water pollution

WA Legislature: Let's become first state to ban toxic asphalt sealants

The Washington House of Representatives this week passed and sent to Gov. Christine Gregoire legislation to make Washington the first state in the nation to ban toxic asphalt sealants that are ending up in people’s homes as well as polluting stormwater runoff and waterways.

Meanwhile, a federal scientist on Thursday briefed Congressional aides and others about threats to the environment and public health from sealing of driveways, parking lots and playgrounds with coaltar, a byproduct of steelmaking. The briefing was co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, who is seeking a nationwide ban on the toxic sealants.

The Washington State legislation and Doggett’s drive for a nationwide ban flowed from studies by the U.S. Geological Survey, which showed that constituents of the toxic sealants are increasing in many waterways, while levels of most pollutants are declining.

A 2009 Geological Survey study identified chemicals associated with the coaltar sealants in house dust at levels that worried researchers because they could contribute to longterm cancer risks, especially in young children who crawl around in – and accidentally ingest – the toxic dust.

InvestigateWest and msnbc.com partnered last year to publish the first major national story examining the toxic sealants.

Byline: 

Help! I've been poisoned by stormwater!

For years talented fellow journalists -- and before them my best professors -- have emphasized the value of using all five of a journalist's senses to experience a story and enlighten readers, listeners and viewers. Great idea -- but tonight it went a little far for me. After more than a decade of writing about the perils of stormwater, tonight I actually tasted some.

It was far, far from on purpose. I decided to dash down to Pike Place Market to buy some fish, a rare thing nowadays since I don't work particularly near there.  

It was pouring as I drove back to my office. The windows fogged. I rolled them down while sitting at a stoplight. Then-- whoosh! -- passing cars sent walls of water cascading into the car. Unfortunately, when this started I had my mouth slightly open. (Maybe I was singing? Drooling? Mouth-breathing? I dunno....)

Yes, that foul mixture that I've described in seemingly innumerable articles is something I've looked at and smelled and heard and -- reluctantly -- touched in the past. I had no intention of going to this extent to understand this story.

Of course I spit and swished and spit and swished some more, using up a bit of mouthwash.

Now, here's the weird thing: I've written more than once about how bad it is to have copper in the waterways that are supposed to nourish young salmon, even at minuscule levels. And I've outlined how every one of us, every time we touch our brakes, unleashes a teensy-tiny amount of copper.

Byline: 

Federal scientists ordered to do half-baked analysis of Alaskan oil-drilling plans, audit finds

When the Obama administration not long ago went ahead with what could become a major expansion of oil drilling off Alaska's coasts, it did so with full knowledge that its scientists hadn't been able to do a proper environmental review.

That's the upshot from auditors at the Government Accountability Office, an arm of Congress. And it appears that oil companies' pleas to keep some information secret from the scientists also played a role in the half-baked look at environmental threats, a new GAO report states:

"According to regional staff, this (secrecy) practice has hindered their ability to complete sound environmental analyses."

Those analyses are required under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Although the GAO report just came out, drafts had been available at the Interior Department, which oversees the offshore oil drilling, since sometime before March 1, records show.

The report says some scientists who were sick of being told to do a lousy job on environmental analyses just quit, further complicating the task for doing a first-rate job taking stock of the risks as required under NEPA. Remember, folks, we are talking here about the Obama admnistration, which, as we noted recently, seems reminiscent of the Bush administration on some enviro matters lately. This latest finding flies in the face of President Obama's chest-pounding about how his administration would end the era of arm-twisting government scientists.

What are your nominations for the environmental problems sociologists should study?

Folks, it had been my intention to write tonight about the challenge to the feds' plans for Snake-Columbia river operations filed today by salmon advocates. But instead I got wrapped up in a discussion on the Society of Environmental Journalists' listserv about what sociologists should be studying in our realm. Here's what I told my fellow SEJers:

"Sewage disposal: What is our big hangup with composting toilets? Think of the infrastucture repair and construction costs we could save merely by figuring out what to do with our pee and our poop. Night soils were the answer in ancient China -- why not today, here?"

Lack of clean water kills more people than war; it's also choking Beijing in polluted dust

It's clear that climate change is going to be the story of the century, but today's news brings the reminder that an intertwined and nearly equally important story will be the lack of fresh water. Two developments highlight this trend today, on World Water Day:

1) From Beijing comes Christopher Bodeen's dispatch for the Associated Press relating how the Chinese capital is under attack by a dust storm blown off of the desert hundreds of miles away in country's interior in Inner Mongolia, where the Gobi desert is expanding. The cause, the AP reports, is overgrazing, deforestation, drought and urban sprawl. One has to wonder if climate change shouldn't be added to that list. The tiny dust particles mix with industrial pollution to cause a miserable dust-soot combination that blankets Beijing, working its way into homes through openings as small as a keyhole. The Chinese have tried to fight the problem by planting vegetation to hold the soil, but it isn't working. Now they're working on plans to pump lots of water from the wetter south of the country. Lotsa luck, guys. 

