By Brett Walton
When Greg Wetherbee sat in front of the microscope recently, he was looking for fragments of metals or coal, particles that might indicate the source of airborne nitrogen pollution in Rocky Mountain National Park. What caught his eye, though, were the plastics.
The U.S. Geological Survey researcher had collected rain samples from eight sites along Colorado's Front Range. The sites are part of a national network for monitoring changes in the chemical composition of rain. Six of the sites are in the urban Boulder-to-Denver corridor. The other two are located in the mountains at higher elevation.
The monitoring network was designed to track nitrogen trends, and Wetherbee, a chemist, wanted to trace the path of airborne nitrogen that is deposited in the national park. The presence of metals or organic materials like coal particles could point to rural or urban sources of nitrogen.
He filtered the samples and then, in an inspired moment, placed the filters under a microscope, to look more closely at what else had accumulated. It was much more than he initially thought.
"It was a serendipitous result," Wetherbee told Circle of Blue. "An opportune observation and finding."
In 90 percent of the samples Wetherbee found a rainbow wheel of plastics, mostly fibers and mostly colored blue. Those could have been shed like crumbs from synthetic clothing. But he also found other shapes, like beads and shards. The plastics were tiny, needing magnification of 20 to 40 times to be visible and they were not dense enough to be weighed. More fibers were found in urban sites, but plastics were also spotted in samples from a site at elevation 10,300 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park.
The findings are detailed in a report published online on May 14.
Where did the plastic fibers come from? Are they locally produced, or carried from distant states or countries? How do they affect fish and other aquatic life after the plastics precipitate out in rain? And just how much plastic is aloft? Austin Baldwin, a study co-author, would like to know.
"There are more questions than answers right now," Baldwin, a USGS hydrologist who studies microplastics, told Circle of Blue.
Plastic pollution is ubiquitous, an unfortunate residue of contemporary consumer culture. Bottles, bags and containers litter beaches and clog streams. Seabirds and whales eat the debris, their stomachs coming to resemble a garbage bin.
These are the most visible signs of an even deeper problem. The consequences of microplastics, those comparable to grains of salt or human hairs, are less well understood. Baldwin said there are even fewer studies to date that have examined microplastics in rain. He mentioned two studies from Paris and one from the Pyrenees. "It's kind of exciting," in the sense of scientific discovery, he said.
The atmosphere is a powerful and tireless recirculator — of pollution as well as water. Dust carried by wind and rain from America's southern deserts falls on the Rocky Mountains and causes snowpack to melt more quickly. Mercury emissions from thermal power plants as distant as China have been detected in the remote alpine lakes of Olympic National Park and Mount Rainier National Park, where the toxic chemical is consumed by fish. Even PFAS compounds, the contaminants du jour, hitch an aerial ride. New Hampshire regulators traced groundwater contamination near a Saint-Gobain manufacturing facility to the site's blower stacks, which had lofted the chemicals into the air before they precipitated onto land.
Baldwin outlined several theories for the source of microplastics in Colorado. The fibers suggest the residue from synthetic clothing. Residential clothes dryers could be venting a waste stream into the air, he said. Or laundry water could be a source. Fibers sent to a wastewater treatment plant could end up in the sludge that is then spread on farm fields for fertilizer. As the sludge dries, the fibers could be lifted into the air. Another possible source could be the slow degradation of car tires.
The next step is to estimate the mass of microplastics in rain and whether the phenomenon is evident in other regions. Wetherbee said that an evaluation of snow-season deposition of microplastics across the U.S. Rockies, from Montana to New Mexico, is already in progress.
Though individual microplastics have their own shape, size and chemistry, Baldwin did not think that the Colorado sites are particularly unique. The fibers could have been carried for a significant distance.
"We're seeing plastics virtually everywhere we look," he said.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.
- Scallops Absorb Billions of Microplastics in Just 6 Hours - EcoWatch ›
- 'Plastic Rain' Is Pouring Down in National Parks - EcoWatch ›
By the Numbers
5: Priority recommendations that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has implemented since March 2018. Those actions relate to chemical standards, nonpoint water pollution and water pollution assessment. There are, however, 14 priority recommendations that the agency has not acted on. (Government Accountability Office)
PFAS Groundwater Cleanup Standards
The guidance covers the two most-studied of the thousands of PFAS compounds: PFOA and PFOS. It sets contamination levels that would trigger additional investigation and establishes goals for groundwater cleanup.
