Thursday, June 27, 2013

New Research on Fracking and Contamination of Drinking Water

Scientists have found and investigated methane in drinking water wells near fracked gas wells in the Marcellus Shale. Fracking or hydraulic fracturing as it is more properly known involves the pressurized injection of fluids commonly made up of mostly water and chemical additives into a geologic formation. The pressure used exceeds the rock strength and the fluid opens or enlarges fractures in the rock. As the formation is fractured, a “propping agent,” such as sand or ceramic beads, is pumped into the fractures to keep them from closing as the pumping pressure is released. The fracturing fluids (water and chemical additives) are partially recovered and returned to the surface or deep well injected. Natural gas will flow from pores and fractures in the rock into the wells allowing for enhanced access to the methane reserve.

Over the past few years, the use of hydraulic fracturing for gas extraction has increased and has expanded over a wide diversity of geographic regions and geologic formations beyond its original use in old oil and gas fields to revitalize them. By January of 2013, the daily production of methane (CH4) in the United States had increased 30% from January 2005 to about 70 billion cubic feet of gas each day. As fracking has expanded at what seems a breakneck speed in some regions, so has a public and regulatory concern about the possible environmental consequences of fracking and horizontal drilling. These concerns include air pollution from the operation of heavy equipment, human health effects for workers and people living near well pads from chemical exposure, noise and dust, induced seismicity from the disposal of fracking fluids, and increased greenhouse gas emissions from poor well head control and continued use of hydrocarbons.

However, the biggest health concern remains the potential for drinking water contamination from fracturing fluids, natural formation waters, and stray gases. While geologists and engineers believed that in hydraulic fracturing the intervening layers of rock prevent a fissure from extending into the water table, this had not been studied and there were reported instances of contamination of drinking water wells in areas that had been fracked. Only in the past three years has the potential to contaminate drinking water wells been studied. In a small group of studies (listed below) that were primarily in the Marcellus region of Pennsylvania, peer-reviewed studies found no evidence of salts, metals, or radioactivity beyond naturally occurring concentrations in drinking water wells near shale gas wells. However, in the latest studies they did find increased levels of methane in groundwater wells.

Methane gas occurs naturally in groundwater aquifers in most geological sedimentary basins. Methane gas exists in a dissolved state in the groundwater underground and will “bubble out” when pumped to the surface. For those on private water well supplies, spurting taps is a typical indication of this phenomenon. Methane present in groundwater can be a result of biogenic activity or can be from coal gas beds or from deeper shale gas. Biogenic methane is produced by subsurface bacteria and commonly occurs naturally in groundwater aquifers used for water well supplies. Thermogenic methane gas is produced at greater depths through high pressure and temperature processes and is characteristic of deep oil and gas reservoirs that conventional and shale gas wells tap into. Methane gas typically contains trace amounts of ethane. The proportion of methane to ethane in a gas can help determine its origin. Biogenic gas typically contains above 1,000 times more methane than ethane, but thermogenic gas has higher levels of ethane. In addition, isotope data can also be used to help determine whether a gas is biogenic or thermogenic. In the most recent research paper from the scientists at Duke University, University of Rochester and California State Polytechnic University (1) used these ratios to examine the occurrence and source of methane in drinking water wells in northeastern Pennsylvania.

A total of 81 samples from drinking water wells were collected in six counties in Pennsylvania (Bradford, Lackawanna, Sullivan, Susquehanna, Wayne, and Wyoming), and results were combined with 60 previous samples from a 2011 study by Stephen G. Osborn et al. (2). Dissolved methane was detected in the drinking water of 82% of the houses sampled (115 of 141 samples). Methane concentrations in drinking water wells of the homes closest to the gas wells were six times higher on average than concentrations for homes farther away. All of the 12 houses where CH4 concentrations were greater than 28 mg/L (the threshold for immediate remediation set by the US Department of the Interior) were well within a mile of an active shale gas well. Concentrations of ethane (C2H6) and propane (C3H8) were also higher in drinking water of homes near the shale gas wells.

The scientists concluded that the combined results suggest that natural gas, derived at least in part from thermogenic sources (the shale gas) was present in some of the shallow water wells less than a mile away from natural gas wells. The scientist pointed out that the two simplest explanations for the higher dissolved gas concentrations measured in the drinking water are faulty or inadequate steel casings and/or imperfections in the cement sealing (also known as the grouting) between casings and rock that keep fluids from moving up the outside of the well. In 2010, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued 90 violations for faulty casing and cementing on 64 Marcellus shale gas wells; 119 violations were issued in 2011.

The scientist believed based on their isotopic analysis and previous studies that the cause of the elevated levels of methane (CH4) in the groundwater was due to imperfections in the cement grouting on the wells. Faulty cement grouting can allow methane and other gases from intermediate layers to flow into, up, and out of the void between the steel casing and the grouting into shallow drinking water layers. The geochemical and isotopic compositions of stray gas contamination in this scenario would not fully match the target shale gas, and no fracturing chemicals or deep formation waters would be expected, because a direct connection to the deepest layers does not exist; and this is consistent with their findings. Faulty grouting is believed to be the most likely cause of the scientists’ findings. Legacy or abandoned oil and gas wells (and even abandoned water wells) though a potential source of contamination, were unlikely to be the cause in this instance. Historical drilling activity was negligible within the study area making this mechanism unlikely there. Though, in 2000, the Pennsylvania DEP estimated that it had records for 141,000 of the 325,000 oil and gas wells that had historically been drilled in the state.

