U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch wrote that he found “a pattern of the city tolerating delays in correcting the problems reported” — The Colorado Springs Gazette

Fountain Creek flooding 1999 via the CWCB

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Conrad Swanson):

U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch heard the case in early September in a trial that lasted for more than a week. He issued his findings Friday afternoon.

Matsch ruled that the city violated its federal stormwater permit at Indigo Ranch North, a development at Stetson Ridge; Star Ranch, a luxury homes community on the city’s southwest side; and MorningStar at Bear Creek, a senior living center.

Matsch, who has yet to rule on other allegations against the city, did not say whether the city will face penalties for the violations…

In his ruling, Matsch wrote that city officials waived best stormwater management practices at Indigo Ranch North without sufficient justification. City officials also did not adequately oversee construction at the Star Ranch development to ensure compliance with stormwater requirements.

The city was obligated under those stormwater rules to reduce the amount of pollutants discharged from sites, which can erode stream banks, degrade water quality and harm downstream communities.

Stormwater from all three sites discharged into either Sand Creek or Fountain Creek farther downstream.

Pueblo County and the Lower Arkansas District cited increased E. coli levels, erosion and flooding as a result of Colorado Springs’ failure to properly corral stormwater.

City officials approved the design and installation of a detention basin at MorningStar that did not meet drainage requirements set in 2002, Matsch wrote. They also failed to ensure “adequate long-term operation and maintenance” of that basin…

Matsch wrote that he found “a pattern of the city tolerating delays in correcting the problems reported.”

@EPA asks courts to toss #NavajoNation’s lawsuit over #GoldKingMine spill — The Durango Herald #AnimasRiver

San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

The U.S. Department of Justice, on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency, has asked that a federal court dismiss a lawsuit filed by members of the Navajo Nation seeking repayment of damages associated with the 2015 Gold King Mine spill…

While the EPA initially encouraged people and businesses to file claims for financial losses, the agency backtracked in January 2017, saying it was legally protected from any damages associated from the spill.

The states of New Mexico and Utah, as well as the Navajo Nation, filed lawsuits seeking compensation. New Mexico is seeking $130 million, Utah is seeking $1.9 billion, and the Navajo Nation is seeking $130 million.

Over the summer, the EPA, through the Department of Justice, filed similar requests to dismiss the claims, arguing the agency is protected from litigation under federal law.

The motion filed Thursday argues the same point in seeking to dismiss a lawsuit that represents about 300 individual members of the Navajo Nation who claim a cumulative of $75 million in damages…

The Department of Justice’s motion argues the EPA is protected under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which gives federal agencies a “discretionary function exemption.”

The EPA was acting according to the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act by evaluating the mine for remediation and preventing environmental pollution of the Animas River watershed when the inadvertent release occurred, the motion states.

The motion states that so far, the EPA has spent $29 million on past and continuing efforts to address mine pollution in the Animas River watershed, including building a temporary water treatment plant and designating the area as a Superfund site.

The stage was set for a blowout at the Gold King Mine years before the EPA became involved in the situation.

With the plugging of the American Tunnel, many researchers and experts of the mine district around Silverton believe the waters of the Sunnyside Mine pool backed up, causing the Gold King Mine to discharge mine wastewater…

The lawsuit on behalf of Navajo members says the spill, which carried arsenic and lead, prevented them from using water for their crops and care for their animals, as well as personal use…

Ferlic said a hearing Monday will brings together her clients, the states of Utah and New Mexico, as well as the Navajo Nation, to set a date to discuss the motions to dismiss.

#AnimasRiver: Which was worse for water quality: #GoldKingMine spill or #416Fire floods? — The Durango Herald

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Study compared metal loading in both events; results surprised researchers

A new report shows that runoff from the 416 Fire burn scar this summer dumped higher concentrations of potentially toxic metals into the Animas River than the Gold King Mine spill three years ago…

It has been a rough couple of years for the Animas River.

In August 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally caused the Gold King Mine, near Silverton, to blow out, sending 3 million gallons of toxic waste down the Animas River, turning it orange.

Then, this July, heavy rain fell over the 416 Fire burn scar in the Hermosa Creek drainage, just north of Durango, and sent a torrent of black mud, rocks and other debris down the Animas River.

