Thursday, October 29, 2015

Joaquin Brought Historic Flooding and Death to South Carolina


from USGS

Very heavy rainfall fell across South Carolina during October 1–5, 2015, as a result of the low-pressure system that funneled tropical moisture from Hurricane Joaquin into the State. Though the Hurricane never made landfall the storm that hit the eastern half of South Carolina caused major flooding and destruction throughout the region.

Almost 27 inches of rain fell near Mount Pleasant. Other areas experienced more than 20 inches of rain. Seventeen people died. This week the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) released its report: “Preliminary Peak Stage and Streamflow Data at Selected USGS Streamgaging Stations for the South Carolina Flood of October 2015.”

The USGS operates over 9,800 stream gauges nationwide with about 170 of them in South Carolina. Streamflow data collected from the stream gauges is used to better understand flooding, improve forecasting ability and document the extent of flooding that occurred. During flooding, streamflow data are vital for flood warning, forecasting, and emergency management. The long-term streamflow data are used to assess risk and changes in risk and to mitigate flooding through flood-plain management and in the design or repair of infrastructure.

The storm system caused significant widespread freshwater flooding throughout the State. USGS data shows the highest rainfall total of 26.9 inches near Mount Pleasant, and at the Charleston Airport rainfall totals set new records during the storm and its aftermath. Seventeen of the USGS streamgages recorded the highest peak streamflow and/or river height since those streamgages were installed. One of the streamgages, on the Black River at Kingstree, South Carolina, recorded its largest peak in the 87 years it has existed. An additional 15 USGS streamgages recorded peaks in the top 5 for their periods of record.

According to John Shelton, the USGS hydrologist who oversaw the agency’s field response and gauging operations in South Carolina, "This was absolutely an historic flood for South Carolina." The L.A. Times reported that in rural counties, conservative estimates of agricultural loses are expected to be at least $300 million, and total damages across the State will likely exceed $1 billion.


A long time reader emailed me to ask if she should have flood insurance. To help you decide you can enter your address in the FEMA web-site and see what flood zone (if any) you are in. Flood hazard areas are identified as a Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA). This is the familiar base flood or 100-year flood zone. SFHAs are labeled as Zone A, AO, AH, etc. or Zone V, etc. Moderate flood hazard areas, labeled Zone B or Zone X are the areas between the limits of the base flood and the 0.2% annual-chance (or 500-year) flood zone. The areas of minimal flood hazard, which is where I live, are the areas outside the SFHA are labeled Zone C or Zone X and are unshaded on the maps.

The term "100-year flood" is misleading because it leads people to believe that it happens only once every 100 years. The truth is that an uncommonly big flood can happen any year. The term "100-year flood" is really a statistical designation, and there is a 1-in-100 chance that a flood this size will happen during any year. If you live on the designated floodplain, the chances are about 1 in 2 that you will experience a significant flood during your lifetime. In addition, development changes the flooding characteristics of the land, in many cases increasing it. So, I simply do not live in flood plains.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Sunscreen Killing Coal Reefs

from NOAA

According to scientists 10% of the world's reefs have been completely destroyed. For several years this has been attributed entirely to warming of the oceans which can cause corals to sicken and die. The most obvious sign that coral is sick is coral bleaching. That is when either the algae inside die, or the algae leave the coral. The algae are what give coral its color, so without the algae the coral has no color and the white of the limestone shell shines through the transparent coral bodies. The algae are the coral’s source of food.

Three weeks ago the, National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NOAA) researchers and their partners released a paper that detailing their discovery that a sunscreen chemical commonly used in many soaps, cosmetics, and body fragrances is highly toxic to corals. The team's data show that even very low concentrations of benzophenone-2, or BP-2, can quickly kill juvenile corals causing the coals to bleach. The team also found that BP-2 causes colorful corals to bleach, and can potentially induce or increase the frequency of mutation in corals by causing damage to their DNA.

In a study published last week in published by the Archives of Environmental Contamination and “Toxicology, Toxicopathological Effects of the Sunscreen UV Filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on Coral Planulae and Cultured Primary Cells and Its Environmental Contamination in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands” another group of scientists looked at the Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3) which is used in the United States for sunscreens.

By sampling the ocean waters the researchers found that oxybenzone, commonly used in sunscreens in the United States (and Europe), is in relatively high concentrations in the waters around the more popular coral reefs in Hawaii, and the Caribbean. It is seemingly washing off divers and swimmers. The chemical not only kills the coral, it causes DNA damage in the adult coral and deforms the DNA in coral in the larval stage, making it unlikely they can develop properly. The highest concentrations of oxybenzone were found in reefs most popular with tourists.

Then in laboratory experiments, the team exposed coral larvae and adult corals to increasing concentrations of oxybenzone. They discovered that oxybenzone deforms coral larvae by trapping them in their own skeleton, making then unable to float with currents and disperse. The Oxybenzone was also found to caure coral bleaching, which is the major source of coral death world wide.

BP-2  and oxybenzone are additives in personal care products. BP-2 has been used since the 1960s to protect against the damaging effects of ultraviolet light. Oxybenzone or Benzopheone-3 is used in the United States for sunscreen. It is slathered on all our skin as recommended by dermatologists, government and beauty magazines. The ubiquitous use of sunscreen has been a much more successful campaign than recycling. The problems is the effects of BP-2 and oxybenzone on the earth. Neither chemical is removed from most municipal wastewater treatment facilities and it simply flows though the treatment train and out with the released water often directly released in coastal waters threatening near-shore life and is simply washed off of divers.

