREP).

The watersheds in Arkansas are Lake Conway-Point Remove, L’Anguille, Cache, Lower St. Francis, Bayou Macon, Boeuf River and Little River Ditches watersheds.

The Request for Proposals (RFP) for the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative was published in the Federal Register Nov. 29. Proposals are due by Jan. 28, 2011. The RFP explains the procedures for potential partners to sign agreements with USDA for projects that meet with the initiative’s objectives.

“Six projects were selected in Arkansas in fiscal year 2010. Arkansas NRCS funded 51 contracts on 24,871 acres for more than $5.3 million,” said Mike Sullivan, Arkansas state conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

A systems approach addresses nutrient runoff from multiple perspectives: avoid excess application of nutrients on fields; control the amount of nutrient runoff from fields into the watershed; and trap nutrients before they leave the field.

Through approved projects, eligible farmers and landowners will voluntarily implement conservation practices that avoid, control and trap nutrient runoff; improve wildlife habitat; restore wetlands; and maintain agricultural productivity.

Key conservation practices include nutrient management, conservation crop rotations and residue and tillage management. Farmers and landowners can also restore wetlands and plant trees along streams to filter nutrients out of water draining off the farm. On a voluntary basis, participants can use financial assistance to install edge-of-field monitoring systems in specific locations within the selected watersheds. This monitoring will allow NRCS to assess environmental outcomes of the project.

Applicants are encouraged to submit proposals electronically to MRBI-CCPI@wdc.usda.gov for CCPI and MRBI-WREP@wdc.usda.gov for WREP.

If submitting a paper proposal, the proposal should be mailed to: Troy Daniell, Initiatives Coordinator, Conservation Initiatives Team, Natural Resources Conservation Service, P.O. Box 2890, Washington, DC 20013, by Jan. 28, 2011.

Monitoring water quality a fluid exercise for utilities, EPA

December 20, 2010 by  
Filed under Water Quality

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) – Taking a drink of tap water may be something you take for granted, but today dozens of communities across the country learned their drinking water is loaded with Chromium-6, a cancer-causing agent.

While Tennessee was not included in the report, we talked to a few agencies about the amount of Chromium-6 in our own water supply.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, any level of Chromium above 100 parts per billion is in violation of federal regulations.

Officials at the Knoxville Utilities Board say they test their water at a higher level than the EPA and have no detectable traces of the carcinogen.

“We actually do test for total Chromium, which includes Chromium-6, and there isn’t any detectable Chromium or Chromium-6 in our drinking water here in Knoxville,” according to Debbie Ailey – Manager of Regulatory Compliance for KUB.

But a report released today by the Environmental Working Group, based in Washington, D.C., found that many cities across the U.S. do have levels of Chromium-6. It’s the same contaminant talked about in the 2000 movie “Erin Brockovich,” starring Julia Roberts and based on a court case with an attorney by the same name.

Renee Hoyos is executive director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network. She says monitoring water quality depends on the chemicals we know about today. And while it’s good news that Tennessee appears to be safe from the threat of Chromium-6, the EPA’s standards can always improve.

“It’s what we’ve got now,” said Hoyos. “It doesn’t seem to be a problem, but tomorrow is another day. We could find a terrible source of it from somewhere.”

The report was based on states that provided information for a 2009 water quality study. The lead author of the study tells us Tennessee did not report findings and thus were not included in the study for Chromium-6.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation tells us they will look into the matter.

To read the report from the Environmental Working Group or to see KUB’s Water Quality Report, click on the links below.