Sewage

A Premature Plunge into the Gowanus Canal

By Elias Rodriguez

The Gowanus Canal harbors a legacy of industrial waste.

The Gowanus Canal harbors a legacy of industrial waste.

Last week, a gentleman garnered widespread media attention in New York by deliberately swimming in Brooklyn’s highly contaminated Gowanus Canal. This urban water body is on EPA’s National Priorities List of the country’s most hazardous waste sites. The Gowanus is scheduled for a cleanup under our Superfund program.

It seemed like every tabloid and television station in the Big Apple contacted us to ask if it was safe to swim in the Gowanus Canal. In a word: NO! As you can see from our color-coded hazard guide, direct contact with the water of the Gowanus should be avoided to reduce exposure risks.

Color Coded ChartWhat’s in the Gowanus? Data shows the widespread presence of more than a dozen contaminants, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and various metals, including mercury, lead and copper, at high levels in its sediment. PAHs and metals were also found in the canal water. PAHs in the canal come mostly from former manufactured gas plants which used coal to make gas. PCBs were used as coolants and lubricants in transformers, capacitors and other electrical equipment. PCBs are suspected carcinogens and can have neurological effects. PAHs are also suspected carcinogens.

The origin of the Gowanus Canal goes back to the 19th century. It was envisioned as a transportation route for goods and services and, after its completion in the 1860s, the canal became an important link for commerce in the city. Manufactured gas plants, coal yards, concrete-mixing facilities, chemical plants and oil refineries were established along its banks. The canal was additionally an outlet for untreated industrial waste, raw sewage and runoff. Fast-forward to 2015 and you’ll see in the Gowanus’ murky water a legacy of urban and industrial pollution in the midst of thriving Brooklyn neighborhoods.

EPA’s $506 million cleanup calls for the removal of contaminated sediment and the capping of dredged areas. The comprehensive plan also includes controls to reduce sewage overflows and other land-based sources of pollution from re-contaminating the waters and ruining the cleanup.

EPA’s progress to date at the Gowanus Canal has been faster than at any other site of comparable complexity anywhere in the nation. We are currently working on the remedial design for the cleanup project to be followed by the start of actual dredging in 2016. When all the work is done, circa 2022, the Gowanus will be in much better shape. In the meantime, the EPA’s No Swimming warning is serious and remains in effect.

About the Author: Elias serves as EPA Region 2’s bilingual public information officer. Prior to joining EPA, the proud Nuyorican worked at Time Inc. conducting research for TIME, LIFE, FORTUNE and PEOPLE magazines. He is a graduate of Hunter College, Baruch College and the Theological Institute of the Assembly of Christian Churches in NYC.

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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Advancing Sustainable Development in the United States

By Apple Loveless and Leslie Corcelli

A United Nations summit to adopt sustainable development goals will take place this September. Among these is a proposed goal to “ ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all,” which expresses global intent to provide adequate water and sanitation to everyone.

When we think about inadequate drinking water and wastewater treatment, it usually brings to mind developing countries. But in our work in the Office of Wastewater Management, we see examples in rural Alaska, Appalachia, the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as smaller communities like Willisville and Lowndes County.

Willisville is a small minority community in southwestern Loudoun County, Virginia. In the late 1990s, the Loudoun County Health Department surveyed Willisville to determine its water and wastewater needs. It found that the majority of residences had inadequate drinking water supplies and failing or non-existent sewage systems. Most residents used privies and outhouses.

Simply providing indoor plumbing to existing homes would have driven up property values so much that the average resident wouldn’t have been able to afford the taxes. However, Willisville was able to work with the county and nonprofit organizations to increase taxes incrementally, enabling owners to afford the payments.

In the end, the residences and an area church got indoor plumbing, a cluster system was installed to treat wastewater, and private land was purchased to build a drainfield.

In Lowndes County, Alabama, inadequate wastewater management had become a public health hazard and environmental issue that could no longer be ignored. Mostly rural and primarily African-American, Lowndes County did not have a centralized wastewater management system, and is built on impermeable clay soils that made septic systems cost prohibitive. The county also has a 27 percent poverty rate. Many of the county’s residents disposed of raw sewage in fields, yards and ditches. It was estimated that 40 to 90 percent of households had either no septic system or an inadequate one.

Beginning in 2010, we entered into a four-year financial assistance agreement with the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise to develop a decentralized wastewater management approach for rural Lowndes County. This grant is an important first step towards improving basic sanitation services in Lowndes County.

