Puget Soundkeeper Alliance Settles Clean Water Act Suit with BNSF Railway
After a multi-year legal challenge, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance (Soundkeeper) has entered one of the country’s largest Clean Water Act settlements involving the discharge of stormwater pollution. As part of a settlement of Federal Clean Water Act claims, BNSF Railway Company (BNSF) agreed to pay $1.5 million to a third-party organization to fund Puget Sound restoration and pollution mitigation projects. Soundkeeper had earlier obtained a court ruling establishing that BNSF had illegally discharged industrial stormwater from a Seattle facility to Puget Sound. The case is pending before the Honorable John Coughenour in the Federal Court for the Western District of Washington, located in Seattle.
“Stormwater pollution is killing Puget Sound. The size of this settlement is one of the largest ever in a citizen enforcement action involving stormwater discharges. It sends a strong message that stormwater pollution is an important issue and has serious consequences for polluters,” said Chris Wilke, Puget Soundkeeper and executive director at Puget Soundkeeper Alliance.
As described in the proposed Consent Decree submitted Dec. 21 to a Washington federal judge, BNSF has implemented numerous measures since the lawsuit was filed to help ensure compliance with the Clean Water Act in future discharges to Elliott Bay. By law, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have 45 days to review the agreement before it may be signed into legal effect as an order of the court.
The case involves stormwater discharges from BNSF’s Balmer Yard facility, located between Seattle’s Queen Anne and Magnolia neighborhoods. The facility discharges industrial stormwater to Elliott Bay near the public beach at Smith Cove Park. The facility is operated by Texas-based BNSF, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway.
Industrial stormwater can contain toxic levels of heavy metals, such as copper, zinc and lead, as well as oils and suspended solids. Elliott Bay is identified by state and federal agencies as providing critical habitat for threatened Chinook salmon and is home or a migration route to other species including coho salmon, sixgill shark, octopus, lingcod, marbled murrelet, harbor seals, harbor porpoise and orca whales. Polluted stormwater runoff is the number-one source of toxic loading in the Puget Sound, according to a recent study by the Department of Ecology. Heavy metals, especially copper, are particularly dangerous to the survival of salmon species, which are highly valued culturally and economically by the people of the Puget Sound Region.
Soundkeeper filed the suit against BNSF in July of 2009 under the Clean Water Act’s “citizen suit” provision, which authorizes concerned citizens to step in and enforce its provisions to protect public waterways when public agencies fail to do so. Soundkeeper alleged that BNSF was in violation of its Clean Water Act permit regulating discharges of industrial stormwater from the Balmer Yard facility. Soundkeeper amended the complaint in August 2010 to add claims that BNSF’s unpermitted discharges of industrial stormwater from the Balmer Yard violated the Clean Water Act.
“We identified the Balmer Yard because BNSF had consistently reported concentrations of heavy metals in its discharges far exceeding the thresholds set by its permit,” said Wilke of Soundkeeper. “These pollutant levels were particularly concerning because a facility as large as the Balmer Yard can discharge a significant amount of industrial stormwater to Puget Sound.” Wilke said this is an important step in the long process to clean up toxic stormwater discharges to the Puget Sound, which is identified as a high priority in the recovery of the Puget Sound by state and federal agencies.
Federal Judge John Coughenour entered an order in August of 2011 finding BNSF liable for extensive violations of the Clean Water Act, including for discharging industrial stormwater without a permit and for failing to implement required stormwater pollution control measures.
Soundkeeper was represented in the lawsuit by the Seattle law firm of Smith & Lowney, which focuses on environmental and public interest law. “This settlement shows that the Clean Water Act is a potent tool for holding industry accountable for illegal stormwater pollution. We hope the size of this settlement encourages businesses and governments to tackle their stormwater problems,” said Brian Knutsen, the lead attorney on the case.
The Consent Decree filed Dec. 21 contains provisions for recovering damages to the environment and ensuring compliance with the Clean Water Act at the facility. The Consent Decree recognizes that since the case was filed, BNSF has taken significant actions to improve its management of stormwater on its site, including developing a stormwater pollution prevention plan, coating roofs to minimize zinc pollution, stabilizing banks to minimize soil erosion, and taking other actions to prevent and control spills and minimize rain contact with sources of contamination.
BNSF must pay a total of $1.5 million to a new Puget Sound Stewardship and Mitigation Fund established by the Rose Foundation, which will award grants for environmental restoration projects in Puget Sound. “This new fund will help support important work to protect the waters of Puget Sound,” said Rose Foundation director Tim Little. “The money will be put to good use in protecting water quality and rebuilding habitat for endangered salmon for years to come.”
