Category Archives: Business and industry

New toxic chemical law begins to review most-dangerous compounds

The first 10 toxic chemicals to be reviewed under the amended Toxic Substances Control Act were announced this week by the Environmental Protection Agency. After review, these chemicals could be banned or significantly restricted in their use.

Photo:André Künzelmann, Wikimedia commons
Photo:André Künzelmann, Wikimedia commons

As specified by law, the first 10 chemicals were chosen from 90 listed in the TSCA Work Plan, based on their high hazard and the likelihood of human and environmental exposure.

Incidentally, seven of the 10 chemicals to be reviewed are contaminants that have reached sources of drinking water at various sites across the country. Six of the seven are known or suspected of causing cancer in humans.

These are the seven chemicals known to contaminate drinking water:

  • 1,4-Dioxane: A solvent used in adhesives, inks and other consumer applications, dioxane can also contaminate indoor air.
  • 1-Bromopropane: A solvent used in adhesives and degreasers, it was once a common dry-cleaning fluid. In addition to drinking water, the compound has been found to contaminate indoor air, surface water, groundwater and soil.
  • Carbon tetrachloride: A strong solvent once used in cleaning, fire extinguishers and refrigeration, the sweet-smelling contaminant has also been found in indoor air, surface water, groundwater and soil.
  • Methylene Chloride: Another solvent, this chemical has been used as a paint stripper and degreaser and in special applications. It has also been found in indoor air, groundwater and soil.
  • N-methylpyrrolidone: This solvent was once used in the petroleum, textile and pharmaceutical industry. Contamination has also been found in indoor air. While not a carcinogen, it has been found to cause reproductive problems.
  • Trichloroethylene (TCE): A solvent used to clean many materials, it has also been found in indoor air, surface water, groundwater and soil.
  • Tetrachloroethylene or perchloroethylene: Highly stable and nonflammable, this solvent is commonly used in dry-cleaning. Other than drinking water, it has been found to contaminate indoor air, groundwater and soil.

The other three chemicals making the list are:

  • Asbestos: A proven carcinogen, asbestos has been used in many applications, from floor tiles to brakes, mostly involving the use of fibrous or heat-resistant materials. Today, most uses are banned in the U.S., but some imported products still contain asbestos, and asbestos diaphragms are still used in the electrolytic production of chlorine gas.
  • Cyclic Aliphatic Bromide Cluster (HBCD): A flame retardant used in polystyrene foam, textiles and electrical and electronic appliances. Can cause acute toxicity in aquatic species.
  • Pigment Violet 29: A dye used to color a variety of materials, this chemical can cause aquatic toxicity.

I’m pleased to see that the EPA is still referring to the amended law as the Toxic Substances Control Act. (See press release.) I was not looking forward to using the more elaborate name — the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. Some people are shortening the name to the Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act, or LCSA.

The EPA will now evaluate these chemicals to determine whether they pose “an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment.” The agency will begin with a scoping document to describe the hazards, exposure risks, types of use and susceptible populations. Risk evaluations will be based on existing studies, but the EPA can call for more research, if needed.

Risk evaluations must be completed within three years. If the EPA determines that a chemical poses an unreasonable risk, the agency must take action within two years after such a determination is made.

General aspects of the revised law are covered in a story I wrote a month ago for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound as part of my reporting project on the Chemicals of Emerging Concern.

How many more chemicals will be reviewed for safety depends in part on funding. At least 20 risk evaluations must be underway within 3.5 years, but more could be accomplished with extra congressional funding or if a business wishes to push ahead on a specific chemical by paying for the analysis.

What will happen after President-Elect Donald Trump takes office adds uncertainty to the future of chemical testing. It seems unlikely that Congress will repeal the act, since it was approved with overwhelming bipartisan support. Trump has said he would like to eliminate the EPA — but Trump has said a lot of strange things that don’t qualify as formal proposals.

With Trump’s support, Congress could cut funding to the EPA, leading to repercussions for a variety of environmental programs, not just those dealing with chemicals or safe drinking water. We’ll have to see what happens.

Some groups opposed to the use of asbestos have celebrated EPA’s new legal authority over the substance, but they worry what Trump might be able to do, since he has expressed support for asbestos as a building material.

“With the transfer of power, the EPA as we know it will change,” Linda Reinstein, president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, writes in the Huffington Post. “Trump’s administration could well usher in a resurgence in rampant use of this known human carcinogen by encouraging development and further deregulating industry.”