In another study by Duke University and the US Geological Survey no evidence of drinking water contamination from methane from shale gas was found in a part of the Fayetteville Shale in Arkansas (7). That shale has a less fractured geology than the Marcellus and good confining layers above and below the drinking water aquifers. Ultimately, we need to understand why, in some cases, shale gas extraction contaminates groundwater and how to ensure that contamination does not happen with a high level of certainty in susceptible geology. Well construction and maintenance needs to be studied, optimized and carefully regulated before further expansion of shale gas development.

  1. Jackson, RB, Vengosh, A, Darrah, TH, Warner,  NR, Down, A, Poreda, RJ, Osborn, SG, Zhao, K, Karr,JD (2013) Increased stray gas abundance in a subset of drinking water wells near Marcellus shale gas extraction PNAS 2013 ; published ahead of print June24, 2013, doi:10.1073/pnas.1221635110
  2. Osborn SG, Vengosh A, Warner NR, Jackson RB (2011) Methane contamination of drinking water accompanying gas-well drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 108(20):8172–8176.
  3. DiGiulio DC, Wilkin RT, Miller C, Oberley G (2011) Investigation of Ground Water Contamination Near Pavillion, Wyoming (US Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Research and Development, National Risk Management Research Laboratory, Ada, OK), p 74820.
  4. Warner NR, et al. (2012) Geochemical evidence for possible natural migration of Marcellus Formation brine to shallow aquifers in Pennsylvania. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 109(30):11961–11966.
  5. Chapman EC, et al. (2012) Geochemical and strontium isotope characterization of produced waters from Marcellus Shale natural gas extraction. Environ Sci Technol 46(6):3545–3553.
  6. Boyer EW, et al. (2012) The Impact of Marcellus Gas Drilling on Rural Drinking Water Supplies (The Center for Rural Pennsylvania, Harrisburg, PA)
  7. Kresse TM, et al. (2012) Shallow Groundwater Quality and Geochemistry in the Fayetteville Shale Gas-Production Area, North-Central Arkansas, 2011 (USGS), US Geological Survey Scientific Report 2012–5273 (Lafayette Publishing Service Center, Lafayette, LA).

Monday, June 24, 2013

GRACE Watches Building Water Crisis

Earlier this month Dr. Jay Famiglietti, a professor of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine, and Director of the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling (UCCHM) and Matt Rodell, now Chief of the Hydrological Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center have published an new paper in Science entitled, “Water in the Balance.” The scientists draw conclusions and trend from the ten years of data that has come from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) and Global Land Data Assimilation System (GLDAS) to quantify groundwater depletion. A group of researchers at the University of California, Irvine, the University of Texas, and the Hydrological Sciences Branch at NASA GSFC have worked in partnership to apply GRACE and GLDAS to various real world groundwater monitoring.

GRACE data has provided a global picture of water storage trends for over a decade and could be an invaluable tool for understanding water resource availability. The GRACE mission is able to monitor monthly water storage changes within river basins and aquifers that are 77,000 square miles or larger. While this area may be too large for community water management, it can be used on the regional and national scale, and to aide international policy discussions. This information could someday be used to develop a unifying principal of cross border water resource allocation. Now, though, the first use has been to study the trends on groundwater in various regions during this period.
Stressed aquifers are in yellow, orange and red

Dr. Famiglietti points out that groundwater represents almost half of all drinking water worldwide, though a lesser proportion of irrigation water. In the United States groundwater is an important natural resource, representing about 30% of all consumptive water use especially in those parts of the country that don't have ample surface-water sources, such as the arid West and in times of drought. Groundwater is a renewable resource, but not in the way that sun light is. Groundwater recharges at various rates from precipitation. Changes in rainfall patterns and the actions of man can impact the recharge rate of groundwater. Increasing the amount of impermeable area by paving or building and other changes to land cover can reduce groundwater recharge. The climate of the planet has continually changed over the millennia and some groundwater aquifers are legacies of an earlier climate and are not being recharged.

To recharge groundwater, it must rain and the soil must be able to absorb the water. When you withdraw the groundwater from fine-grained compressible sediments and do not replace it, the land subsides. In the pursuit of wealth the ground water in the incredibly fertile Central Valley was pumped to such an extent that the ground subsided more than 75 feet in some places. The area was identified by the research efforts of Joseph Poland as the location of maximum subsidence in the United States due to groundwater mining. Once the land subsides, it loses its water holding capacity and will never recover as an aquifer. Groundwater mining in the Central Valley was believed to have slowed in the past few decades, but it continues as documented by the recent data from Drs. Famiglietti and Rodell’s work and the continual falling of the groundwater level.

Though, ten years of data may not be adequate to determine accurate changes in water availability and groundwater recharge. Using GRACE data, Drs. Famiglietti and Rodell identified what appear to be in this 10 year window water ‘hotspots’ in the United States, and these include the important food producing regions in California’s Central Valley, and the southern High Plains; large areas of the southeastern U. S. that has been plagued by persistent drought, including Houston, Texas, Alabama, and portions of the Mid-Atlantic region. Based on the data since 2003, the wetter, northern half of the U.S. has become wetter, while the drier, southern half has become generally drier.

Dr. Rodell hopes to have the next generation of satellites able to monitor groundwater changes on a weekly basis and to be able to monitor groundwater and river basins that are closer to 1,000 square miles in area. In addition, to have the resources to interpret the date in a more timely fashion so that communities can use it to manage water resources in real time. Our water resources are the urgent need. Water is life. We must develop sustainable water, economic and agricultural policies to ensure the certainty and security of our food supply and water supply. If the water use is not sustainable, then ultimately we are not sustainable on a much shorter scale than climate change.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Tornado Risk

from NOAA Tornado Frequecy
Though tornadoes occur all over the Earth, not limited to any specific geographic location, some parts of the world are much more prone to tornadoes than others. Globally, the middle latitudes (that would be us), provide the most favorable environment for the creation of tornadoes because this is where cold, polar air meets warmer, subtropical air, generating precipitation along the air mass collisions. In addition, air in these mid-latitudes often flows at different speeds and directions at different heights conducive to creation of rotation within the storm.

