waste water

EPA Takes Important Step in Assessing Chemical Risk

Earlier today, EPA made public a final risk assessment on a number of uses of the chemical, Trichloroethylene, or TCE, as it is more commonly known. The risk assessment indicated health risks from TCE to consumers using spray aerosol degreasers and spray fixatives used for artwork. It can pose harm to workers when TCE is used as a degreaser in small commercial shops and as a stain remover in dry cleaners. It has been more than 28 years since we last issued a final risk assessment for an existing chemical.

EPA conducted the TCE risk assessment as part of a broader effort to begin assessing chemicals and chemical uses that may pose a concern to human health and the environment under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). TSCA is this country’s 38-year old chemicals management legislation, which is badly in need of modernization

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Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Do Your Part, Be SepticSmart!

By Maureen Tooke

When you think of infrastructure, you typically think of roads, right? But there is a hidden infrastructure we all tend to forget about since it’s underground: our drinking water and wastewater systems. Unless there’s a water main break or a septic system failure, people don’t tend to think much about them.

In my eight years working in EPA’s onsite wastewater treatment (aka septic) program, I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about our nation’s water infrastructure. I’ve also learned a great deal about this country’s reliance septic systems, which treat wastewater onsite instead of sending it down the sewer to a treatment plant. About a quarter of U.S. households and a third of all new construction – both domestic and commercial – rely on these kinds of systems.

Today’s onsite systems aren’t like the one I grew up on. These advanced treatment technologies are able to treat wastewater to levels that protect the environment similar to traditional sewer systems. They’re also able to treat large volumes of wastewater from many homes through the use of cluster systems. As the nation’s population continues to grow, and as cash-strapped rural and small communities look for viable, effective methods to treat wastewater, septic systems will continue to play a critical role in our nation’s wastewater infrastructure.

Low-income and rural communities, especially in the South (with 46% of the nation’s septic systems), are particularly disadvantaged in terms of access to adequate wastewater treatment. This creates an environmental justice concern.
For homes with septic systems, proper septic system maintenance is vital to protecting public health and keeping water clean. When homeowners don’t maintain their septic systems, it can lead to system back-ups and overflows. That can mean costly repairs, polluted local waterways, and risks to public health and the environment.

To help raise awareness about the need to properly care for septic systems, and to encourage homeowners to do their part, this week we’re hosting the first SepticSmart Week, September 23-27. By taking small steps to maintain home septic systems, homeowners not only help keep their communities safe, but can save money and protect property values.

About the author: Maureen Tooke is an Environmental Protection Specialist who works in the Office of Wastewater Management at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. She lives across the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia, where she kayaks and bikes regularly.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Technology Innovation and Water Reuse

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By Nancy Stoner

Water reuse is one of the areas where innovative technology can solve challenges and create opportunities, and was identified in the Water Technology Innovation Blueprint that I released in March.

Water quantity issues are increasingly part of conversations as I talk with people across the country. Drought conditions are becoming more frequent and we need to consider that when planning for water needs.  We can learn from communities like Austin, Texas, which are not only conserving more water, but are developing distribution networks to reuse more of the water treated at wastewater facilities.

In July I visited Austin, where an unlikely landmark shows the city’s commitment to water reuse. The 170-foot tall 51st Street Reclaimed Water Tower holds 2 million gallons of reclaimed water and is helping the city through drought. This innovative technology allows the city to reuse treated wastewater that is normally discharged into the Colorado River. In fact, 5,300 homes are able to access 1.17 billion gallons per year of reclaimed water, saving the city water and money.

I also visited the City of Austin’s Hornsby Bend Biosolids Management Plant. Effluent from the wastewater treatment plant irrigates 150 acres of farmland.  Hay and crops are harvested and some of the revenue goes to the city while the dried biosolids are used on-site. The biosolids are turned into nutrient rich compost called Dillo Dirt, which is used to landscape public places or sold to commercial vendors. Hornsby Bend is also capturing the methane gas it produces to generate its heat and electricity.

Austin is doing a great job of finding purchasers for the reused water, not only for irrigation, but also for industrial reuse. For example, BAE Systems uses reclaimed water for two chilling stations that supply the water to an entire facility. While the industrial users are finding some transition costs due to the different quality of reused water, the price differential between the two is so great that they save significant money in the long run. With current drought restrictions in Austin, lawn watering is now limited to one day per week, so areas irrigated by reused water – which has less restrictions – are much greener than others.

Austin is just one example of the water reuse innovations arising across the nation and shows that using innovative technology to address water challenges not only saves money, but in some areas is necessary for survival.