The EPA used the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1989 to ban most uses of asbestos, but industry successfully sued the agency to get the ban lifted. The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled, among other things, that the EPA failed to show that the proposed restrictions were the “least burdensome” approach to reduced risk. The George W. Bush administration did not appeal the ruling, which stood until the law was updated last summer.

The new version does not allow cost to be a factor in assessing risk. Although cost can be considered when determining restrictions, the law no longer requires a “least-burdensome” approach.

A good story by writer Britt E. Erickson about asbestos, the new law and the incoming administration was published this week in Chemical and Engineering News.

Upgrade to North Pacific fishing fleet benefits Puget Sound economy

A major “modernization” of the North Pacific fishing fleet has begun, bringing new jobs to the Puget Sound region and a potential boost of $1.3 billion in total economic activity over the next 10 years, according to a new study.

Fishermen’s Terminal from the Ballard Bridge, Seattle. Photo: Joe Mabel, Wikimedia Commons
Fishermen’s Terminal from the Ballard Bridge, Seattle. // Photo: Joe Mabel, Wikimedia Commons

If economic and environmental conditions allow, 37 new fishing boats and fish-processing vessels over 58 feet long will be built, bringing new efficiencies to fishing and increased safety to those working in the North Pacific — an area off the Alaskan coast. Most North Pacific vessels over 58 feet are home-ported in Puget Sound.

Ship-building companies in the Puget Sound region are expected to be the primary beneficiaries of this modernization, as half of all the new vessels will come out of Washington state, according to predictions in the report. The study was conducted by the McDowell Group, an Alaska-based consulting company hired by the Port of Seattle and Washington Maritime Federation.

Although many factors are in play, a key impetus for this modernization is the development of catch shares — a type of management system that divides the allowable harvest into individual fishing quotas, or IFCs. This management regime, sometimes called fisheries “rationalization,” avoids the wasteful and sometimes dangerous race once seen among fishing vessels, as each crew tries to catch the most fish within a specified time period or before a total quota is reached.

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What comes next under water-quality standards imposed by the EPA?

The Environmental Protection Agency approved new water-quality standards for Washington state this week, overriding a plan approved by Gov. Jay Inslee and the state Department of Ecology.

It was a rare posture for the EPA. Now the state will be pressured to appeal the EPA standards to federal court. Cities and counties as well as some industrial organizations are clearly unhappy with the EPA’s action, while environmental and tribal representatives got most of what they wanted.

The basic structure of polychlorinated biphenyls, where the number and location of chlorine atoms can vary.
The basic structure of polychlorinated biphenyls, where the number and location of chlorine atoms can vary.

The EPA action is especially unusual, given that this state is known for some of the strongest environmental regulations in the country. After much dispute, Ecology finally agreed to much higher fish-consumption rates without increasing the cancer-risk rate, leading to more stringent standards for many of the chemicals. But Ecology had its own ideas for the most troublesome compounds with implications for human health. They include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), arsenic and mercury. For background, see Water Ways, Oct. 18, 2015.

Some news reports I saw this week said EPA’s action will lead to salmon that are safer to eat. But that’s not at all certain, and opponents say it is unlikely that the revised limits on chemical pollution will have any practical effect on compounds that affect human health.

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Amusing Monday: The evolution and danger of packaging drinks by six

When I was a young child, we didn’t have to worry about wildlife getting strangled by six-pack rings, because these plastic binders for cans had not been invented yet. I was 9 years old in 1961 when this simple, convenient form of packaging was invented, so I clearly remember the transition. (See Hi-Cone history.)

At the time, nobody predicted the conservation consternation that would be created by such a simple piece of plastic. During the 1970s and up to present, pictures of entrapped birds and other sea creatures became common, suggesting that we at least cut the plastic to save the animals. The first video provides a story of potential revenge.

Before the invention of six-pack rings, people bought soft drinks and beer in cardboard packages, which sort of wrapped around the cans. Pabst Blue Ribbon may have been the first beer sold in cardboard cartons (second video), although Coca Cola may have started the phase. The Coke company claims to be the first to take its bottles out of wooden crates and begin offering cardboard packaging for consumers as early as 1923.

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Amusing Monday: Beer ads reveal difference between the sexes

As a product purchased by consumers, beer has a long history of generating funny television commercials. Hahn, an Australian brand of beer, is responsible for some of the funniest commercials ever seen in that country, according to Duncan McLeod in “The Inspiration Room,” a blog that comments on media creativity.

Because I write about water issues, I thought it would be amusing to share three related videos that show how men and women sometimes see water recreation in different ways. I won’t spoil the surprises, since you can watch all three videos on this page.