Tornadoes have been documented in every state of the United States, and in terms of absolute count, the United States leads the world, with an average over 1,000 tornadoes (EF-0 to EF-5) recorded each year. A distant second is Canada, with around 100 per year. Interestingly, the places that receive the most frequent tornadoes are also fertile farmland area. This is due in part to the high number of convective rain storms in these areas. One of the main difficulties with tornado records is that a tornado, or evidence of a tornado must have been observed. If a tornado occurs in a place with few or no people, it is not likely to be documented. Much of what we know as tornado alley of the central plains was very sparsely populated until the 20th century, and so the historical record before 1950 may not be accurate.

Tornado intensity is measured by the Fujita Scale, F, (also known as the Fujita-Pearson Scale) and the Enhanced Fujita Scale, EF, that imperfectly links damage to wind speed, but is relatively easy to apply in practice without much additional expenditure of time or money. The scale is used to rate the intensity of a tornado by examining the damage caused by the tornado after it has passed over a man-made structures. Generally speaking the intensity of tornadoes ranges from F0 (or EF-0) to F5 (or EF-5).

In the United States, there are two regions with a disproportionately high frequency of tornadoes. Florida is one and "Tornado Alley" in the south-central U.S. is the other. Florida has numerous tornadoes simply due to the high frequency of almost daily thunderstorms and the southeast and Gulf Coast are not far behind. However, despite the violent nature of a tropical storm or hurricane, the tornadoes they create tend to be weaker than those produced by non-tropical thunderstorms.
Frequency of stronger tornadoes in the U.S.
So should I worry, should I consider installing a tornado shelter in my home (beyond the partially above ground basement that my house already has)? John Nelson of IDV Solutions put 62 years worth of tornado data from NOAA on a map. John plotted each tornado's path and used brightness for its level of intensity. IDV Solutions is a cool company that sell what it calls Visual Fusion software. Visual Fusion is data visualization software for building interpretive images from virtually any data source. These images are used to connect all data in a single view, enabling those to whom columns of numbers do not speak to interpret data in a visual, interactive way to improve understanding and insights. John’s visualization shows that tornadoes in general arrive from the southwest and travel to the northeast, but more importantly for me the brightness of the lines indicates the intensity of the storm and the storms that have occurred in the Piedmont of Virginia have not been intense tornadoes. However, his data visualization lacks a time parameter. Looking at the frequency graph of tornadoes from NOAA it appears that the frequency of intense storms has not increased since the peak in the 1970’s, but the overall frequency of all tornadoes surpassed the 1973 peak in 2011, but fell again in 2012. Of course 2013 could be a very big year for tornadoes. Nonetheless, it looks like for my home, building or installing a FEMA 320 certified storm shelter is not a top priority. I may get one someday if I ever have a large sum of extra money, but I may just reinforce a below ground section of my basement with a FEMA 320 safe room kit.
from John Nelson IDV solutions showing tornado intensity and direction

In storm shelters there are two options: a site-built shelter or a commercially manufactured shelter. A site-built shelter is one that is built into your house during construction- building a closet or bathroom to meet the necessary design standards developed by Texas Tech and adopted by FEMA. The FEMA 320 standard is not easily retrofitted into a standing house. There are also commercially manufactured shelters that can be purchased, they range from the old stand-alone Auntie Em style storm cellars, to ones that are designed to be installed in the floor of a garage or underneath and as part of the steps of a pre-manufactured home.

If you choose to purchase and install a tornado shelter, make sure the shelter you select has been approved, tested and certified by the National Storm Shelter Association to meet FEMA 320 standards. On the market there are above-ground, below-ground and partially below-ground models that have been tested and certified. For any shelter which is partially or completely above-ground, the walls must be resistant to debris impact. Make sure the shelter you select has been tested for debris impact resistance by Texas Tech or if it is a below ground shelter the door has been tested and certified as resistant to debris impact. 
detail from John's map showing Tornado intensity in parts of NC, VA and  MD

Finally, if a tornado watch has been called (and scrolls across your TV or announced on the radio) it means that tornadoes are possible in the area and you should think about how you will protect yourself and your family this is your chance to get ready. Hopefully, you already have and emergency plan, and storm supplies (like a radio, flashlight and water) and are ready to act quickly if a tornado forms in your area. A tornado warning means a tornado has been sighted by weather radar and you should act immediately to seek shelter. If you are in a house, go to the lowest level such as a basement or storm cellar. If there is no basement, go to an interior room such as a closet, hallway or bathroom. Try to protect your head from flying debris or broken glass-blankets, bicycle helmets. If you are in a mobile home, you should leave immediately and seek shelter elsewhere. If you are outside and cannot get to shelter, crouch beside a strong structure or lie flat in a ditch or low-lying area and try to cover your head and neck. Get as far away from trees and cars as you can. A car is not safe in a tornado and parking a car under an overpass is not effective protection.

Monday, June 17, 2013

What to Do About Discolored Well Water After Heavy Rain

 In Virginia where I volunteer with VAMWON as part of the rural household water quality program run by Virginia Tech, it is estimated that 34% of the population obtains their drinking water from private groundwater wells, more than twice the national average. The most frequent call I get is for well water that turns suddenly brownish or discolored after a heavy rain. If you own a well, then the responsibility for ensuring that your family and friends are drinking safe water rests with you. While you cannot taste bacterial contamination from human and animal waste, nor nitrate/ nitrite contamination, brownish water after a heavy rain storm is an indication that you likely have one of two contamination problems with your well. Brownish or “dirty” water always associated with rain, is likely the fast infiltration of rainwater from the surface, but could also be caused by a nearby failing septic system that is overwhelmed by the rain.

