Thursday, January 28, 2016

Zika Virus

Zika virus is spread to people through mosquito bites, currently from the Aedes species mosquitoes. There is no vaccine to prevent or medicine to treat Zika. Outbreaks of Zika have occurred in areas of Africa, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and the Americas. In May 2015, the first local transmission of Zika virus infection (Zika) was reported in Brazil from there it spread to the rest of South America, to Central America, Caribbean and now appeared in Puerto Rico and Hawaii. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a travel alert for people traveling to Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and recommended for pregnant women to avoid the areas.

This alert follows reports in Brazil of microcephaly, babies born with abnormally underdeveloped heads, and other poor pregnancy outcomes in babies of mothers who were infected with Zika virus while pregnant. A few months after the introduction of Zika virus (ZIKV) infection into Brazil, there was an increase in congenital microcephaly occurrence. The incidence of congenital microcephaly increased by twenty times. This increase raises questions about the possible role of the Zika infection in congenital microcephaly, though there is currently only ecological evidence of an association between the two events, because there is no test for the presence of the Zika antibodies to confirm past infection. A possible causative nature of the association cannot be ruled out and more research needs to be done. The CDC has taken down its article on the possible association, but you can read the article from the European Center for Disease Control.

The disease symptoms are usually mild and last for 2 to 7 days. Infection may go unrecognized or are misdiagnosed as dengue, chikungunya or other viral infections that cause fever and rash. Asymptomatic infections are also reported to be common. According to the CDC about one in five people infected with Zika virus will develop symptoms, which include fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (pink eye). Other commonly reported symptoms include myalgia, headache, and pain behind the eyes. Severe disease requiring hospitalization is uncommon and case fatality is low.

During the Zika virus outbreak in French Polynesia, in 2013, 74 patients who had Zika symptoms, later developed neurological or autoimmune syndromes - out of them, 42 were diagnosed as Guillain–Barré syndrome. In the current Brazil outbreak , 121 cases of neurological manifestations and Guillain–Barré syndrome (GBS) have been reported, all with a history of Zika-like symptoms. Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) is a disorder in which the body's immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system. The first symptoms of this disorder include varying degrees of weakness or tingling sensations in the legs. In many instances the symmetrical weakness and abnormal sensations spread to the arms and upper body. These symptoms can increase in intensity until certain muscles cannot be used at all and, when severe, the person is almost totally paralyzed. Most people will have good recovery from even the most severe cases, although some continue to have a certain degree of weakness.

The Zika virus orginated in Africa and some disease specialists believe it was introduced in Brazil during the World Cup. These same scientists modeled the vectors to spread the disease have warned that the Brazil 2016 Summer Olympics could serve as a catalyst for the virus to spread the disease to the rest of the world.

Because the Aedes species mosquitoes that spreads the Zika virus are found throughout the world, it is likely that outbreaks will continue spread to new countries. In December 2015, Puerto Rico reported its first confirmed Zika virus case. Locally transmitted Zika has not been reported elsewhere in the United States, but cases of Zika have been reported in returning travelers. There is no widely available test for Zika, a blood or tissue sample from the first week of the infection can be used with advanced molecular testing. It is also possible that due to Zika’s close relation to two dengue and yellow fever it may react with the antibody tests for those viruses.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Snow Day

The northeast corridor was hit with an epic snow storm over the weekend. It snowed for about 30 hours where I live (southwest of Washington DC between Aldie and Haymarket, Virginia). The snow started at 12:42 pm on Friday and lasted into Saturday evening. Due to the gusting wind and snow, we actually could not tell when it stopped and for all of Saturday it was near blizzard conditions.

The strong winds made it hard to measure accurately due to the drifting, we got over two feet of snow. My rain/snow gauge collected a total of 25 inches of snow and measurements I took had drifts up to my waist and down to just a few inches with a small area in front of the house bare for a few hours last night. Most readings away from the house, tree stand and out buildings seemed to be between 22-32 inches.

