Category Archives: Research

Report: It’s time to shift the deadlines for Puget Sound restoration

Restoring Puget Sound to a healthy condition by the year 2020 is an unrealistic goal that needs to be addressed by the Puget Sound Partnership, according to the latest performance audit by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee.

Structure

It’s a issue I’ve often asked about when talking to people both inside and outside the Puget Sound Partnership. What’s the plan? Are we just going to wait until the year 2020 and say, “Ah shucks; I guess we couldn’t reach the goal.”?

Puget Sound Partnership, the organization created by the Legislature to coordinate the restoration of Puget Sound, is on the right track in many ways, according to the preliminary audit report. But the Partnership needs to address several “structural issues” — including coming up with realistic goals for restoration.

Progress in restoring Puget Sound is measured by 37 different indicators of ecological health. These are measures of water quality, fish and wildlife populations, human health and so on. For many of the indicators, an ambitious target was set — specific numbers to be reached by 2020. That’s just 13 years after the Partnership was created.

“Puget Sound recovery will not be complete by 2020,” states the preliminary report. “Compared to other large recovery efforts, the 13-year recovery timeframe and related planning cycles are short… The Partnership should submit a plan to the Legislature that identifies and addresses needed revisions to the planning and recovery timeframes.”

Puget Sound's recovery time frames are too short, according to a new report. Graphic: JLARC staff
Puget Sound’s recovery timeframes are too short, report says. // Graphic: JLARC staff

The report points out that other major ecosystem recovery efforts have longer timeframes, if they have any at all. San Francisco Bay has set goals for 35 years; Chesapeake Bay is listed at 42 years and beyond; and the Great Lakes and Florida Everglades have “ongoing” timeframes.

The problem is the timing, not the targets themselves, according to the report, which notes, “The Partnership’s Science Panel has stated that recovery goals may be achieved in a longer timeframe.”

Out of 37 indicators, four are likely to be reached by 2020, according to the 2015 State of the Sound report. Six others are at least moving in the right direction. But four indicators show mixed results, six are not changing, and five reveal that conditions are getting worse. For the remaining 12 indicators, not enough data is available to draw any conclusions.

While these trends don’t instill much confidence, some indicators have turned around since the Partnership began to lead the restoration effort. It’s interesting that habitat conditions are improving in many places, yet indicators for fish and wildlife populations are not doing so well.

I raised questions about why the targets were pegged to the year 2020 when I worked on a series of articles called “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound” for the Kitsap Sun in 2014. My final story asked the question, “What does the future hold?”

Bill Ruckelshaus, the first chairman of the Partnership’s Leadership Council, said he always had misgivings about setting a firm date for the indicators.

“We knew almost from the beginning that those deadlines are not achievable,” Bill told me seven years into the program. “It is a problem I’ve been dealing with ever since environmental laws began flowing out of the federal government.”

Puget Sound Partnership needs to account for all restoration projects, report says. Graphic: JLARC staff
Puget Sound Partnership needs to account for all restoration projects, report says. // Graphic: JLARC staff

Ruckelshaus was the first administrator of the Environment Protection Agency in 1970. Deadlines set by Congress required that air pollution be largely cleaned up by 1975 and that water pollution be stopped by 1983, he said.

“I remember testifying that if we dropped everything we were doing in the federal government, including defense, that we still couldn’t get it done. It was dooming us to failure.”

Ruckelshaus said he feels the same way about the 2020 deadline.

“It will cause people living in Puget Sound to get discouraged,” he told me two years ago. “And I think that is a huge problem in this country, the lack of trust. We are on a path toward improvement, and we will see results over time.”

Phil Rockefeller of Bainbridge Island was a state senator when he helped craft the legislation creating the Partnership. He said the governor at the time, Chris Gregoire, insisted on the 2020 date — “to impart a sense of urgency.” Everybody knew that the work of protection and restoration can never stop, even if the 2020 targets could be met, he told me.

Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Partnership, inherited the 2020 deadline when she took the job in 2014. Her definition of success was to get the indicators to show improvement by 2020, and she made a point that cannot be overstated:

“Just the fact that things haven’t gotten worse is the result of a lot of work,” she said. “You’re not seeing what would have happened if we had not undertaken this effort.”

Sheida appeared before the JLARC on Jan. 4, when the preliminary findings were discussed with the committee made up of both state senators and representatives. Sheida said she agreed with nearly everything presented by the JLARC staff. The Partnership’s formal response to the audit is still to come, and the report won’t be final until approved by the committee in September.

Monitoring of the Puget Sound ecosystem needs improvement, report says. Graphic: JLARC staff
Monitoring of the Puget Sound ecosystem needs improvement, report says.
Graphic: JLARC staff

Also in terms of timing, the preliminary audit recommends less frequent updates of two important reports from the Partnership. One is the Action Agenda, which spells out actions for recovery. The other is the Science Work Plan, which describes research needs to be undertaken. Both plans are now scheduled every two years, although most major ecosystem programs nationwide operate under five-year plans.

Changing the Partnership’s two-year planning cycles to four years will allow the staff to focus on specific needs and projects rather than continually planning for the next report, according to the audit report. Legislation to accomplish that has been proposed in House Bill 1121, which will be reviewed tomorrow (Thursday) by the House Environment Committee.

Other recommendations listed in the audit:

  1. Redefine the targets: In place of a final 2020 target with interim targets along the way, the Partnership should update targets with both short-term and long-term goals. JLARC staffers recommend that a plan with proposed changes be submitted to the Legislature by December, which would allow the 2020 deadline to be changed next year.
  2. Expand the list of actions: The Action Agenda focuses on so-called near-term actions, which last two to four years. It does not describe how ongoing activities by state agencies contribute to recovery, nor does it describe long-term actions by federal agencies, tribes, local government or other parties. “As a result, the full scope of actions and costs is unknown,” the report says. The Office of Financial Management should work with the Partnership to develop a plan to create an inventory of all recovery actions, according to the audit report, which recommends submitting the plan to the Legislature by December.
  3. Improve ecosystem monitoring: Without adequate monitoring, it is not possible to know whether actions had their intended effects or if progress is being made toward recovery. The Partnership’s current monitoring plan does not fully report on all actions, nor is there a link between actions and recovery goals — although this is beginning to change with Implementation Strategies. (Check out the description of Implementation Strategies in a story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.) The audit recommends that a new monitoring plan be submitted to the Legislature by December.

One other area of concern is the carrot-and-stick approach, which remains part of the state law under which the Partnership operates — even though this provision is essentially ignored. To comply with the law, the report says the Partnership should evaluate the actions of partner organizations — which could include agencies, local governments and private organizations. Partners that make outstanding progress should be rewarded with preferential funding. Partners that fail to comply with their responsibilities should be identified and brought into compliance or else face the loss of state funding.

From talking to folks within the Partnership, I believe there is a reluctance to use either the carrot or the stick. Preferential funding could be seen as favoritism. Calling out entities that fail to do their jobs could alienate those most needed in the recovery effort.

I’m not sure how much discussion has gone into this issue. But if the Partnership is convinced that the carrot-and-stick approach would be ineffective, it seems like this provision should be removed from the law, allowing the Partnership to be in compliance.

Amusing Monday: Science is music when data becomes sound

Nearly everyone who deals in scientific information learns to read simple charts and graphs to help visualize the data. As a reporter, I’m often looking for the right graph to bring greater meaning to a story. In a similar way, some people have been experimenting with rendering data into sound, and some of the more musically inclined folks have been creating songs with notes and musical scales.

As with graphs, one must understand the conceptual framework before the meaning becomes clear. On the other hand, anyone can simply enjoy the music — or at least be amused that the notes themselves are somehow transformed from observations of the real world.

