Backyard Talk

With Federal State of Emergency Over, What’s Next for Flint?

flint waterJust yesterday, the federal state of emergency in Flint, Michigan over lead-contaminated water expired. What comes next for a community continuing to deal with a public health crisis?
Residents in Flint have been understandably concerned about the August 14th deadline, as Michigan Radio reports. President Obama declared a Federal State of Emergency over Flint’s poisoned water on January 15th of this year, making 5 million dollars of federal money available to help with the crisis. With the state of emergency in place, the federal government has covered 75% of costs necessary for providing bottled water, filters, filter cartridges, and home testing kits to Flint residents. This aid isn’t going away, according to state officials; instead, the state will be picking up the tab for the necessary supplies –estimated to cost 3.5 million dollars a month, based on current water needs (approximately 10,000 cases of water a week.)
Will those needs remain steady, or have they reached their peak? Current testing suggests conditions in Flint are improving. NPR reports that Virginia Tech researchers, who first exposed the lead contamination, found no detectable levels in half of the homes they tested last month. One expert described Flint as “entering a range that’s considered normal for other U.S. cities.” Unfortunately, water contamination is not unique to Flint, and what’s considered ‘normal’ around the U.S. may simply not be safe enough.
Lead is not the only threat to water supplies across the United States. In addition to known and regulated contaminants, emerging contaminants that have yet to be evaluated may be impacting our water supplies. According to the EPA, many streams that supply water nationwide are not covered by clean-water laws. In an interview with the New York Times, Dr. Jeffrey K. Griffiths, a public health expert at Tufts University and former chairperson of the EPA’s Drinking Water Committee, noted that we have “lots of really good professionals in the water industry…but it doesn’t take much for our aging infrastructure or an unprofessional actor to allow that protection to fall apart.”
Given the financial aftermath of the Flint crisis, it’s unsurprising that some ‘unprofessional actors’ were hesitant to disclose the unsafe drinking water conditions. The cost of supplying water to Flint residents is just the beginning; Governor Snyder’s original application for federal aid estimated that as much as 55 million dollars would be needed to repair damaged lead service lines in Flint. The consequences are steep for a city whose crisis originated with a water supply switch intended to cut costs.
Most critically, the crisis in Flint has called into question the trust that we place in our federal, state and local officials to disclose threats to our safety presented by unsafe water. In Flint, the lead contamination persisted for years before it was discovered, and even longer before it was disclosed to the public. Even if water treatments and infrastructure repairs are ultimately successful and lead is undetectable in every Flint household, residents may never again trust their water supply, or the reports they are given about it by their local and state officials. Water can be treated and pipes can be replaced, but trust is much more difficult to repair. In the meantime, at least Flint residents will continue to have access to clean, bottled water. Whether they will trust their faucets again in the future is another matter entirely.

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Testimony: McCrory called toxicologist Ken Rudo to his office to discuss do-not-drink letters for well owners near coal ash pits

Gov. Pat McCrory summoned state toxicologist Ken Rudo to his office in early 2015 for a meeting during which a McCrory staff member challenged the advisory Rudo had helped draft telling well owners near coal ash pits owned by Duke Energy not to drink their water, according to recent testimony given in a deposition by Rudo.
The do-not-drink advisory, issued in spring 2015, has received a lot of attention, particularly after state health and environmental administrators overrode the advisory in March by telling well owners that their water is fine to drink.

