Connect with us

Access to Clean Water

These Citizens Stepped in to Protect Their Water When Ohio Did Not

Published

on

Leatra Harper. Photo: The Allegheny Front

Ten years ago, the fracking industry was already booming in Pennsylvania, but people in Ohio were just starting to hear about it. Many were excited that it would help eastern Ohio’s struggling rural economy. 

But Leatra Harper worried that the tradeoff would be their health and the environment. 

Harper says her grandfather died from black lung. And his father had worked to unionize coal miners. 

“I don’t know if this is in my DNA but I was just brought up that right is right and wrong is wrong,” she said.

Harper started the FreshWater Accountability Project, to protect Ohio waters from the next energy industry – natural gas.

“It weighs on your consciousness, and somebody’s got to do something,” she said.

Each fracked well uses millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and chemicals. Much of this brine water can flow back to the surface as wastewater. 

Harper heard that a company, Patriot Water Treatment, had started working with the city of Warren, to send frack waste through their sewage treatment plant. She calls it the beginning of her, “…trip down the rabbit hole with the fracking industry.”

Warren Hit Hard by the Recession

In Warren, that trip started in 2009, when Tom Angelo was director of the city’s Water Pollution Control Works. “Fracking was something of great interest. It had a lot of promise to it,” he said.

The local economy had tanked in the recession, and according to Angelo, the city lost millions in tax revenue. Even worse, to him, the city lost jobs for its residents.

I was looking at the fact that General Motors had shut down, Thomas Steel had shut down. RG Steel had shut down. Mittal Steel had shut down,” he listed employers in the area. 

Patriot’s proposal to Warren came at a good time. Angelo says it promised a million dollars a year in revenue. 

“So when you’re looking at a two and a half million dollar deficit. You have choices,” he said.

The city chose to sign an agreement with Patriot and, after state approvals in 2010, began accepting Patriot’s wastewater.

The company’s president, Andrew Blocksom, declined an interview, citing family health issues. 

According to Angelo, Patriot would treat frack wastewater, most of it from Pennsylvania and West Virginia, in its own treatment plant to remove heavy metals, and other pollutants before sending through the city sewers to Warren’s treatment plant, which would essentially dilute the wastewater. From there, it would be released to the Mahoning River. 

The Mahoning joins the Shenango River in Pennsylvania, and forms the Beaver River – which is the drinking water supply for Beaver Falls and other communities.

Pennsylvania Stops Frack Wastewater Going to Treatment Plants

It wasn’t long into the fracking boom when elevated concentrations of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) known to be in fracking wastewater were found in the rivers in Western Pennsylvania. One pollutant in particular, bromide, forms chemicals linked with cancers and birth defects when mixed with disinfectants in drinking water treatment plants. 

In 2011, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection requested that drillers voluntarily stop sending wastewater to public sewage plants and commercial treatment facilities in Pennsylvania. 

Harper, who had started the FreshWater group, wanted Warren, Ohio, to follow Pennsylvania’s lead.

We took it upon ourselves to appeal directly to Tom Angelo giving him our concerns,” Harper said. They shared studies showing high levels of radioactivity in frack waste, “…and other things that were completely ignored,” she said.

In a recent interview, Angelo still dismisses concerns about radiation in this wastewater. “It’s a naturally occurring radioactive material,” he said. “It’s not a problem. Relax.” 

Angelo wasn’t alone in this view. Ohio lawmakers were also reclassifying radioactivity in frack waste to reduce regulation around it. 

Saying ‘No’ to Patriot

Meanwhile, in 2012, Warren’s treatment plant permit to discharge waste into the Mahoning River needed to be renewed by OEPA. The new permit had a surprise for the city. It banned the sewage treatment plant of accepting oil and gas waste. 

“That was Ohio EPA is backhanded way of saying ‘no’ to Patriot,” said environmental attorney Megan Hunter, who worked with FreshWater Accountability Project. 

This made Angelo, who was still director of Warren’s plant, angry. He says Patriot had built a $3.5 million treatment facility based on the previous approvals by the agency.

“A government is not in the business of putting business out of business. A government is in business to promote it,” he said.

The city of Warren and Patriot sued the state.

Ambiguity Around Regulating Fracking Wastewater

Documents from the case, heard by the Ohio Environmental Review Appeals Commission (ERAC), show there was ambiguity around which agency had the authority to regulate the flow of frack waste through a public sewage plant: the Ohio EPA or the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR).

