Posts tagged EPA
By Max Filby
FROM PLANT TO TAP
For Chad Johnson, water is typically his only company while on the job.
As Johnson makes his hourly rounds, the smell of chlorine and other chemicals is as constant as the sound of rushing water in each sector of the Bowling Green Water Treatment Plant on West River Road.
Johnson, a life-long Bowling Green resident is also the superintendent of the plant where he’s worked for the past 20 years.
During his time at the plant, Johnson has worked to keep up with the “extremely strict” standards of the Environmental Protection Agency, he said. While Johnson is focusing on certain EPA standards, his competitors in the bottled water industry are obeying a different set of standards by the Food and Drug Administration.
“You never know what you’re getting in one of those bottles,” Johnson said. “I don’t really see any sense in it.”
Bowling Green water is free of any contaminant violations in all categories including ones testing for traces of lead and chloroform, according to a 2010 water quality report. The plant has actually been violation free since 2003, Johnson said.
“It’s something we’re really proud of, just to be able to say that,” he said.
After being violation free for so many years, Johnson continues to root for tap water of a bottled alternative. Johnson carries a reusable water bottle as he prepares to start his rounds again.
Instead of not knowing what he’s drinking, Johnson prefers his reusable bottle because he knows what it contains.
MAKING AN IMPACT
Johnson may work closely with what Bowling Green citizens are drinking, but a student group on campus is working toward a similar goal in a different way.
Every Tuesday night at 9 p.m. Gabriel Morgan leads a meeting for an organization called Net Impact in the creativity lab of the Business Administration Building on the campus of Bowling Green State University.
Net Impact has been around for a little over a year now and focuses on a World Water Week project to educate students on the healthiness of tap water and the wastefulness of bottled water in what Morgan refers to as a “global water crisis.”
“Drinking tap water is all around safer and it reduces waste, which is becoming a big issue,” Morgan said. “It falls into that first category of ‘the three R’s.’
Reduce, reuse and recycle is one aspect Morgan and his group of “social and environmental change-makers” emphasize while educating students with “dirty water bottles.”
In continuing its World Water Week project, group members like Alexandra Ordway are still trying to figure out how to make students understand that the convenience of water bottles doesn’t outweigh its lower standards, she said..
“I think it’s kind of unnecessary,” Ordway said. “I understand the whole convenience thing, but it gives people the false sense that what they’re drinking is sanitary.”
BOTTLING THE “BETTER OPTION”
While Johnson and the members of Net Impact are trying to bottom out the bottled water industry, a group of people in Virginia are trying to do just the opposite.
The International Bottled Water Association promotes itself as the “voice of the bottled water industry,” said Chris Hogan, IBWA vice president of communications.
“Drinking water is an excellent option when you are looking to stay hydrated, but we do promote what we think is the better option out there,” Hogan said, referring to bottled water.
IBWA and Hogan’s beloved bottled water is quickly becoming the second most popular beverage, right after soft drinks, according to the FDA’s website.
Although the tap water Johnson cares for is regulated by the EPA, the FDA regulates bottled water as a food item, putting it in the same category as a soft drink, according to the FDA’s website.
Despite talk of bottled falling short of standards similar to those of tap water, Hogan said that bottled water is held to a different set of standards that are still strict, even though they may not come from the EPA.
“That’s something we hear people talk about a lot,” Hogan said. “But, in some cases some standards for bottled water don’t exist for tap water.”
Hogan is referring to standards including certain traces of elements within bottled water, he said.
“It always seems if someone has a beef with bottled water, they’ll pull out the most inconveniently priced bottle of water from a hotel and compare it to tap water,” Hogan said. “The fact is that they’re two different things, they’re incomparable.”
BATTLING THE BOTTLE
At the water plant where Johnson works, him and his team of operators are working to continue bringing Bowling Green’s water qualities above or at the level of the bottles Hogan and the IBWA boast about.
In its battle against the bottle, the plant utilizes several large tanks of chemicals and machinery to get the city’s water up to one of the highest levels of quality in Ohio, Johnson said.