It isn’t fine, according to Rudo.
Requested in early 2016 by Dr. Randall Williams, health director of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, and backed by Tom Reeder, the assistant secretary for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, the reversal of the do-not-drink advisory was “highly unethical” and “possibly illegal,” Rudo said in the deposition, excerpts of which were available to the public Tuesday.
Until now, the extent of McCrory’s involvement has been unclear.
Excerpts from Rudo’s deposition, part of coal ash litigation brought by clean-water watchdog organizations against Duke Energy, show that McCrory, a former Duke Energy employee for decades, was deeply involved with his administration’s attempts to challenge the scientifically backed advisory that Rudo and other state health experts had drafted.
Rudo had left his office when he received a call from state epidemiologist Megan Davies “telling me to turn around — I was almost at Chapel Hill — to go back, that the Governor wanted to discuss this. … So I went down to that big old building in downtown Raleigh, and the Governor wasn’t there.
“He participated for a couple of minutes by phone.
“So I met with — was it Josh Ellis? Is that his name? I am not sure. I think it is him. And he had an assistant,” Rudo said in the deposition, referring to McCrory’s communications director. The other person at the meeting was Kendra Gerlach, the director of communications at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, he said.
“And they wanted to talk about what we were putting on these forms. And the Governor called for about, I guess, five minutes or so to sort of — he was in the middle of some other issues. And I am not exactly sure, even from my notes, because it was — the guidance — whether he had given Mr. Ellis the guidance what to talk to us about before we arrived. But he essentially, you know, was saying, ‘Okay. We need to discuss the language on the forms.’ And then he left it to Mr. Ellis to do that,” Rudo said.
Later in the deposition, Rudo said Ellis had concerns about the do-not-drink advisory.
“Once again, I don’t know whether this was from Mr. Ellis or from the Governor, because the Governor never actually specifically said what, you know, his concerns were.
“But he had a concern about what we were telling these folks on the forms.
“Thier (sic) concern was initially telling people not to drink the water.
“He felt that was a pretty strong thing to do,” Rudo said.
Late Tuesday, Thomas Stith, McCrory’s chief of staff, denied Rudo’s allegations.
“We don’t know why Ken Rudo lied under oath, but the governor absolutely did not take part in or request this call or meeting as he suggests,” Stith said. “The fact is that the state sent homeowners near coal ash ponds all facts and safety information about their drinking water and thanks to the McCrory administration’s efforts, well owners are being hooked up to municipal water supplies at Duke Energy’s expense.”
Gerlach disputed some of Rudo’s statements.
“I was at that meeting,” Gerlach said in an email.
“The Governor did not participate in that meeting,” she said,”nor did he summon Ken Rudo.”
“I was the one calling our public health officials, including Rudo. During my call with Rudo, he volunteered to come by and I said yes. He then joined Josh Ellis and me in person to answer some of the questions being discussed,” Gerlach said.

High stakes

At stake during that conversation at the governor’s office was the health of hundreds of well owners and their families, particularly those whose wells contained hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen associated with coal ash pits. Until last year, there had been no screening level for hexavalent chromium, no threshold by which to gauge its potential cancer-causing effect.
Rudo and other health experts in the DHHS and the DEQ helped calculate the threshold. They based it on peer-reviewed studies and the calculations were confirmed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
They calculated the health-screening threshold because it was one of the requirements under the state Coal Ash Management Act, a bill passed in 2014 as state legislators responded to the dangers of coal ash, after a pipe under a Duke Energy coal ash pond near Eden collapsed and spewed coal ash into the Dan River.
As a result, state regulators were required to check for a host of contaminants, including hexavalent chromium.
In setting the threshold for hexavalent chromium, state health experts such as Rudo also stuck to a state groundwater rule that requires a threshold that would put North Carolinians at a lifetime cancer risk of no more than 1 in 1 million.
For hexavalent chromium, that threshold is 0.07 parts per billion, or ppb.
The threshold the McCrory administration sought to promote was one connected with a federal standard that regulates public water systems but which the state health experts said was “unacceptable,” as the Winston-Salem Journal has reported.
Hexavalent chromium is not a regulated contaminant.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been collecting data on hexavalent chromium for years from public water systems in an effort to figure out how to regulate it. Meanwhile, there is a decades-old threshold for total chromium — one that assumes that it could be made up entirely of hexavalent chromium.
That federal threshold for total chromium, set at 100 ppb under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, is the one that state health experts say is unacceptable.
The federal threshold comes with a lifetime cancer risk of 1 in 700, according to state health experts such as Rudo. In North Carolina, a large majority of public water systems show concentrations of hexavalent chromium below the threshold of 0.07 ppb, according to a Journal review of EPA data.

