@EPA to limit manmade chemicals in drinking water #PFAS

Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.

From Reuters:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will announce on Thursdays limits on how much toxic chemicals from cookware and carpeting are allowed in drinking water.

The agency will announce a plan to control a group of chemicals known as PFAS that are linked to cancer, liver and thyroid damage, and other health and fetal effects. The substances, which include PFOA and PFOS, are found in non-stick cookware, stain-resistant carpeting and other manmade materials.

Acting administrator Andrew Wheeler will make the announcement at 9 a.m. EST (1400 GMT)…

An EPA statement about Thursday’s announcement did not mention a specific level for the substances.

ABC News Live interviewed Wheeler on Wednesday and reported that drinking water systems around the country will be tested for the chemicals at lower levels than an earlier round of testing in 2012.

Photo via USAF Air Combat Command

This announcement will be good (but too late) news for the folks in this article by Faith Miller that’s running in the Colorado Springs Independent:

For Steve Patterson, any decision the Environmental Protection Agency makes around whether to regulate toxic PFASs (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in drinking water is too little, too late.

That’s apparent when he counts off the family members who he believes have already fallen victim to the Air Force firefighting foam that leached into drinking water sources in Fountain, Security-Widefield and the Stratmoor neighborhood of southeast Colorado Springs for decades.

At least 10 of Patterson’s family members and in-laws, including his father, sister, uncle, cousin and niece, have died from different kinds of cancer. A dozen or so more family members are battling cancer. And recently, his 14-year-old grandson required a kidney transplant.

Not all of these people are related by blood, so it’s unlikely that the high occurrence of disease, predominantly kidney- and colon-related, is purely genetic. But Patterson’s family members share at least one deadly risk factor: They all spent years in an area contaminated by chemicals which, according to a recent report in Politico, the EPA doesn’t plan to limit in drinking water.

“We have a huge family, and it’s 
only the ones out here [in Stratmoor, Fountain, Security-Widefield],” Patterson says. “Now the ones that live in town, they’re not having that problem. And so that’s how I know it has to be connected.”

[…]

Evidence that drinking water in the Fountain and Security-Widefield areas was contaminated with the toxic chemicals began to emerge in 2015, and the affected water districts changed sources or added treatment systems to filter out the chemicals. The EPA issued a drinking water advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFASs in May 2016.

But prior to those changes, some groundwater wells in the area had tested at PFAS levels several times that limit. And some of the approximately 65,000 residents had, like Patterson’s family, been exposed to the chemicals for many years.

Patterson’s skeptical that the government will do anything to help longtime residents who’ve suffered still-unknown consequences from the PFAS chemicals that leached into their drinking water.

“It’s not that we’re looking for money. We’re looking for like, who’s going to take care of me?” Patterson says. “I mean, what is it in my system … what is the government going to do to fix it and help us?”

In December, initial results from a study by the Colorado School of Public Health and Colorado School of Mines showed that Security-Widefield and Fountain residents who had lived in the area for at least three years before 2015 had higher-than-normal levels of three PFAS chemicals in their blood.

Study participants had blood levels of one toxic compound, PFHxS, that were about 10 times as high as U.S. population reference levels. They had about twice as much PFOS, another chemical in the PFAS group, as the general population. Previous studies have linked this chemical to thyroid hormone effects in humans.

And levels of the chemical PFOA — which human studies have linked to cancer — were 40 to 70 percent higher than U.S. reference levels.

As public awareness of widespread PFAS contamination grew (the Air Force has identified approximately 200 sites in the U.S. where the firefighting foam may have been released), anger spread among residents, who called for the Air Force to pay to fix the damage. The EPA drew ire, too, when Politico reported in May 2018 that it had sought to cover up a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that indicated safe levels of PFAS could be as low as 12 ppt.

@WestGov urge @POTUS to reject changes to state authority in Section 401 of Clean Water Act

Colorado River headwaters tributary in Rocky Mountain National Park photo via Greg Hobbs.

Here’s the release from the Western Governors Association:

Western Governors request President Trump “reject any changes to agency rules, guidance, or policy that may diminish” states’ authorities to protect water quality within their boundaries.

“Western Governors are aware of reports that the White House is considering issuance of an executive order to address energy infrastructure development that may include provisions affecting the implementation of the state water quality certification program under Section 401 of the federal Clean Water Act (CWA),” states the Jan. 31, 2019 letter signed by WGA Chair Hawaii Gov. David Ige and WGA Vice Chair North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.

“We urge you to direct federal agencies to reject any changes to agency rules, guidance, or policy that may diminish, impair, or subordinate states’ well-established sovereign and statutory authorities to protect water quality within their boundaries,” the letter asserts.

