Monday, January 15, 2018

Radium in Mid-West Groundwater

Since the 1950’s it has been known that groundwater from the Cambrian-Ordovician (C-O) aquifer system contained radium (Ra 226 and Ra 228) at concentrations that frequently exceed the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) safe drinking water maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 185 mBq/L; 5 pCi/L. This aquifer provides more than 630 million gallons of water a day for public supply to parts of Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin. In addition, more than half a million people get their drinking water from private wells that tap the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer.

A newly published U.S. Geological Study, part of the USGS National Water Quality Assessment Project, investigated the conditions that cause these unusually elevated levels of radium in the groundwater from the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer. Knowing where and how much radium is in groundwater is important because of the health risks associated with drinking water that’s high in radioactive isotopes. Known health risks include an increased incidence of bone cancer and leukemia.

The USGS examined several variables like groundwater age, dissolved minerals, and dissolved oxygen levels in 80 samples collected across the six states. The researchers were able to better understand the conditions that cause radium to leach from the underlying geology into groundwater at higher levels.

They found that water that was recharged into the aquifer long ago, that contains greater amounts of dissolved minerals, and that is low in dissolved oxygen is more likely to leach radium from its surrounding rock. The estimated mean groundwater ages ranged from 19 years to more than 1 million years. Only eight samples had groundwater recharged since about 1950. The USGS found that more than 80% of the groundwater was older than 1,000 years. They also found that the proportion of the three Ra isotopes differed between the regionally unconfined and confined areas of the aquifer system.

Increased concentrations of Ra 226 was found in confined regions of the aquifer. The rate of groundwater flow in the confined area of the aquifer is very slow because relatively stagnant saline water restricts the movement of freshwater into deeper parts of the basins. Total Radium concentrations were significantly lower in HCO3 dominated, oxic samples from the unconfined area of the aquifer as compared to SO4 or Cl dominated, anoxic samples from the regionally confined areas.

Measured concentrations of all three Ra isotopes were significantly correlated with mean groundwater age reflecting the increased mobility of Ra with increasing mineralization and Fe-reducing conditions. The development of anoxic, Fe-reducing conditions and increasing water mineralization with groundwater age favors the mobilization of Ra and results in the frequent occurrence of Rac concentrations greater than 185 mBq/L (5 pCi/L) in the regionally confined area of the aquifer system. Under anoxic, Fe-reducing conditions, Fe- and Mn-hydroxides are dissolved, thereby reducing the adsorptive capacity of the aquifer solids.

No testing was done of the relatively shallower private drinking water wells. These well owners might consider having their water tested for radium as part of their regular well maintenance.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Preventing Frozen Pipes


If during the recent cold snap you turn on a faucet and either get nothing or just a trickle you might have had a frozen pipe. If your well supply line or the water main is not frozen, you may have water in part of the house, but frozen pipes elsewhere. There are some things you can do to prevent frozen pipes in the future. A couple of ceramic electric heat cubes, thermocouple, electric blanket and a little strategy can prevent frozen pipes.

The likely pipes to freeze are against exterior walls of the home, or are exposed to the cold, like outdoor hose bibs, and water supply pipes in unheated interior areas like basements and crawl spaces, attics, garages, or kitchen cabinets. Pipes that run against exterior walls that have little or no insulation are also subject to freezing. It is easier to prevent pipes from freezing than to unfreeze them.

In sub-zero weather wells with and without separate well houses can freeze. Keeping the temperature in a well house above freezing or your well pipe insulated can prevent this. It used to be that an inefficient 100 watt incandescent bulb gave off enough heat to do the job, but now with more efficient bulbs insulation and other sources of heat have to be used. An electric blanket can do the job.