The first television commercial, from 2003, was directed by Paul Middleditch for Clemenger BBDO in Melbourne. The ad won the award for “Outstanding Funny TV Commercial” at the 2003 Australian Comedy Awards.

The second commercial, released in 2004, also was directed by Paul Middleditch for Clemenger BBDO. It seems to follow a theme of sophistication, like the first video. While the ad appears to be filmed at a Mediterranean resort, it was actually performed in Sydney over a two-day period, according to Duncan McLeod.

The third Hahn video, involving a gondola and a fish, was created two years later and released in November 2005. The same team of creators and filmmakers was involved.

As Duncan McCleod reported the following January:

“Clemenger’s TV Producer De Giorgio says that the commercial was shot on location in Venice in freezing temperatures surrounded by snow, rain and fog. It was quite a production feat to pull it off and make it look hot and summery. A model fish was used for the stunt shot, but a real fish, purchased from the Venice Fish Markets, was used for the close ups.”

Another more controversial video was first released in 2006 and later morphed into a commercial that depicted a stronger backlash against immature men. The original video showed a romantic couple on a beach, where the woman draws a heart in the sand with a stick. The man turns the drawing into a pair of breasts by supplementing the picture with the heel of his foot. As in the other videos, the man notices the woman’s look of exasperation, and blurts out, “What?”

The revised backlash video ends in a significantly different way. It shows the woman eviscerating various phallic symbols as the man looks on.

I’m not sure how many times, if any, either of these videos appeared on broadcast television. They did become the source of an official complaint for their depiction of women as sexual objects. Australia’s Advertising Standards Board found no fault with the ads, however. The board said the ads, if anything, poked fun at men. Read an account in Duncan McLeod’s blog in December 2006.

A single green crab invader has been found, the first in Puget Sound

A European green crab, one of the most dreaded invasive species in the world, has finally arrived in Puget Sound.

Caught in a crab trap on San Juan Island were these animals — including the first European green crab ever found in Puget Sound. Photo: Photo Craig Staude, courtesy of Washington Sea Grant
Caught in a crab trap on San Juan Island were these fish, along with the first European green crab ever found in Puget Sound.
Photo: Craig Staude, courtesy of Washington Sea Grant

A single adult green crab was caught in a trap deployed on San Juan Island by a team of volunteers involved in a regionwide effort to locate the invasive crabs before they become an established population.

Until now, green crabs have never been found in Puget Sound, although they have managed to establish breeding populations along the West Coast — including Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor in Washington and the western side of Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

Coincidentally, I recently completed a writing project on invasive species for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, including a story about green crabs and the volunteer monitoring program.

Here’s what I wrote: “Puget Sound has so far avoided an invasion of European green crabs — at least none have been found — but the threat could be just around the corner….

“Green crabs are but one of the invasive species threatening Washington state, but they are getting special attention because of fears they could seriously affect the economy and ecosystem of Puget Sound. Besides devouring young native crabs and shellfish, they compete for food with a variety of species, including fish and birds.”

Along the beach, careful observers can often find crab molts. The green crab, upper left, can be distinguished by the points on its carapace. Photo: Jeff Adams, Washington Sea Grant
Along the beach, careful observers may find weathered crab molts of all sizes. The green crab, upper left, can be distinguished by the five points on each side of the carapace. (Click to enlarge.)
Photo: Jeff Adams, Washington Sea Grant

In Canada, one breeding population has been identified in Sooke Inlet near the southernmost tip of Vancouver Island. That’s about 40 miles away from Westcott Bay, where Puget Sound’s first green crab was found on Tuesday.

It is likely that the crab traveled to San Juan Island in its early free-swimming larval form by drifting with the currents, said Jeff Adams, a marine ecologist for Washington Sea Grant who manages the Crab Team of volunteers. This crab likely settled down in suitable habitat and located enough food to grow into an adult. Based on the crab’s size, it probably arrived last year, Jeff told me.

European green crab Photo: Gregory C. Jensen, UW
European green crab // Photo: Gregory Jensen, UW

Finding a green crab in Puget Sound is alarming, Jeff said, but it is a good sign that the first crab was found by the volunteer monitors. That suggests that the trapping program is working. If this first crab turns out to be a single individual without a mate, then the threat would die out, at least for now.

The concern is that if one crab can survive in Puget Sound, then others may also be lurking around, increasing the chance of male-female pairing. The next step is to conduct a more extensive trapping effort in the area where the first green crab was found, then branch out to other suitable habitats in the San Juan Islands, Jeff said. The expanded effort is planned for the week of Sept. 11 and will include a search for molts — the shells left behind when crabs outgrow their exoskeletons and enter a new stage of growth.

