Doomsday Clock Moves Closer to Midnight As California's Last Active Nuke Plant Puts Millions at Risk
Humanity’s clock is ticking but few in power seem to recognize how late it’s getting. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has been keeping time though with their “Doomsday Clock,” established in 1947 to convey threats to humanity and the planet in the new atomic age launched by the Manhattan Project two years before. Widely recognized as an indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, global climate change and other emerging technologies, the Doomsday Clock was moved forward two minutes in January to 11:57 p.m. It’s the closest the clock has been to midnight since the height of the Cold War in 1984.
“The clock ticks now at just three minutes to midnight because international leaders are failing to perform their most important duty—ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilization,” the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board stated in their announcement. “The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon."
Global climate change and the nuclear weapons industry were listed as the primary threats, but the Bulletin’s analysis also cited “the leadership failure on nuclear power.” The Bulletin noted that “the international community has not developed coordinated plans to meet the challenges that nuclear power faces in terms of cost, safety, radioactive waste management, and proliferation risk.” The triple meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant in 2011 brought the issue to global attention after an unpredictable earthquake stronger than the plant was built to withstand overwhelmed the reactors in conjunction with a massive tsunami. This unprecedented disaster even led the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to establish a Fukushima Lessons Learned Division. But the situation at California’s last remaining active nuclear plant has generated widespread concern about whether the NRC has learned anything at all from Fukushima.
Diablo Canyon—An American nuclear plant with troubling similarities to Fukushima
The Diablo Canyon Power Plant near scenic San Luis Obispo on the Golden State’s central coast sits in an area where several new fault lines have been discovered over the decades. Controversy flared in 2014 due to revelations about regulatory safety questions from the plant’s former senior resident inspector Michael Peck, who served in that role from 2007-12. Peck became concerned that new seismic data suggested the plant was operating outside the safety margins of its license. He issued a non-concurrence in 2012, a Dissenting Professional Opinion in 2013 and a DPO Appeal in 2014. Debate between Peck and his bosses at the NRC has centered around what methodology should be used to determine whether the plant could survive a massive quake it might not be built to withstand.
“I wrote the non-concurrence, DPO, and the Appeal to draw attention to the failure of the NRC to enforce nuclear safety rules and license requirements at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant. These requirements include the regulatory safeguards relied on to protect California residents from a radiation release following a major earthquake,” Peck said in a recent interview by both phone and email.
He went on to explain how NRC regulations require a plant’s operating license to be amended before “non-conservative” changes are applied to safety analysis methodologies, yet PG&E had been allowed to make such changes without a license amendment.
“PG&E completed a reevaluation of Diablo Canyon seismology in January 2011. This reevaluation concluded that three local faults were capable of exceeding equipment seismic qualification limits established by the facility design basis. In September 2014, PG&E completed an additional reevaluation as mandated by California Assembly Bill 1632. This latest reevaluation revealed that several of these faults are even more capable than previously considered,” Peck explained. “PG&E created the appearance that the facility design basis remained satisfied by presenting the reevaluation results using less conservative methods than specified in the facility license. While these new methods and assumptions may or may not be technically justifiable, NRC rules required that PG&E first obtain an amendment to the Operating License before they were used in facility safety analyses. When applying the licensed methodology, the new seismic data results in stress levels on important equipment well in excess of safety limits. As a result, key safety barriers protecting the public from a radiation release may fail following a major earthquake.”
Peck went against the politically desired outcome because PG&E was no longer adhering to the parameters of the plant’s license and the NRC was no longer enforcing it.
“Bypassing this regulatory framework was not only irresponsible but also represented a serious violation of the public trust. The amendment process also would have provided public notice and hearing opportunities for these facility safety analysis changes that directly affect the principle safety barriers for ensuring public protection from radiation,” Peck added.
The NRC put together a three-person “independent” panel to rule on Peck’s DPO. Eric Leeds, director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, appointed Mike Case, director from the Division of Engineering in the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research, as panel chair. Peck, as DPO submitter, was entitled to recommend one panel member and selected NRC’s Rudolph Bernhard, a senior reactor analyst. The other panel member selected by Leeds, Brit Hill, is a bit more curious. Hill is COO of NUTECH Energy Alliance, a Houston-based oilfield services company. He previously spent 13 years working for the notorious Halliburton Company, before moving on to NUTECH (which was co-founded by former Halliburton execs). NRC spokesperson Lara Uselding says Hill has relevant seismic experience and has worked with NRC for almost a decade.