The cleanup goals are based on the EPA's health advisory of 70 parts per trillion. The EPA "expects" that parties responsible for the contamination will address PFOA and PFOS levels above that. This applies in states that do not have their own cleanup standards, which can be more strict.
However, stricter state standards are no guarantee of action. The Air Force has claimed sovereign immunity from Michigan's 12 parts per trillion limit where groundwater discharges to surface water.
Public comments are being accepted for 45 days after publication in the Federal Register.
PFAS Cleanup Request
A Republican senator and two Democratic colleagues asked a watchdog agency to investigate the government's response to PFAS contamination.
In a letter, Sens. Tom Carper (D-DE), Ron Johnson (R-WI) and Gary Peters (D-MI) requested that the Government Accountability Office answer a number of questions, among them:
- The estimated cost to the federal government of cleaning up PFAS contamination in water supplies where the government is the drinking water provider
- Actions that agencies have taken to reduce the federal government's financial liability
- Research that is needed to understand human health effects
- Progress the Defense Department has made in finding non-toxic alternatives for firefighting foam, which is a source of contamination
Hydropower Licensing Change
Final decisions for projects will be issued no more than two years after a completed application is submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The new rules apply to existing dams that do not currently generate power and to pumped storage projects.
The change was ordered by Congress last year.
In context: U.S. Hydropower Grows By Going Small
Studies and Reports
California Hydraulic Fracturing Review
The Bureau of Land Management released a supplemental review of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in California.
The assessment was ordered by a U.S. district court, which said that the BLM needed to do more analysis on the environmental effects of fracking before updating the region's resource management plan. The plan, published in 2014, covers five counties in the southern Central Valley and three counties — San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura — on the coast. It was challenged by Center for Biological Diversity and Los Padres ForestWatch.
In its supplemental review, the BLM determined that amending the plan is "not warranted." The limited amount of hydraulic fracturing expected to occur in the region "did not show a notable increase in total impacts," according to the BLM, which said that effects on surface water, groundwater use and groundwater quality from disposal of fracking waste are "negligible." Up to 40 fracked wells over 10 years are expected, according to the review.
Fracking is infrequently used in California. Annual water use for fracking in the state amounts to several hundred acre-feet, according to state officials.
Financial Cost of Climate Change
Democrats on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs released released a report on the financial costs of climate change. Most of the report is sourced from previous work by federal agencies, but it also recommends that the federal government be more rigorous in detailing its climate-related spending.
Sen. Gary Peters, the committee's top Democrat, convened a field hearing on April 22 in East Lansing, Michigan, that covered some of the issues in the report.
PFAS Health Study
A federal health research agency published more information about the structure of a study on the human health effects of PFAS compounds.
The Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry will select six sites for the study and standardize research protocols so that results can be compared across sites.
On the Radar
After spring break, Congress is back with a full slate of hearings:
- On April 29, the House Rules Committee will discuss the Climate Action Now Act, which requires the president to develop a plan for meeting the U.S. commitment to the Paris climate agreement.
- On April 30, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform looks at the public health effects of climate change.
- On May 1, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds a hearing on the humanitarian consequences of the war in Syria. There are two scheduled witnesses: David Miliband, the president of the International Rescue Committee, and Ben Stiller, the actor best known for his comedy roles who is also a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Refugee Agency.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
By Brett Walton
Anthony Spaniola knew something was off with his town's water. He read accounts in the Detroit Free Press and attended community meetings hosted by state health and environment agencies. Until last summer Spaniola was concerned but didn't think the situation was out of control.
Then he saw foam on Van Etten Lake.
The unsightly ivory-colored meringue that rimmed the shore is a visible illustration of an ongoing national health and environmental disaster related to perfluorinated compounds. PFAS, as this group of chemicals is collectively called, are used to manufacture rain-repelling, stain-deflecting, heat-resisting consumer and industrial products like Teflon skillets, Gore-Tex jackets and fire retardants. There's a good chance that every home in America has products strengthened with one of the compounds.
Spaniola and his family own a home on the east side of Van Etten Lake, a civic centerpiece in a town, nicknamed Paddletown USA, whose economy and identity is built around northern Michigan's natural bounty of lakes and rivers.
