aging water infrastructure

Case load brings recognition to EPA lawyer

By Amy Miller

Attorney Jeff Kopf was called to the deputy administrator’s office to talk about cases he had settled with towns or companies who had violated environmental laws. Getting called to the boss’s office is not an every day occurrence for a lawyer in EPA New England’s office, so he wondered why these cases were drawing attention.Kopf

When he arrived at Deb Szaro’s office, Jeff found, rather than a discussion of legal matters, a group of colleagues there to congratulate him. Jeff, now in his 19th year at EPA New England, was being recognized as “Employee of the Month” for his work in settling five separate cases that will ensure cleaner water for communities around New England.

Every month EPA recognizes an employee whose work has made a significant contribution to public health or environmental protection and most recently it was Jeff.

A native of Brookline now living in Newton, Jeff, generally handles cases involving the Clean Water Act. This focus on water is a natural outgrowth of his initial interest in environmental work.

Before joining EPA, he worked at a wildlife rehab center near Seattle, Wash. There he washed sea birds covered in oil from a large oil spill off the coast. He also learned skills related to capturing and caring for injured urban wildlife such as raccoons, opossums and seagulls, and he learned how to track released animals with radio tracking devices, including eagles, black bears and coyotes. Then he went to Boston College Law School with a focus on environmental law.

“I like working with communities to solve big waste water and stormwater infrastructure problems to come up with a solution,” said Jeff, a Brookline native now living in Newton. “I always like those cases that prevent oil spills from getting into the environment.”

In addition to the five enforcement actions Jeff finished under the Clean Water Act, he also oversaw the completion of a sixth case by an honors fellow he mentors. And besides the impressive number of cases he handled in just one recent month, Jeff was lead attorney for a total of 19 Clean Water Act cases finished in the fiscal year (which ended Sept. 30.)

“This incredible level of productivity, and the direct environmental results that he achieved in August alone, deserved recognition,” said Deputy Regional Administrator Deb Szaro

Four of the cases closed recently by Jeff – in Worcester and Halifax, Mass., and in Derby and Bridgeport, Conn., – were with municipalities. Two others – Foster Materials in Henniker, N.H., and Townsend Oil in Georgetown, Mass. – involved companies. The cases for the most part included violations involving illicit discharges, for instance an industry not fully complying with its stormwater permit, not using best management practices or not following spill prevention rules.

The cases include actions in: Worcester, which will address unauthorized discharges to Lake Quinsigamond and the Blackstone River by putting in place a plan to manage stormwater; Bridgeport, Conn., which discharged untreated sewage to the Bridgeport Harbor and Pequannock River, will address sewer overflows; Halifax, which agreed to address violations of its discharge permit at the town’s water treatment plant; Derby, Conn., which has discharged untreated sewage into the Naugatuck and Housatonic Rivers, and will put in place a program to address ongoing sewer overflows; Foster Materials, which has a sand and gravel mine and production facility in Henniker, NH, and pay a $20,000 fine for discharging sediment-laden water into the Contoocook River; and Townsend Oil, which operates a fuel oil bulk plant in Georgetown,., and to pay $30,000 to settle claims it failed to maintain and fully put in place a spill prevention plan.

Jeff acknowledged it is “certainly nice to be recognized,” but noted that enforcement cases involve collaboration, an aspect of his job he particularly values.

“Part of what I enjoy here,” he said, “is working with the technical staff the engineers who helped me put those cases together and helped in settling them.”

More information on how EPA enforces the Clean Water Act (https://www.epa.gov/enforcement/water-enforcement) and how EPA works with companies to avoid oil spills from occurring (https://www.epa.gov/oil-spills-prevention-and-preparedness-regulations)

Amy Miller works in the office of public affairs at EPA New England.