While a deep well is unlikely to freeze because the temperature below the frost line (about 3 to 5 feet below the surface) remains at a nearly constant temperature, in the range of 45 -70 degrees Fahrenheit depending on your latitude. However, if the pitless adaptor or pipe from the well is not deep enough to be below the frost line then that line will freeze. Abnormal artic frosts can identify many a private well line that was not buried deep enough at its most vulnerable point where it connects to the foundation. 
The enclosure protects the well head and wraps well pipe with insulating matuerial

Though, our well line runs under the garage into the house. The highest point of my lot is right about there and the basement floor where the water line enters the house is about nine feet below ground. The water pipe enters the wall bout 3-4 feet above the basement floor. That is well below the frost line. Even the winter when the temperature fell to 14 below one weekend the main water line did not freeze. However, if your well pipe is shallower or like me have pipes that run over sections of the garage it is important to keep your garage temperature on extreme days above freezing and you might have to keep a crawl space or the area next to the well pipe entry warm. My furnace and hot water heater are right next to the entry point and pressure tank. It’s always warm there (the cat loves it). 

Because of the usually mild winters here in Virginia, our house was built with a Jack and Jill bathroom partially above the garage. There were indications that a couple of pieces of wall bard in the garage had been replaced. So, the year we bought the house I ripped out all the wall board and insulated the heck out the garage and the dormer above it, replaced the garage door with an insulated door, and wrapped the pipes in foam.
Heat cube with thermocouple in garage

Unfortunately, that 14 degrees Fahrenheit below day still froze the pipe to that bathroom. So now, I keep a small ceramic electric heater ($40) connected to a thermocouple that turns it on when the temperature in the garage falls below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. I turn on the heating cube in the garage and check it functioning when I turn off the hoses in late falls. When the weather is forecast to fall into the single digits or lower I open the cabinet below the sink and in the most extreme weather run an extra ceramic electric heater overnight keeping that bathroom toasty while the rest of the house is at 65 degrees. You might also need to have the same set up in a crawl space or possibly a basement.

Letting the water run in very cold weather can work, but can also create other problems. While running water may prevent the water supply pipes from freezing, in the coldest weather the slowly running water might cause the drain pipe to the septic system to freeze and block the flow or even burst, and it can overwhelm a septic system. My septic line leaving the house is on the lowest elevation and not particularly deep. Certainly, the septic line is not below the actual frost line during exceptionally cold weather. I baby and protect my septic system.

Monday, January 8, 2018

California’s Digital Elite Drinking Untreated Water

A New York Times story last week took a look at the wealthy Silicon Valley residents who are drinking and selling water that is “off the water grid." Some collect water from springs themselves; some buy from companies like Live Water, which charges almost $40 for a 2.5 gallon jug and $15 for refills; and others have installed expensive systems to collect water from the air- in the state with the most areas that cannot meet the U.S. EPA air quality standards.

Springs occur wherever groundwater flows out from the earth’s surface. Springs typically occur along hillsides, low-lying areas, or at the base of slopes. A spring is formed when natural pressure forces groundwater above the land surface. Springs are highly susceptible to contamination since they are fed by shallow groundwater, which usually flows through the ground for only a short period of time and may interact with surface water. For this reason, most springs will need some treatment before the water is considered a reliably safe source of drinking water. However, don’t let science and common sense get in the way of yet another thing the California Digital Elite can get venture capital (other people’s money) and sell at a premium.

Let me clue you in on a bit of history then science. Though filtration was the first water treatment, true water treatment came out of the advances in scientific understanding. Filtration and additives like alum are effective treatments for cloudy water or turbidity, but it has limited success in removing pathogens which cause diseases like typhoid, cholera, and dysentery. The discovery in the early 1900’s that chlorine and ozone were effective disinfectants for the treatment of water to eliminate pathogens were the beginning of the modern scientific era and the birth of the great nations.

The first standards for bacteria in drinking water in the United States (1914) applied only to water carried on interstate boats and trains. The Public Health Service expanded water standards beginning in 1925 with the most rudimentary standards. This was expanded in 1946 and 1962 and finally Congress passing the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. The SDWA was further amended in 1986 and 1996. Today there are almost 90 substances tested for and controlled under the SDWA.