Green crab
Green crab

Researchers and others who work with invasive species quickly recovered from their initial surprise at finding a green crab in Puget Sound, then got down to business in planning how to survey for crabs and manage their potential impacts.

Allen Pleus, coordinator of the Aquatic Invasive Species Program at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, told me several weeks ago that if green crabs show up in Puget Sound, one idea would be to conduct an extensive trapping program to eradicate or at least reduce their population. First, however, the extent of the infestation must be identified. I expect that more extensive trapping will be planned next spring and summer to look for offspring from any successful mating in the San Juan Islands.

This video shows a green crab found in Willapa Bay on the Washington Coast.

Typically, green crabs are found in marshy areas, which are habitats extensively used by our native hairy shore crab. But Jeff tells me that some populations of green crabs seem to be expanding their habitat into more exposed rocky areas.

With roughly 400 suitable sites for the crabs in Puget Sound, invasive species experts are calling for everyone who visits a beach to look for green crabs and their molts. One can learn to identify green crabs from the Washington Sea Grant website. The volunteer trapping program is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency with a grant to Fish and Wildlife.

A public discussion about green crabs and how people can help protect Puget Sound from an invasion is scheduled for Sept. 13 at Friday Harbor Laboratories on San Juan Island. See Crab Team Public Presentation.

Sea Shepherd regroups, plans new battles with Japanese whalers

An organization called Sea Shepherd Global announced yesterday that it will take up the cause of battling Japanese whaling ships in the Southern Ocean of Antarctica later this year.

The announcement comes just days after court approval of a legal settlement, a deal that will forever block Sea Shepherd Conservation Society from confronting Japanese whalers on the high seas.

Sea Shepherd Global, based in The Netherlands, apparently is out of reach of the U.S. courts, which sanctioned the original Sea Shepherd group for its sometimes violent actions against the whalers. Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the U.S. group, is led by its founder, Capt. Paul Watson, who had stepped down for a time.

The Ocean Warrior is a new ship added to Sea Shepherd Global's fleet. Photo: Gerard Wagemakers, courtesy of Sea Shepherd Global
The Ocean Warrior is a new ship added to Sea Shepherd Global’s fleet.
Photo: Gerard Wagemakers, courtesy of SSG

Sea Shepherd Global has mobilized its forces for what it calls the “11th direct-action whale defense campaign.” The group has built a new ship it claims can keep up with and surpass the Japanese harpoon ships. Anyone who has watched “Whales Wars,” the reality television series, probably knows that Sea Shepherd’s ships have suffered from a lack of speed and were often left in wake of the whaling vessels.

Sea Shepherd, with its fierce opposition to killing marine mammals, has always claimed to be on the right side of international law when it comes to whaling. Now its members are inspired by a 2014 ruling in the International Court of Justice, which found that whaling — at least as practiced by Japanese whalers — is not a scientific endeavor. The Japanese government has lost its only justification for whaling until it develops new scientific protocols acceptable to the International Whaling Commission. Review a discussion of these issues in Water Ways, March 31, 2014, with an update on Dec. 14, 2015.

Sea Shepherd Global also justifies its plans with a contempt-of-court citation filed by the Australian Federal Court against the Japanese whalers for killing protected whales within the Australia Whale Sanctuary. Japan, however, does not recognize the sanctuary nor the Australian jurisdiction.

“If we cannot stop whaling in an established whale sanctuary, in breach of both Australian Federal and international laws, then what hope do we have for the protection of the world’s oceans?” asked Jeff Hansen, managing director of Sea Shepherd Australia in a news release. “We must make a stand and defend whales with everything we’ve got.”

After the International Court of Justice ruling, the Japanese took a year off from whaling before submitting a new whaling plan, which was questioned by a scientific committee at the International Whaling Commission. Without waiting for approval, the whalers returned to the Southern Ocean last December. A limited Sea Shepherd fleet followed, but the whalers killed 333 minke whales — a quota approved by the Japanese government but nobody else.

Meanwhile, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) has been engaged in a legal battle with the Japanese-sponsored Institute of Cetacean Research in the U.S. courts. Initially, a U.S. district judge dismissed the Japanese claims. On appeal, however, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals called Sea Shepherd a “pirate” organization, ordered the group to stay away from the Japanese ships and eventually found Sea Shepherd in contempt of court for a peripheral involvement in the anti-whaling effort. Initial appeals court ruling: Water Ways, Feb. 26, 2013.

