Monday, November 28, 2011

Fracking in New York

Last year, New York placed a moratorium on drilling in the Marcellus Shale while it assessed the effects of fracking. New York Department of Environmental Conservation’s draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on drilling was released almost three months ago and recommends that drilling be permitted, but with conditions. The comment period ends on December 12, 2011 and most likely the ban on hydro fracking in New York will end with it despite several groups’ attempts to extend the comment period three more months.

The EIS places restrictions on drillers to address groundwater concerns. EIS mandates that drillers must not drill within a certain distance of watersheds or aquifers and more stringent well construction standards be met. These recommendations are in line with the recommendations issued by the Shale Gas Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board this past spring. The report had a rational approach to regulation recommending disclosure, testing, evaluation and modification of regulation and practices based on the information and data obtained. The report is to some extent a collection of the best regulatory framework among the states and covers little new ground overlooking some of the significant questions. This was a subcommittee at the Department of Energy that reports to the Secretary of Energy. However, EPA will be the regulatory agency and is currently engaged in a multi-year study of hydraulic fracturing. There is not enough data to fully understand the full impacts of fracking.

There is tremendous pressure to lift the moratorium on fracking. A large swath of New York sits atop the Marcellus Shale, which is the third-largest natural gas field currently known in the world. The Marcellus Shale alone is estimated to be 500-trillion-cubic-feet of gas reserve. This resource could heat our homes for a generation or more, and power our electrical generating plants, even fuel cars either directly or through plug in hybrids. The possible impacts to our economy and environment are far reaching. The potential risks are also far reaching.

Our ability to recover natural gas buried a mile or more beneath the earth has increased. Advances in horizontal drilling which allows a vertically drilled well to turn and run thousands of feet laterally through the earth combined with advances in hydraulic fracking, the pumping of millions of gallons of chemicals and water into shale at high pressure have increased our ability to recover natural gas from shale. Hydraulic fracking is a technology that was unknown 60 years ago and advances in the past 15 years have made it possible to economically access this gas. Our knowledge of the impacts from fracking has lagged behind our ability to access the gas.

In hydraulic fracking on average 2-3 million gallons of chemicals and water is pumped into the shale formation at 9,000 pounds per square inch and literally cracks the shale or breaks open existing cracks and allows the trapped natural gas to flow. While geologists and engineers believe that there is little risk that the fracking “water,” a mix chemicals and water, will somehow infiltrate groundwater reserves though a fissure created by the fracking there are other routes of contamination and impact. It is believed that the intervening layers of rock would prevent a fissure from extending thousands of feet to the water table; there are other risks in how we build wells and fracture the shale that the EIS attempts to address.

There have been documented cases of seepage into drinking water wells through improperly sealed or abandoned drilling wells. An ongoing monitoring and data collection program needs to be part of the permitting process. Potential impacts to our water supply from hydraulic fracking needs to be studied over time and regulations modified to better protect our water supplies and natural resources as fracking expands in the region. Drilling requires large amounts of water to create a circulating mud that cools the bit and carries the rock cuttings out of the borehole. After drilling, the shale formation is then stimulated by hydraulic fracking, using up to 3 million gallons of water.

Data needs to be gathered on the impact to water resources of supplying water for the construction of thousands of wells per year. For gas to flow out of the shale, nearly all of the water injected into the well during fracking must be recovered and disposed of. Though less than 0.5% by volume, the proprietary chemicals can account for 15,000 gallons in the waste from a hydro fracking job. The chemicals serve to increases the viscosity of the water to a gel-like consistency so that it can carry the propping agent (typically sand) into the fractures to hold them open so that the gas can flow. Determining the proper methods for the safe disposal of the large quantities of this fracking fluid that may also contain contaminants from the geological formation including brines, heavy metals, radionuclides and organic contaminants and monitoring the impact from this disposal must also be done. The impact of so much waste water on our water resources must be measured and monitored. Finally, care must be taken to avoid degradation of watersheds and streams from the industry itself as large quantities of heavy equipment and supplies are moved on rural roads and placed on concrete pads. The watersheds must be monitored and permitting should not exceed our ability to monitor the impacts.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Who will Control your Water

Fresh water supply poses a real and looming environmental risk. Regional shortages of water will drive decisions that will impact our future.

According to the US Census Bureau there are 312 million people in the United States. The water that exists on the planet is finite, but always moving as part of the water cycle or hydrologic cycle, on, above, and below the surface of the Earth. The good news about water is that “on average” the United States uses less than 8% of the water that falls as precipitation within our borders annually. Unfortunately, precipitation varies from that average significantly on a regional basis and over time, and our need for water is often greatest where there is the least precipitation because of the need for irrigation. In addition, only the cities on the great lakes have adequate precipitation and water storage to supply their population’s water needs, so our urban center have become very used to thinking of appropriating water from nearby regions to the cities.

As population rises, the demand for fresh water for drinking, domestic use, for industry (especially power generation) and for agriculture increases. The demand for food and the water that is essential to produce food grows with population and wealth. Globally, farming is estimated to account for 60% -70% of fresh water use. Irrigated agricultural consumes over 75% of the water in California, which produces 17.6 % of U.S. crops, and 7 % of the U.S. livestock and livestock products. California produces about half of U.S. grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Several of these crops are currently produced only in California. In the United States we have used the various complicated, layered and hidden subsidies within the various “farm bills” and subsidized water to complicate the business of farming and obscure the true costs of food in America.