Since the advent of the Clean Water Act, outbreaks of disease caused by drinking water are no longer common in the United States. However, waterborne disease outbreaks continue to occur in the U.S. and can lead to serious acute, chronic, or sometimes fatal health consequences. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) collects data from all the states on waterborne diseases. From 1971 to 2002, there were 764 documented waterborne outbreaks associated with drinking water, resulting in 575,457 cases of illness and 79 deaths. The symptoms of water borne disease often include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and sometimes fever. It is not uncommon to mistake a case of water related disease for “food poisoning” or a “24-hour stomach virus.” Contaminated water can often look, smell and taste fine. Giardia or Cryptosporidium, two microscopic parasites that can be found in surface water like these springs for example. Both parasites produce cysts that cause illness and sometimes death.

Self-styled water experts, these entrepreneurs share a wariness of tap water, particularly the fluoride added to it and the lead pipes and aging infrastructure that some of it passes through. These water entrepreneurs contend that the wrong kind of filtration removes beneficial minerals. Traditional bottled spring water is sterilized using UV light, chlorine or ozone gas and filtered to remove parasites and algae. The new water entrepreneurs say that water treatment kills healthful bacteria something they call “probiotics” or promoting of intestinal flora. They crow that their water turns green if it’s not consumed within a month.

The off-the-grid water movement has become more than the fringe phenomenon it once was, with sophisticated marketing, cultural cachet, millions of dollars in funding and influential supporters from Silicon Valley. It has become a danger to public health. Look, I know there are some reasons to be concerned about public water supplies. In truth, I have my own private off-the-grid water supply. My water comes from groundwater in the fractured rock system here in the Piedmont of Virginia. Rain water and snow melt percolate into the ground and recharge the aquifer. My house was picked for the water quality (among other things). The water in my well is relatively young, is untreated but is tested twice a year (by me) to ensure it remains free of contaminants and tastes great. In Virginia about 21% of the population obtains their household water from private domestic wells. If you want to drink off the grid water, come to Virginia.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Protests to Pipeline Crossing Potomac

A public hearing, hosted by the Maryland Department of the Environment, about the proposed pipeline crossing the Potomac River was held in Hancock Maryland late last month. It was reported by the Frederick News-Post that more than 200 people attended filling the Hancock Middle School and High School auditorium.

Columbia Gas Transmission is proposing a new 3.9 mile, 8-inch diameter pipeline to connect Mountaineer Gas (the West Virginia consumer gas distribution company) to gas supplies in Pennsylvania. The proposed pipeline will be run about 72 feet below the river bed. The new pipeline will bring gas from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and Ohio to a new proposed Mountaineer Gas pipeline, The Mountaineer Xpress project. .

Columbia Pipeline Group, Inc. (Columbia) is planning to construct and operate approximately 165 miles of pipeline and three new compressor stations in addition to upgrading three existing compressor stations and one regulating station. The project called the Mountaineer XPress project (MXP) would be able to move an additional 2.7 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale production areas to commercial and consumer markets on the Columbia Gas Transmission system, including markets in western West Virginia.

Many who spoke at the meeting opposed the pipeline, only five speakers were reported to have spoken in favor of the pipeline. Proponents say the pipeline will be safe and will help bring economic development to an area that needs it. Opponents say the project will threaten drinking water supplies and commit further commit the region to fossil fuels.

West Virginia State Senator Charles Trump said the TransCanada section of the natural gas pipeline would bring a needed utility to Morgan County, just across the Potomac River, and to companies in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

The vast majority of the speakers objected to the Waterways permit largely on the grounds that the 3-mile pipeline threatens the safety and health of the Potomac River and those in Washington metropolitan area whose drinking water comes from the Potomac. Protestors held signs throughout the hearing, and booed those in favor of the project.

Many of the speakers asked the Maryland Department of the Environment to consider the environmental impact of the entire gas line expansion project and increased use of natural gas from fracking, not just the 3-mile portion in Maryland. The Maryland Department of the Environment is planning to hold a second public hearing on January 18 at their offices in Baltimore to field more public comments. You can send written comments about the permit application should be sent to: Water and Science Administration, Wetlands and Waterways Program, 1800 Washington Blvd., Baltimore, Md. 21230. Include the case number on all letters (201760592/17-NT-3089).