After rust in the household fixtures there are five causes for well water to be discolored or brownish: surface infiltration, well collapsing or water level dropping, iron – iron bacteria and/or manganese in the water, pump system or well casing rusting and worst of all contamination from a nearby septic system. The likely causes of dirty looking water after heavy rains is surface infiltration, but contamination from a failing septic system is also possible and should be investigated. A bacterial test will confirm what your problem is. I would recommend taking a water sample to a local certified laboratory, and have the water tested for coliform bacteria and if positive e-coli and fecal coliform bacteria. However, there might not be a laboratory near your home in which case you could consider a home test. If your water is discolored after a heavy rains, take your sample while the water is discolored. If this is a local infiltration problem, the water will clear after several hours and could be bacteria free (but the bacteria could have infected the plumbing system and if you have it the water treatment system in the house. Event caused coliform bacteria do not always show up in every sample. They can be sporadic and sometimes seasonal when they occur in a water supply. Be concerned but do not panic if coliform bacteria are detected.

Coliform bacteria are commonly found in soil, on vegetation, and in surface water. Coliform bacteria also live in the intestines of warm-blooded animals and humans. Some coliform bacteria strains can survive in soil and water for long periods of time. Most coliform bacteria will not cause illness. However, because coliform bacteria are associated with sewage or surface waters, the presence of coliform bacteria in drinking water may indicate that other disease-causing organisms (pathogens) may be present in the water and the water supply is not sanitary. There are three different groups of coliform bacteria; total coliform, fecal coliform and Escherichia coli (E. coli) each has a different level of risk. Coliform bacteria do not occur naturally in most aquifers, but are mostly harmless. Fractured or creviced bedrock aquifers in Karst terrain that are close to the surface are the possible exception. Testing for e. coli and fecal coliform and nitrogen will differentiate the harmless coliform from contamination that is from surface infiltration of water from bacteria contamination that might impact your health and is from sewage or animal feces.

If your well tests positive for coliform bacteria and negative for fecal coliform and E. coli bacteria, you have an infiltration problem that may be persistent, but can be addressed and dealt with by the suggestions below. If your well tests positive for fecal coliform or E. coli your water is not safe to drink. Boiling the water will concentrate nitrogen that is commonly present with fecal contamination and can be lethal to infants. Call the Health Department. You are drinking water impacted from a septic system and the water is unsafe especially for children and the elderly. To make this drinking water safe the septic system must be repaired and/or a new well drilled. Public water systems routinely recycle water, but they have entire water treatment plants and constant water testing to address the problem.
From Penn State Cooperative Extension

Occasional impact from surface infiltration is a much more pedestrian problem. Bacteria washed into the ground by rainfall or snowmelt are usually filtered out as water seeps through the soil, so properly constructed water wells do not typically harbor Coliform bacteria. Surface infiltration of water is due to impaired pump, casing or well seal system. Often what fails in the typical 6 inch diameter pipe well with immersion pump is the grouting. Look at your well. A properly build and functioning well should not be impacted by rain, but wells get old and systems deteriorate. Items to look for and fix are:

  • A missing or damaged well cap would allow rain to enter the well. Make sure to check seals around wires, pipes, and where the cap meets the casing may be cracked, letting in contaminants. A new sanitary sealing well cap can be purchased on-line or from a well driller. 
  • Contaminant may be seeping through the well casing. Cracks or holes in the well casing allow water that has not been filtered through the soil to enter the well. This seepage is common in the wells made of concrete, clay tile, or brick. This can also happen to a steel pipe well that was hit by a piece of equipment such as a car, snow blower, lawn tractor or mower or that has rusted. A well driller can often install a sleeve to line the well casing. Wells installed in Virginia after 1992 (or in Prince William County since 1980) should have at least 40 feet of steel casing to protect the well from collapse and infiltration of shallow groundwater(less than 20-40 feet deep that may contain coliform bacteria. 
  • Contaminants can enter the well by seeping along the outside of the well casing. Many older wells were not sealed with grout when they were constructed or the grouting has failed. Check the grouting carefully especially if water seems different after severe rains. Also, make sure that rainfall does not puddle against the well, but drains away. Repacking the soil might help.
  • Well flooding is a common problem for wellheads located below the ground in frost pits that frequently flood during wet weather. Wells that are located in pits are commonly impacted by rain water pooling in the pit and entering the well. This can be corrected by having a well driller install an extension on the well pipe to raise the top, or create a drain for the pit. 

Hopefully, one of the simple items above will turn out to be your problem and can be quickly and easily resolved without need to drill a new well or install disinfection equipment. To use your well that has been impacted by coliform bacteria from storm related infiltration you need to chlorine shock your well after each rainfall until the problem is solved by one of the above suggestions, or you drill a new well. Yeah, I know what that costs, so temporary fixes are often necessary. Look, this is not the best idea, but it will disinfect your well each time it is impacted by surface infiltration. Water that looks dirty after a storm is a gross infiltration problem- there is a big leak somewhere, not the invisible coliform problem that is more easily addressed by an in-house disinfection system using either UV light or chlorine. Coliform bacteria are associated with warm-blooded animals, so they are normally found in surface water and in shallow groundwater (less than 20-40 feet deep). Most bacteria (with the exception of fecal and e-coli) are not harmful to humans, but are used as indicators of the safety (sanitary condition of the water.