The panel apparently spent almost a year analyzing Peck’s DPO before rejecting it in May of 2014 and declaring that PG&E had satisfied all regulatory requirements. A primary issue for Peck was a difference of opinion about Diablo Canyon’s Safe Shutdown Earthquake (SSE), the level of seismic activity the plant could withstand. Peck says the panel used “circular logic” in justifying a change to the seismic standard that conflicted with the facility’s license application (FSAR) and then used that assumption to support their conclusion.
“When I asked the Panel Chairman (Mike Case) the basis for their assumption, he directed me to a recently changed FSAR Section (Revision 21). NRC regulations (10 CFR 50.59) required PG&E to first obtain an amendment to the Operating License before changing either the facility design basis or using a less conservative methodology or input assumptions in safety analyses that demonstrate that the design basis is satisfied. So, the basis the Panel chairman provided was built on an unauthorized change of the Operating License by PG&E,” Peck says.
Peck’s concerns about circular logic by the NRC drew support of varying parties such as the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and environmental non-profit Friends of the Earth.
Dave Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the UCS, authored a November 2013 report, “Seismic Shift: Diablo Canyon Literally and Figuratively on Shaky Ground,” in which he backed Peck’s concerns and voiced some of his own. “Of the 100 reactors currently operating in the U.S., the two at Diablo Canyon top the NRC’s list as being most likely to experience an earthquake larger than they are designed to withstand,” wrote Lochbaum.
He cited figures indicating that “the Diablo Canyon reactors are more than 10 times more likely to experience an earthquake larger than they are designed to withstand than the average U.S. reactor” and he calculated that “the chance such a large earthquake will occur at Diablo Canyon over the 40-year lifetime of the plant is … about 1 in 6—which is a toss of a die.”
“PG&E sought to have the NRC increase the SSE value to a level PG&E believed its reactors could withstand, but that had not been justified by a rigorous analysis meeting the NRC’s regulatory standards,” Lochbaum wrote. “David Copperfield and other magicians get paid when performing such feats of illusion. PG&E also gets paid for its illusion from the revenue generated by the continuing operation of Diablo Canyon’s two reactors.”
Lochbaum used the NRC’s seismic data to calculate that Diablo Canyon could be expected to suffer an earthquake larger than its SSE every 256 years. Reached by email, he put that number into context by comparing it with what happened at Fukushima.
“That seems like a fairly rare event. But for comparison, the odds that Fukushima would experience a tsunami as large as it experienced on March 11, 2011, were about one such tsunami every 1,000 years or so ... So, Diablo Canyon is nearly four times more likely to experience an earthquake larger than its SSE than Fukushima was to experience its devastating tsunami,” Lochbaum explained.
Peck submitted an appeal to the DPO decision in June of 2014, stating that the decision appeared to be built around a misunderstanding of the plant’s license requirements and agency rules. But his concerns were again rejected. “I have exhausted the NRC processes for raising nuclear safety concerns,” Peck wrote in an editorial for the Santa Barbara Independent in September. “I was left with the impression that the NRC may have applied a different standard to Diablo Canyon.”
Part of the NRC’s justification for rejecting Peck’s appeal is that Peck agreed in a meeting last summer with Mark Satorius, the NRC’s Executive Director for Operations, that there is “no immediate or significant safety issue” at Diablo Canyon.
“I was only agreeing that there wasn’t an imminent threat of a core meltdown,” Peck says, standing by his concerns that the plant continues to operate outside the safety margins of its license. “We consider an immediate safety issue one requiring immediate intervention to protect the public from an imminent or potential release of radioactive material. We consider a significant safety issue one representing an increase of core damage probability in the range of about one in a hundred. The probability of a large earthquake at Diablo Canyon is outside of this frequency range.”
“That said, NRC regulations require the plant design basis to ensure important plant structures, systems, and components are designed to withstand the effects of the most severe earthquake reported for the site and surrounding area. PG&E’s new seismic evaluations indicated that local faults can produce about twice the ground motion established by the facility license. While a major earthquake is unlikely to occur, as we saw in Japan, the consequence to the local population can be quite severe,” Peck added. “The lack of an ‘immediate or significant safety issue’ does not justify the failure of the NRC to enforce agency regulations and license requirements at Diablo Canyon ...”