I did all that measuring during (and after) the storm for my CoCoRHS report. The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRHS) is a non-profit, community based, network of volunteers who measure and report rain, hail and snow in their backyards. It is one of many citizen scientist projects you can participate in. CoCoRaHS was started in 1998 to help scientists do a better job of mapping and reporting intense storms. CoCoRaHS became a nationwide volunteer network in 2010 and is now international with observers in Canada. You can join if you are interested or donate to keep the network operating.
My measuring stick showing 32 inches near the snow gauge 
This is my first year and I am still learning the ropes on the best way to take big storm readings. So far my strategy is to collect snow (or rain) from my gauge every 4-6 hours, measure record and accumulate the totals for the 24 hour observation period.

So here are some pictures from around my house during and after the storm:
Looking up the road everything is buried in snow- visibility impaired by the near blizzard conditions.

The backyard in whiteout conditions the third septic tank is  just visible

the deck buried in snow

The husband dug out the heat pump last night in hopes of saving it from damage. it was on aux. heat

The snow slid off the solar panels onto the deck (Hope it holds the weight!)

By noon Sunday the road was plowed and y driveway cleared by. Pev's Paintball.
All of the snow that was on the solar panels slid off the roof- most of it onto the deck. Turns out that solar panels are very slippery! Sunday afternoon after we were all dug out, my husband and Melissa took some of the snow off of the deck to lighten the load, take the pressure off the sliding glass door, the railing and to make sure that the furnace vent was clear.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Water in Flint Michigan

On January 16, 2016 in response to a request from the Governor Rick Snyder President Obama declared that an emergency exists in the State of Michigan. The President's action is in addition to the State declared emergency and authorizes emergency assistance is to provide water, water filters, water filter cartridges, water test kits, and other necessary items to address the current crisis.

For more than a year the drinking water supply in Flint Michigan has been contaminated first with high levels of microbial contaminants such as viruses and bacteria, and inorganic contaminants such as salts and metals which were a result of inadequate treatment of the water, then high level of lead began to appear in homes and have persisted. Reportedly, the lead is the result of slightly caustic, inadequately treated water leaching lead from the old distribution system. This is a related problem that happened in 1994 in Washington DC and hard experience found the solution.

This all began when the city of Flint decided to switch to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) as the City’s permanent water source in a cost saving measure as wholesale water rates from the old Detroit system kept growing in an attempt to support rising maintenance, repair and operating costs in the Detroit Waster and Sewage system. KWA would supply water to the members by building a new pipeline from Lake Huron. While waiting for KWA pipeline to be completed, the City of Flint planned to use the Flint River as a temporary alternative water source.

This decision to use the Flint River was approved by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to proceed with treatment of water from the Flint River in 2014. Here is where the problems began. Though the Flint Water Treatment staff, LAN engineering consultants and the DEQ understood that the Flint River would be subject to variations due to temperature changes, rain events and would have higher organic carbon levels than Lake Huron water and would be more difficulty to treat, they thought that Flint had the equipment (after a Water Treatment Plant upgrade) and the capacity to meet the demands of treating river water. They were wrong.

Flint struggled to meet the Safe Drinking Water Act levels at the water treatment plant. The first problems were with of increased levels of trihalomethanes (disinfection by-products formed when chlorine reacts with organic matter in drinking water) next were increased levels of total coliform and fecal coliform bacteria levels. Just when they were convinced that the finished water from the plant was within Safe Drinking Water Act requirements, the began to appear problems at the tap. Lead levels became highly elevated. This should not have been unexpected. It had happened before.

In 1994 amendments to the Clean Water Act Safe Drinking Water Act to regulate disinfection by-products formed when chlorine reacts with organic matter in drinking water resulted in similar problems in Washington DC when they changed from chlorine to chloramine for disinfection. The amendment regulates the disinfection by-products; the EPA considers these byproducts to be a potential health threat. The treatment process for the Washington DC water supply was changed to add ammonia after primary disinfection to react with the remaining chlorine to prevent the formation of disinfection byproducts (haloacetic acids and trihalomethanes). The change caused cause a lowering of pH in the distribution system, the water became slightly more caustic than it had been, increasing the possibility of corrosion.