The instructions below are standard procedure from various state department of health and the US EPA:

Run your hoses (away from your septic system and down slope from your well) to clear the well. Run it for an hour or three and see if it runs clear. If not let it rest for 6-12 hours and run the hoses again. Several cycles should clear the well. What we are doing is pumping out any infiltration within the well area and letting the groundwater carry any contamination away from your well. In all likelihood the well will clear of obvious discoloration. Then disinfect your well. This is an emergency procedure that will kill any bacteria for 7 to 10 days. After 7 to 10 days you need to test your well for bacteria to make sure that it is safe.

Determine what type of well you have and how to pour the bleach into the well. Some wells have a sanitary seal which must be unbolted. Some well caps have an air vent or a plug that can be removed. On bored or dug well, the entire cover can simply be lifted off to provide a space for pouring the bleach into the well.

Take one gallon of bleach of non-scented household liquid bleach and carefully pour the bleach down into the well casing using a funnel if necessary. Wear rubber gloves, old clothes and protective glasses to protect you from the inevitable splashes. After the bleach has been added, run water from an outside hose into the well casing until you smell chlorine coming from the hose. You can also use chlorine test strips for swimming pools to test for chlorine, but usually, the smell method works. Then turn off the outside hose. Now go into the house and one bathroom and sink at a time, turn on all cold water faucets, until the chlorine odor is detected in each faucet, then shut it off and move on to the next sink, or bathroom (if you have an automatic ice maker and water in your refrigerator dump the ice and run the water on the refrigerator also. If you have a water treatment system, switch it to bypass before turning on the indoor faucets. Once the inside system has been done, go back to the outside spigots and run the hoses until you smell chlorine coming out.

Wait 8 to 24 hours before turning the faucets back on. It is important not to drink, cook, bathe or wash with this water during the time period it contains high amounts of chlorine whose by products are a carcinogen. After at least 8 hours, run the water into a safe area where it will not kill your lawn, your trees or plants pollute lakes, streams or septic tanks. Run the water until there is no longer a chlorine odor. Turn the water off. The system should now be disinfected, and you can now use the water for 7 to 10 days when the effects of the disinfections wear off at that time test your well to make sure it is still safe to use. It is important not to run all the treated water into your septic system because the chlorine will kill all the bacteria in the septic system and the system will not function. This is the one time I might recommend adding bacteria to the septic system to account for any kill off that might occur from the minor amounts of chlorine treated water that was run through the plumbing system.

Final note. In the March 2012 Good Housekeeping magazine they evaluated home water testing kits. To test the home contaminant-detection kits, the Good Housekeeping Research Institute worked with the Water Sciences Laboratory at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Lab researchers spiked water samples with measured concentrations of contaminants the kits claimed to be able to detect, including two herbicides, nitrate, copper, lead, and bacteria. Then after following the kit's instructions, evaluated its performance at detecting the known contaminants. They found the PurTest kit to be the most accurate and easiest to use, but the second ranked First Alert test kit and the was also good and significantly cheaper. Make sure you test for both coliform bacteria and fecal coliform bacteria.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Earth is Projected to Warm 10 degrees Fahrenheit this Century

from IEA presentation
On Monday the International Energy Agency (IEA) released a series of recommendation for measures that might curtail the rapid growth that has occurred in carbon dioxide emission from fuel combustion that has taken place in the past few decades despite treaties, meetings and conferences. Global greenhouse gas emissions are increasing rapidly and, in May 2013, carbon-dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in several hundred millennia.

The IEA has tracked world energy use since its creation in response to the oil embargo of the 1970’s. Energy use for electricity, industry and transportation accounts for around two-thirds of greenhouse-gas emissions, as more than 80% of global energy is based on fossil fuels.

According to the IEA, policies that are now being pursued by developed nations, are predicted (by the accepted group of climate models) to produce a long-term average temperature increase between 3.6 °C and 5.3 °C (6.5-10 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial conditions), with most of the increase occurring during this century. Unfortunately, until the planet is in severe stress, it is unlikely that a concerted effort by all the nations will even be considered. Until then, the richer nations will dally with reducing their carbon footprint while the emerging nations and China race to build wealth with only limited regard for the environment.

Though mankind has blown through the tipping point in CO2 emissions that was just a decade ago referred to as the point of no return, the IEA is making policy recommendations that might hold the global temperature increase to 2 to 4°C by cutting global CO2 emissions growth so that it does not exceed 38.75 billion metric tonnes from fossil fuels in 2020. The recommendations are:
  • Installing energy efficiency measures in buildings, and requiring increased efficiency in industry and transportation. 
  • Preventing the construction of and limiting use of the least-efficient and dirtiest coal-fired power plants. In addition to increasing the share of power generation from renewable sources (including nuclear) and from natural gas. 
  • Reducing methane released from the processing and distribution of oil and gas by replacing aging infrastructure and improving technology implementation. 
  • Finally phasing-out fossil fuel consumption subsidies to reduce consumption and support efficiency efforts. 

While trying as a first priority to reduce the generation of CO2 from fuel, they are also trying to expand the generation and availability of electricity to poorer nations as another policy program. The IEA and World Bank estimate that there are more than 1.2 billion people who still live without access to electricity and are working to increase electricity availability to the poorest nations on earth which also have the fastest growing populations. This is about 17% of the world’s population living in poverty.

