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Access to Clean Water

How Protecting Civil War Battlefields Helps Protect Drinking Water

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Ruins of an old cement mill can be found on the riverbank of the Potomac River in Shepherdstown, W.Va. This was a central spot during the Battle of Shepherdstown in the American Civil War. Photo: Liz McCormick/WVPB

In 2014, a coal cleaning chemical leaked into the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia, the drinking water supply for tens of thousands of people in the Kanawha Valley.

The chemical couldn’t easily be removed from the water and people in the valley spent more than week unable to drink, cook, or clean with their tap water.

After the spill, the West Virginia Rivers Coalition created the Safe Water WV initiative. The idea is simple: to strengthen a community’s connection to their drinking water and encourage them to work together to better protect it.

A couple years ago, Jefferson and Berkeley Counties decided to build off that initiative in a unique way – using the conservation of farmland and Civil War battlefields as a model for drinking water protection.

About two miles from the heart of Shepherdstown is the site of the bloodiest battle in West Virginia during the American Civil War. More than 600 Union and Confederate soldiers died in a two-day battle in September 1862.

This map shows details of the attacks and soldier divisions during the Battle of Shepherdstown. A marker for the cement mill can be seen along the Potomac River. Photo: Courtesy Jefferson County Farmland Protection Board

The Battle of Shepherdstown may have been small in comparison to other battles of the Civil War, but historians agree, the battle not only halted the Confederates’ northern invasion, but it also opened the door for President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

Since 2011, the site of the Battle of Shepherdstown has been a protected historic landmark. The battle site also happens to be at a unique location – along the Potomac River. The Potomac provides drinking water to Shepherdstown residents, and other nearby areas.

“The Landmarks Commission owns about a half-mile of the Potomac River frontage,” Martin Burke said.

Burke is the chairman of the Jefferson County Historic Landmarks Commission – the group responsible for protecting the site of the Battle of Shepherdstown.

“Controlling the runoff, planting trees, all helps improve water quality.”

That’s why his group, along with the Jefferson County Farmland Protection Board, the Berkeley County Farmland Protection Board, and the West Virginia Rivers Coalition decided two years ago to work together. They started an initiative called the Safe Water Conservation Collaborative in the Eastern Panhandle.

“We formed the Safe Water Conservation Collaborative to bring together, for the very first time, water utilities, land conservation organizations, and watershed groups to take a collaborative approach to protecting drinking water using the conservation of land, and protecting land forever, to protect our drinking water sources,” Tanner Haid said.

Haid is the Eastern Panhandle Field Coordinator for the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.

The initiative focuses on using land conservation easements to protect drinking water. A conservation easement is a voluntary private or government contract with a landowner to protect land for ecological reasons – to improve water quality, maintain a historic site, or protect wildlife.

Haid said this approach makes drinking water protections stronger, because land conservation easements help to prevent potential contamination threats or development that could impact a source water intake.

In Jefferson County alone, there are more than 16,000 acres of battlefield land that have been identified, according to the Jefferson County Historic Landmarks Commission. Only 800 acres of that is currently protected.

Liz Wheeler is the Director of the Jefferson County Farmland Protection Board. Her organization administers conservation easements to protect historic farmland and battlefields in Jefferson County.

“When we protect land, we’re not just protecting cropland. We’re protecting woodland, we’re protecting streams, we’re protecting historic resources, so it fits into what we do; to be able to contribute to source water protection,” Wheeler said.

But the Safe Water Conservation Collaborative in the Eastern Panhandle doesn’t come without its challenges. Finding enough money to protect the land can be the biggest challenge, but so can educating landowners about their options if they qualify for a conservation easement or historic status.

Haid said, in the coming year, he and his team hope to identify and prioritize areas of land in the Eastern Panhandle not currently protected that are close to drinking water areas.

“And then in particular, closest to the water intake or the utilities who draw up the water, because those are the areas most threatened by development and actions that we take on our land that has an impact on our water quality,” Haid said.

