agriculture, Environment, Legislature

This Week in Pollution: PFAS in drinking water, Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s secret drilling fluids, plus hog farm odor complaints

Firefighting foam pours from a hose after a training exercise. (Photo: US Department of Defense)

It costs the City of Greensboro, make that the ratepayers, $9,000 a month, plus $1,000 a day, for a treatment system to reduce and remove per- and poly-fluorinated compounds — PFAS — from the drinking water.

Firefighting foam used in training exercises at Piedmond Triad International Airport is one likely source of the contamination. Foam leaves the runways and tarmacs, then enters Horsebend Creek, which drains north into lakes supplying the city’s water.

Storm water runoff from airports (which could also contain contaminants like jet fuel, oils and other petroleum products) is A-OK by the legislature. In 2017, lawmakers tucked a provision into Senate Bill 8 directing DEQ and local government to give airports a pass on runoff from runways, taxiways, and “any other areas” that flows into grass buffers, shoulders and swales.

Greensboro has learned the hard — and expensive — way that grass isn’t a proven PFAS removal system.

Ten years ago, water entering the city’s treatment plant rarely exceeded the EPA’s health advisory goal of 200 parts per trillion. But since the federal agency lowered the threshold to 70 ppt (for individual compounds or a combination), Greensboro has been forced to rent activated carbon technology to limit the levels in water flowing from hundreds of thousands of taps.

If the EPA further reduces the goal to the single digits, which is possible if not likely, “we’ll need to remove it all,” Mike Borchers, assistant director of the city’s Division of Water Resources said at a drinking water forum sponsored by the Cape Fear River Assembly.

A $30 million upgrade to the water treatment system will help keep the concentrations in check, but stemming the source is the more obvious — and cheaper — solution.

Is my water safe? “That’s not a simple answer,” Rebecca Sadosky, NC DEQ’s drinking water protection program coordinator, told the forum attendees. “There have always been things in the drinking water.”

Hardly heartwarming, but the fact is that safe water doesn’t equal risk-free water. As detection technology improves, scientists and regulators are finding unforeseen contaminants, such 1,4 dioxane and GenX and other fluorinated compounds in our water supplies.

In addition to the pesky problem of plastic, bottled water isn’t necessarily better. The water could be sourced from another public system, which might have its own treatment issues. Bottled water isn’t regulated by the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act, but rather the FDA. Heads up, La Croix fans: Sparkling water is regulated as a soft drink.

University scientists from throughout the state will sample 190 surface water intakes at public water systems, plus groundwater wells serving another 158 municipalities, as part of the NC Policy Collaboratory’s PFAS project.

Funded by a $5 million appropriation by the legislature, the project also includes studying the vulnerability of private wells to PFAS and developing treatment technologies to remove the compounds. Other science teams will analyze air emissions and atmospheric deposition of the compounds, such as Gen X.

The Collaboratory is required to file quarterly progress reports with the Environmental Review Commission. The first one was published on Oct. 1.

Air emissions are one source of drinking water contamination for residents living near the Chemours plant on the Bladen-Cumberland county line. Compounds leave the plant’s smokestacks and then fall to the ground, seeping into private water supplies.

So it’s not surprising that four types of PFAS (but not Gen X) were found in the blood of all 30 people who volunteered for a test conducted by the NC Department of Health and Human Services, Policy Watch reported this week. These residents live near the Chemours plant and depend on well water. 

Waterways in North Carolina can’t get a break. Some ingredients in drilling fluids and additives used for construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline are deemed “trade secrets.” Unless Dominion and Duke Energy decide you’re on a need-to-know-basis, it’s impossible to (legally) know what’s in them.

They call it an inadvertent return. Most people would call it a toxic spill. (Photo: Atlantic Coast Pipeline federal filings)

When these drilling fluids, also known as “mud,” spill — and they do spill — it is known in Orwellian terms as “an inadvertent return.” The Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC’s own federal filings say that if this ahem, return “occurs in a waterbody it will be more difficult to contain because the fluid will be dispersed into the water and carried downstream.”

