Tag Archives: Environmental Protection Agency

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2016: Highs, lows and farewells

Continue reading 2016: Highs, lows and farewells

Wisconsin DNR fails to update lead testing guidelines for drinking water

Nine months after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned against flushing water systems before testing for lead, the state Department of Natural Resources has not yet passed that advice on to public water systems in Wisconsin.

The EPA issued a memo in late February as the lead-in-drinking-water crisis in Flint, Michigan was exploding into public view. The memo, intended to clear up confusion over testing procedures, declared that flushing water systems before sampling must be avoided because it can conceal high levels of lead in drinking water

Water managers in Shawano and at Riverside Elementary School near Wausau say they were not aware of the change and have continued to use flushing when testing for lead.

Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech University professor who helped expose the Flint crisis, said that updating the testing procedures is “essential for public health protection.” Any amount of lead can cause permanent damage, including reduced intelligence and behavior problems, according to the EPA. Infants and children are considered the most vulnerable to lead’s negative effects.

“As we saw in Flint, the old protocols effectively ‘hid’ lead in water problems,” Edwards said.

“Given what we now know, data collected using the outdated protocols cannot be trusted.”

The memo also instructed EPA administrators to pass the guidance along to state drinking water program directors. DNR spokeswoman Jennifer Sereno said the agency was notified of the guidance and she confirmed that “pre-stagnation flushing is not an appropriate sampling procedure.”

Sereno insisted the agency had responded appropriately. DNR presented the information at two industry meetings and sent an email to the Wisconsin Rural Water Association in March, she said.

Sereno added that the agency “is in the process of drafting a letter to all community water systems that will make them aware of this and other EPA memos and summarize the content.” The agency, which is responsible for enforcing federal drinking water standards in Wisconsin, expects to send the letters next week, she said.

A search of the DNR drinking water database Friday showed nearly 6,270 lead compliance sample results from 948 water systems have been reported to the agency since Feb. 29, when the EPA guidance was issued. It was not immediately known how many used the now-discredited procedure of pre-stagnation flushing, in which a water system is flushed for some period of time, water sits unused for six hours, and then samples are collected.

Sampling procedures listed on the DNR’s website indicate the water must be stagnant for six hours but do not address whether or not the tap should be flushed prior to sampling. Sereno said new instructions will be posted online to clarify this.

Virginia Tech University professor Marc Edwards talks with Milwaukee Water Works Superintendent Carrie Lewis before a symposium on drinking water Sept. 7, 2016 at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee, Wis. Edwards said WisconsinÕs failure to notify local water managers of new lead testing protocols in the wake of the Flint, Michigan lead crisis could pose a danger to the public. —PHOTO: Dee J. Hall
Virginia Tech University professor Marc Edwards talks with Milwaukee Water Works Superintendent Carrie Lewis before a symposium on drinking water Sept. 7, 2016 at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee, Wis. Edwards said WisconsinÕs failure to notify local water managers of new lead testing protocols in the wake of the Flint, Michigan lead crisis could pose a danger to the public. —PHOTO: Dee J. Hall

In July, EPA sent a letter reminding states to post updated protocols to their websites, saying the agency would follow up with each state “to ensure that these protocols and procedures are clearly understood and are being properly implemented to address lead and copper issues at individual drinking water systems.” The EPA did not respond to a question about whether any other states had failed to notify water managers of the updated protocols.

While some municipalities, such as the Green Bay Water Utility and the Milwaukee Water Works, were aware of the EPA memo and updated their testing procedures, others continued using outdated methods that included a flushing step — making it possible dangerous levels of lead could go unnoticed.

Shawano included pre-stagnation flushing in the procedures used for this year’s testing, which was completed over the summer. Patrick Bergner, water manager for the city of nearly 10,000 between Green Bay and Wausau, said although he works closely with a DNR liaison, he was not aware of any EPA guidance against flushing.