After both events, Mountain Studies Institute, an environmental research and education nonprofit, extensively monitored and researched the impacts on aquatic life and water quality in the Animas River.

Though only a few months removed from the July floods, the preliminary data show the impacts of the Gold King Mine spill pale in comparison to the mudslides and debris flows from the 416 Fire burn scar.

Peter Butler with the Animas River Stakeholders Group said that point was made clear when the 416 Fire runoff caused nearly all the fish in the Animas River to die.

By comparison, there has never been any evidence that the tainted Gold King Mine water caused any die-off of aquatic life.

Roberts’ study backs this with data.

The study took samples at the height of the 416 Fire debris flows on July 17 and July 24 on the Animas River, near Rotary Park, and compared it to samples taken during the mine spill as it passed through the same spot Aug. 6 to Aug. 9, 2015.

Rural America’s Own Private Flint: Polluted Water Too Dangerous to Drink — The New York Times #vote

Fertilizer applied to corn field. Photo credit: USDA

From The New York Times (Jack Healey):

Now, fears and frustration over water quality and contamination have become a potent election-year issue, burbling up in races from the fissured bedrock here in Wisconsin to chemical-tainted wells in New Hampshire to dwindling water reserves in Arizona. President Trump’s actions to loosen clean water rules have intensified a battle over regulations and environmental protections unfolding on the most intensely local level: in people’s own kitchen faucets.

In Wisconsin and other Midwestern states where Republicans run the government, environmental groups say that politicians have cut budgets for environmental enforcement and inspections and weakened pollution rules. In Iowa, for example, the Republican-led Legislature dismissed a package of bills that would have blocked any new large-scale hog operations until the state cleaned up its nitrogen-laden rivers and streams.

There are no precise water-quality surveys of the galaxy of private wells that serve 43 million people in the United States, but sampling by the United States Geological Survey has found contamination in about one of every five wells.

Few water-quality rules regulate those wells, meaning there is no water company to call, no backup system to turn to, and often no simple way to cure the contamination. In Flint, lead-tainted water prompted a public health emergency that led to a criminal investigation.

Homeowners say they are forced to choose between installing expensive filtration systems, spending thousands to dig deeper wells, ignoring the problem or moving.

“The water around a Utah uranium mine is growing more polluted” — Salt Lake Tribune #ActOnClimate

White Mesa Mill. Photo credit: Energy Fuels

From The Salt Lake Tribune (Emma Penrod):

The following was researched and written by Emma Penrod for The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.

There once was a time when the children of White Mesa played outdoors without their parents fearing for their health.

But for as long as Yolanda Badback can remember, the remote town in southeastern Utah has worried about the smell emanating from the plant to the north and the trucks that signal the plant’s awakening after periods of dormancy.

“I see the trucks that go in and out every day now,” Badback said. “I don’t know what they’re hauling, but they go in and out.”

Badback is more familiar with the White Mesa uranium mill than many within her community. As a child, she tagged along with her uncle and longtime critic of the mill, Norman Begay, as he went to meetings in his quest to understand what the mill was doing and whether it was safe to live just over 5 miles downwind of such an operation. She later picked up where her uncle left off, searching for answers among confusing, and sometimes conflicting, information state, tribal and company officials have to offer.

“I’ve been going to these meetings for a long while,” she said. “I don’t trust them anymore.”

The mill’s current owners, Colorado-based Energy Fuels Resources, tout the plant as one of the last capable of milling ore into purified uranium. As such, they say, the mill is a critical national asset — an argument they’ve leveraged to garner political support for the shrinking of Bears Ears National Monument and for tariffs on imported uranium.

But the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe — White Mesa is a part of the reservation — watches the polluted groundwater beneath the mill with growing concern, though state officials insist the pollution comes from other sources.

The contaminated water appears to be moving toward the town, said Scott Clow, environmental programs director for the tribe, and concentrations of potentially harmful substances such as heavy metals are on the rise. The acidity of the groundwater has increased. And state regulators, Clow said, don’t appear to share the tribe’s interest in addressing the pollution.

At this point, Clow said, “I think it would be the tribe’s preference that the facility shut down. But that’s a big ask there.” So instead, the tribe has focused on persuading the mill’s owners to phase out some of its older waste facilities, which they believe are more prone to leaking.