Safety questions

To a certain extent, the issue of safe drinking water for well owners near coal ash pits has been displaced by actions taken by the General Assembly. State legislators passed a bill — signed by McCrory — requiring Duke Energy to provide either permanent water supplies or a filtration system to eligible well owners within a half-mile of coal ash pits by October 2018.
Plans must be submitted by Dec. 15, according to the bill.
Still, Rudo’s testimony makes clear that the McCrory administration had pushed for the federal threshold — making decisions on public health that ran counter to those backed by its own state health experts. The testimony is also supported by emails obtained through public-records requests by the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League and provided to the Journal.
Before Rudo was summoned to McCrory’s office, Donald van Der Vaart, one of McCrory’s Cabinet members, was pushing for the federal standard as secretary of the state DEQ. In an email written in early 2015 by state epidemiologist Megan Davies to colleagues, including Rudo, she said that Tom Reeder, the DEQ’s assistant secretary, would provide the message.
“Secretary Van der Vaart requested of (former Health) Secretary Wos that DHHS DPH (Division of Public Health) include additional explanation in our letter to local health directors about the plans for private well testing within 1000 feet of coal ash ponds.
“As you will see below, I spoke with Tom Reeder, and he will send me some suggested language for us to work on.
“The additional language will explain that the IMAC (threshold set by state health experts) for hexavalent chromium being used in these well evaluations does not apply to public water supplies, where the MCL (threshold) of 100 micrograms per liter of total chromium applies.
DEQ spokesman Mike Rusher on Tuesday tried to back the department’s continued support for the federal standard.
“The Safe Drinking Water Act is the only regulatory standard for drinking water in North Carolina,” Rusher said in an email. “The state environmental department had concerns about treating residents near coal ash ponds differently than the millions of North Carolinians who get their drinking water from municipal water supplies.”
In 2015, a statement about well water being fine under the federal standard found its way into the do-not-drink advisory as it was being sent to well owners, after the meeting at the governor’s office and against Rudo’s recommendations.
“There isn’t a standard for — there is no criteria specifically for — in the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act for hexavalent chromium. So it is a true statement, because there isn’t one. But it is also misleading and sort of — it is not cool to do that. It is just not a — this is not the kind of information we should be giving people, because it is misleading,” Rudo said in the deposition.
Later, he continued: “And we still objected, you know, from within our group.
“We have e-mails with our very, you know, strong objections. But, I mean, you know, when we are told to do something, we are told to do something. You know, there are lines that we can’t cross, both morally and ethically, which is why I removed my name from this at this point. But, you know, orders are orders.”

Protective order

Duke Energy had tried to seal Rudo’s testimony, saying in its request for a protective order that the testimony was not finished and that some of it is based on hearsay.
Portions of the deposition became available to the public Tuesday because it was part of the response filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Gerlach, the health department communications director, said the department “stands by its decision to allow residents near coal ash ponds to return to drinking their well water, in keeping with safe drinking water practices across the country.” And she said that the release of Rudo’s excerpted deposition is “clearly a politically motivated attempt to manipulate and mislead the public by trial lawyers from an extreme left-wing environmental group.”
In the same email, Gerlach said Rudo “wanted the state to use a standard in the health risk evaluations (HREs) that was 143 times more stringent than California’s regulatory standard considered safe for drinking.”
However, the 0.07 ppb standard Rudo and other North Carolina health experts helped calculate — in accordance with the state groundwater rule allowing no more than a 1 in 1 million lifetime risk of cancer — was actually less stringent than the one that California state health experts had proposed in 2011 as their public health goal — 0.02 ppb. That threshold was ultimately increased to 10 ppb after state officials took into account non-health factors, such as the technical feasibility of enforcing the threshold and the associated costs.
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SUPERFUND: A Philadelphia suburb’s asbestos nightmare

