Tag Archives: Daniel Hecht

PFAS News III

This is our third post on poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), that ubiquitous and troublesome family of 5,000 “contaminants of emerging concern.” In this post: the risk of PFAS in public drinking water systems, and the current state of affairs in Vermont.

PFAS in firefighting foam photo courtesy of pfascentral.org.

In Vermont, concern spiked after the 2016 discovery of PFOS and PFOA, two of the oldest and best-researched PFAS, in private wells in the Bennington area. The contamination was determined to be due to pollution by Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, which recently agreed to a $40 million settlement with the state.  One result was that, during the 2019 session, the Vermont Legislature gave PFAS close attention, emerging with Act 21, signed by Gov. Scott. The bill:

  • Requires testing of all public drinking water systems by December 1, 2019 (specifically, 650 public community water systems and non-transient, non-community water systems serving 25 or more people over a period of 6 months per year);
  • Establishes a drinking water health advisory level of 20 parts per trillion, in aggregate, of five PFAS, which, if exceeded, requires publication of a “do not drink” advisory and planning for remediation;
  • Mandates research into potential sources and impacts of PFAS over the next five years;
  • Gives the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources authority to establish drinking and surface water MCLs by, at the latest, January 1, 2024.
  • Full information on Act 21 and the Agency’s actions is available at https://dec.vermont.gov/pfas/pfoa

But is there really a significant risk to public drinking water systems?

The U.S. EPA’s “Third Unregulated Contaminant Rule Data Summary” of January, 2017 (surveying PFOA, PFOS, and four other PFAS from 2011 to 2016) reports on tests at 4,920 public water systems.  Very few tested as at or above minimum reference levels, ranging from .1% of sites for PFBS to 1.9% of sites for PFOS and 2.3% for PFOA.

On the other hand, that data is now three years old; only six types of PFAS were surveyed; and the health reference MCLs of 70 ppt were much higher than Vermont’s 20 ppt. 

More recently — May, 2019 — the Environmental Working Group and Northeast University, using data from the Pentagon and local water utilities, reported PFAS contamination at 610 sites in 43 states, including some public drinking water systems. 

Michigan, with 192 known contamination sites, was the most-impacted; however, of the 65 sites found to have MCLs over the federal limit of 70 ppt in a study conducted by the state in 2018, none were municipal systems. (Three school water systems did show contamination; the rest were military-related, industrial, firefighting, or mining sites.)

Drinking water processing plant at Highland Reservoir, Yorba Linda, Cal., which found reportable levels of PFAS in August, 2019, testing.

But the data keeps coming in – and it merits close attention.  The August 30, 2019 Orange County Register reports finding “reportable levels” of PFAS in 11 source wells operated by Southern California public drinking water agencies – levels that will require remediation (and alternate water sourcing) under newly-legislated limits.  In Los Angeles County, 32 of 138 county wells exceeded limits, resulting in closure of 4 wells.

The best solution for PFAS is prevention and interception at high-concentration sites. But can these “forever chemicals” be eliminated from water that’s already contaminated?

Yes. Granular activated charcoal filters and reverse osmosis are being used to successfully remove PFAS in Michigan, California, and elsewhere.  Of course, water quality professionals and regulators have to ask: But at what cost, to whom? 

New research developments also have promise, as high-tech solutions are being devised to address the problem.  At the international CleanUp 2019 conference, as of this writing being held in Australia (Sept. 8 – 12), the company AECOM unveiled DE-FLUOROTM, a process of electrochemical oxidation that removes 90% to 100% of PFAS. 

Admittedly, only time will tell if the technology proves viable, affordable, workable in diverse contexts, and without unforeseen effects of its own. But AECOM is likely only the first major corporation to be drawn by the lure of marketable — profitable — remediation products/processes.

All of which leaves us wondering what we can expect from the current round of testing in Vermont. The answer: Like everything else about PFAS, we’ll just have to wait and find out!

GMWEA would love to hear from water system operators and administrators about their experiences with the testing process!  Please send perspectives to Daniel Hecht, executive director, at dan.hecht@gmwea.org.

To return to GMWEA’s website, click here.

What’s the Big Idea? (3)

This is the third post in my “What’s the Big Idea?” series — this time, more of a photo essay or info-graphic. There is method to the madness here – I’m working around to the seven Big Ideas developed by the U.S. Water Alliance as part of their One Water policy framework.

