Tag Archives: PCBs

Some toxic chemicals increase; others decline in Puget Sound fish

The importance of long-term environmental monitoring is driven home in a new study by toxicologists who have spent years examining chemical contamination in Puget Sound fish.

English sole sampling locations include both urban and rural areas of Puget Sound.
Archives of Env. Contamination and Toxicology

After 28 years of monitoring, researchers have confirmed that it is extremely difficult to remove polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from the Puget Sound food web. In some locations, PCBs are actually increasing in bottom fish some 38 years after these chemicals were banned in the United States.

“Across the board, we’ve seen either no decline or even increases in our English sole, which is really kind of shocking considering all the remediation that has been going on,” said Jim West, a toxicologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife who I interviewed for a story in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

The report, published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, provides some bleak news about PCBs, but there are hopeful signs for other chemicals. For example, researchers were pleasantly surprised to find that toxic flame retardants containing polybrominated diphenyl ethers seem to be disappearing rapidly from the ecosystem less than a decade after the most toxic forms of PBDEs were banned in Washington state.

The study went to some lengths to make sure the decline in PBDEs in Pacific herring was not related to other factors — such as size, since the average herring is getting smaller over time.

“I now feel like this is a solid trend, and that’s really exciting,” Jim told me. “I believe it is related to our efforts in source control.”

Of course, we wouldn’t know about these long-term trends in chemical contamination were it not for long-term monitoring efforts. I discussed the importance of monitoring with Sandie O’Neill, a research scientist with WDFW. She is an author of the new study along with Jim West and Gina Ylitalo of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. See the related story “Monitoring helps to reveal hidden dangers in the food web” in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

“We are changing people’s perspectives about contaminants throughout the (Puget Sound) watershed, including how such contaminants get into the food web,” Sandie told me.

As Sandie describes it, monitoring is needed in many aspects of ecosystem health. It can tell us whether nature is healing itself and whether restoration projects by humans are improving fish and wildlife habitat as well as human health.

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.

Time to rethink how contaminants get into Puget Sound food web

For years, I have been told the story of how PCBs and other toxic chemicals cling to soil particles and tiny organic debris as polluted water washes off the land.

Richard Henderson of the Skagit River System Cooperative uses a beach seine to catch juvenile chinook salmon near the Skagit River delta. Fish from this rural area were found to be less contaminated than fish taken from urban areas. Photo: WDFW
Richard Henderson of the Skagit River System Cooperative uses a beach seine to catch juvenile chinook salmon near the Skagit River delta. Fish from this rural area were found to be less contaminated than fish taken from urban bays. // Photo: WDFW

Eventually, the PCB-laden particles are carried into Puget Sound, where they settle to the bottom. From there, they begin working their way into marine animals, disrupting their normal functions — such as growth, immune response and reproduction.

The idea that contaminants settle to the bottom is the story I’ve been told for as long as I can remember, a story long accepted among the scientific community in Puget Sound and across the U.S. So I was surprised when I heard that leading scientists who study toxic chemicals in Puget Sound were questioning this long-held idea about how dangerous chemicals get into the food web.

Puget Sound may be different from other waterways, they said.

“When you look at the concentrations in herring and the concentrations in the sediments, something does not line up,” Jim West told me. “The predictions are way off. We think there is a different mechanism.”

Jim is a longtime researcher for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. I have worked with him through the years on various stories about the effects of contaminants on marine organisms. But now he was talking about changing the basic thinking about how chemicals are transferred through the food web.

Jim postulates that many of these PCB-laden particles that wash down with stormwater never sink to the bottom of Puget Sound. Instead, they are taken up by tiny organisms floating in the water. The organisms, including bacteria and phytoplankton, are eaten by larger plankton and become incorporated into fish and other free-swimming creatures — the pelagic food web.

Jim presented his findings at the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference last month in Vancouver, B.C. Sandie O’Neill, another WDFW researcher, presented other new information about the transfer of contaminants through the food web — from plankton to herring to salmon to killer whales.

My stories about the studies conducted by Jim and Sandie (with help from a team of skilled scientists) were published today in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, where you can read them. These are the first of at least 10 story packages to be to written by a team of reporters working for the Puget Sound Institute.

The Salish Sea conference was attended by more than 1,100 people, including 450 researchers and policymakers who talked about new information related to the Salish Sea — which includes Puget Sound in Washington, the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the U.S./Canada border.

When I first heard about Jim West’s idea regarding the fate of toxic chemicals circulating in Puget Sound, I thought one result might be to shift restoration dollars away from cleaning up sediments to cleaning up stormwater. After all, if the majority of PCBs aren’t getting into the sediments, why spend millions of dollars cleaning up the stuff on the bottom? Why not devote that money to cleaning up stormwater?

In fact, the worst of the contaminated sediments in Puget Sound have been cleaned up, with some cleanups now under way. That helps to ensure that toxic chemicals won’t get re-suspended in the water and taken up into the pelagic food web all over again. A few hotspots of contaminated sediments may still need some attention.