2) The United Nations issued a statement  (PDF) pointing out that more people die each year from the lack of clean water than are killed in violence of any kind. Many of these people are children under the age of 5. The UN says that pollution in its traditional forms is responsible for some of these, but so is degradation of watersheds through timber-cutting, covering the ground with hard surfaces that don't allow rainfall to soak in, and other modern practices. Said the UN:

"Preventing the pollution of water resources by reducing or eliminating contaminants at the source is almost always the cheapest, easiest and most effective way to protect water quality."

Help prevent stormwater pollution -- how to capture those April showers with rain gardens, etc.

Former Dateline Earth denizen Lisa Stiffler, now digging up all kinds of interesting material on stormwater and other topics for Sightline.org, came out this week with a helpful hands-on guide to how homeowners can do their part to cut down on stormwater pollution.

The basics: Keep as much rain as you can on your own property. Stiffler outlines how to use a variety of techniques to get the water to soak into the earth right around your castle.

She gives us the rundown on rain gardens (aka bioswales), rain barrels, and even has a link to a Sunset magazine feature on an easy do-it-yourself "green" roof -- meaning vegetated with moss. Like Stiffler, color me skeptical on that one. The example is on a home in the Pacific Northwest, like mine, but one that has a flat, rubberized roof. Mine has asphalt shingles (probably with some zinc washing off -- yech!) and is steeply pitched. So I'm pretty sure that's not going to work at my house.

Anyway, I hope you'll check out Stiffler's post and if that piques your interest, go on to her  report about stormwater, how it's affecting Puget Sound, and what we can do about it. Also, don't miss Stiffler's really interesting look at how a business in south Seatle not only found a way to keep stormwater at bay -- but also saved a bundle of cash.

-- Robert McClure

Enviros urge last-minute calls to legislators to pass stormwater-cleanup bill; oil, agriculture interests opposed, with lawsuit threatened

Some interesting twists are developing in environmentalists’ campaign to convince the Washington Legislature to pass a tax on hazardous chemicals and petroleum products to clean up the No. 1 pollution source of Puget Sound, stormwater. Enviros say they need a flood of last-minute calls from constituents to prod legislators into action before they adjourn their annual session in Olympia Thursday night.

While Puget Sound is the focus of the debate, stormwater runoff is the largest source of pollution for many waterbodies nationwide, if the truth be told. That's one reason the machinations in Olympia are interesting – they may presage similar fights elsewhere in the future.

On one side are the enviros, city and county governments, labor, Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Democratic leadership of the House and Senate. Sounds formidable, eh? On the other side are the oil industry, farm groups, and possibly other opponents I haven’t learned about yet.

Not long ago I brought up how this bill to boost the tax on petroleum, fertilizer, pesticides and other hazardous substances was a bit of a pig in a poke. Collecting $225 million a year in the name of cleaning up Puget Sound and other water bodies, the legislation (HB 3181 and SB 6851) would have funneled more than two-thirds of the revenue straight to the state’s general fund in the first year.

New study shows Roundup pesticide kills fish; U.S. heading toward OKing more 'Roundup-Ready' genetically engineered farm acreage

Roundup is one of the most widely used pesticides in the world. But it increases the incidence of disease in fish, a new study shows. And yet it looks like the government is about to greatly expand the U.S. acreage where it is applied by approving planting of vast swaths of genetically engineered alfalfa. These “Roundup-Ready” hayfields worry opponents of GE foods, and this latest news about the effect on fish is bound to stir the pot some more. (The opportunity for public comment on allowing GE alfalfa ends soon, btw.)

The new fish study, out of New Zealand, showed that when applied at recommended rates on fields near a freshwater stream, Roundup didn’t kill young freshwater fish outright. Score one point for Monsanto, Roundup’s manufacturer.

However, what Roundup did at this relatively dilute concentration was to increase the production of worm that’s a parasite of the fish, and comes from a particular snail. And the combination of more parasites and moderate levels of Roundup – aka “glyphosate” – produced what scientists called “significantly reduced fish survival.” They concluded:

"This is the first study to show that parasites and glyphosate can act synergistically on aquatic vertebrates at environmentally relevant concentrations, and that glyphosate might increase the risk of disease in fish. Our results have important implications when identifying risks to aquatic communities and suggest that threshold levels of glyphosate currently set by regulatory authorities do not adequately protect freshwater systems."