By George Cahlink, an E&E reporter, of E&E Publishing LLC. Here’s a look at the history, successes, and ultimate failure to clean up and maintain one Superfund site, located in Ambler, PA. Because of Ambler’s history of being the asbestos capital of the world, the recent passage of the Toxic Substance Control Act raises some hopes that this long battle for clean up may be over soon.
AMBLER, Pa. — U.S. EPA’s Greg Voigt opens a chain-link gate, pushes aside waist-high weeds and scrambles to the highest point in this Philadelphia suburb: a 100-foot pile of industrial waste.
“Check out the million-dollar view,” Voigt jokes as he looks out from a gravel plateau covering asbestos mounds he monitors for EPA’s Superfund program.
Welcome to the “White Mountains of Ambler.” Less than 20 miles from this week’s Democratic National Convention, the tree-shrouded toxic landmark is a reminder of this town’s past as the asbestos manufacturing capital of the world.
Asbestos — building insulation material largely banned by EPA since the 1970s because of its link to mesothelioma, a lung cancer — made Ambler a thriving blue-collar hamlet for three-quarters of a century EPA has spent the past 30 years cleaning up and monitoring its two Superfund sites, which take up more than 50 acres here.
EPA’s 35-year-old Superfund program has just over 1,300 contaminated properties. The agency spends a little over $1 billion annually on Superfund work.
Once closed in the mid 1980s, the playground has reopened adjacent to the asbestos piles, which lie on the other side of the fence. EPA has said there is no longer a risk at the playground of ingesting airborne asbestos. Photo courtesy of George Cahlink.
Dozens of dumps are in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which rank first and third, respectively, in Superfund projects. New Jersey has 116 sites, Pennsylvania 95. The region holds the lethal leftovers from chemical, pharmaceutical and other industrial manufacturers from the later part of the 19th century through much of the 20th century before modern environmental regulations were established.
But Superfund talk is unlikely at the Democratic convention, where environmental protection is likely to focus on slowing climate change. Toxic waste cleanup no longer seems a priority for green activists who held a massive rally here Sunday focused on banning hydraulic fracturing.
Lenny Siegel, the executive director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, who’s attending the convention as a delegate for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I), said one of the reasons is Superfund activists are aging and younger environmentalists are more focused on climate change.
“They aren’t wrong,” Siegel said. “It’s a huge issue.”
Siegel, whose group focuses on fostering public participation in environmental cleanups, added, “They assume they have had [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][the Superfund] sites for so long that they must have been taken care of.”
Lois Gibbs, who founded the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, said shifting interests are part of the problem and so is a lack of money for Superfund. “Without money, we have no hammers,” Gibbs said. Too few dollars, she added, make it harder not only to carry out cleanups but also to try to force polluters to take responsibility for them.
Indeed, congressional Republicans, who eliminated an energy tax that provided dedicated funding for Superfund projects in the mid-1990s, are pushing for even deeper cuts in EPA spending. The GOP favors the agency’s brownfields program, which provides grants to states, local communities and other stakeholders willing to make their own investments to help clean up and then redevelop less-contaminated properties.
But Ambler shows that even long after Superfund cleanups and remediation plans are first drawn up, there’s a role for EPA in ongoing monitoring efforts, and new sites can always emerge.
Ambler’s rise, fall and rebirth offer lessons for other communities, EPA and lawmakers as they continue to come to grips with asbestos and other detritus of America’s industrial heritage.

