Monday, October 16, 2017

Grass-fed Beef and Greenhouse Gases

Grazed and Confused, a report released this month by the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) led by Tara Garnett. The report essentially looks at greenhouse gas emissions and soil carbon sequestration in relation to beef and dairy production for human consumption. The report focuses exclusively on greenhouse gas emissions and attempts to determine if the grass-fed beef can sequester enough carbon to benefit the planet or if it is necessary to eliminate beef from the human diet to save the planet. 

Ruminants (mostly beef cattle) are blamed by environmental literature, the popular press and media and, increasingly, public for a significant portion of global warming. Extremists of this view believe that giving up beef will reduce the carbon footprint of mankind more than eliminating cars. Others believe that the sequestered carbon from pasture raised grass-fed beef can save the planet. The scientists tried to determine how much if any carbon is sequestered by grass-fed beef on net.

I should mention here that for decades what beef we eat is grass-fed. I started buying grass fed beef back in the 1990’s when I was doing environmental evaluations of farms, dairies and concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs). I will not go into the details of that work that would shock most people; however, lets just say that my concerns for the animal welfare, mad cow disease, and environmental impact of CAFOs pushed me to buy my meat from the first sustainable farm I inspected. Today, in retirement, I continue to buy off the grid, sustainable, grass-fed beef from Polyface Farms here in Virginia.

Cattle that are grass-fed spend their entire lives grazing eating grass and forage that grows in the pasture. In addition, hay and silage which is just compacted grass are used to supplement in winter. Grass-fed beef require more land for pasturing as well as good management of the grazing to avoid over grazing the fields. This type of farm management protects our land and water resources. According to a study by Consumer Reports in 2015 found that conventional beef was twice as likely to be contaminated with these antibiotic resistant bacteria as more sustainably produced meat and three times more likely to be contaminated with the “superbug” bacteria as grass-fed organic meat.

Conventionally raised beef is where young cattle are shipped to feedlots where they are restricted in space and fed mostly corn and soybeans for several months to a year. They are also given antibiotics and other drugs to promote weight gain and prevent disease. In addition, they are sometimes feed other junk such as candy and feed that contains animal production waste. The animals in feedlots are crowded into pens; the average feedlot in the U.S. houses about 4,300 head of cattle, according to Food & Water Watch’s 2015 Factory Farm Nation Report.

Most academic studies have conclude that ruminant products, most commonly beef but also include goats, sheep, deer and others are the most emissions-intensive of all animal products, and within ruminant production systems, “conventionally raised” animals are the worst. However, that only measures greenhouse gas emission. Ruminant animals are actually rather miraculous and part of the planet’s ecology. Cattle and other ruminants can be raised on land unsuited to other food-producing purposes and on grain by-products from brewing and other food activities. In mixed a farming system the animals recycle nutrients and re-fertilize soils.

On the downside, ruminants emit large quantities of methane, use vast tracts of land, and are held responsible for a host of environmental ills, most notably deforestation and biodiversity loss, as well as the pollution of soils, air and water. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, but it has a shorter atmospheric life span than carbon dioxide (CO2). The effect of a given pulse of methane is temporary, unless replaced by another pulse. In contrast CO2’s warming effects are weak, but permanent. The next bit of CO2 emitted adds to the warming effects of all the CO2 emitted previously (except that absorbed by plants or other sequestered). So, because of their differing lifespans, a constant emission of methane from constantly replaced herd of cattle is therefore equivalent to one-off release of CO2.

The report , Grazed and Confused, found that the relationship between soil carbon sequestration and grazing intensity is complex. In soils that are not in equilibrium and where climate and other agro-ecological factors are right, light to moderate intensity grazing tends to promote sequestration of carbon overall. The scientists found some evidence to suggest that in some cases, grassland can store more carbon than forests. Thus, keeping ruminants on the land can achieve greater sequestration than removing them altogether and allowing woody vegetation to encroach.

However, the scientists state that on many lands, reversion to their natural wooded state would likely achieve higher levels of sequestration than would grazing although the loss of food from the grazing animals has to be compensated for elsewhere. The scientists also found that overgrazing damages soils, leads to soil carbon losses and undermines the organic matter in the soil and the soil overall health and fertility.

Overall the report found that grass-fed beef is not the magic bullet that will stop CO2 from building up in the atmosphere. However, as the scientists point out there are good reasons to build soil organic matter by pasturing livestock: soils rich in carbon foster soil fertility and health and a properly managed pasture with the livestock excluded from rivers and streams protects our waterways from contamination. The “conventional” livestock systems that operate today have caused an enormous amount environmental damage. Forests have been cleared, species driven to extinction, air and surface water polluted, and we have released vast quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Animal farming has also brought humanity huge benefits- It provides food that is highly nutrient dense, and very tasty. Farm animals can convert grass and silage that humans cannot eat into food that we can. When population densities were or still are sufficiently low and land abundant, livestock plays an important role in transferring nutrients from grasslands and onto cropland via their manure. The problem is there are over 7 billion people on earth none of whom want to be poorer or have less.

If you would like to watch the videos (which total more than an hour) here are the links:

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

GRACE Satellite Dies

from NASA
In September scientist lost contact with the GRACE-2 satellite. Contact was restored, but another battery cell had failed. GRACE is nearly out of fuel and the ability to store the energy collected by its solar panels when it is in earth shadow. Little power beyond the active solar collectors remains. The scientists put her on standby and in the next weeks she will complete her final data collection in full sun along the terminator line between night and day.

Launched in March of 2002 as the second mission under the NASA Earth System Science Pathfinder (ESSP) Program, the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment twin satellites were designed for a five years mission life. They have operated for 15 years far more than expected, though scientists had hoped they would continue to operate and collect data until their replacements, GRACE-FO (follow on), were launched, but GRACE-FO has been delayed.

The decommissioning of the GRACE satellites will begin in November when one of the satellites is moved to eliminate any chance it could collide with the other, followed by steps to render the spacecraft inert. The spacecraft will make an uncontrolled reentry (crash) in early 2018, with the exact time dependent on solar activity and its effects on the Earth’s atmosphere.

GRACE is a joint partnership between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the United States and Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Luft und Raumfahrt (DLR) in Germany. GRACE consists of two identical twin satellites that fly about 137 miles (220 kilometers) apart in a polar orbit 310 miles (500 kilometers) above Earth. GRACE maps Earth's gravity field by making accurate measurements of the distance between the two satellites, using GPS and a microwave ranging system. This allows scientists all over the world an efficient and accurate way to map Earth's gravity field. The replacement pair of satellites known as GRACE-FO will also be a joint German-American project, and are similar to the original GRACE spacecraft, but with the addition of a laser interferometer for more accurate measurements.

In January, NASA and the German Research Centre for Geosciences announced that a SpaceX Falcon 9 will carry the two GRACE-FO satellites as well as five Iridium Next communications satellites into low earth orbit. A launch date for the joint Iridium Next/GRACE-FO mission has not been set, but it is expected to occur in early 2018. NASA’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposal, published in May, projected a February 2018 launch of GRACE-FO.

