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The contamination problem that no one talks about and that seems to defy solution

15 Aug 2018

A chemical threat to Michigan’s drinking water that regulators were unaware of and don’t know what to do about.  Sound familiar? Thinking Flint and lead in the water?  Well, you’d be wrong and it’s not just a Michigan problem.

The chemicals are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and they are now a national health concern as they are beginning to show up in all sorts of places including dumps, groundwater, lakes, and drinking water.  Michigan has been called “ground zero,” but it is by no means alone.

PFAS chemicals have been used to make cookware, clothes, shoes, furniture, and even food packaging!  They are also used in fire-fighting foams.  PFAS includes a family of chemicals but currently the focus has been on two of the PFAS chemicals, as we learn more, those concerns may expand.  Unlike many other chemicals, there has been little study on the safety of these chemicals.  What is known is that, like PCBs,  PFAS chemicals are stable (they don’t degrade), they bio accumulate (the higher up the food chain you are, the more you likely have) and they pose remediation challenges because of their stability.  Unlike PCBs, they are water soluble which makes them much harder to control.  As a result, they are widely found in the environment and are already present in the blood of virtually everyone in the developed world.

Some studies indicate that PFAS chemicals may:

  • affect growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children
  • lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant
  • interfere with the body’s natural hormones
  • increase cholesterol levels
  • affect the immune system
  • increase the risk of certain types of cancer

They are a human health and environmental concern but there is little consensus on what levels of these chemicals are safe in your system.

According to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), there are more than a dozen communities where PFAS has been detected.  Some Michigan communities have been discovered to be using PFAS-impacted groundwater for their drinking-water supply.

In November 2017, Governor Snyder issued executive order (EO) No 2017-4 creating a multi-agency “Michigan PFAS Action Response Team” to, among other things, “make inquiries, conduct studies, consult with federal agencies, and receive public comments.”  The State reportedly will test 1380 water systems and 460 schools for PFAS.

In December 2017, the legislature passed PA 201 which, inter alia,  included $23.2 million for state PFAS remediation.  It passed 109 to 1 in the House and 33-4 in the Senate but that may be a drop in the bucket as more sites are discovered.  This spring, MDEQ asked regulated wastewater treatment plants (WWTP) to conduct a screening of their industrial users to identify PFAS sources including landfills that treat their leachate through the WWTP; develop and implement a monitoring plan to evaluate the possible sources; reduce or eliminate PFAS sources; evaluate impacts and submit reports.

The EPA set a lifetime health advisory (LHA) level for two PFAS in drinking water, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). The LHA level is 70 parts per trillion (ppt, equal to 70 ng/L) for PFOA and PFOS combined, or individually if only one is present. The EPA has not set health advisory levels for other PFAS chemicals. The State of Michigan is using 70 ppt for decision making purposes.

In the absence of federally-enforceable limits, some states are developing their own guidance and enforcement limits. The limits set by the states range from 400 times higher to 5 times less than the current EPA advisory levels.

Litigation over this contaminant has already begun in New York, Minnesota, Michigan and many other states.

For a State that dealt with PBB contamination  in the 1970’s, a whole host of contamination issues from the 1970’s until now and then the Flint lead crisis, Michigan seems to have learned its lesson and is jumping on the PFAS problem with both feet but the ubiquity and complexity of PFAS appears to make this the biggest, most difficult and most expensive environmental issue Michigan may have ever faced.

What will be the top stories of 2015?