BP-2 is no longer approved for use in the United States for sunscreens, but it is used in many beauty products. Oxybenzone has replaced BP-2 in most sunscreens.According to the Environmental Working Group, “Oxybenzone is a sunscreen ingredient associated with photoallergic reactions. This chemical absorbs through the skin in significant amounts. It contaminates the bodies of 97% of Americans according to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

The newest study was lead by Craig Downs, executive director and researcher at the non-profit scientific organization Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia. The scientists collected samples from reefs in Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Eilat, Israel diving into the water themselves. They wore no personal hygiene products during the dives.

The use of oxybenzone-containing products needs to be seriously deliberated in islands and areas where coral reef conservation is a critical issue,” Downs said. “We have lost at least 80 % of the coral reefs in the Caribbean.” The scientists estimated that around 14,000 tons of sunscreen containing 1%-10% oxybenzone are washed into the Oceans each year.

As Dr. Downs pointed out “Any small effort to reduce oxybenzone pollution could mean that a coral reef survives a long, hot summer, or that a degraded area recovers. Everyone wants to build coral nurseries for reef restoration, but this will achieve little if the factors that originally killed off the reef remain or intensify in the environment.”

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Farm Field Days 2015

The kids and parents arrive for Farm Field Days

Yesterday and today I will spend my time at Farm Field Days. Our 26th annual Farm Field Days was held yesterday October 21 and today October 22 at the Prince William Fairgrounds. By the time we finish today about 1,600 fourth graders, their teachers and chaperons will have enjoyed our interactive learning program bringing the farm to the students. The Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District runs this annual field trip at no cost to the schools using volunteers and donations. This year we had 14 schools from Prince William County and the City of Manassas participating. To pull off this annual two-day event requires many more people than the 5 person staff at the Conservation District, it required the help of more than 100 volunteers including some 50 Ecology Club students from Stonewall Jackson High School. (Thank you, you were great!)

Students spend the day rotating through seven barns, with each barn highlighting an aspect of life on the farm using hands-on lessons. The animal barns never fails to amaze the kids by not only showcasing the full range of farmyard critters from bees to chickens and cows, but feature interactive demonstrations of how common products are made.


Demonstrations included wool spinning, butter churning, agricultural and industrial Regions of Virginia, trees and photosynthesis, and soil erosion through a science experiment, to name a few. Horsepower to High Tech tests the physical strength of a class of students to pull a tractor using math formulas to calculate horsepower. These demonstrations are geared to meet Virginia SOL (standards of learning) measures. Farm Field Days is a fun and engaging hands-on approach to teaching students about the agricultural world around them, and opening their eyes to the importance of protecting our natural resources.

For the past for five out of the past seven years I have be in the Regions of Virginia Barn teaching students about the land, the rivers and the geology of the Commonwealth and how that shaped our communities and our lives. Water availability and quality are critical issues facing all communities. An essential path to conserving our soil and water resources is by education our children on the value of these resources and making the connections to the natural world and our agricultural heritage. It is important for all our citizens see the connections and to understand the importance of keeping fertilizer and soil on the land, not in our streams, and how rain carries litter, dirt and other contaminants into our streams.


The entire Chesapeake Bay watershed is under a federal mandate to reduce sediment and fertilizer runoff into the bay in order to improve water quality. Experience has shown that the most effective way to protect water quality from runoff is through the District’s approach of cooperative and locally run programs. To succeed it is necessary for all to practice conservation. Good land management, promoted by the District’s programs, is essential to the sustainability of both our groundwater and our local farming community.

Heading back towards the buses


Monday, October 19, 2015

WSSC Not Planning to Fail

Last week a 16-inch water main under Rockville Pike broke, flooding sections of Rockville Pike. To find the leak and repair the damage Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) had to close the water valve to the main cutting off water to 250 households, and excavate a section of pipe partially closing Rockville Pike overnight and into the morning rush hour. WSSC reports that the cast iron pipe was 74 years old and the damage and disruption were limited due to the size of the pipe and WSSC’s practiced response to pipe failure. For a while now WSSC had been repairing and replacing water pipes after they broke or had exceeded their expected lifetime. This strategy was simply planning for failure.

This pipe break last week and the growing number of breaks in the past couple of years sever to highlight the issue of aging infrastructure in the WSSC’s system and America. Though recently, WSSC has been replacing about 55 miles of water mains per year that has not been enough to keep the water delivery system- the pipes fittings and valves within the expected age of the piping. That rate of pipe replacement would replace the water system in 101 years. The pipes in the WSSC system have not been lasting that long. WSSC reports that approximately 37% of the water system delivery pipes are over 50 years old. Though age is not the only factor that causes pipe failure, most of the system’s pipes were designed for an average lifespan of 70 years.

The water pipes installed during the late 19th century were typically described as having an average useful lifespan of about 120 years because of the pipe wall thickness used, but most of WSSC was installed after World War II in the booms of the 20th and 21st centuries. In the 1950s and 1960s of ductile iron pipe that is stronger than cast iron and more resistant to corrosion was introduced and used with thinner walls. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes were introduced in the 1970s and high-density polyethylene in the 1990s. Both of these are very resistant to corrosion but they do not have the strength of ductile iron. Post-World War II pipes tend to have an average life in the real world of 50-105 years depending on many factors (AWWA). To extend the life of the ductile pipes they were mortar-lined. These linings are meant to prevent corrosion and increase pipe longevity. In the 1970’ steel reinforced concrete pipe with a promised life of 100 years began to be used for the giant water mains by WSSC.

Unfortunately, these concrete trunk lines began to fail catastrophically decades before their promised 100-year life expectancy. Unfortunately, WSSC has 350 miles of steel reinforced concrete pipe. In addition, WSSC ‘s supplier, Interpace, may have produced inferior pipe- the company was successfully sued by WSSC and others and is now out of business. Nine of the WSSC’s concrete mains have blown apart since 1996. After a particularly spectacular blowout 2008 and to prevent future catastrophe, WSSC installed a sensor system along all the concrete mains that cost more than $21 million to alert WSSC of an impending failure, but unfortunately the replacement program became very much an emergency replacement program responding to sensors and smaller breaks.