The information gathered from the GRACE mission have allowed scientists to track the distribution and flow of mass within Earth and its surroundings- changes in water. The gravity variations studied by GRACE include: changes due to surface and deep currents in the ocean; runoff and ground water storage on land masses; exchanges between ice sheets or glaciers and the ocean; and variations of mass within Earth. Advances in hydraulic modeling with data from the satellites, make it possible to construct accurate and holistic picture of freshwater availability, across the globe as well as measure sea water.

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

Observing the groundwater buried beneath layers of soil and rock was almost impossible until, the twin satellites GRACE were launched in March 2002. At the time few believed the satellites could measure changes in groundwater, but thanks to work of Dr. Jay Famiglietti and his graduate student Matt Rodell, who were working at that time at the University of Texas at Austin (UT-Austin) the techniques for measuring groundwater using the GRACE satellites were developed and proven. Expanding on this earlier work is additional work by Alexandra S. Richey, Brian F. Thomas, Min-Hui Lo, John T. Reager, James S. Famiglietti, Katalyn Voss, Sean Swenson, and Matthew Rodell and I’m sure others that I have missed.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Global CO2 Emissions Held Steady in 2016

From IEA

As we saw last week world consumption of energy has continued to increase as the world economy continues to grow. According to data from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy (published annually) and the U.S. Energy Information Agency and the International Energy Agency (IEA) world consumption of fuel for energy production (as measured in millions of tonnes of oil equivalents) has increased 2.2% over the last three years, while the global economy grew 3.1% though global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions were flat for a third straight year in 2016.

Global emissions of CO2 equivalents from the energy sector stood at 32.1 gigatonnes last year, the same as the previous two years. Scientists have welcomed this as a signal that energy use and CO2 emissions are decoupling from economic activity. This good news was the result of growth in renewable power generation, switches from coal to natural gas for power generation and improvements in energy efficiency.
CO2 Emissions by Country taken from Statista
Carbon dioxide emissions declined in the United States and China, and were stable in Europe, offsetting increases in CO2 emission in most of the rest of the world. The biggest drop in CO2 emissions came from the United States, where carbon dioxide emissions fell 3%, or 160 million tonnes, while the economy grew by 1.6%. The decline in CO2 emission was driven by an increase in the use of natural gas from shale displacing coal to provide electricity and an increase in renewable power. CO2 emissions in the United States in 2016 were at their lowest level since 1992. This is true though the economy grew by 80% over this time frame.

In China, CO2 emissions fell by 1% last year while their economy was reported by the government to have grown by 6.7%. There were several reasons for this trend: an increasing share of renewables, nuclear and natural gas in the power sector, but also a switch from coal to gas in the industrial and buildings sector that was driven in large part by government policies combatting the horrible air pollution in their cities.

Two-thirds of China’s electricity demand growth, which was up 5.4%, was supplied by hydropower and nuclear. Five new nuclear reactors were connected to the grid in China, increasing its nuclear generation by 25%. According to IEA the growth in natural gas use in China has been significant and due mostly to air-quality measures to fight pollution. The share of natural gas in the global energy mix is approaching 25%, but in China it is 6% and in India just 5%. Changing from coal to natural gas in China and India could reduce global emissions significantly.

In the European Union, emissions were largely stable last year as gas demand rose about 8% and coal demand fell 10%. Growth in renewables continued, but provide a small impact. The United Kingdom saw a significant coal-to-gas conversion in the power sector, thanks to cheaper gas.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Monsanto's Dicamba Resistant Seeds

In 2015 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) allowed the sale of seeds that have been genetically engineered to tolerate dicamba, a selective herbicide. Monsanto introduced a new product called Xtend a genetically modified soybean seed that is resistant to the herbicide. Dicamba is already registered (approved by the EPA) for uses in agriculture, on corn, wheat and other crops. Dicamba is also registered for non-agricultural uses in residential areas, and other sites such as golf courses, mainly to control broadleaf weeds such as dandelions, chickweed, clover and ground ivy.

One of the main concerns about genetically engineered crops such as Roundup Ready crops and now the new genetically modified soybean and cotton seeds that are resistant to dicamba and 2,4 D is the development of weeds and other plants that are also resistant to the pesticides. Glyphosate (N-phosphonomethylglycine), the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup is also manufactured by Monsanto and is the most popular herbicide in use today in the United States, and throughout the World. Americans spray an estimated 180-185 million pounds of the weed killer, on their yards and farms every year.

The massive adoption of genetically engineered resistant crops in soybean-, maize and cotton-growing regions of the United States has resulted in evolution of glyphosate-resistant weeds. The first reported resistant weed was in 2001, Conyza canadensis L. This occurred after more than 25 years of glyphosate use. However, the development of resistant species of weeds has speeded up. There are now several known glyphosate-resistant populations of the very vigorous, highly competitive and economically damaging ragweeds Ambrosia artemissifolia L. and Ambrosia trifida L.

Researching this scientists found that If there is a sufficiently diverse system of weed management, herbicide resistance may evolve only very slowly or not at all. However, the reality is that most farmers using Roundup resistant seeds rely on glyphosate alone, with markedly reduced diversity in other weed management tools historically used like burndown, glyphosate use before crop seeding, or physical tillage were found to minimize glyphosate-resistant weeds, but they increased runoff of pesticides and soil. These methods were abandoned to the easier and no till method of spraying once the crop emerges. The result is that Roundup is not working so well anymore. So, Monsanto has come out with their new product With the new dicamba and 2,4 D resistant seeds.

The New York Times reports that the expanded use of dicamba is damaging nearby traditional crops through vaporization and  pesticide that is carried on the wind. That is the first problem to be seen. The development of weeds and other plants that are also resistant to the pesticides will happen. Right now dicamba kills weeds that can no longer be controlled by Roundup. In the long run it is likely that weed resistance to dicamba will increase. There are more sustainable methods of weed control.

Monday, October 2, 2017

World Energy Use 2016

Energy is the basis of the world economy and the use of fossil fuels to produce energy releases greenhouse gases. So lets take a look at energy consumed world wide. According to data from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy (published annually) and the U.S. Energy Information Agency world consumption of fuel for energy production (as measured in millions of tonnes of oil equivalents) has increased by about 50% over the last 20 years. The good news is that over that time renewables have increased from less than 1% to 3.2% of the energy produced. In 2016 hydro-electricity, nuclear power and renewable sources accounted for 14.5% of the energy consumed and these sources produce no greenhouse gases. Take a look at the world and then a more granular look at the energy used in some countries.
from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2016

As you can see above the use of all types of energy with the exception of nuclear has continued to grow year after year. 
Energy use in the United States, the Russian Federation and Europe appears to have leveled off and even decreased a bit over the past decade. Take a look at the relative size of the nations in terms of energy consumed. 

China has the largest absolute amount of renewables and hydro-electric sources of energy, but they are so much larger an energy user than any other country, representing 23.3% of the energy used globally that  taking a look at the percentages tells another story.

As you can see above Germany has the largest percentage of energy consumed in the country coming from renewables followed by the United Kingdom and Brazil. France has the highest percentage of energy consumed produced by nuclear power; and Canada and Brazil get more than a quarter of their energy from hydro-electricity. China gets more than 60% of the energy from coal and India gets more than 56% of their energy from coal. The oil producing nations and the car centric western nations all get huge amounts of energy from oil.  