23 Jan 2015

edit_calendar_ssk_47433454Happy new year!  I know it’s almost February but as this is my first blog post of the year, I thought (particularly after hearing the State of the Union and the State of the State speeches)  I’d predict the big stories of 2015 in no particular order:

  • Wetland Rules – the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers finally proposed rules in 2014  to address the fallout of the Rapanos case.  The proposal was met with a firestorm of disapproval, particularly from the farming world.  Will they ever finalize them?
  • Brownfield TIF Legislation – after all that work last year, will the Legislature take up streamlining this program and expanding it to allow Michigan to be even more competitive in redeveloping brownfields?
  • EPA Greenhouse Gas Rules vs. Congress – in September, 2013, EPA issued a proposal for carbon pollution from new power plants; in June  2014, EPA issued a proposal to cut carbon pollution from existing power plants – the GOP and coal and oil interests in Congress have fought this for some time.  Will the rules be adopted and enforced?  Will there be enough time for electricity generators to get alternative plans in place before being forced to shutter their oldest, least efficient and most polluting plants?
  • Keystone Pipeline – President Obama and Congress have been locked in a politically charged dispute over the Keystone XL pipeline for almost 3 years now – he seemed to indicate in the State of the Union that he’d veto legislation – will he?
  • Energy Policy – Governor Snyder has pushed for an energy policy, legislation is expected this year and the Governor recently mentioned an intention to develop a new energy agency that would make Michigan more competitive for business.  What that will entail in light of the likely changes due to federal regulations will be interesting to see – will Michigan upgrade or discard its renewable portfolio standard? Can Michigan reduce electrical cost while improving both reliability and environmental performance?
  • Water Policy – the Governor’s long-awaited great lakes policy is expected this year.
  • Pipelines – in addition to the Keystone pipeline, there has been a lot of interest in pipelines in, under and around the Great Lakes – could there be federal and state changes there?
  • Detroit’s Water Authority – it is supposed to morph into a regional authority – as I said previously, the easy part was getting to the agreement last year – will the hard work succeed or will it fail, causing major shockwaves for roughly half of the State’s population?

Toilet to Tap? I don’t see overcoming the “ick” factor any time soon

2 Jun 2014

drinking_waterAs drought conditions settle in across much of the United States, some communities are beginning to look at the concept of “water reuse,” which sounds very conservationist.  Generally it means so-called “grey water” reuse where water that’s been used once (such as for laundry or car washes) is reused for other non-potable purposes. It also means the capture of rainwater for irrigation (think the barrels that some people have at the end of their downspouts). (more…)

Bees, pesticides and winter…. not a good combination.

28 May 2014

honey-beeEarlier this month a new report came out which heavily indicts certain commonly sold neonicotinoids pesticides in the collapse of bee colonies. Neonicotinoids are the first new class of insecticides in roughly 50 years and are different than most past pesticides because they are taken up through a plants’ roots or leaves and move through the plant like water and nutrients do.  Neonicotinoids are fairly safe for use around people and animals.

Since 2006, discussions and speculations about honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder have been rampant. There have been reports that the disorder wiped out roughly half of the commercial hives used to pollinate farm fields.  This is an environmental problem with huge commercial ramifications.

There are many species of fruits and nuts that cannot easily reproduce without the honeybee including such Michigan crops as apples, asparagus, cherries and blueberries (per the Michigan State University Extension).  Speculation as to what is causing the disorder has included high fructose corn syrup (see the attached article in the Smithsonian by fed to bees, these newer pesticides, and other causes.

Last year, the USDA and EPA released a report summarizing the “state of the art” knowledge of the situation and ultimately concluding that the disorder results from a confluence of causes focusing largely on a type of mite and acknowledging that  additional research was needed to determine risks from pesticides.

In the last year, I have seen many websites calling upon major home improvement chains to stop selling neonicotinoid insecticides. Here is one such on-line petition.  While I generally tend to discount on-line furor (think the anti-vaccination fringe), in this case, it appears that the petitioners may have a solid point here.  The new study reports that bees treated with a less than lethal dose of neonicotinoids vanished from their hives during the winter months and that those that survived failed to rear their young. While the mechanism by which the insecticide appears to cause these results is not understood, one fact came through, the colder the winter, the worse the effects.  Given the winter that we just came through, this is very troubling and recent reports seem to confirm serious losses.