But the sheer scale of water and wastewater management is SO huge, and issues of physical scale are SO important to water use and policy (and cost!), I figure readers can use another bigness to grapple with: How much is a million gallons? That number comes to mind because here in Montpelier, Vermont — a town of about 8,000 hardy souls — we use an average of one million gallons of treated water every day.

“A million gallons” is easy to say, but how much is it, really?  Sometimes I think even the drinking water and wastewater people I work with don’t really get it.

Well, everyone knows how big a gallon of milk (or water) is.  Here’s an illustration of one gallon, in the usual plastic jug, with a young man about six feet tall.

Below, here he is again, having just stacked 1,000 of those jugs. I have made every effort to keep the scale accurate — though I admit those jugs put some air between the gallons.

Below, here he is again, with 100,000 such gallon jugs.

And, at last, with one million gallons.

Here in Montpelier, we use that much, on average, every day.  Makes you think about, say, New York City’s one billion gallons per day – one thousand times more.  If you stacked that amount in one-gallon plastic milk jugs, as I’ve done here, it would look about like midtown Manhattan – many dense blocks of skyscrapers.

A whole city-scape poured, drunk, washed with, flushed, and drained — and replaced — every day. Oh — and it all then goes to a wastewater treatment facility to be cleaned up afterward.

The scale of our water use and pollution is mind-boggling, and the science, engineering, technology, infrastructure, and professional community that manages it deserve our awe and admiration.

To return to GMWEA’s website, click here.

VtSTEM Winners!

Congratulations to our 2019 Vermont STEM fair water quality project winners!  The four students were chosen from among 200 student scientists who presented their projects on March 30, at Norwich University.  The annual fair features exhibits by middle and high school students from throughout the state, all of whom won local-level competitions for their experiments.

Clearly, cyanobacteria/algae and phosphorus are hot topics in Vermont’s schools, and all four 2019 winners addressed them in various ways.

Virginia Snyder

Virginia Snyder, in 11th grade at Windsor Schools, won the top award of $150 for her project “Designing a Solar-powered Ultrasonic Cyanobacteria Growth Inhibitor.”  Virginia explored using sound to suppress algae blooms by exposing four colonies of Anabaena to different ultrasonic wavelengths. She is motivated by the technology’s potential to treat natural bodies of water, but in the near future hopes to run tests on her algae growth inhibitor in home fish aquariums.  GMWEA’s judges were impressed by her knowledge of biology and sound physics, her use of multiple means of assessment, and the quality of her exhibit.  She is the student of Catharine Engwall.

Audrey Chairvolotti

Audrey Chairvolotti, a home-schooled 9th grader from Grand Isle, also won GMWEA’s top award of $150 for “Effects of Nonpoint-Source Pollutants on Cyanobacteria Growth.” Also concerned with algae blooms in Lake Champlain, Audrey collected cyanobacteria samples from a dense bloom on the lake, then tested their growth in 14 different solutions. The judges appreciated the thoroughness of her experimental protocols, her management of controls, her enthusiasm, and her understanding of biochemistry, as demonstrated in discussion and her exhibit.  She cites her mother, Sheila Chairvolotti, as her instructor for the project.

Emily King

Emily King, a 9th grader at Missisquoi Valley Union H.S., won $100 for “How Effective Will Substances Be in Binding to Phosphorus During Filtration?”  Seeking to identify  possible phosphorus (P) mitigation methods, Emily explored chemicals likely to bond with P, potentially allowing for filtration prior to entry to Lake Champlain.  She envisions additional testing to determine impacts of the binders on aquatic animal and plant life.  The judges were struck by her trans-disciplinary approach – testing P binders known from the treatment of kidney disease – and consideration of both possibilities and impediments to use of phosphorous-binding filtration.  She is a student of Richard Ballard.

Jaylyn Davidson

Jaylyn Davidson, a 10th grader at Northfield High School, won GMWEA’s $50 scholarship for “Is Algae Part of the Solution for Environmental Pollution?” Jaylyn explored the potentials for three types of algae and a flowering aquatic plant (duckweed) to help mitigate atmospheric carbon dioxide levels by sequestering CO2 through “farming” in lakes and oceans.  Growing each in four different nutrient solutions, she assessed biomass increase as a measure of CO2 uptake. The judges appreciated her concern for the global environment, her understanding of biochemistry, and her motivation to pursue a career in marine biology.  She is the student of Shane Heath.

We commend these terrific young scientists for their enthusiasm, discipline, and devotion to water ecosystems!

Many thanks are due to Aaron Perez and Paul Sestito, water systems specialists at Vermont Rural Water Association, for joining executive director Daniel Hecht to judge this year’s STEM fair.