Lochbaum backed Peck again in another report for the UCS last August, citing information that UCS had acquired from the NRC through Freedom of Information Act requests. “It is clear and undeniable that Dr. Peck’s findings are correct: the company’s [PG&E] evaluation of the Shoreline Fault and its implications on safety at Diablo Canyon is incomplete and does not use methods and assumptions accepted by the NRC,” Lochbaum concluded.
A Congressional hearing debates the diabolical questions at Diablo Canyon
Peck’s dissent drew the attention of California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who made Diablo Canyon a focal point of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s Dec. 3 hearing on “NRC’s Implementation of the Fukushima Near-Term Task Force Recommendations and Other Actions to Maintain and Enhance Nuclear Safety.” Daniel Hirsch, who lectures on nuclear policy at the University of California-Santa Cruz, testified and compared the situation at Diablo Canyon with Fukushima to illustrate the NRC’s failure to learn from the Japanese disaster.
“In the Diablo case, the decisions have turned out to be erroneous, over and over again. And yet the pattern is repeated, over and over again. How many times do they get to be wrong before something changes?” Hirsch asked. “Unless we fix these problems—of regulated entities pressing for exceptions to and weakening of safety requirements and of regulators viewing themselves more as advocates for and allies of the industry they are to regulate rather than primarily protectors of public safety—we will not have learned the lessons of Fukushima.”
Hirsch went on to elaborate on the historical pattern of political interference and subterfuge at Diablo Canyon.
“NRC and PG&E attempt to avoid public licensing hearings on the critical seismic issues. Overly optimistic assumptions are thus chosen, only to be, time and time again, disproven by newly discovered scientific facts. Rather than shut the plant down or require sufficient upgrades to address the newly revealed seismic challenges, NRC and PG&E carve more and more safety margins out of the design, using ever less conservative (i.e., less protective) assumptions and methodologies. And they try to do this behind closed doors, with the public locked out of their right to evidentiary hearings … The problem is that nature may not go along with the regulatory fictions. As at Fukushima, an earthquake larger than the plant can withstand could occur at any moment. And as at Fukushima, it will not be an act of nature, but a man-made disaster, caused by the failure of our institutions. “
Tony Pietrangelo, Senior Vice President and Chief Nuclear Officer at the Nuclear Energy Institute, testified along with NRC commissioners in support of PG&E and NRC’s decisions at Diablo Canyon. “Differing professional opinions do occur among the 4,000 staff at the NRC, and the NRC has a process for addressing them. In this case, the conclusion was that, ‘there is not now nor has there ever been an immediate safety concern’ with this issue at Diablo Canyon. In addition, the panel concluded that older analytical techniques were overly conservative and no longer technically justified since the license at Diablo Canyon allows for newer technologies to be used,” Pietrangelo said.
Peck doesn’t doubt “that the geo-science has improved greatly since the 1980s,” but he remains steadfast that PG&E is still violating the terms of Diablo Canyon’s license.
“PG&E didn't even bother to ask for NRC permission to use the new methods associated with the September 2014 data. They just went ahead and used them. Remember, the plant would be shut down if PG&E used the methods and inputs required by the license,” Peck points out.
PG&E stands by their seismic data, asserting that they have completed exhaustive research to confirm Diablo Canyon is not vulnerable to a potential earthquake stronger than it’s designed to withstand.
“As the NRC confirmed in the hearing, Diablo Canyon is being operated safely and is in compliance with its seismic licensing requirements,” PG&E spokesperson Blair Jones said to the media after the hearing, adding that the company’s Long Term Seismic Program (LTSP) continues to assess seismic safety at the plant. “The LTSP is a unique program in the U.S. commercial nuclear power plant industry. It is comprised of a geosciences team of professionals who partner with independent seismic experts on an ongoing basis to evaluate regional geology and global seismic events to ensure the facility remains safe. Because of our LTSP and decades of industry-leading research, the seismic region around Diablo Canyon is among the most studied and understood areas in the nation.”
Daniel Hirsch’s argument that NRC management has greater allegiance to profits than safety gained further ammunition in the early part of 2015 when American diplomats at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Convention on Nuclear Safety were blamed for rejecting a Swiss-led European Union proposal to strengthen international nuclear safety rules.