The Governors also request that “any executive order (or corresponding federal action) aimed at improving or streamlining the state water quality certification program under CWA Section 401 should be informed by early, meaningful, substantive, and ongoing consultation with state officials.”

Read, download the letter.

@SenCoryGardner supports @EPA’s decision not to regulate PFAS, “I think it’s very important that we get as much information as we can and then act appropriately”

Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.

From Politico (Annie Snider and Anthony Adragna):

[Gardner] told POLITICO he expected there would be a federal role in regulating the chemicals, but he wanted to see the results of a health study included in the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.

“I think it’s very important that we get as much information as we can and then act appropriately,” he said.

@HollomanAFB: @USAF report details #PFAS contamination orders of magnitude above @EPA recommendations — @NMreport

Here’s a report from Laura Paskus writing for the New Mexico Political Report. Here’s an excerpt:

The groundwater below Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo tested positive for hazardous chemicals—and the contamination levels are more than 18,000 times higher than what the federal government says is safe.

A November 2018 site inspection report provided to the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), and obtained by NM Political Report this week, details the contamination. Currently, the state is trying to understand the extent of the problem and what might be done.

According to the report, in 2016, the U.S. Air Force identified 31 potential release sites at Holloman. Two years later, in 2018, contractors tested five areas to determine if PFAS were present in soil, sediment, ground or surface water. PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of human-made chemicals, and include perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS).

Photo via USAF Air Combat Command

New rules limiting clean water protections ignore stream science — @HighCountryNews

Here’s an interview with Dr. Ellen Wohl from Emily Benson and The High Country News:

What happens to part of a river network affects all of it.

On Dec. 11, the Trump administration announced plans to cut back the number of wetlands and creeks protected under the Clean Water Act, which regulates water pollution in the U.S. The new rules would leave about half the nation’s wetlands and all of its ephemeral streams — those waterways, common in the West, that flow only after rainfall or snowmelt — without federal safeguards.

The proposed guidelines, which will almost certainly face years of lawsuits, are a stark departure from how previous administrations have interpreted the act — and a sharp divergence from research on how to protect clean water. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers argued that the new rules were informed by science. But the agencies did not conduct a new scientific assessment of which waterways the Clean Water Act should cover; instead, they relied on a comprehensive report prepared by the EPA in 2015. That report, on how streams and wetlands are connected to downstream waters, highlights the importance of the very waterways the new guidelines would leave unprotected.

High Country News recently caught up with Ellen Wohl, a river researcher and professor at Colorado State University who served on the scientific review committee for the 2015 EPA report, to find out how scientists view the new guidelines.

High Country News: Does this proposed rule match what researchers know is important for protecting clean water?

Ellen Wohl: Absolutely not. It’s diametrically opposed to how the scientific community understands rivers as ecosystems, and river function.

Most of us, when we think about rivers, we think of the type of river that we would fish or boat on, or really big rivers; we don’t think of the river that we could jump across. But if you spread your hand and you look at it, and you say, ‘I don’t care about the little stuff, so I’m going to cut off the first two joints of every finger,’ and you’ve got a palm and some stubs left, your hand’s not going to be very functional.

Wohl said that when scientists study streams, they don’t just consider the main channel; they think of “the entire river network.”

It’s the same thing with a river network. Those small streams, which constitute 70 to 80 percent of the total channel length in any river network, are critical to the functioning of the whole system. Any spot on a particular river is connected to what’s underneath the ground, it’s connected to what’s on the adjacent hill slopes, it’s connected to what’s up- and downstream.

HCN: Can you give me an example?

EW: Nitrate pollution is a big, big issue around the world, including much of the Western U.S. One effect of having too much is the big dead zones … off the near-shore area of most major rivers. We have reduced the ability of rivers to process that nitrate, to take it up biologically and keep it from just flowing downstream.

A lot of that nitrate uptake occurs in the little rivers. Rivers can take up nitrate if they are physically complex, (if they have) secondary channels, abandoned channels, a floodplain, floodplain wetlands. So if you bury them, if you pave them, if you channelize them, if you dewater them — if you do all the things that you cannot do as much if they’re protected under the Clean Water Act — you lose all that.

HCN: The new rule would strip protections from wetlands that don’t have a surface connection to a protected river or lake — that are only connected via groundwater, for example. Does it make sense to treat wetlands that have a surface connection differently than ones that don’t?

EW: Scientifically, no. They’re disconnected in the ways we can see on the surface, but there are subsurface connections. They don’t sit there in isolation like some special creation; they are integral to the functioning of the whole watershed and the river network. Those disconnected surface wetlands are vital ecologically for a wide variety of organisms, from migratory birds to the communities that live (there) year-round, and they are not disconnected in the ways that matter.