About the author: Nancy Stoner is the Acting Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Water.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Around the Water Cooler: Sewage Science

By Sarah Blau

Cheddar Blog PhotoAs a pre-veterinary student and a dog owner, I probably pay more attention than most to what comes out the tail end of my pooch. And yes, I’m talking about poo. Though it sounds gross at first, excrement can actually tell us a lot about the health of the poo-producer.

As I dutifully scoop the offending pile into a biodegradable bag, a brief glance lets me know if my pup is dehydrated or has any GI upset I may need to address. And when we go for our annual checkup at the local vet’s office, microscope analysis of a fecal sample will find worms or other heath risks I need to know about to protect my little girl.

So, why am I going on and on about egesta (aka, poo)? Well, EPA scientist Christian Daughton is dabbling with the idea that knowledge of a community’s health can be gleaned from community waste—or, sewage—in much the same manner that bodily health knowledge can be gleaned from the waste of my pup!

This fascinating new research concept is referred to as “Sewage Chemical-Information Mining” (SCIM). It targets analysis of community sewage from waste-treatment plants for specific biological or chemical substances broadly associated with human health or disease. In this way, scientists might someday quickly screen for and locate community populations that are possibly exposed to health risks or susceptible to disease outbreaks. It could also be used to rank communities in terms of overall health.

Daughton published two papers last year describing the unique concept of SCIM and the results of his work to date. This research is intended as a catalyst for future work by federal agencies and others, presenting an innovative way to measure, monitor, and protect public health.

So, as off-putting as it seems, don’t pooh-pooh the importance of monitoring waste. This ground-breaking method of analyzing community sewage for chemicals that can reflect community health has the potential to turn into a whole new field of science!

And this is what I’ll be thinking about as I scoop up the steaming present my hound will undoubtedly “pooduce” for me this afternoon – how brilliant our world is that so much useful information can be found in a stinky pile of…

About the Author: Sarah Blau is a student services contractor working on the Science Communications Team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. She doesn’t often discuss poo around the water cooler – she finds it turns people off – but she does dispose of her dog, Cheddar’s, excrement on a daily basis.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Growing up SepticSmart in New Jersey

By Maureen Tooke

I grew up in New Jersey, which is the most densely-populated state in the U.S. Most urban and suburban areas—like much of New Jersey—rely on sewer systems to handle their wastewater. But I grew up in northwestern part of the state, which looks more like the rural countryside than the New Jersey most people immediately think of.

The house that I and my family of seven lived in was great, with one exception: it did not have a properly-functioning septic system. But working on EPA’s septic system program, I am not surprised. Our house was built for a family of four in the 1970s, before the rest of the surrounding housing development. When our house was built, the housing development’s sewer lines didn’t exist yet. Our septic system, including the drainfield, was located in the front yard, which is generally not where a septic system should be installed. Our yard was also lined with about a dozen pine trees, which also contributed to the less than ideal scenario for our septic system; tree roots can damage the drain lines and cause them to fail, leaving water with nowhere to go.

My father was an engineer, so he knew enough to know that our septic system was not properly functioning, and he would call the pumpers to service the system on occasion. When the time was approaching for our system to be pumped, we’d have to conserve water, as there would be little room left in the septic tank. (Ever taken a “Navy shower ?” Get in, get wet, turn the water off, shampoo, wash and water back on to rinse. In the winter, this process was a bit brutal.) We also didn’t run all our appliances that used water at the same time so as not to flood the system and avoided putting cooking oil or grease down the drain, per proper septic system maintenance practices.

I now know how important it is for homeowners to be educated consumers about their septic system, just as they are with anything else they own that requires periodic maintenance, like a vehicle. To promote proper septic system use and maintenance, EPA is launching SepticSmart, a national program to help educate homeowners about the need for periodic septic system maintenance and proper system use. For information on SepticSmart or tips on how to properly maintain your septic system, visit www.epa.gov/septicsmart.

About the author: Maureen Tooke is an Environmental Protection Specialist who works in the Office of Wastewater Management at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. She lives on Capitol Hill with her dog, near many friends and colleagues.” You can see other examples on the Greenversations page: http://blog.epa.gov/blog/.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Networking to Improve Emergency Response

By Rich Weisman

As I watched the progression of Hurricane Isaac several weeks ago, I thought back to 2003 when Hurricane Isabel impacted my water system in Virginia and caused local schools to close. Water and wastewater utilities are vulnerable to threats such as hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, floods, wildfires, and other natural and man-made disasters. Water systems are not often impacted during emergencies that may affect other aspects of a community, but when a disaster does impact a utility, they work diligently to restore services as quickly as possible. (My colleague Laura Flynn imagined a day without water as part of our blog series for Preparedness Month). Mutual assistance programs like the Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network, a network of utilities helping utilities, provide access to specialized resources needed to restore water services.

