Tag Archives: Pollution

New study refines Puget Sound pollution issues

A third-generation study of toxic pollution in Puget Sound claims to be the best estimate so far of total amounts of toxics entering Puget Sound each year.

New report on toxics in Puget Sound (PDF 7.3 mb). Click to download.
Washington Department of Ecology

As Craig Welch of the Seattle Times points out in a story today, it’s a big exaggeration to think that Puget Sound is suffering through enough drips and drabs of oil — largely from vehicles — to equal an Exxon Valdez spill every two years.

Craig is right to point out how previous studies overestimated the amount of several toxics. After all, politicians having been tossing around the dramatic Exxon Valdez analogy when it serves their purposes. Still, the total amount of oil or any other pollutant in Puget Sound is not really a good measure of the problems we face.

If you want to understand pollution in a waterway, it’s better to measure the concentration of the pollutant, see where that level falls on a toxicity scale, then consider how fish and other organisms are exposed to the pollution.

The new study for the Department of Ecology, titled “Toxics in Surface Runoff to Puget Sound,” analyzed 21 chemicals or groups of chemicals in 16 streams in the Puyallup and Snohomish river watersheds. The watersheds contain all different land types — commercial-industrial, residential, agricultural, forest, fields and other undeveloped lands. The idea is that researchers could extrapolate from these land types to represent all of Puget Sound. But such an extrapolation still requires a number of assumptions, which can throw off the estimates by wide margins.

At least we can say the latest study involved actual water-quality sampling. Previous estimates — including those that produced the Exxon Valdez analogy — were based on measurements of stormwater in other parts of the country.

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Sinclair-Dyes study: How to get ahead of pollution

The soon-to-be-released cleanup plan for Sinclair and Dyes inlets could become a leading example of how to reduce all kinds of pollution in a waterway. Check out my story in Tuesday’s Kitsap Sun.

Based on conversations with many people involved in the project, I believe the keys to success are continual and ongoing monitoring of water quality, an unfailing commitment to identify pollution sources, and a spirit of cooperation with people who can help solve the problems.

Officials with the Kitsap County Health District and other local and state agencies will tell you that one can never walk away from a watershed with the belief that the pollution problem is solved. Still, at times, the rewards can be relatively quick, as one observes improvements in water quality after a pollution source is turned off.

Every month for the past 15 years, health district officials have gone out into the field and taken water samples from nearly every stream in Kitsap County — some 58 streams at last count. Often, these monthly tests provide assurance than cleanup plans are working. Occasionally, they offer an early warning that someone in the watershed is doing something to degrade water quality.

If you haven’t checked the health district’s Water Quality website, I would recommend reading through some of the reports under “Featured Water Quality Reports,” particularly the “2010 Water Quality Monitoring Report.”

Monthly water-quality testing over time tells a story about differences between wet years and dry years, about the effects of new development, and about successes that follow cleanup of problem farms, septic systems or yards containing dog feces.

I think it would be a big step forward if every significant stream in the state were monitored monthly for at least bacterial pollution. The results would help all levels of government set priorities for dealing with stormwater and other pollution sources.

Sinclair and Dyes inlets animation of hypothetical treatment system failure in East Bremerton (Click to launch; shift-reload to restart)
Project Envvest

Another factor worth mentioning in regard to the Sinclair-Dyes cleanup is the Navy’s funding for Project Envvest, a cooperative effort between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington Department of Ecology and the Navy. The resulting computer model helped describe the flow of pollution under various rainfall scenarios. It can even predict the movement of pollution resulting from various kinds of spills.

The animation (right) shows what would happen if the ultraviolet infection system were to fail in the East Bremerton treatment plant, which handles stormwater mixed with sewage during periods of heavy rainfall. Tidal flows make a big difference. This simulated spill is 7,000 gallons per minute for a total of 10 million gallons. See CSO Simulation Scenarios to view other animations from the model.