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Well Water Testing Clinic in Fairfax County

The Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) Office will be holding its first drinking water clinic for well owners in Fairfax County as part of the Virginia Household Water Quality Program on October 16th 2017. You can register online at or contact: Lareka Washington or Adria Bordas in Fairfax county at 703-324-5369.

The program consists of two meetings- one to get instructions, learn about the local geology and wells, and pick up test kits, and the other a month later to get results and provide interpretation and recommendations. Samples will need to be dropped off at the Pennino Building on October 18th , 2017 from 6:30AM—10:00AM ONLY.

The samples will be analyzed for 14 chemical and bacteriological contaminants and the cost $55. Comparable analysis at a private commercial lab would cost $150-$200. Samples will be analyzed for: iron, manganese, nitrate, lead, arsenic, fluoride, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. Coli bacteria.

The Kickoff Meeting will be on October 16th, 2017 at 7-8:30 PM at the Virginia Cooperative Extension office (Pennino Building) 12011 Government Center Parkway, 10th floor (Virginia Room) Fairfax, VA 22035. A brief presentation will be given to discuss common water quality issues in your area and instructions for how to properly collect the water samples from your tap. Water sampling kits will be distributed with written sampling directions and a short survey about your water supply for data gathering purposes.

The samples should be taken early Wednesday morning and then dropped off on Wednesday October 18th , 2017, between 6:30 AM—10:00 AM ONLY at the Virginia Cooperative Extension (Pennino Building) 12011 Government Center Parkway, Fairfax, VA 22035.

Results Interpretation Meeting will be held on Nov. 15, 2017 from 7:00PM - 9:00PM once more at the Pennino Bldg. this time on the 2nd floor in room 206. Participants will receive their confidential water test results. A presentation will be given that explains what the numbers on the test report mean and what possible options participants may consider to deal with water problems. Experts will be on hand to answer any specific questions you may have about your water and water system.

Just because your water appears clear doesn’t necessarily mean it is safe to drink. All drinking water wells should be tested at least annually for at least Coliform bacteria and E Coli. Testing is the only way to detect contamination in your water. Testing is not mandatory, but should be done to ensure your family’s safety. Maintenance and ensuring that water is safe to drink is the responsibility of the owner. If there is a pregnant woman or infant in the home the water should be tested. If there is any change in the taste, appearance, odor of water or your system is serviced or repaired then water should be tested to confirm that no contaminants were introduced.

Most of the water quality issues with private wells are from naturally occurring contamination or impurities. While many natural contaminants such as iron, sulfate, and manganese are not considered serious health hazards, they can give drinking water an unpleasant taste, odor, or color and be annoying and persistent problems and EPA has established secondary standards that can be used as guidance. Excessive levels of sodium, total dissolved solids, harness, can be an annoyance and impact appliances. Several of the naturally occurring contaminants that commonly appear in well water are primary contaminants under the Safe Drinking Water Act and can be a health hazard- nitrate, lead, arsenic, floride, and copper.

The VCE Drinking Water Clinics from 2009-2015 testing in Virginia found that the most common Contaminants found were sodium, coiform bacteria, low pH, maganese and lead.

The presence of total coliform bacteria is an indication that surface water may be entering a well and that there may a pathway for other, more harmful microorganisms. E. coli was is an indication that human or animal waste is contaminating the groundwater. The most common sources of E. coli is a failing septic system or improperly manage manure from animal operations.

Monday, September 25, 2017


Kimberly Clark, the manufacturer of several brands of personal wipes that they call "flushable" is suing Washington DC over a new city law regulating when a wipe can be labeled "flush-able." The law was passed after DC Water and public utilities found that these wipes were clogging the sewage pipes and treatment plants. They also clog septic systems and reminded me that last week was the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fifth annual SepticSmart Week.

 SepticSmart is a program the EPA uses to encourage the more than 26 million homeowners with septic systems to properly maintain their septic systems; and update homeowners on the latest in best management practices for their home systems.

When homeowners flush and don’t think about their home’s septic system, it can lead to system back-ups and overflows, surfacing sewage in your yard which can be expensive to fix, polluted local waterways, and risks to public health and the environment. Yet, Virginia like many states has struggled to get homeowners to consistently maintain their septic systems. A well maintained septic system can last 30 years.

Homeowners fail to see or simply ignore signs that their septic systems may be failing, do not pump their tanks often enough and do not comply with inspection and maintenance regulation for alternative systems. The EPA launched the annual SepticSmart Week, to encourage homeowners to get “SepticSmart”-understand how to properly operate and maintain their septic systems.

The United States has made tremendous advances in the past 35 years to clean up our rivers and streams under the Clean Water Act by controlling pollution from industry and sewage treatment plants. In order to continue to make progress in cleaning up our water resources EPA has turned their focus to controlling pollution from diffuse, or non-point, sources. Things like stormwater runoff and septic systems. According to EPA, these non-point source pollution are the largest remaining source of water quality problems. However, these are the most difficult sources of pollution to address, because eliminating them involves changing the behavior of millions of people. We did not do enough to control these small pollution sources from our homes and daily lives. The maintenance and care of their septic systems is the responsibility of homeowners, but failure to maintain their system can impact their neighbors drinking water.

The average household septic system should be inspected at least every three years by a septic service professional. Household septic tanks are typically pumped every three to five years. Alternative systems with electrical float switches, pumps, or mechanical components should be inspected more often, generally once a year. A service contract is important since alternative systems have mechanized parts.

Taking the steps recommended by the EPA for SepticSmart Week would be a great start at reducing nonpoint pollution of our waters. Homeowners can do their part by following these SepticSmart tips:

1. Protect It and Inspect It: In general, homeowners should have their traditional septic system inspected every three years and their alternative system inspected annually by a licensed contractor and have their tank pumped when necessary, generally every three to five years.
2. Think at the Sink: Avoid pouring fats, grease, and solids down the drain, which can clog a system’s pipes and drainfield.
3. Don’t Overload the Commode: Only put things in the drain or toilet that belong there. For example, coffee grounds, dental floss, disposable diapers and wipes, feminine hygiene products, cigarette butts, and cat litter can all clog and potentially damage septic systems. Flushable wipes are not flushable and do not break down in a septic tank; also they can clog the piping.
4. Don’t Strain Your Drain: Be water efficient and spread out water use. Fix plumbing leaks, install faucet aerators and water-efficient products, and spread out laundry and dishwasher loads throughout the day and week. Too much water at once can overload a system if it hasn’t been pumped recently.
5. Shield Your Field: Remind guests not to park or drive on a system’s drainfield, where the vehicle’s weight could damage buried pipes or disrupt underground flow.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Cost of Water in the Washington DC Metro Region

Water bills will be increasing. There is no true “cost” of water, the price charged for water, often does not reflect its value or true cost. WSSC commissioners have been holding a series of meetings open to the public about adopting a new rate structure. WSSC needs to raise rates and increase revenue even as water usage per person fall. WSSC is engaged in a decades long plan repair and restore their water and sewer distribution system. They are currently engaged in a 10 year program to replace over 2,000 miles of water pipe and similar amount or sewer pipes. WSSC needs to fund both ongoing operations and the billions of dollars in capital needed to rehabilitate, upgrade and replace water and wastewater infrastructure.