ERAC’s decision struck down Ohio EPA’s authority to prohibit Warren from processing oil and gas waste, and handed it to ODNR. 

But the way Angelo saw it, Patriot and the city had prevailed. “We won,” he said.

OEPA declined to comment. 

ODNR’s Mark Bruce said, “The Division [Oil and Gas Resources Management] never issued a permit to Patriot.” Bruce declined to say why.

Despite this, Warren’s sewage plant resumed accepting treated frack waste from Patriot.

Violations Begin

FreshWater Accountability Project was concerned about pollution going into the Mahoning River. When the group’s attorney, Hunter, reviewed Warren’s pollutant discharge reports between 2014 and 2016, she saw violations. 

“It was all right there. Warren was clearly violating its discharge permit,” Hunter said.

Not only was Warren violating its permit, issued by the Ohio EPA, Patriot was exceeding its discharge limits to the sewage treatment plant, set by Warren, for pollutants like zinc, ammonia and, in one case, 68 times the limit of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), which includes salts known to come from frack waste.

By this time, Angelo was retired from the city and had started consulting for Patriot.

The environmental advocates found emails from the new director of the Warren treatment plant, Ed Haller, to city leaders and the Ohio EPA, outlining Patriot’s pollution violations, and their impact on the plant.

“[Haller] laid out in those emails that the waste [from Patriot] was so high in TDS, so high in salts, that it was harming their ability to process their own waste,” Hunter said.

But the city, and the state, continued to allow Patriot’s waste to flow through the sewage plant.

“They could have still said to Patriot, ‘This is oil and gas waste, and it is hurting our plant. And you have to adhere to this lower limit’,” Hunter said. “But they didn’t say that.”

Citizen Enforcers Step Up

Megan Hunter. Photo: Julie Grant

Hunter says the government wasn’t acting, even though Patriot and Warren were clearly violating water permits.  

“A violation of a term of a discharge permit is a violation of the Clean Water Act,” Hunter explained. “And that means a citizen can access what’s called the Citizen Suit Provision of the Clean Water Act, and they can file what’s called a Notice of Intent to sue. And that’s what we did.”

The group then filed their lawsuit in federal court in June 2017. Within a month, Warren stopped accepting frack waste from Patriot. 

And earlier this year, the city settled out of court with FreshWater Accountability Project. 

The mayor of Warren, William Franklin, did not return The Allegheny Front’s calls for comment. The city services director, Enzo Cantalamessa, declined to comment, citing continued litigation related to this case. 

Meanwhile, Harper of FreshWater Accountability Project has been vilified as a radical environmentalist who cost the city money. Harper says she put her group’s finances on the line for the public.

She says frack waste was harming the city’s own treatment plant, and potentially the drinking water for thousands of people downstream, and no one – not the city, not Ohio regulators – was stopping the industry. Until her lawsuit.

“[The lawsuit] was kind of as a last resort of course when all reason fails,” she said. “It’s very, very expensive and…sometimes it’s hard to find people to really stand up to that industry because it’s so huge and they have all the money and we don’t.”

But now, the US EPA is shutting down this whole question. As of August 29, 2019 the federal regulator is prohibiting public wastewater treatment plants across the country from accepting frack wastewater.

This article was originally published by the Allegheny Front. It is part of the series, “Who’s listening?” examining claims made by Ohio residents, and how state regulators have responded, supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Sears-Swetland Family Foundation.

This story was updated on July 31, 2019 to include comments from Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which were provided after the article was originally published. 

Access to Clean Water

New Testing Reveals ‘Forever Chemicals’ In More Water Systems Across OH, PA, U.S.

Published

on

Parkersburg, West Virginia. Photo: Lexi Browning/100 Days in Appalachia

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

New testing by the Environmental Working Group has identified the presence of toxic fluorinated chemicals, broadly known as PFAS, in the tap water of dozens of cities across the U.S. where contamination was not previously known.

EWG, an advocacy organization that tracks environmental pollutants in consumer products, sampled water in 44 places between May and December 2019. The testing revealed the presence of so-called “forever chemicals” in 34 water systems, including in the Ohio cities of Columbus and Cincinnati, as well as in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Previous testing from the group found 10 PFAS compounds in tap water in Louisville, Kentucky.

The so-called “forever chemicals” persist in the environment and in the human body and have been found in numerous water systems in the Ohio Valley. PFAS chemicals were used in flame-retardant foam sprays and in the manufacture of nonstick and stain-resistant products.