Danger for hunters, teenagers — and groundhogs

Every three months, EPA’s Voigt walks the White Mountain site.
“The overall purpose is to ensure that the cleanup remedies we selected for the site are fully operational and functioning,” he said.
Today, it’s hard to imagine the mounds with their steep sides and thick with trees and vegetation are hiding 1.5 million cubic yards of asbestos — enough to fill 150,000 dumpsters. They are the product of a still-controversial calculation made by EPA in the mid-1980s.
When EPA added the Ambler site to its Superfund list in 1986, it decided removing the asbestos was unrealistic. It would require years of round-the-clock truck runs through Ambler and would poise health risks by kicking up asbestos dust as the debris was removed.
Instead, EPA capped the piles with at least 6 inches of soil and seeded them with native trees and vegetation. A few lagoons within the piles were filled and erosion controls and drainage systems installed. The entire site was fenced, and warnings were posted about the danger of inhaling asbestos.
“We’ll always see one or two areas when we go out for our inspections where the fence was cut,” Voigt said. Among the trespassers are deer hunters, bird-watchers and curious teenagers.
Burrowing animals are one of the bigger challenges. In only a few minutes, a groundhog can dig through the site’s vegetation and soil layers and be into the asbestos waste. When inspections find holes, they are filled in and the material is tested to determine whether the animal made it into the asbestos layer.
“There have been areas where we have put the dirt in and when we go back the next week and the dirt is right back out again,” Voigt said. “They are pretty insistent when they want to be.”
Voigt estimates about $6 million has been spent to date on the site, including both the initial capping and continued monitoring.
EPA tries to fine parties that contaminated the site to pay for its cleanup. In this case, two asbestos manufacturers, CertainTeed and Federal-Mogul, are footing the bill.
The agency officially removed Ambler from its Superfund list in 1996, and subsequent reviews every five years have found no worrisome levels of airborne asbestos, which when inhaled causes mesothelioma. The latest review will be finished by the end of the year.
Critics, however, have questioned whether the soil cover is deep enough, noting an uprooted tree or a burrowing animal can easily kick up asbestos.
They also worry some of the piles are only a few hundred yards from the Wissahickon Creek, which feeds the Schuylkill River, which flows through Center City Philadelphia. They note EPA doesn’t test the site for groundwater contamination.
“I don’t think they have been as good as they should be,” said Arthur Frank, an environmental health expert at Drexel University who has studied the Ambler waste sites for community groups. He said snow and ice can expose the piles.
But Voigt said the string of successful five-year reviews since the site cleanup was finished in 1996 is “validation” that EPA’s efforts are working.
“There’s always going to be a certain contingent [that does not like EPA’s approach], and we’ll have to agree to disagree on certain issues,” said Voigt, noting the agency holds community meetings every two months in Ambler about the asbestos sites.
Ideas have been floated for turning the piles into a solar farm or even a paintball facility. But, Voigt said, it will be tough to do anything on the steep grade without disturbing the waste, and he expects EPA will be monitoring the piles for many years to come.
“It’s job security for me,” he said with a chuckle.