From water to air: At a recent meeting of the Environmental Management Commission, member Marion Deerhake asked DEQ staff to supply statistics on odor complaints from industrialized hog farms, back to 2000 when the agency began collecting the data.

DEQ is still digging up numbers from early years of the program, but from 2012 to 2017, there were a total of 34.

Here are the statistics by year:

  • 2012             11
  • 2013               5
  • 2014               4
  • 2015               2
  • 2016               3
  • 2017               9

Judging from testimony in the three hog nuisance trials, many, if not most people don’t know how to file a complaint or whom to complain to. Start with Debra Watts, supervisor of DEQ’s Animal Feeding Operations branch: 919-707-3670 or debra.watts@ncdenr.gov .

Environment

PFAS, but not GenX, found in blood of residents living near Chemours plant

Jimmy Dew’s family owns Marshwood Lake, just northeast of the Chemours plant. He spoke earlier this year at a public information session in Bladen County. His family’s well has been contaminated with fluorinated compounds. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Four types of fluorinated compounds were detected in blood samples of all 30 people tested who live near the Chemours plant, although none of the compounds was GenX, the NC Department of Health and Human Services announced today.

In July, DHHS, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Cumberland County Health Department tested for 17 types of fluorinated compounds in the blood and urine of 30 people living near the facility, which abuts the Bladen-Cumberland county line.

All of the people who voluntarily participated in the program use well water for their household needs. Many of the private wells, plus rainwater, lakes, soil, groundwater and even honey have tested positive for fluorinated compounds.

All study participants had some level of PFHxS in their blood. It is often found in carpet and firefighting foam.  

Also detected in all blood samples, the compounds n-PFOA, n-PFOS, and Sm-PFOS are variations of C8. It is used to make non-stick coatings, including Teflon, and can be found in fast food wrappers, pizza boxes, and microwave popcorn bags.

Although manufacturers like DuPont have phased out their use of C8 — replacing it with GenX — the compound persists for years in the human body and the environment. C8 is classified as “likely carcinogenic,” which means they can cause cancer. However, not everyone who is exposed to these compounds develops cancer. The compounds can also cause low birth weight, high cholesterol, a depressed immune system, reproductive and developmental problems, and thyroid and hormonal disorders.

C8 is the compound that triggered the class-action lawsuit by residents who drank well water contaminated by discharge from the DuPont plant in Parkersburg, WV. DuPont paid $670 million to settle the litigation.

The median detection levels of PFHxS and n-PFOS in the 30 North Carolina residents were higher than that of the US population. Median is the midpoint between the lowest and highest readings.

The highest level of PFHxS in blood among study participants was 6.7 parts per billion. By comparison, 95 percent the US population tested has levels of 5.6 ppb or below, according to 2013-14 data from the CDC.

Similarly, the highest level of n-PFOS among the study participants was 34.6 parts per billion. In the general US population, it was 14 ppb. People who drank from wells near the Parkersburg, WV, plant had median levels of 38 ppb.

Other findings included:

  • Nine of 17 fluorinated compounds were found in the blood of at least one of the participants. The other eight were not detected at all.
  • Only one fluorinated compound was found in urine, and that was at the lowest detectable level.

The sample size was small because the CDC could not test more people. Each household could have a limit of one adult and one child from 12 to 17 years old. No infants, toddlers or young children were tested.

The Environmental Protection Agency was expected to release its guidance on groundwater cleanup of fluorinated compounds, as well as human health toxicity values and a PFAS management plan as soon as last month. An EPA spokesperson told Policy Watch that the agency “continues to work toward releasing the toxicity values in the coming weeks, the groundwater cleanup values and management plan this year.”

 
Environment

This Week in Pollution: Have you read ‘The Road’? 20-year climate change estimates suggest you should.

Holiday reading for your favorite nihilist

 

“Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made.” — The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

Because holidays are supposed to be a joyous time spent with friends and family, I instead read The Road over Christmas in 2006. Between stringing lights and hanging cat stockings, I delved into a future ridden with cannibals and consumption, extinction and the apocalypse.