This past spring, even as the Mississippi River basin was inundated with water, large portions of the arid west were struggling with drought. Farmers in the west pumped groundwater (unsustainably) to produce their crops. Regional water supply and allocation of that water is a growing problem especially in the western states which are arid, dependent on irrigation and have multi-state water right compacts. One of the best known of these Compacts is the 1922 Colorado River Compact, negotiated by the seven basin states (Colorado, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, Arizona, California, ) divided the Colorado River basin into upper and lower portions, allotted consumptive use of the Colorado’s water on the basis of territory rather than prior appropriation. Before this agreement was negotiated allocation of water rights (ownership) was based on historic use, first to use the water owned it in perpetuity. In a land where water was wealth and all water was diverted from its natural location, this was how it was done. The allocation of water rights based on territory allowed development to proceed in the lower basin (essentially California) while safeguarding supplies for the upper basin. Then, as now, California's growth and demand for water was viewed with concern by her neighbors.

The problem is that the allocations promised were more than 100% of the water available and the demand for water has exceeded the supply. Specifically, the amount of water allocated under the Colorado Compact was based on an expectation that the river's average flow was 16.4 million acre feet per year. Subsequent tree ring studies, however, have concluded that the long-term average water flow of the Colorado is significantly less. According to the University of Arizona, a better estimate would have been 13.2 million acre feet at the time of the Colorado Compact and the records going back to paleolithic times (more than 10,000 years ago) indicates periods of mega-droughts in the distant past. During the drought of 2001-2006 the Colorado River flow was estimated at 11 million acre feet and hit a low of 6 million acre feet in 2002. The situation was critical bordering on regional rationing when the drought ended. More than 23 million people of the lower basin are at least partially dependent upon the water resources of the Colorado River. Almost 74% of them reside in the greater Los Angeles and San Diego areas. The deep snow pact and rain of last winter in northern California has taken has taken emergency rationing off the table- until the next drought.

Population growth, increased food production and increased power production all consume more and more water. The water available from the Colorado River has not increased with the increased demand and may even be falling. Even without climate change, paleoclimate records show a history of tremendous droughts in the region, and now more than 35 million people (in the upper and lower basins) depend upon the Colorado River’s waters for their water supply. The need for water is always growing. California is the most populous state in the nation and Nevada was identified as the fastest-growing state in the country in the 2010 census growing over 35% since 2000. Despite aggressive conservation activities the region simply does not have enough water to meet the projected demand. Las Vegas, was in the midst of a building boom when the drought hit. While adding 400,000 people they were able to reduce water use by a third by the implementation of draconian conservation measures. This was city and suburban consumption, not agricultural or power generation use of water which is much more difficult to cut.

The states of the Colorado Compact need more water. Overuse is killing the Colorado water basin which suffers from decimated aquatic ecosystems, overdrawn and irreparably damaged groundwater aquifers, and polluted agricultural and urban runoff. California has focused all its attention on developing a plan for reducing carbon dioxide emissions which is unlikely to prevent climate change, but they have failed to develop a workable water budget (or a balanced state budget for that matter). For two decades the Pacific Institute has called for a revamp of river management to protect endangered fish species and critical ecosystem elements, free up water for restoration of the Colorado River delta, and eliminate long-term groundwater overdraft throughout the basin. California and the other Colorado Compact states could not face the simple fact of a limited water supply and ignored the warnings, preferring to think about that tomorrow.

Even the conservation measures implemented in Las Vegas and throughout the region are not enough to ensure the long term water supply. The Southern Nevada Water Authority has requested to build a pipeline to transfer 65 billion gallons of water from northern Nevada to Las Vegas. The state will decide in January whether to proceed with that plan. The project has encountered stiff opposition from conservationists and rural communities against tapping northern groundwater to fuel more growth in southern Nevada. The pressure to push the project forward is off after the large snow pact of last winter inundated the area in the spring thaw and filled Lake Mead for the first time in a decade. Lake Meade sits on the Nevada-Arizona border and was formed in 1935 after the construction of Hoover Dam. Lake Mead and the upstream Lake Powell are the major water storage facilities in the Colorado Compact system. Roughly 96% of Lake Mead's water comes from melted snow in the upper Colorado River basin states: Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming.

Las Vegas is only one small area of the Colorado Compact. Regional politics demands maintaining a vibrant agricultural sector, quenching the thirst of growing urban and suburban, growing economies that also demand water for power and industry, despite the limitations of the water supply. Politicians do not seem able to make the hard choices that will balance their water budgets. Instead the politicians came up with the idea to investigate the “Long-Term Augmentation of the Water Supply of the Colorado River System.” The study commissioned by the Colorado Compact states and the federal government identified 12 long-term augmentation options: desalination of both brackish water and ocean water, coalbed methane produced water, recharging groundwater from other surface sources, reduction of consumptive use of water for power generation, reservoir evaporation reduction, storm water storage, vegetation management, importing water via boat, water reuse, weather modification, and importation of water from the Midwest. Former Governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson suggested “compacts” with the great lake states to import water to the drier western states under a federal water Czar. One of the ideas explored by the Southern Nevada Water Authority is to pipe 1,000 cubic feet of water per second from the Mississippi River 1,000 miles west to the Colorado River. They estimated that this aqueduct-pipeline would cost $11.4 billion to construct and an unknown amount of money to operate and maintain. Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, who is responsible for ensuring that the 2 million residents of Las Vegas have water argues that this plan could flood proof the Mississippi River Basin while recharging the depleted Ogallala Aquifer under the Great Plains and maintain and increase agriculture on the eastern side of the Colorado River. The plan is to remake nature with a modern era of big infrastructure projects rather than accept the limits of nature and locating large water use projects where water is plentiful. Water control and allocation would be another federal power under this water augmentation plan.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Solyandra was a Loan Not a Venture Capital Investment

Thursday, Energy Secretary Steven Chu sat through more than five hours of questioning by the oversight panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee about the failure of Solyndra. He deftly danced around charges of incompetence discussing Solyndra using such phrases such as “cash burn rate”, “start up” and “build up sales,” and said the White House has not lost faith in him. The committee and Secretary Chu seemed to have missed the point. This was a loan guarantee program. This was not a venture capital fund. This was not supposed to be a government investment in Solyndra or any other company (Beacon Power for example), but a loan guarantee program to aid viable projects in obtaining loans to build commercial scale projects.