Second asbestos dump

Ambler resident Sharon McCormick was surprised and concerned when a petitioner knocked on her door more than a decade ago to ask for help in fighting a proposed 17-story high-rise.
She was even more surprised when she learned the development site was a former asbestos dumping ground.
The BoRit site, named for one of its more recent owners, Bob Rittenhouse, is about a half-mile from the larger Ambler piles.
The 33-acre parcel had its own 25-foot asbestos pile covered in vegetation and a 10-acre reservoir fortified by asbestos debris. The land had been largely dormant since a park on part of the parcel closed in the mid-1980s amid heightened concerns about asbestos.
“We went kicking and screaming over it,” said McCormick, who formed Citizens for a Better Ambler to oppose the high-rise. Their opposition forced the developer to drop the plans and led EPA to take a fresh look at the site.
EPA investigators didn’t find unhealthy levels of airborne asbestos, but they did discover enough old asbestos pipes, shingles and other materials scattered around the site that they worried it could kick up dust. They also were concerned about what waste might be at the bottom of the reservoir and the debris in three streams running across the site and into the Wissahickon.
By 2009, BoRit became Ambler’s second asbestos-related Superfund site.
“Each of the spaces [on BoRit] has different challenges,” said Eduardo Rovira, who has been EPA’s on-site manager for BoRit since the cleanup began seven years ago.
Indeed, hundreds of trees were removed to make it easier to lay a geo-textile fabric cap down that was then covered with dirt and seeded with native plant species on large portions of the site. Thirty-seven million gallons of potentially contaminated water was drained from the reservoir and treated before disposal. The streams were cleaned up, some banks were reinforced and flood controls were put in place.
EPA has spent about $25 million at the site, using federal money because the agency has yet to determine who is responsible for the dumping.
Later this year, the agency will release its long-term plan for the site.
“It all depends on feedback from the community,” said Jill Lowe, EPA’s site remediation manager, who is working on the options for the site once the cleanup is finished. She said the state of Pennsylvania would oversee the long-term monitoring at BoRit in collaboration with EPA.
Already it’s expected that the reservoir, owned by the nonprofit Wissahickon Waterfowl Preserve, will continue as a bird sanctuary.
“We are hoping it will again be attractive to waterfowl,” said David Froehlich, who said the reservoir still needs to be restocked with fish. But, he said, he’s already seen some of the 73 species spotted at the site before the cleanup back again, including bald eagles, herons, and various ducks and geese.
But McCormick, who rode her success in fighting the BoRit development to a seat on the Town Council, still leads a local band of critics who say EPA can only remediate the site by hauling away all the material.
“I think this is a huge EPA screw-up,” McCormick said. “If they are not thinking of removing the asbestos, then why are they even thinking about reusing it?”

Research and questions

Ambler is also attracting the attention of researchers.
The University of Pennsylvania is in the middle of a four-year, $10 million federal grant, funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, to study medical issues raised by the manufacturing and disposal of asbestos in Ambler.
Ian Blair, a Penn pharmacology professor who oversees the work, said project researchers will try to map the entire population of the town in 1930 using old censuses, tax records and historical documents to find out what every resident eventually died of, including those who moved away.
With the latency period for mesothelioma lasting up to 40 years, there’s a belief that asbestos-related deaths in Ambler have been undercounted.
Research has shown already that Ambler had a mesothelioma rate from 1992 to 2008 more than three times what is typical for a town its size. A 2008 state study suggested asbestos was the likely cause of those high rates.
Other emerging data suggest a mesothelioma cluster for females in Ambler. Not many women worked inside the factories, but researchers are exploring whether they may have breathed in deadly asbestos fibers when washing the clothes of their husbands who worked in them.
Other Penn efforts will focus on developing a blood test for determining whether someone has been exposed to asbestos and researching whether asbestos can move through soil.
“If it can, is this something we should be concerned about in terms of ingesting asbestos through the drinking water rather than how everyone thinks of it as entirely coming from the air?” said Blair, who said initial work shows asbestos can move through soil.
Linda Reinstein, who founded the advocacy group the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization after her husband was diagnosed with mesothelioma that he likely contracted from working in shipyards, believes Ambler has overlooked other asbestos.
During a visit last fall, Reinstein said, she was amazed that old, crumbling asbestos factories remained in the town and were not part of either EPA site. Reuse plans for those sites, which would include some private-sector cleanup of asbestos, remain in legal limbo.
Asbestos will draw more scrutiny as EPA begins implementing the recently passed update of the Toxic Substances Control Act. That law — the first substantial change to chemical safety regulation in 40 years — will allow EPA to fully ban as many as 10 of the most unsafe chemicals. Asbestos, already restricted, is widely expected to be on the list (Greenwire, July 25).
Reinstein is pleased that TSCA is expected to permanently ban asbestos, but she also remains concerned about the estimated 31 million tons of asbestos used domestically since 1900, a large portion of it made in Ambler.
She wonders, “If Ambler was the asbestos capital of the world, where did all the products go?”
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