Getting Chemicals Out of Drinking Water

  • Chemicals used as industrial solvents can seep into drinking water from contaminated groundwater or surface water. (Photo courtesy of Mr. McGladdery CC-2.0)

Some chemicals are getting into drinking water, and it’s not so easy to get them out. The Environmental Protection Agency says it’s working on the problem. Lester Graham reports on the agency’s plans:

Transcript

The Environmental Protection Agency is outlining a plan to reduce the amount of chemicals getting into drinking water. Lester Graham reports.

The EPA’s administrator, Lisa Jackson told members of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies about the new plan. She said it would work to improve technology to clean up water, get tougher with polluters, coordinate efforts with the states, and deal with contaminating chemicals in groups rather than individual chemicals.

James McDaniels is President of the water agencies group. He says that last idea might speed up the process of getting some contaminants out of water.

“Focusing too much on one contaminant and not looking at it holistically and not really seeing what the other ones are. We all have limited reso urces and as utility managers, looking at these things more holistically makes a lot of sense to us.”

Pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and other chemicals make cleaning up drinking water a real challenge for the water agencies.

For The Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.

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Mountaintop Mining (Part Two)

  • Gary Anderson in Front of Coal River Mountain (Photo by Sandra Sleight-Brennan)

Mountaintop removal coal mining blows off the tops of mountains to get to a thin layer of coal. Environmentalists say there’s a better way to extract energy from mountain tops. They want to put up wind turbines. Sandra Sleight-Brennan reports they believe it will mean more energy in the long term and less environmental destruction:

Transcript

Mountaintop removal coal mining blows off the tops of mountains to get to a thin layer of coal. Environmentalists say there’s a better way to extract energy from mountain tops. They want to put up wind turbines. Sandra Sleight-Brennan reports they believe it will mean more energy in the long term and less environmental destruction:

Coal River Mountain is one of the last in Raleigh County West Virginia, and it’s next in line for mountaintop removal mining. A local group, the Coal River Wind Project, wants to build a wind farm along the mountain’s ridges.

Lorelei Scarbro has lived most of her life in the West Virginia coal fields. She’s the daughter, granddaughter and widow of coal miners. She knows her opposition to coal mining is seen by her neighbors as a direct threat to their jobs.

“It has been difficult. But people begin to understand that we’re not trying to take something away from them. You’re trying to add something to the area.”

She says mountaintop removal coal mining is short-term gain with long-term damage.

“The pace we’re going; it will be nothing left. I have a five-year-old granddaughter, and I can’t imagine what the air and water will be like when she is at childbearing age if we continue at this pace, because they’re covering headwaters streams, they’re starving off the water supply, they are destroying the air.”

And the next mountain in Scarbro’s home area to be mined is likely Coal River Mountain.

That’s why Coal River Wind Project commissioned a study to see if wind turbines would work. It turns out, the mountain has industrial strength wind. Enough to power 164 turbines. The project would create 200 local jobs during construction, and 40 permanent jobs. Rory McIlmoir is the project coordinator.

“The wind farm would generate an average of $1.74 million a year for the first 20 years. In year one it would generate over three million dollars. That’s the property tax. Blowing up the mountain for coal, on the other hand, would only bring $36,000 back to the county.”

That’s just the property taxes. The wind farm would make about $1.75 million dollars a year in revenue according to the study.

But the wind project has hit a stumbling block. A recent Bush administration rule change allows mining waste to be dumped into streams. That’s cleared the way for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to approve a permit for Massey Energy to do mountaintop removal mining here. If the mining occurs, the mountains would be lowered by several hundred feet. That would scrap the wind turbine project.

Activist Lorelei Scarbro thinks the wind project is the one thing that can stop the destruction of Coal River Mountain and others targeted for mountain top removal coal mining.

“It will save the mountains, it will save the wildlife and the hardwood forests and the vegetation and the water. It’s something that is desperately needed. Of course, our biggest obstacle is the fact that that the land is leased to the coal company.”

But the people who own the land say, if coal mining were stopped by the government, they’d consider the wind farm. The wind farm project coordinator, Rory McIlmoir, says they’d benefit for a lot longer if they did.

“Because, if they can make a few million each year from royalties then they’re interested in that. But, the choice right now is easily coal.”

The Coal River Wind Project has presented the study to West Virginia’s Governor. And 10,000 people signed a petition asking the state to think beyond coal and think about the future of energy, the economy, the mountains and the people.

For The Environment Report, I’m Sandra Sleight-Brennan.

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Homeland Security to Remove Hazmat Placards?

Officials at the Department of Homeland Security are considering removing hazardous material placards from freight trains. They say doing so will help protect people from terrorists. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brush has more:

Transcript

Officials at the Department of Homeland Security are considering removing
hazardous material placards from freight trains. They say doing so would help
protect people from terrorists. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brush has more:


Because of the September 11th terrorist attacks, officials see the potential for a
lot of things to be used as weapons. One of their latest fears is that shipments of
hazardous materials could be used by terrorists. In order to protect people from this
threat, the Department of Homeland Security says it might require the removal of the
diamond shaped placards from rail cars. Emergency workers use the placards to quickly
identify a hazard after an accident.


Richard Powell is the Executive Director of the Michigan Association of Fire Chiefs.
He says while the Department of Homeland Security is well-intentioned, removal of the
placards would put more people at risk:


“We need to protect our citizens. We need to keep that system in place. If we don’t know something is there, our people could not evacuate perhaps, as quick as we normally would.”


Homeland Security officials say they’ll consider other options that would help disguise the rail cars, but would still allow emergency workers to know what’s inside.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mark Brush.

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City Fights to Save Dying Elms

Dutch elm disease is killing dozens of stately old trees in the Midwest this summer. Many people say they regret losing the beautiful old trees. It changes the way a place looks and feels for years to come. Some people are willing to fight and pay to save the elm trees in one Chicago suburb. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jody Becker reports:

Transcript

Dutch elm disease is killing dozens of stately old trees in the Great Lakes region this summer. Many people say they regret losing the beautiful old trees. It changes the way a place looks and feels for years to come. Some people are willing to fight and pay to save the elm trees in one Chicago suburb. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jody Becker reports:


When Hollywood producers come looking for the perfect leafy suburb, they often wind up in Evanston, Illinois. This summer’s Tom Hanks flick “The Road to Perdition” was shot here. Filming almost hit a glitch…when Dreamworks suggested removing an old tree to make way for a driveway, the city balked. The scene was filmed; the tree stayed.


Evanston has dozens of trees at least a century old; and some even older than that.


Today, Evanston residents are even fighting a directive from the state’s Department of Transportation to replace obsolete traffic lights because it might mean uprooting some trees. So Evanston’s city Arborist Paul D’Agostino clearly has a rough job: he’s in charge of cutting down trees in a city of tree huggers.


“I’ve had to console people who were crying and hugging their tree and convince them that we were doing the right thing, that there was no choice in the matter.”


Like a handful of tree studded suburbs around Chicago and dozens of cities around the Great Lakes region, Evanston is experiencing a sad summer as Dutch elm disease claims dozens of trees more than half a century old and up to 70 feet tall.


Already more than one hundred Evanston elms have been found to have the killer fungus, and D’Agostino expects the toll to exceed two hundred. Once infected, a tree quickly begins to die…as the fungus blocks the vascular system that delivers water and nutrients to branches and leaves.


D’Agostino explains, standing near two dying elms in front of the Evanston Police Department…


“Both of these trees are in my estimation probably about 40 years old. These are pretty far along now in showing signs of disease…but the typical symptoms of yellowing and flagging leaves has now progressed to dead leaves and bare branches. We’ve got dying sucker growth along the main trunk which means the disease has spread into the main trunk and into the roots, so there’s no curing this tree at this point. The only way to solve this problem now is to remove the tree so it doesn’t spread to other nearby elms.”


(sound of sawing trees)


So five days a week, three crews of three men each are out on Evanston streets, taking down very old, very tall trees.


(sound of chain saw and crash)


For this relatively affluent, leafy suburb defined by its generous trees, the return of Dutch elm disease brings back bad memories of summers nearly 30 years ago, when hundreds of trees were cut down, destroying the canopies of tree tops that shade many of Evanston’s streets.


Still, there are 27,000 trees on city property in Evanston, and D’Agostino estimates three times that many on private property.


Today the suburb’s green and shade is created by a careful mix of hybrids and hardier trees, including Kentucky coffee, linden, gingko, honey locust and horse chestnut.


And the city is moving ahead with plans to continue replanting with diverse species to avoid future epidemics.


But ever a hotbed of activism, Evanston environmentalists of every stripe are on the case, badgering officials to do more than just identify and remove diseased trees.


Many want the city to inoculate the elms against the fungus.


“I’m a conservative republican, not at all a tree hugger. Al Gore and I would not mix ”


Virginia Mann has successfully organized the 13 other homeowners on her block to foot the bill to inject the elms on their street.


There are nine healthy elms on the block, and Mann and her neighbors have decided to adopt and inject three trees each year, at a cost of about $600 per tree.


“I know they add value to my community, I know they add value to my property, and I
know they keep my cooling costs down and I know there’s nothing I can do to replace them. So if you don’t take care of them, that’s it, they’re gone.”


While prognosis for the inoculated trees is excellent, there are no guarantees.
Dutch elm disease is spread both by beetles who carry the fungus on their hairs, and through root grafts between neighboring trees.


There is no way to protect the trees from root grafts. No one is sure why the disease is back and moving so aggressively.


Some citizens say, though inoculations can’t guarantee saving a tree, with only about 3,000 elms left in Evanston they’d rather try, than accept what the city officials seem to believe is the inevitable demise of the species in their suburb.
“Well, you can see my tree suffered an amputation this year.”


Mimi Peterson’s front porch on Ashland Avenue is shaded by a tall sturdy-looking survivor.


“It’s one of the few elms left on the block. You can also see across the street where we lost a really huge one. We’ve already lost nine trees on the block.”


She is well known in town for raising her voice as an advocate for trees; five years ago she hounded the city into more routine tree trimmings.


Now Peterson’s spearheading a group called TREE…To Rescue Evanston Elms, looking to suburbs like nearby Hinsdale…a place with more elm trees and a more aggressive Dutch elm disease prevention program.


Peterson says she agrees that diseased trees should go…but more needs to be done to protect still healthy elms.


Mostly Peterson’s group wants the city to spend more time and money looking for trees to save rather than trees to cut.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Jody Becker.

Long Road to River Recovery

  • Aerial view of industry along the Fox River. Photo by Great Lakes United.

One of the rivers that flows into Lake Michigan is polluted so badly that it’s being treated much like a Super Fund site…an environmental disaster. It’ll be decades before it’s cleaned up, and some environmentalists think it might never be cleaned up properly. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

Transcript

One of the rivers that flows into the Great Lakes (Lake Michigan) is
polluted so badly that it’s being treated much like a Super Fund site –an
environmental disaster. It’ll be decades before it’s cleaned up. And some
environmentalists think it might never be cleaned up properly. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:


(Sound of fish splash)


It’s late at night. The moon’s out. And the fish are flopping on the Fox
River. In downtown Green Bay, Wisconsin, Robert Hageman and a few of his
friends have been fishing. A couple of the guys are bragging about the big
fish they caught. But they’re not taking any home with them tonight.


LG: “Had any luck?” RH: “Yeah, I caught 23 fish.”
LG: “And wwhat did you do with them? RH: “Let ’em right back.” LG: “why?” RH: “Because it’s dirty. Fox River’s dirty.”
LG: “What have you heard about the Fox River?” RH: “The fish ain’t good for you. They can’t hurt you, but they ain’t good for you.
(friends in background say “PCBs, man.”) “yeah.”
LG: “What do you know about PCBs?
RH: “I don’t know nothing about it. That’s why I ain’t eatin’ them.” (all laugh)


Hageman and his friends are right when they say there are PCBs in the Fox
River. But apparently they haven’t heard that eating fish from the river
probably can hurt you in the long run. There are 60-thousand pounds of
PCBs, or poly chlorinated byphenyls, in the 39 mile run of the Fox
River. Of that, 50-thousand pounds – that’s 25 tons – is in the sediment of
the last seven mile stretch just before the river flows into Green Bay and
on into the rest of Lake Michigan. It’s that final stretch where Hageman
and his friends have been fishing.


The Environmental Protection Agency says seven paper mills along the Fox
River are the likely polluters. The EPA says PCBs were produced as a
by-product of the paper manufacturing process, and from the 1950s to the 1970s
they were dumped into the river. Now, the agency intends to make those
mills pay for cleaning up the contaminants.


Dennis Hultgren works for Appleton Papers, and is a spokesperson for a group
that represents the seven companies. Hultgren says the paper mills want to
clean up the pollution. But they don’t want to pay more than they have to.


“What we want to do is make sure that the money that we do spend
is spent wisely and it does the most environmental good for the region. And
so, we have one chance to do it right and we want to do it right the first
time.”


The paper mills have been working closely with government agencies to try to
determine where the PCBs are concentrated and how best to clean up the
pollution. Some of the companies have spent millions of dollars on tests in
the river. Just recently, Hultgren’s firm offered 40-million dollars… ten-million dollars a year for four years… for data collection and preliminary clean-up tests. The government agencies praised the decision and some environmental groups voiced their approval. But a local grassroots group, the Clean Water Action Council of Northeast Wisconsin, does not approve. Rebecca Katers is with the council and says it’s a delay tactic by the paper mill companies.


“It makes the company look generous. But, in fact, they should be doing this anyway. They should have done this ten years ago.”


Giving the money now, Katers says, only manages to delay legal action
against the company for four more years. Besides, she says, while
40-million dollars might seem like a lot of money, the estimated clean-up
could cost as much as 30 times that amount.


The Clean Water Action Council says this money and the government’s
willingness to accept it are representative of the cozy relationship the
companies seem to have with regulators. But Katers says the state and
federal agencies are forgetting about the people who live here. She
bristles when she hears the government agencies talk about how close they
are to the paper mills.


“They talked at the announcement about ongoing discussions they
have on a daily basis with the paper industries on this issue. But, they
haven’t met once face-to-face with the public. They haven’t held a public
discussion or debate on this issue.”


And it appears there won’t be many opportunities in the future. Although
the Fox River is not a Superfund site, the EPA is generally following the
process used for Superfund sites. The EPA says that means the public can
submit comments in writing. But there won’t be a lot of public discussion
until the EPA actually has a proposed plan. Katers thinks the people
should have a voice a lot earlier in the process.


But, the paper mills’ representative, Dennis Hultgren says it’s better to
let the experts work first.


“It’s complicated. For the normal citizen, it’s going to be very difficult to comment on it because they’re going to be looking at the technical merits
of their comments. And a general citizen, not having been involved, it’s going to be very difficult to have germane comments.”


The companies say they’ve been studying and testing and they’ve found
disturbing the sediment by trying to remove it proves that the PCBs should
be left in the sediment, allowed to slowly break down… a process called
natural recovery. And where there’s risk that sediment laden PCBs might
be disturbed by the river’s currents, engineered caps could be put in place.


The Clean Water Action Council says the paper mills tests were designed to
end up with that conclusion because that would be the cheaper way to deal
with the PCBs. The council wants the PCBs removed from the river and
disposed of safely… a much more expensive job.


The acting regional administrator for the USEPA, David Ullrich, says
there’ll likely be some combination of natural recovery, capping, and
removal. But, Ullrich says none of that will happen anytime soon. It’s a
big job, and it looks as though it will take up to ten years to deal with
the PCBs. And Ullrich says that’s just the beginning.


“The actual recovery of the resource, getting fish contaminant
levels down to acceptable levels and getting the PCB loadings to Green Bay
and out to Lake Michigan down, could take a longer period of time than that,
perhaps up to twenty years.”


And over that 20 year period, experts say that contamination will
naturally spread farther and farther into Green Bay and Lake Michigan.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.