The first video on this page, titled “Bloom,” contains a “song” derived from microorganisms found in the English Channel. The melody depicts the relative abundance of eight different types of organisms found in the water as conditions change over time. Peter Larsen, a biologist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, explains how he created the composition to Steve Curwood, host of the radio program “Living on Earth.”

      1. Living on Earth

Larsen, who calls this endeavor “microbial bebob” for its jazzy style, created four compositions using the same dataset in different ways. All four can be found attached to a news release written by Jared Sagoff at Argonne National Laboratory. For more detail on the project itself, go to Larsen’s report published in the scientific journal Plos One.

A more classical style of music was created by Nik Sawe (pronounced saw-vay), who was a graduate student at California’s Stanford University at the time. Sawe used data collected from the yellow cedar forests of Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago by another Stanford doctoral candidate, Lauren Oakes, who was studying climate change. (Her research report was published by Ecosphere.) Click on the red arrow below to listen.

Each musical note depicts a single tree. Dead trees are depicted by a dropped note. The species of tree determines which musical instrument will play the note. Yellow cedars are played by a piano. The pitch conveys the size of the tree, and the loudness conveys the age, as described in an article by Brian Kahn of Climate Central.

The song describes how rising temperatures and declining snowpack are killing off yellow cedars, a culturally significant tree for at least 9,000 years. The song begins with trees in the north, near Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, and progresses to areas more impacted by climate change to the south, ending near Slocum Arm, as described in a story by Brad Rassler in Outside magazine. Piano notes dominate the early part of the composition, but those notes become more sparse toward the end, where the flute (western hemlock) begins to dominate.

“Throughout the piece, Sawe wanted to highlight the relationship between the native yellow cedar and invasive western hemlock,” Rassier writes. “He braided the sounds of the two species, both to amplify their voices and to highlight the fall of one and the rise of the other.

“Just as the keyboard and strings in Mozart’s ‘Sonata for Piano and Violin in E minor’ play off of one another to create a musicality greater than the sum of their parts, this musical death dance between the two becomes, in its own way, the sound of climate change.”

Another example of transforming data into sound uses the same dataset in the following piece:

Sawe is a pioneer in environmental neuroeconomics, the study of how the environment influences people’s spending decisions. Such decisions can involve donating to environmental causes, including efforts to reduce the impacts of climate change. Sawe’s studies suggest that humans tend to protect and restore the environment when they are confronted with stimuli that elicit either good feelings or moral outrage. For more on his work, I recommend his Tedx Talk, shown in the second video on this page.

Since environmental decisions are largely based on emotion, Sawe is exploring how logic can affect feelings and vice versa. As part of his work, he is trying to figure out how sonification — turning data into sound — can bridge the divide between the right and left sides of the brain.

My final example of sonification involves data produced by the solar wind and turned into a sophisticated musical composition by a formally trained musician, Robert Alexander of the University of Michigan.

Jason Gilbert, a research fellow in the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences at the UM, obtained the raw data from a satellite called the Advanced Composition Explorer.

“In this sonification, we can actually hear in the data when the temperature goes up or when the density increases,” said Gilbert, quoted in a UM news release.

Since this blog post is about sound, I’m glad that I can share this audio about the solar sonification project, as discussed by “Living on Earth.”

      2. Living on Earth

For those of us who enjoy this music and want to connect to the data, the greatest challenge is to understand what is depicted by the specific combination of notes. The burden falls to the scientist and/or musician putting together the sonification. And just as graphs must be carefully labeled, the listener must be given a proper road map.

“It’s just like if you were to open up the Astrophysical Journal to any random page, show it to someone on the street, and ask if they could learn anything from a random visual diagram,” Alexander said in an article in Earthzine magazine. “If they don’t understand what’s being represented, if they don’t understand what the colors mean, if they don’t understand the axes, they can’t extract any of the information presented there.”

It is one thing for the music to explain something to others, but hearing the data also can open new doors of insight.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s easy enough to explain what you’re hearing,” Alexander added, “but that small fraction of the time where you hear something and it hasn’t been documented before, that’s really exciting.”