WSSC will also need to address their water quality. Since the beginning of August, people in the western area of Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) water system have noticed brown or yellow discolored water. Though, WSSC says that the water is safe to drink, they advise that the discolored water should not be used to wash laundry. WSSC says that excessive organic matter required them to make adjustments to their water treatment to hold a primary drinking water standard within EPA limits. This has continued for significantly longer than a month and shows no sign of abatement.

Last winter WSSC experienced discolored water reportedly caused by excessive road salt. No amount of explanation will make it all right that WSSC cannot consistently deliver water that is safe, clean, clear, and good tasting water twelve months a year. Nonetheless, to even approach that goal they need years of increasing water rates.

Recently, Fairfax Water announced its intention to raise their water rates next spring. There will be a public hearing on Thursday, December 14, 2017, on the proposed rate increase held at Fairfax Water’s main office at 8570 Executive Park Avenue in Fairfax. This rate increase is part of their ongoing program to ensure that the water infrastructure in Fairfax County is maintained. The proposed rate increase will go into effect April 1. 2018.

The need for infrastructure replacement is an issue that has caused significant service problems and rate increases in other parts of the Washington Metropolitan region. Fairfax Water Board of Directors have dedicated funding to infrastructure maintenance and replacement for many years, and has forecast future capital needs for replacing water mains in the system. In addition, Fairfax Water is planning for additional water storage within their system by developing the Vulcan Quarry as a reservoir.

As they do every time they propose to raise water rates, Fairfax Water performed a comparison of the water costs throughout the Washington Metropolitan region. This comparison is based on rates as of April 1, 2017 and on 18,000 gallons of residential water use for an established account over a three month period. As you can see below Even with this increase, Fairfax Water’s commodity rates will remain among the lowest in the Washington metropolitan region.

Once more, Manassas Park has the highest water rates in the region. Manassas Park is a small utility system with fewer than 5,000 customers. In addition, tucked into that overhead is debt service for the city’s Enterprise Fund. Manassas Park is responsible for paying City utility bonds, and also to make the annual principal and interest payments on the bonds sold to build the City Schools, Police Station, and Fire Station & Community Center. While diverting water funds to other city needs, Manassas Park failed to properly maintain their water distribution system. Manassas Park distribution system’s water loss is around 25%, of the water purchased.

Monday, September 18, 2017

PA Finally Making Progress on TMDL

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

The Chesapeake Bay states and Washington DC together known as the Bay jurisdictions agreed to create state-specific plans to implement 60 percent of their Bay cleanup practices by 2017 and 100% by 2025. These plans are called Watershed Implementation Plans or WIPs and were designed to help restore the Bay and improve the health of local waterways.

Though EPA approved Pennsylvania's "Phase I" WIP in 2011, EPA cited several deficiencies in Pennsylvania's plan that resulted in EPA imposing "backstops" to assure pollutant reductions in the plan would be achieved. Backstops can range from withholding federal funds to imposing regulations on smaller farm animal operations or tightening discharge limits for wastewater treatment plants. The EPA annually reviews each of the six Bay watershed states’ efforts to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution. If any state fails to meet its milestones and hasn’t done enough to get on track, agency officials take some “backstop” actions to force the state to meet their goals.

As you can see below Pennsylvania had not meet their goals. In an attempt to get there (and meet EPA requirements), the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced its “Strategy to Enhance Pennsylvania’s Chesapeake Bay Restoration Effort”, pledging renewed commitment to nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment reductions. Because agriculture dominates much of the landscape of the Chesapeake watershed in Pennsylvania, it was the focus of the new strategy.

With funding provided by the Chesapeake Bay Program and the state, Conservation District and DEP staff visited 1,125 farms from October 2016 through March 2017. Though this was still an inspection rate below what is needed to achieve the annual goal of visiting 10% of farms each year it was a start; and the pace of inspections has quickened now that the process is established.

Most of the farms visited had not previously worked with Conservation Districts, so they were less likely to have conservation plans and nutrient management plans in place than the general farm population. Of farms required to have plans, 70% had manure management plans, and 68% had erosion and sediment control plans. The inspections, however, only assessed whether the required plans exist, not whether they were properly implemented and actually address water-quality concerns—a major shortfall of state efforts to date.

Farmers received a notice before the inspector visited, and noncompliant farms were given time to write their plans and become compliant before enforcement actions were taken. Historically, progress on implementation of the WIP was based on reported data regarding conservation practices established with assistance from public agencies. Many farmers, however, adopt practices on their farms independent of public financing. A recent Penn State survey documented a high volume of previously uncounted conservation practices, including several hundred thousand acres under nutrient management, and nearly 6,000 acres of forested streamside buffers that were previously undocumented. These inspections will serve to inform and engage farmers in conservation practices and document compliance.

In Virginia the Soil and Water Conservation Districts design the plans for our farmers and the state shares in the cost of implementation. We review the plans every few years and verify implementation and functioning of the mitigation.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Hurricanes, the Atlantic Oscillation and Climate Change

When Harvey made landfall along the Middle Texas Coast it was the first major hurricane to make landfall in the United States since 2005 and the first hurricane to make landfall in that area since Celia in 1970. Harvey was epic in the amount of rain that fell on Houston, because the storm stalled over the city. Hurricane Harvey was followed by Irma a hurricane that reached Category 5 storm status before it crashed through the Caribbean. The islands of Barbuda, St. Martin, St Barthelemy (St Barts), Anguilla were crushed by the storm and others like Puerto Rico were impacted before Irma arrived in Florida with storm surge that knocked out power to 15 million people.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had predicted that 2017 would be an above –average year for Atlantic storms and I’m a believer. One of the reasons that NOAA made this prediction is that since 1990 we have been in the warm phase of the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO). The AMO is an series of long-duration changes in the sea surface temperature that have been observed in the North Atlantic Ocean, with a difference of about 1°F between the cool and warm phases that may last for 20-40 years at a time.

These temperature changes in the cycle are natural. Scientists first detected the AMO in 1994 using the ocean temperature measurement from the last 150 years; however, studies of paleoclimate proxies, such as tree rings and ice cores, have shown that oscillations similar to those observed have been occurring for at least the last millennium. This is clearly longer than modern man has been affecting climate, so the AMO is probably a natural climate oscillation.

In the 20th century, the climate swings of the AMO have alternately camouflaged and exaggerated the effects of changing climate, and made attribution of global warming more difficult to ascertain. Nonetheless we know that during the warm phase of the AMO, the numbers of tropical storms that mature into severe hurricanes is at least twice the rate than during the cool phase. Since the AMO switched to its warm phase around 1995, severe hurricanes have become much more frequent.

Scientists do not know enough to predict exactly when the AMO will switch to the cooler phase. Computer models are far from being able to do this and the climate models are useless here. What is possible to do at present is to calculate the probability that a change in the AMO will occur within a given future time frame. The AMO affects rainfall in Europe, drought in the Amazon, and Atlantic hurricanes. The warm phase fuels storms by warming the tropical Atlantic and intensifying the West African monsoon. The monsoon spins up low-pressure systems that enter the tropical Atlantic and allows the storms that form there to develop rotation and gain energy.