Shortly after the change, increasing pipe failures and levels of lead began appearing in the homes of Washington DC residents. It turns out chloramine-treated water picks up lead from pipes and solder and does not release it, resulting in elevated levels and deterioration of the pipes. Extreme lead concentration began appearing in homes. This is similar to what happened in Flint. It should have been considered by the city, the DEQ and the Consultants before the change-a simple literature search would have identified the potential for the problem.

Dr. Marc Edwards a MacArthur Prize winning professor of engineering at Virginia Tech ultimately identified the cause and solution to the problem in Washington DC. The lead problem was addressed by adding orthophosphate and tightly control the pH of the water. Orthophosphate controls corrosion in pipes, service lines, and household plumbing throughout the distribution system. It works by building up a thin film of insoluble material in lead, copper, and iron pipes and fixtures. This thin film acts a barrier to prevent leaching of metals into the water, but only works in a narrow pH range. Calcium hydroxide (lime) is also added to adjust the pH of the water to ensure optimal performance of the orthophosphate.

Last September, Dr. Edwards was hired by Flint to find a solution to their problems. Flint has returned to obtaining its raw water supply from the Detroit water system and will be adding orthophosphate and controlling the pH. It remains to be seen how much of the piping system has been damaged by this adventure in cost cutting. When poorly maintained and old pipe distribution systems subjected to this chemical stress often experience extensive pipe failure next. This all started as a cost savings measure.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Possum Point Update

Last Thursday at an all-day meeting in Richmond, the Virginia State Water Control Board approved Dominion Power’s permits to drain its coal ash ponds at Possum Point Power Station in Prince William County (as well as permits for its Bremo Power Station in Fluvanna County). Previously, Dominion Power had submitted three successive permit modification requests for their coal ash ponds at the Possum Point Power Station on June 30, 2014, December 22, 2014, and August 18, 2015. At the Possum Point Power Station. The previous permit requests were modified to reflect the coal ash pond closures so the only remaining permits cover two storm water outfalls SI07 and SI08. These permit requests were made and approved despite no analytical data existing for either stormwater outfall S107 or S108 (per Dominion Power permit request).

Outfall SI 07 collects storm water from coal ash Pond D and under the existing permit was characterized as a non-industrial stormwater outfall. Collected stormwater is discharged to Quantico Creek. Dominion reports that this outfall collects groundwater infiltration from toe drains associated with coal ash Pond D. The drainage area is approximately 14.4 acres of permeable plant ground cover.

Outfall S108 is a new storm water outfall that discharges to an unnamed tributary of Quantico Creek, located south of coal ash Pond E. This outfall is located at the point of convergence for runoff from a VDOT culvert and the culverts containing the station's former ash sluice lines. The drainage area is under an acre of mostly permeable surfaces.

Possum Point Power Station is owned by Dominion Power. It sits on a 650-acre site located in Dumfries Virginia in the eastern part of Prince William County that borders the Potomac River and the Quantico Creek. Dominion Virginia Power has not burned coal at Possum Point for 13 years and is unlikely to burn coal to generate power in the future, but 3.7 million cubic yards of coal ash remain from the historic burning of coal.

Ash Ponds A, B, and C are currently being decommissioned. One million cubic yards of coal ash from those ponds is being moved into Pond D, a 120-acre pond that already contains 2.6 million cubic yards of coal ash. Coal ash Pond E is presently being decommissioned and replaced with a treatment system, as required. Dominion Power is proceeding with a plan to “close in place” the 3.7 million cubic yards of coal ash by consolidating and dewatering the coal ash into a coal ash pond they claim is lined (as required by regulations) which will then be capped with an impermeable membrane to prevent infiltration of rain in the future. These old coal ash ponds have been open to the elements and taking on water for decades as well as being in contact with shallow groundwater as was disclosed in the permit applications and modifications.

