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Access to Clean Water

One Piece at a Time: Cleaning Trash from W.Va Waterways

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Zoma Archambault at one of his trash cleanup sites. He has spent the past year and a half cleaning up trash at abandoned campsites near rivers in Monongalia County. Photo: Caitlin Tan, West Virginia Public Broadcast

It is a hot, muggy day along the Monongahela River. Zoma Archambault is standing on a small, sandy beach about 10 minutes from Morgantown. It is one of the few along the river, as much of it is covered in thick brush and mud.

The beach used to be an informal camp spot. Zoma found it abandoned, with trash covering the ground in every direction. It is almost all picked up now, aside from some muddy clothes, a couple hypodermic needles and roof shingles.

The nearby stream flowing into the river erodes the dirt, exposing some of this older trash.

“Yeah there’s still trash, it’ll be eroding out for years,” Zoma says.

Toxic to Aquatic Life

In Morgantown abandoned campsites along the rivers, like the one described, are common. Over time the left-behind trash can break down and contaminate river ecosystems, which is something that concerns Zoma. He has volunteered the past year and a half cleaning these trash sites.

Trash at one of the abandoned campsites before Zoma began cleaning. He has cleaned 100, 33- and 55-gallon bags worth of trash this year. Credit: Zoma Archambault

“I strongly don’t believe in, of course, microplastics in the ocean – we have a tremendous problem in the world because of it,” he says.

Microplastics are the size of a sesame seed and nearly impossible to clean, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and they are toxic to aquatic life and birds. Microplastics can form from littered plastic products, like a grocery bag, that over time, break down into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually getting washed into our waterways. 

“Yeah, that stuff does not belong in our rivers,” Zoma says.

The sites Zoma cleans are usually hidden from the bike path, so they can go unnoticed. To get to this particular site Zoma bikes about 10 minutes from Morgantown on a paved trail, but the last stretch he points his bike down a narrow, veiled path leading into dense, green bushes.

Zoma

Zoma is unassuming. He is lanky and tall – he stands almost 6 and a half feet. He has a gray goatee and a head full of salt and pepper hair. He typically wears a pair of jeans cut off at the knees, with a loose cotton T-shirt. 

Zoma near the banks of the Monongahela River. He has focused most of his cleaning to the Mon River and Deckers Creek. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Zoma is always observing. While he is cleaning up abandoned camps, he often thinks about who the people were, why they had the things they did.

“The human memories and such. There’s some reason people carried that object with them,” he says.

But it is also personal for him. In the past 10 years Zoma says he has lost 25 friends to drugs and suicide, and so cleaning these sites, where people were likely suffering from addiction, is a healing process.

“So to help I think erase that so it’s not out here is also a huge reason. Just try to clear it up. And I like these places,” Zoma says. “West Virginia is a beautiful place and it doesn’t deserve to be trashed this way.”

Zoma grew up on the West Coast, but he settled in Morgantown 21 years ago.

More Needles

Zoma has seen the city grow, and in the past couple of years he has noticed more trash, and a different kind of trash. 

“These sites used to be full of beer bottles, and the transition is now to needles,” Zoma says.

Hypodermic needles Zoma found along the Monongahela River. Zoma says he has noticed more needles at abandoned campsites in recent years. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

And this is a trend other organizations have noticed too, Jonathan Suite operations manager for Friends of Deckers Creek, says. Deckers Creek is an almost 25-mile-long tributary of the Monongahela River that flows through Morgantown. 

“We come in with tongs and a sharps container and get rid of them. They are definitely common and it’s really unfortunate,” Jonathon says.

Friends of Deckers Creek dedicates a lot of time to cleaning up trash along the waterway. Just a couple weeks ago Jonathan cleaned up a site with a mattress pad, clothing and blankets. He says the trash is a river ecosystem hazard.

“It’s bad for all the aquatic life in the creek. And when you have a clean area I feel like people are less likely to dump there, as opposed to if it’s already a really nasty, trash-filled area,” he says.

And that is Zoma’s thinking too. The first site he cleaned was in Morgantown at Whitmore Park last year. There were over 300 hypodermic needles, three tents, several futons and other trash completely covering the grass.