The Minnesota Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network was activated in June when Duluth and surrounding areas experienced significant flooding that washed out roads and interrupted 911 service. Through the network, seven communities asked for and received assistance in the form of water pumps and support personnel. Several years ago, the Colorado Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network helped respond to a Salmonella contamination incident in the city of Alamosa. Water utilities from around the state provided crews and equipment to help plan a response to the outbreak, and then flush, disinfect and sample 49 miles of the Alamosa water distribution system.

For larger emergencies, federal agencies often provide assistance when local and state resources are exhausted. EPA’s water emergency response program has developed tools, resources and training opportunities to prepare water utilities to respond to and recover from disasters, and to help utilities practice navigating this process.

One resource that helps utilities plan for and practice their responses to emergencies is a tabletop exercise tool that EPA developed. The tool contains 15 scenarios that address an “all-hazards” approach to emergency preparedness and response as well as introduces users to the potential impacts of climate change on the water utility sector. Each scenario has a customizable situation manual, discussion questions and PowerPoint presentation. Utilities can modify these materials, allowing them to conduct a tabletop exercise to meet their needs.

And, since finding the resources needed to recover from disasters is critical, we provide information about where to find federal funding that supports disaster recovery. In all these efforts, EPA works closely with our partners and stakeholders in local communities, states and other federal agencies.

About the author: Rich Weisman has worked at EPA since 2006 and currently serves as Team Leader for the Water Emergency Response Team in the Water Security Division of EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water. He can be reached at weisman.richard@epa.gov.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Water Utility Preparedness

By Lauren Wisniewski

During National Preparedness Month, many of us hear about the importance of preparing for disasters. Hopefully, this prompts us to make sure we have enough food, water, and supplies to keep our families safe for at least three days.

In my water security work, I’ve learned that drinking water and wastewater utilities also need to prepare for emergencies. Water utilities are vulnerable to a range of threats including hurricanes, aging infrastructure, and other natural and man-made disasters. Since most of us rely on water utilities to provide drinking water and sanitation, water utility preparedness can greatly impact how quickly our communities can recover from an emergency.

Just as there are many things we can do to minimize potential impacts of emergencies on our families, there are numerous steps utilities can take to increase their preparedness. The Key Features of an Active and Effective Protective Program describes 10 basic elements of a protective program that can help drinking water and wastewater utilities enhance their ability to prevent, detect, respond to, mitigate, and recover from adverse events. For example, utilities can prepare and test emergency response plans, develop internal and external communication strategies, and partner with first responders and other utilities.

I’ve had the opportunity to learn about ways utilities have increased their preparedness. One medium-sized Mid-Atlantic drinking water utility assessed critical points of failure and provided redundancy in the system for those points. This utility also signed an agreement with an adjacent county to provide water and emergency assistance for drinking water and wastewater. Another utility, the Pima County Regional Wastewater Reclamation Department (RWRD) in Arizona, developed a continuity of operations plan (COOP) in 2009 to prepare for the then-impending threat of a pandemic flu outbreak. The COOP requirements include annual readiness training. Pima County RWRD includes external partners in this annual training, which has strengthened its partnerships with other organizations.

Water utility preparedness can reduce the risks to public health and the economic and psychological consequences of water service interruptions. However, as individuals and families, we must also recognize the possibility that we may be without essential services such as water after an emergency and plan accordingly. Are you prepared?

About the author: Lauren Wisniewski has worked at EPA since 2002 and currently works in the Water Security Division. She has an undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering from Duke University and a Masters of Public Health from George Washington University.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Challenges and Opportunities in San Juan Bay

By Nancy Stoner

Last week, I visited the San Juan Bay National Estuary Program office in Puerto Rico and took a tour of the estuary with the program’s director, Dr. Javier Laureano. San Juan Bay was the first tropical island estuary to become part of the National Estuary Program and, it contains coral communities, seagrass beds and mangrove forests – all habitats designated critical areas. The San Juan Bay program also faces some significant environmental challenges, but Dr. Laureano and his team are making tremendous progress through their partnerships with commonwealth and municipal officials, the local water and wastewater utilities, and dedicated community groups.
We started the day with a boat tour of the waterways that connect to San Juan Bay. It’s an oasis in the Puerto Rico’s largest urban center with almost no development and lots of wildlife, but with significant contamination issues from sewage and stormwater. The National Estuary Program has requested $1.2 million from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund to track all of the sources of untreated sewage into the waterway. We also saw a number of new eco-tourism businesses that the National Estuary Program has helped get off the ground.

A hallmark of this program is its focus on developing economic opportunities for many of the communities located within the National Estuary Program study area because of the poverty they face. In this case, many of the local neighborhoods lack sewage treatment and have clogged stormwater drains as well, so the storms flood the streets, homes and even schools with sewage-laden water.