It is possible that trace contaminants including metals (and potentially hexavalent chromium) in the coal ash have already leached into the groundwater, Quantico Creek and Potomac from the coal ash ponds. Permanently disposing of the coal ash on site, when properly done, can be protective of the environment and water resources, but requires a liner separating the coal ash from the groundwater and ongoing monitoring and maintenance. All physical barriers fail over time this is addressed by the monitoring and maintaining the systems required by the regulations.

The State Water Control Board that approved the permits is composed of seven Virginia citizens appointed by the Governor, and is responsible for oversight of the Virginia Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit (VPDES permit) under section 402 of the Clean Water Act that established the program to limit pollutant discharges into streams, rivers, and bays. In the Commonwealth of Virginia, DEQ and the State Water Control Board administer this program by issuing VPDES permits for all point source discharges to surface waters.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains authority to review applications and permits for "major" dischargers, a distinction based on discharge quantity and content. Several groups have raised concerns with the plan and the speed with which they are proceeding without community involvement and input. Most importantly, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Potomac Riverkeeper Network contend that the large pond where they are consolidating all the coal ash is only partially lined. The Potomac Riverkeeper Network plans to file a lawsuit to have the permit revoked, believing that the permit does not comply with the requirements of the Clean Water Act. (In the interest of full disclosure I was once a member of the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association a predecessor of the Hudson Riverkeepers, and I volunteer with the Prince William County Rural Household Water Quality Program.)

The finalized EPA regulation for coal ash requires that coal ash disposal site must have protective liners to prevent groundwater contamination. The rule also requires companies to conduct monitoring of disposal sites, clean up any existing contamination, and close and remediate unlined disposal sites that have polluted groundwater. Finally, monitoring data, corrective action reports, and other important information about the site must be made available to the public.

Dominion’s closure plan should include additional site investigation to demonstrate to the stakeholders in the community that the liner in coal ash Pond D is sound. In addition it is essential that testing of groundwater, surface water sediments, and the water treated at the outfalls be done for a broader spectrum of contaminants to better protect the environment and determine the extent of impact if any from the decades storage of the coal ash on site. Though Possum Point is downstream from nearby drinking water supplies and is unlikely to impact local residents beyond what has already taken place over the decades; however, the current level of impact needs to be investigated and monitored for the 24 nearby private wells.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Toxics Everywhere How to Find Them

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) , the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), and National Toxicology Program (NTP) within the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences have announced a new challenge that will award in total up to $1 million to improve the data generated from automated chemical screening technology used for toxicity testing.

Chemicals are everywhere, they exist in pharmaceuticals, household products, personal care products, plastics, pesticides, industrial chemicals, human and animal waste; they are in short, all around us. According to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) inventory of chemicals there are more than 84,000 chemical substances, as defined in TSCA today. These chemicals include organics, inorganic, polymers, and UVCBs (chemical substances of Unknown or Variable composition, Complex reaction products, and Biological materials). Yet, very few of these chemicals have been evaluated to health risks because under TSCA the EPA can only require testing for existing chemicals when there is evidence of harm. EPA's New Chemicals program tries to manage the potential risk from chemicals new to the marketplace. For purposes of regulation under TSCA, if a chemical is on the TSCA Inventory, the substance is considered an "existing" chemical.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC) has found widespread exposure to some chemicals throughout the population that they tested. Samples are collected from participants in CDC's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which is an ongoing survey that samples the U.S. population every two years for 212 chemicals. Each two year sample consists of about 2,400 people.

Findings indicate widespread exposure to some commonly used industrial chemicals and raises the question of exposure to the thousands of other chemicals out in our environment. Our ability to identify chemical concentrations at parts per trillion has opened the door to a raft of concerns and questions.

It has been believed for hundreds of years that the toxicity of a chemical is related to its dose (in addition to a person's individual susceptibility). The philosophy that small amounts were of no health consequence has been the cornerstone of toxicology and regulation, but that has come into question. For most the thousands of chemicals we are exposed to every day, tools are needed to determine whether exposure even at extremely low levels is a cause for concern or if the chemicals can be metabolized to a more toxic form.