“I remember returning like two weeks later just hoping somebody else had cleaned this up and nobody had,” Zoma says.

The Clean-up Process

Zoma attached a small trailer to his bike – which he calls ‘Big Red’ – and loaded up shovels, rakes, garbage bags and a machete for the thick brush. He began cleaning Whitemore Park a year and a half ago.

Zoma’s bike ‘Big Red.’ He attaches a trailer to Big Red to bring supplies to and from trash cleanup sites. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“We had to load stuff up on tarps to drag it out, like all the bedding. We couldn’t put that in bags, and we just made giant mounds of clothes. Mounds of clothes. It was amazing,” he says.

A lot of the sites Zoma cleans alone, but friends occasionally come and help haul the trash bags away. 

Zoma uses 33- and 55-gallon size trash bags. Just this year he has filled 100. 

He likes to document the sites, taking before and after photos and videos and posting them to Facebook.

Barbies, Teddy Bears, Chocolate Milk Bottles

Zoma especially likes to document sites when there is an excessive amount of trash or unique items left behind, which was the case with his most recent clean-up site.

It is still on the Monongahela River, and it is roughly the size of half a football field, with overgrown trees creating almost a roof. 

“Well this place is not perfect yet, but I tell you one thing is missing and that’s 25 bags of trash,” Zoma says.

There is still some work to do. But Zoma has gathered all the remaining trash into piles. 

Some trash left behind at an abandoned campsite along the Monongahela River. At this site, Zoma found 40 teddy bears. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

There is a Disney princess backpack, a Barbie with blonde hair, a chocolate milk bottle, Haines underwear and a moldy, medium-sized, brown teddy bear. 

“I’ll remove it sooner than later, or later than sooner. Not too sure,” he says.

There were 40 teddy bears that Zoma already threw out. 

Originally he had only found two hypodermic needles at this site, but as he is talking Zoma uses a stick to rustle around in the dead leaves. Ultimately he finds 18 needles within one square foot. 

Some of the teddy bears Zoma found. He says he likes to imagine why people had these things at one point in time. Credit: Zoma Archambault

“Well, so much for that,” he says.

Zoma uses the chocolate milk bottle to carry the needles out. 

Cleaning the Water

Primarily Zoma picks up trash on the banks of the rivers, but he does do some trash clean up in the water. He has focused mostly on Decker’s Creek.

“It amazes me just how shredded the plastic bags will be. It’s already working its way to be microplastic and it hasn’t even hit the major rivers yet,” Zoma says.

He has found bicycles, grocery carts, parts of bridges, furniture, old railroad ties and a lot of old coal slag.

Zoma uses a four-prong hook to pull out larger trash. The hook is about the size of a tennis ball. 

“It’s a grappling hook. It’s what I use to pull grocery carts out of the river,” he says.

But for smaller, magnetic trash, he uses a powerful magnet that is about the size of a grapefruit.

He walks along the banks of Decker’s Creek with the magnet. A big thunderhead is rolling in.

The magnet is attached to a long rope, which allows him to throw it in the river and reel it back in. Kind of like fishing.

“This is 65 feet of rope – I can throw the whole thing,” Zoma says.

Zoma tosses his magnet into Deckers Creek. He has pulled grocery carts, bikes, old railroad ties and coal slag out of the creek. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The water is dark, and Zoma has cleaned up this location before. He does not expect to catch anything.

“There’s something on there. It’s a steel ring of some sort,” Zoma says.

He puts the little bit of slag and metal he finds in a yellow bucket. He’ll throw it out later. 

There are hundreds of miles of waterways just in Monongalia County. Trash could potentially be everywhere. Even the spots Zoma has cleaned, eventually get re-trashed — he says it is almost expected. 

But, standing back on the banks of the Monongahela River, at one of his cleanup sites, Zoma smiles, looking at a beach that was once covered in trash. He is proud of the work he has done. 

This story is part of a recent Inside Appalachia episode exploring some of Appalachia’s most unique destinations, on the water and beneath the water. 

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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