Reporters have invariably attributed the recent storms to climate change. However, most of the impacts predicted by scientists for climate change are still out in the future and of a much bigger scale. So far, scientists tell us that over the past century the oceans have risen over 7 inches which has caused an increase in the frequency of flooding, but may not have had any other effect. According to some ocean researchers the AMO is now close to neutral or about to switch. However, other scientists believe that factors outside the ocean may also trigger changes in the AMO. Studies of paleoclimate proxies indicate that volcanic eruptions and small changes in the sun’s output may have warmed and cooled the ocean and triggered AMO reversals.

In the last few decades of our planet’s history, humans have added their own influences, such as particulates from burning coal, which reflect sunlight thereby having a cooling effect on the ocean. Some scientists attribute particulates from burning coal in the second half of the 20th century as the primary cause of the most recent cold phase of the AMO, which lasted from 1970 to 1994. Still others propose that increased greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and declining air pollution might prolong the current warm period of the AMO. We don’t know. We are still learning about our planet even as it changes.

We do know that in the past half century our cities have continue to build and expand into historic flood zones while sea level was rising. This trend has been encouraged by government policy decisions. Since the 1960’s the United Stated government has provide cheap, subsidized flood insurance that has encouraged development in areas of high flood risk that has often resulted in the elimination of the flood plain buffers zones.

It is simply not feasible to protect all of the coastal lands from rising oceans and storm surges or to continually rebuild properties that repeatedly flood. Before Harvey the flood insurance program was already $24 billion in debt. Sooner or later areas of the coast will have to be abandoned, because we will be unable to stop the impacts of a changing climate.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Types of Water Wells- Bored Wells

From Royal Pump and Well VA
There are two main types of modern wells, they can  often be distinguished by the diameter of the bore hole. The two types are bored wells and drilled wells. There has been a shift towards well regulations and drilled wells in the past couple of decades, but in areas of the Appalachian Plateau and other locations where clean low yielding groundwater sources are found relatively close to the surface- usually under 100 feet below grade.

Bored wells get their name from the way they are constructed. Bored wells are constructed using a rotary bucket auger. They are usually completed by installing a perforated casing (also called cribbing) or using a sand screen with continuous slot. One advantage of bored wells is the large diameter of the casing, from 18-36 inched. It provides a water storage reservoir for use during peak demand periods. A disadvantage of utilizing a shallow groundwater aquifer is that it generally relies on annual precipitation for recharge. So these systems are often installed with an additional cistern to ride out water shortages may occur following long dry periods in summer and extended freeze up during winter months. It can also be more susceptible to contamination from surface land-use activities.

As opposed to the 6 inch diameter drilled wells, bored wells are generally used where the groundwater aquifers are both shallow and low-yielding. Typically, I see bored wells with between 0.5-1.0 gallon per minute yield. Though, I have heard of bored wells in Goochland with up to 5 gallons a minute. A well that yields only 0.5 gallon per minute will provide 720 gallons per day which is more than enough for a household. Bored wells range in depth from 30 feet to 100 feet. To compensate for the low-yield of the aquifer, large diameter bored wells serve as storage reservoirs to provide water during periods of high demand. A bored well with a diameter of 3 feet provides 53 gallons of water storage per foot of depth.

Because they are shallow, bored wells are susceptible to both contamination and drought. This is why they are falling out of favor. A large protected land area and proper location of the well reduces the possibility of contamination. A well should be higher than the surrounding ground surface for good drainage. All possible sources of contamination should be at a lower elevation than the well, and the distances to those contamination sources must comply with local Water Well Construction Codes but should be 100 feet from septic tanks and leach fields to be safe. Tests performed in the past have shown that bacterial contamination is usually eliminated after water has filtered through 10 feet of normal soil. Therefore, the well must be constructed to ensure that at least the top 10 feet of casing is watertight.

There is more than one approach to boring a well and several design variations. Bored wells can be completed with either jet or submersible pumps. They can also be completed with a technique called buried slab. With this method, there is a smaller upper well casing that is 4-8 inches in diameter and may or may not be exposed. This smaller well casing extends 10 feet or more feet below the ground surface and is embedded in a hole that is formed when the reinforced concrete buried slab is manufactured, or connected to a pipe cast in the concrete slab. This type of well can be confused with a drilled well. In other designs the concrete casing that ranges in diameter from 18 inches to 3 feet extends to the surface and the lining is sealed with grouting to at least 10 feet below grade and the pitless adapter is below that as seen above.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Legionnaire’s Disease Risk in Texas

All the stagnant water in Houston is a breeding ground for bacteria warns the Texas Department of State Health Services. Flood waters may contain Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria and Shigella, which both can cause diarrhea, vomiting, fever, stomach pain and dehydration; however, the bigger risk is Legionnaires’ disease. The disease is caused by Legionella, bacteria found in in freshwater that easily spreads easily o municipal, business and home water systems during floods. Exposure to the bacteria occurs through inhalation of airborne moisture droplets.

Legionnaires’ disease causes pneumonia and can be lethal. Legionnaires’ disease is contracted by inhaling airborne water droplets containing viable Legionella bacteria. Such droplets can be created, by the spray from hot and cold water taps; atomisers; wet air conditioning systems, showers; and whirlpool or hydrotherapy baths. Anyone can develop Legionnaires’ disease, but the elderly, smokers, alcoholics and those with cancer, diabetes or chronic respiratory or kidney disease are at more risk.

Recent research has found that Legionella bacteria not only thrive in stagnant water, but also thrive on rust from water pipes and corroding taps and plumbing components. Though most reported cases of Legionnaires’ Disease come from cooling towers and large buildings such as hotels and hospitals, studies have shown that about 20% of the patients with Legionnaires’ disease contacted the legionella bacteria in their homes.

The risk Legionnaire disease of is particularly high when water is restored after a flood. To reduce the risk you should flush out plumbing systems that have not been used for some time, (including showerheads and taps), clean and de-scale shower heads and hoses. Cold-water storage tanks should be cleaned and disinfected and water should be drained from hot water heaters, the tanks refilled and heater to 140 degrees Fahrenheit the and to check for debris or signs of corrosion. Cold water should be stored below 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Legionella bacteria thrives between 68-115 degrees Fahrenheit and cannot survive above 140 degrees.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Your Septic Systems needs Time to Recover after the Storm

Septic systems should not be used immediately after floods. Drain fields will not work until underground water has receded. Septic lines may have broken during the flood. 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- so not pump your tank until the soils dry out. Basically, there is nothing you can do but wait, 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 and the water table fails.

Do not return to your home until flood waters have receded. If there was significant flooding in your yard, water will have flooded into your septic tank through the top. The tops of septic tanks are not water tight. Flood waters entering the septic tank will have lifted the floating crust of fats and grease in the septic tank. Some of this scum may have floated and/or partially plugged the outlet tee. If the septic system backs up into the house check the tank first for outlet blockage. Remember, that septic tanks can be dangerous, methane from the bacterial digestion of waste and lack of oxygen can overwhelm you. Hire someone with the right tools to clear your outlet tee.