Out of thousands upon thousands of chemicals in commerce today, very few have been fully evaluated for potential health effects. Until recently when screening assays became available it was impossible. Scientists from EPA, NTP, and NCATS are now using screening assays to evaluate the potential health effects of thousands of chemicals to choose the ones to look at further to consider regulating. This screening uses automated methods that allow for a large number of chemicals to be rapidly evaluated for a specific type of biological activity.

However, the assays in current use do not incorporate chemical metabolism, so they would miss chemicals that are metabolized to a more toxic form in the body where impact could be magnified. The challenge announced by the EPA, “Transform Tox Testing Challenge: Innovating for Metabolism,” is designed to encourage the science community to find new ways to incorporate physiological levels of chemical metabolism into screening assays, using both prestige and modest cash awards. The winning screening tool will help regulators more accurately assess effects of chemicals and better identify the highest risk chemicals that regulating or eliminating will deliver the biggest impact to protect human health. This is how EPA gets things done in the modern age.

The goal of the current award is to generate both interest and results from the scientific community. Teams of scientists will compete in three stages for a total award of $1 million. The first stage, opened last week and will be closing April 8, 2016 seeks ideas for designs for a test that could be further developed. Up to ten submissions may receive a prize of $10,000 each and an invitation to continue on to the next stage.

The second stage requires a prototype that demonstrates the proposed idea in use. Up to five participants may be awarded up to $100,000 each and invited to participate in the final stage. The final stage requires a commercially viable method or technology for EPA and its partners to demonstrate and test. One participant will win the final prize of $400,000 for delivery of a method or device that can provide metabolic analysis to high speed screening assays. Good luck, we will all be winners if this succeeds.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Imidacloprid Found to Impact Bees

from USDA

Last Wednesday, January 6th 2016 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in combination with Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency released their preliminary pollinator risk assessment for Imidacloprid, the active ingredient in Bayer’s Gaucho insecticide. The preliminary risk assessment was about honey bees and the potential role that Imidacloprid may have on honey bee colony collapse. The current preliminary risk assessment identified that a residue level for Imidacloprid of 25 parts per billion or greater poses risk to hives when the pesticide comes in contact with certain crops that attract pollinators- specifically cotton and citrus. The impact to hives include decreases in pollinators as well as less honey produced and may be a factor in the die off of honey bee hives that has been termed Colony Collapse Disorder.

In 2015, EPA proposed to prohibit the use of pesticides that are toxic to bees, including the neonicotinoids class (Imidacloprid is just one example), when crops are in bloom and bees are under contract for pollination services. The Agency temporarily halted the approval of new outdoor neonicotinoid pesticide uses until new bee data is submitted and pollinator risk assessments are complete in December 2016.

Recent studies at the University of Maryland published in the journal PLOS ONE, looked at the effects of Imidacloprid on honey bee colonies over a three-year period. They found that Imidacloprid does not significantly harm honey bee colonies at real-world dosage levels. However, the scientists believe that a synergistic combination of many factors is most likely to blame for bee colony declines including climate stress and malnutrition. With CCD at a crisis level, the Whitehouse has developed a National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators and the EPA is no longer willing to tolerate any measurable impact on honey bees.

Imidacloprid is the most widely used insecticide in the world. Its use in the past has been unrestricted because it is very safe for humans, an order of magnitude safer than organophosphates, and a likely substitute. Imidacloprid is widely used by cotton producers and citrus growers. Insecticides in the neonicotinoid class are chemically derived from nicotine.

After examining the insecticide's use in all crops, the EPA's preliminary risk assessment concluded that bees are most at risk of exposure to damaging levels of the Imidacloprid from foliar and seed treatments in cotton fields and foliar applications in citrus fields. There is some dispute in the entomology science community as to the actual role of Imidacloprid in damaging bee colonies, but as stated above stopping Colony Collapse Disorder is one of the goals of the Administration.