SSCS agreed to pay $2.55 million to settle a damage claim from Japan in light of the contempt ruling. The group had been hoping that Japan’s lawsuit in the U.S. courts would open the door for a countersuit, in which the illegality of Japanese whaling would spelled out and confirmed.

All legal claims and counterclaims were dropped in the settlement agreement (PDF 410 kb) between SSCS and the Institute of Cetacean Research. The agreement, approved last week by U.S. District Judge James Robart, says SSCS cannot approach Japanese whaling ships closer than 500 yards. SSCS cannot provide financial support to anyone else who would approach the Japanese ships in an aggressive way, including “any entity that is part of the worldwide ‘Sea Shepherd’ movement and/or uses or has used some version of the ‘Sea Shepherd’ name.”

The agreement mentions a “settlement consideration to be paid to Sea Shepherd Conservation Society,” although the amount has not been disclosed.

The Institute of Cetacean Research immediately issued a news release about the settlement. Paul Watson offered a three-pronged post on his Facebook page. One part was his own message, saying Sea Shepherd would remain opposed to whaling but would comply with the settlement provisions.

Another part was a statement from Capt. Alex Cornelissen, director of Sea Shepherd Global:

“The ruling in the US courts affects ONLY the US entity. All the other Sea Shepherd entities in the Global movement are not bound by the US legal system, the mere assumption that it does clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding of Sea Shepherd Global’s structure. Sea Shepherd Global and all other entities around the world, other than the USA, will continue to oppose the illegal Japanese whaling in the Antarctic.”

The third part was a quote from a BBC story:

“Jeff Hansen, managing director of Sea Shepherd Australia, told the BBC the U.S. ruling would ‘absolutely not’ affect its own operations. He said if the ICC (sic, ICR?) were to pursue Sea Shepherd in Australia ‘they would be entering into a court system they’re in contempt of, and we would welcome that.’”

In its statement yesterday, Sea Shepherd Global said it was disappointed that the international community has not taken more steps to protect whales in the Southern Ocean. Still, Sea Shepherd Global will be there with a new fast ship, the Ocean Warrior, built with the financial support of the Dutch Postcode Lottery, the British People’s Postcode Lottery and the Svenska PostkodLotteriet.

“For the first time, we will have the speed to catch and outrun the Japanese harpoon ships, knowing speed can be the deciding factor when saving the lives of whales in the Southern Ocean,” said Cornelissen.

The Ocean Warrior will undergo final preparations in Australia at the end of the year, about the time that Japanese whaling ships arrive for their anticipated harvest of marine mammals. And so the whale wars will go on but without any involvement from Paul Watson and his U.S. contingent.

By the way, Paul, who had been living in exile in France, has returned to the U.S., according to a news release from Sea Shepherd that recounts Paul’s history of fleeing from prosecutors in Japan and Costa Rica. Paul, 65, and his wife, Yanina Rusinovich, a Russian-born opera singer, are now living in Woodstock, Vermont, and expecting a baby in October.

Amusing Monday: Rollin’ on a river, or any water that will float your log

I have trouble balancing on a log that is lying flat on the ground, so standing on a floating log seems like an impossible feat. I guess that’s why I’m impressed with the old-fashioned sport of log rolling, an activity that is catching on across the country.

I have always been amused by log rolling, but I realize that this is very serious activity, comparable to Olympic sports for many people. The first video on this page shows the skill of professionals, while the last one offers a bit of silliness in the world of commercial television.

Log rolling was once a sport of lumberjacks, since walking on floating logs was part of the job for many. But now the activity seems to be attracting all ages of boys and girls, who enjoy the challenge of balancing as well as getting soaked in the process — a nice hot-weather sport. Some folks really are pushing to get log rolling approved for an upcoming summer Olympics.

One of the sport’s many supporters is Pat Foster, director of Camp Corey on Keuka Lake near Rochester, NY. For three years, the summer camp has been offering classes in log rolling using a special training log created by Key Log Rolling, a family-owned business in Golden Valley, Minn. In the second video on this page, Jennifer Johnson, a reporter for WUHF-TV in Rochester interviews Foster then goes for a spin on the log herself.

As for the future of log rolling, ESPN sport writer Jim Caple raises the question, “Could log rolling become an Olympic Sport?”

“Tug of War was in the Olympics until 1920,” Caple writes. “There are movements to get squash, ballroom dance and chess in the Olympics, as well as log-rolling. Yes, log-rolling. While I would much rather see baseball back in the Olympics, I definitely would choose log-rolling over ballroom dance or chess.”