The trash in the Martin Pena Channel that flows into San Juan Bay and is so deep that you can walk across the former stream at many points. It is a health hazard that EPA is working in partnership with many, including effective community leaders, to address, but it’s a big job and presents a significant financial challenge for this impoverished community.

I also joined EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck and Assistant Administrator Craig Hooks for a meeting and walking tour with representatives of community groups, a visit to a community garden where university students tutor children in the neighborhood and a trip to eroded coastal areas where the National Estuary Program is planting mangrove trees to stabilize and protect the coastline. These projects are a few examples of the great work underway to restore and protect one of the country’s most unique ecosystems in the United States.

About the author: Nancy Stoner is the Acting Assistant Administrator for the EPA’s Office of Water

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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The Water Sector Workforce Needs Skills of American Workers

By Nancy Stoner

In his State of the Union Address, President Obama presented a blueprint for an economy built to last – one built on the skills of American workers. The President laid out new ideas for how we’ll make sure our students and workers get the education and training they need so we have a workforce ready to take on the jobs of today and tomorrow.

EPA is working with water sector organizations to do just that.

A well-trained water sector workforce is essential to protecting public health and the environment through effective drinking water and wastewater utility operations. However, our water industry has a critical need to develop skilled professionals. Over one-third of current water operators can retire within seven years, and according to the U.S. Department of Labor, employment for water and wastewater operators will grow by 20% between 2008 and 2018, faster than the national average for all other occupations.

Earlier this month, I attended a roundtable in Alexandria, VA hosted by the Water Environment Federation, which brought together utility managers and leaders to discuss developing the next generation of the workforce.

I heard about innovative ways that organizations are making a difference. In Virginia, Loudoun Water worked with a public school to place special needs students in internship positions at the utility. The program helps students gain work experience and better prepares their path from high school to career. In Wisconsin, the Department of Workforce Development created a three-year wastewater treatment plant operator apprenticeship program, providing a mix of on-the-job learning and classroom instruction.

At the roundtable, I was able to highlight EPA’s efforts to address water sector workforce needs. We’re working closely with utility groups to promote water sector careers to new target audiences and to identify training programs. We’re collaborating with our federal partners to recruit and train new water professionals. EPA, the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Labor, as well as states and utility groups, are coordinating to recruit and train veterans. And we’re partnering with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to promote water sector careers in rural communities.

Creating jobs in the water sector has a ripple effect – the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that every job created in water infrastructure creates over three additional jobs to support that position. Working together, we can realize the President’s vision for a strong workforce, today and tomorrow

About the author: Nancy Stoner is the Acting Assistant Administrator for the EPA’s Office of Water

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Follow That Green Path!

By Erica Arnold

In high school, we learn how to study on our own, flirt with that cutie two desks down, and balance school with family, sports, and a social life.  These skills helped me during the past three years.  I have, however, been fortunate to take from  high school something that I think is even more important than a good looking prom date or even a high grade point average.  I have found both a passion and a career path: environmental science.

For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by our planet and have always enjoyed spending time outdoors.   Now, I consider myself a true environmentalist.

What made the difference?  Taking AP Environmental Science in my junior year.  My teacher, Mr. Jensen, lives what he teaches. From the first day of class, his enthusiasm and belief that each of us can make a difference captivated us. We learned about the dangers of pollution, global climate change, the crucial role each ecosystem plays in Earth’s cycles and why we should protect biodiversity.  Trips to a waste water treatment center and nature conservatories further inspired us to become environmentally active in our communities.

In recent years, my high school has also taken steps to “go green”.  We have our own battery recycling system, encourage resource conservation, installed water bottle fillers in our drinking fountains and sell reusable mugs and cups. Our recycling club collects and sorts recyclable materials from each classroom.

If we ALL decide to make SMALL changes throughout the year, together we can start making a BIG difference!  What can you do?

  • Take a reusable bag while shopping for school supplies or groceries
  • Use both sides of the page when taking notes
  • Bring lunch or snacks in reusable containers
  • Drink from reusable bottles
  • Use a flash drive instead of printing and toting assignments to and from school
  • Save gas and make friends by carpooling
  • Use a desk lamp for late night studying; don’t light up a whole room

When I go back to school as a senior, I’ll use that environmental inspiration and knowledge to initiate more sustainable practices in our school and community.  Where will this passion for the environment take me? I plan to go to college, study environmental engineering and, someday, solve some of our issues with pollution and waste.

About the author:  Erica Arnold is a senior at Hinsdale Central High School in Illinois and plans to study environmental engineering in college next fall.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.


Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.