To return to GMWEA’s website, click here.

What’s the Big Idea? (2)

In the prior “Big Idea” post, I started with the idea that the traditional view of the water cycle is no longer accurate.  To the classic four phases – precipitation, flow, evaporation, and condensation – we need to add a fifth.  That’s mankind’s use and pollution of the 1% of the world’s water that’s available in fresh, liquid form.

The sheer scale of our water use is mind-boggling.  In the U.S. alone, our household use totals 32 billion gallons per day.  And that’s only about one-eighth of the total volume we use; much more is used in thermoelectric power plants, manufacturing, irrigation, and mining. 

Point to consider: It all has to get cleaned up before we use it — and again after we use it.

More big numbers: Here in the U.S., we use 1.2 million miles of pipe to bring us clean water.  How far is that?  It’s as if we pumped our 32 billion gallons a day to the moon, then back, then back up to the moon and back to Earth again, and yet again up to the moon.  (You can also think of it as 26 miles of water pipe for every mile of Interstate highway we have.)

For wastewater, we in the U.S. use 750,000 miles of public sewer lines and 500,000 miles of additional lines connecting private property to public sewer lines.  Picture the same illustration, except that it’s sewage moving through the pipe.

The moon doesn’t want our sewage, any more than our rivers do.  So, we clean that water up in the 14,748 publicly-owned wastewater treatment facilities that process what comes through those pipes.  As my uncle used to say, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it.  Or maybe not.”

Next: More mind-boggling examples of water/wastewater infrastructure scale. Oh, and big money.

Source for data: American Society of Civil Engineers; Bipartisan Policy Center.

To return to GMWEA’s website, CLICK HERE.

What’s the Big Idea? (1)

This is the first of a series of posts about big numbers, big systems, and big ideas.

Most water quality professionals don’t have time to worry much about the big picture.  People like facility operators, town managers, and DPW administrators are kept plenty busy treating their allotted gallons per day, fixing busted equipment, eliminating contaminants, completing reports, or searching municipal budgets to find money for maintenance.

But big ideas are crucial.  They provide inspiring visions — or warnings — that can move us to make good choices for the future.  No matter how well disciplined a ship’s crew, or how well maintained its mechanical systems, the first thing a ship needs when it leaves port is a destination.  

When it comes to how we manage water, we need to have the guidance of a larger vision.  We need to have an idea of where we ought to go.

First, we should remember that only about 1% of the world’s water is readily usable for us. That is, it exists as fresh (not salty), liquid (not frozen) water. Then factor in our ever-growing demand for it and our increasing pollution of it.  Obviously, we need a long-term vision for our management of this life-sustaining resource.

Next, we need to update our traditional vision of the “water cycle.”  In grade school, most of us learned a tidy four-part sequence: 1) water falls from the sky as rain or snow; 2) flows into rivers and lakes and oceans; 3) evaporates back into the sky; 4) condenses into clouds and falls again as precipitation.


Where are the homes, office towers, factories, power plants, and farm fields in this old-fashioned schematic?

But now we know there’s another phase in the cycle.  Humanity’s use and pollution of water requires that it go through extensive cleansing processes before it can return to the ground or surface waters, and before we can safely use it again. 

To understand why that’s so, we need a realistic sense of scale – how much water we use. 

Talk about “big!”  In the U.S., our  daily domestic use averages about 95 gallons per day, per person (variable by region).  When we flush, brush, shower, do the laundry, and water the lawn, we use about 32,000,000,000 gallons per day. Where does it all go?

32 billion gallons.  Per day.  Domestic use only. Just in the U.S.

Now consider that domestic use constitutes only about 13%, one-eighth, of the total amount of fresh water we use daily.  We use the other 87% in thermoelectric plants, irrigation, manufacturing, mining, and other functions. 

Not a drop of that water leaves our sinks, toilets, lawns, fields, pipes, or factories unpolluted.  That’s why 53% of America’s river and stream miles, 71% of our lake acres, 79% of our estuarian square miles, and 98% of Great Lakes shorelines are classified as “impaired” by at least one criterion in a 2018 U.S. EPA survey.

If you’re not daunted yet, be sure to read the next post on the bigness of our water infrastructure and the bigness of cost needed to make it work.  Then, on to some inspiring, solution-oriented Big Ideas offered by the U.S. Water Alliance!

Source for data and charts: U.S. EPA: https://www.epa.gov/watersense/how-we-use-water

To return to GMWEA’s website, go to www.gmwea.org.