East of Oscoda is teal-hued Lake Huron, one of North America's Great Lakes. To the west is the Au Sable River, renowned for its cold water trout fishery and a 120-mile canoe race every July through unbroken forest that attracts paddlers from across the U.S. and Canada.
And to the north, ringed by modest vacation cottages, recreational camps and family homes is Van Etten Lake. Summer winds naturally froth the shore, according to those who live here. But what appeared last July and August, and throughout the fall, was unusual. Spaniola described the foam as sticky.
Greg Cole, who manages the dam at the lake's outlet, took pictures of the rumpled mass bunched against the barricade. Laboratory tests indicated worrisome concentrations of perfluorinated chemicals, at levels thousands of times higher than a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) health warning for drinking water.
Some studies have found that over decades of low-level exposure in drinking water—in parts per trillion even—the chemicals are associated with a higher risk of kidney and testicular cancers, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, hormone disruption and other ailments. Developed for durability, they do not easily break down once set loose from the production line.
In Oscoda the source of contamination is well documented. The chemicals are flowing underground, mostly unimpeded, from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base where PFAS compounds, sprayed for decades during training exercises to extinguish petroleum fires, soaked into the groundwater. The closer regulators look, the more they find groundwater contaminated with PFAS, not just in Oscoda, but nationwide on military bases and industrial sites, and in towns that border them.
Wurtsmith's location, a mile from Lake Huron and abutting Lake Van Etten is not exactly a hilltop. But it is one of the highest points in Oscoda. That's a problem because water—and groundwater—runs downhill. And downhill from Wurtsmith is Van Etten Lake, which flows into Van Etten Creek, which joins with the Au Sable River before emptying into Lake Huron.
For years Wurtsmith, which closed in 1993, has been recognized as one of the most polluted places in Michigan. The EPA proposed designating the base as a national Superfund site in 1994, but it was never officially listed. The EPA withdrew its oversight in 2016, leaving the Air Force and state agencies to handle the cleanup while the town and county redeveloped parts of the base. The public library is located there, as are homes, churches, play fields, a plastics manufacturer, an airplane maintenance company and a healthcare facility.
But groundwater contamination from PFAS and other toxic substances below the new facilities spreads largely unchecked. The steady dose of chemicals into the area's natural riches has upended lives in Oscoda. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality says that people should not eat fish that live year-round in the lower Au Sable River and in Clark's Marsh, a wetland adjacent to the base where some of the highest chemical concentrations have been measured.
Drinking water is affected, too. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has told more than two hundred households near Van Etten Lake that are on private wells not to drink their tap water. The state is providing bottled water or faucet filters, and the town is using federal grant money to extend public water to some of the homes.
But even the public water supply is at risk. Traces of the chemicals are now found downstream, in Lake Huron, the source for the regional water system. It is even in the treated water, at a few parts per trillion, that is supplied to 14,000 homes.
Current and former Oscoda residents and veterans who served at Wurtsmith have stories of odd cancers and a profusion of illnesses that have stumped doctors looking for a cause. They wonder if their ailments are connected to the relatively unstudied toxic residues in soil and water. They hope to be included in an upcoming Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assessment of PFAS exposure on military bases that could confirm or reject their fears.
After seeing the lake foam this past summer, Spaniola felt that the agencies responsible for managing the contamination were not as much in control as he had thought. "My antennae went up," said Spaniola, a business lawyer who has immersed himself in chemical literature. "This stuff is everywhere."
More and more people in Oscoda are coming to that conclusion. They see delays in promised cleanup actions. They read news reports from other parts of Michigan and outside the state of PFAS contamination from military bases and factories. They worry about being forgotten in the jumble. After seeing their town's magnificent waters tarnished and neighbors getting sick, they're starting to speak out against a system that is failing to accomplish what they want most: stopping the flow of contaminated groundwater from the base.
On a chilly evening in mid-March about 60 people file into the Oscoda VFW building to listen to a law firm's pitch. The meeting was called by the Veterans and Civilians Clean Water Alliance, a group of about 1,800 Wurtsmith veterans and family members whose goal, according to its founder James Bussey, is to get health care coverage for people who were sickened while living on the base. The group is considering a class-action lawsuit against 3M, the company that produced the firefighting foam.
The alliance is one of several community groups that have formed in the last few years to inform residents and demand action.
Arnie Leriche, a veteran who did not serve at Wurtsmith but lives in Oscoda, lobbied the Air Force to restart a community advisory board that had been active in the decade after the base closed. The first meeting was Nov. 1, 2017, and Leriche was voted co-chair.