For information about the sport, Caple calls on Abby Hoeschler, a champion log-roller and instructor who plays a leading role in the family business.

“It’s such an intense sport; it’s a sparring sport,” Hoeschler said. “You’re on this log in the water with an opponent, and you can’t touch them. There’s a center line you can’t cross. It’s sort of like boxing with your feet.

“You’re doing maneuvers to dislodge your opponent. As a female, there aren’t many opportunities where you can compete in sports that are intense like that. You step on the log, and if you make one wrong move, you’ve lost.”

Jeff Ozimek, outdoor program manager for Bainbridge Island Metro Park and Recreation District, got involved in log rolling while he attended college at the University of Montana in Missoula.

The competition, loosely associated with the College of Forestry, involved all the lumberjack sports — from pole-climbing to crosscut sawing to axe-throwing. Jeff says these logging-type sports help people to celebrate the history of the Northwest. Check out the video of the 2015 Montana log rolling competition, also called Birling.

When I told Jeff about how kids could learn to do log rolling by using the training fins on the Key Log, he was impressed, recalling how difficult it is to stay on a log the first few times. He said he would look into the Key Log and would like to know if local residents would be interesting in classes or activities around log rolling. Email him with your interest and ideas,
jeff@biparks.org.

I was reading about all the logging-related events at Crosby Days this past weekend and wanted to know if anyone had ever considered holding a log-rolling competition. (See Tristan Baurick’s story in the Kitsap Sun.)

“Actually, my husband was talking about that this year, but we didn’t have time to get it going,” said Jessica Dukes, secretary of the Crosby Community Club and an organizer of Crosby Days. “It is something we want to consider for next year.”

Competitions in log rolling are held throughout the country by the U.S. Log Rolling Association, but the only event I could find in Washington state was this past weekend in Morton. I think an event that brings in skilled log-rollers would be popular, all the more so if kids could get involved.

Although adults should have an advantage in log rolling because of their weight, it appears that many kids can hold their own against their parents, especially in the beginning when both are learning.

According to the Key Log Rolling Instruction Manual (PDF 3.2 MB), the cardinal rule for log rolling is “DO NOT LOOK AT YOUR OWN FEET.” One must focus on the foot movements of the opponent. An 18-minute video lesson is offered by Abby Hoeschler, president of Key Log Rolling.

With practice, maybe we can all become as skilled as the log-rollers in the video below. Not likely.

Struggle for clean water criteria coming to a close

The long-running controversy over Washington state’s water quality standards for toxic chemicals is nearly over. We will soon know just how pure the water must be to get a clean bill of health.

chinook

We still don’t know whether the Environmental Protection Agency will approve the new state standards adopted this week or impose more stringent standards that EPA developed for several key pollutants. The EPA has already taken public comments on its proposed standards.

“We believe our new rule is strong, yet reasonable,” said Maia Bellon, director of the Washington Department of Ecology, in a news release. “It sets standards that are protective and achievable. With this rule now complete, we will continue to press forward to reduce and eliminate toxics from every-day sources.”

For more than two years, much of the controversy focused on the fish-consumption rate — an assumption about how much fish that people eat. The FCR is a major factor in the equation used to set the concentration of chemicals allowed in water before the waterway is declared impaired. (See early discussions in Water Ways, Nov. 11, 2010.)

Initially, after plenty of debate, the state proposed increasing the FCR from 6.5 grams per day to 175 grams per day — a 27-fold increase. The initial proposal counter-balanced the effect somewhat by increasing the cancer-risk rate from one in a million to one in 100,000 — a 10-fold shift. Eventually, the state agreed to retain the one-in-a-million rate.

As I described in Water Ways last October, some key differences remain between the state and EPA proposals. Factors used by the EPA result in more stringent standards. The state also proposes a different approach for PCBs, mercury and arsenic, which are not easily controlled by regulating industrial facilities and sewage-treatment plants — the primary point sources of pollution.

PCB standards proposed by the EPA make representatives of industry and sewage-treatment systems very nervous. Water-quality standards are the starting points for placing legal limits on discharges, and EPA’s standard of 7.6 picograms per liter cannot be attained in many cases without much higher levels of treatment, experts say.

“Available data indicate that most state waters would not meet the EPA proposed criteria and that most (federally permitted) wastewater treatment plants will have to apply membrane filtration treatment and additional treatment technologies to address PCBs,” according to a letter from five industrial organizations and a dozen major businesses (PDF 3 mb).