“I’d be happy to be informed of any changes in the procedure,” Bergner said. One of Shawano’s 21 compliance samples had a level of lead nearly three times the federal action level, which is 15 parts per billion; several more neared the limit.

DNR public water supply specialist Tony Knipfer acknowledged the need for clarification when flushing is appropriate. It is typically recommended as a way for consumers to reduce exposure to lead in their own homes, for example, but should not be done before testing.

“I think it’s fair to say that there’s been some confusion or conflicting information out on the flushing,” he said. “But from a regulatory aspect and a health and safety aspect, we’re looking for representative samples of what’s likely to be consumed.”

Milwaukee Water Works issued a statement in June saying it immediately adopted the instructions not to pre-flush. Those new instructions will be put to use next year when the utility tests 50 homes and buildings for compliance with EPA regulations.

“Prior to February of 2016, MWW did instruct residents to flush their home plumbing prior to the required six-hour stagnation period, before collecting samples for regulatory compliance purposes,” according to the memo from Milwaukee Water Works Superintendent Carrie Lewis to Mayor Tom Barrett.

“The last testing cycle (for Milwaukee) was the summer of 2014. That cycle did include the pre-stagnation flushing instruction,” Lewis wrote. “The next cycle in the summer of 2017 will not.”

Other procedures that can mask the true level of lead in drinking water include removing or cleaning faucet filters called aerators that can collect lead particles; using narrow-necked bottles that result in a slower flow of water; and sampling in cooler months when lead concentrations are lower. The EPA also urged that those procedures should end.

“While we cannot undo the past harm done from failing to detect water lead risks,” Edwards said, “there should be zero tolerance for future needless harm that arises from a false sense of security created by bad data.”

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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Study shows 2 dangerous chemicals released at Iowa plant

A federally mandated study has concluded that Pella Corp. inadvertently released two dangerous chemicals into the ground at its plant in Pella, Iowa.

The study said pentachlorophenol and dioxin have reached the groundwater.

Only those two chemicals were found at higher than acceptable levels, according to the Des Moines Register.

Pella officials said the contaminants do not threaten the city’s drinking water, which comes from the Des Moines River and the Jordan aquifer.

“There’s very limited exposure to human health for this,” Pella engineering manager Jim Nieboer said. “And really, it’s limited to people who work in our buildings and grounds crew who may be digging in our soil periodically planting flowers and tulips.”

Pella used pentachlorophenol to treat wood, and was stored in above-ground tanks and drums. Although the chemical was widely barred in the 1980s, it is still used as a preservative for telephone poles and railroad ties. Dioxins, a byproduct of pentachlorophenol manufacturing, are described by the World Health Organization as “highly toxic.”

The study was a result of a 2010 settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency, which required the company to test for 30 different possible sources of contamination. Nieboer said Pella will wait for guidance from the EPA on whether Pella must remove the chemicals from the ground.

“It’s primarily underneath our manufacturing buildings,” Nieboer said. “There are ways we can intercept and remove groundwater. Given the clay soils in Iowa, it could be a very long-term process of removal and treatment.”

Pella spokeswoman Heidi Farmer said the company does not know of any employees who became ill from the soil, but still continue to monitor and test the facility to ensure the health and safety of Pella’s team members.

Harley-Davidson pays $15 million in air-pollution settlement

Harley-Davidson Inc. agreed Thursday to pay $15 million to settle a U.S. government complaint over racing tuners that caused its motorcycles to emit higher-than-allowed levels of air pollution.

Harley-Davidson manufactured and sold about 340,000 Screamin’ Eagle Pro Super Tuners since 2008 that allowed users to modify a motorcycle’s emissions control system to increase power and performance, according to court filings by the Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency.

The racing tuners, which the prosecutors said were illegal “defeat devices” that circumvented emissions controls, also increased the amounts of such harmful air pollutants as nitrogen oxide spewing from the bikes’ tailpipes.