"The community needed to be a part of the equation," he told Circle of Blue.
Arnie Leriche, standing, talks with two men at a community meeting to discuss PFAS contamination. Brett Walton / Circle of Blue
Greg Cole and Cathy Wusterbarth head the local group Need Our Water. They hope it will be a source of information about a highly technical issue for a community that, despite the years of testing, still seems to be relatively unaware of the PFAS contamination, Wusterbarth said. After hearing the questions posed by some residents at the VFW meeting, she feels like there is still much work to do.
"None of us has done anything like this before. We're new activists," Wusterbarth, who used to lifeguard on Van Etten Lake, told Circle of Blue.
Greg and Vicky Cole sit at their kitchen table, flipping through photos of guests who have stayed at the three cottages on their property at the south end of Van Etten Lake. Clients come for the fishing: northern pike, black crappie, walleye, blue gill, perch and more. "They're from Ohio," Vicky says, pausing over one photo with three generations of family members. "They said, 'It's a piece of heaven, a piece of heaven.' That's how I've always referred to it: I live in heaven."
Between them, against the wall, is a Culligan water cooler, a noticeable reminder that their heaven, just a quarter-mile from the base, has changed.
In October 2016, the Coles received a letter from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Testing of their well water showed traces of PFAS compounds, but at levels lower than the EPA's health advisory of 70 parts per trillion in drinking water. That advisory, however, applies only to the two most well-known PFAS compounds. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of others.
The health department, taking a cautious approach, said in the letter not to drink the water, cook with it, wash vegetables, or brush teeth unless the water was filtered through a reverse osmosis system. After three months in which Greg hauled drinking water from a clean tap at the town hall, the state said it would pay for one faucet filter or in-home water deliveries. The Coles chose Culligan.
The Air Force, following protocol, paid for replacement water only for homes that tested above the EPA standard. To this point, it has aided only one home in Oscoda.
Greg and Vicky Cole sit at their kitchen table. Between them is their Culligan water jug. Brett Walton / Circle of Blue
Extinguishing One Problem, Igniting Another
Wurtsmith existed as a military aviation site in various forms since 1923. After the Air Force Strategic Air Command took over operations in 1953, one of the base's main function was to host a fleet of loaded B-52 bombers and other aircraft ready to take immediate flight in response to a nuclear attack. At the end of the Cold War, and no longer considered essential, Wurtsmith was placed into an economic redevelopment process called base realignment and closure, or BRAC.
Wurtsmith is one of 393 U.S. military installations, active or BRAC, where the Department of Defense reports a known or suspected release of PFAS compounds into water and soil. Through February 2018, the Air Force alone had spent more than $210 million on site investigations and cleanup activities for PFAS. Future cleanup liabilities for the Defense Department could run into the billions, according to government figures. The expense could soar if the government has to start paying out health claims similar to the $2.2 billion awarded in 2017 to veterans who served at Camp Lejeune, a Marine base in North Carolina whose water was laced with a different lineup of cancer-causing chemicals.
In a Feb. 29, 2016 letter, Robert Wagner, chief of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's remediation division, asked David Strainge, then the BRAC environmental coordinator, to "prevent further off base movement" of PFAS contaminated groundwater because it was affecting well water. The letter said that the Air Force must 1) monitor residential wells for PFAS; 2) define the boundaries of the contamination plume; 3) monitor the plume's movement off base; and 4) deliver a cleanup plan to DEQ.
The Air Force's response on March 18, 2016, stated that it would comply with any applicable state and federal laws. The letter outlined the actions that the Air Force had taken to date. Officials began investigating PFAS contamination stemming from the former fire training site in 2012, after Michigan DEQ tests of fish in Clark's Marsh, downhill from the training site, showed high levels of the chemicals, more than 15 times the state limit. PFAS were in firefighting foams that were used starting in 1970. The Air Force said it did not know about their toxic potential until the EPA initiated a production phase out of the two most known chemicals in 2000. By that time, Wurtsmith had already closed.
The Air Force claimed in the March 18, 2016 letter that testing in 2012 determined that PFAS contaminated groundwater was contained on the base.