Not to be a Debbie Downer, but I thought of that book this week when, in addition to Hurricane Michael, its intensity as a near-Category 5  linked to climate change, the international science panel announced that by 2040 parts of the our warming planet (the only one we have, by the way) will likely be uninhabitable.

If fossil fuel emissions continue on their current trajectory, increased wildfires, droughts and floods will cause some species — such as the mass die-offs of coral reefs — to go extinct. Environmental refugees, displacement and poverty from climate change will irreversibly alter where and how we live.

This dystopic scenario, just 22 years away, can be blunted if countries rein in their carbon dioxide and methane emissions. But don’t count on America to be among those trying to preserve a livable future. The Trump administration is relaxing regulations on coal-fired power plants and vehicle emissions, both major sources of carbon dioxide.

Lost among all the hurricane coverage was the troubling development that the US Senate this week confirmed Jeffrey Bossert Clark, an attorney for BP Oil who has disputed the science of climate change, as the nation’s top environmental lawyer, according to Inside Climate News.

It could be worse. Jim Womack could be the nation’s top environmental lawyer. Instead, Womack, the chairman of the state’s Oil and Gas Commission, still wants the nine-member board to take that very, very expensive taxpayer-funded field trip to Pennsylvania to observe fracking operations. Because what could be more rewarding than scoring a front-row seat to climate change: watching fossil fuels be sucked from beneath the earth while leaking methane into the atmosphere? The commission meets Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. — four hours you’ll never get back — in the Ground Floor Hearing Room of the Archdale Building, on the north end of Halifax Mall.

Well, this is just offal: A rendering plant in Bertie County and the Smithfield hog slaughter plant in Bladen County made two national Top 10 list of processors discharging the most nitrogen into nearby waterways. Too much nitrogen in water contributes to algae growth, which can strain water treatment plants, kill fish and in some cases, be toxic.

Valley Proteins “processes” — grinds up, drains and heats — fat, bone and animal hides, which can be used to make bone meal or pet food. But converting the innards and skin releases wastewater containing nitrogen, an average of 1,429 pounds a day, into the Roanoke River.

As for the Smithfield, whose ginormous plant in Tar Heel is the largest such facility in the world, it discharges more than 1,700 pounds per day.

Both facilities have federal and state discharge permits.

Based in Washington, D.C., the Environmental Integrity Project analyzed federal and state data for plants throughout the US to find Clean Water Act violations and other illegal discharges. It is recommending that state and federal governments more closely regulate the slaughterhouse industry, stepping up enforcement, strengthening outdated EPA standards for water pollution, and tightening state pollution control permits to reduce discharges

What sucks more than sucking pests? The pesticides used to kill the sucking pests. Bayer CropScience, headquartered in RTP, wants to spray the pesticide flupyradifurone on North Carolina’s tobacco crop, even though the compound is known to hurt bees and freshwater mussels. The Center for Biological Diversity has asked the EPA to deny the request.

Flupyradifurone is supposed to be an alternative neonicotinoids, which have been linked to bee die-offs. Meanwhile, the aphids and other insects have grown resistant to the pesticide’s effects.

However, flupyradifurone is chemically similar to neonics, and it is acutely toxic to bees that ingest it.

Endangered freshwater mussel species that could be imperiled from the pesticide include the dwarf wedgemussel, which is found in Swift Creek. That mussel and its habitat are already under siege from urban runoff, and they face further jeopardy from the Complete 540 toll road proposed for southern Wake County. Federal wildlife officials have approved an environmental impact statement for the  multi-billion project, even though the mussels could be virtually wiped out in the wild.

“Suppose you were the last one left? Suppose you did that to yourself?” — The Road

 

 

 

Environment

Federal government seeking public comment on listing two bird and one mussel species in NC as threatened

Black-Capped Petrel (Photo taken by Tom Benson, Aug. 25, 2017, in Dare County.)