Ideally, pipe replacement occurs at the end of a pipe’s “useful life”; that is, the point in time when replacement or rehabilitation becomes less expensive in going forward than the costs of numerous unscheduled breaks and associated emergency repairs; rather than waiting for a pipe to fail. Age alone, however, cannot always be used as an indicator of failure, but it is a good predictor in warm weather breaks. In cold weather more pipes fail. There is a relationship between water temperature and pipe breaks. A sudden temperature drop provides a kind of shock to the pipes especially when the pipes are older. Water temperature below 40 degrees Fahrenheit can also cause pipes to become more brittle, and break. That leads to increased pipe breaks in the winter, and why water utilities typically report their February number of breaks- when most breaks take place. For the last several years WSSC pipe replacement program has had more unscheduled emergency repairs in winter.

WSSC has responded to the deterioration of their system by developing a long term plan of what was needed repair and restore their  systems. Over the next 10 years WSSC projects they will have to replace over 2,000 miles of water pipe and similar amount or sewer pipes. WSSC estimates that they will have to spend over $2.6 billion dollars in the next five years on capital improvement projects alone and has been studying how to pay for those needs. In 2010, WSSC re-established the Bi-County Infrastructure Funding Working Group to identify near-term options to fund both operations and the $2.6 billion in capital needed to rehabilitate, upgrade and replace water and wastewater infrastructure and related facilities in the next five years alone. The plan they developed was to combine increasing customer charges, refinancing bonds to extend maturities and lower rates and issuing new debt to raise the capital to pay for the rehabilitation of the system.

On October 14, 2015 WSSC sold $390 million of Consolidated Public Improvement Bonds with a true interest rate of 3.426919%. The bonds were rated tripple A -(AAA/Aaa/AAA) by the bond rating agencies: Fitch Ratings, Moody’s Investors Service and Standard & Poor’s, which also reaffirmed WSSC’s AAA rating on its other outstanding bonds. The $390 million 30-year bonds will be used to finance WSSC capital projects and pay down a portion of the Commission’s bond anticipation note program. WSSC is moving forward. This is the third bond sale within 12 months. 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Come See PW Landfill Transforming to an Eco-Park


On Saturday, October 17, 2015 from 10 am to 2 pm there will be a free event at the Prince William County Landfill, with music and Landfill Tours throughout the day that would allow you to see the changes that are transforming the Landfill to an Eco-Park. An Eco-Park is a place used to demonstrate sustainability and reuse. Eco parks have been developed on former industrial sites and in the past decade as part of sustainable industrial development around the world. Here in Prince William County the landfill is has been undergoing a transformation to an eco-park; an ecologically sustainable operation producing green energy, recovering materials and providing a unique location for education and research.

Prince William Landfill is right off of Dumfries Road in Manassas, VA and has operated at this location since 1972 when it was merely the county dump. Today the landfill encompasses 1,000 acres, receives about 1,000 tons/day of household trash, and has extensive environmental controls. The oldest section of the landfill contains 57 acres that were closed in 1991 when the state law that regulates landfills (HB 1205) went into effect. That area is currently used for little league fields and has been undergoing retrofit with liners and leachate and landfill gas collection systems to protect the environment in an ongoing effort to manage the mistakes of the past. The newer section of the landfill was designed to comply within modern environmental regulations and sustainable practices.

Today Prince William County Landfill is engineered and built as a series of cells. The cells include liners of plastic membranes and watertight geo-synthetic clay liner fabric on the bottom of the cells along with a leachate collection system. At the end of each day, earth covers the trash deposited in the cell, to keep animals away, improve aesthetics- cut down on the smell. When a cell if full it is capped to prevent (or at least limit) the rain that percolates through the landfill and covered in soil. Most recently, the landfill capped the Phase I section and opened up a newly lined cell in the Phase II area.

The PW Landfill has a series of groundwater monitoring wells that are observed and/or sampled quarterly to ensure that groundwater is not impacted or any impact is contained and 100 landfill gas extraction wells. Landfill gas is generated during the natural process of bacterial decomposition of organic material contained in the trash buried in the landfill. Landfill gas is approximately forty to sixty percent methane, with the remainder being mostly carbon dioxide. Landfill gas also contains varying amounts of nitrogen, oxygen, water vapor, sulfur, and other contaminants. The gases produced within the landfill are either collected and flared off or used to produce heat and electricity. The landfill gas cannot be allowed to build up in the landfill because of the explosive potential. PW Landfill has operated for almost 40 years and has more than 7 million tons of trash buried at the landfill. That trash currently generates in excess of 2,700 standard cubic feet per minute of landfill gas up from 1,600 standard cubic feet a minute in 1999.

In the late 1990’s NEO Prince William (Fortistar) installed a landfill gas collection system and a 1.9 Mega Watt generator tied into the electrical grid. This first stage of the renewable energy development program became operational in November 1998. The landfill electrical generation plant was expanded in November 2013. The facility, still operated by Fortistar, now generates a total of 6.7 MW of electricity. This is enough power for approximately 5,000 homes. NOVEC buys the renewable energy produced at the landfill and resells it to their customers.
Power Generation at Landfill 

Even with the expanded electrical generation there is still more than 200 standard cubic feet per minute of excess landfill gas available. So the county built a pipeline from the landfill to the county animal shelter on Bristow Road with connections to several buildings along the way to provide landfill gas to heat the Fleet Maintenance Building and provide fuel to the Animal Shelter incinerator (yeah, I know). A connection to the School bus garage was added in 2014. This allows the County Public Works Department to replace the propane formerly used with landfill gas which is a “Renewable Fuel Resource,” and reducing the energy footprint of our county. Now they are evaluating the potential to provide landfill gas for heating, cooling and power to the Kelly Leadership Center and other adjacent County and School buildings and using the landfill gas for vehicle fuel.