That turned out not to be the case. Subsequent testing has revealed traces of the chemical from at least 16 sites on the former base while the chemical plume has spread throughout the waterways around Oscoda. The Air Force built a treatment plant in 2015 to filter pollution coming from the fire training site, which is now an open field studded with monitoring wells.
But more than two years after the exchange of letters in the spring of 2016, the Air Force has finalized no additional actions to halt the advance of the contaminated plume. Matt Marrs, the current BRAC environmental coordinator, told Circle of Blue that a second treatment unit will come online by August 2018. The Michigan DEQ had ordered that facility to be completed by the end of 2017.
The treatment systems are a page from a well-worn playbook. Groundwater contamination, of all sorts, is the primary focus at Wurtsmith. The first chemicals to attract scrutiny at the base, back in the 1970s, were the chlorinated solvents TCE and vinyl chloride. A number of treatment systems dot the grounds.
Cleanup for those chemicals is, in a twist, spreading PFAS contaminants farther afield. Since 1981, so-called "pump and treat" systems have been drawing groundwater from the base, stripping it of chlorinated solvents, and discharging it into the base's storm sewer, which empties into Van Etten Creek. Marrs told Circle of Blue that the three-unit system does not remove PFAS compounds. Instead, they go into the storm sewer, then into the creek before being carried downstream. A spokesman told Circle of Blue that the Air Force has tested the outfall as discharging water with 800 to 1,002 parts per trillion PFAS. Locals call the treatment systems "pump and dumps."
Water from the Wurtsmith storm sewer pours into Van Etten Creek. The water smells strongly of benzene. Brett Walton / Circle of Blue
The military and the state are now in a dispute about the scope of the cleanup and which standards should apply to PFAS compounds found in Van Etten Lake, Van Etten Creek and the Au Sable River. The state standard for surface water not used for drinking is 12 parts per trillion of PFOS, a main ingredient in the firefighting foam. The Michigan DEQ notified the Air Force in a Dec. 14, 2017 letter that the treatment systems were inadequate. They are in a private resolution process that neither side will discuss publicly.
Oscoda residents are furious that the state has not been more forceful. To some extent, though, many of those residents bear at least some of the responsibility. Iosco County, home to Oscoda, is a rural Republican domain. A majority of voters cast their ballots for conservative state and federal administrations that have exhibited fealty to deregulation, animus to environmental enforcement, and disregard for investing in initiatives that protect public health. Michigan, after all, is where the Republican governor and his aides ignored warnings of contamination in the water supply for residents of Flint. To a large extent a political mismatch exists between what Iosco County residents want from government and who they helped elect to key government offices.
It's hard, in fact, to discuss water contamination in Michigan these days without conversation turning to Flint. Oscodans frequently mentioned that city's lead contamination and the slow state response. When they began holding meetings on PFAS in Oscoda, Spaniola thought state agencies might have learned something from the Flint crisis. After seeing the delays in response, he no longer has that opinion.
"I'm speechless with the lack of urgency I've seen in dealing with this issue," Spaniola said.
Just as with the Flint water crisis, the DEQ has failed to enforce its water pollution standards. Nearly a year ago, at an April 25, 2017 meeting, Air Force officials asked the DEQ for a letter clarifying the cleanup standards that apply. The response has been shuttled from DEQ to the governor's office to the attorney general's office, but according to the last available documents from base cleanup meetings it has not yet been delivered. The attorney general's office did not respond to repeated phone calls asking about the letter's status.
Aaron Weed, the town supervisor, has asked to meet with the director of the Michigan DEQ but no meeting has taken place. What would he request? "I'd say that action needs to be taken," Weed said.
The DEQ did not allow its field staff who are working on the Wurtsmith case to speak with Circle of Blue for this story.
Air Force officials, meanwhile, say they can only work with the money that is allocated to them. Congress appropriated an additional $84 million in the recent budget for PFAS cleanup, but directed it at naval bases. "We're in fiscally constraining times," Marrs said. "All BRAC bases are competing for limited funds."
The situation is not entirely hopeless. Soon the Coles and about 30 other homes will be able to hook into the public water system. Oscoda received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to extend the water main down their road. Homeowners who want to connect—it is not required—will have to pay to install a service line from their home to the main, which could run more than $1,000.
Weed, the town supervisor, told Circle of Blue that he's looking "for anyone who can write us a check" for $4 million to extend public water to another 230 homes affected by the plumes. Weed, like most Oscodans, had to educate himself quickly on PFAS chemicals once he found out they were disrupting the town. He took an online college course on environmental science.