The program to cut world CO2 emissions and the program to expand electricity availability to poorer nations appear to be in conflict, though I suppose that there are policy wonks dreaming that the poorest nations will electrify using only renewable sources of electricity or that the rest of the world will cut their CO2 emissions enough to reduce the overall CO2 trajectory with increasing portions of the earth have available electricity. Without electricity there can be little economic development. Electricity powers critical health equipment to improve the health and survival of the population. Electric lighting supports evening and indoor activities and commerce. Electricity used in classroom to support use of information technology. Electricity powers factories and businesses. Reliable, food, water, sewage and electricity are the necessary infrastructure for an advanced nation.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Cost to Maintain 24/7 Drinking Water in the United States

Last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the results of their 2011 Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment. The survey showed that $384 billion in improvements are needed for the nation’s drinking water infrastructure through 2030 for systems to continue providing safe drinking water to 297 million Americans. The estimate only covers infrastructure needs that are eligible for, but not necessarily financed by, Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF). There are significant water system needs that are not eligible for DWSRF funding, such as raw water dams and reservoirs, water system expansions necessary for population growth, and water system operation and maintenance costs. These costs are not included in the EPA estimate, but do appear as part of the estimates of the American Water Works Association, AWWA, who estimated that the cost would be significantly higher than the EPA estimate.

Even after adjusting the estimates into 2011 dollars the EPA estimate for total national need has increased every few years. The infrastructure estimate was $227 billion in 1995, $225 billion in 1999, $375.9 billion in 2003 and $ 379.7 in 2007 (as adjusted to 2011 dollars). No progress has been made in the long term replacement and maintenance of our water infrastructure during the past 16 years and our water systems continue to age. EPA allocates DWSRF grants to states based on the finding of this assessment. These funds help states to provide low-cost financing to public water systems for infrastructure improvements necessary to protect public health and comply with drinking water regulations. Since its inception in 1997, the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund has provided about $15 billion in grants, though this is far from enough to maintain the operation of public water supplies that were built 50-100 years ago.

The EPA assessment shows that improvements are primarily needed in:
  • Distribution and transmission: $247.5 billion to replace or refurbish aging or deteriorating water mains
  • Treatment: $72.5 billion to expand or rehabilitate infrastructure to reduce contamination
  • Storage: $39.5 billion to rehabilitate or cover finished water storage reservoirs
  • Source: $20.5 billion to construct or rehabilitate intake structures, wells and spring collectors
Maintaining the water distribution system of piping and pumps is the lion’s share of the costs. It is always in cities that report street closing due to sinkholes that formed from leaking pipes primarily because the urban systems are the oldest. However, it is the smallest systems that actually have the highest cost per person for pipe replacement because the residences are more spread out- there are more feet of pipe main per residence and the EPA’s data is believed to be weakest in that category.

We have barely thought twice about our water and have taken for granted the capital investment made by previous generations. The water bill that most pay barely covers the cost of delivering the water and some repairs and there seems to be significant resistance to increasing water bills to pay the true cost of water and the system to deliver that water. No infrastructure lasts forever and we have failed to properly maintain and plan for the orderly replacement of the water distribution systems. The water distribution systems in most of our big cities have reached the end of their useful life and water mains are failing at an ever increasing rate. As documented both by this survey and the AWWA, report: “Buried No Longer: Confronting America ’s Water Infrastructure Challenge” the need to replace or rebuild the pipe networks that deliver water comes on top of other water investment needs, such as the need to replace water treatment plants, upgrade treatment technology to respond to emerging contaminants in our raw water supplies, replace storage tanks and on-going monitoring and compliance costs.

According to the AWWA 2010 report, restoring existing water systems as they reach the end of their useful lives and expanding them to serve a growing population will cost at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years in 2010 dollars, if we plan to maintain 24 hours per day on demand of water service for our country. The AWWA analysis includes investments that will be necessary to meet projected population growth, regional population shifts, and service area growth over that period. The EPA estimates that the twenty-year capital improvement needs for infrastructure investments necessary from 2011, through 2030, for the existing water systems to continue to provide safe drinking water to the public to be $384 billion assuming no growth in service area and no population shift. EPA’s “Clean Water and Drinking Water Infrastructure Gap Analysis,” actually estimated drinking water systems’ 20-year capital needs in the range $231 billion to $670 billion with a point estimate of $412 billion. The EPA costs exclude maintenance and replacement of dams and reservoirs because they are excluded from the EPA’s DWSRF funding. Neither estimate fully addresses the cost of infrastructure needs to to offset existing and anticipated drought conditions. In the past several years, water systems across the United States have been hit by drought and only a small number of water systems have plans to address drought impacts to existing customers that could not be addressed by conservation programs.

The United States has had one of the finest and safest drinking water supply systems in the world. To keep 42/7 on demand safe water , we need to invest in the system for our future.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Public Meeting on the Bi-County Parkway

Monday evening June 3rd the Virginia Department of Transportation, VDOT, held a Public Information meeting from 6 to 9 pm at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas, VA. The meeting was held in response to public outcry against the roadway variously known as the Tri-County Parkway, Bi-County Parkway, Outer Beltway and North-South Corridor and Battlefield Parkway.  For the first hour, VDOT had materials in the lobby outlining the history of the planned roadway, and addressing public concerns that had been raised, collected questions and a list of people who wished to address the meeting. From 7 to 8:15 Charles Kilpatrick who is the Chief Deputy Commissioner for VDOT addressed the crowd.  The meeting was held in a packed auditorium attended by a crowd of over 500 that thinned out considerably after the VDOT presentation and as the evening wore on. VDOT did not answer all the questions submitted (only those selected by staff) nor did they call on everyone who requested two minutes. There were too many questions and Mr. Kilpatrick only addressed the questions that he felt able to address. Someone at his level cannot be expected to know the environmental impact details, details of the section 106 mitigations negotiated, legal aspects of eminent domain or how to pronounce Catharpin and on which corner on route 29 is the Stone House.