There’s one problem: Records from a yearslong court battle indicate that the newer waste-holding facilities, which are not in use currently, may have been built improperly.

As of now, the town’s drinking water remains clean, but Clow worries unchecked pollution will jeopardize the tribe’s relationship to its ancestral home.

“The mill has been there for 38 years now, and that’s a pretty short window of time compared to how long the tribe was there before,” he said, “and how long the tribe is going to be there after the mill, and all of that contamination.”

‘Giant bathtub’

In fall 2009, second-generation mine excavator Mark Kerr scored a gig at the White Mesa mill. The job involved the construction of a 40-acre tailings cell, a sort of retention pond Kerr described as a “giant bathtub in the ground” in which the mill would store its waste product. At nearly $5 million, the contract was a midsize project for Kerr’s company, KGL Associates. But the company was in financial trouble and struggling to make payroll.

“It was a nice job,” Kerr said. “We wanted the job.”

They wanted the job badly enough, transcripts from a later lawsuit suggest, that Kerr likely shaved his bid to razor-thin margins to undercut competitors’ prices.

At first, the job seemed to go as planned. The mill’s engineering contractor, Geosyntec Consultants, had laid out what seemed to be a pretty straightforward process: Kerr’s company was to remove the topsoil for later applications, blast a 40-foot-deep hole in the ground, and then clear away the majority of the debris, leaving at least 3 feet of dirt to line and smooth the bottom of the cell.

About six months in, Kerr received notice from Geosyntec that all the loose debris from the blasting needed to be removed “at no cost to the [mill’s] owner,” according to a May 5 memo.

“And I refused,” Kerr said, estimating that the free rock removal could have cost his company somewhere between $400,000 and $800,000. “I said we’re following the specs. … That’s when further blowups started happening.”

Kerr continued to argue with the mill’s owners and consultants about compensation. The engineers, as Kerr and staff he had on site recall, repeatedly insisted that all loose rock must be removed. If not, Kerr said they told him, the gaps between the rocks could collapse under the weight of the cell when it was filled with water and eventually waste.

Two weeks later, Kerr received a second memo from Geosyntec. He could leave the loose rock in place, but, “to provide a firm and unyielding surface,” the memo states, Kerr’s employees must compact the rock by wetting it down and driving over it repeatedly with heavy machinery.

Again, this memo said the work should be done “at no additional cost.”

Kerr proceeded as directed, but his previous arguments with the engineers weighed on him. A cave-in beneath the cell could puncture the liner that, like a kitchen trash bag, prevents waste from leaking. But unlike a plastic trash bin, the excavated “bathtub” Kerr built would allow liquid waste to escape, potentially polluting the groundwater beneath the mill site. How could he be sure this rock compaction would prevent the mill’s “trash” from poking a hole in the liner?

He began peppering Geosyntec staff with questions via email and through the company’s standard request for information forms. Where is the documentation proving this methodology is safe and effective? Does this meet the requirements of the mill’s operating permits? Do state regulators know about these changes?

Instead of answers, Kerr received a letter from Geosyntec’s attorneys objecting to his use of the request for information process and asking him to “revise or rescind” his questions. “It is not our experience to be cross-examined on the grounds of an engineering determination by means of an [sic] request for information,” the letter states.

Kerr’s company walked off the job a few months after the dispute began, leaving at least 4 acres of the cell covered in loose rock. By August 2010, he said, KGL Associates was broke.

State, federal regulators weigh in

The mill’s current owners, Energy Fuels Resources, consider Kerr’s claims “completely unfounded” but did not answer specific questions.

“KGL is a disgruntled former contractor who walked off the job, owes us a lot of money, and simply appears to be harassing us,” the company’s spokesman, Curtis Moore, said in an email. Kerr, Curtis said, is expressing “sour grapes” after losing a $4 million lawsuit.

That series of court actions began when subcontractors sued the mill for nonpayment, causing the mill to sue Kerr’s KGL.

According to the mill’s complaint, Kerr’s company not only walked away from the project without paying its subcontractors, but also failed to comply with requested changes to the cell, which resulted in construction defects.