The federal stimulus bill signed by President Obama expanded Title XVII of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 by adding Section 1705. DOE describes Title XVII Section 1705 as “ Provides loan guarantees to commercial-scale renewable energy projects, that begin construction prior to September 30, 2011 in Biomass, Hydrogen, Solar, Wind/Hydropower, Geothermal, Transmission, or any other renewable energy systems.” This was clearly a loan guarantee.

All loans typically have a primary and secondary source of repayment. The primary source of repayment is demonstrated or reliably projected cash flow. This is cash generated from the business or project. The secondary source of repayment is “conversion of the collateral,” that would be selling the assets of the company. Loan guarantees are necessary when either the primary or secondary source of repayment is impaired. Loans are made with borrowed funds, banks or other lenders borrow money in the financial markets and lend it to businesses at between 0.5% and 2.5% above their cost of funds.

The less risky the loan the less the lender’s spread. A government guarantee would essentially make a loan almost riskless and provide the secondary source of repayment, the U.S. taxpayer. A loan guarantee program provides a guarantee to reduce the interest rate charged and thus the borrowing costs. In order to protect the U.S. taxpayer from excessive losses in the DOE Title XVII Section 1705 loan program, it was essential to make sure the projects had a primary source of repayment, a sound source of cash flow.

The DOE program provided the loan guarantees for free. However, Secretary Chu, the entire administration, the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the press seem to have forgotten that the DOE Title XVII Section 1705 was a loan guarantee program not a venture capital fund. The Solyndra loan appears to have not primary source of repayment, was subject to regulatory and incentive risk and had limited secondary source or repayment. This was not a loan, yet $535 million of taxpayer money was at risk.

Venture capital is equity provided to early-stage, high-potential, high risk, start-up companies. The target return on Venture capital funds is typically 20%-35% and the venture capital investor is buying portions of companies. Venture capital is used to grow and develop companies with limited operating history that have not yet reached the point where they are able to obtain a bank or other type of loan by demonstrating the ability to make a profit. In exchange for the high risks that venture capitalists assume by investing in riskier companies, venture capitalists usually get significant control over company decisions, and a significant portion of the company's ownership (and consequently value). A venture capital fund makes money by selling the equity in the successful companies it invests in.

A Title XVII Section 1705 loan guarantee for $535 million loan guarantee given to Solyndra was not a venture capital investment by the DOE. The DOE took no ownership of the Solyndra, they simply guaranteed the company’s debt. Solyndra had no cash flow from their existing facility and were not profitable. Building a bigger and highly automated manufacturing facility was a wildly speculative attempt to build a market for a more expensive product. Title XVII Section 1705 was clearly a loan guarantee program being misused, not venture capital fund.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Keystone XL and Canadian Oil Sands

The Canadian oil sands have been known for decades. Until the recent protests against the Keystone XL pipeline that labeled these oil reserves “Canadian Oil Sands,” they had been variously known as unconventional oil or crude bitumen, the Canadians use oilsands as a single word. These oil sands had been surfaced mined in Canada with drag lines and power shovels since the late 1960’s, but until oil prices rose and technology improved these oil deposits were too expensive to exploit beyond the limited scope of surface mining. Advances in technology in both oil sand extraction and refining techniques and rising oil prices altered the economics and have made the extraction of oil sand possible.

The crude bitumen contained in the Canadian oil sands is a semi-solid or solid in natural deposits. It is a thick, sticky form of crude oil, so heavy and viscous that it will not flow unless heated or diluted with lighter hydrocarbons. Decades ago Canadian oil companies discovered that if they removed the sand filters from the well pumps and pumped as much sand as possible with the oil, production rates improved remarkably. This technique became known as Cold Heavy Oil Production with Sand (CHOPS). Pumping out sand opened "wormholes" in the sand formation which allowed more oil to reach the well improving production rates and recovery from around 6% to 10%. However, it produced large quantities of sand with oil residue that need to be disposed of, the recently used method has been to dispose of them in underground salt caverns.

More advances in drilling techniques and the use of steam injection have allowed the Canadians to expand their recoverable oil. In Cyclic Steam Stimulation (CSS) steam at extremely high temperature is injected into a well over a period of weeks to months; then, the well is allowed to rest while the heat to soaks into the formation. Finally, the hot oil is pumped out of the well for weeks or months until the production rate falls off. Once the production rate falls off, the well is put through another cycle of steam injection, rest and production. CSS and has a recovery rate around 20 to 25%; the disadvantage is that the cost to inject steam is high.

Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) was developed after improvements in directional drilling technology made it possible. In SAGD, two horizontal wells are drilled in the oil sands, one at the bottom of the formation and another about 15-20 feet above it. Groups of wells are typically drilled off a central pad and like fracking wells can extend for miles in all directions. This reduces surface disturbances of the land and the footprint of the area to be reclaimed under the environmental license (the Canadian version of a permit). In each well pair, steam is injected into the upper well melting the bitumen, which flows into the lower well and is pumped to the surface. SAGD was the breakthrough that has quadrupled recoverable oil reserves and moved Canada into second place in proved world oil reserves. SAGD is cheaper than CSS, allows very high oil production rates, and recovers up to 60% of the oil in place. There are refinements in the technology using in-situ hydrocarbon dilution under development that could reduce cost and energy used in mining even further, and could further reduce the cost of extracting oil sands. It is the SAGD method, however; that has created the need or desire for a pipeline to deliver the oil to the American markets.