Not even the public water system, however, is immune from the threat. In a sign of how far the contaminants have traveled, testing of treated water from Huron Shores Regional Water Authority, the local water system, in 2016 showed a range of results: from no detection up to 27 parts per trillion of PFAS. The authority's Lake Huron intake is about a dozen miles south of the mouth of the Au Sable.
A measurement in parts per trillion is almost inconceivably tiny. Imagine this: count back one trillion seconds in the course of human history. How far does that reach? More than 30,000 years ago, long before people tamed dogs or started row-cropping plants. Measurements in parts per trillion, essentially, are a sneeze in the span of human civilization.
Yet those sneezes are enough to worry public health professionals, who have convinced officials in Minnesota, New Jersey and other states that the EPA's guidelines are not strict enough to guard against long-term health risks.
Those risks are the town's worries, too. Residents are concerned that tourism may take a hit unless officials "stop the bleeding coming from the base," as Greg says. The Coles say that their cottages aren't booked up for the summer as they usually are by mid-March. The ordeal has changed their outlook and redirected their attention.
"I thought we were all set," Greg said, about life on their property. "We'll probably stay here. But now my passion comes from what I've seen. Even when we get city water, I'm going to fight for cleanup so that the next generation, the kids and grandkids can enjoy it."
Veterans and community members came to a March 12, 2018 meeting at the Oscoda VFW to discuss PFAS contamination.Brett Walton / Circle of Blue
They aren't the only Oscodans who feel a sense of loss, a disruption of place. For those aware of how deeply the chemicals are embedded in the area's waters, home is not what it used to be.
Tressa Thompto grew up in Oscoda and lived here until 1982. Her husband served in the Air Force and was stationed at Wurtsmith for four years starting in 1978. They now live in Des Moines, Iowa, but Tressa returned to the area for the meeting at the VFW. Her husband was diagnosed in 1991 with oligodendroglioma, a type of brain tumor. The growth, the size of her fist almost, was found behind his left eye.
"I have five brothers and sisters and we all wanted to come back here someday. But the way it is now … " Her voice trails off, then she picks up the thread again. "I always wanted to come back here, but it's like the town has been damaged by this."
Tressa's sister still lives in Oscoda, in a house on Van Etten Lake. She had planned to stay with her while in town for the meeting, but she ended up staying with her brother in Alpena, an hour drive to the north. She couldn't bear to stay so close to the lake, whose waters now carry new meaning. "I couldn't do it," she said.
Trump Administration Sued for Suspension of Clean Water Rule https://t.co/65gwNGTOFE #CleanWaterRule @Earthjustice… https://t.co/5Q4LBjAMSL— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1518026901.0
Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.
By Brett Walton
State of the State speeches are where governors sketch their legislative priorities and report on the overall health of their dominions. The state of the state is almost always "strong" and water issues are occasionally mentioned.
Below are summaries of the governors' references to water, climate and the environment.
This post will be updated throughout speech season, which concludes on March 12 with Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana.
Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican who took office last year after the previous governor resigned, did not mention water or the environment, other than to say that state agencies have improved their communication during disastrous weather.
Because she grew up in a small town in a rural county, Ivey said that rural Alabama is "central to [her] legislative agenda." Broadband and health services were two items mentioned.
As in past years, Gov. Doug Ducey used his speech to take a jab at a neighbor's water policies.
"Because in Arizona, we know the recipe for success," the first-term Republican said. "Lower taxes. Light regulation. Great public schools. Superior quality of life. And responsible water policies that will protect us from sharing in California's water crisis."
Not all is harmonious in his own house, though. Ducey hinted at the power struggle between two agencies—the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, which manages the state's main Colorado River canal, and the Arizona Department of Water Resources, the primary state water agency—over which will take the lead on state water policy.
Ducey implied that the agencies should stop quarreling and mimic earlier state leaders who put in place Arizona's landmark groundwater management law in 1980.
"We must follow their lead and put forward responsible policies that will ensure Arizona speaks with one voice to secure the state's future for generations to come."
Gov. Butch Otter, in his last State of the State, dedicated a not-insignificant portion of his speech to recapping the year's precipitation, which was the 12th wettest on record in Idaho. Otter, a Republican, also noted an agreement to conserve water in the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer.