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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Celebrate Those Hidden Pipes and Forgotten Facilities

By Gina Snyder

I’ve never met a group of more hard-working, humble, dedicated professionals than the people I meet from water and wastewater treatment facilities. “Infrastructure Week,” the third week in May, provides an opportunity to celebrate the work they do and the critical services they provide. We make use of our roads, faucets, bridges and bathrooms every day of our life, but how often do we think about infrastructure, this vast array of assets that constantly need our attention.Infrastructure2

Well, a group of dozens of businesses, utilities and other organizations who got together to create Infrastructure Week hope to change that. They hope all of us will start paying attention to these assets and giving them the credit, funding and care they are due. This year’s theme for the week is “Infrastructure Matters.”

And it does! Infrastructure matters, in big ways and small — to our country, our economy, our quality of life, our safety, and our communities. Roads, bridges, rails, ports, pipes, the power grid, all of it matters immensely. As the infrastructure week website points out, it matters “to the goods we ship and the companies that make and sell them; it matters to our daily commutes and our summer vacations; to drinking water from our faucets, to the lights in our homes, and ultimately to every aspect of our daily lives.”

Important as infrastructure is, much of it is hidden. All the underground pipes have been working for us for decades, under cover. These pipes bring water and gas to our homes, and take waste away.

Unfortunately, these important assets get low scores for the poor condition much of them are in.

When construction season begins it may seem we are tackling the problem. Several years ago, my street was dug up and my home was hooked up to a plastic pipe running up my driveway as my town replaced the water line. Now, this spring, the gas company is replacing the gas line in the street.

But all the disruption you see goes only a small way toward closing what’s reported to be a $1 trillion infrastructure investment gap in the U.S.

Perhaps because rain falls freely from the sky, we think water is “free”. But, treating and delivering water is far from free. The same is true for the pipes that carry away wastewater.

Since our water infrastructure is out of sight and out of mind, it is easy to underestimate costs. As one of the largest assets of our cities and towns, water infrastructure deserves more attention than it typically gets.

Our local communities pay most of the cost of water infrastructure, mainly through revenues generated by water rates. These fees will continue to be the primary source of revenue for most community water systems. It is important that we pay the rates that recover the costs to make this service sustainable.

You can help bring this important topic the attention it deserves. For Infrastructure Week, talk about these challenges – and increase awareness of just how valuable our water infrastructure is.

Infrastructrure1Ask your public officials to consider alternative solutions – particularly with the heavy rain storms we can expect with climate change, ask them to use green infrastructure approaches when it’s time to fix the storm drains.

Encourage public officials also to consider smart growth when development comes to town. This means building in places and ways that minimize demands on our water and wastewater systems. Sprawl and poorly planned growth can result in more pipes and plants that are harder and more expensive to maintain. Growing “smartly” can put your community’s infrastructure on a more sustainable footing.

You can also help by protecting your water source, which will also protect public health and reduce treatment needs. The quality of the water that provides your drinking water can be threatened by everyday activities and land uses. Make sure your cars do not leak oil and avoid using chemicals on your lawn.

During Infrastructure Week, remember to appreciate the clean water we all enjoy.

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More information from EPA about Sustainable Water Infrastructure https://www.epa.gov/sustainable-water-infrastructure

About the author:  Gina Snyder works in the Office of Environmental Stewardship, Compliance Assistance at EPA New England and serves on her town’s climate committee.

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: Avoiding that Sinking Feeling

By Aaron Ferster

Crews work to fix DC's aging water infrastructure.

Crews work to fix DC’s aging water infrastructure.

As if Washington, DC commuters didn’t face enough challenges navigating to and from work, those who travel by car were confronted with a new one late last week: a giant sinkhole began to consume 14th Street, a key route connecting downtown with bridges and major highways just beyond.

Located only a few blocks from the White House, the crevasse grew to some 15-feet across, leading authorities to close the road in both directions for days. (As I write this, only the south-bound lanes had re-opened.)

Since its appearance, the sinkhole and its aftermath have dominated traffic reports and drawn a steady stream of curious onlookers from nearby office buildings and surrounding neighborhood tourist spots. The ever expanding meme has even sparked a Twitter account (@14thStSinkhole), ripe with parody. (As a frequent bike commuter, my favorite interaction: “I am the stuff of dreams!! RT @hellbucci: Had a dream that as I biked to work, I fell into the @14thStSinkhole. Not cool sinkhole.”)