David Andrews, a senior scientist with EWG, said the new testing shows how frequently PFAS chemicals are found in water systems across the country.

“I think what really struck out to me is that we know these chemicals are widespread in blood, but it’s still shocking to see that many of these major cities across the across the country, at least all the ones we tested, had so many different compounds in their water,” he said. “And at levels that were somewhat striking in terms of their potential for impacting health.”

Two per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals — PFOA and PFOS — have been linked to negative health effects. A medical study of more than 70,000 people exposed to PFOA, or C8, dumped by DuPont’s Washington Works plant near Parkersburg, West Virginia, linked exposure to the chemical with multiple health problems from cancer to reduced immune function.

All of the newly-tested systems reported levels of PFAS chemicals lower than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory of 70 parts per trillion, with the exception of Quad Cities, Iowa. The EWG report says water tested there showed 109.8 ppt of PFAS.

Some researchers believe EPA’s health advisory 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.

The EPA is currently debating whether and how to set legally-enforceable drinking water limits for some PFAS chemicals. Meanwhile, a handful of states have taken action to set more protective drinking water standards.

Last fall, Ohio announced it will begin testing some public and private water systems for the presence of PFAS chemicals. A recent report by the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet found half of all water systems tested in Kentucky had PFAS contamination.

Continue Reading

Access to Clean Water

Ohio Valley Residents Among Millions In America Lacking Access To Clean Water, Sanitation

Published

on

Photo: Courtesy Red Bird Mission

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

Communities across the Ohio Valley are among an estimated 2 million Americans that do not have consistent access to clean drinking water and basic indoor plumbing, according to a report published in November by two nonprofits, DigDeep and the US Water Alliance.

The report titled, “Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States,” synthesized data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, including its American Community Survey, to identify six areas of the country where access to clean water is lagging. That includes some communities in Appalachia, which the report lists among six “hot spots” for inadequate water access.

“From all the data sources we looked at, we know at least 2 million people in the U.S. don’t have access to running water or a working flush toilet,” said George McGraw, founder of DigDeep. “But we also know because of some errors with the census that the number is probably much higher than that.”

The analysis finds people of color, low-income individuals living in rural areas, tribal communities, and immigrants are more likely to go without running water and basic indoor plumbing. Native Americans are 19 times more likely than any other group to have trouble accessing clean water.

The report states there are multiple reasons why some communities find themselves lacking access to clean water. One is a steep decline in federal funding for water infrastructure. Historical discrimination has also played a role.

In the 1980s, the federal government started placing more emphasis on loans over grants for water infrastructure. As a result, federal funding for water and wastewater systems has dropped from 63 percent in 1977 to less than 9 percent today.

Nationwide, the report finds the number of Americans without access to complete plumbing has declined. Between 2000 and 2014, those without water access dropped from 1.6 million to 1.4 million. However, the rate of decline has fallen in recent decades. For example, between 1950 and 1970 the percentage of the population lacking complete plumbing dropped from 27 percent to 5.9 percent.

“This suggests that the remaining communities lacking access face particularly entrenched challenges,” the report states.

Further analysis of state-level data by researchers at Michigan State University showed that while states made improvements, others including, Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Dakota, and Puerto Rico, saw the number of people without access to clean water grow.

“We’re worried in those places fewer people might have access to a working tap or toilet tomorrow than they do today,” McGraw said. “That’s a very alarming trend in a country that is as prosperous and has been as successful as we in extending services to all.”

West Virginia

In McDowell County, West Virginia, for example, the authors highlight three communities where crumbling infrastructure and population loss are creating a perfect storm.

In the town of Keystone, for example, the water system was constructed decades ago by coal companies that no longer exist. Today, the community, which stopped funding its police department in 2018, does not have the tax base to repair the leaking pipes.

In the nearby community of Mile Branch, many residents are not connected to any type of water system. Instead, some collect water from streams or other natural sources.

But the springs and wells many people used to gather drinking water may not be safe either.

When households are not connected to sewer systems or septic systems, waste is sometimes piped straight into nearby streams. The practice, also known as straight piping, can contaminate water used for drinking and cause health problems including staph infections and gastrointestinal issues. Water sampling from 2012-2014 in southeastern Kentucky found as many as 64 percent of the sites exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency threshold for E. coli bacteria.

Despite the region’s challenges, the report’s authors also highlight solutions across Appalachia that boost access to clean water.