The abundance of shale natural gas coming from the Marcellus is expected to keep prices for natural gas low for the foreseeable future and has created a glut in natural gas. As this meeting demonstrated building gas pipelines to transport fuel from places like Pennsylvania to other regions can be difficult and it will be interesting to see what happens. In Pennsylvania and Ohio power companies are building new generation gas fired power plants using the Marcelles shale natural gas to replace coal fired plants. 

The new plants use a gas and steam turbine together to produce more electricity per gas BTU. Coal plant generate about twice the CO2 per megawatt of power and have higher particulate pollution than gas fired electrical power plants. Electric demand is not growing overall nationally, but the closing of aging coal plants has left the PJM (Pennsylvania, Jersey, Maryland) power grid short of power. In the past three years 9.3 gigawatts of coal generating capacity has been retired while 8.7 gigawatts have been added so far, but currently there is 8.6 gigawatts of natural-gas electrical power plants under construction in Pennsylvania and Ohio. This could utilize the natural gas without the need for transport by either pipeline or train.



Monday, January 1, 2018

A Possible Cause of Brownish or Dirty Well Water in Winter

I volunteer with the Virginia Master Well Owner Network (VAMWON), an organization dedicated to promoting the proper construction, maintenance, and management of private water systems in Virginia. The Cooperative Extension Services in Virginia manages the program and have numerous publications and fact sheets that can help homeowners make educated decisions about their drinking water. The volunteers can help homeowners interpret their test results and make educated decisions about what treatment might be appropriate and desirable or appropriate solutions to problems. Also, I try to respond to questions I receive through the blog.

VAMWON Notes from the Field are a series of stories of the questions and sometimes the solutions I’ve encountered as a VAMWON volunteer or through my blog.

I received the following in a question/comment on my blog: “ I'm in Massachusetts and every year around December-January, our well water (which is normally really pure with great tests results) will start coming out reddish brown from the faucet. If I turn the water on and off a half dozen times, it gets even darker. I'm assuming that I get sediment build up and like clock work, it's time for this buildup to let go. Is that possible? If so, should I just plan on a good flush of the pipes once a year?”

Though my initial though was it was possible that the well was pulling mud since in Massachusetts in the winter groundwater are often at its lowest level. So I inquired about the depth of his well and when was it drilled. In addition, I asked if he monitored the water level.

He shot back with: “My well is a little over 300 ft. When this happens I turn on the outside faucets and let it run for about 3 -4 hours then it clears up. I hate to run it that long as we are conscience of our usage. We do not monitor the level. The well was drilled in 1994.”

That changes things. If the well did not run dry after running for 3-4 hours then it definitely was not going dry and this was truly a seasonal event. The question then became what changes in the winter. There are many possible causes of dirty water and I ususally recommend testing a well before calling a plumber, well driller, or water treatment company so that the problem can be properly diagnosed. It is usually cheaper to test your water than call a plumber and you need to understand what the real problem is to correct it. This time I had an idea of what might be wrong and a cheap and easy fix. So it is worth a try. What was different in the winter in Massachusetts (where most of my family lives) is road salt.

Road salt, sodium chloride, freezes at a lower temperature than water. When salt (or brine solution) is applied to the roads, the water won't freeze at temperatures above -6° Fahrenheit. Salt can also help existing ice melt faster. However, as the ice melts, the salt atoms dissolve into separate sodium and chloride ions. Chloride ions are oxidizing agents, and that combined with an old well where naturally occurring iron and manganese and any rust on the well casing is likely to be dislodged. This is true for wells and public supply water systems.