Last year the County Board of Supervisors approved an agreement with LEEP Holdings, LLC, of Vienna to begin a demonstration project to convert solid waste to reusable products at the landfill. LEEP was among three companies that submitted proposals to the County for this project. LEEP is currently demonstrating that they can process 250 tons a day of the 1,000 tons a day of garbage that the landfill takes in. Next year they are scheduled to process 300 tons of garbage a day by the third year, and reach the target 400 tons a day by the fourth year. Prince William County Solid Waste Division Chief Tom Smith said that during the demonstration, LEEP plans to show that it can successfully manage its waste conversion operation. “They are proposing to process and sort waste into different products, to pull the metals out for recycling, to turn the organics into a fuel pellet and to take plastic to make a lightweight aggregate for use in making lightweight concrete.” This project if successful will extend the life of the landfill.

In 2011 the County’s Solid Waste Facilities (Landfill and Balls Ford Road Composting facility) were designated as an Extraordinary Environmental Enterprise (E4) participant in the Virginia Environmental Excellence Program (VEEP). Prince William County Landfill is the only active landfill to have received this recognition. In 2012 the landfill was designated an “Audubon at Home” wildlife sanctuary. According to the Prince William Conservation Alliance, who organizes the annual Nokesville Christmas Bird Count, the Prince William County Landfill has the largest numbers of Bald Eagles in the county. On Christmas day 2012 the Birders counted 10 adults and 10 immature Bald Eagles, along with many gulls including 650 Ring-billed Gulls and three Great Black-backed Gulls. Prince William County’s Solid Waste Division was awarded the Virginia Governor’s Environmental Excellence Award in 2013 for its Sustainability Program.

Moving forward, the County has big plans for the landfill. They are looking to partner with private companies in developing solar power at landfill site. Even with the recent reduction in solar costs and the existing federal tax incentives cost is still an issue without state incentives. None the less, the county is exploring options with a private company and NOVEC to build a solar project in phases beginning with net metering to supply power to the buildings on site (1.3 MW) and potentially expand to other buildings. There is plenty of space on the landfill for solar panels, but without state incentives cost is still an issue. That could change with the new U.S. EPA mandated clean energy plan and the landfill will be ready to move forward.

Currently there are activities that occur on site at the Landfill. The Landfill buffer serves as a protected pollinator and wildlife habitat, and the on-site wetland and streams (which are carefully monitored for contamination) have a viewing platform. There are regular tours of the landfill buffer for environmental studies with local 4H Club and the Master Gardeners. There are also hiking trails, bird watching and nature exploration. There are also Landfill community events and tours. The Prince William Landfill would like to do more to expand programs on green building, energy efficiency, and sustainable living; the County hopes to develop and build an Education Center at the Landfill to encourage innovation and advance sustainable solutions to the environmental challenges we face.

Monday, October 12, 2015

After 16 Years Blue Plains Implements Biosolids Management Plan

DC Water’s Biosolids Management Plan was originally adopted in 1999. This plan calledfor long-term Biosolids processing, treatment and disposal by land application. The plan was developed with input from the community, environmental groups, and other stakeholders. However, because of the cost of the project DC Water to deferred the project for a number of years until pushed by regulatory mandate. The decision by the DC Water to defer the project was based on an independently conducted economic analysis and an internal cost-benefit evaluation. All capital expenditure are paid for by DC Water (and Virginia and Maryland) rate payers so costs and benefits have to be considered when planning capital projects will increase customer water and sewer rates.

Sitting on the southernmost tip of Washington DC, across the river from Alexandria is the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant. While there are larger sewer treatment plants, that remove the solids and bacteria, the modern day Blue Plains also has Tertiary Treatment to remove nitrogen and phosphorus making Blue Plains the largest advance treatment plant in the United States at 150 acres and with a rated annual average day capacity if 370 million gallons per day (mgd) and a peak wet weather capacity of 1,076 mgd and serving 2 million people. The system needs such a large storm rated capacity to accommodate the old central city section which accounts for one third the area of the District and still has the original combined sewer system that overflows with predictable regularity during large storms

Being an advanced waste water treatment plant is not as modern as it sounds. At Blue Plains and other sewer treatment plants primary treatment uses screens to remove large solids from wastewater, and performs some rudimentary treatment to remove crude solids of human waste and skim off grease, oil and fat. Wastewater sits in settling tanks, which are designed to hold the wastewater for several hours. During that time, most of the heavy solids fall to the bottom of the tank, where they become a thick slurry known as primary sludge. The material that floats is skimmed from the surface of the tanks. Secondary (or biological) treatment involves feeding oxygen to bio-organisms that break down any organic matter still in the wastewater.

Tertiary treatment further treats the effluent water to remove nitrogen, phosphorus, fine suspended particles and microbes, and to kill or slowdown disease-causing organisms and viruses. It is the tertiary treatment that makes Blue Plains an Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant. At this time, Blue Plains cannot remove enough nitrogen from the waste stream to meet the EPA mandated limit for nitrogen. In addition, when it rains the performance of the clarification units deteriorates because of the large flow of water from the combined sewer system and infiltration overwhelms the system causing turbulence and not enough time to settle the solids and scum. The deterioration in performance cascades down the treatment train and results in a reduced treatment for the sewage that lasts not only during the rain, but can last for several weeks. Blue Plans is currently engaged in a $7.8 billion 20 year improvement program called the Clean Rivers Project that will meet the reduced total nitrogen released requirements of their operating permits and increase the control of the system during rain storms in addition sludge treatment will be improved and sewer piping improved in many areas.