As Johnson continues on another one of his hourly rounds, he checks the filtration and disinfection systems, some of which date back to when the plant first opened in 1951.
“The newest equipment has been a big help,” Johnson said as he pointed to a small monitor attached to a series of tanks. “It’s taken the level of toxins in our water down to less than .03 percent.”
The improved treatment is just something Johnson associates as part of the everyday job of meeting EPA standards before pumping out between 3 million and 7 million gallons a day.
“The EPA is extremely strict, we’ve got all kinds of chemical testing and other requirements we have to meet and we do meet all of them,” Johnson said.
After taking care of Bowling Green’s water supply for 20 years, Johnson believes people just don’t know about the plant’s improvements in quality to what flows from each faucet.
“I don’t think that people understand,” Johnson said. “The water quality is extremely high here. It’s just fine.”
By Stephan Reed
During summer 2011, Robert Michael McKay, director of Bowling Green State University’s marine program, set sail on a research vessel on Lake Erie. The combination of no air conditioning and the July heat on the lake became unbearable, so McKay and his research team announced a swim call to cool off. Before jumping in, however, McKay noticed they were floating atop a large cloud of algae, full of the cyanobacteria microcystin.
This toxin irritates the skin, damages the liver, reduces oxygen levels in lake water, causes an unpleasant odor in drinking water and kills fish, according to a 2012 report from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
Officials at the Ohio EPA are pushing for legislation that would advance the filtering systems in water treatment plants, especially when it comes to the harmful algae.
“There is a high concentration [of microcystin] in the water that comes into the plant, but a very low amount that comes out,” said Heather Raymond, the head of the harmful algal bloom task force for the Ohio EPA.
There are no mandated regulations concerning the toxin in drinking water, but the Ohio EPA has set in place unofficial regulations to help keep algae out of it, Raymond said.
“Everything we are doing is considered above and beyond the [federal Safe Drinking Water Act],” Raymond said. “These are unregulated toxins, but there’s enough data out there telling of the risk to human health. California came out with a threshold draft about Microcystin in water and it’s way below what Ohio’s is. We need consistency in our benchmark levels.”
McKay, while on his research expedition, realized these blooms were not only much larger than last year’s blooms, but they also arrived a few months early.
Blooms containing microcystis have always been in Lake Erie, but recently these toxic algae clouds have become more invasive than previous years, McKay said. This poses a potential threat to humans, pets, livestock and the Lake Erie tourism and recreation industry.
Despite the risks, McKay’s group had no choice but to dive into the harmful waters to avoid overheating.
“We eventually went swimming, but had to make sure we didn’t swallow any water,” McKay said. “It was the best of two really bad situations.”
The mass consumption of microcystis at one time can have a serious effect on the human body.
“If you took a big glass of the scum and drank it down,” McKay said, “you would probably have hemorrhaging in your liver. Your liver is basically a mass of cells and you have sinuses that carry blood throughout it. There are tight little tubes, and when exposed to microcystis, the capillaries begin to expand and blood begins to hemorrhage out of the liver.”
If a local community is using the lake for a drinking water supply, members of that community could face chronic effects due to prolonged exposure to the algae.
“Microcystin is a known tumor promoter,” McKay said. “It doesn’t start cancer, but if you have some cancerous cells and they go unregulated, microcystin can spread cancer in the body.”
Humans aren’t the only ones being affected by this toxin.
“This happens to animals, too,” McKay said. “You will sometimes find cattle and dogs drinking from the reservoir that has the bloom. They may take in a high enough dose and they will die due to the acute effects.”
The tourism and recreation industry has been negatively impacted as well.
Captain Joel Byer, of Nacho Fish Fishing Charter in Sandusky, Ohio, has seen deterred business as algae begins to bloom.
“This stuff doesn’t look good and it doesn’t smell good,” Byer said. “People see it on the news and they just don’t come to the lake. It was in the marina, and so thick around my boat, and it looked like a skipping stone could sit on top it. It looked like a can of thick pea soup washing up on the beaches.”
One way of approaching the problem is by attacking it at the source. McKay has narrowed down the cause of the large blooms to be the chemical phosphorous, which acts as a catalyst for algae.