Like all petroleum production, oil sands operations can adversely impact the environment. In the past open pit mining of oil sands projects have impacted the land when trees, brush and overburden have been removed for the mining site. As a condition of licensing, projects are required to implement a reclamation plan, but reclamation is a slow process. The mining industry asserts that the boreal forest will eventually recolonize the reclaimed lands. In addition, large amounts of water are used for oil sands operations for the steam in the current SAGD method. Despite recycling, most of the water ends up in tailings ponds. The Alberta provincial government limits how much water oil sands companies can remove from the Athabasca River to avoid impact and newer treatment methods have reduced the treatment and recovery time for tailing ponds. Still environmental regulations need to evolve with technology. Last winter the Canadian press reported that Wikileaks released a cable written by the U.S. Ambassador to Canadian Environment Minister in 2009 that revealed that the Obama administration had inquired about a possible moratorium on new oil sands development. Former environment minister Jim Prentice responded (in 2009) to the U.S. Ambassador that he was prepared to step in and impose tougher regulations on the oil sands if the industry damaged Canada's green reputation and said that if industry did not take voluntary measures and the provincial government did not set more stringent regulations, he would step in and press federal environmental legislation.

Recently, the current Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent announced that Ottawa will introduce environmental regulations to address oil sands and reduce greenhouse gas emissions without implementing a cap-and-trade program. Canada has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, the same target that the United States has committed to. Environmentalists contend that emissions trends suggest the expansion of the oil sands will prevent Canada from hitting its targets, unless tougher environmental rules are put in place, and strongly oppose further development of oil sands until a stronger regulatory framework is in place . These groups are fighting to stop the Keystone pipelines to the United States and western Canadian ports as a method of stopping the expansion of oil sands production. The Pembina Institute in Alberta states: “Filling the proposed KXL pipeline with oil sands will result in nearly a 50% increase in oil sands production. Until environmental management of the oil sands is improved, KXL will cause significant environmental harm due to increased oil sands production.”

In June 2010 the first phase of the Keystone Pipeline System went into operation moving crude oil from Canada to market hubs in the U.S. Midwest. Keystone Cushing (Phase II of the pipeline) extending the pipeline went into service in February 2011, connecting the storage and distribution facilities at Cushing, to the Midwestern hubs. The proposed Keystone XL, is an approximate 1,660 mile, 36 inch crude oil pipeline that would begin in Alberta and extend southeast through Saskatchewan, Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska continuing through Oklahoma to an existing terminal not far from Port Arthur, Texas. The oil would arrive at the Texas refineries and ports for American market and export. The U.S. State Department is the lead handling the issue because the pipeline crosses national boundaries, but President Obama has made it clear he will make the final decision on whether to approve the pipeline.

Recently, the Canadian Prime Minister Harper told reporters the project would create a vast number of jobs in Canada and the United States, and he fully supported the project. President Obama has said environmental issues would weigh just as heavily in any decision as job creation and energy security. The pipeline was originally planned to run through the Osgallala aquifer in Nebraska, a very important water source to mid-west agriculture. On Monday in response to U.S. State Department indications that the pipeline needed to avoid the Osgallala aquifer and the Sand Hills area, TransCanada (the pipeline owner) announced it had reached a tentative deal with Nebraska officials to move the proposed route of its Keystone XL pipeline away from Osgallala aquifer. After the announcement the U.S. State Department made it clear that another environmental assessment would be necessary and would take 12 to 18 months, pushing the decision to 2013. A decision should never be made too soon or too late.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Sustainability of Prince William County and the Rural Crescent

In the recent Prince William County local elections the candidates ran and were elected on schools, roads and jobs. Those are the immediate concerns of residents, but our elected officials need to look to the future and worry about the sustainability of Prince William County. We need to meet the ever tightening requirements under the Virginia Watershed Implementation Plan for the mandated Chesapeake Bay TMDL and we need to make sure that our water resources are not impaired. Preserving the Rural Crescent is essential to sustainable development of Prince William County. The first half of sustainable development is the redevelopment of Brownfields along the Route 1 corridor rather than Greenfield development in rural areas where there is no existing infrastructure. Redevelopment along Route 1 would help Prince William County to improve storm water management (and score nutrient reduction points under the Watershed Implementation Plan) as well as revitalize these older areas of the county. This redevelopment would take place without significantly increasing pavement and impervious surfaces. The second portion of sustainable development is to ensure adequate water for our county now and in the future.

Our geology and climate determines our water resources. The geological regions of Virginia are (from east to west) the Coastal Plain, the Piedmont, the Blue Ridge, the Valley and Ridge and the (Cumberland) Plateau. The Coastal Plain of Virginia is composed mostly of unconsolidated geologic deposits and extends from the Atlantic coast to the “fall zone” a geological line that runs north-south through Fairfax, Fredericksburg, Richmond, and Petersburg, to a large extent along Route 95. At its widest portion the Coastal Plain is over 100 miles wide.

Coastal Plain deposits consist of alternating layers of unconsolidated sand, gravel, silt, shell strata and clay and slopes generally southeast. There are two groundwater systems, an unconfined aquifer and a lower artesian aquifer both flow in the general direction of the topography slope towards the ocean. In the 1990’s it was estimated that approximately half of Virginia’s groundwater use was in this region. The principal recharge area for these aquifers is the land around the fall zone where the aquifers outcrop, unfortunately that area was paved and covered along with the development of Route 95. The Costal Plain’s artesian aquifer has an enormous groundwater storage capacity and Virginia remains a relatively wet location, but pumping (possibly over pumping) has lowered the artesian pressure allowing some salt water intrusion near the coast and development and building in the recharge zone has impacted the availability of water. It is projected with little more population growth that during drought years Fairfax and the Norfolk-Virginia Beach area will have inadequate water.