A court arbitrator ultimately concluded that Kerr owed the mill nearly $4 million in damages, plus attorney fees. And the arbitrator found that the mill’s decision to withhold payment from Kerr was justified, given his company’s poor performance, which forced Energy Fuels to hire a second contractor to complete and correct KGL’s work, including, Curtis said, the 4 acres Kerr claims remain unfinished.

However, the court laid the blame for any environmental contamination related to the cell’s poor construction at the feet of both parties. “The contamination issue is one of shared fault,” the arbitrator concluded.

Kerr repeatedly appealed until he ran out of money. The judgment against him stands, though his concerns about the excavation remain.

As his case wound through the courts, Kerr began contacting the state Division of Radiation Control. Division engineers, he hoped, would have documentation to prove that the mill had made significant changes to his original job specs. But, in a late 2011 letter, the division told him only that the mill’s engineers had not notified the state of changes in their excavation plan — probably because the changes weren’t considered significant.

Next, Kerr approached the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which conducted a brief investigation and determined his fears were partially substantiated: State regulators needed more stringent requirements when there were changes in construction specifications. The NRC reassured Kerr, however, that Utah had promised to tighten its reporting requirements.

The NRC concluded that the change did not appear to pose a safety concern. According to the agency, state regulators assured federal overseers that their review of the cell’s quality had taken the new excavation methods into account. To Kerr, this assertion flew in the face of the state’s written letter to him that the changes were not reported to the Division of Radiation Control.

A review of the state’s records shows a quality assurance report produced by Geosyntec that describes several changes to the cell’s design, but the change in excavation specifications is not mentioned. And current division leadership continues to hold the position originally stated to Kerr. Any changes were probably deemed by the on-site engineers — including a state engineer — to be insignificant.

“We haven’t seen any issues with the tailings cell since,” said Phil Goble, who oversees the radioactive materials section within the now-combined Utah Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control.

Tribe isn’t convinced

That’s not necessarily the way environmental officials with the Ute Mountain Ute tribe see it. They point to state-collected data that show “a fair amount” of fluid escapes the new cells’ liners and enters a leakage containment system. The fluid has been pumped out and hasn’t entered the environment, but the leaks leave tribal authorities wary.

Even with superior liner technology, “it’s still releasing fluids,” Clow said. “So when we hear that the three legacy cells north of it, which have … inferior liners, that those can’t possibly be leaking, it doesn’t seem to make sense.”

The White Mesa mill sits atop several plumes of groundwater contaminated with heavy metals, including uranium and other concerning pollutants. The pollution predates the construction of the new tailings cells — including the cell Kerr excavated, which is not currently in use. But the contamination is spreading toward the White Mesa community, Clow said, and concentrations of some pollutants are increasing.

The state holds that the contaminants aren’t coming from the mill — or, at least, that there isn’t proof the tailings cells have leaked. The groundwater contains chloroform, which, if consumed, can cause damage to the brain, liver and kidneys, from a metals-testing operation that once operated on the mill site. Employees there used to put the chloroform down the drain, where it entered an unlined septic system that ultimately leaked into the groundwater, Goble said.

A separate plume of nitrates, a class of acidic salts that in certain circumstances may cause cancer, beneath the mill does appear to be a result of what Goble described as “poor housekeeping within the mill.” But it didn’t come from the tailings cells, he said.

And the overall increase of acidity in the water below White Mesa — that’s not coming from the waste cells, either, Goble said, because it occurs in groundwater both uphill and downhill from the cells.

But Clow remains concerned about the rising concentrations of heavy metals, especially those that don’t occur naturally in the White Mesa area.

One of the issues in trying to tie the pollution to the mill, Clow said, is that neither the state nor the tribe — which maintains its own test wells to monitor groundwater independently — has the historic data necessary to make the case that the metals do not occur naturally in the groundwater.

To their credit, Clow said, state scientists have conducted detailed studies and data reviews to try to determine what the area’s background levels may be. Baselines based on these analyses have been established. But when the amount of pollution exceeds the baselines, Clow said, the state has simply invalidated its own baselines and establishes new ones, rather than attempt to regulate the mill.

“The concentrations just go up, and then that’s what they call background,” Clow said, “and that’s where we tend to diverge from the state’s interpretation.”

Asked whether state regulators have revised background levels at White Mesa, Goble explained a legal process by which Energy Fuels could request to have the background information tied to the mill revised. He indicated Energy Fuels has initiated this process, but did not elaborate.