Iron and manganese are naturally occurring elements commonly found in groundwater in the northeast. At naturally occurring levels iron and manganese do not present a health hazard. However, often they build up over time in wells and on the well casing. I believe the elevated chloride ions are oxidizing the built up rust and minerals. High chloride ion levels from road salt entering groundwater supplies, combined with aging well casing and components could have released rust and brown drinking water from the well. So in this case since a likely solution is cheap and not really difficult to do, I would recommend that he fill the well with a 200 parts per million of chlorine solution and let it sit for 12-16 hours then flush the system completely. If this is done it might keep the problem at bay for a couple or three years.

In the commercial and public water supply sector it has been accepted for decades that the appropriate maintenance treatment for a well is to acid or chlorine treat to eliminate encrustation and buildup. Only in the past five to ten years so has this knowledge migrated to the private well sector. University extension departments now accept that as a well ages, the rate at which water may be pumped (commonly referred to as the well yield, flow or performance) tends to decrease. Now Penn State Extension states that “often, reduced well yield over time can be related to changes in the water well itself including:
  • Incrustation from mineral deposits
  • Bio-fouling by the growth of microorganisms especially iron bacteria. This is also likely to kill your pump.
  • Physical plugging of "aquifer" (the saturated layer of sand, gravel, or rock through which water is transmitted) by sediment
  • Sand pumping
  • Well screen or casing corrosion
  • Pump damage

They go on to state that the two most common methods to rehabilitate a water well are: chemicals to dissolve the encrusting materials from the well including acids and chlorine; and physically cleaning the well. Chemical treatment usually dissolves the encrustations and extends pump function. These days regularly treating a well with chlorine is the recommended strategy to extend the life of a well and equipment. See well maintenance tips from Penn State University Extension, University of Minnesota Extension, University of Arizona etc.



Thursday, December 28, 2017

Costs to Maintain Alternative Septic Systems

Many homeowners rely on a septic system for wastewater treatment. If your home has a septic system of any type you are responsible for maintaining it. There are many different types of septic system designs. The most common type used for single family homes is a traditional septic system that consists of a single chamber septic tank and drain/leach field. However, in recent years Alternative Onsite Sewage Systems (AOSS) have become popular.

An AOSS is an on-site sewage treatment system that is not a conventional onsite septic system. A typical AOSS in Virginia consist of a, septic tank, treatment unit, pump chamber, conveyance line, distribution system, and an absorption field (trenches, pad, drip tubing, etc.). However, the exact set of components that make up your system will be site and system specific. These non-conventional septic systems include: aerobic tank or ATU’s, peat filter systems, single and recirculation sand filters, mound systems, drip dispersal, spray and low pressure dispersal. Manufacturers of these systems include but are not limited to: Advantex, Aquarobic, Puraflo, Eco-Flo, Whitewater, FAST, BEST, American Drip, and Geoflo. All of these systems are approved for use in Virginia.

These AOSSs allow homes to be built on land that cannot support a traditional septic system. However, to protects public health, the waters of the state and the environment AOSS are regulated in Virginia under 12VAC5-613-140. This regulation requires all AOSS be properly designed, meet minimum performance standards and be properly maintained and inspected at least once a year. It is believed by regulators and manufacturer that proper operation and maintenance of these systems will ensure that all AOSS function as designed. The full text of the regulations can be read at this link.

None of these AOSS systems is ideal and all are expensive to build, maintain and replace. The three chamber system known as aerobic tank or ATU system is becoming the most popular AOSS, but it is sensitive to improper use and maintenance and its air blower and “zoner” only last a couple or three years out in the field resulting in an average annual operating cost of over a thousand dollars. (My system has cost me more than $12,000 in the last 10 years between pumping, inspections, repairs, parts and service calls.) They are great when they work, but you need to baby them. Also, not all licensed inspector are honest or capable. One particular company always finds your tanks in need of pumping (even in a two person household where the tanks were both pumped months earlier. Once that is in the database with the department of health, it must be pumped again. 

The other non-traditional systems are essentially other methods of replacing a traditional leach field with other filtering methods. One of the simplest systems to operate is the peat systems like Puraflo and Eco-Flo. These systems have the fewest mechanical parts to fail.