The sludge is separated from the wastewater during the primary treatment is further screened and allowed to gravity thicken in a tank. Then the sludge is mixed with the solids collected from the secondary and denitrification units. The combined solids are pumped to tanks where they are heated to destroy pathogens and further reduce the volume of solids. With treatment sludge is transformed (at least in name) to Biosolids.

On Wednesday at DC Water unveiled the recently completed and operational sludge treatment system. The plant now has Cambi thermal hydrolysis trains, four digesters, new dewatering equipment and a combined heat and power plant at a cost of $470 million. The new digestor system uses thermal hydrolysis (heating to over 160 degrees under high pressure) followed by anaerobic digestors. The system produces methane gas which is captured and used to run turbines to produce power that will meet over one third of DC Water's electric demand at Blue Plains (about $10 million in electric costs) and the digestion process destroys nearly one half of the Biosolids and producing Class A Biosolids reducing the chemical treatment costs and the transportation costs to get rid of the Biosolids. This will save DC Water an additional $13 million a year. Even with all these savings the project has a payback of over 20 years, so this was not about savings, but rather better sewage treatment in an urban environment. Class A Biosolids are safer and easier to use in agriculture.

At the unveiling on Wednesday DC Water indicated that they intend to sell a substantial portion of the residual Biosolids product as a soil amendment in Home Depot now that the Biosolids produced by the plant will be Class A . To ensure that Biosolids applied to the land as fertilizer do not threaten public health, the EPA created the 40 CFR Part 503 Rule in 1989 that is still in effect today. It categorizes Biosolids as Class A or B, depending on the level of fecal coliform and salmonella bacteria in the material and restricts the use based on classification. The Biosolids are tested for fecal coliform and salmonella and composite sampling is done for metals and hydrocarbons; the presence of other emerging contaminants in the Biosolids is not tracked. The land application of Class B Biosolids has been a growing area of concern. Research at the University of Virginia found that organic chemicals persist in the Class B Biosolids and can be introduced into the food chain. The new Biosolids treatment system will not only reduce the stench at Blue Plains, but will also reduce the overall amount of Biosolids and improve their safety by producing only Class A Biosolids. DC Water under the able leadership of George S. Hawkins is moving forward. Mr. Hawkins has launched an ambitious agenda at DC Water that complements the very broad Clean Rivers program to improve aging infrastructure and comply with ever more stringent regulatory requirements from the U.S. EPA.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Montgomery County Bans Roundup and 2, 4-D Use on Lawns

On Tuesday, the Montgomery County Council by a vote of 6 to 3 passed Bill 52-14 a new law banning the ornamental use of pesticides including Roundup and 2,4 D as well as hundreds of others. Though the law goes into effect in January 1, 2016 most of the requirements have an effective date of January 2018.

Bill 52-14 restricts the application of pesticides on County-owned and private lawns, requires the county to conduct a public outreach and education campaign before and during the implementation, and requires the County to adopt an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) plan. IPM is a method of pest control which minimizes the use of chemical pesticides by focusing on pest identification and monitoring and uses a combination of biological, physical/mechanical and, when necessary, chemical management tools. The law will also require the posting of notice when a property owner applies a pesticide to an area of lawn more than 100 square feet, so even postage stamp size yards will come under the law.

The law includes all pesticides classified as "Carcinogenic to Humans" or "Likely to Be Carcinogenic to Humans" by the U.S. EPA; all pesticides classified by the U.S. EPA as "Restricted Use Products;" all pesticides classified as "Class 9" pesticides by the Ontario, Canada, Ministry of the Environment; all pesticides classified as "Category 1 Endocrine Disruptors" by the European Commission; and any other pesticides that are determined not to be critical to pest management in the County. Pesticides, including herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and rodenticides, used to simply prevent blemishes and other imperfections on private and public lands are banned.

Violation of this law will be a Class C Misdemeanor and will depend on the public reporting neighbors to the authorities. The law is modeled on laws in Canada where the use of pesticides for ornamental use have been banned town by town, Provence by Provence beginning with the 2009 Ontario ban of pesticides use for cosmetic purposes on lawns, vegetable and ornamental gardens, patios, driveways, cemeteries, and in parks and school yards. The Ontario law contains no exceptions for pest infestations (insects, fungi or weeds) in these areas, as lower risk pesticides, biopesticides and alternatives to pesticides exist. More than 250 pesticide products are banned for sale and over 95 pesticide ingredients are banned for cosmetic uses under their regulation, the Class 9 pesticides cited in the Maryland law.

A huge body of relational evidence exists on the possible role of pesticide exposures in the elevated incidence of human diseases such as cancers, Alzheimer, Parkinson, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, asthma, bronchitis, infertility, birth defects, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, diabetes, and obesity. Most of the disorders are induced by insecticides and herbicides most notably organophosphorus, organochlorines, phenoxyacetic acids, and triazine compounds.  A wide range of chemicals are used to treat everything from pests to mold in household gardens. One of those is 2, 4-D, used by cereal crop producers and commonly found in household weed killers. It has been the subject of an extensive study by Health Canada which determined that, when used properly, it is safe. Organizations like the Sierra Club and the Canadian Cancer Society, which strongly support a ban on cosmetic use of pesticides and herbicides, disagree. However, no specific research linking the currently used ornamental pesticides to disease in humans was found.

The only documented study to find a disease link to 2,4-D was done in the United States, a 1991 National Cancer Institute study examined dogs whose owners' lawns were treated with 2,4-D four or more times per year. The study found those dogs had double the risk of developing canine malignant lymphoma than dogs whose owners do not use the herbicide.