There are many communities like Willisville and Lowndes County in the United States. Funding and technical assistance can help them improve inadequate water and wastewater services. It takes collaboration by local, state and federal government to achieve environmental justice for those in underserved communities.

About the authors: Apple Loveless has a graduate degree in environmental management with a focus on water resource planning and management, and is adapting to life in the Mid-Atlantic region. Leslie Corcelli has a graduate degree in environmental science and policy, and lives in northern Virginia with her partner and a menagerie of rescue animals. Apple and Leslie are Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education research participants in the Sustainable Communities Branch of EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management.

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 Importance of Effective Community Engagement for Sustainable Infrastructure

By Hiwot Gebremariam

Maintaining water infrastructure is a constant challenge, but effective community engagement practices can help. I am a first-hand witness of the usefulness of these practices. Growing up in Ethiopia, I saw community bathrooms and water wells properly maintained only when communities were appropriately consulted and empowered.

I notice parallel situations in my career, too. While working for the United Nations in 2009/2010 on promoting public-private partnerships, I remember a water and sewerage project in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania that failed because consumers were not properly consulted on user rates.

At EPA, I am part of the Infrastructure Task Force’s solid waste sub-workgroup that investigates strategies for engaging with American Indian/Alaska Native tribes and villages to promote sustainable solutions for solid waste issues, including open dumps. Indeed, evidence shows that utilities need to undertake effective community engagement to achieve sustainability goals.

This is also seen in some programs that I work on: the Clean Water Indian Set-Aside, Alaska Rural and Native Village Grant Program and the U.S.-Mexico Tribal Border Infrastructure Grant Program. The positive impacts of these programs, which increase access to safe drinking water and wastewater services, are being seen in public health and ecosystems’ improvements.

To sustainably maintain this infrastructure, effective community engagement practices are universally essential. Community engagement should consider communities’ specific needs, technical capacities, cultural and socioeconomic conditions. They should involve community members and social institutions at all phases in the decision-making process from the design, construction and completion to the operation and maintenance of projects.

At the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council public meeting held in early October this year, participants, including tribal representatives, echoed this argument. EPA is undertaking initiatives to enhance meaningful community engagement. As we observe Native American Heritage Month this November, I remain proud to participate in EPA’s initiatives that provide needed infrastructure in tribal areas and to work with people who constantly aim to make a difference.

About the author: Hiwot Gebremariam has two graduate degrees in economics and environmental science and policy analysis. She currently works as an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) research participant in EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management. She grew up in Ethiopia and now lives in Maryland with her husband and three boys.

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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An Internship that Wasn’t a Waste

By Sarah Martynowski

During the summer, EPA hosts several events to provide interns with enriching experiences in the D.C. metropolitan area. Last summer, we visited the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant, located along the Potomac River. Designed to treat an average daily flow of 370 million gallons of wastewater per day, Blue Plains is the largest treatment plant of its kind in the world. It’s known globally for its state-of-the-art technology and innovative research.

We began the tour at the point where 1,800 miles of pipes bring both raw sewage and stormwater into the plant from D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. The first step screens and removes grit. Then the wastewater moves through primary and secondary treatment. Primary treatment is a physical process that removes floating materials, while secondary treatment is a biological process that removes organic matter. And while most treatment plants stop after primary and secondary treatment, the advanced system at Blue Plains continues the process to remove nitrogen and phosphorous that can hurt local waterways. The treated water then passes through filters and is disinfected before flowing into the Potomac River.

Blue Plains is currently constructing an anaerobic digestion facility and a thermal hydrolysis process to further treat the solids that are removed in the treatment process. The digesters will produce enough biogas to generate 10 megawatts of electricity: enough to provide one-third of the plant’s own power requirements. The thermal hydrolysis process will create “Class A” biosolids that can be safely applied to land as a fertilizer.

DC Water is also working to improve treatment of its “combined sewer system,” meaning that storm water and wastewater come together when it rains. A massive tunneling project called “the Clean Rivers Project” will capture excess flows. Currently, many of these combined sewers become overloaded during storms and raw sewage overflows into local rivers. When the tunnel system is complete in 2025, most of these excess flows will be captured and conveyed to Blue Plains for treatment. As a result, DC Water expects to reduce overflows by 96 percent.

Our tour was an excellent opportunity to learn about wastewater treatment plants, beyond just the information found in my environmental textbooks. I may never operate a wastewater treatment plant, but I think it’s important to understand how they work and their vital role in keeping our waters clean and healthy.

About the author: Sarah Martynowski is a senior at the University of Cincinnati majoring in environmental studies and political science. She was an intern for EPA’s Office of Water during the summer of 2014.