A 2013 letter to Energy Fuels shows the Division of Radiation Control agreed to revise several background levels for groundwater at the site, including the benchmark for uranium. According to the letter, the amount of uranium in the groundwater had increased gradually, but the division agreed with the company that the increase was the result of natural causes.

The tribe also diverges from Utah officials’ assessment of the health risk posed by the contamination. State officials have repeatedly argued that the contaminated water is not used by the tribe — that the community of White Mesa draws its drinking water from a deeper source that remains clean.

While it’s true that the town wells draw from the cleaner, deeper water, Clow said, the tribe worries the drinking water supply could, eventually, become contaminated. And tribal members do use springs fed by the shallow aquifer for traditional ceremonies.

“The statement that the tribe doesn’t use the water … is patently false,” he said. “The tribe was there for centuries before anyone else, and so they have traditionally used those springs and seeps, and collected plants for food and medicine on White Mesa, and harvested animals around White Mesa.”

Town’s troubles

Clow holds that the town of White Mesa, which predated the mill, will surely outlast the operation — and therefore that the mill should be more concerned about potential impacts for thousands of years to come. But the town may not be such a permanent fixture. Its 2010 population of 242 has decreased by half since that tally, according to U.S. Census data.

Despite being a lifelong resident, Badback said she sees no future there for her three sons.

“I encourage my kids to go forward, go out,” she said. “I don’t want them to be stuck in White Mesa.”

While environmental issues are part of her rationale, the town’s economic hardships and poor living conditions also factor in. According to 2016 U.S. Census figures, just 49 percent of the town’s adults are employed; Badback herself is without work. Her own living conditions are better than most, she said — she stays in a five-bedroom house with nine immediate and extended family members. At night, three people sleep in an outbuilding with electricity but no running water.

When the mill first arrived in White Mesa, company officials touted it as a job creator, Badback said. But the mill has only ever employed a handful of tribal members, she said, and the work is unsteady, with frequent layoffs.
Even if there were jobs, Badback said, she would never allow her sons to work at the mill. Her oldest recently moved to New Mexico to find work, and her middle child will soon join him.

Though she would have liked to leave the town as a youth, Badback said she stayed because her grandparents did not speak English and needed an interpreter. She became a caretaker for her mother, who had been the family breadwinner, and then she had children of her own.

These days she’s absorbed with trying to educate her neighbors about the mill. She holds community workshops and leads annual protests. But not everyone in town supports her, citing the civic facilities such as a community recreation center that the mill has donated and its unfulfilled promises about jobs.

Badback doesn’t buy it. Instead, she helps organize surveys to evaluate the health of White Mesa children.

“We only live one time; when we go, we’re not going to come back,” she said. “Our health is more important than a building. A building can stand for many years.”

The latest “Freshwater News” is hot off the presses from @WaterEdCO

Roman lead pipe — Photo via the Science Museum

Click here to read the newsletter from Water Education Colorado. Here’s an excerpt:

Dozens of public water systems on state watch list for lead contamination (Jerd Smith)

Forty small communities, school districts and day care centers serving 51,000 people statewide are being monitored by state health officials because of concerns about potential lead contamination.

It does not mean that these entities are violating rules governing lead contamination, only that small amounts of lead have been detected in their water samples at some point, according to Nicole Graziano, a water quality specialist at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Once that occurs, under state and federal guidelines, water suppliers must embark on a rigorous sampling program that sometimes requires new water treatment and replacement of lead service lines.

“If they’re on our list, it means they are active in our process, “ Graziano said. The rule has a long timeline, meaning that water providers can remain on the list for years as the problem is monitored, treated, and then monitored again to ensure treatment is working.

The CDPHE regulates some 2,000 public water systems statewide. Roughly 1,000 of these are subject to the federal Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), Graziano said.

Concern over the issue has risen dramatically since 2015, when Flint, Michigan, switched water sources, pushing millions of gallons of highly corrosive water through aging lead pipes, leading to a wave of contamination and a public health crisis.

Under the LCR, more than 90 percent of samples must show lead levels of 15 parts per billion (ppb) or higher in order to trigger an action order. During the Flint crisis, lead levels of 27 ppb were found, with one sample registering 158 ppb, according to published reports.