Jefferson and Berkeley Counties are among the most successful in the state for land conservation, according to West Virginia Rivers. Together, these counties have protected more than 10,000 acres of land.

West Virginia Rivers said, so far, they haven’t collected data on how water quality has improved through the Safe Water Conservation Collaborative in the Eastern Panhandle, but over the past two years, they have signed up 30 partner organizations interested in the project.

The group hopes this model – to protect water by conserving land – isn’t just for the Eastern Panhandle but could be used across the state.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Access to Clean Water

W.Va. Food Bank Trying Out Hydro-Panels For Clean Water Needs

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The Five Loaves and Two Fishes Foodbank has 24 hydro-panels for water-gathering in Kimball, West Virginia. Photo: Emily Allen/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

In McDowell County, West Virginia, access to clean water can be a challenge. Aging infrastructure, a shrinking tax base and lack of oversight affect the region’s water quality. That is why one community food bank is trying something different, to provide cleaner water to some who are in need.

Earlier this month, the Five Loaves and Two Fishes food bank and outreach center in Kimball debuted its new set of hydro-panels to the McDowell County community. 

They are like solar panels, but instead of using sunlight to create electricity, these hydro-panels pull moisture from the air and filter it with sunlight, to produce clean water.

According to information from developer Zero Amounts, each panel can hold up to eight gallons at a time in a mineralized reservoir. How fast the panels gather and filter water depends on how much sunlight is available, and the humidity. 

Linda McKinney pours a sample of water from her food bank’s hydro-panels. Photo: Emily Allen/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Altogether, food bank director Linda McKinney said her 24 panels should hold 192 gallons at full capacity. That might seem like a lot, but Five Loaves and Two Fishes provides food and other essentials to more than 800 McDowell County families each month. Bottled water is one of their most requested items. 

“There’s no way with that amount of panels that we could, you know, supplement everybody in the county with enough water,” McKinney said. 

“It is a small start, but it’s better than no water. That’s what I say about food. You know, a lot of times we don’t get the healthiest food, and I always tell people [that] in my world, some food is better than no food. You know, it keeps your stomach from growling.”

Linda McKinney’s husband shows a picture of a shed, from which they hope to pump water from their food bank’s new hydro-panels. Photo: Emily Allen/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The food bank got the hydro-panels with help from a California-based nonprofit called Dig Deep, which McKinney said visited McDowell County over the summer for a water quality study it released earlier this month.

“Dig deep was here for about a week,” she recalled. “And then they went back, and I kept in contact with this lady named Nora Nelson … and then one day she said, ‘Hey, I have this great opportunity, I think that would benefit you guys.’”

Dig Deep connected McKinney with Zero Amounts and the one2one USA Foundation, which paid for the panels. 

McKinney said she has not had to spend anything on the project herself. She added that she expects it to be fully operational by spring.

She and her husband were installing a shed a few feet away from the panels on Friday, where she will be able to pump water into one-and-five-gallon jugs for distribution.

Contractors still need to install pipes to connect the panels and the pump.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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‘Dark Waters’ Puts PFAS Saga On Big Screen As Ohio Valley Contamination Comes To Light

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Actor Mark Ruffalo in a film still from “Dark Waters.” Film Still: Courtesy Focus Features

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

The new film “Dark Waters” depicts the real-life story of the 20-year battle waged by attorney Rob Bilott against chemical giant DuPont.

We meet Bilott, played by Mark Ruffalo, as a young corporate defense lawyer living in Cincinnati. His grandmother, who lives in Parkersburg, West Virginia, gives his phone number to local farmer, Earl Tennant. Tennant lives next to a landfill where DuPont had been dumping a chemical called C8.

In a scene from the film, Tennant, played by actor Bill Camp, shows Bilott around his farm, where his cows are dying.

“You tell me nothing’s wrong here,” Tennant tells Bilott.

Bilott, with the begrudging blessing of his law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister, LLP, takes the case as a “small” favor for a family friend.