Bees are used for the pollination of commercial crops. Pollination, the delivery of the male gamete of a plant to the female stigma of the same species of plant, is essential for fertilization and for the plant to produce seeds and fruit. Without pollination there would be no fruits, no vegetable and no seeds. Though, grasses, conifers, and many deciduous trees are wind-pollinated, most flowering plants need birds and insects for pollination. The vast majority of plants are pollinated by insects, and bees are responsible for the vast majority of pollination. Commercial agriculture uses honey bees raised to pollinate its crops. A Cornell University study estimates that the value of honey bee pollination in the United States is more than $14.6 billion annually.

During the winter of 2006-2007, a large number of bee colonies died out, losses at the impacted beekeeping operations were reported to be from 30% to 90%. While many of the colonies lost during this time period exhibited the symptoms from parasitic mites, many were lost, from unknown cause. The next winter, the number of impacted honey bee operations spread across the country. Honey bee colonies died out at even higher rates. The phenomenon was termed Colony Collapse Disorder.

No disease or cause was identified, the adult honey bees just seemed to disappear with very few dead bees found near the impacted colonies. The impacted colonies had low levels of parasitic mites and minimal evidence of wax moth or small hive beetle damage. The other active bee colonies did not steel the food reserves, instead they avoided the impacted hives. Often there was still a laying queen and a small cluster of newly emerged attendants present, but no adult bees.

Though the scientific literature has several mentions of honey bee disappearances—in the 1880s, the 1920s, and the 1960s, and the descriptions sound similar to Colony Collapse Disorder, there is no way to know if those colony collapses were caused by whatever is causing  Colony Collapse Disorder, and there is no end in sight to the current crisis. Colony Collapse Disorder is spreading around the world, and we may end up with insufficient numbers of pollinators to fulfill the demands of our agricultural industry. In 2012, 31% of the U.S. honey bee colonies were wiped out. The year before that it was reported as 21% of colonies lost. These losses if they continue could have a catastrophic impact on agriculture. One third of all food eaten in the United States requires honey bee pollination.

With Colony Collapse Disorder perceived to be at a crisis level, the Whitehouse developed a National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators in 2012. That strategy includes reducing honey bee colony losses during winter (overwintering mortality) to no more than 15% within 10 years. Thus, the EPA is no longer willing to tolerate any measurable impact on honey bees. There is a potential risk to pollinators with any insecticide.

The 60-day public comment period will begin upon publication in the Federal Register. EPA may revise the pollinator assessment based on comments received but plans to take action to reduce risks from the insecticide. The imidacloprid assessment is the first of four preliminary pollinator risk assessments for the neonicotinoid insecticides. Preliminary pollinator risk assessments for three other neonicotinoids, clothianidin, thiamethoxam, and dinotefuran, are scheduled to be released for public comment in December 2016.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Water Well Problems- The Pressure Switch

If you have a private drinking water well sooner or later you will turn on the faucet and nothing will happen. There are a number of reasons why a well might suddenly stop producing water, but basically they all break down into equipment failure, electrical or power failure, depletion of the aquifer or other groundwater problems and failing well design and construction. There is one other possibility-that your pipes have frozen. First make sure you have power (no power, no water) and that it is not really, really cold. Pressure switch failure is one common cause of loss of water and other well problems, like a loss of pressure.

If you have the common drilled well with an immersion pump in the well and some equipment in the basement, the first thing you should do is go downstairs and take a look. Though I admit that it is hard to differentiate problems just looking at the equipment in the house, sometimes you can.

The components within the basement provide consistent water pressure to the fixtures in the house and turns on the pump to maintain a constant pressure. The pump moves water to the basement water pressure tank, inside the tank is an air bladder that becomes compressed as water is pumped into the tank. The pressure in the tank moves the water through the house pipes so that the pump does not have to run every time you open a faucet. The pressure tank typically maintains the water pressure between 40-60 psi (or sometimes 30-50 psi). The pressure is maintained in this range by a diaphragm-actuated electrical switch with standard contact that makes a connection to turn on the pump when the pressure falls below the lower pressure (the “cut in” pressure) set point and cuts off the power when the upper set point is reached . The set rang is always 20 psi (it can be adjusted slightly) but the actual range is preset when you buy a switch.