For example, in McDowell County, the authors profiled the Five Loaves & Two Fishes food bank, which has become the de facto source of bottled water across the county. As a trusted organization within the community, the food bank is able to not only deliver drinking water, but check in with elderly and other vulnerable residents.

In southeastern Kentucky, the faith-based organization Red Bird Mission has installed a water filling station. The authors note that some residents fill up at night to avoid being seen, “an indication that life without water access still carries a stigma.”

Radhika Fox, CEO of the US Water Alliance, said the prolonged failure to provide water and sanitation access in Appalachia is, in part, a question of the country’s priorities. She said while for most communities local taxes can fund maintenance and service, in impoverished, rural communities that may not be the case.

“We need to honor communities that live in rural America,” Fox said. “And when maybe the math might not always pencil out, we need to figure out how we utilize public investment to build that water safety net for those communities as well.”

Continue Reading

Access to Clean Water

W.Va. Democratic Lawmakers Announce Plans To Tackle PFAS Chemicals

Published

on

West Virginia Del. Evan Hansen. Photo: Perry Bennett/West Virginia Legislative Photography

A group of Democratic West Virginia lawmakers announced plans Monday to introduce legislation to regulate a group of toxic, man-made fluorinated chemicals. 

Del. Evan Hansen, who represents most of Monongalia County, and a group of colleagues, said the “Clean Drinking Water Act” would address the release of per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, also called PFAS chemicals. The class of chemicals includes C8, or PFOA, the chemical produced and dumped in the Parkersburg area for decades by chemical giant DuPont. 

The effect of the chemical and related events were recently brought to the silver screen in the blockbuster film, “Dark Waters” starring Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hatheway. 

Hansen said the bill, which is still being drafted, would require facilities that use or produce PFAS chemicals to disclose that information to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. The DEP would be required to monitor these facilities and regulate their discharges of these chemicals into waterways. Currently, PFAS chemicals are unregulated nationwide. 

The second component of the bill would set legally-enforceable drinking water limits, or Maximum Contaminant Levels, for some PFAS chemicals. 

The legislation comes at a time when both U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state regulators are increasingly testing for, finding and seeking regulations for these so-called “forever chemicals.”

In recent years, a growing number of communities have detected PFAS in their drinking water. The chemicals are widely used including in everything from pizza boxes to flame-retardant foam sprays and in nonstick and stain-resistant products like Teflon.

Ohio announced in September it would begin monitoring water systems near known contamination sites. In Berkeley County, federal researchers are currently studying residents’ exposure to C8 after it was found at a water treatment plant in Martinsburg. The contamination was likely due to groundwater contamination from the Shepherd Field Air National Guard Base, which used PFAS-laden firefighting foam.

Research conducted in the Mid Ohio Valley after DuPont’s settlement over C8 contamination linked chemical exposure to six diseases including thyroid disease, as well as testicular and kidney cancer.

“I think we owe it to the citizens of West Virginia, especially considering we were ground zero for the impacts of many of these chemicals, we owe it to the people of West Virginia to take matters into our own hands,” Hansen said.

The EPA is currently weighing how to set drinking water standards for PFOS and PFOA. A handful of states have set their own limits, much lower than the EPA’s current health advisory of 60 parts-per-trillion. 

Hansen said if the bill is passed, West Virginia would examine both EPA’s decisions and state actions. He also noted he hopes to put safeguards in the legislation so that if contamination is found, rate payers and cash-strapped municipalities won’t be on the hook for paying for cleanup. 

“What we are going to get out of this is the chance of transparency,” said Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, which supports the bill. “Companies will have to tell us what is in our water.”

Rosser and others said clean water is key to boosting the state’s economy. 

“The people of our state know polluting industries drive away clean industries,” said Del. John Doyle, a Democrat from Jefferson County. 

When asked about the bill’s chances of making its way through the Republican-controlled Legislature, Hansen said he recognized it could be a tough sell, but said he’s open to hearing any ideas from his colleagues across the aisle or other interested groups. 

“I don’t think clean drinking water is a partisan issue,” he said. 

During the 2020 session, Hansen, who is an environmental scientist, said he also intends to reintroduce a proposed amendment to the state’s Bill of Rights that would enshrine clean air, water and the preservation of the natural environment as constitutional rights for current and future generations. 

The measure was introduced last session and had more than 30 co-sponsors. Two other states — Pennsylvania and Montana — have adopted a similar constitutional amendment. If passed, the environmental rights amendment would serve as a guiding principle for state leaders and regulatory agencies.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Continue Reading

Trending