Over the course of the next two decades, documents released by DuPont during litigation would reveal that C8, or PFOA, a completely unregulated chemical, was toxic. The company had known this for decades, feared it was poisoning workers, and yet continued to dump the chemical into the Ohio River and air around its plant in Parkersburg without alerting the community or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Bilott’s fight in the Ohio Valley introduced America to PFOA and its related class of chemicals called PFAS. They’ve been used in everything from pizza boxes to flame-retardant foam sprays and in nonstick and stain-resistant products like Teflon. The film comes as new testing reveals widespread contamination of water systems in the region and regulators and lawmakers consider new rules on exposure to these toxic chemicals.

Broader Contamination

As concern about PFAS exposure grows Ohio Valley officials are stepping up efforts to identify the extent of contamination of water supplies.

Kentucky regulators recently released results of 81 water system tests around the state. Half tested positive for PFAS compounds. In about 82 percent of those samples, researchers found levels under five parts per trillion, much lower than EPA’s 70 parts per trillion health advisory issued in 2016.

Credit: Alexandra Kanik/Ohio Valley ReSource

However, it is higher than the health standards set by a handful of states for these chemicals, and some researchers believe 70 parts per trillion is not protective of human health. A recent study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences suggests that safe levels of PFAS chemicals are as low as .1 to 1 parts per trillion.

Researchers found the highest levels of contamination in eastern Kentucky along the Ohio River and in drinking water systems that pulled from waters connected to the river. At water systems that use surface water from the Ohio River, the results found a 100 percent detection rate for PFAS compounds. Groundwater connected to the Ohio River saw PFAS detections in about 41 percent of samples, according to the report.

Upriver lies the Washington Works Plant, formerly owned by DuPont and now operated by its spinoff company Chemours. The plant for decades produced PFOA to make Teflon. Chemours now uses it to produce other chemicals using another PFAS compound, GenX.

The Chemours facility, formerly the Dupont company’s site, in Washington, West Virginia. Photo: Glynis Board/Ohio Valley ReSource

The more recent testing by states reveals far more contamination than did earlier testing conducted to meet the EPA’s requirements under the agency’s Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule. That rule did not require testing for as many of the PFAS compounds, and did not require public disclosure of PFAS detections at low levels. For example, under that testing regimen, only two Kentucky communities were identified in 2016 as having PFAS compounds in drinking water. This raises questions about whether water customers have received adequate notice about PFAS chemicals in their water.

Ohio in September announced it would begin monitoring water systems near known contamination sites. In recent years, a growing number of communities have detected PFAS in their drinking water. Many U.S. military bases, where PFAS-laden firefighting foams were used, have measured high levels of contamination.

The advocacy organization Environmental Working Group estimates 110 million Americans drink water with dangerous PFAS levels. EPA estimates PFAS have been found in the blood of 98 percent of Americans.

These so-called “forever chemicals” don’t break down in humans or the environment due to the strength of their carbon-fluoride bond. It’s what makes PFAS chemicals highly effective at repelling water and oil.

A growing body of research shows that same characteristic makes these chemicals toxic in humans.

Bilott won a $670 million settlement with Dupont over its undisclosed contamination of the drinking water of 70,000 residents in West Virginia and Ohio. The outcome of the class action lawsuit also funded a 70,000-person health study into the effects of PFOA exposure. That allowed an independent panel to link exposure to six diseases including thyroid disease and testicular and kidney cancer.

“This is one of those rare circumstances where the community came together actually got the human studies done and actually was able to confirm, you know, that this chemical was causing harm,” Bilott said, speaking at a recent event hosted by the Washington Post Live.

Susan Pinney at her desk. Credit: Colleen Kelley/University of Cincinnati

Susan Pinney, a professor at the University of Cincinnati Department of Environmental Health at the College of Medicine, said the C8 study was incredibly important in understanding how exposure to these chemicals is affecting humans.

“They made a huge contribution to our understanding of health effects of PFOA,” she said.

Revisiting Regulation

While more states are seeking and finding evidence of PFAS contamination, guidance from federal regulators on at what level exposure to the chemicals is safe has not been finalized.