The government said Harley-Davidson also made and sold more than 12,000 motorcycles of various models between 2006 and 2008 with the illegal tuners pre-installed on them by dealers that were not properly certified as meeting clean air standards. Under the agreement, the company is required to ensure that all of its future motorcycle models sold in the United States are fully certified by EPA to meet air quality standards.

“Given Harley-Davidson’s prominence in the industry, this is a very significant step toward our goal of stopping the sale of illegal aftermarket defeat devices that cause harmful pollution on our roads and in our communities,” said Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden, head of the Justice Department’s environmental division. “Anyone else who manufactures, sells, or installs these types of illegal products should take heed of Harley-Davidson’s corrective actions and immediately stop violating the law.”

The Milwaukee-based company said the tuners in question were designed for use on specialized track racing bikes and not intended for use on public roads.

“This settlement is not an admission of liability but instead represents a good faith compromise with the EPA on areas of law we interpret differently,” said Ed Moreland, Harley-Davidson’s government affairs director. “For more than two decades, we have sold this product under an accepted regulatory approach that permitted the sale of competition-only parts. In our view, it is and was legal to use in race conditions in the U.S.”

Under the agreement, Harley-Davidson said it will no longer sell the racing tuners. The company also will offer to buy back all such tuners in stock at Harley-Davidson dealerships across the country and destroy them.

The company said it now will offer a different model for sale designed to comply with state and federal clean air standards.

Harley-Davidson will also pay a $12 million civil penalty and spend $3 million to mitigate air pollution through a project to replace local conventional woodstoves with cleaner-burning versions.

EPA officials discovered the violations through a routine inspection and information submitted by the company. The case comes amid increased scrutiny of the use of defeat devices in the wake of last year’s revelations that Volkswagen sold more than 550,000 diesel cars and SUVs that contained illegal software to cheat U.S. emissions tests.

Hydrocarbon and nitrogen oxide emissions contribute to harmful ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter pollution. Exposure has been linked with a range of serious health effects, including increased asthma attacks and other respiratory illnesses.

“This settlement immediately stops the sale of illegal aftermarket defeat devices used on public roads that threaten the air we breathe,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator of EPA’s enforcement arm. “Harley-Davidson is taking important steps to buy back the `super tuners’ from their dealers and destroy them, while funding projects to mitigate the pollution they caused.”

 

Environmentalists challenge DNR sand mine pollution findings

A new Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources draft report wrongly concludes that sand mining operations don’t produce fine dust particles and shouldn’t impact human health, an environmental advocacy group contends.

The DNR released a potential update to its 2012 sand mining analysis for public comment this past week. The analysis tracks the latest scientific and socioeconomic information about sand mining in Wisconsin. The agency uses the analysis to inform policy discussions and decisions.

Sand mining has taken off in western Wisconsin since 2008, as fracking, a process to free petroleum and natural gas by cracking rock with injections of water, sand and chemicals, has taken hold. The region has high-quality silica sand that works well in the process; according to the report, 92 sand mines are currently active in the area. The boom has generated fears of air and water pollution.

A section of the report focuses on air pollution, stating that sand mines don’t appear to be producing the small pollutant particles that can lodge deep in human lungs and, according to some studies, cause health problems. Air quality monitors in western Wisconsin haven’t detected elevated levels of such tiny particles and the levels of larger particles are well below federal air quality standards, according to the report.

“As a result of existing regulations and the permitting and compliance activities … health related impacts from industrial sand facilities are not likely to be an issue,” the analysis states.

Midwest Environmental Advocates, though, insists that the DNR needs to take a tougher look at sand mining and solicit more data and input from experts and the public.

The analysis relies too heavily on voluntary air monitoring and industry-funded studies, the group said, and minimizes a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire study that found sand mines may be causing or contributing to unsafe air pollution. The DNR has no evidence showing that sand mines don’t produce the smaller, more dangerous particles, the group said.

MEA attorney Sarah Geers pointed to a letter the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent to the DNR in August that a broad statement that mining processes don’t emit fine particles is accurate or appropriate.