The first thing that VDOT settled is the planned road is called the Bi-County Parkway.  Mr. Kilpatrick presented the VDOT plan for all the improvements in northern Virginia and the reason this parkway is planned at all. The basis for the plan is VDOT’s projections of what the traffic and population growth will be in the next 30 years. In addition he showed the current traffic congestion in the north south roads getting from the housing developments in Dominion Valley, Gainesville, the new massive housing construction in Loudoun between the Loudoun county line and the Greenbelt on both sides of route 50 between route 15 and Loudoun County parkway. All those residents need to reach an east-west route to commute and try to avoid the traffic problems that construction in Loudoun and route 50 have created.  VDOT projects that the north south traffic will continue to increase (though mostly north of the Loudoun County line according to the VDOT traffic projections) and that by eliminating route 29 as an east-west corridor through Prince William county that traffic will be alleviated in the north south roadways.

In addition in addressing concerns that the limited access Bi-County Parkway will be a toll road, Mr. Kilpatrick stated that while I-66 will get HOT toll lanes, the four lane portion of the Bi-County Parkway made HOT lanes impractical. This seems to be a change in position for VDOT, though Mr. Kilpatrick did not frame this as being a response to public concern and the efforts of Delegates Marshall and Hugo.
There had been a significant negative community response to the plan for the Bi-County Parkway in the past two months since VDOT released the “Northern Virginia North-South Corridor of Statewide Significance –Corridor Master Plan” on April 8, 2013. In that document VDOT stated “the Northern Virginia North-South CoSS (Corridor of Statewide Concern) will be an integrated, multimodal network of transportation facilities that connect major centers of activity within and through the Commonwealth and promote the movement of people and goods essential to the economic prosperity of the State.”

The key elements of the Bi-County Parkway outlined in that publication were:
  • “Construction of a continuous high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) facility between I-95 and the area west of Washington Dulles International Airport, which would operate during peak periods in the morning and evening.”
  • “Establishment of a high-occupancy toll (HOT) system for the Corridor between the intersection of VA 234 and Country Club Drive and the Washington Dulles International Airport area. Vehicles carrying three or more persons (HOV 3+) would be able to access the system at no cost, and other vehicles would pay a toll to access the HOV/HOT lanes during peak periods.”
  • “Construction of a new roadway connection between the North-South Corridor and the Washington Dulles International Airport area, providing connections to VA 606 and improving regional and statewide access to the airport, surrounding freight facilities, and the Metrorail Silver Line.”
  • “Provision of new and expanded transit services operating throughout the Corridor... They will provide north-south mobility as well as connections for individuals destined toward the east and west via transfers at convenient locations such as park-and-rides and rail stations. Construction of a continuous multi use trail along the Corridor for the use of bicyclists and pedestrians, allowing them to access activity centers throughout the north-south corridor seamlessly.”
  • “Improvements to transportation demand management programs (TDM) within the Corridor, focused on marketing and promotion of the expanded transit services and the HOV network.”

During the meeting on Monday Mr. Kilpatrick stated that the Rural Crescent will not be opened up to development by this multi-lane highway because the road will be limited access through Prince William county. The only access points in Prince William County will be I-66, Route 29, and existing Route 234 west of the Battlefield. The environmental study is being completed. There is only $12,000,000 available for design in the current 6 year plan, though money has been allocated for “traffic calming” on route 29 through the park ahead of the development of any other roadway.  Mr. Kilpatrick did not explain what kinds of traffic calming measures would be used. In addition, Mr. Kilpatrick stated that the Battlefield will be enhanced, Sudley Methodist Church will maintain an access route and be eligible for signage, though their road will be closed to the public. Finally, Pageland Road will remain open.

Delegate Bob Marshall followed Mr. Kilpatrick. He said the VDOT presentation was three years too late, and there had been a lack of candor or transparency in the process. Delegate Marshall said that there has never been a corridor of significance in absence of an existing road, and designation of this corridor as CoSS had not followed VDOT’s own procedures. He said that this was road was being built for political purposes or was a developer’s road to a round of applause. Delegate Marshall was followed by a legislative aid for Delegate Hugo who read his statement. The Delegate had met with the Governor on Monday and could not attend the meeting.

Prince William County community objections to this planned parkway have focused on several issues that are still of concern to the community.
  1. The Bi-County Parkway will drive all the east-west traffic from route 29 which will be effectively closed to through traffic by "traffic calming measures" to I-66 increasing traffic on that road.
  2. The Bi-County Parkway is intended to be a 4 lane and 6 lane highway that will provide direct access to Dulles Airport, but have limited access to the Prince William community, yet will utilize a section of the Rural Crescent for the road essentially destroying the intent of the Rural Crescent.
  3. The planned road will require that Virginia invoke eminent domain to take more than a dozen homes.
  4.   Route 234 through the Battlefield that provides road access to several businesses and Sudley Methodist Church (that predates the Civil War) will be eliminated. As the Reverend Mitchell explained the Church believes that closing the road to through traffic will remove the Church from everyday lives of its members and potential members in the community, and effectively land lock and isolate the Church within the park to a slow death. This has happened to other churches.
  5.  Closing route 234 through the park and route 29 through the park to through traffic essentially isolates northwestern Prince William County from the rest of the county and Manassas. There is no route from Heathcote Health Center to Prince William Hospital without going on I-66. The only route from Dominion Valley, Regency and all the development on route 15 to Manassas or anywhere will be I-66 which will be the only way to cross from western Prince William County to Eastern Prince William County.
  6.   The Bi-County Parkway does nothing to improve east-west traffic, instead it provides connectivity to the airport that Prince William residents do not want, divides the county and eliminates connections within our county and only benefits the Loudoun County developments.
  7.  The route through Prince William County’s Rural Crescent potentially damages our watershed  and water resources. The Rural Crescent provides a significant portion of our green infrastructure to our community.  Green infrastructure connects the still intact habitat areas through a network of corridors that provide for wildlife movement and trails as well as pathways for pollinators. Maintaining intact, connected natural landscapes is essential for basic ecosystem and watershed preservation to ensure that there will always be clean air and water in Northern Virginia. The Northern Virginia Regional Commission (NVRC) has called the corridor one of three priority conservation area for the region.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Contaminated Air, Water and Soil Contaminate Food Grown in China threatens US Consumers