Do not pump the septic tank while the soil is still saturated. Furthermore, pumping out a tank that is in saturated soil may cause it to “pop out” of the ground. (Likewise, 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.) Call a septic service company (not just a tank pumping company) and schedule an appointment in a few days. Do not use the septic system for a few days (I know) have the service company clear any outlet blockage, or blockage to the drain field, check pumps and valves and partially pump down the tank if your soils are not dry enough or fully pump the tank if the soil has drained enough. The available volume in the tank will give you several days of plumbing use if you conserve water to allow your drain field to recover. Go easy the septic system operates on the principals of settling, bacterial digestion, and soil filtration all gentle and slow natural processes that have been battered by the storm. 

Emergency Disinfection of Your Well after the Flooding

Severe flooding can cause septic waste and even chemicals from cars and factories can enter groundwater making it unsafe to drink for days or even months depending on the extent of contamination and flow rate of groundwater. Essentially, the water will have to clear itself through natural attenuation (filtering by the soil and the contamination moving with the flow of the groundwater). A well may not be a safe source of water after the flood, but in all likelihood it will recover. Often all you need to do is flush the well then disinfect it.
Be aware that waste water from malfunctioning septic tanks or chemicals seeping into the ground can contaminate the groundwater for several weeks if there was significant flooding.  The first thing you need to do is respond to any immediate problems and then test the water periodically to verify the continued safety of drinking water.

Unless your well was submerged near a trucking depot, gas station or other industrial or commercial source of chemicals it is likely that torrential rains or flood waters have infiltrated your well and you have “dirty or brownish” water from surface infiltration. This is especially true if you do not have a sanitary cap on your well or have a well pit. Historically, it was common practice to construct a large diameter pit around a small diameter well. The pit was intended to provide convenient access to underground water line connections below the frost line. Unfortunately, wells pits tend to be unsanitary because they literally invite drainage into the well creating a contamination hazard to the water well system. It is most likely if your yard was flooded or your well submerged that you have some surface infiltration of water. In that case, chlorine shocking your well should disinfect your well and last at least 7-10 days.

If your water is brown, the first thing you should do is 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 not let it 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 it is time to disinfect your well. This is an emergency procedure that will kill any bacteria for 7 to 10 days.
After 10 days you need to test your well for bacteria to make sure that it is safe. Testing the well for bacteria would determine if the water were safe to drink. A bacteria test checks for the presence of total coliform bacteria and fecal coliform bacteria. These bacteria are not normally present in deeper groundwater sources. They are associated with warm-blooded animals, so they are normally found in surface water and in shallow groundwater (less than 20-40 feet deep). Most bacteria (with the exception of fecal and e-coli) are not harmful to humans, but are used as indicators of the safety of the water.

To disinfect a well you will need common unscented household bleach.  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. You will also need rubber gloves, old clothes and protective glasses to protect you from the inevitable splashes, and don't forget a bucket to mix  bleach with water to wash the well cap.
  •        Put on the old clothes and safety glasses
  •        Run your hoses from the house to the well
  •        Fill bucket with half water and half chlorine. 
  •        Turn off power to the well
  •        Drain the hot water tank
  •        Remove well cap
  •        Clean well cap with chlorine and water solution and place in clean plastic bag
  •        Clean well casing top and well cap base using brush dipped in chlorine water
  •        Pull wires in the well aside if they are blocking the top of the well and clean them with a rag dipped in chlorine water mixture. Make sure there are no nicks or cuts in the wires. 
  •        Put the funnel in the well top and pour in the chlorine and water mixture
  •        Now pour in the rest of the chlorine SLOWLY to minimize splashing
  •       Go back to the basement and turn the power to the well back on
  •        Turn on the hose and put it in the well 
  •        Sit down and wait for about 45 minutes or an hour
  •        After 45 minutes test the well to make sure that the chlorine is well mixed
  •        Use the hose to wash down the inside of the well casing
  •        Turn off the hose
  •        Carefully bolt the well cap back in place
  •        Now go back into the house
  •        Fill your hot water heater with water
  •        Draw water to every faucet in the house until it tests positive for chlorine then flush all your toilets. Turn off your ice maker. 
  •        Then do not use the water for 12-24 hours 
  •        Set up your hoses to run to a gravel area or non-sensitive drainage area. The chlorine will damage plants 

After 16 hours turn on the hoses leave them to run for the next 6-12 hours. The time is dependent on the depth of the well and the recharge rate. Deeper wells with a faster recharge rate take longer. If you cannot run your well dry and it recharges faster than the hoses use water you will need to keep diluting the chlorine. If you can run your well dry, you might have to let it recharge and run the water off again to clear the chlorine.

       After about 6 hours of running the hoses begin testing the water coming out of the hose for chlorine. Keep running the hose and testing the chlorine until the chlorine tests below about 1 ppm.
  •        Drain the hot water heater again, open the valve to refill it and turn it back on
  •        Open each faucet in the house (one at a time) and let run it until the water tested free of chlorine. Be aware the hot water will sputter- big time- until all the air is out of the system. Flush all the toilets
  •        Change the refrigerator filter cartridge and dump all your ice and turn your ice maker back on. 

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. 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. Hopefully, a single disinfection will be enough. 

Unlike public water systems, private systems are entirely unregulated; consequently, the well testing, and treatment are the voluntary responsibility of the homeowner. Virginia Master Well Owner Network (VAMWON). volunteers can help simplify understanding the components of a well and private drinking water system. The VAMWON volunteers and agents can provide information and resource links for private well owners and inform Virginians dependent on private water systems about water testing, water treatment, and system maintenance. You can find help in Virginia  or my contact information through this link by entering Prince William County or my name in the search box. I am happy to answer emails.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Researchers Study the Dilution of Scotch

I am not a Scotch whisky drinker, but I happened to sign up for a Scotch tasting “seminar” at our Temple. I was the only woman in the room and sadly report that my affection for Scotch whisky did not improve by participating in the program. However, my shopping for Scotch to serve to guests is greatly improved and I learned one other thing- add a splash of water to enhance the distinctive smoky flavor of Scotch. I wondered if water truly enhanced the flavor, or it was just part of the Scotch lore.

Now, two researchers at Linnaeus University in Sweden using computer simulations of ethanol, water and an guaiacol to understand how diluting whisky with water affects its taste. Apart from water and alcohols, whiskies contain different organic compounds that contribute to their taste. Apparently, scientists have studied this extensively. Many whiskies, especially those that are made on the Scottish island of Isley, have a smoky taste that develops when malted barley is smoked on peat fire.

The scientists tell us that chemically that distinctive scotch flavor is attributed phenols, and in particular one called guaiacol, which their research found is much more common in Scottish whiskies than other whiskies. The concentration of guaiacol was found to be 3.7–4.1 parts per million in two unnamed Scottish whiskies that were previously studied. Such a small concentration of guaiacol can be smelled and tasted by us.

Guaiacol is a small and mostly hydrophobic molecule that is able to interact with water by hydrogen-bonding and polar-aromatic interactions. Scotch whisky is distilled to around 70% alcohol by volume then diluted to about 40 % when bottled. The scientists carried out molecular simulations of guaiacol-water-alcohol solutions at various ethanol concentrations to understand why the taste of whisky changes upon the addition of water. They simulations revealed that ethanol and water mix non-ideally generating clusters of ethanol molecules.