“Opposition to the Swiss proposal mirrors the situation of the international nuclear industry,” Paris-based Mycle Schneider, lead author of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report, told Bloomberg.com. “Nuclear operators are confronted with severely shrinking profit margins everywhere.”
The U.S. delegation insisted that it did not oppose the initiative due to increasing costs and market losses to the nuclear industry, saying that current upgrades are adequate. But watchdog group Beyond Nuclear took issue, noting that the NRC had already shown its hand by rejecting another reactor safety upgrade recommendation from its own Japan Lessons Learned Task Force.
“The lesson, now unlearned by the Commission, would have ordered all U.S. operators of Fukushima-style reactors (GE Mark I and Mark II boiling water reactors) to install high capacity external radiation filters for hardened vents on the vulnerable containment systems,” reported BeyondNuclear.org. “Senior staff had concluded that installing external filters was ‘a cost-benefited substantial safety enhancement’ to more reliably manage the next severe nuclear accident by venting the extreme heat, high pressure, explosive gases while still significantly reducing the consequences by capturing large amounts of radioactivity. However, the UBS international energy investment bank had earlier predicted that the Commission would likely vote down its senior managers’ recommendation because of the ‘added stress this places on the incumbent’s portfolio’ and ‘the fragile state of affairs’ of their licensees' financial and economic condition.”
As for Michael Peck, he now works as a senior instructor at the NRC’s Technical Training Center in Tennessee, a position he applied for after he saw the writing on the wall at Diablo Canyon.
“I went from being the ‘senior resident inspector’ to having both performance and conduct issues after I submitted the non-concurrence,” Peck explains about his departure from Diablo Canyon. “I felt that [NRC] Region IV was setting me up to involuntarily reassign me to their Dallas-Fort Worth office. Over the years, I’ve seen it happen to many other inspectors. So, rather than wait for the other shoe to drop, I applied and was selected for the position in Chattanooga. I’m sure that had I not filed the non-concurrence or DPO, I would still be a senior resident inspector.”
It looks like the controversial status of Diablo Canyon will be decided in the courts. Washington, DC-based non-profit Friends of the Earth has filed a lawsuit against the NRC in the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the court that reviews decisions of federal agencies. The lawsuit asks the court to order the NRC to conduct public hearings on the amending of Diablo Canyon’s license and to shut down the plant until that process concludes.
The NRC motioned to have the case dismissed but on February 20 the D.C. Circuit ruled not to grant the motion and that the case should be heard on its merits. “This is a big victory,” said Damon Moglen, senior strategic advisor for Friends of the Earth, in a press release. “The public has a right to know what the NRC and PG&E won’t admit—hundreds of thousands of people are put at immediate risk by earthquake danger at Diablo Canyon.”
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By Frank La Sorte and Kyle Horton
Millions of birds travel between their breeding and wintering grounds during spring and autumn migration, creating one of the greatest spectacles of the natural world. These journeys often span incredible distances. For example, the Blackpoll warbler, which weighs less than half an ounce, may travel up to 1,500 miles between its nesting grounds in Canada and its wintering grounds in the Caribbean and South America.