Granny, the orca, was seen in poor condition before her death

About a month before the Center for Whale Research last observed Granny, the killer whale, the elder orca was pictured in aerial photos by researchers from NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

Granny shown in poor body condition in September. Photo: NOAA under NMFS permit 19091
Granny, or J-2, shown in poor body condition in September.
Photo: NOAA under NMFS permit 19091

The last aerial photos of Granny showed her to be in “poor body condition,” according to a report from marine mammal researcher John Durban on NOAA’s website.

Granny, designated J-2, was missing for weeks before the Center for Whale Research gathered enough observations to announce her death on the last day of 2016. The oldest whale in the three Southern Resident pods could have been more than 100 years old, according to estimates, as I discussed in Water Ways on Jan. 4.

The aerial photos, taken from a small unmanned hexacopter, are used to monitor the health of the orcas, John noted in his report. The photos taken in September show Granny to be thinner than other adult females. The photos on this page show Granny (top photo) to be thinner than J-22, a 32-year-old female named Oreo (second photo) who was reported in “robust condition” and may have been pregnant.

J-22, named Oreo, appeared in better shape than Granny in September. Photo: NOAA under NMFS permit 19091
J-22, named Oreo, appeared in better shape than Granny in September.
Photo: NOAA under NMFS permit 19091

Aerial photos of the orcas also are used by researchers to record social behaviors of the animals, John notes. A photo on his web post shows Granny with J-45, an 8-year-old male named Se-Yi’-Chn, whose mother died in August. Granny and Se-Yi’-Chn were chasing a salmon that was eventually caught by the older animal and shared with the younger one, according to the report.

“Helping other family members catch food is a key role for older, post-reproductive females like J2,” John wrote. “This is a striking example that, through such cooperative behaviors, individuals will put the pod’s health ahead of their own.”

The video (below) explains the ongoing aerial study of killer whales, with John Durban interviewed by NOAA science writer Rich Press. Besides Durban, Holly Fearnbach of Southwest Fisheries Science Center and Lance Barrett-Lennard of Vancouver Aquarium are involved in the photogrammetric project.

For additional information, check out the following blog posts:

Granny, a killer whale unlike any other, stayed graceful to the end

If we can celebrate the life of a person who has died, it seems fitting to me that we should celebrate the long, productive life of a killer whale known as Granny.

Granny, or J-2, breaching in 2009, as she was known to do throughout her life.Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
Granny, or J-2, breaching in 2009, as she was known to do throughout her life.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

Granny, officially designated J-2, was the oldest orca in the three pods of Southern Residents. Possibly more than 100 years of age, her longevity is something we can only hope to see among the other orcas that frequent Puget Sound.

Granny was the longtime leader of J pod. In a matriarchal society like the orcas, offspring stay with their mothers for life. Generally, the older females lead the way, and Granny was almost always seen at the front of the pack as J pod moved through the Salish Sea.

For a long-lived intelligent orca, it is hard to imagine the amount of knowledge she must have accumulated through the years. I tend to think that Granny had a personal history with nearly every cove and inlet in the Salish Sea. I think she understood the movement of salmon and where the fish would congregate before heading up the streams. It must have been tough for her to watch the decline of the whales’ once-abundant prey.

In 1997, a group of 19 orcas from L pod spent a month in Dyes Inlet between Bremerton and Silverdale. (Check out my stories in the Kitsap Sun.) There is pretty good evidence that their record-long stay in one location was at least partly because they were not comfortable going under the Warren Avenue Bridge, which was their only way out.

If something about the bridge spooked the whales, then how did those 19 orcas make it under the enormous structure when they first entered Dyes Inlet? Although it has never been confirmed, observers at the time reported seeing two groups of whales coming into the inlet.

I’ve always wondered whether Granny had visited Dyes Inlet long before the Warren Avenue Bridge was constructed. Could she have led both the J- and L-pod whales into the inlet, where chum salmon were abundant? Did the L-pod whales choose to stay behind to catch fish only to become confused later when they tried to make their getaway? I guess we’ll never know.