When the Black-Capped Petrel flies over the sea at night, the wind passes over its wings, creating a sound that those fortunate enough to hear it describe as “flute-like.” Its nighttime calls have been characterized as eerie, like that of a cat hooting. Although the rare bird, with its white rump and collar, and of course, black cap, nests in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, its range includes the North Carolina coast.

Now the US Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to list the Black-Capped Petrel as threatened, along with the Eastern Blackrail and the Atlantic Pigtoe, whose native habitats include portions of North Carolina. The agency is accepting public comment on the plan through Dec. 10.

A threatened designation means the species is likely to become endangered within the “foreseeable future” — 50 years — throughout all or a significant portion of its range, according to the agency.By designating the species as threatened, USFWS can then extend protections to their habitats, such as triggering environmental reviews and other analysis.

Climate change, with its attendant flooding, temperature increases and projected sea level rise, are threatening the Eastern Blackrail, whose numbers have declined in some areas of the country by as much as 90 percent. The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned USFWS to designate the bird as threatened because it is also losing ground to “continued alteration and loss of wetland habitats, land management practices that result in fire suppression (or inappropriately timed fire application that may cause direct mortalities), grazing, haying and mowing, and impounding of wetlands,” according to USFWS.

If the bird receives threatened status, certain activities, such as grazing on public lands, would be prohibited in its habitat during critical time periods, such as nesting and brooding seasons, and post-breeding flightless molt periods, the agency said.

The Atlantic Pigtoe, a type of freshwater mussel, has been found, albeit in low numbers in the Chowan, Roanoke, Tar, Neuse, Cape Fear and Yadkin-Pee Dee river basins. North Carolina considers the Atlantic Pigtoe endangered/critically imperiled, as its habitat has been damaged by water pollution from sewage treatment plants, road runoff, and private wastewater discharges, as well as disrupted by dams.

While these designations can help prolong the life of the species, the protections aren’t airtight. In the case of the Black-Capped Petrel, its primary breeding habitat is on several Caribbean islands, beyond the reach of US authority to control deforestation there. Here in the US, private landowners aren’t required to protect the species unless they are involved in projects that require federal funding or permits.

And the agency can still issue “incidental take permits” if it determines a certain number of the species can be killed, for example, as the result of a highway or pipeline being built. As part of the Complete 540 toll road project in Wake County, USFWS issued incidental take permits for the endangered Dwarf Wedgemussel and the Yellow Lance Mussel, which live in Swift Creek. The Southern Environmental Law Center has signaled it intends to sue over those permits.

 

 

agriculture, Environment

This Week in Pollution: coal ash, hog lagoons and a wayward EPA

Rainfall from Hurricane Florence overlaid with the locations of industrialized livestock operations. (Map: Environmental Working Group)

Good morning, before I delve into the weekly recap of Contamination’s Greatest Hits, I want to tell you what I just heard at the NC Chamber of Commerce’s Agri-Business conference this morning.

Ray Starling, who used to be with the NC Department of Agriculture, is now chief of staff at the USDA. One day, Starling said, he was in the Oval Office visiting with President Trump. “On the president’s desk was a box made of wood with the presidential seal on one side and it had a red button. The president pushes the red button. I thought the floor was going to open up in front of me and I would fall through it. I was fairly certain some country had been blown off the map.”

Instead, Starling said, “moments later a man entered the Oval Office carrying a silver platter” with a Diet Coke for the president.

And now you know.

First up, a perennial favorite since 2014: Coal ash. Sampling by Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr near the inactive coal ash basins at the HF Lee plant, showed arsenic levels in the Neuse River, the drinking water source for Goldsboro, at 186 parts per million, far above the drinking water standard of 10 ppm. Near the Sutton plant, whose lake drains into the beleaguered Cape Fear River, also a major drinking water supply, the results were an off-the-charts 710 ppm.

Meanwhile, Duke Energy and the NC Department of Environmental Quality each did its own testing near both HF Lee and Sutton. DEQ found elevated levels of copper near Sutton, but both the agency’s and the utility’s samples indicated arsenic contamination was below drinking water standards there and at HF Lee.