“Robust public comment will improve the final (analysis), if the DNR will hear the public’s concerns, accept more air quality studies and address the legal and environmental concerns with fine particulate matter associated with frac sand mining,” the group said in a news release.

The DNR plans to hold a public hearing on the draft analysis July 24 in Eau Claire. The agency will take comments for at least 45 days before issuing the final version. DNR spokesman James Dick declined to comment on MEA’s complaints, saying the agency typically doesn’t respond to public comments as they come in.

 

Trail of cancer deaths near plastics factory linked to tap water

After his factory worker father died a painful death from kidney cancer at age 68 in 2013, Michael Hickey made it his mission to find out why so many people in his New York hometown along the Hoosic River were getting sick.

Two years later, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has warned residents of Hoosick Falls not to drink or cook with water from municipal wells, and a plastics plant has agreed to install a $2 million carbon filtration system at the village water treatment plant.

This most recent link discovered between cancer and polluted water should be of major concern to Wisconsin.  Last October, Midwest Environmental Advocates requested an EPA investigation of the Wisconsin DNR for failing to comply with the Clean Water Act in the state. Clean water advocates want the federal agency to strip Wisconsin of its authority to control water pollution if it doesn’t do a better job.

The excessive water pollution allowed by Walker and the state’s Republican leadership has raised eyebrows all over the nation for its transparently aggressive attempt to reward major donors affiliated with Koch Industries and Big Ag, which have contributed many millions of dollars to their campaigns.

Esquire magazine reported last November that the “deregulation regime put in place by (Gov. Scott) Walker and his pet legislature, which necessarily involved defanging the state’s environmental oversight authorities, is rendering much of Wisconsin’s water into a chemistry set. Between the nitrates leaching into rural wells from the over-farming of big agriculture, to towns that use a loophole in the regulations to … wait for it … avoid having to pay to purify their water supplies, the kitchen tap has become a prime venue for Russian roulette.”

One-man campaign

In Hooosick Falls, Hickey launched a one-man campaign to bring local water pollution to federal attention. He took it upon himself to examine the industrial pollution released into the groundwater in the factory village near the Vermont border, where his father had worked for 35 years at a plant that made high-performance plastics similar to Teflon. So Hickey searched online for “cancer” and “Teflon.”

What he found: PFOA.

Perfluorooctanoic acid, a water and oil repellent, had been used since the 1940s in products including non-stick cookware, stain-resistant carpeting and microwave popcorn bags. Manufacturers agreed to phase it out by the end of 2015 shortly after DuPont reached a $16.5 million settlement with the EPA over the company’s failure to report possible health risks associated with PFOA.

A scientific panel that conducted health studies as part of a DuPont settlement of a West Virginia class-action lawsuit concluded there was a “probable link” between PFOA exposure and kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis and pregnancy-induced hypertension.

In Hoosick Falls, nobody has ever scientifically documented that the village has an unusually high cancer rate, but Hickey and a local doctor had heard enough anecdotal evidence that they felt it should be addressed.

“There’s always been talk around town about how there’s a lot of cancer,” Hickey said. “When my dad, who didn’t drink or smoke, was diagnosed with kidney cancer, that made it more personal.”

Dr. Marcus Martinez, the family doctor for many of the village’s 3,500 residents, added there certainly seemed to be a high rate of cancer there, particularly rare, aggressive forms. The 44-year-old Martinez himself is in remission from atypical bronchial carcinoid tumor, a rare form of lung cancer.

When the two men suggested testing the village water supply, part-time Mayor David Borge at first refused, citing state guidelines. New York state classifies PFOA as an “unspecified organic contaminant” and doesn’t require testing for it.

The EPA has a non-enforceable guidance level of 400 parts per trillion — roughly 4 teaspoons in enough water to fill a 10-mile string of rail tankers.

Hickey used his own money in summer 2014 to have water from his kitchen tap and other sources tested. The results showed PFOA at 540 ppt from Hickey’s home, exceeding the EPA’s guidance. Village officials subsequently tested the municipal supply and found PFOA at similar levels.

Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, part of a Paris-based global conglomerate, in 1999 became the fifth owner of a plastics factory in Hoosick Falls. It conducted tests in the summer of 2015 and reported a PFOA level of 18,000 ppt in groundwater under its plant, 500 yards from the village’s main water wells.

“Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics is committed to helping the village of Hoosick Falls with this situation,” company spokesman Carmen Ferrigno said. While the source of the PFOA contamination hasn’t been identified, Saint-Gobain has been paying for bottled water for residents since November and has agreed to pay for filtration to remove the chemical from the public water supply, he said.

Hickey and Martinez, along with Albany environmental lawyer David Engel, weren’t satisfied. They wanted people to be told not to drink the tap water, along with a full investigation and remediation.

Engel contacted Judith Enck, who heads the EPA region that includes New York. She issued a statement in December warning residents not to drink or cook with village water. Until then, state and village officials had told residents the water was unlikely to cause health problems.

On Jan. 14, Enck and a panel of leading EPA scientists addressed a standing-room-only crowd at Hoosick Falls’ high school auditorium. The same day, New York officials asked the EPA to add the Saint-Gobain plant and other possible sources of contamination in Hoosick Falls to the Superfund priorities list. The state health department also recently announced plans to study cancer rates in the village and vicinity.

“We are giving this contamination problem a high priority,” Enck said. “A very detailed study of groundwater is needed in Hoosick Falls to know what we are dealing with and how to best address it.”

Engel said that the village’s plan to install filters at the water plant is a good first step, but that the long-term solution should be to establish new wells to replace the contaminated ones.

Kevin Allard, 58, who worked at the plastics plant in the 1980s, said his mother died of pancreatic cancer at 54 and his father died of thyroid cancer at 81. In 2006, a 25-year-old friend of Allard’s son died of pancreatic cancer. Now, he worries about the health of his children, in their early 30s.

“They grew up on that water,” he said. “That’s what concerns me.”

Milkweed seeds planted on Mackinac Island to help struggling monarch butterflies

Mackinac Island, a place known for fudge and horses, is trying to help the struggling monarch butterfly.

Thousands of milkweed seeds have been planted at the end of the island’s airport runway. The goal is to grow milkweed plants, which monarch butterflies use to lay eggs.

Planting the milkweed plants on Mackinac Island is just the latest in a growing variety of efforts to save the iconic black-and-orange butterfly, which has become a rallying symbol for grassroots environmentalism. The butterfly’s population has plummeted 90 percent in the last 20 years, mostly due to habitat loss and toxic chemicals used by factory farms.

The growing number of campaigns to save monarchs range from initiatives launched by President Barack Obama to those by an eastern Iowa Facebook group, from university research scientists to Iowa farmers.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently took steps to withdraw approval of a controversial weed killer in Wisconsin, partly due to the danger it poses for the monarchs.

Monarchs migrate thousands of miles between Mexico and Canada and the United States, and milkweed is an important source of food for butterfly larvae.

Natural historian Jeff Dykehouse says he’s seen clouds of monarchs flying south through the Straits of Mackinac at the tip of the Lower Peninsula.

Phil Porter of Mackinac State Historic Parks says monarchs play an important role in pollinating plants.

Obama vetoes anti-climate change measures passed by Congress

President Barack Obama has vetoed two measures that would have blocked steps that his administration is taking to address climate change.

One would have nullified carbon pollution standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. The second would have voided a set of national standards designed to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas pollution from existing power plants.

In a letter notifying Congress of his decision, Obama says climate change is a “profound threat” that must be addressed.

Some Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates scoff at the climate science.

Obama has made addressing climate change a priority. He recently praised a new international climate agreement reached at a Paris conference and credited his administration as being a driving force behind the deal.

He rejected the measures through a rare “pocket veto,” intended for use when Congress has adjourned, as it did Friday for the year. A pocket vote essentially takes effect when the president fails to sign a bill within 10 days.