Blackpoll warbler. PJTurgeon / Wikipedia<p>We used this information to determine how the number of migratory bird species varies based on each city's level of <a href="https://www.britannica.com/science/light-pollution" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">light pollution</a> – brightening of the night sky caused by artificial light sources, such as buildings and streetlights. We also explored how species numbers vary based on the quantity of tree canopy cover and impervious surface, such as concrete and asphalt, within each city. Our findings show that cities can help migrating birds by planting more trees and reducing light pollution, especially during spring and autumn migration.</p>
Declining Bird Populations<p>Urban areas contain numerous dangers for migratory birds. The biggest threat is the risk of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1650/CONDOR-13-090.1" target="_blank">colliding with buildings or communication towers</a>. Many migratory bird populations have <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw1313" target="_blank">declined over the past 50 years</a>, and it is possible that light pollution from cities is contributing to these losses.</p><p>Scientists widely agree that light pollution can <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1708574114" target="_blank">severely disorient migratory birds</a> and make it hard for them to navigate. Studies have shown that birds will cluster around brightly lit structures, much like insects flying around a porch light at night. Cities are the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.2029" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">primary source of light pollution for migratory birds</a>, and these species tend to be more abundant within cities <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/gcb.13792" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">during migration</a>, especially in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2020.103892" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">city parks</a>.</p>
Composite image of the continental U.S. at night from satellite photos. NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Román, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
The Power of Citizen Science<p>It's not easy to observe and document bird migration, especially for species that migrate at night. The main challenge is that many of these species are very small, which limits scientists' ability to use electronic tracking devices.</p><p>With the growth of the internet and other information technologies, new data resources are becoming available that are making it possible to overcome some of these challenges. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-07106-5" target="_blank">Citizen science initiatives</a> in which volunteers use online portals to enter their observations of the natural world have become an important resource for researchers.</p><p>One such initiative, <a href="https://ebird.org/home" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird</a>, allows bird-watchers around the globe to share their observations from any location and time. This has produced one of the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/ecog.04632" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">largest ecological citizen-science databases in the world</a>. To date, eBird contains over 922 million bird observations compiled by over 617,000 participants.</p>
Light Pollution Both Attracts and Repels Migratory Birds<p>Migratory bird species have evolved to use certain migration routes and types of habitat, such as forests, grasslands or marshes. While humans may enjoy seeing migratory birds appear in urban areas, it's generally not good for bird populations. In addition to the many hazards that exist in urban areas, cities typically lack the food resources and cover that birds need during migration or when raising their young. As scientists, we're concerned when we see evidence that migratory birds are being drawn away from their traditional migration routes and natural habitats.</p><p>Through our analysis of eBird data, we found that cities contained the greatest numbers of migratory bird species during spring and autumn migration. Higher levels of light pollution were associated with more species during migration – evidence that light pollution attracts migratory birds to cities across the U.S. This is cause for concern, as it shows that the influence of light pollution on migratory behavior is strong enough to increase the number of species that would normally be found in urban areas.</p><p>In contrast, we found that higher levels of light pollution were associated with fewer migratory bird species during the summer and winter. This is likely due to the scarcity of suitable habitat in cities, such as large forest patches, in combination with the adverse affects of light pollution on bird behavior and health. In addition, during these seasons, migratory birds are active only during the day and their populations are largely stationary, creating few opportunities for light pollution to attract them to urban areas.</p>
Trees and Pavement<p>We found that tree canopy cover was associated with more migratory bird species during spring migration and the summer. Trees provide important habitat for migratory birds during migration and the breeding season, so the presence of trees can have a strong effect on the number of migratory bird species that occur in cities.</p><p>Finally, we found that higher levels of impervious surface were associated with more migratory bird species during the winter. This result is somewhat surprising. It could be a product of the <a href="https://www.epa.gov/heatislands" target="_blank">urban heat island effect</a> – the fact that structures and paved surfaces in cities absorb and reemit more of the sun's heat than natural surfaces. Replacing vegetation with buildings, roads and parking lots can therefore make cities significantly warmer than surrounding lands. This effect could reduce cold stress on birds and increase food resources, such as insect populations, during the winter.</p><p>Our research adds to our understanding of how conditions in cities can both help and hurt migratory bird populations. We hope that our findings will inform urban planning initiatives and strategies to reduce the harmful effects of cities on migratory birds through such measures as <a href="https://www.arborday.org/programs/treecityusa/index.cfm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">planting more trees</a> and initiating <a href="https://aeroecolab.com/uslights" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">lights-out programs</a>. Efforts to make it easier for migratory birds to complete their incredible journeys will help maintain their populations into the future.</p><p><em><span style="background-color: initial;"><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/frank-la-sorte-1191494" target="_blank">Frank La Sorte</a> is a r</span>esearch associate at the </em><em>Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University. <a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/kyle-horton-1191498" target="_blank">Kyle Horton</a> is an assistant professor of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology at the Colorado State University.</em></p><p><em></em><em>Disclosure statement: Frank La Sorte receives funding from The Wolf Creek Charitable Foundation and the National Science Foundation (DBI-1939187). K</em><em>yle Horton does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/cities-can-help-migrating-birds-on-their-way-by-planting-more-trees-and-turning-lights-off-at-night-152573" target="_blank">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Lynne Peeples
Editor's note: This story is part of a nine-month investigation of drinking water contamination across the U.S. The series is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. Read the launch story, "Thirsting for Solutions," here.