These numbers are concerning, according to public health officials, because lead isn’t considered safe at any level, particularly for children, and levels as low as 5 ppb can be dangerous. Treating lead and copper in water systems is a complex undertaking governed by the federal Lead and Copper Rule. Often these metals aren’t found in water once it leaves a treatment plant. But they can leach into the supply via corrosion as water passes through copper pipes as well as lead service lines in older homes and schools. To learn more about protecting your home or office from lead contamination here.

By far the largest entity on Colorado’s watch list is Denver Water. The utility serves some 1.4 million customers in metro Denver and has been required to sample water from its customers’ taps, conduct extensive public education efforts on protecting against lead contamination, and change out thousands of lead service lines, which are major contributors to the problem.

Earlier this year Denver Water, along with Aurora Water, the Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation District and the Denver Greenway Foundation, sued the state health department over a new requirement that it add phosphorous to its water treatment processes to reduce the potential for lead contamination. Denver Water has asked the state to use a PH-based protocol instead. Talks to settle the lawsuit are underway now.

Dozens of small communities are confronting the same problem, often with limited resources and big fears that a new, likely tougher, set of federal lead regulations is coming in response to the crisis in Flint. A draft set of these new rules is set to come out early next year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

According to the CDPHE, the systems on its watch list serve more than 51,000 Coloradans.

Among them is the scenic Idaho Springs, population 1,746. Lead showed up in its tap water more than a decade ago, according to Dan Wolf, manager of the town’s water and wastewater system.

Since being directed by the state in 2008 to boost the PH levels in its water treatment system, lead and copper levels in routinely collected samples of its tap water have been negligible, according to state records.

But the higher PH levels are causing problems with other aspects of the system, Wolf said. Increasing the PH, for instance, has created an organic reaction with the chlorine used for disinfection, resulting in a set of carcinogenic byproducts known as haloacetic acids (HAAs).

“Lead is not a significant issue for us anymore,” Wolf said. “But treating for lead and copper is causing higher levels of disinfection byproducts.”

In response, Idaho Springs has asked the state to allow it to operate at a lower PH level, a request the state hasn’t ruled on yet, Wolf said.

Two other entities on the list, Elk Creek Elementary School in Pine and Bearly Tawl Day Care Center in Evergreen, have shown elevated levels of lead at some locations in their buildings in 2016 and 2017 respectively, and both are being closely watched. Subsequent tests at both facilities have shown lead levels well below the action targets, according to state records.

Bearly Tawl did not return a call seeking comment. But Jefferson County Schools’ spokeswoman Diana Wilson said the school district has moved quickly to replace faucets and drinking fountains at Elk Creek and other schools to reduce lead levels and that all of its schools are now on a rotating sample schedule so that any elevated lead levels can be identified and addressed.

Like hundreds of other school districts across the state and the nation, Jefferson County opted to use state grant money to test for lead.

“We were concerned about the age of our buildings,” said Diana Wilson, executive director of communications at Jefferson County Public Schools. “Most of them are more than 50 years old.”

In general, 50 years ago is when lead piping was outlawed, due to health concerns. Buildings constructed since then aren’t likely to have lead pipes, although some may contain copper pipe fittings.

As drinking water concerns continue to echo across the state, some communities have opted to move forward and replace all lead service lines even though they are not on the watch list. Two years ago, the town of Paonia in Delta County, which relies on underground springs for its water, saw its water source reclassified under a new set of regulations designed to address concerns over groundwater contamination.

The new classification meant it had to redo a significant portion of its water system, using bonds and grants. As part of that $4 million redo, it opted to go ahead and replace all of its lead service lines, according to Paonia Town Administrator Ken Knight.

“In a lot of small communities, their infrastructure is at the end of its life expectancy. But the fact of the matter for us is that we are going to be in very good shape.”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Clean Water Act dramatically cut pollution in U.S. waterways — @ucberkeley

From Phys.org (Kara Manke):

The 1972 Clean Water Act has driven significant improvements in U.S. water quality, according to the first comprehensive study of water pollution over the past several decades, by researchers at UC Berkeley and Iowa State University.