The Piedmont is bordered by the “fall zone” on the east and the Blue Ridge Mountains on the west. The Piedmont is the largest geological region in Virginia and has a diverse geology largely dominated by igneous and metamorphic rocks, with some areas of sedimentary rocks. The area has limited overburden and the fractures and fault lines formed in the rocks store and transmit groundwater. The size and number of water bearing fractures decrease with depth so significant supplies of water are generally located in the first few hundred feet. There is a wide variation in groundwater quality and yield ranging from under 1 gallon to over 50 gallons a minute. The largest yields are obtained where fracture and fault system are extensive. In other areas of the Piedmont, disintegration of the granite bedrock forms a zone of granular material with slow recharge and relatively high and annoying amounts of iron and sulfur. While providing very productive wells the fractures and faults offer a natural route of transport for any contaminant so that the most water rich areas that supply Bull Run and the Occoquan are the most susceptible to contamination.

Prince William traverses both the coastal plane and the Piedmont. The Rural Crescent in Prince William County is contained within the Piedmont region of the county within the water rich fracture and fault system and its waters feed the surface waters of the eastern portion of the county. The Rural Crescent should remain an urban growth boundary for the county not to preserve our agricultural heritage and sense of place, but to preserve our water. While I strongly support redevelopment of areas with preexisting infrastructure (Brownfield redevelopment) which would allow Prince William County to improve storm water management as well as revitalize older areas of the county and preserve the Greenfields areas in my general support of sustainable development; my strong support for preserving the Rural Crescent is about protecting the groundwater from depletion and contamination.

The Rural Crescent in Prince William County aligns roughly with the Mesozoic basin aquifer of the Culpeper groundwater basin, one of the more important watersheds in Virginia. My home and much of the Prince William County Rural Crescent is located within the northeast quadrant and eastern quadrant of the Culpeper basin and consists of sandstone, siltstone, and conglomerate of Late Triassic age; with the fault and fracture system that produces water rich wells and the easy transport routes for contaminants into the groundwater supply.

The Culpeper basin is part of a much larger Piedmont Geologic Province and has only begun to be studied thanks to the careful groundwater measurements taken by Loudoun County as excessive development of the western part of the county began to impact water supplies. Each groundwater system or basin is unique and must be understood and managed individually. Groundwater quantity and quality in our region impacts not only groundwater wells, but stream flow and recharge to the surface water. In short all the drinking water in Prince William County. Groundwater recharges at various rates from precipitation and other sources of infiltration. The recharge is not spread evenly across the land. Pave over the land, change surface flow and infiltration and groundwater recharge could be reduced.

There are limits to the amount of groundwater available for extraction from the aquifer. The amount of groundwater removed from an aquifer needs to be sustainable and should ideally match the recharge rate. Increasing the direct demand by pumping to supply water to commercial or industrial users or reducing the recharge rate by diverting surface flow and adding pavement and roads will result in changes in the local or regional hydraulic balance- a reduction in discharge to surface water at some other location, an increase in recharge from surface water, or a loss of storage in the aquifer by falling water table or some combination of these effects.

Our freshwater resources need to be managed as a whole. The utilization of groundwater resources in an unsustainable manner can result in impacts to the entire region, including the decrease in water level and aquifer storage, reductions in stream flow and lake levels, loss of wetland and riparian ecosystems, land subsidence, saltwater intrusion and changes in groundwater quality. Our future and our children’s future is our water. We can’t allow it to be destroyed by those who only see short term gain.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Holiday Septic Backup and When to Pump Out the Septic Tank

In general it is recommended that septic tanks should be pumped out every 3-5 years. I live within the Chesapeake Bay watershed in a resource protected area that requires a septic tank pump out at least every five years. Many localities do not have set requirements. However, just because no one requires you to pump out your septic tank, does not mean that the tank does not need to be pumped out. How often you need to pump your septic tank depends primarily on the size of your tank, the number of people in the household contributing to the volume of your wastewater, the volume of solids in your wastewater and whether you use a garbage disposal or have a water treatment system. According to the EPA, the use of a kitchen garbage disposal will increase the amount of solids in the holding tank by as much as 50%. It is the amount of soils in the tank that ultimately will cause most septic problems. The chart above is from the Montana Extension Office and gives a general rule of thumb for frequency in pumping a septic tank to avoid failure. This chart assumes that the system is properly used and does not have a garbage disposal in the household nor a reverse osmosis water treatment system discharging into the tank.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, New England and southeast have the highest proportion of homes served by septic systems. Having grown up in New England with an old septic system and now living in the southeast, the rules of care to minimize the need for pumping the tank and maximizing the life of a septic system are second nature to me. Only human waste and a limited amount of toilet paper are to be flushed done the toilet. A toilet and septic system is not a trash can. Don’t put dental floss, feminine hygiene products, condoms, diapers, wipes, cotton swabs, cigarette butts, coffee grounds, cat litter, paper towels, latex paint, pesticides, or other hazardous chemicals into your system. Never do more than two loads of laundry a day. Cooking grease is poured into a can under the sink, and all plates are scraped into the trash or compost. Commercial septic tank additives add bacteria to the system and in some instances may assist in the breakdown of fecal waste, but do nothing for the breakdown of vegetable matter, and trash that you have put down the drain. The EPA believes that the commercial septic tank additives have little if any effect on the need for pumping the tank and believe in most instances the bacteria already present in the tank eat the added bacteria.