In late September 2020, officials in Wrangell, Alaska, warned residents who were elderly, pregnant or had health problems to avoid drinking the city's tap water — unless they could filter it on their own.
Unintended Consequences<p>Chemists first discovered disinfection by-products in treated drinking water in the 1970s. The trihalomethanes they found, they determined, had resulted from the reaction of chlorine with natural organic matter. Since then, scientists have identified more than 700 additional disinfection by-products. "And those only represent a portion. We still don't know half of them," says Richardson, whose lab has identified hundreds of disinfection by-products. </p>
What’s Regulated and What’s Not?<p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently regulates 11 disinfection by-products — including a handful of trihalomethanes (THM) and haloacetic acids (HAA). While these represent only a small fraction of all disinfection by-products, EPA aims to use their presence to indicate the presence of other disinfection by-products. "The general idea is if you control THMs and HAAs, you implicitly or by default control everything else as well," says Korshin.</p><p>EPA also requires drinking water facilities to use techniques to reduce the concentration of organic materials before applying disinfectants, and regulates the quantity of disinfectants that systems use. These rules ultimately can help control levels of disinfection by-products in drinking water.</p>
Click the image for an interactive version of this chart on the Environmental Working Group website.<p>Still, some scientists and advocates argue that current regulations do not go far enough to protect the public. Many question whether the government is regulating the right disinfection by-products, and if water systems are doing enough to reduce disinfection by-products. EPA is now seeking public input as it considers potential revisions to regulations, including the possibility of regulating additional by-products. The agency held a <a href="https://www.epa.gov/dwsixyearreview/potential-revisions-microbial-and-disinfection-byproducts-rules" target="_blank">two-day public meeting</a> in October 2020 and plans to hold additional public meetings throughout 2021.</p><p>When EPA set regulations on disinfection by-products between the 1970s and early 2000s, the agency, as well as the scientific community, was primarily focused on by-products of reactions between organics and chlorine — historically the most common drinking water disinfectant. But the science has become increasingly clear that these chlorinated chemicals represent a fraction of the by-product problem.</p><p>For example, bromide or iodide can get caught up in the reaction, too. This is common where seawater penetrates a drinking water source. By itself, bromide is innocuous, says Korshin. "But it is extremely [reactive] with organics," he says. "As bromide levels increase with normal treatment, then concentrations of brominated disinfection by-products will increase quite rapidly."</p><p><a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15487777/" target="_blank">Emerging</a> <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.7b05440" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">data</a> indicate that brominated and iodinated by-products are potentially more harmful than the regulated by-products.</p><p>Almost half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of either the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, where saltwater intrusion can be a problem for drinking water supplies. "In the U.S., the rule of thumb is the closer to the sea, the more bromide you have," says Korshin, noting there are also places where bromide naturally leaches out from the soil. Still, some coastal areas tend to be spared. For example, the city of Seattle's water comes from the mountains, never making contact with seawater and tending to pick up minimal organic matter.</p><p>Hazardous disinfection by-products can also be an issue with desalination for drinking water. "As <a href="https://ensia.com/features/can-saltwater-quench-our-growing-thirst/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">desalination</a> practices become more economical, then the issue of controlling bromide becomes quite important," adds Korshin.</p>
Other Hot Spots<p>Coastal areas represent just one type of hot spot for disinfection by-products. Agricultural regions tend to send organic matter — such as fertilizer and animal waste — into waterways. Areas with warmer climates generally have higher levels of natural organic matter. And nearly any urban area can be prone to stormwater runoff or combined sewer overflows, which can contain rainwater as well as untreated human waste, industrial wastewater, hazardous materials and organic debris. These events are especially common along the East Coast, notes Sydney Evans, a science analyst with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG, a collaborator on <a href="https://ensia.com/ensia-collections/troubled-waters/" target="_blank">this reporting project</a>).</p><p>The only drinking water sources that might be altogether free of disinfection by-products, suggests Richardson, are private wells that are not treated with disinfectants. She used to drink water from her own well. "It was always cold, coming from great depth through clay and granite," she says. "It was fabulous."</p><p>Today, Richardson gets her water from a city system that uses chloramine.</p>