When a beloved friend or relative dies, it is hard to keep going as if nothing has changed. I know there is sadness about Granny’s passing among longtime whale observers, orca researchers, educators and whale-watch boat operators.

I can’t help but wonder how the orcas in J pod are coping with Granny’s loss. How long will it take to rally around a new leader? How will Granny’s knowledge be missed as the whales struggle to find bountiful salmon runs? How will her sudden departure affect cohesion among the whales, which were already breaking into smaller and smaller hunting groups.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research ponders some of these questions in a tribute to Granny, a story that appropriately recognizes the important discoveries of the late Mike Bigg, the first person to realize that orcas could be identified individually and that each whale has a story to tell.

I was also touched by a report from Ken’s associate, Dave Ellifrit, who spent time on the water with J pod on Dec. 28 near the San Juan Islands. Dave, who knows the whales as well as anyone, found them spread out and spending significant “down time” as they foraged for food. In a scientific tone, Dave dispassionately described the actions of all the whales he could find, then he concluded his report:

“This was CWR’s first encounter with J pod in several months where we felt like the coverage was good enough to find all the whales present, and we could not find J2. Many have suspected for the last couple of months that she might be gone, and it is looking like that is the case.”

Jeanne Hyde, a longtime orca observer, offered a number of interesting observations in her blog “Whale of a Purpose,” including this:

“Late this past season I noticed Granny with the J16s. That was very curious. It was out of the ordinary. Slick J-16 in the lead with Granny behind her a ways, and Mike J-26, Slick’s oldest male, on the offshore side…hum…highly unusual…

“In the late part of the year, the J Pod whales acted, to me, like they were lost…like they didn’t know which way to go or they didn’t know what to do…their travel also seemed unusual….they have lost their leader…how will that impact this community who has not ever been without a leader?”

Another longtime observer, Sara Hysong-Shimazu, wrote a piece on her Facebook page with this observation:

“Even in her death Granny leads by example. ‘This is how it should be,’ she tells us, even now. ‘This is when we should be parting ways … at the end of a long life.’ The tears in our eyes and on our cheeks are for the loss of a whale — a beloved friend — who has led a life whose length alone is worthy of remembrance and of celebration.

“The times ahead are ones I cannot predict, for I do not have the gift of foresight. But whatever they bring — be it triumph, tragedy, or something in the middle — may we face them with the same tenacity and dignity as Granny. She lives on in the whales that still remain, in the calves that have yet to join us. She lives on in our hearts, and more importantly in our deeds.

“She is epic and awesome and impressive and she will always be.”

In 2006, M.L. Lyke, a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, wrote about how she perceived Granny’s life in a series called “The Sound of Broken Promises,” now featured on the Orca Network webpage.

Death toll for 2016 includes six orcas
from the Salish Sea

UPDATE, Jan. 2
The Center for Whale Research has announced that J-2, known as “Granny,” has apparently died. The oldest orca among the three Southern Resident pods, Granny was one of the first Southern Residents identified when Ken Balcomb began his Orca Survey in 1976. At the time, she was estimated to be at least 45 years old and probably in her 70s, putting her likely age at more than 100. Ken’s tribute to Granny can be read on the Center for Whale Research website. More to come.
—–

When it comes to the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound, a year can make all the difference in the world. Last year at this time, we were celebrating a remarkable baby boom — eight new orca calves over the previous 12 months. See Water Ways, Dec. 16, 2015.

J-34, named DoubleStuf, with Mount Baker in the background. Photo taken last February before his death this month. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
J-34, named DoubleStuf, swimming last February with Mount Baker in the background. The 18-year-old male died this month.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

Another new baby was added in January of this year, for a total of nine. But if 2015 was the boom year, then 2016 turned out to be a major bust, with six orca deaths recorded during the calendar year.