A typical septic system has four main components: a pipe from the home, a septic tank, a leach field (alternative systems might have drip fields, sand mounds or peat tanks where a leach field is not possible or has failed), and the soil. Microbes in the soil digest or remove most contaminants from wastewater before it eventually reaches groundwater. The rest of the system is designed to remove most of the contamination so that the soil is not overwhelmed and can “polish” the water before it is returned to groundwater. Many systems also have pumps to move the liquids from the home to the septic tank or from the septic tank to the drain field. There are also Alternative systems that have additional components such as; float switches, pumps, and other electrical or mechanical components including additional treatment tanks. However, the main functioning components are the septic tank and the leach field.

The septic tank is a buried, watertight container typically made of concrete, fiberglass, or polyethylene. It holds the wastewater long enough to allow solids to settle out (forming sludge) and oil and grease to float to the surface (as scum). It also allows partial decomposition of the solid fecal materials. Anaerobic (without oxygen) digestion takes place with the aid of bacteria that came from human digestive tracks and most of the fecal solids are converted to carbon dioxide, water and other byproducts. The process is not completely efficient and fecal solids and other materials that find their way into the septic tank will accumulate over time. Compartments and a T-shaped outlet in the septic tank are intended to prevent the solid sludge buildup and floating scum (grease, oil, dead skin cells, etc.) from leaving the tank and traveling into the leach field area. Some newer systems have screens and filters to keep solids from entering the leach field. These filters and screens become clogged and need to be cleaned out regularly. Clogging of the filters can cause the system to backup.

The basic design of a septic tank will only work if the sludge is not too thick on the bottom and the grease and scum is not too thick on top, and if the flow to the tank is not excessive. If there is too much waste on the bottom of the tank or too much water flowing to the tank, there will not be enough time for the solids and liquids to settle out before the tank starts releasing waste. If there is too much water flow for the void area in the tank, water containing large amounts of solids and fecal waste and grease will be released to the drain field. The most likely time for your septic system to back up is when water use is highest-when you have a lot of guests at your home using the bathrooms, running the dishwasher and doing laundry, in short, the holidays. A backed up septic system is usually caused by a blockage between septic tank and leach field causing the tank level to rise and back up. If the liquid level in the septic tank is found to be above normal, either: the tank outlet is plugged or in newer systems this can be caused by a clogged filter, the line to the absorption field is obstructed, or the absorption field is clogged and pretty much ruined. An absorption field is destroyed slowly over time. If the absorption field is clogged there will probably be evidence of seepage or general wetness in the absorption area. In dry summer days stripes of green grass over the absorption field may be an indication of a failing system.

A plugged tank outlet can be caused by several things. In septic tanks which have been used for many years, the outlet baffle or “T” sometimes disintegrates or collapses. This allows scum and sludge solids to overflow and plug the outlet or the line to the absorption field. A tank with too much scum and solids that has a large flow of water will also cause solids and scum to overflow the tank. In appropriate stuff like hair, dental floss, feminine hygiene products, condoms, diapers, cotton swabs, cigarette butts, coffee grounds, cat litter, paper towels can be stirred up by too much water use and pushed out of the tank and cause a blockage in the outlet line. Newer septic tanks have filters and screens that can become clogged. Tree roots getting into pipe joints or the collapse of a pipe section can also block the line.

To prevent problems, you can be the household septic police and make sure that only reasonable amounts of grey water, human waste and a limited amount of TP are put into your septic system at all times. This is one way you will avoid that classic holiday disaster of the septic system backed up into the basement, but your family may think of you as a crazy control freak. There is another approach. I clean my filters and pump my septic tank just before the holiday season every year. I do not have to remember what year it is, I do not have to make sure every guest treats my septic system like the elegant, natural system that it is. By pumping the tank each year, I prevent excess sludge (solid material) from building up inside the septic tank, and flowing into the absorption field, and clogging it beyond repair. In the long run I extend the life of my septic system, protect the groundwater and my well, avoid holiday disasters and I can be a slightly more relaxed septic cop. Be aware though that the plumbing system can also get clogged. Waste lines in the house (especially from basement bathrooms) can become clogged with too much paper and not enough water or disposable cleaning cloths that should not be flushed. If this happens you will have to snake the waste line. Toddlers love to flush things down the toilet.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Keystone XL and the Kaleidoscope Picture of Energy’s Future

On Sunday protesters from around the United States descended on the White House to protest the Keystone XL pipe line. The protesters represent several environmental groups that want President Obama to stop the pipeline. Last week, President Obama stated that he would be making the final decision on the Keystone XL pipeline himself. Jobs, renewable energy, environment, greenhouse gases, and energy security all come into play in this decision, and I would not try to guess the President’s mind on this. This decision is an important one in the new world we face.

We thought we knew what the world’s energy supply looked like. Peak Oil, the maximum global oil extraction rate would be reached at the dawn of the 21st century, at which time the rate of oil production would begin its terminal decline. After the 1970’s the U.S. had become dependent on the oil from the Middle East and Venezuela and this would be compounded by rising fuel prices, potential shortages associated with declining global oil supplies . The cost of everything would be increased by more costly energy. The decline of the chemical manufacturing sector (plastics, pesticides, herbicides) would be accelerated due to expensive base stock and high fuel costs reducing U.S. manufacturing employment and increasing food costs. The future of the United States was not a rosy one, but it is one we would share with the world and the positive side to this reality was the opportunity to make renewable energy sources economically competitive.