The federal court will retain jurisdiction over the case to enforce the requirements of the consent decree, which includes the requirement that BNSF comply with the terms of its stormwater discharge permit.
For more information, click here.
The mission of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance is to protect and preserve Puget Sound through monitoring, engagement, enforcement and partnership. Puget Soundkeeper is a licensed member of the 200-member international Waterkeeper Alliance, which fights to protect waterways around the world. Puget Soundkeeper Alliance does not receive any money from this settlement, despite the intense involvement of its staff and several board members over the years of litigation.
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By Ana Maldonado-Contreras
- Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.
- Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.
- New research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.
You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
How Do Resident Bacteria Keep You Healthy?<p>Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.</p><p>Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1019378108" target="_blank">combating viral infection and modulating the immune response</a>.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184976" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In another study</a>, mice were fed <em>Lactobacillus</em> bacteria, commonly used as probiotic in fermented food. These microbes reduced the severity of influenza infection. The <em>Lactobacillus</em>-treated mice did not lose weight and had only mild lung damage compared with untreated mice. Similarly, others have found that treatment of mice with <em>Lactobacillus</em> protects against different <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/srep04638" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">subtypes of</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17487-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">influenza</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">virus</a> and human respiratory syncytial virus – the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39602-7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">major cause of viral bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children</a>.</p>
Chronic Disease and Microbes<p>Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.</p><p>In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">immune cells</a> that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1002601107" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">babies delivered by cesarean section</a>, individuals consuming a poor <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12820" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">diet</a> and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11053" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elderly</a>.</p><p>In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them</a>. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.</p><p>Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.</p><p>Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, <a href="https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/melody-trial-info/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">my lab studies show how diet can be used</a> as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.</p><p>A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Old age</a> and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.</p><p><a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2008.12.019" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease</a>, all of which are linked to poor nutrition. Thus, it is not a coincidence that <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6933e1.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these groups have suffered more deaths from COVID-19</a> compared with whites. This is the case not only in the U.S. but also <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/blacks-in-britain-are-four-times-as-likely-to-die-of-coronavirus-as-whites-data-show/2020/05/07/2dc76710-9067-11ea-9322-a29e75effc93_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in Britain</a>.</p>
Discovering Microbes That Predict COVID-19 Severity<p>The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.</p><p>My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates <a href="https://theconversation.com/exercise-may-help-reduce-risk-of-deadly-covid-19-complication-ards-136922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">acute respiratory distress syndrome</a>.</p><p>Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung injury, in SARS-CoV-2 patients is thought to develop from a <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cytogfr.2020.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fatal overreaction of the immune response</a> called a <a href="https://theconversation.com/blocking-the-deadly-cytokine-storm-is-a-vital-weapon-for-treating-covid-19-137690" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cytokine storm</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">that causes an uncontrolled flood</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of immune cells into the lungs</a>. In these patients, their own uncontrolled inflammatory immune response, rather than the virus itself, causes the <a href="http://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-020-05991-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">severe lung injury and multiorgan failures</a> that lead to death.</p><p>Several studies <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trsl.2020.08.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">described in one recent review</a> have identified an altered gut microbiome in patients with COVID-19. However, identification of specific bacteria within the microbiome that could predict COVID-19 severity is lacking.</p><p>To address this question, my colleagues and I recruited COVID-19 hospitalized patients with severe and moderate symptoms. We collected stool and saliva samples to determine whether bacteria within the gut and oral microbiome could predict COVID-19 severity. The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.01.05.20249061" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">We demonstrated</a>, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient's clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em>– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. Not surprisingly, <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> has been associated with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2011.05.035" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">chronic</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9440(10)61172-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammation</a>.</p><p><em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> collected from feces can be grown outside of the body in clinical laboratories. Thus, an <em>E. faecalis</em> test might be a cost-effective, rapid and relatively easy way to identify patients who are likely to require more supportive care and therapeutic interventions to improve their chances of survival.</p><p>But it is not yet clear from our research what is the contribution of the altered microbiome in the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. A recent study has shown that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.11.416180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an imbalance in immune cells</a> called <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/imr.12170" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">T regulatory cells that are critical to immune balance</a>.</p><p>Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the <a href="https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.30916.001" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proper activation</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of those T-regulatory</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nri.2016.36" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cells</a>. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.</p><p>As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.</p><p><em><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/ana-maldonado-contreras-1152969" target="_blank">Ana Maldonado-Contreras</a> is an assistant professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.</em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Ana Maldonado-Contreras receives funding from The Helmsley Charitable Trust and her work has been supported by the American Gastroenterological Association. She received The Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. She is also member of the Diversity Committee of the American Gastroenterological Association.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/a-healthy-microbiome-builds-a-strong-immune-system-that-could-help-defeat-covid-19-145668" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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