HCN: Is there a specific place or landscape you could point to where these little streams and subsurface connections are particularly important?

EW: Pawnee National Grasslands. It’s what all of eastern Colorado would look like without irrigation: It’s shortgrass prairie, bunchgrasses, small sagebrush, prickly pear cacti. Many of the channels are intermittent (streams with sections that are sometimes dry), so they’ll have what the biologists call refuge pools, places that retain water throughout the year.

The plains fish … are mostly small-bodied fish. They’re “super fish” in that they can survive things that kill a lot of other fish: very high water temperatures, low dissolved oxygen. They’re tough, but they can’t survive desiccation. So, if you lose protection for some of these small channels, the refuge pools will dry up — and that will be the end of these species.

HCN: Do you see any reason for hope?

EW: I’d like to get people to think about rivers in a broader sense, of not just the pretty streams that we do whitewater rafting and trout fishing on, but as the whole river network. They are an integrated ecosystem, and they’re important. Is there reason for hope? I see evidence that people are starting to think that way more.

HCN: Like what?

EW: The regional example I’ve used is the Pacific Northwest. They have a very different attitude toward rivers than anywhere else in the U.S., and I think it’s because of the focus on salmon. They get it — a salmon can’t survive without a watershed. It needs to migrate upstream, it needs spawning habitat, it needs rearing habitat. They’ve made the connection between a particular fish that everybody is excited about and the whole watershed.

Even though there are these national rules, and even if they go into effect, there are things you can do locally to protect your local river. If people feel strongly about this, I would encourage them to become active in, or form, local watershed groups. Then you get the immediate benefits of a clean, healthy river. So adopt a river, and care for it.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Emily Benson is an assistant editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies. Email her at emilyb@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor.

Lower Ark board meeting recap

Fountain Creek photo via the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District

From The La Junta Tribune-Democrat (Bette McFarren):

Peter Nichols, an attorney for the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, at the agency’s meeting Wednesday, updated the board on the long-standing controversy with Colorado Springs concerning water quality in Fountain Creek…

A lawsuit filed by the Environmental Protection Agency in November 2017 alleges the City of Colorado Springs’ stormwater system degraded the creek on its way to Pueblo and, eventually, the Arkansas River. The Pueblo Board of County Commissioners and the LAVWCD were permitted to intervene in the case, on the side of the environmental agency.

On Nov. 9, Senior Judge Richard P. Matsch ruled that Colorado Springs violated its permit that regulates stormwater discharges into Fountain Creek.

Following Matsch’s decision, the parties asked the judge to put the litigation on hold for three months, to see if they could agree how to remedy the city’s violations. That request was granted.

The post-trial settlement conferences were scheduled for Dec. 6, 2018; Jan. 10 (which was cancelled because of the federal government shutdown); Feb. 7, March 7, April 11 and May 9.

Fountain Creek lawsuit negotiations update

The Fountain Creek Watershed is located along the central front range of Colorado. It is a 927-square mile watershed that drains south into the Arkansas River at Pueblo. The watershed is bordered by the Palmer Divide to the north, Pikes Peak to the west, and a minor divide 20 miles east of Colorado Springs. Map via the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Robert Boczkiewicz):

Negotiations are underway between Pueblo County, a water conservancy district and environmental protection agencies on one side, and Colorado Springs on the other side, to resolve disputes of many years regarding that city’s defiling of Fountain Creek.

The Pueblo Chieftain has obtained court documents stating that the parties in a two-year-old lawsuit are trying to reach an agreement to settle it, instead of pursuing it further in the U.S. District Court for Colorado.

Both sides have met three times in recent weeks “to discuss potential resolution of the (lawsuit) without further litigation,” states a court document filed last week at the court in Denver. It was filed by Pueblo County commissioners, the Lower Arkansas Water Conservancy District, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Public Health and Environment.

Those four entities sued Colorado Springs in 2016, claiming the city violated clean water laws by discharging excessive stormwater and pollutants into the creek, which flows through Pueblo County into the Arkansas River at Pueblo.

After a trial, the judge overseeing the case decided on Nov. 9 in favor of the four entities that sued. Senior Judge Richard P. Matsch ruled Colorado Springs violated its permit that regulates stormwater discharges into Fountain Creek.

The four entities in the court fight with Colorado Springs state in the new court document that the discussions so far “were productive.” They and the city asked the judge to put litigation on hold for three months, to see if they can agree how to remedy the city’s violations.

Matsch on Thursday granted the request.