The bell ringing of that world view was the failure of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 or the Waxman-Markley bill. This bill would have established a variation of cap and trade similar to the European Union Emission Trading Scheme. The emissions cap under that plan would grow tighter over time reducing the amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted in total and pushing up emissions prices and thus prodding industry to release less carbon dioxide by utilizing cleaner energy sources or increasing efficiency of the existing ones. Other provisions of that bill included new renewable energy requirements for utilities, studies and incentives for carbon capture technologies, energy efficiency incentives and penalties for homes and buildings, and grants for green jobs. The bill was approved by the House in June 2009, but died in the Senate, and was possibly the last stand of the world view that cap and trade can stop climate change on a planet with an ever growing human population.

The change in the world energy picture had started slowly in the 1990’s with the first deep water wells in the Gulf of Mexico and Brazil, but it has taken off in the last decade as a result of declining conventional fields, climbing energy prices and swift technological change. The Deepwater Horizon disaster and the political environment slowed the U.S. exploration and extraction in the Gulf, but did not stop it. Regulations tightened as the failure was better understood. Massive new oil and gas fields are being identified and exploited in the United States and around the world utilizing new technologies developed in the past decade or two. Some of the reserves have been known to exist for decades but were inaccessible either economically or technologically, others have been newly found as in Brazil, Israel, Norway, and Argentina. Regulations need to be tightened before large failures in drilling, fracking and extracting oil from sands.

The devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan in March, 2011 resulted in extensive loss of life and infrastructure damage, including severe damage to several nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi. This nuclear disaster has prodded the European Union, notably France and Germany to rethink their nations’ reliance on nuclear power. Both are sun-setting their utilities’ reliance on nuclear power generation. The newly available natural gas from shale, oil from deep water drilling and oil steamed from sands will replace nuclear power in Europe and extend the era of the dominance of fossil fuels for at least a generation and possibly a hundred years.

The Canadian oil sands have been known for decades, but until oil prices rose and technology improved they were too expensive to exploit. Technology and rising oil prices altered the economics in their favor and streamlined the refining process. Recovering reserves from deeper underground using steam injection, rather than mining techniques, has reduced the footprint of operations and environmental damage to the forests. According to the New York Times “The United States may now have the means to reduce its half century of dependence on the Middle East.” This will only occur if the extension of the Keystone pipeline is approved.

Canadian oil sands production is expected to increase every year for the next two decades, and it is estimated that current known reserves exceed Iraq’s total reserves. Canada is now a premier oil producer- the world has changed. However, many American and Canadian environmentalists strongly oppose this change. These groups are fighting to stop the Keystone pipelines to the United States and western Canadian ports. In June 2010 the first phase of the Keystone Pipeline System went into operation moving crude oil from Canada to market hubs in the U.S. Midwest. Keystone Cushing (Phase II of the pipeline) extending the pipeline went into service in February 2011, connecting the storage and distribution facilities at Cushing, to the Midwestern hubs. The proposed Keystone Gulf Coast Expansion Project, Keystone XL, is an approximate 1,660 mile, 36 inch crude oil pipeline that would begin in Alberta and extend southeast through Saskatchewan, Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. It would incorporate a portion of the Keystone Pipeline (Phase II) through Nebraska and Kansas to serve the markets at Cushing, before continuing through Oklahoma to an existing terminal not far from Port Arthur, Texas. The oil would arrive at the Texas refineries and ports for export.

So far President Obama has been non-committal on the project, which is strongly opposed by many environmentalists in both the United States and Canada. The Canadian Prime Minister Harper told reporters the project would create a vast number of jobs in Canada and the United States, and he fully supported the project. President Obama has said environmental issues would weigh just as heavily in any decision as job creation and energy security. The pipeline runs through the Osgallala aquifer in Nebraska, a very important water source to mid-west agriculture (secondary containment should be considered in sensitive locations) and continued dependence on fossil fuels goes against the administration’s support of renewable energy as the long term future of the United States.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Final Alternative Septic Regulation in Virginia

The Emergency Alternative Onsite Sewage System (AOSS) Regulations went into effect April 7, 2010 and expired on October 6th 2011. It was anticipated that the final regulation would replace them without a gap in regulation; but Governor McDonnell did not sign the final regulations until October 20th 2011. The Board of Health will publish the regulations on November 7th 2011 and they will go into effect 30 days later, so there will be a 60 day gap in regulation which in the end is meaningless. Homeowners had only recently received letters informing them of the now expired emergency regulations, but the requirements under the final regulations are almost the same as outlined by the Board of Health Letters sent to homeowners this past spring. So as a homeowner with an alternative septic system in Virginia you will need to be in compliance with the regulations.

The final regulations list the homeowner responsibilities as section 140 of the regulations.12VAC5-613-140. Owner responsibilities.
It is the owner's responsibility to do the following:
1. Have the AOSS operated and maintained by an operator;
2. Have an operator visit the AOSS at the frequency required by this chapter;
3. Have an operator collect any samples required by this chapter;
4. Keep a copy of the log provided by the operator on the property where the AOSS is located in electronic or hard copy form, make the log available to the department upon request, and make a reasonable effort to transfer the log to any future owner;
5. Follow the O&M manual and keep a copy of the O&M manual in electronic or hard copy form for the AOSS on the property where the AOSS is located, make the O&M manual available to the department upon request, and make a reasonable effort to transfer the O&M manual to any future owner; and
6. Comply with the onsite sewage system requirements contained in local ordinances adopted pursuant to the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act (§ 10.1-2100 et seq. of the Code of Virginia) and the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Area Designation and Management Regulations (9VAC10-20) when an AOSS is located within a Chesapeake Bay Preservation Area.