"As I said, it was a big year for water, whether it was falling from the sky or being recharged into Idaho's largest underground reservoir. Runoff from last year's snowpack on top of saturated soils required careful, coordinated management of dams and reservoirs.
The effort successfully reduced flooding and ensured that dam structures were secure. Meanwhile it provided a full allocation of water in the Boise River and Snake River reservoirs and plenty of carryover for use in 2018.
Just as importantly, for the first time since the 1950s we put more water back into the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer than we pumped out in 2017. Water levels in the Lake Erie-sized aquifer had been dropping at an average rate of 215,000 acre-feet per year for 60 years.
But last year the Idaho Water Resource Board worked with private canal companies to recharge 317,000 acre-feet of water. A landmark settlement agreement between surface water users and ground water users resulted in a net gain of another 200,000 acre-feet.
Along with the wet weather, the result was a 660,000-acre-foot increase in water storage in the aquifer. Without our work together on these issues it would have been impossible to realize these historic advances in managing and protecting our most precious and fragile natural resource."
As he did in his first State of the State last year, Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, spoke about the need to repair Indiana's water systems. A priority, he said is to identify the highest needs for utilities, which a state agency will help accomplish over the next two years.
"It's also high time for Indiana to address our aging water infrastructure. State oversight is spread across several agencies, so we're going to form the executive branch governance structure needed to manage our operations and long-term strategy.
We're eager to work with lawmakers to get the ball rolling.
In the meantime, I'll direct the Indiana Finance Authority to designate half a million dollars each of the next two years for development of asset management plans for high-need water and wastewater utilities."
The former lieutenant governor, Gov. Kim Reynolds, gave her first State of the State address. Like her predecessor, Reynolds, a Republican, stressed the need for cleaner waters. A keystone in the nation's agriculture industry and a state within the Mississippi River watershed, Iowa has been a battleground for nitrate pollution for years.
"Improving water quality is a shared goal of Iowans. Urban and rural stakeholders have worked collaboratively making great strides.
My hope is that a water quality bill is the first piece of legislation I sign as governor.
Let me assure you, passage of this monumental legislation does not mean the water quality discussion is over; rather it ignites the conversation to implement and scale practices that will continue to make an impact on water quality."
In his final State of the State, Gov. Sam Brownback was dreaming dreams. The two-term Republican, ready to leave Kansas for a Trump administration post, had visions of renewable energy and sustainable groundwater use.
"I dream of a future Kansas exporting wind electricity across America. A Kansas known as the Renewable State. It could well be that in the future, those who have the wind resource will flourish like those who now have oil. We are growing as an energy state.
Dream with me of an Ogallala Aquifer that never runs dry because the use is sustainable. Of our reservoirs dredged, renewed and supplying the water we need in times of severe drought. Of us having a legal, binding allotment of water from the Missouri River and of an Arkansas River with water in its whole course."
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said that lawmakers must recognize the risks of water pollution.
The two-term Democrat outlined four water priorities: cleaning up a nearly four-mile-long plume of groundwater at a former Northrop Grumman and Naval base that is contaminated with 1,4-dioxane and other chemicals; suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to continue the PCB cleanup in the Hudson River; halting the spread of harmful algal blooms; and addressing polluted discharges at the Niagara Falls wastewater treatment plant.
"Second, we face new challenges threatening our safety and quality of life: terrorism, climate change, environmental threats, including to our drinking water, and the growing opioid epidemic, a scourge across our state, that claimed more than 3,000 lives last year…
The growing concentration of chemicals and pollution in some areas is literally poisoning the water. In the beautiful lakes upstate, toxic algae is spreading. On Long Island, the Grumman plume carries 30 years of industrial stains and contaminants."
Gov. Jay Inslee, a two-term Democrat, told lawmakers that they "have a duty to focus on our legacy, which can be long." Voting rights, internet access, education, mental health, birth control, opioids—all worthy and weighty topics on their own—were lead-ins for Inslee's big pitch: that Washington state ought to begin taxing carbon emissions.
"We must recognize an existential threat to the health of our state, a threat to the health of our children, and a threat to the health of our businesses that demands action," he said. "That threat is climate change."
Revenue from a carbon tax, which would start at $20 per ton under the governor's plan and bring in an estimated $1.5 billion in the first two years, could help Washington in a number of ways, Inslee said. On the environment he mentioned upgrading irrigation and water utility systems and reducing pollution in waterways.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.