But all joking aside, sinkholes and other symptoms of our aging water infrastructure are serious business. This particular incident apparently evolved from an ill-placed storm drain, which clogged and sent rainwater free-flowing under the street where it eroded the underlying ground and destroyed a 54-inch brick sewer line built in the 1800s.

According to a D.C. Sewer and Water Authority news release, the already complex repairs were made more difficult due to a number of utility lines and old, buried trolley tracks under the street. A hidden hole for entry from the street, identified on DC Water records, was eventually located eight feet below the surface of the road, paved over many times through the years.

Such challenges related to the nation’s aging water infrastructure are nothing new to EPA engineers and scientists who are working to identify critical research needs and develop, test, and demonstrate innovative technologies to reduce the cost and increase the effectiveness of existing or new water infrastructure.

As reported by fellow blogger Sarah Blau (see Is Your Toilet Leaking), “EPA researchers are looking at ways to assess water infrastructure for leaks without disrupting water supply for consumers (i.e. avoiding water shut-offs or pipe excavations). Other research is focused on preventing leaks from occurring, specifically by examining the relationship between water chemistry and plumbing life expectancy.”

To learn more, visit EPA’s Aging Water Infrastructure Research webpage. You can also read about a specific research project exploring pinhole leaks in copper pipes (“Problems with Pinhole Leaks in Your Copper Water Pipes”) in our Science Matters newsletter. It’s all part of our effort to share how EPA researchers are working to solve all sorts of problems—and I can guarantee that you’ll find the reading a lot cooler than riding your bicycle into a sinkhole!

About the Author: Aaron Ferster dodges sinkholes and other obstacles to and from his job as an EPA science writer, where he edits the It All Starts with Science blog.

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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Around the Water Cooler: Is Your Toilet Leaking?

By Sarah Blau

WHAT IS THAT NOISE?!? When I first moved into my apartment, I noticed a strange and persistent noise coming from the bathroom. On an exploratory mission, I fumbled around the various fixtures and plumbing only to discover that my toilet was leaking! Luckily, I caught the leak early and got it fixed.

Surprisingly, a leak like mine could waste up to 200 gallons of water a day! My water bill alone would have given me palpitations, let alone the knowledge that I was so carelessly wasting one of our very precious resources.

It's Fix a Leak Week!

Stories like mine are the reason this week is “Fix a Leak Week,” sponsored by WaterSense, an EPA Partnership Program. EPA and others are working to raise awareness about water leaks, to provide tips and information to water users, and ultimately, to reduce the waste of this life-sustaining resource. The WaterSense website provides some shocking statistics about the amount of water actually wasted each year as well as how you yourself can check for and fix household leaks.

Water lost to leaky plumbing is not isolated to inside homes and buildings. The aging water infrastructure of our country is awash with leakage problems as well. In fact, just this past Monday a water main break near Washington DC, spewed an estimated 60 million gallons, depleting local water storage tanks and initiating water conservation efforts for the neighboring communities!

EPA scientists are addressing this leakage problem this week and year-round. Researchers are working on new tools and methods to identify and monitor the weak points of aging water distribution systems. For example, researchers are looking at ways to assess water infrastructure for leaks without disrupting water supply for consumers (i.e. avoiding water shut-offs or pipe excavations). Other research is focused on preventing leaks from occurring, specifically, by examining the relationship between water chemistry and plumbing life expectancy.

As for me, I see Fix a Leak Week as a good reminder that our water resources are limited and we should work to conserve what we’ve got. Since my leak’s been fixed already, I’ll instead resolve to take shorter showers, turn off the tap while brushing my teeth, and work to spread the word by blogging (check mark that one!).

To learn more about this ongoing research, visit EPA’s Aging Water Infrastructure Research webpage, and read about one specific research project in the Science Matters newsletter: Problems with Pinhole Leaks in Your Copper Water Pipes.

About the Author: Sarah Blau is a student services contractor working on the Science Communications Team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

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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