In addition, this past year, glyphosate (N-phosphonomethylglycine), the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup and the most popular herbicide in use today in the United States has been labeled a probable carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, IARC, which is the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization. Americans spray an estimated 180-185 million pounds of the weed killer, on their yards and farms every year. All the acute toxicity tests have found that glyphosate is nearly nontoxic to mammals; however, there have been for some time a minority of scientists and experts who believes that glyphosate may be much more toxic than is claimed and push for studying potential impacts to human health from low level constant exposure to glyphosate. Glyphosate is subject to the Montgomery law.

The Canadian and Montgomery County bans on cosmetic use of herbicides and pesticides are intended to protect children based on the belief that children may be more at risk of developing health problems from pesticides because:

• Their activities lead to more exposure e.g., playing in the grass, putting their hands or toys in their mouths.
• They are closer to the ground and breathe in higher amounts of pesticides.
• Proportional to their weight, they breathe in more air and consume more food and drink than do adults.
• Their immature metabolic systems cannot break down toxins as effectively as adults.
• Their bodies are rapidly growing and developing and potentially impacted more strongly by endocrine disruptor effects.

While I certainly do not know if a ban on ornamental use of pesticides will prevent disease a in children and cancers in the adult population, I wonder what the downside of reducing use would be. For full disclosure purposes I have the third to worst lawn in my neighborhood, I apply no chemicals to my lawn and never water. However, I do hope to improve the lawn by aerating and over seeding annually and applying my compost. So far, not so good despite soil analysis that showed decent soil composition and years of effort. Embrace the cheerful beauty of dandelions.
My lawn- at least it's green!

Monday, October 5, 2015

Potomac Spill- Not a Threat to Washington Area Water Supplies

from MDE

Ten thousand gallons of synthetic latex used for coating paper spilled into the North Branch of the Potomac River in western Maryland on September 23, 2015, and began its journey towards the water intakes of the Washington Metropolitan Region arriving in our area yesterday and today. The spill was originally seen by a concerned citizen as a yellow/ white coloration in the North Branch Potomac River and reported to the Maryland Department of the Environment on September 24th 2015.

The Maryland Department of the Environment investigated and found that the Verso paper mill in Luke, Maryland spilled about 10,000 gallons of a synthetic latex when a rail car of the substance was being unloaded into a tank with a drain valve that was left open. The synthetic latex spilled into a containment area that sent the release to the Upper Potomac River Commission wastewater treatment plant in Westernport, Maryland. Somehow the spill was discharged to the North Branch of the Potomac River without the Upper Potomac River Commission notifying the Maryland Department of the Environment. The wastewater treatment plant is not equipped remove the styrene-butadiene based polymer from water.

Because the spilled latex was in the water column of a flowing river, it was not possible to contain the spill or to remove it from the water. The spill would simply continue to flow down the river towards the drinking water intakes for the Washington Metropolitan Region, hopefully becoming diluted as it traveled. In keeping with protocol, the Maryland Department of the Environment notified the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) so that they in turn could notify all the drinking water facilities in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington, D.C. who are supplied by the Potomac River.

ICPRB’s emergency response role is to alert downstream water utilities and water management agencies that a spill has occurred and then, using ICPRB’s computer spill model, calculate contaminant concentrations and travel times to the various water intakes and share that information with the utilities and agencies so that they can take appropriate action. ICPRB’s used their model to provide more than a dozen downstream water intakes with estimates of the time of arrival, maximum contaminant concentration, and the time the contaminant is expected to be past the intake.

The continually updated model results can be used to guide management decisions by drinking water utilities on how to protect public drinking water supplies, such as storing water and shutting intakes if necessary until the contaminant has passed. The Washington Metropolitan Area does not have enough in system storage to continue to supply uninterrupted water during a shutdown, so closing the intakes is the last step to protect the system and the public.

The Maryland Department of the Environment reports that laboratory results received to date have shown no detection of styrene, the primary constituent of concern, and no evidence of butadiene, another constituent of concern. The agency noted that the latex substance, used to coat paper, is not expected to threaten public water supplies at this time. According to information provided by the Verso paper mill the substance that was discharged is Latex CP 620NA, manufactured by Trinseo LLC. The components of the material are styrene-butadiene based polymer and water. The product is not a hazardous chemical as defined under U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations.

In addition, the Washington Aqueduct, federally owned and operated by the Army Corp of Engineers, dispatched a team last week to sample the contaminated water plume to determine if the water treatment plant was capable of removing the latex product. The Washington Aqueduct supplies an average of 155 million gallons of water per day to over a million people in the District of Columbia and a couple of communities in Virginia. After testing, Mr. Jacobus, their general manager was certain that the latex would not affect water treatment plants’ ability to function or cause any health concerns for the public.

The recommended solution to the spill was to enhance coagulation as part of the water treatment process. Coagulation removes dirt and other particles suspended in the water. This also happens to be standard procedure in the event of a major storm event, such as the impending impact of the severe storms that have hit the area. This is excellent news since the storm caused the chemical spill in the Potomac River to make its way to the region’s water intakes sooner than originally estimated. Revised estimates from the ICPRB were run as conditions on the river changed with the weather.

The ICPRB ran its final Toxic Spill Model on October 1, 2015 and does not plan on providing any further travel time updates. The plume is expected to arrive in the DC metropolitan area on October 4-5, 2015, at a concentration of less than 0.05 parts per million. Due to recent heavy rains, an increase in river flow has moved the plume quickly down the river and has helped dilute the contaminant. Though the responsible party failed to notify the wastewater treatment plant and the Maryland Department of the Environment, everything else in our regions water management and emergency response worked as it should. Good job!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Storm Preparation

With Hurricane Joaquin a category 4 hurricane expected to turn north with its path still undetermined Virginia and much of the mid-Atlantic and northeast remain in danger. Governor McAuliffe declared a state of emergency last Wednesday and said Virginians should have at least three days’ worth of supplies in their homes and avoid travel if possible. Even if the Hurricane bypasses Virginia we could have serious flood and storm damage. It seems a good time to discuss basic storm preparations for your home and how intense rainfall associated with tropical storms and hurricanes can impact your drinking water well and septic system, and what you should do if your well and septic system are impacted.