By Brett Walton
The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pledged that lead regulations will be a prominent feature of the agency's work in 2018—but that work will take longer than anticipated.
The agency expects that a revision to federal rules that are designed to reduce the risk of lead in drinking water will be published in draft form in August 2018, a seven-month delay from a timetable announced this summer.
The delay in rulemaking was announced in the federal regulatory agenda, a document that is updated twice a year and provides a schedule for all agency rulemaking. Other water-related actions were included in the agenda. The EPA's highest-profile example is redefining which water bodies are protected by the Clean Water Act. The agency expects a draft rule to be published in May 2018.
The lead rule was one of 1,579 rules that were cancelled or delayed in the first 11 months of the Trump administration, a presidential goal that Trump reiterated during a photo op Thursday in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.
"We're here today for one single reason: to cut the red tape of regulation," Trump said. He stood next to two piles of printed paper: a smaller one representing federal regulations in 1960 and the other much larger stack encompassing current federal statutes.
The lead and copper rule delay appears to be a result of administrative preference. The agency will meet on Jan. 8, 2018 with more than a dozen national trade groups to discuss the rule. Those groups include water industry mainstays such as the American Water Works Association and the Association of State Drinking Water Agencies, as well as local government groups like the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Conference of State Legislatures. The association that represents school officials is invited, too.
The extended timeline is also a matter of personnel. The agency has been short-staffed in the first year of the Trump administration. It was only yesterday, Dec. 14, that the Senate confirmed the assistant administrator in charge of the Office of Water—David Ross, a Wisconsin lawyer.
For that reason and because of the complexity of the rule, the delay did not surprise Alan Roberson, head of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators. Even during a conversation in August he anticipated that the agency would have trouble meeting the January 2018 deadline because of the change in administration.
The EPA press office offered no explanation for the delay.
Action in 2018
In an interview last month with the Washington Post, Pruitt called lead in drinking water "one of our greatest challenges in this country." He said that he would approach Congress next year to "announce a very strong initiative on a war on lead."
Pruitt discussed the concept during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on Dec. 7. But he provided little additional detail, only promising a "multi-faceted approach" that has the attention of 17 agencies.
"It's one of the greatest environmental threats we face as a country, and one of the things I hope I can work with this committee on in 2018 is a strategy over a 10 year period to eradicate those concerns," Pruitt said. "It's going to be a very ambitious initiative of our agency and it's something we have various offices in the agency working upon."
The most ambitious goal would be to require replacement of the roughly six million to 10 million lead service lines in the country. It's a course of action that health advocates champion. But that is complicated by legal questions about whether the utility or the homeowner is responsible. The cost of such a program, which could reach tens of billions of dollars nationally, is another matter.
When the rule is finalized, it will have made a long journey.
The EPA published the original lead and copper rule in 1991, then made minor revisions in 2007 to the requirements for sampling, public notification and the process for utilities to change water sources.
For more than a decade the EPA has been working on "long-term" revisions—those that the agency asserts will require more detailed analysis and consultation. In the spring 2011 regulatory agenda, the EPA anticipated that the draft rule would be published in May 2012, a deadline that is now five and a half years in the rearview mirror.
If it goes as planned, the draft rule will be published more than three years after the mayor of Flint declared a public health emergency in the city that brought the problem of lead in drinking water to the surface again.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed that Hurricane Harvey damaged a protective cap at a Superfund site along the San Jacinto River, near Houston, and caused a spike in chemical levels in the water.
Water samples from one of 14 monitoring sites at the San Jacinto waste pits indicated levels of dioxin above 70,000 parts per trillion, more than 2,000 times higher than the site's cleanup goal of 30 parts per trillion. Dioxin is a cancer-causing chemical that stays in the environment for hundreds of years before breaking down.
The risks from flooding were foreseen. In a cleanup plan proposed in 2016, the EPA noted that the protective cap could be damaged by a large hurricane or severe storm that caused the river to rise.
"Sea level rise, storm surge, and heavy downpours in combination with the pattern of continued development in coastal areas are increasing damage to U.S. infrastructure and are also increasing risks to ports and other installations. Because the intensity of future storms and flooding may increase, estimates regarding the ability of a cap (even a cap with increased armoring) to contain the dioxin waste material is highly uncertain," the report stated.
The pits were built in the 1960s to hold waste material from a paper mill.
For a deeper dive: