Beach Bacteria Can Cause Closings

Even if it’s safe to go in the water at your local beach, the sand
might harbor bacteria. Rebecca Williams reports a new study finds
contaminated sand could cause beaches to be closed to swimmers:

Transcript

Even if it’s safe to go in the water at your local beach, the sand
might harbor bacteria. Rebecca Williams reports a new study finds
contaminated sand could cause beaches to be closed to swimmers:


If officials find the bacteria E. Coli or Enterococci in beach water,
they usually close the beach. That’s because at high levels, those
bacteria can make swimmers sick. A new study found those two types of
bacteria can be common in beach sand.


Alexandria Boehm is the author of the study in the journal
Environmental Science and Technology. She says the bacteria in sand
can occur naturally, but they can also come from human or animal waste.


She found that bacteria in sand can get stirred into the water at high
enough levels to trigger beach closings:


“If sand is the source of pollution at these beaches it makes
remediation very difficult because we don’t really know how to clean up beach
sand.”


Boehm says more studies are needed to know if people can get sick by
being exposed to bacteria in sand.


For the Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.

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Powering a Town With Pig Manure

With skyrocketing crude oil prices much of the nation’s attention has turned toward alternative fuels. While many people are focused on ethanol production, one small town is looking at turning waste from humans and hogs into electricity. In a few months, the town will break ground on a 10-million dollar processing plant. It hopes to become the first town in the nation to run completely off renewable resources. The GLRC’s LaToya Dennis reports:

Transcript

With skyrocketing crude oil prices much of the nation’s attention has turned toward
alternative fuels. While many people are focused on ethanol production, one small town
is looking at turning waste from humans and hogs into electricity. In a few months, the
town will break ground on a 10 million dollar processing plant. It hopes to become the
first town in the nation to run completely off renewable resources. The GLRC’s LaToya
Dennis reports:


To get where we’re going, you have to pass through small town after small town and
acres and acres of cornfields. Reynolds, Indiana is a farm town of about 500 people. It’s
hard to find on most maps. And it’s pretty easy to overlook. After all, there’s only one gas
station and three restaurants. But what Reynolds is doing is hard to overlook. Charlie
Van Voorst has lived there for a long time and is now the town president. He says the town is
going to provide its own electricity and it’s not going to burn fossil fuels like coal or
natural gas.


“Town board meetings went from talking about the neighbor’s dog in your yard to now
talking about million dollar decisions about what we’re building.”


What the town of Reynolds is building is a new power plant powered by the by-products
of the surrounding farms, chiefly, pig poop. The plant will use technology to pull
methane and other gases from animal and human waste. The gases will then power
engines and steam turbines. Coming out on the other end is electricity, and leftover solids,
which can be used for fertilizer.


(Sound of pigs)


Within just a few miles there are around 150 thousand pigs. That makes for a lot of
waste:


“Well, this is the bacon.”


Bill Schroeder is a local pig farmer. He’s standing in the middle of a thousand hogs.
They’re about knee high and weigh around 300 pounds each. They’re constantly eating
and pooping.


“It don’t smell to me, does it smell to you. When you walked in here, did you smell?”


Actually, it did smell, but Schroeder thinks it smells like money. He says he’s willing to
give the waste his pigs produce to the town to turn into electricity. After the waste is
processed, farmers will get a higher quality fertilizer back for their fields. But Schroeder
says some farmers still might hesitate because they’re not being paid for their pig waste.


“There should be return. Anytime you invest money, you expect a return. I mean if
you’ve got a CD in the bank you expect a return on that CD. It’s no different from
investment in machinery, hog buildings or anything else.”


Obviously, some of the financial incentives still have to be worked out, but Reynolds
town officials say there are good reasons besides money to take the town off the existing
power grid. Right now, Reynolds gets its energy from coal. That puts a lot of carbon into
the air. Methane processing produces less carbon dioxide than coal.


Jody Snodgrass is managing director for Rose Energy. That’s the company building the
processing plant. He says the project has another environmental benefit. It reduces the
amount methane from pig manure that’s released into the atmosphere because it’s
captured and used to make electricity.


“The increase of methane causes increased cloud formation. Also causes decreased ozone
layer and basically contributes to global warming as does carbon dioxide and several
other compounds. And if you can reduce those or eliminate those, that obviously is a plus
for the environment.”


That’s the reason the town of Reynolds is getting the support of the state in its effort to
become energy independent. Although everyone’s not on board yet, town president Charlie Van
Voorst is excited about what’s to come. He says small town farming communities haven’t
seen a development this big in more than 100 years:


“Oh, my goodness. Since I’ve grown up, golly. I suppose you could talk about the –
something to this magnitude would be when electricity came into our community.”


Town officials hope Reynolds is powered by pig poop and other alternative fuels by
2008. They say if things go well, their town could become the model for other small farm
towns across the country.


For the GLRC, I’m LaToya Dennis.


HOST TAG: This piece was originally produced for NPR’s Next Generation
Radio.

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Record Beach Closings on Lake Michigan

A new report shows Lake Michigan beaches were closed a record number of times last year. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Rebecca Williams has more:

Transcript

A new report shows Lake Michigan beaches were closed a record number of times last
year. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Rebecca Williams has more:


The Lake Michigan Federation says communities in the basin reported more than 1400
beach closings last year. It’s the most the group has recorded in seven years.


Joel Brammeier is the Federation’s acting executive director. He says many local health
officials are expanding their beach testing programs. Last summer, that meant more
beach closings.


“The monitoring and understanding the levels of contamination is the first step towards
restoring confidence in Great Lakes beaches. To keep that confidence up, that
contamination has to be eliminated so people can access those beaches whenever they
want to.”


Brammeier says Great Lakes beaches continue to be polluted by animal and human
waste. He says while beach testing is improving, most communities need a lot of money
to clean up those pollution sources.


That money could come from Congress. The Senate and House are debating bills calling
for four to six billion dollars for Great Lakes cleanup and restoration.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Rebecca Williams.

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Epa to Re-Examine Impact of Sewage Sludge Fertilizer

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it’s ready to take a new look at the science and risks involved in using treated human waste – sewage sludge – as fertilizer on farmland. That’s seen as good news for people who live near farms using sewage sludge. Some of them say the sludge makes them sick. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Amy Tardif reports:

Transcript

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it’s ready to take a new look at the science and
risks involved in using treated human waste – sewage sludge – as fertilizer on farmland. That’s
seen as good news for people who live near farms using sewage sludge. Some of them say the
sludge makes them sick. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Amy Tardif reports:


About three million dry tons of treated sewage – called sludge – is used to fertilize sod, pasture
land and even food crops every year in the United States. As cities sprawl and people move into
rural areas they discover the practice. And many don’t like it.


“We were like what is that smell? This is sick. It makes you want to vomit. Your eyes start
burning and you want to get away from it as quick as you can.”


Molly Bowen is one of a group of homeowners suing the haulers who dump and landowners who
use sewage sludge near their neighborhood. People around the country have blamed the sludge
for causing illnesses and even deaths. They say their wells are contaminated with sludge. They
say they breathe sludge dust blowing from recently treated fields. Bowen and her neighbors
blame the sludge for a lot of health problems.


“Laryngitis, stomach, upper respiratory, not being able to breath well.”


For a while these people thought no one was listening. But cases are coming in from all over and
the Environmental Protection Agency is starting to pay attention. In 2002, the EPA asked the
National Academy of Sciences to study the public health aspects of sludge. Thomas Burke is a
professor and epidemiologist with Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
He chaired the study.


“This is poop we’re talking about here. It has the potential to cause serious illness if they’re not treated
appropriately and if there is not appropriate protection of the population.”


Burke and others studied to see if the EPA methods used to determine the limits for chemicals,
viruses and bacteria in sewage sludge were strong enough. Burke says the methods are not strong
enough to use the sludge safely.


“We need to understand better the potential health effects. We need a new national survey to
understand the microbes and the potential pathogens that might be present. And also we need to
better characterize the chemicals that might be present in sludge. The current rules are based upon
work that was done back in the ’80’s.”


The EPA is looking at those concerns. It says it will try to determine if there are contaminants in
the sludge that could cause health problems.


Prior to the National Academies of Sciences report, government regulators, including the EPA,
sewer plant managers, and sludge haulers, insisted sludge was safe when applied according to
the rules.


Houston-based Synagro manages sludge biosolids for municipalities in 35 states. Vice President
for government relations, Bob O’dette says there’s been plenty of studies already.


“If I thought for a moment that this caused anybody any health problems, I wouldn’t be in the
industry. I formed my opinion on biosolids before I came into the private sector.”


Problems have been pointed out. But the Federal Office of Inspector General reported in 2002
that the EPA offers virtually no federal oversight over sludge disposal and the agency is not
protecting the public. Those in the agency that tried to point out the problems were pressured or
fired.


Dr. David Lewis says he warned his bosses that using sludge might cause health problems. He
worked as a research microbiologist at the EPA’s national exposure research laboratory in
Georgia. He was fired last May. He alleges in whistleblower lawsuits that the EPA – which not
only regulates, but also promotes recycling sludge biosolids as fertilizer – wanted his sludge
research stopped.


“I can assure you that many of the issues raised by private citizens are issues that are raised and
that many scientists at EPA share those concerns and have from the beginning because of the
concerns over pathogens, metals and other contaminants in sludge and that concerns the risk that
might be present for public health and the environment.”


Lewis says although many viruses and bacteria die in the field, especially when exposed to
sunlight, the biggest risk of infection comes from what grows in the sludge after it’s put down.
Bacterial pathogens grow when the organic matter decomposes. He says it’s just like meat that’s
cooked and then left out on the counter. Some nasty stuff can start growing.


But now the EPA indicates it is ready to make changes. It plans to spend nearly six-million
dollars over the next three years following some of the advice of the National Academy of
Science study. Geff Grubbs is the EPA’s director of science and technology.


“We’re looking at what are the possible impacts and risks to people who live near and would
otherwise be exposed to pollutants that are emitted into the air from biosolids as they’re applied
to land. We’ll be conducting an analysis of samples of biosolids from various points across the
country to help determine the concentrations of additional pollutants that could impact health.”


The EPA says it will first look at health studies of people who claim to have become sick from
exposure to sludge. And it hopes to work with the Centers for Disease Control and state health
departments to arrange for them to track and investigate alleged cases of sludge sickness.


Environmentalists and others say they hope this is a more science-based look at the issue, but
they remain skeptical.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Amy Tardif.

Related Links

RECORD YEAR FOR BEACH CLOSINGS (Version 1)

Lake Michigan had a record number of beach closings this year. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl has more:

Transcript

Lake Michigan had a record number of beach closings last year. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl reports.


The Lake Michigan Federation is reporting almost six hundred beach closings on Lake Michigan in 2001. That’s up from just over four hundred last year. Federation director Cameron Davis says most of the closings are due to wastewater carrying bacteria to the lakes when treatment plants are at capacity. He says the solution is to cut back on development near the lakes:


“We need to try to limit the amount of pavement that’s being laid down all across the region, so that rainwater naturally filters through the ground rather than getting shuttled off into a sewage treatment plant.”


Davis says the number of beach closings on Lake Michigan should actually be higher than his report shows. He says Michigan does a poor job testing for bacteria near beaches, and says Wisconsin’s numbers are excluding Sheboygan County where there have been problems in the past. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Jonathan Ahl.

RECORD YEAR FOR BEACH CLOSINGS (Version 2)

Lake Michigan beaches were closed more often this summer than ever before. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl reports, beach closings can translate into significant economic loss:

Transcript

Lake Michigan beaches were closed more often this summer than ever before. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl reports.


A report from the Lake Michigan Federation shows an all-time high of 600 beach closings in 2001. High levels of bacteria found in the water caused most of the closings. Federation director Cameron Davis says in addition to the environmental problems, the closings have an economic impact on the region:


“Take a look at a place like Chicago that gets 60 million visitors a year to the lakefront. And you get a beach closing Labor Day weekend or a fourth of July weekend. You’re looking at millions of people, some from around the world, that can’t visit the beaches here.”


Davis says the bacteria is getting into the water when heavy rains force wastewater and sewage carrying human and animal waste past treatment plants and into the lake. The Lake Michigan Federation is setting up a center to help citizens and community groups solve bacteria problems at beaches. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Jonathan Ahl.