The team analyzed data from 50 million water quality measurements collected at 240,000 monitoring sites throughout the U.S. between 1962 and 2001. Most of 25 water pollution measures showed improvement, including an increase in dissolved oxygen concentrations and a decrease in fecal coliform bacteria. The share of rivers safe for fishing increased by 12 percent between 1972 and 2001.

Confluence of the Cimmaron and Gunnison rivers. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Despite clear improvements in water quality, almost all of 20 recent economic analyses estimate that the costs of the Clean Water Act consistently outweigh the benefits, the team found in work also coauthored with researchers from Cornell University. These numbers are at odds with other environmental regulations like the Clean Air Act, which show much higher benefits compared to costs.

“Water pollution has declined dramatically, and the Clean Water Act contributed substantially to these declines,” said Joseph Shapiro, an associate professor of agricultural and resource economics in the College of Natural Resources at UC Berkeley. “So we were shocked to find that the measured benefit numbers were so low compared to the costs.”

The researchers propose that these studies may be discounting certain benefits, including improvements to public health or a reduction in industrial chemicals not included in current water quality testing.

The analyses appear in a pair of studies published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Cleaning up our streams and rivers

Americans are worried about clean water. In Gallup polls, water pollution is consistently ranked as Americans’ top environmental concern – higher than air pollution and climate change.

Since its inception, the Clean Water Act has imposed environmental regulations on individuals and industries that dump waste into waterways, and has led to $650 billion in expenditure due to grants the federal government provided municipalities to build sewage treatment plants or improve upon existing facilities.

However, comprehensive analyses of water quality have been hindered by the sheer diversity of data sources, with many measurements coming from local agencies rather than national organizations.

To perform their analysis, Shapiro and David Keiser, an assistant professor of economics at Iowa State University, had to compile data from three national water quality data repositories. They also tracked down the date and location of each municipal grant, an undertaking that required three Freedom of Information Act requests.

“Air pollution and greenhouse gas measurements are typically automated and standard, while water pollution is more often a person going out in a boat and dipping something in the water.” Shapiro said. “It was an incredibly data and time-intensive project to get all of these water pollution measures together and then analyze them in a way that was comparable over time and space.”

In addition to the overall decrease in water pollution, the team found that water quality downstream of sewage treatment plants improved significantly after municipalities received grants to improve wastewater treatment. They also calculated that it costs approximately $1.5 million to make one mile of river fishable for one year.

Comparing costs and benefits

Adding up all the costs and benefits — both monetary and non-monetary — of a policy is one way to value its effectiveness. The costs of an environmental policy like the Clean Water Act can include direct expenditures, such as the $650 billion in spending due to grants to municipalities, and indirect investments, such as the costs to companies to improve wastewater treatment. Benefits can include increases in waterfront housing prices or decreases in the travel to find a good fishing or swimming spot.

The researchers conducted their own cost-benefit analysis of the Clean Water Act municipal grants, and combined it with 19 other recent analyses carried out by hydrologists and the EPA. They found that, on average, the measured economic benefits of the legislation were less than half of the total costs. However, these numbers might not paint the whole picture, Shapiro said.

“Many of these studies count little or no benefit of cleaning up rivers, lakes, and streams for human health because they assume that if we drink the water, it goes through a separate purification process, and no matter how dirty the water in the river is, it’s not going to affect people’s health,” Shapiro said. “The recent controversy in Flint, MI, recently seems contrary to that view.”

“Similarly, drinking water treatment plants test for a few hundred different chemicals and U.S. industry produces closer to 70,000, and so it is possible there are chemicals that existing studies don’t measure that have important consequences for well-being,” Shapiro said.

Even if the costs outweigh the benefits, Shapiro stresses that Americans should not have to compromise their passion for clean water — or give up on the Clean Water Act.

“There are many ways to improve water quality, and it is quite plausible that some of them are excellent investments, and some of them are not great investments,” Shapiro said. “So it is plausible both that it is important and valuable to improve water quality, and that some investments that the U.S. has made in recent years don’t pass a benefit-cost test.”

Catherine L. Kling, professor of agricultural and life sciences and environmental economics and Cornell University, is a co-author on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper.

Research funding was provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture Hatch Project IOW03909 and Award 2014-51130- 22494 and a National Science Foundation Award SES-1530494. Much of the research was completed while Shapiro was at Yale University.