The scientists found that water and ethanol do not mix completely. They observed a microscopic phase separation occurs in the mixture, and at lower ethanol concentrations they found that guaiacol was more likely to be present in the liquid air interface. In a glass of Scotch whisky, which typically exhibits alcohol concentrations of 45%- 27% alcohol, guaiacol will be found near the liquid surface, where it greatly contributes to both smell and taste of the Scotch. At cask-strength concentrations of 59% or higher, ethanol interacts more strongly with the guaiacol and guaiacol is therefore driven into the solution.

Thus, the taste of guaiacol and similar phenol compounds will be more pronounced when whisky is diluted in the glass from the 40% alcohol content of the bottle. This taste-enhancement is counteracted by the dilution of guaiacol’s concentration. Overall, there is a fine balance between diluting the whisky to enhance the taste and diluting the Scotch whisky too much. This balance will depend on the concentration and types of taste compounds that are characteristic for each whisky; though the scientists found that 27% ethanol by volume was the limit of dilution before the guaiacol was too dilute to be appreciated.

  Karlsson, Bjorn C. G., Friedman, Ran, 2017/08/17; Dilution of whisky - the molecular perspective, Scientific Reports, 6489.

Monday, August 28, 2017

DC Water Markets its Biosolids as Bloom

DC Water is marketing its EPA-certified “Exceptional Quality” Class A Biosolids as a retail soil additive called Bloom. Biosolids are merely the sludge that comes out of a waste water treatment plant. DC Water is not the first wastewater utility or DC area utility to turn its wastewater biosolids into a soil additive for home gardeners and crops for human consumption. AlexRenew sells their Class A Exceptional Quality bio-solids to farmers in Virginia; and some of the Class A Biosolids are combined with wood fines, creating a soil amendment product that they are calling “George’s Old Town Blend.”

At Blue Plains and other sewer treatment plants primary treatment uses screens to remove large solids from wastewater which then sits in settling tanks, which are designed to hold the wastewater for several hours. During that time, most of the heavier solids fall to the bottom of the tank, where they become a thick slurry known as primary sludge.

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.

In 2015 DC Water unveiled the newly completed and operational sludge treatment system. Blue Plaines now has Cambi thermal hydrolysis trains, four digesters, dewatering equipment and a combined heat and power plant that cost $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 supplies over one third of the electric power 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.

Though this processing of Biosolids into Class A will save DC Water $13 million in chemical treatment and transportation costs a year, the project has a payback of over 20 years. This was not about savings, but rather better sewage treatment in an urban environment and better management of nutrients. Class A Biosolids are safer and easier to use in agriculture. Bloom, the name DC Water gave to the Class A Biosolids product, can increase organic content in the soil, increase drought resistance in plants, and provide essential plant nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. DC Water intends to sell a substantial portion of the residual Biosolids product as a soil just as Milwaukee’s waste water treatment plant sells their Class A Biosolids called “Milorganite” in bags at garden centers.

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 heavy 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; however, Class A Biosolids have been found to be safe. According to Dr. Greg Evanylo, a Professor at Virginia Tech, there are well recognized processes to kill pathogens. In addition DC Water states that trace contaminants in Biosolids are not a threat to public health and the environment, and Bloom saves energy and reduces our carbon footprint when compared to conventional petroleum based fertilizers.

Currently, there are two types of Bloom: Fresh and Cured. Fresh is cheaper and contains more moisture. Because it contains more moisture, it is heavier and the price difference is partially paying for water weight. Cured has less moisture. Because it is dryer it is lighter.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Plastics in the Ocean and Food Chain

The ubiquitous use of plastic in our modern world and inadequate management of plastic waste has led to increased contamination of freshwater, estuary and marine environments. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that in between 4.8 million to 12.7 million metric tons (tonnes) of plastic waste finds it way into our oceans each year. This represents 1.5%-4% of all non-fiber plastic manufactured and that number continues to grow each year.

Much of that waste is micro-plastic, defined as plastic items measuring less than 5 mm in their longest dimension. Plastic items may be manufactured within this size range (primary micro-plastics) or result from the degradation and fragmentation of larger plastic items (secondary micro-plastics). In 2009 an Australian study found the majority of facial cleansers, many tooth pastes, hand creams, body wash contained exfoliating beads made of polyethylene. These bits of polyethylene plastic ranging in size from roughly 5μm to 1mm do not biodegrade out in nature.

These microbeads are used in hundreds of products including cosmetics, sunscreen, body wash, toothpaste, skincare, and industrial and household cleaning products, and are too small to be captured by wastewater treatment plants filtration systems that were not designed to address such small contaminants. So, these microplastics beads flow down the drain and through waste water treatment plant and end up in our rivers, bays and oceans, where they may become a hazard to marine life. The polyethylene beads float and their scrubbing surfaces pick up contaminants which are consumed by marine life.

Scientists now believe that microplastics are consumed by marine life and can cause cellular necrosis, inflammation and lacerations in the digestive tracts of fish. Additionally, microplastics can pick up and accumulated chemical contaminants on their surfaces including priority pollutants under the US EPA Clean Water Act. This mixture of plastic and chemicals can accumulate in animals that eat them causing liver toxicity and disruption in the endocrine system, and possibly contributing to the intersexed fish that have appeared in rivers.

A new cleverly designed study for his dissertation Matthew Savoca a 2017 PhD from the University of California, Davis and now of the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center in San Diego, California found that ocean-born plastic has a smell that marine animals finds appealing and are consumed preferentially.

Scientists believe that microplastics consumed by marine life can cause cellular necrosis, inflammation and lacerations in the digestive tracts of fish. Additionally, microplastics can pick up and accumulated chemical contaminants on their surfaces. Though, these adverse effects of microplastics ingestion have only been observed under laboratory conditions, usually at very high exposure concentrations that exceed present environmental concentrations by several orders of magnitude. In wild aquatic organisms microplastics have only been observed within the gastrointestinal tract, usually in small numbers, and at present there is no evidence that microplastics ingestion has had negative effects on populations of wild and farmed fish and shell fish.

Microplastics contain a mixture of chemicals added during manufacture. These additives efficiently sorb (leach or absorb) persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic contaminants from the environment. The ingestion of microplastics by fish and marine life and the accumulation of persistent bio-accumulative and toxic chemicals are the main perceived hazard and risk of micro-plastics in the marine environment. It is not known how much, if any, of the chemicals in the plastic leach out of the plastic and enter the food chain.

In humans the risk of micro-plastic ingestion is reduced by the removal of the gastrointestinal tract in most species of seafood consumed. However, most species of bivalves and several species of small fish are consumed whole, which may lead to micro-plastic exposure. The U.N. FAO calculated a worst case estimate of exposure to microplastics after consumption of a portion of mussels (225 g) would lead to ingestion of 7 micrograms (µg) of plastic, which would have a negligible effect (less than 0.1 percent of total dietary intake) on chemical exposure to certain persistent bio-accumulative and toxic chemicals and plastic additives. The operative word is bio-accumulate.