Other websites related to the Sinclair-Dyes project:

Project Envvest Status, Progress, Reports, and Deliverables (Navy)

Sinclair/Dyes Inlets Water Quality Improvement Project (Ecology)

State oil-spill law will push for better response efforts

Washington state lawmakers have approved legislation that strengthens the hand of the Washington Department of Ecology, as the agency continues to beef up the state’s oil-spill response capabilities. See reporter John Stang’s story in today’s Kitsap Sun.

Some of the specific requirements were stripped out of the original bill introduced back in January by Rep. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island. You may wish to review my initial blog entry in Water Ways Jan. 13. In place of detailed requirements, Ecology was given a strong hand to decide what kinds of equipment are needed for each area of the state, including Puget Sound.

In that sense, Rolfes’ initial goals for the legislation remain in place:

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Though small, Gasworks may qualify for Superfund

A small waterfront site in Bremerton could become the next federal Superfund site in Washington state. The site, called the Old Bremerton Gasworks property, has grown into a complex problem for cleanup agencies, as I describe in a story in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.

A sign at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue in Bremerton warns of the hazards at the Old Bremerton Gasworks property.
Kitsap Sun photo

Old Bremerton Gasworks, the site of a former coal gasification plant, was first placed on the state’s Hazardous Sites List in 1995, with a top-priority ranking of 1 on a scale from 1 to 5.

Nothing much was said or done about the site until a few years ago, when property owners Paul McConkey and his son Trip began looking for a way to develop the waterfront property. A business park and marina were considered possible options. A portion of the site identified as hazardous is owned by Natacha Sesko, whose property has been included in discussions about future uses.

The federal Brownfields Program, which had expanded under President George W. Bush, was created to clean up former industrial sites and put them back into productive use. The program seemed like the logical vehicle to study contaminants on the gasworks property and help cover the cleanup costs.
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Kitsap plans to reuse 3.5 million gallons of effluent

When I first reported that Silverdale Water District was preparing to install a system of purple pipe for water reuse, it seemed the district was far ahead of everyone else in Kitsap County. Recall my story in the Kitsap Sun March 31, 2008, and the Water Ways entry that followed on April 2.

A new headworks at the Central Kitsap Wastewater Treatment Plant is part of major sewer upgrade designed to reuse the efflent.

Kitsap County commissioners started talking to Silverdale Water District commissioners a couple months later. See Kitsap Sun from June 2, 2008, and Water Ways from June 3.

Now the county commissioners are about to approve a six-year plan to design and install equipment capable of producing 3.5 million gallons of highly treated effluent every day, as I reported in Sunday’s Sun. That’s a lot of water, enough to irrigate ballfields throughout Silverdale with water to spare.

Now the ball is in the court of Silverdale Water District. District manager Morgan Johnson told me today that if the district can be assured of getting treated effluent from the Central Kitsap Wastewater Treatment Plant, it will move forward on building a backbone of purple pipe right into the heart of Silverdale.

If the county commissioners on Monday approve the six-year sewer plan and move ahead with a $41 million bond issue, it will be time for county officials to begin negotiations with those from Silverdale Water District. Tying up all loose ends about how much water will be provided as well as who will pay for what will be necessary to create one of the largest water-reuse systems in the Puget Sound region.

Morgan Johnson told me that he was surprised at how quickly the county commissioners embraced the notion of reusing treated wastewater, starting with that meeting more than two years ago.

“I was surprised that they’re taking this approach as aggressively as they are,” Morgan said. “We just need to know what the county’s schedule is.”

The county commissioners keep saying they are quite serious about their year-old “Water as a Resource” policy. Every county department must report annually about how they are advancing the effort to save and reuse as much water as possible. In a sidebar to my main story Sunday, commissioners Steve Bauer and Charlotte Garrido talked about how this policy can protect the water resource while saving the county money.

Stella Vakarcs of the Kitsap County Wastewater Utility said she would like to hold a “water summit” that would bring water and wastewater officials together to discuss the future of the effluent.

In addition to the CK plant, county officials are considering uses for treated effluent from the county’s plant in Kingston.

Meanwhile, officials with West Sound Utility District, which already produces high-quality effluent near Port Orchard, are getting ready to use that water for irrigation.

It will take about a year to design the upgrades at the CK plant. Construction is planned to begin in the summer of 2012, and the system should be completed about 2016.