Toxic Treadmill<p>Most community water systems in the U.S. use chlorine for disinfection in their treatment plant. Because disinfectants are needed to prevent bacteria growth as the water travels to the homes at the ends of the distribution lines, sometimes a second round of disinfection is also added in the pipes.</p><p>Here, systems usually opt for either chlorine or chloramine. "Chloramination is more long-lasting and does not form as many disinfection by-products through the system," says Steve Via, director of federal relations at the American Water Works Association. "Some studies show that chloramination may be more protective against organisms that inhabit biofilms such as Legionella."</p>
Alternative Approaches<p>When he moved to the U.S. from Germany, Prasse says he immediately noticed the bad taste of the water. "You can taste the chlorine here. That's not the case in Germany," he says.</p><p>In his home country, water systems use chlorine — if at all — at lower concentrations and at the very end of treatment. In the Netherlands, <a href="https://dwes.copernicus.org/articles/2/1/2009/dwes-2-1-2009.pdf" target="_blank">chlorine isn't used at all</a> as the risks are considered to outweigh the benefits, says Prasse. He notes the challenge in making a convincing connection between exposure to low concentrations of disinfection by-products and health effects, such as cancer, that can occur decades later. In contrast, exposure to a pathogen can make someone sick very quickly.</p><p>But many countries in Europe have not waited for proof and have taken a precautionary approach to reduce potential risk. The emphasis there is on alternative approaches for primary disinfection such as ozone or <a href="https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/eco-friendly-way-disinfect-water-using-light/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ultraviolet light</a>. Reverse osmosis is among the "high-end" options, used to remove organic and inorganics from the water. While expensive, says Prasse, the method of forcing water through a semipermeable membrane is growing in popularity for systems that want to reuse wastewater for drinking water purposes.</p><p>Remucal notes that some treatment technologies may be good at removing a particular type of contaminant while being ineffective at removing another. "We need to think about the whole soup when we think about treatment," she says. What's more, Remucal explains, the mixture of contaminants may impact the body differently than any one chemical on its own. </p><p>Richardson's preferred treatment method is filtering the water with granulated activated carbon, followed by a low dose of chlorine.</p><p>Granulated activated carbon is essentially the same stuff that's in a household filter. (EWG recommends that consumers use a <a href="https://www.ewg.org/tapwater/reviewed-disinfection-byproducts.php#:~:text=EWG%20recommends%20using%20a%20home,as%20trihalomethanes%20and%20haloacetic%20acids." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countertop carbon filter</a> to reduce levels of disinfection by-products.) While such a filter "would remove disinfection by-products after they're formed, in the plant they remove precursors before they form by-products," explains Richardson. She coauthored a <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.9b00023" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019 paper</a> that concluded the treatment method is effective in reducing a wide range of regulated and unregulated disinfection by-products.</p><br>
Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992, and is still one of relatively few full-scale plants that uses the technology. Courtesy of Greater Cincinnati Water Works.<p>Despite the technology and its benefits being known for decades, relatively few full-scale plants use granulated active carbon. They often cite its high cost, Richardson says. "They say that, but the city of Cincinnati [Ohio] has not gone bankrupt using it," she says. "So, I'm not buying that argument anymore."</p><p>Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992. On a video call in December, Jeff Swertfeger, the superintendent of Greater Cincinnati Water Works, poured grains of what looks like black sand out of a glass tube and into his hand. It was actually crushed coal that has been baked in a furnace. Under a microscope, each grain looks like a sponge, said Swertfeger. When water passes over the carbon grains, he explained, open tunnels and pores provide extensive surface area to absorb contaminants.</p><p>While the granulated activated carbon initially was installed to address chemical spills and other industrial contamination concerns in the Ohio River, Cincinnati's main drinking water source, Swertfeger notes that the substance has turned out to "remove a lot of other stuff, too," including <a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-contamination-pfas-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">PFAS</a> and disinfection by-product precursors.</p><p>"We use about one-third the amount of chlorine as we did before. It smells and tastes a lot better," he says. "The use of granulated activated carbon has resulted in lower disinfection by-products across the board."</p><p>Richardson is optimistic about being able to reduce risks from disinfection by-products in the future. "If we're smart, we can still kill those pathogens and lower our chemical disinfection by-product exposure at the same time," she says.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-disinfection-byproducts-pathogens/" target="_blank">Ensia</a>. </em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649953730#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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