Have your AOSS operated and maintained by a licensed operator. As a homeowner if you are not licensed by the DPOR you are not allowed to maintain nor operate you own AOSS. The Virginia code requires the owner of an AOSS to have that system operated by a licensed operator, so you need to hire one of them to operate and maintain your system. That amounts to at a minimum one visit a year, but may be more depending on the type of system you have. The cost of my septic contract increased by 25% after the emergency regulations were approved by the Governor. The operator (or someone who works for the license holder) will visit your home inspect, test and service the components of your system and will file a report on line with the Virginia Department of Health certifying the results.

Have an operator review the operation of the system at the frequency required by the regulations. The frequency of your required maintenance is actually on your AOSS operating permit, which you have probably never seen. Do not worry, if you have an “off the shelf” system it is probably once or twice a year. Typically, the manufacturer obtained general approval for commercially available AOSS (and that is most systems), the maintenance schedule is given in the standard homeowner’s manual (the link to that is below in the next section). My system operating instructions detail system inspections and adjustments every six months and filter cleaning every three months. The operator is required to perform the required system maintenance, fill out and file forms with Environmental Health detailing the operation and condition of the system and compliance with the required maintenance schedule. The operator is required to file a report (on-line) for all visits. A little note, if your system was custom designed by an engineer, you could have significant additional operating, maintenance and sampling requirements.

Have an operator collect any samples required by this chapter. Laboratory sampling is not required for any small AOSS with an installed soil treatment area that is sized for septic tank effluent and complies with the requirements of 12VAC5-610 for septic tank effluent. In addition to regular maintenance and inspection, all systems installed after April 7, 2010 and whose systems have a secondary treatment and is not exempted by the above statement are required to have a grab sample of sludge taken and analyzed for BOD and, if disinfection is required, fecal coliform once every five years. Systems installed before April 2010 are grandfathered and do not require sampling. Expect to pay at least a couple hundred dollars for this. Yes, it would be cheaper if you took the samples yourself, but you are not allowed to.

Keep a copy of the maintenance log provide by the operator on the property where the AOSS is located. Every time the operator visits your system to maintain and/or inspect it, they are required to fill out a form with the Virginia Department of Health on their on-line reporting system and send you or give you a form indicating what service they provided. I file all of these in a notebook with the Operations Manual, but my service company e-mails me the invoice/log entry so I have all items electronically stored.

Keep a copy of the Operations and Maintenance (O&M) Manual for the AOSS on the property, make it available to the health department on request and transfer the O&M Manual to any future owner. All manufactures of systems approved in Virginia have created O&M Manuals that you can access on line and print. You can download the manual and save it or you can print it out. I know this is the biggest waste of paper ever, but I found it easier to actually skim through the manual in print. It does give some useful tips on how to properly use your system. All the manuals from the standard state approved systems can be accessed at this link. (Go outside and read the name and model number off your system. It is on the power/circuit boxes bolted to the house.)

Comply with the local ordinances for the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act when an AOSS is located within a Chesapeake Bay Preservation Area. Once a system is built, the responsibilities for the owner are to have the system pumped out at a minimum every five years. Here is a little tip, systems are less likely to back up into your basement or percolate out of the drain field if you pump them out frequently. In practice the licensed operator should inform you when your system needs to be pumped out and certainly the Board of health will send you a letter.

These are now the final regulations for O&M of alternative septic systems. Compliance is simple, but expensive. Identify the type of system you have, print the manual, then identify a licensed operator in your area and hire them. (Check reference and comparison shop, cost is not always indicative of quality in an inefficient market.) I have found by reviewing the AOSS survey performed for the Department of Health that these systems tend to need regular component replacement or repair, so good response time for a system alarm or failure is important.

While alternative septic systems are a bit more complicated that traditional septic systems they can allow the safe development of environmentally sensitive areas. However, it is widely accepted, but not well documented that improperly managed septic systems contribute to major water quality problems. In 2003 EPA reported that 168,000 viral and 34,000 bacterial illnesses occur each year from drinking water contaminated by waterborne pathogens from fecal contamination due primarily from failed septic systems. Proper maintenance of septic systems (both traditional and alternative) is essential for protection of public health and local water resources. Unfortunately, while you and I responsibly manage our septic systems, (exercise, maintain a healthy weight, eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily, save for retirement, etc.), many homeowners are unaware of how septic systems work and what is necessary to maintain them.

One method to deal with this problem was to eliminate all but the most basic systems in the most geologically favorable locations (reduce percolation rate tolerances and design the systems as conservatively as possible). The other method was to regulate, control and track. Establish system performance and monitoring and maintenance requirements, establish a tracking system and operating permits for compliance monitoring, and establish penalties and enforce the program. As a society we collect taxes, we license, register, and inspect cars; now we permit, register and inspect/maintain a septic system. Legislation approved in 2008 (Va. Code § 32.1-163.6) chose which path Virginia would take. That legislation required the Virginia Department of Health to accept designs from professional engineers for alternative septic systems that comply with standard engineering practice, any performance requirements established by the Board, and horizontal setback requirements necessary to protect public health and the environment. In response to that legislation, several localities banned alternative septic systems to protect the groundwater in their communities. Finally, the Virginia legislature stepped in again and required the Board of Health created the emergency regulations (and ultimately the final regulations) to address three issues for AOSS; performance standards, horizontal setbacks, and Operation and Maintenance necessary to protect public health and the environment from AOSS failure or poor design.

This legislation denied localities the ability to restrict use of AOSS in their counties, expanding property rights. However, the legislation also protects public health, the waters of the state and the environment because it requires all AOSS be properly designed, meet minimum performance standards and be properly maintained and spells out what that entails. It is believed by regulators and manufacturer that proper operation and maintenance of these systems will ensure that all AOSS function as designed. It is hoped that uniform regulations throughout the Commonwealth will facilitate homeowner awareness and compliance with the regulations. The full text of the regulations can be read at this link.