Congress amended the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) by passing the Microbead-Free Waters Act. The new law bans tiny beads of plastic known as microbeads that have been added as abrasives to beauty and health products like exfoliating facial scrubs and toothpaste. Under the law, companies will have to stop selling products containing plastic micro-beads in their products by July 2019, but the first phase went into effect this past July.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Brown Water in Maryland, Again

Since the beginning of August, people in the western area of Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) water system have noticed brown or yellow discolored water. Last week WSSC held a news conference on the banks of the Potomac River, the source of drinking water for the majority of WSSC’s 1.8 million customers, to explain the cause of the brown water and reassure customers that the water is safe to drink. However, WSSC advises that the discolored water should not be used to wash laundry; and WSSC believes the discolored water may persist for several more weeks. The Washington Aqueduct and Fairfax Water are not having difficulty delivering safe and clear water to their customers.

At the press conference WSSC General Manager Carla A. Reid , WSSC’s Director of Production J.C. Langley, Deputy Heath Officer for the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services Mark Hodge, and “WSSC water quality experts” outlined the cause of the discolored water customers were receiving in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. According to their press release and streamed news conference, for the past few weeks there has been an increase in organic material in the Potomac River, possibly caused by recent severe rain storms. Organic material comes from decayed leaves, tree debris and vegetation that are washed into the river.

During the treatment process, WSSC uses chlorine to not only disinfect the water , but also as an oxidizing agent. The chlorine controls manganese and other contaminants levels to make the water both clear and safe for drinking. Manganese is a natural mineral also found in waterways and groundwater. The problem is that chlorine is a very good oxidizing agent and also interacts with natural organic matter present in rivers and streams to form what are called disinfection by-products that increase the incidence of cancer.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates 11 of the disinfection by products that are formed when chlorine reacts with naturally occurring organic matter and that have been positively linked to health impacts. The EPA established maximum contaminant levels for these 11 disinfection by products: four trihalomethanes (THMs), five haloacetic acids (HAAs), bromate, and chlorite in order to protect public health.

The rule making and implementation for these Disinfectants and Disinfection Byproducts Rules , part of the group of Microbial and Disinfection Byproducts Rules took place between 1998 and 2006. Part of the Safe Drinking Water Act, these rules are a series of interrelated regulations that address risks from microbial pathogens and disinfectants/disinfection byproducts. In reaction to these rules,
many water utilities changed their method of disinfection to comply with EPA limits on disinfection by-products. This resulted in many water utilities moving away from chlorine disinfection to alternatives such as chloramine, chlorine dioxide, and ozone. WSSC stayed with chlorine as their primary disinfectant.

With an increase in organic matter, WSSC had to cut the amount of chlorine they were using to meet the limits of the Disinfection Byproducts Rules. Excess disinfection by products in the system would require the WSSC to stop delivering water. However, the brown water is “safe.” Manganese is not a health hazard and is not regulated by the EPA as a drinking water contaminant. EPA considers manganese a secondary contaminant for aesthetic reasons only. The EPA level for manganese, for aesthetic purposes, is 0.05 mg/l. WSSC’s current manganese levels are around 0.01 mg/l to 0.02 mg/l. Although below EPA’s aesthetic level, it can still cause discoloration.

At the news conference WSSC emphasized that they performs more than 100 water quality tests every day, and all current test results indicate that the water is safe to drink. WSSC does warn that the discolored water should not be used to wash laundry as the staining it causes is permanent. The presence of manganese in a water supply can lead to a buildup of in pipelines, household water pipes, water heaters, and water softeners (though water softeners can remove some manganese it is not their primary purpose and there are better and cheaper in-home systems to treat water for excess manganese).

Last winter WSSC experienced discolored water reportedly caused by excessive road salt. I assume they made adjustments to hold a primary drinking water standard within EPA limits. Now excessive organic matter has caused this episode. The similarity here is that WSSC has not been able to effectively treat the variations in the Potomac River throughout the year. No amount of explanation will make it all right that WSSC cannot consistently deliver safe, clean, clear, and good tasting water twelve months a year. First world nations can deliver safe and clear water 24/7 throughout the year. Nothing less is acceptable.

Manganese can cause a variety of nuisance problems, affecting both the taste and color of the water and food prepared with the water. Manganese may react with the tannins in tea, coffee and some alcoholic beverages to produce a black sludge, which will affect both taste and appearance. Manganese will cause brown staining of laundry, porcelain, dishes, utensils and glassware. These stains are generally not easily removed by soaps and detergents; in fact, using chlorine bleach and alkaline cleaners (such as sodium and carbonate) may intensify the stains. You might want to consider installing an oxidizing water filer (sometimes called an iron or greensand filter) in you water supply line to remove the manganese.

The Washington Aqueduct and Fairfax water use chloramine and are not experiencing these problems. As the WSSC always states at the bottom of their press releases: Established in 1918, today WSSC is among the largest water and wastewater utilities in the nation. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Total Eclipse of the Sun

On Monday, August 21, 2017, all of North America will be able to see an eclipse of the sun. Anyone within the path of totality from Salem, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina can see a total solar eclipse. The path of totality is where the moon will completely cover the sun making the sun’s corona visible.

The shadow of the moon enters the United States near Lincoln City, Oregon, at 9:05 a.m. PDT. Totality begins in Lincoln City, Oregon, at 10:16 am PDT. The total eclipse will end and hour and 2 minutes later in Charleston, South Carolina, at 2:48 p.m. EDT, though the lunar shadow will linger in the United States until 4:09 p.m. EDT. A partial eclipse will be visible throughout the United States. Here in Virginia we will see a partial solar eclipse where the moon covers about 85% of the sun's disk.

Looking directly at the sun is unsafe except during the brief total phase of a solar eclipse (“totality”), when the moon entirely blocks the sun’s bright face, which will happen only within the narrow path of totality and only during the window of complete coverage which is about 2 minutes 40 seconds. Otherwise you must protect your eyes and vision. The only safe way to look directly at a partially eclipsed sun is through special-purpose solar filters, such as “eclipse glasses or hand-held solar viewers.

Homemade filters or ordinary sunglasses, even  dark ones, are NOT SAFE for looking at the sun; they transmit thousands of times too much sunlight. Eclipse glasses and handheld solar viewers must be verified to be compliant with the ISO 12312-2 international safety standard for such products. However, there have been reports in the news of large numbers of fake solar glasses. It's not enough today to just look for the ISO 12312-2  certification, as many vendors have started printing fake glasses with ISO 12312-2  certifications. At this point, if your have not purchased solar glasses from a vendor from the approved list of the American Academy of Ophthalmology or NASA it’s probably too late and you should protect your eyes and view the eclipse on NASA’s web site or through a pinhole projector as we did when we were kids.

As described on NASA’s web site, a convenient method for safe viewing of the partially eclipsed Sun is pinhole projection. You simply pass sunlight through a small opening (for example, a hole punched in an index card) and project an image of the Sun onto a nearby surface (for example a piece of printer paper). See the NASA website for full instructions. I will be inside viewing the eclipse on-line. There is also lots of fun information about science data gathering that will take place during the eclipse.

Do not look at the  partially eclipsed sun through an unfiltered camera, telescope, binoculars, or other optical device- even if you are wearing eclipse glasses. The magnification will damage the eclipse glasses and damage your eyes. Be safe.