The peat media filter system is a traditional septic tank with peat filtration system instead of a leach field. The filtration system is the aerobic portion of the treatment and is located in tanks which are filled with peat moss over a gravel base. The filtered septic tank effluent is collected under gravity in the pump tank. A timed dosing system pumps the effluent through an inlet manifold located at the base of the treatment modules. An orifice plate is located inside the top of each inlet manifold which allows the flows to be split equally and fed simultaneously to each biofilter module. The inlet manifold is connected to the base of the biofilter module and is fed upwards to a rectangular distribution grid located 6 inches below the top of lid. The effluent percolates laterally and vertically through the depth of the peat fiber treatment media and emerges as a clear, innocuous liquid from the base of the system. The treated effluent is then collected and dispersed.

The peat is an excellent media for allowing the natural secondary treatment of the sewage waste to take place: Absorption and filtration of any impurities chemical adsorption, and microbial assimilation. As a result, these systems are typically capable of removing 90% or more of the polluted mater (characterized as BOD, SS, Coli forms and E. Coli). The life of these systems are 15 years if properly used and maintained (or less with improper use) until the media is exhausted and needs to be replaced.

When the media is exhausted is when the owners of these systems find out what the true operating expense of Puraflo and Eco-Flo is. A Puraflo system will cost in the neighborhood of $1,400-$1,500 per pod while an Eco-flo system will cost approximately $3,500 per unit. This cost should include removing old peat and gravel, cleaning the drainage holes and testing drainage, installing new gravel and peat. The Puraflo peat comes from Ireland (no joke) in 1000 lb bags. Ecoflo peat comes in smaller bags from Canada. Each of the Puraflo pods will take 1.25 bags of peat. Eco-Flo pods take 30 bags of Eco-Flo peat, 15 bags per side of the pod. Additional costs include pumping the system during repairs and replacing landscaping. All in this could cost $15,000 for a 5 bedroom home. This work needs to be done under permit from the Department of Health and should only be done by a trained and licensed service provider who has been certified by the manufacturer.

Monday, December 25, 2017

EPA gives $3.7 million to Pennsylvania for Chesapeake Bay Restoration

Last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that they are providing $3.7 million to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) to implement agricultural best management practices (BMPs) on farms in Pennsylvania’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. These practices will reduce the loads of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution going to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

If you recall EPA mandated a contamination limit called the TMDL (total maximum daily load for nutrient contamination and sediment) to all the states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and Washington DC. The pollution limits were then partitioned to the various states and river basins based on the Chesapeake Bay computer modeling tools and monitoring data.

The midterm assessment found that Pennsylvania had not met their goals. In an attempt to get there (and meet EPA requirements), the PADEP announced its “Strategy to Enhance Pennsylvania’s Chesapeake Bay Restoration Effort”, pledging renewed commitment to nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment reductions. Because agriculture dominates much of the landscape of the Chesapeake watershed in Pennsylvania, it was the focus of the new strategy.

“The most practical way to balance farmers’ economic viability and the health of local waters is to enlist farmers in using environmentally conscious and economically sustainable best management practices,” said PADEQ Secretary Patrick McDonnell. “We’re grateful for funding support from EPA that enables DEP to partner with farmers to plan and implement these practices. Achieving clean local waters takes boots on the ground farm by farm, stream by stream. With over 33,000 farms in Pennsylvania’s part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, we simply couldn’t do it without EPA’s support.”

This funding, which is being provided through EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Implementation Grant (CBIG) program will support activities to help achieve and maintain the water quality necessary to fully restore the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, including:
  • Developing multiyear management plans;
  • Chesapeake Bay education;
  • Implementing local BMPs to control stormwater runoff;
  • Developing agricultural nutrient and manure management plans;
  • Installing agricultural BMPs;
  • Funding cost share programs to reduce the cost to farmers of implementing BMPs; 
  • Providing funding opportunities to Pennsylvania conservation districts for implementing local stormwater BMPs.