As far as putting the focus on stormwater, that’s exactly what the Puget Sound Partnership has done with support from the Department of Ecology and other clean-water agencies. It is now well established that the key to reducing pollution in Puget Sound is to keep toxic chemicals out of stormwater or else create settling ponds, rain gardens, pervious pavement and other methods to capture the PCB-laden particles before they reach Puget Sound.

I noticed that Ecology just today announced a new round of regulations to control stormwater in King, Pierce, Snohomish and Clark counties. Proposed changes include updating stormwater programs for new construction projects and for redevelopment. An appendix will describe Seattle’s plan to reduce stormwater pollution in the Lower Duwamish River, where PCBs are a major problem. For more on stormwater regulations, go to Ecology’s website.

As Sandie told me during our discussions, all the work on fixing habitat in Puget Sound streams is not enough if we can’t control the discharge of PCB’s — which were banned in the 1970s — along with newer contaminants still working their way into our beloved waterway. Any measure of healthy habitat must include an understanding of the local chemistry.

Amusing Monday: Fascinating videos score high in E360 contest

Last month, “Yale Environment 360” announced the winners of a video contest with a focus on environmental themes. I found the videos fascinating and very well done, although they may not fit my normal definition of “amusing.” I think you’ll enjoy them.

Click on image to view “A Red Dirt Town," the second-place winner in the Yale Environment 360 contest.
Click on image to view “A Red Dirt Town,” second-place winner in the Yale Environment 360 contest.

“Yale Environment 360,” or “E360” for short, is a thoughtful online publication published by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental studies. It is filled with reports and opinions on many environmental issues.

Clicking the image on this page will take you to the second-place winner in the contest, titled “A Red Dirt Town: An Enduring Legacy Of Toxic Pollution in Southern Waters.” Producer Spenser Gabin tells how the community of Anniston, Alabama, has been forced to cope with a legacy of PCB pollution from a Monsanto plant located upstream.

Gabin focuses on two main characters, Frank Chitwood, the Coosa Riverkeeper, who is attempting to get the rivers and lakes posted with warnings, and David Baker, a community activist who was one of the first to begin cleanup at the Monsanto site. Baker’s brother, who played in a PCB-contaminated area as a child, died at age 16 from cancer of the brain and lungs.

“A Red Dirt Town” was actually my favorite of the three.

The winning video in the contest is “Badru’s Story: Inside Africa’s Impenetrable Forest,” an account of Badru Mugerwa, who manages a network of cameras to document the loss of biodiversity and effects of climate change on Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The film was produced by Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele.

The third-place winner is “Peak to Peak: An Intimate Look at
The Bighorn Sheep of the Rockies.”
Produced by Jeremy Roberts, the video captures images of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and their playful lambs, while biologist Jack Hogg talks about their behavior and describes how climate change may affect their future.

The contest rules prevent the entrants from showing their videos anywhere but on “E360” for at least 60 days, So I’m not able to embed the videos at this time.

Contest judges included “E360” editor Roger Cohn, “New Yorker” writer and “E360” contributor Elizabeth Kolbert, and documentary filmmaker Thomas Lennon.

Another fascinating video produced for “E360” is “The Colorado River: Running Near Empty,” which takes award-winning photographer Pete McBride back to his home area in Colorado. From there, he follows the Colorado River until it runs dry short of its historic delta in the Sea of Cortez.

Remember the “Raise the River or Move the Ocean” blog from earlier this year? It featured Robert Redford and Will Ferrell feigning a debate about the future of the Colorado River. I still get a laugh from those videos, which manage to help educate us about the issue.

Related websites:

Raise the River Facebook page

Save the Colorado

BPA eliminates capacitors that contain toxic PCBs

Bonneville Power Administration has removed the last of more than 100,000 capacitors containing PCBs throughout its distribution system, thus reducing the risk of spilling these toxic chemicals that never seem to go away.

Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency recognized the accomplishment, as stated in a press release.

“EPA congratulates BPA for its proactive and voluntary efforts to remove a significant source of PCBs from the Northwest’s largest transmission system,” said Elin Miller, administrator for EPA’s Region 10. “This action by BPA shows their commitment to protect human health and the environment by preventing future releases of toxic PCBs.”

BPA replaced more than 101,000 capacitors at 69 substations. The $102-million cost was spread over a 17-year period beginning in 1991.

Eliminating the chance of spilling PCBs also reduces the financial risk of a costly cleanup hanging over BPA since PCBs were outlawed in the 1970s.

We hear a lot about dangerous levels of PCBs residing in marine mammals, including killer whales, seals and sea lions. These chemicals are considering endocrine disruptors with effects on the immune and reproductive systems of all kinds of animals.

I’m not sure if anyone has identified the predominant sources of PCBs are in the marine environment, but we know it will take a long time to eliminate the problem.

UPDATE, OCT. 10: Eric Robinson of the Vancouver Columbian does a nice job covering this story.