After the pressure drops below 40 psi, the diaphragm pops and the electrical contacts touch and the switch turns on the pump and the pressure in the tank increases. When the top pressure is reached the contact is broken. The most common pressure switch is made by Square D of the 9013 series. I think it was designed around 1950 give or take a few years, and can last a fairly long time, but lots of things can go wrong with it.

The pressure switch easily clogs and easily fails in high sediment water. You can buy a new switch for about $20 (installation extra and all the fittings and pressure gauge if you want to replace those could bring the price to about $120 ). If the pressure switch fails the pump will not turn on, or the pump may not turn off or the pump may run erratically. So if you have no water, you might want to do a quick check of your fuses or circuit breakers to make sure that the problem is not electrical. You would be surprised how often a well is struck by lightning or other short occurs in a well system. If the circuit breaker is popped (remember that a well runs on 240 volts and there are generally two switches toggled together) and you can restore water by flipping the switch(s) then you’re done, but sometimes the switch will pop again in a little while and that is typically an electrical problem or a short. Call a well driller.

Next check the pressure gauge on your pressure tank, Read it. If it is not showing a pressure of 40-60 psi (or 30-50 psi) that could be a sign that the pump is not turning on. The question is why. The pump could have failed, the well could be dry or not have enough water to operated (there is a cut off on the pump to protect it when the water level is low), the pressure switch could have failed to pop or the contacts could be corroded. We all hope the problem is the inexpensive and easy to fix pressure switch. First tap the gauge with the back of a screw driver (gently) and see if the gauge moves. The gauge can clog with sediment so can the pressure switch. Also, you might want to carefully take off the cover to the pressure switch-remember there is 240 volts in there and do not touch the contact or better yet cut the power first.

Look at the pressure switch. Do the contact look shinny and clean? If not the switch is likely your problem. You can pick up a new one at both Lowes and Home Depot as well as your rural supply. They are not difficult to change out, but remember to turn off the power and drain the pressure tank before you begin. If you are new to these things you might want to call a professional.

If the pressure is in the desired range (even after you tap the gauge), but you still have no water, it could be several things. The pressure tank could be water logged or you could have a frozen pipe or pipes. If it is not winter, then check the pressure on the pressure tank using a tire pressure gauge. Is it reading on the gauge in agreement with the tank gauge? Drain the water out of the pressure tank . You should hear a ping or if you left the cover off of the pressure switch you should see the diaphragm pop. If the electricity is on the pressure switch if it and the pump are both working should turn on the pump. The pump is the piece of equipment subject to the most wear and tear and often fails.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Massive Gas Leak in California

On October 23, 2015 Southern California Gas crews discovered a massive leak in one of their natural gas storage wells at its Aliso Canyon storage field near Porter Ranch, California northwest of Los Angeles. Since October, the gas has been spilling out of a former oil field-turned-storage site at an initial rate of 44,000 kilograms per hour. To put that in perspective that is believed to be equal to roughly a quarter of the state's total methane emissions. Due to the fumes and smell permeating the area far 2,258 people have been placed in temporary housing and another 3,168 are in the process of finding temporary housing. Residents (and their attorneys- this is a prosperous area) have complained of inadequate accommodations and delays in finding temporary housing.

The leak is expected to be fixed by late February or early March according to information from Southern California Gas. To fix the problem, the gas company has drilled a relief well nearby. One of the challenges in drilling this relief well is to find a seven-inch pipe several thousands of feet below ground – while avoiding others nearby pipes. Using active magnetic ranging technology to target the drilling, Southern California Gas was able to identify the underground location of the leaking well, and is moving forward to connect the relief well to the leaking well. They believe that the two wells will intersect about 8,500 feet below ground. After they intercept the well they will pump heavy fluids and drilling mud into the bottom of the leaking well to stop the flow of gas up from its source, the reservoir. Once the flow of gas has been stopped, they will pump cement into the well to permanently seal the leak.

Natural gas is comprised mainly of methane, often 90% or more. Methane is an odorless and colorless gas that would not be noticed without odorants, in the form of mercaptans that are added so leaks can be detected. These odorants are not toxic at the levels found in the Porter Ranch community, but the odors have resulted in nausea, headaches and nosebleeds. Other constituents in the gas also have health impacts, such as benzene, although they have not been measured at levels that are considered a health issue.

Methane is the primary component of the natural gas being released from this leak. Methane in its gas form is an asphyxiant, which in high concentrations may displace oxygen especially in confined spaces. Decreased oxygen can cause suffocation and loss of consciousness. It can also cause headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, and loss of coordination. Skin contact with liquid methane can cause frostbite. Methane is also a major greenhouse gas and absorbs heat in the atmosphere, reflecting some of the absorbed heat back to the surface of the earth. Methane emissions represent approximately 10 % of all greenhouse gas emission in the United States. Methane is about 20-25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in absorbing and keeping heat in the atmosphere. It stays in the atmosphere for approximately 9 to 15 years.

According to the U.S. EPA, methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas and accounted for about 10% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. Methane is emitted by natural sources such as wetlands and the breakdown of organic material, as well as human activities such as leakage from natural gas systems and the raising of livestock. According to data collected by the California Air Resources Board, the well is currently leaking about 30,000 kilograms per hour down from a high of almost 58,000 kilograms an hour recorded in late November. The rate of methane released into the atmosphere should continue to fall.

The California Air Resources Board (ARB) has determined that some activated carbon/charcoal HVAC filters, plug-in air purifiers and in-line HVAC air cleaners should be effective in reducing indoor odors associated with the leak making it possible for residents who choose to stay in their homes. The agency is currently reviewing a range of models and has so far listed two plug-in models and one in-line HAVC model on its website. Southern California Gas is currently providing activated carbon/charcoal filters and plug-in air purifiers to residents of Porter Ranch, and are awaiting a new shipment of the in-line HVAC air cleaners from the manufacturer.

Natural processes in soil and chemical reactions in the atmosphere help remove methane from the atmosphere so methane's lifetime in the atmosphere is much shorter than carbon dioxide (CO2). Still, methane is more efficient at trapping radiation than CO2. Pound for pound, looking at climate impact potential methane is believed to be more than 25 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2 over a 100-year period. Combining this relationship with the monitoring data from the California Air Resources Board, from the date of the leak through the estimated time that the leak will be stopped, the well will have released the equivalent of about 3 million metric tonnes of CO2 or about 4%-5% of total U.S. annual methane emissions. That is a significant impact for the State and nation for a failure to maintain equipment to prevent failure.

Historically, state laws have only stressed safety, reliability and affordability of service whenever implementing new rules and procedures for natural gas storage and distribution regulations. New laws now require the California Public Utilities Commission’s (CPUC) to work with natural gas distribution companies to determine the “most technologically feasible and cost-effective” strategies to avoid, reduce, and repair leaks as reasonably possible after discovery consistent with existing safety regulations and climate change goals. This does not allow the gas distribution companies to price into their gas fees the costs of planned preventive maintenance and system replacement program to avoid leaks.

To ensure the best use of ratepayers’ funds, gas distribution companies have to determine whether to appropriate infrastructure funds towards strategically replacing the sections of pipe its engineering studies have found to have a greater likelihood of leaking or towards addressing leaks that its experts have examined and deemed to be non-hazardous. In trying to keep ratepayers costs of gas low nationwide, we have failed to maintain the infrastructure, to stay ahead of well, equipment and pipe failure. We wait for failure before we fix it that is the wrong approach it allows the number of unrepaired, non-hazardous leaks to accumulate over the years and for wells and pipes to deteriorate to the point of failure before replacement. There will always be mistakes, components that appeared to still had some life in them that failed. All the costs of failure need to be weighed against the consequences of getting every last day of use out of a pipe or well. Prices for gas will need to go up so that distribution companies can maintain and replace the gas infrastructure before it fails, doing otherwise is unacceptable.

Update Note: In February  Southern California Gas was able to temporarily stop the flow of gas while efforts continue to permanently seal the well.