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Access to Clean Water

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.

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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Access to Clean Water

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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