Entities in Eastern Washington are in the midst of planning efforts to control pollution in the Spokane River, and major sewer upgrades are under consideration, the letter says.

“If Ecology were to follow the same approach on Puget Sound that it has on the Spokane River, this would amount to a range of compliance costs from nearly $6 billion to over $11 billion for just the major permits identified by EPA,” the letter continues. “A more stringent PCB criterion is also likely to impact how stormwater is managed, as PCB concentrations have been detected in stormwater throughout the state.”

For pulp and paper mills using recycled paper, the primary source of PCBs is the ink containing the toxic compounds at EPA-allowed concentrations, the letter says. Other major sources are neighborhoods, where PCBs are used in construction materials, and fish hatcheries, where PCBs come from fishmeal.

sailing

The letter points out similar problems for EPA’s proposed mercury standard, calling the level “overly conservative and unattainable in Washington (and the rest of the United States), as the levels of mercury in fish are consistently higher than the proposed criterion.”

When water-quality criteria cannot be attained for certain chemicals using existing water-treatment technology, facilities may be granted a variance or placed under a compliance schedule. Both environmentalists and facility owners have expressed concern over uncertainties about how the agencies might use these approaches.

Despite the uncertainties, environmentalists and Indian tribes in Washington state generally support the more stringent standards proposed by the EPA.

“Tribes concur that water quality discharge standards are only a part of the toxic chemical problem in the state of Washington and that more efforts toward source control and toxic cleanup are needed,” writes Lorraine Loomis of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. “However, the standards are an essential anchor for determining where and how to deploy toxic reduction efforts and monitor enforcement.”

When I said this controversy is nearly over, I was referring to a time schedule imposed this week by U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein, who ruled that the EPA missed its own deadlines for updating water quality criteria.

Rothstein, responding to claims from five environmental groups, imposed a new deadline based on EPA’s own suggested dates. Because the state has finalized its rule, the EPA now has until Nov. 15 to either approve the state’s criteria or sign a notice imposing its own standards. Checkout the judge’s ruling (PDF 494 kb).

The new criteria won’t have any practical effect until applied to federal discharge permits for specific facilities or in developing cleanup plans for specific bodies of water — although state inspectors could use the new state criteria for enforcing state laws if they discover illegal discharges.

If you want to dig a little deeper, view the full list of comments about Ecology’s proposal, many of which refer to the alternate EPA proposal as well. Ecology posts its information on its “Water Quality Rulemaking” page. EPA posts its information on the “Washington Water Quality Standards” page.

Bill could increase risks of alien species invasions in Puget Sound waters

Congress is on the verge of passing a law that would open a door for invasive species to sneak into Puget Sound from San Francisco Bay — known as the most infested waterway in the country.

The proposed legislation, supported by the shipping industry, is focused on reducing regulations surrounding the release of ballast water, which large ships use to maintain stability. Environmental groups and officials from at least nine states have voiced their opposition to the proposal, saying it could result in long-term damage to coastal and Great
Lakes ecosystems.

Ballast discharge from a ship Photo: Coast Guard
Ballast discharge from a ship
Photo: Coast Guard

Ballast water doesn’t get much attention in the media, but it has been associated with the transfer of invasive species throughout the world. Ships often take on ballast water at ports where they unload their cargo before moving to their next destination for a new load. As ships take on cargo, they discharge ballast water from the previous location — along with any organisms that hitched a ride.

Introduced species may multiply, displace native species and disrupt the food web. Lacking natural predators, some invasive species have been known to grow out of control, taking over beaches or underwater areas.

Rules and more rules

To reduce the risk of invasive species, the U.S. Coast Guard requires vessels from foreign countries to exchange their ballast water at sea before entering U.S. waters. Studies have shown that most organisms living out in the ocean don’t survive in coastal waters, and vice versa. So it is less risky for Puget Sound to receive ballast water picked up well off the coast than from another coastal inlet.

Ships that don’t discharge ballast water don’t need to comply with the Coast Guard’s ballast-exchange rule, nor do any ships transiting the U.S. coast, such as those coming into Puget Sound from California.

For years, fears have been growing that Puget Sound will become invaded by species that could alter sea life as we know it today. San Francisco Bay is dominated by more than 200 non-native species, including the European green crab and the Asian clam — both of which have caused enormous economic losses to the shellfish industry in various locations.

Green crab Photo: USGS
Green crab // Photo: USGS

In contrast, Puget Sound has become home to an identified 74 non-native marine species, although early introductions of exotic plankton — including some that produce toxins — could have gone unnoticed.