As reported in the Wall Street Journal over 40% of rice tested in local markets in Guangzhou, China earlier this year contained levels of cadmium exceeding local regulations. Guangzhou is southern China's largest city. The Wall Street Journal reported that the contaminated rice samples were found to have 0.21 milligram to 0.4 milligram of cadmium in each kilogram of rice. The Chinese government allows a maximum 0.2 mg of cadmium in each kilogram of rice. Cadmium appears in small quantities in air, water, and soil. Burning of household waste, industrial waste, coal or oil can release cadmium into the air. Cadmium also can be released from car exhaust, industrial activities like metal processing, battery and paint manufacturing, and waste disposal. Once cadmium is in the air, it spreads with the wind and settles onto the ground or surface water as dust. Since cadmium is a metal, it does not break down and can accumulate over time.

Breathing low levels of cadmium over many years can result in a buildup of cadmium in the kidneys and may cause kidney damage and fragile bones. If you eat food or drink water that contains large amounts of cadmium, stomach irritation, vomiting, and diarrhea may result, but damage from low levels of cadmium exposure may build unnoticed. Cadmium is a carcinogen and heavy metal element. Cadmium is commonly present in industrial waste, but is also a contaminant in fertilizer manufactured from phosphorus sources high in cadmium and then over applied contaminating the soil. The quantity of cadmium contained in a phosphate fertilizer depends on the source of the rock from which it was made. This content varies from almost zero to over 300 mg of Cadmium per kilogram of fertilizer.

High cadmium levels have been found in soil in many different Chinese regions. China's soils are reported to be contaminated not only with cadmium, but also high levels of lead and arsenic. Cadmium is frequently found in leafy vegetables such as spinach and other leafy vegetables grown in polluted conditions. For cadmium to be found in rice grains, the soil in which it was grown must have been especially highly polluted, according to scientists. This sort of contamination is more likely to occur from irrigation with contaminated waste water and/or over application of severely contaminated fertilizer.

China barely grows enough rice to feed their own nation, so it is unlikely that anyone outside of their nation will be exposed to cadmium contaminated rice, but there are many other foods that China does export to us. Last year the United States imported 4.1 billion pound of food from China. From the Testimony by Patty Lovera, the assistant director of Food and Water Watch, before the House Committee hearing on “The Threat of China’s Unsafe Consumables” we see how widely food from China permeates our own food supply and is impacted by the growing food safety problem in China that includes economically motivated adulteration using hazardous chemicals and fraudulent representations of products being organic.

In 2011: The United States imported 382.2 million pounds of tilapia from China representing over 80% of U.S. consumption. In addition, the United States imported 367 million gallons of apple juice from China, almost half the apple juice consumed that year in the United States. The 70.7 million pounds of cod imported from China were just over half of U.S. consumption. The 217.5 million pounds of imported garlic was 31 % of U.S. consumption. The 39.3 million pounds of frozen spinach represented 11 % of U.S. consumption.

Chinese exports include processed foods and food ingredients, products which most consumers purchase without considering where they came from and after melamine in animal feed and milk tainted milk products sickened and killed pets and children we should think carefully about the ingredients in processed food. China is a leading supplier to the United States of ingredients like xylitol, used as a sweetener in candy, and sorbic acid which is used as a preservative. China supplies around 85 % of U.S imports of artificial vanilla, as well as many vitamins that are frequently added to food products, like folic acid and thiamine.

This is an opportunity to rethink your food philosophy and rethink organic to increase your food safety. The USDA organic label means that the food was produced using organic methods sanctioned by the USDA. Verification of imported food is not performed by the USDA. Under the standards organic food is food grown, raised and processed without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and antibiotics may not be used in raising organic foods, in addition, the use of irradiation, biotechnology, and sewer-sludge fertilizer is also banned. However, during a spot test (not all food is tested) organic produce imported from China has been found to be high in synthetic pesticide residue.

To eat safely avoid as much as possible processed food. The origin of ingredients in processed food does not have to be listed on the label this is true for organic processed food. So try to buy on whole foods. In the past I have bought organic where I thought it mattered to protecting my family from exposure to chemicals. Like strawberries, lettuce, apples, vegetables especially root vegetables where the outside of the fruit and vegetable is eaten, but it is very important that the food is grown in uncontaminated soil and that the Organic certification can be trusted. I trust the United States certification and a few others and have expanded my buying to local conservation farmers that use pesticides in limited quantities. Food is not just about organic, conventional, price or marketing. You need to know the sources of your food and ingredients. Through my volunteer work I have gotten to know several local farmers and I trust them.

For the safest and healthiest diet I try to buy only American grown produce, vegetables, herbs, beans and grains (though occasionally I do buy a couple of bananas and pineapples). In terms of meat, I purchase organic, grass fed and pastured beef, pork, lamb and free range chicken from only U.S. sources and preferably at a farm with a buying club and local drop off point. We only eat wild caught fish and the list of types and sources is growing shorter. I started buying grass fed beef back in the day when I was doing environmental evaluations of farms, dairies and concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs). I will not go into the highly gross details of that work; however, my concerns for the animal welfare, mad cow disease, and environmental impact of CAFOs pushed me to buy my meat from sustainable farms that pasture raise their meat. In addition grass fed beef (and other animals) is lower in saturated fat and better for you. This was confirmed by Marion Nestle, author of “What to Eat” and Professor of nutrition at NYU School of Public Health. I asked her at a lecture I attended and she said that grass fed beef was as low in saturated fat as chicken.