Recognizing growing concern, in February the agency announced it would take a series of actions to address the widespread contamination of fluorinated PFAS chemicals. The “PFAS Action Plan” included a commitment by EPA to set legally-enforceable drinking water standards, or Maximum Contaminant Levels, for PFOA and PFOS. EPA said it would also move forward with listing PFAS as hazardous under the Superfund law, which would make federal funding available for costly cleanup efforts.

Critics have questioned the agency’s expansive timeline for taking action. Documents have also emerged that show in-fighting between federal agencies over how best to regulate PFAS chemicals.

A report released last year by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, found PFAS chemicals can endanger human health at levels 7 to 10 times lower than the EPA says is safe. The Pentagon has questioned the price tag of regulatory action. The agency weakening EPA’s draft cleanup requirements for the chemicals. Last month a top defense official ignored the EPA guidance, instructing the military to use screening levels 10 times higher than EPA recommended when looking for the chemicals at its sites, according to reporting by Poltico.

The inaction has angered environmental advocates and some members of Congress. The House Oversight Committee’s Subcommittee on Environment has held four hearings on PFAS chemicals. Dozens of bills related to PFAS are snaking their way through both the House and Senate among debate about whether there is sufficient science to regulate the chemicals. One measure would add to the 2020 defense spending bill to speed up EPA’s timeline and regulate the entire class of PFAS chemicals.

“We need government to save people’s lives by protecting them from dangerous chemicals,” said Committee Chairman Rep. Harley Rouda from California at the latest hearing. “They did not know they were drinking and wouldn’t have drunk if the truth had not been shrouded by them from corporations that knew for decades how toxic these chemicals were, and are.”

While Republicans have said they broadly agree more needs to be done about PFAS contamination, some members have also attacked Bilott’s use of litigation against DuPont and questioned whether the science is sufficient.

“We should be careful about taking any sweeping actions that could have the unintended consequence of negatively impacting a broad segment of the economy, including public entities like hospitals and airports,” Rep. James Comer, a Republican from Kentucky and ranking member of the subcommittee testified. “Any legislative or regulatory actions we consider should be based on solid scientific understanding of the toxicity of specific compounds.”

Dr. Philippe Grandjean, of Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health. Photo: Harvard Chan School of Public Health

Philippe Grandjean, an adjunct professor at Harvard University who has spent his career studying the ways pollution impacts children, including PFAS chemicals, said there is ample evidence.

“The science is very strong and the public health consequences are really serious,” he said.

In addition to the six diseases linked by the Ohio Valley C8 study, he said other research has shown vaccines might not be as effective in children with high levels of PFAS exposure.

Pinney at the University of Cincinnati characterized the science as “emerging,” but said new findings are showing similar, worrisome trends. She said it will likely take time for new research to be incorporated in the regulatory process.

But at the same time, Pinney said, she expects a growing number of municipalities will begin testing and finding PFAS in their drinking water.

“To me where we’re at right now, we’re soon going to find that there are a whole lot more communities with exposed people than anyone thought,” she said.

While EPA determines what level of exposure is safe, a handful of states, including New York, New Jersey, and Vermont, among others, have adopted drinking water standards for some PFAS chemicals much stronger than EPA’s health advisory.

New Chemicals

Over the last few years, DuPont and other companies have phased out the manufacture of PFOA and PFOS.

However, replacement chemicals including GenX, which is manufactured by DuPont’s spinoff company, Chemours, have been found widely in the Cape Fear watershed in North Carolina. GenX is used at the Dupont facility near Parkersburg in the manufacture of fluoropolymers.

Earlier this year, EPA cited Chemours for releasing chemicals used to make GenX into the environment at both its North Carolina and West Virginia plants.

Bilott has remained focused on PFAS chemicals and he said the ongoing GenX contamination shows the need for strong regulation.

“It just shows you almost kind of what a whack-a-mole game we’re dealing with here,” he said. “As the information’s finally coming out about one of these, there’s the switch to another one that’s slightly different. So, we’ve got to really focus on this broad class of chemicals and deal with all in a comprehensive way.”