 

Climate change adaptation; don’t put all your bananas in one basket

28 Apr 2014

Perhaps a thing of the past?

Perhaps a thing of the past?

Climate change seems to be in the press pretty much all the time these days.  There are stories about the UN reports on climate change (see also here); the President has a two-pronged plan (attack causes of climate change and harden systems against climate events) and, recently, the President requested $1 Billion in the 2015 Budget to support developing climate-resilient infrastructure.

A couple of years ago, a report prepared for the United Nations suggested that as the climate changed, three of the world’s biggest staple crops — corn, rice and wheat — would decrease in many developing countries, and the potato, which grows best in cooler climates, could also be affected by warmer temperatures and changing weather patterns.  The report suggested that bananas could replace potatoes in a warming world as a critical food source.

Unfortunately, now there are reports that the Cavendish banana that most of us buy at the grocery store is under threat of a seemingly unstoppable fungus.   You might say that this is alarmist non-sense and an entire fruit couldn’t be wiped out.  However, you’d be wrong – it happened with an earlier variety of banana called the Gros Michel which virtually no American under the age of 50 has ever eaten.  These bananas were reportedly in every way superior to the ones we eat today but were largely wiped out by a fungus similar to the one that is now ravaging the Cavendish variety.  This is an example of the risk of  cultivating only one type of fruit or vegetable – the same sort of mass production technique that led to the potato blight and famine in Ireland.

Of course, the best method to adapt and become resilient to climate change (although not the most economical) is to diversify – something we Americans have become less inclined to do when it comes to our desire for predictable and consistent groceries.  Will the fruit companies win the fight against the fungus? Will we replace the Cavendish with a new single type of banana (there are still hundreds of varieties mostly unknown to the United States)?  Will we find something else to grow instead of corn, wheat, rice and potatoes? Perhaps the much touted but less well known superfoods of quinoa, freekeh, or teff?  Time will tell, but one thing seems certain, greater diversity leads to greater resilience.  This is something that no environmental law or regulation is likely to fully address.

Winter slows composting

26 Apr 2014

10173295_10202676647935551_213056712_nDuring the recent warm-up, I checked on my backyard composters.   I have to admit  that, during the polar vortex of the last few months, I didn’t do much composter turning and, when I tried, I found that the contents were frozen solid!

Basically, the compost is in the same condition it was last fall – which is to say partially composted but nowhere near “garden ready.”  So, my Spring resolution is to get back to composting, to turn the composters daily (so far 5 days in a row) and to have a couple of good batches of compost to report on before mid-summer.

Earth Day at 44…. still crying?

22 Apr 2014

Earth Day brings me right back here

Earth Day brings me right back here

Happy Earth Day 44.  We have come a long way from the challenges and problems that led to the first Earth Day –  a 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California; the dead zone in Lake Eriesmog in Los Angeles and burning rivers in the Midwest.

The first Earth Day led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of environmental laws like the Clean AirClean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.  As the EPA and its state counterparts have continued to regulate, there has been a backlash of business and media outcry which certainly impacts the public’s views.

The challenges we face today are more complex and likely more daunting than those of 44 years ago.  We still have oil spills, but they are from rail cars, pipelines, larger ships and deeper wells.  Lake Erie and many other bodies of water are still challenged by more diffuse and “below the radar” sources of contamination.  While reducing the impacts of asbestos, lead and NOx from our daily lives, and healing the ozone hole, we now face questions regarding greenhouse gasses, smog impacts from and in China unlike anything LA ever faced, and the challenges and benefits posed by fracking.

Once the “low hanging fruit” of easy cleanups were “picked,” what we were left with was less shocking or engaging than dead fish and burning rivers.  Consequently, there’s much more debate about the best way to address them or whether they need to be addressed at all.  The issues are just as important – maybe more so, but it’s unlikely that our polarized nation would agree on what changes would be best, if any.