“In most freshwater systems, algae are limited, but if you can give them one nutrient that will cause them to explode in growth, that would be phosphorous,” he said. “They seem to have enough of everything else.”
Phosphorous has been pinpointed as a major cause of algal blooms, McKay said. In the past, the government has issued regulation to decrease the amount of phosphorous contaminating the water.
“Sewage treatment plants weren’t effective in removing phosphorus, so phosphate was being loaded into the lakes,” he said. “Secondly, detergents have a lot of phosphorous in them. All that wastewater coming from washing machines was acting as fertilizer for algae.”
A third cause of phosphorous loading comes from large farms that use chemicals to feed crops and aid in the killing of invasive weeds, McKay said. The excess chemicals sink into the soil and are washed away into the water.
To avoid phosphorous getting to the water, farmers can put in “buffer strips,” or medians of grass between the field and the body of water, he said. The grass will grow rapidly but won’t let the chemical pass.
“A lot of people in Ohio have ponds in their backyards and some of those people use those for their water supply or for recreation,” McKay said. “In either case, people like to keep them clean. They don’t want that scum sitting on top. One approach is to install a strip of unmowed grass or reeds between the pond and the actual grass.”
However, there are some economic drawbacks for farmers when using this technique on a large scale.
“You want to maximize your yield on an acre, but then you have to give up 10 percent of your acre to a buffer strip,” McKay said. “Farmers might not like that, but other countries decided to use that approach because it has been used effectively. It has been used in China as well. Some of their lakes looked like you could walk on them [because of the abundant algae].”
Although the buffer strip method cuts down on the yield of crops for farmers, the United States government refunds farms that use this method.
Kyle Henry’s family farm in Perrysburg, Ohio, currently uses buffer strips.
“These are voluntary programs,” Henry said. “Farmers who use these receive subsidies. They do offset the costs, but with higher crop prices, there are some cases where farmers withdraw their buffers.”
Some farmers use manure as homemade fertilizer, said Andy Hupp, certification materials reviewer of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.
“A farmer isn’t going to use more fertilizer than needed, honestly, because it’s too expensive,” he said. “They’re not trying to load the water and soil with phosphorous.”
Farmers are not the only ones being blamed for the rapid growth in these blooms. The residential use of the herbicide Roundup contributes to phosphate loading into bodies of water, according to a 2009 research study published The Ohio State University’s magazine “Twineline.”
The issue of harmful algae blooms is apparent in other parts of the state. Grand Lake St. Marys, near Celina, Ohio, acts as the standing example of the treatment of blooms for the rest of the country. The lake was so bad that the government stepped in and placed great restrictions on the local farmers to help reduce phosphorous loading, Raymond said.
The chemical aluminum sulphate can be used to stop phosphorous from feeding the blooms. It has proven to be effective, yet costly, McKay said.
“They have done trials in 2010 and at the beginning of the last year,” he said. “They spread aluminum sulphate and measure its efficacy. They have found it to be effective so they have applied it over a large area on the lake. It’s a multi-million dollar application, so they have to weigh the return on the lake and the cost.”
This method may be effective in preventing blooms, but it could have harmful effects on wildlife, Byer said.
“Yeah, it’s cutting down on the blooms, but what’s it going to do to the fish?” he said.
Multiple strategies have been used to help Grand Lake St. Marys and have proven to be effective, however, some of the same strategies may not be used on the Great Lakes.
“Some of the protocol used on Grand Lake St. Marys will be used on Lake Erie, however, the politics are different,” McKay said. “With Lake Erie, you have two countries and multiple states dealing with it. Some of the approaches they are using on Grand Lake St. Mary’s probably won’t fly between states or between countries.”
The United States government has enacted laws that regulate phosphorous in household products. Americans currently use buffer strips in their backyards and farms to help keep phosphorous from reaching water.
While the idea of having an international lake with low levels of microcystin may seem to be a difficult task to accomplish, it is not impossible, Raymond said.
“There has been discussion about removing phosphorous from products on a small scale,” she said. “I do think it is possible to solve, but only with good management.”
View Areas with large algae blooms in a larger map