The latest death among the Southern Residents was J-34, an 18-year-old male named DoubleStuf. He was found dead floating near Sechelt, B.C., northwest of Vancouver, on Dec. 20. Check out the tribute and wonderful photos on Orca Network’s webpage.

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Amusing Monday: Looking forward to some new conservation films

“Dream” is a clever animated video promoting the annual Wildlife Conservation Film Festival in New York City. The festival is more than films, with workshops on wildlife topics and a goal to connect average people with filmmakers, conservationists, researchers and media outlets.

One of my personal goals for the coming year is to see more of the wonderful films being produced about conservation concerns, environmental issues and wildlife preservation.

Among the films being released next year are “A Plastic Ocean,” a feature-length documentary that explores the problem of plastic pollution in 20 locations around the world, including the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Gyre, 1,500 miles off the West Coast. The film also discusses practical and technological approaches to solving the plastic problem.

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Federal Action Plan coming together
for Puget Sound

A draft of a Federal Action Plan to protect and restore Puget Sound is scheduled for completion before Donald Trump takes office on Jan. 20, according to officials involved in developing the plan.

Colvos Passage from Anderson Point on the Kitsap Peninsula Photo: Lumpytrout, Wikimedia Commons
Colvos Passage from Anderson Point on the Kitsap Peninsula // Photo: Lumpytrout, Wikimedia Commons

The plan will help demonstrate that Washington state and nine federal agencies are aligned in their efforts to recover one of the most important waterways in the nation, according to leaders involved in a new Federal Puget Sound Task Force.

The task force was created in October by President Obama, who essentially elevated Puget Sound to a high-priority ecosystem, on par with Chesapeake Bay, the Florida Everglades and the Great Lakes, according to a news release from the White House.

A memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed among federal agencies replaces a less structured MOU that was scheduled to expire next year. The new agreement calls for a five-year action plan to be completed by June 1, but a draft should be ready by Jan. 18, according to Peter Murchie, who manages Puget Sound issues for the Environmental Protection Agency and chairs the task force.

“Part of the goal is to have something in front of the transition folks … that they can then shepherd through individual budget and prioritization processes that they’ll be doing with new leadership,” Murchie told the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership Council two weeks ago.

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Amusing Monday: Giant crab has amazing grip, but species is at risk

Coconut crabs are giant land-based crustaceans that can grow to 3 feet wide, claw-to-claw. The crabs, frightening to some, inhabit islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans.

These crabs, which grow larger than any other land-based arthropod, are known for their uncanny strength. They get their name from an ability to break through coconut husks with their powerful claws. They can also break a lot of other things, as revealed in a variety of amusing videos, some of which I’ve posted on this page.

Coconut crabs became a topic of discussion among scientists last month when a group of Japanese researchers reported that they had measured the strength in the legs and claws of coconut crabs. They found that these crabs could lift four times their weight, and their pinching power was greater than that of any other kind of crab, even greater than the jaw strength of terrestrial predators. The report was published in the online journal Plos One.

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Interactive map brings together extensive salmon information

When I first started covering the environment for the Kitsap Sun in the early 1980s, I convinced a state fish biologist to make me a copy of a notebook containing information about salmon streams on the Kitsap Peninsula.

Winter steelhead streams in Puget Sound from SalmonScape. Map: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Winter steelhead streams in Puget Sound, as shown in SalmonScape, a GIS-based interactive map.
Map: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Hand-drawn maps of streams, both big and small, along with field notes about the migration of salmon, stream blockages and other information were listed in that notebook. Through the years, the information was updated, combined with other data and eventually transferred to electronic databases for wider access.

A few years ago, much of this little-known information was digitized into a map that could be accessed by anyone from a web browser. The map, using a geographic information system, is such a valuable tool that I wanted to make sure that readers of this blog are aware of it.

It was given the name SalmonScape, and the map shows salmon streams across the state (click “hydrography”); salmon migration by species (“fish distribution”); stream blockages (“fish passage”); and hatcheries, fish traps and major dams (“facilities”).

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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:

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