In a statement, DuPont said the film “misrepresents some things that happened years ago” and in some cases depicts “wholly imagined events.”

Attorney Rob Bilott (left) with actor Mark Ruffalo. Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features

Bilott, who has spent years embroiled in internal documents released by DuPont, said he thinks the facts speak for themselves.

“It is now in the blood of everyone. It’s in water all over the planet. I mean, these are facts,” he said. “And the story, I think people can see for themselves and they can judge for themselves exactly what really happened. And you know where the truth really is here.”

Bilott has filed a second class-action lawsuit against eight chemical companies on behalf of everyone in the U.S. who has PFAS chemicals in their blood. A judge in late September rejected the companies’ motion to dismiss the case and ruled it can proceed.

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EPA Proposes Changes To Federal Coal Ash, Wastewater Rules

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Photo: Kentucky Division of Waste Management

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

Federal environmental regulators released proposed changes to two rules related to the disposal of coal ash and wastewater from coal-fired power plants.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Monday announced its third round of changes to its 2015 rule regulating coal ash. Coal ash is one of the largest waste streams in the country and often contains toxic compounds like arsenic, lead and radium. Dozens of the waste sites dot the Ohio Valley, often along rivers.

The Obama-era regulation requires utilities to conduct groundwater monitoring at ponds and landfills, close leaking ash ponds and clean up polluted groundwater.

Last year, the Trump administration extended the closure deadline through October 2020. Now, it’s proposing to move the deadline two months sooner, in part to address legal challenges surrounding the rule.

The rule also lays out a series of provisions that would allow coal ash sites to remain open longer, including if the nearby coal-fired power plant is scheduled to close. Sites can also request a closure extension if the plant needs time to figure out how to dispose of other waste being placed into coal ash sites.

“At first glance they’re like, ‘oh, it used to be October. Now it’s August — that’s better,’” said Larissa Liebmann, an attorney with Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental watchdog group. “But then they’ve created all these alternatives, which give them this extra time based on various issues.”

The toxic residue from burning coal is a major concern in the Ohio Valley. An analysis by the ReSource and partner station WFPL found nearly every power plant covered under the EPA rules had coal ash waste sites with evidence of contaminated groundwater. At several sites, hazardous compounds are found in groundwater at levels that far exceed federal drinking water standards.

Click here to explore our interactive coal ash map. Credit: Alexandra Kanik/Ohio Valley ReSource

That mirrors data collected on a national level. An analysis of data collected under the 2015 coal ash rule, released this year by environmental groups, found more than 90 percent of the nation’s regulated coal ash repositories are leaking unsafe levels of toxic chemicals into nearby groundwater, including ash sites at more than 30 coal-fired power plants in the Ohio Valley.

Effluent Rule

The EPA is also proposing changes to another 2015 rule that regulates water discharged from power plants, also known as effluent.

The Steam Electric Power Plant Effluent Guidelines Rule set federal limits on the levels of toxic metals in wastewater that can be discharged from power plants. The rule required affected plants to install technology to reduce discharge.

Similar to the coal ash regulation, the wastewater rule was also embroiled in legal challenges.

In its proposed updates, the EPA is relaxing some pollution limits and extending the compliance deadline by two years. In exchange, the agency is promoting its voluntary incentives program.

In a press release, EPA said the new effluent rule would achieve greater pollution reductions than the 2015 rule, at a lower cost.

Environmental groups disagree and argue the rule change will instead expose millions of people to toxic pollution.

“Not only does [EPA Administrator Andrew] Wheeler’s proposal eliminate some of the strongest pollution limits required by the 2015 rule, it carves out new polluter loopholes for the industry,” Jennifer Peters, with Clean Water Action, said in a statement. “Wheeler’s proposal also claims that power plants will voluntarily adopt new, stricter standards, despite the fact that a similar program existed in the 2015 rule, and virtually no coal plants adopted it.”

Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities, praised EPA’s efforts to rewrite the effluent rule.

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