How can these results be so contradictory — one set menacing and the other hunky-dory? Well, the variations can hinge on several factors: where and when the samples were taken, and how far into the water column — in other words, how deep the samplers plunged the bottle. Sediment, aka dirt in the riverbed, would be even more telling, because the contaminants might have nestled there. But sediment rarely stays put. Boats, storms, wind can all stir it up, sending contamination downstream.

DEQ and Duke, and the riverkeepers, will continue to monitor potential contamination in the rivers.

Speaking of coal, the EPA (rechristened for the purposes of this column as Experiencing Peak Apocalypse) plans to roll back mercury emissions rules for coal-fired power plants. Mercury, also known in 14th-century parlance as quicksilver, is not an element to be messed with. (Nonetheless, in eighth-grade science class, we entertained ourselves by goosing globules of it on our desks. This occurred in the dark ages of 1978, when trepanation may have still been in vogue in my small town.)

Historically, coal-fired power plants have been major emitters of mercury. When the mercury falls back to the Earth and enters water, it converts to methylmercury. Fish take up methylmercury, and when people eat fish, they also get a dose. Mercury can harm the nervous system, including that of a developing fetus, which is why pregnant women are advised to restrict their intake of certain mercury-prone species, such as tuna. There are fish advisories for mercury contamination in waterways throughout North Carolina for everyone.

Who thinks weakening mercury rules is a good idea? The New York Times breaks down the issue, but essentially the EPA, led by former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, reasons that the cost to industry to adhere to the rule is greater than the public health costs if the rule is rolled back. I’d like to see the math on that, right after I cough up this lung. Nonetheless, the score is Industry 1, Health Benefits 0.

Also lurking in the post-Hurricane Florence waters of eastern North Carolina is millions of gallons of hog and poultry waste. Policy Watch reported this week on the many farms that still lie within the 100-year flood plain. The.Waterkeeper Alliance and the Environmental Working Group released a set of maps overlapping historic rainfall amounts with the density of these industrialized operations. The EWG’s spatial analysis concluded that “there are 926  concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, housing more than 3.8 million hogs and 578 poultry CAFOs holding an estimated 35 million fowl in areas where the National Weather Service said flooding was ‘occurring or imminent’ after Florence.”

Hog farms often receive the most attention, unlike poultry farms, which escape necessary scrutiny because they are virtually unregulated. These farms that use “dry litter” (which no longer stays dry in a flood) aren’t required to have a permit. We don’t know where they are or who might have complained about them.

On the issue of hog farms, the Waterkeeper Alliance is suing the EPA over exemptions bestowed upon these industrialized  operations. Unlike many other polluting industries, these farms aren’t required to inform state and local officials about dangerous levels of pollutants that could be emanating from the operations.. For many industries, these disclosures are required under the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act. However, the Fair Agricultural Reporting Method Act gives the livestock industries a pass on reporting air emissions — ammonia, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter — that can exacerbate respiratory illness of those living near the farms.

Living near these concentrated animal feeding operations might shorten your lifespan, according to a September article published by Duke University scientist Julia Kravchenko and four of her colleagues in the NC Medical Journal.

The study concluded that North Carolina communities located near hog CAFOs “had higher all-cause and infant mortality, mortality due to anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, septicemia, and higher hospital admissions/emergency room visits of low-birth weight infants.”

The study doesn’t go so far as to establish causality with exposures from hog CAFOs, but the authors write that future studies are needed to “determine factors that influence these outcomes, as well as the need to improve screening and diagnostic strategies for these diseases in North Carolina communities adjacent to hog CAFOs.”

Given these findings, it was disheartening to hear Dennis Kelly of Syngenta tell the agribusiness crowd this morning that one of the greatest concerns of farmers is “security — knowing you won’t be sued. That you have the right to farm according to normal agriculture practices.”

Somebody, please push the red button. No, the other one, where I get to fall through the floor.