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Access to Clean Water

Mussel Woman: Biologist Passes Along Pearls Of Wisdom About Threatened Mussels

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Biologist Janet Clayton has studied freshwater mussels for much of her 30-year career. Photo: Brittany Patterson/Ohio Valley ReSource

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

Janet Clayton is standing thigh-deep in a back channel of the Elk River. Clad in a wetsuit and knee pads, the silver-haired biologist with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources reaches into a bright orange mesh bag submerged in water.

Inside are a half dozen mussels she plucked from the rocky river bottom.

“This is called a long solid,” Clayton says. An earthy colored shell about the size of a computer mouse sits in the palm of her hand. “As it gets older it gets really long.”

Biologists measure and monitor the mussels at the Elk River site. Photo: Brittany Patterson/Ohio Valley ReSource

Her bag also includes a pocketbook mussel, wavy-rayed lampmussel and kidneyshell.

The biologically diverse waterways of the Ohio Valley are home to more than 100 species of freshwater mussels. Each can filter five to 10 gallons of water daily. But pollution, land-use change and a changing climate threaten their very existence. They’re among the most endangered animals in the United States.

Clayton, a West Virginia native, began her career researching aquatic invertebrates but quickly switched gears to studying the state’s mussels and never looked back. She has worked with them for three decades and leads West Virginia’s mussel program, which she helped develop.

As Clayton approaches retirement next June, she is reflecting on how the field has grown and changed. Today, scientists know a lot more about freshwater mussels and how to protect them, partly due to her work.

Some other biologists call her a “hero” for the often overlooked species. But just as Clayton prepares to pass on her pearls of wisdom, she is also sounding an alarm about the population decline she has documented, and what that says about river quality.

“Mussels live for decades in our streams,” Clayton said. “So, they’re like the canary in the coal mine.”

Biologists at work in the Elk River. Photo: Brittany Patterson/Ohio Valley ReSource

Mussel and Flow

In addition to filtering water, mussel excrement provides food for macroinvertebrates and benthic critters. Mussels themselves are a food source for many mammals, and the bivalves also help keep river bottoms in place.

To protect and preserve freshwater mussels, Clayton and her team use a three-pronged approach.

“Surveys, monitoring and restoration are kind of the three components,” she said.

Mussel shells along Kentucky’s Green River. Photo: Jeff Young/Ohio Valley ReSource

Working with partners across state and federal agencies in the Ohio Valley, Clayton developed mussel surveying methods that have been widely adopted. Her team has also set up 26 long-term monitoring sites, which helps the team assess the health of the state’s mussel population. The researchers also help restore mussels to waterways, sometimes by relocating parts of healthy stock. Other times, lab-grown mussels are used.

“One of the important things that scientists have learned in the last couple of years is how to grow them in captivity without their specific host fish,” said Tierra Curry, a Kentucky-based scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which advocates for federal protections for mussels and other threatened species.

“So now, the knowledge to be able to breed them and save them is available, but they don’t have the funding that they need to keep them from going extinct,” she said.

Curry said Clayton’s work on mussels has been very important to the field.

“Janet Clayton is a total hero for freshwater mussels,” she said. “She’s been such an asset to West Virginia and to the whole study of freshwater mussels.”

On the Elk 

One aspect of that study is tracking mussels found at long-term monitoring sites. On a recent weekday, Clayton and a handful of researchers clad in wetsuits and goggles bobbed in the gurgling Elk River.

Bright yellow string shimmers beneath the surface dividing the river bottom into five-by-five meter squares, resembling a giant underwater game of tic-tac-toe.

The scientists are plucking every mussel they can find out of the water and placing neon flags in their wake.

“When we go back, we can put the mussel in a hole,” Clayton said. “So it’s easier, less energy-consuming for that mussel to rebury into the substrate.”

Each mussel will be tagged with a small silver plastic tag and measured.

“So we’ve actually had mussels in here who’ve been tracked for the 15-year period we’ve been monitoring here,” she said.

Five years ago, Clayton and her team pulled hundreds of dead and dying three-ridge mussels from this river. The cause remains a mystery.

“We have no idea,” she said. “We’ve gone through investigations trying to figure out what’s the problem.”

Good quality water is vital to the health of mussels. And humans have not always treated waterways with care. Chemical discharges, excess sediment and dams pose challenges to mussels.

The team has successfully restored mussels after mortality events and have even seen once mussel-free streams come back. But there are also examples, like at this site in the Elk River, where the mussels aren’t flourishing, and it’s unclear why.

As she nears retirement, Clayton said she fears legacy impacts from coal mining, such as acid mine drainage, mean some waterways will never again be healthy enough to support mussels.

And new threats have emerged. Climate change could alter water flow and temperatures, and the growing natural gas industry brings water-intensive processes and pipelines that are being constructed through waterways.

“I’m concerned. I’m very concerned,” she said. “If mussels are dying – which in this case, they are – if mussels are dying, what’s in this water that’s causing them to die? We need to wake up and pay attention to what’s out there.”

Access to Clean Water

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

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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.

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Access to Clean Water

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

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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.”

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

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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.

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