My home is on well water and without electricity I have no water, no septic, no sump pumps, my freezer containing a quarter of a cow (grass fed) that is in danger of spoiling, and my life generally disrupted with the loss of the all the modern conveniences. So eight years ago, I had a Guardian 16 kilowatt automatic generator manufactured by Generac installed. When the power to the house is cut, the generator automatically kicks in to power most of the house in about 20 seconds. The generator runs on liquid propane from a tank buried in my yard that also powers my hot water heater, furnace, gas grill and stove. The generator can supply the house for more than two weeks depending on whether the gas furnace is running, and is housed in an insulated aluminum casing under my deck (muffling the sound) and looking good as new even after eight years of sitting outside.

The generator was serviced two weeks ago and was filled with oil. (Note that if the generator runs more than a few days especially when new it will need oil.) I was a little slow in calling my propane company for a delivery- we’ll see if they come through today. Otherwise, my tank is only 60% full enough for a few days running. So, either way I am all set to go on those fronts. However, it is a little late to be installing a whole house generator. You need to make sure that your sump pump or pumps are operational and have battery backup (check those batteries and make sure they work), clear all the leaves out of your gutters and make sure the down spouts drain away from your foundation. Keeping water away from the house will protect your home and minimize the work that the sump pumps will have to do. Make sure you have batteries and flash lights. Even with the generator, we keep flashlights around.

If you do not have a generator, fill plastic bags with water and put as many as you can in your freezer today. The water will freeze by tomorrow and the frozen water will serve to keep the freezer cold without power- just like a cooler. If the power goes out, you might also want to use some of the ice bags to keep your refrigerator cold. In the end you can drink the water. Bring in all outdoor furniture, decorations, garbage cans and anything else that is not tied down, put them in the garage-that includes pumpkins on the stoop if you have already bought them.

Without electricity your well pump will not work, so you will need to fill the bathtubs and gallon jugs with drinking water when the storm hits to make sure that you will have water. If your home and well are on low ground, and the area floods then it is possible your well could be impacted. After a storm, brownish or dirty water coming from the well is a common occurrence and indicates surface water infiltration carrying dirt and contaminants into the well. If your well was flooded or your water appears dirty or brownish you need to clear your well and disinfect it and the stored water may have to last you a few days.

Septic systems should not be used immediately after flooding. Drain fields will not work until underground water has receded. Septic lines have been known to break during significant flooding, so keep an eye out for that. Whenever the water table is high or your septic drain field has been flooded, there is a risk that sewage will back up into your home. The only way to prevent this backup is to relieve pressure on the system by using it less. Basically, there is nothing you can do but wait it out, do not use the system if the soil is saturated and flooded. The wastewater will not be treated and will become a source of pollution, if it does not back up into your house, it will bubble up into your yard. Conserve water as much as possible while the system restores itself the drain field dries out and the water table fails. Also, if the septic system is not and entirely gravity system you will need power to run the pumps and need to understand if there is adequate gravity flow to move the sewage from the house.

The available volume in the septic tank (assuming you occasionally pump it) should give you several days of storage and water use if you conserve water to allow your drain field to recover. The biggest single use of water in the home is laundry- a top loading washer uses 52 gallons and a front load washer uses 27 gallons- do not do laundry until the system has dried out. Toilets manufactured before 1992 use 5 or more gallons per flush while newer, low flush toilets use 1.5 gallons per flush. Only flush older toilets when you have to- not for urine. Go easy on your water use. The septic system operates on the principals of settling, bacterial digestion, and soil filtration all gentle and slow natural processes that will have been battered by the storm. Do not pump the septic tank while the soil is still saturated. Pumping out a tank that is in very saturated soils may cause it to “pop out” of the ground. Recently installed systems may “pop out” of the ground more readily than older systems because the soil has not had enough time to settle and compact.

If your well was flooded or your water appears dirty or brownish after the storm you need to clear your well and disinfect it. Your power must be restored to disinfect the well. Run your hoses (away from your septic system and down slope from your well) to clear the well. Run it for an hour or so and see if it runs clear. If you have a robust recharge rate as I do it will take hours to clear the well. If not, let the well rest for 8-12 hours and run the hoses again. Several cycles should clear the well. What we are doing is pumping out any infiltration in 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, you need to disinfect your well. This is an emergency procedure that will kill any bacteria for 7 to 10 days.

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. Carefully pour the bleach down into the well casing using a funnel if necessary. For a typical 6 inch diameter well you need 2 cups of regular laundry bleach for each 100 foot of well depth to achieve about 200 parts per million chlorine concentration. If you don’t know the depth of the well, pour a half gallon down the well. Wear rubber gloves, old clothes and protective glasses to protect you from the inevitable splashes, and don't forget a bucket of bleach mixed with water to wash the well cap.

After the bleach has been added, run water from an outside hose into the well casing until you smell chlorine coming from the hose (depending on the depth of your well and the recharge rate, this can take an hour or more). This step is important to mix the chlorine in the well. Then turn off the outside hose. Now go into the house and if you have a water treatment system, switch it to bypass before turning on the indoor faucets, then one bathroom and sink at a time, turn on the 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 turn it off and dump the ice. Do not turn on the hot water. Once the inside system has been done, go back to the outside spigots and run the hoses until you smell chlorine coming out. Warning if you have iron bacteria in your well, your water may turn completely rust colored. Do not panic it will flush out of the system, but do not use the hot water until the water runs clear or you will have to drain the hot water tank to prevent staining.