If things go well, the purple pipes could be in the ground by then and ready to be charged with reused water.

Studies examine effects of drugs on ecosystems

Investigations are under way throughout the world to determine if drugs that people take for various medical conditions are getting into the environment and affecting other species.

So far, the answers are not entirely clear, but studies have shown that pharmaceutical compounds are getting into the water through sewers and septic systems. A story I wrote for today’s Kitsap Sun involves water samples taken in Poulsbo’s Liberty Bay, where extremely low levels of several compounds were found.

Despite intensive studies, effects on the environment remain uncertain. Part of the problem is the vast number of pharmaceutical compounds being consumed by people, while the compounds themselves are often found in very low levels in our waterways.

A good number of studies are focusing on the effects of synthetic estrogen, because there is growing evidence that the sex ratios of fish are being altered near some sewage-treatment plants by constant exposure to such compounds. Elsewhere, laboratory studies are exposing fish and other organisms to a wide array of medical compounds at various levels to see if effects can be observed.

It is a complex field of inquiry, according to researchers I’ve interviewed. Sometimes effects are not observed in fish exposed to the chemicals, but show up in their offspring. Some changes may be too slight to notice at first but may be observed after several generations.

The Environmental Protection Agency is investigating pharmaceuticals and personal care products. Check out the main page for general information or review the various areas of investigation.

The U.S. Geological Survey also is focusing studies on environmental effects of pharmaceuticals.

Regional EPA chief discusses top issues

Dennis McLerran, the new regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, held his first news conference today, saying he wanted to touch base with reporters during Earth Week.

Dennis McLerran, EPA regional administrator
EPA photo

This year is not only the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, he noted, but also the 40th anniversary of the EPA. McLerran said he was a freshman at the University of Washington in 1970, the year of the first Earth Day. (That’s the year that I graduated from Mercer Island High School. Like McLerran, I have been involved in environmental issues for much of the last 40 years.)

Coming to the EPA from the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, McLerran said he has had to expand his horizons to take in all environmental issues. “Wall-to-wall briefings” has been “kind of like drinking from a fire hose,” he said today.

The regional administrator said he was taking many clues from his boss, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson — including focusing on her top seven priorities:

  • Taking Action on Climate Change
  • Improving Air Quality
  • Assuring the Safety of Chemicals
  • Cleaning Up Our Communities
  • Protecting America’s Waters
  • Expanding the Conversation on Environmentalism and Working for Environmental Justice
  • Building Strong State and Tribal Partnerships

Additional notes from McLerran’s comments and responses to questions:

Washington is first to tackle toxic copper in brakes

Washington state has done it again, being the first state in the country to take a legal stand against a toxic chemical.

The Legislature this week voted to phase out cooper in brake pads, provided there are reasonable alternatives and that research continues to suggest that brake pads are contributing significant amounts of toxic copper. The bill is Senate Bill 6557.

This last point about research — about the need to know more about the alternate states of copper in the environment — was raised by Silverdale resident Bob Benze. I covered his questions and success in adding an amendment to the bill in the March 1 edition of the Kitsap Sun.

Even at low levels, an ionic form of copper has been shown to affect the sense of smell in salmon, which can lead to confusion and reproductive failure. It has become a major concern, especially in urban areas. Here’s a fact sheet from the Washington Department of Ecology.

Ivy Sager-Rosenthal of the Washington Toxics Coalition supports the Puget Sound Partnership’s call for a full assessment of toxic chemicals flowing into Puget Sound and an increased focus on eliminating sources of such pollution.

Last week, Ted Sturdevant, director of Ecology, testified before Congress about actions taken by state governments, generally because the federal government has been slow to act. He and 12 other state environmental officials are calling for reform of the federal Toxic Substances Control Act.

Washington was the first state to draft a formal policy phasing out persistent bioaccumulative toxics, or PBTs. This led to state laws phasing out mercury and toxic flame retardants. The latest legislation, finalized this week, will ban bisphenol-A in baby bottles and sports bottles.

Sturdevant spelled out three guiding principles for addressing persistent toxic chemicals:
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