In reaction to growing concerns about invasive species, the Washington Legislature passed a law in 2000 that requires ballast exchange for ships arriving from anywhere outside a “common waters” zone. That’s an area from the Columbia River to just north of Vancouver, B.C. Consequently, ships from California that intend to release ballast water into Puget Sound must first exchange their ballast water at least 50 miles off the coast.

While the exchange of ballast water has been relatively effective in controlling the release of non-native species, the technique has always been considered an interim measure. Treating ballast water to kill organisms has been the long-term goal — and that’s where the confusion and frustration begins.

The International Maritime Organization has one treatment standard nearing final adoption for ships throughout the world. The Coast Guard says the IMO requirement to eliminate “viable” organisms — those able to reproduce — is too risky. The Coast Guard requires that organisms be killed. States may choose to issue their own standards, and California has proposed the most stringent treatment standards of all. Still, most of these standards are essentially on hold pending testing and certification of specific treatment systems.

Shipping companies say all these costly and conflicting rules are too difficult to navigate for businesses dealing in interstate and international commerce. But that’s not all the rules they may face.

The Environmental Protection Agency became involved in ballast water in 2008, after federal courts ruled that the shipping industry is not exempt from the Clean Water Act. The EPA then came up with a “vessel general permit” for ballast water and other discharges from ships, a permit that was challenged twice by environmental groups. Each time, the courts ruled against the EPA.

The latest EPA permit failed to require the “best available technology” for ballast water treatment, failed to set numerical standards, failed to require monitoring, and failed to meet other provisions of the Clean Water Act, according to a ruling handed down in October (PDF 6.4 mb) by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. A revised permit is now in the works.

Legislation and politics

That brings us to the controversial legislation, called the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act, or VIDA. The essence of the bill is to eliminate state jurisdiction and any oversight by the EPA. Upon enactment, only Coast Guard rules would apply, and ships from San Francisco would no longer need to exchange their ballast water before coming into Washington or Oregon. For an in-depth understanding of the bill, read the Congressional Research Service report (PDF 3.5 mb).

The lack of coastwise ballast exchange is the biggest concern of officials along the West Coast, where similar state requirements are in effect. In California, the problem is that VIDA would allow the spread of invasive species from San Francisco Bay to more pristine bays, such as Humboldt Bay. While the bill allows states to petition for regulations to deal with local conditions, nobody knows how that would work. The petition would need scientific proof that the local regulations are needed and feasible, and the Coast Guard would have 90 days to make a decision.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, VIDA became attached to the National Defense Authorization Act, which was approved. NDAA is a “must-pass” bill to authorize military funding and many other things associated with national defense.

The Senate version of the defense bill does not contain the VIDA provision. While the two bills are technically in a conference committee, insiders tell me that top leaders in the House and Senate must engage in political battles over the critical defense bill and try to work out a compromise to gain approval in both houses.

The shipping industry is lobbying hard for VIDA to stay in the compromise bill, while environmentalists want to take it out. We may not know which of the related and unrelated riders on the bill will survive until the bill is ready for congressional action.

In the Senate, Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio was the original sponsor of the legislation when it was a stand-alone bill. Republicans would like him to get a win for the folks back home, where Rubio is engaged in a tight election race. (See Dan Friedman’s story in Fortune.)

President Obama, threatening a veto, lists VIDA as one of many provisions that he opposes in the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act. See Statement of Administration Policy (PDF 1.2 mb). Nobody thinks he would veto the bill over ballast water alone.

Many shipping industry officials say they don’t object to stringent treatment standards. They only wish to avoid multiple, confusing standards. They also would like some assurance that the standards are technically feasible and won’t require ongoing costly changes to equipment.

Environmentalists say they don’t want to lose the authority of the Clean Water Act, which allows average citizens to bring lawsuits to protect the environment.

“The Clean Water Act is a tried and true approach for controlling water pollution problems,” said Nina Bell of Northwest Environmental Advocates in Portland. Her group was among those that brought the lawsuit against the EPA (PDF 6.8 mb).

“I think we are poised to make some real progress,” Nina told me. “VIDA opts instead to take away authority from the Environmental Protection Agency and give it to the Coast Guard, which has no environmental expertise. The Coast Guard has a lot of priorities, such as keeping people safe on ships and protecting our waters, but this is not one of them.”

The EPA has clear authority to regulate ballast water and limit the spread of invasive species, she said. If the EPA were to issue strong requirements, the states would not need their own regulations.