Wait 8 to 24 hours before using the water. You want to run the hoses until the water runs clear if you have iron bacteria or simply run the hoses to prevent killing all the bacteria in the septic system. It is important not to drink, cook, bath 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 disinfection wear off. After 7 to 10 days you need to test your well for bacteria to make sure that it is safe.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

There is Water on Mars

from NASA news conference

On Monday NASA announced that new findings from their Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has shown that liquid salt water flows intermittently on present-day Mars. Using the imaging spectrometer on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, scientists detected light absorption signatures of hydrated salts on slopes in four locations on Mars where mysterious streaks were observed on Mars. These darkish streaks appear to ebb and flow over time. They darken and appear to flow down steep slopes during warm seasons, and then fade in cooler seasons. The streaks have been observed to appear in four locations on Mars when temperatures are above minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and disappear at colder times.


Lujendra Ojha of the Georgia Institute of Technology is the lead author of a scientific paper just published by Nature Geoscience. There are eight co-authors of the paper, including Mary Beth Wilhelm at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California and Georgia Tech; and HiRISE Principal Investigator Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona who participated in the new conference. The other authors include CRISM Principal Investigator Scott Murchie of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland and others at Georgia Tech, the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and Laboratoire de Planétologie et Géodynamique in Nantes, France.
from NASA news conference

By comparing the light absorption patterns Lujendra Ojha and his co-authors interpreted the spectrometer readings to be of hydrated minerals called perchlorates. The hydrated salts most consistent with the spectral signatures are likely a mixture of magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate and sodium perchlorate. Some perchlorates have been shown to keep liquids from freezing even when conditions are as cold as minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the first time chemical light absorption patterns have been identified from orbit. On Earth, naturally produced perchlorates are concentrated in deserts.

Lujendra Ojha first noticed the darkish streaks which are only about 16 feet wide as a University of Arizona undergraduate in 2010, using images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE). The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been circling Mars with its six instruments since 2006, they have mapped only about 3-4% of the surface of the planet, but they have been able to document the continual reappearance of the dark downhill flows.


For years scientists watched as dark streaks, or downhill flows appears in the spring, grow during the Mars summer and disappear in the fall. These downhill flows, called by the scientists “recurring slope lineae” (RSL), had been described as possibly related to liquid water, but until these new findings of the appearance and disappearance of hydrated salts in conjunction with the RSL on the slopes confirmed the presence of water that was only speculation. The hydrated salts would lower the freezing point of a liquid brine and allow the water to flow in freezing temperatures. The scientists believe that there is likely a shallow subsurface flow, with enough water wicking to the surface to explain the darkening, though they do not know where the water comes from in the first place. What the scientists do know is that there is water flowing on Mars and that the planet has much more humidity in their remaining atmosphere than previously imagined.

Mars is the plant in our solar system most like earth. It is believed that once about 3 billion years ago it was much more like earth with an extensive atmosphere and ocean. Something happened to cause a major change in the planet’s climate that caused it to lose much of its water. Scientists have wondered if life started on Mars billions of years ago. The presence of water raises the question of whether life in some form exists on Mars today. We do not really know how to look for life on Mars, we only know what life on earth looks like. There is a lot more we need to learn before we can determine if there was or is life on Mars.

When NASA sent the Viking 1&2 orbiters and landers to Mars 1976 they found Mars to be a dessert planet assumed to be dead. At that time we knew less about microbes, and looked at only tiny bits of the planet. Atmospheric measurements from Viking confirmed that some meteorites found on Earth originated on Mars. This proved that some meteorites found on Earth were originally from Mars and advanced the theory that a giant meteor impact with Mars caused the catastrophic loss of atmosphere and ocean and sent pieces of the plant hurling towards earth. The more recent Mars missions have placed in orbit and on Mars itself a series of instruments including the Curiosity Rover that have allowed us to see a much more interesting and maybe viable planet.

During my adulthood, biologists have found that microbial life has amazing flexibility and can survive in extreme environments. Today we believe that the fundamental requirements for life are water, organic compounds (carbon compounds) and an energy source for synthesizing complex organic molecules. Even today we do not yet understand the environmental and chemical evolution that lead to the origin of life on earth or on other planets, but in recent decades scientists have realized that life can thrive in settings much different from the tropical soup rich in organic nutrients that was once the accepted science for the creation of life. Microbial life on our own planet has been found to an amazing flexibility for surviving in extreme environments, unimagined by earlier scientists. The challenge for the future is to understand where the water on Mars comes from and then look for life on Mars. Alfred McEwen the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HIRISE principal investigator stated in the new conference that there is the possibility of life in the interior of Mars, but we are a long way from being able to search for it.

While one of the area noted to have the RSL –water streaks within a couple of mile of the Curiosity Rover on Mount Sharp its mission cannot be used to investigate further. The distance, though sounding small, is an eternity for the slow moving Rover was not designed to climb slopes. In addition, the Curiosity Rover was not sterilized before it was sent to Mars and undoubtedly carried microbial life with it to Mars. The time the Rover has been exposed to extreme UV light may have sterilized the Rover, but maybe not. So Curiosity will avoid areas where there is water for planetary protection and to avoid detecting the microbial life we inadvertently sent to Mars.

On Earth where there is water there is life. The science of life needs to move forward to know how to search for life on Mars. Future missions to Mars will search for the source of the water. For now the working theory is deliquescence, pulling the moisture from the atmosphere. The discovery of flowing water and perchlorates on Mars make the possibility of a manned mission appear within reach this century. Water can be purified, it can be used to make breathable oxygen, and perchlorates can be used to make rocket fuel (aluminum perchlorates is rocket fuel)- all this could add up to an extended stay on Mars with a return trip. First, we need to turn our focus and investment to space.