 

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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Helping Communities Plan for Climate Change

image of sunset over water

Before coming to EPA, I had an opportunity to work at Carolinas Integrated Sciences and Assessments, studying climate change in North and South Carolina. These two states have some of the most beautiful beach towns I’ve ever visited, and both enjoy breathtaking mountain views in their upstate areas. Unfortunately, many of these scenic places, and the communities and habitats within them, are threatened by climate change impacts like sea level rise, increasing precipitation and increasing temperatures. The health of people and the environment, and the viability of the local economy are all at stake. When I spoke to people in the area about the situation, they repeatedly told me that they need tools to help them identify specific climate impacts and potential solutions.

As part of EPA’s Climate Ready Estuaries (CRE) project, I’ve been able to help develop some of these tools, while working on climate resiliency on a national scale. We recently published, “Being Prepared for Climate Change: A Workbook for Developing Risk-Based Adaptation Plans,” which is intended to help environmental managers and planners identify climate change risks and select adaption actions to address the most pressing ones. The San Juan Bay Estuary Program in Puerto Rico has already successfully used the workbook to identify its climate risks; the report they’ve developed will be used to inform future efforts to develop an adaptation action plan.

The CRE program will feature the workbook and the San Juan Bay pilot project during several webinars and conferences throughout the next year to introduce it to stakeholders and provide technical assistance on the methodology.

I’m pleased that although I no longer work in the southeast, I am still able to support those communities and others across the country through my work with EPA. I encourage you to learn more about what EPA and other federal agencies are doing to help Americans adapt to current and potential climate change risks, and download your copy of the workbook. Maybe you can help your community increase its resiliency to climate change.

About the author: Ashley (Brosius) Stevenson is an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education participant working with Climate Ready Estuaries in EPA’s Office of Water. She received her Master’s in International Affairs from American University, as well as a Masters in Natural Resources & Sustainable Development from the University for Peace in Costa Rica. She enjoys spending time with her family at their beach home in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

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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Synthetic female hormones in sewage are toxic to male fish over generations

By Kristen Keteles

I’m a toxicologist at EPA in Denver, Colorado, and I study how pollutants can affect ecological and human health. I work with a team of scientists from academia (Colorado State University, University of Colorado Denver) and U.S. Geological Society to understand the potential effects of hormones and medications that are discharged into the environment. Did you know a very potent synthetic female hormone used in prescription drugs can be found in water and could be harming fish? We’re finding in our study that it can wipe out fish populations over several generations, and it’s the male fish that are most affected. Some studies have found that male fish below waste water treatment plants, and exposed to female hormones, can lose their masculine characteristics and become indistinguishable from females. Our new study found that a potent form of the female hormone estrogen used in prescription drugs not only causes the males to look female, it also appears to be toxic to male fish and these effects may impact future generations of fish.

Where do these hormones and medications come from? All of us. Humans excrete hormones and medications, which often end up in our rivers and streams from sewage. Disposing of medications by flushing can also contribute to pharmaceuticals in the environment. A growing human population, combined with effects of climate change like decreasing precipitation, has resulted in many streams containing higher concentrations of waste water. In fact, some streams in the west are 90% waste water. Not a nice thought if you like to kayak and fish, like I do. The water IS treated, but many hormones and pharmaceuticals are not completely removed by the waste water treatment plants. So, more people and less water equals more hormones and drugs in the water. My team is trying to determine what this means for fish, and ultimately for people, too. Although, currently, EPA does not have water quality standards for these types of chemicals, our study may help determine if such water quality standards are needed.

We looked at effects of exposure to a synthetic estrogen used in prescription drugs to fathead minnows over multiple generations by conducting experiments, both in the laboratory and in outdoor water tanks that mimic natural conditions.

Chemical exposure to female hormones in prescription drugs was found to increase the chances of death in male fish, but not females. And, fish exposed when they were young, but not as adults, were not able to reproduce later on in life. In addition, fish that weren’t even exposed to the prescription drugs, but were born to parents who were exposed, were less likely to reproduce. It could be that synthetic estrogen in prescription drugs, combined with other natural and synthetic hormones in the water, are reducing male fish fertility and could affect fish populations.

This is why it’s important to do what we can to protect fish breeding habitats in unpolluted areas. What are some things that your community can do to protect fish habitat? Read our information on how to dispose of unused medications to reduce the amount of pharmaceuticals that end up in water.

About the author: Kristen Keteles is a toxicologist in the Support Program of the Office of Ecosystems Protection and Remediation in EPA Region 8 in Denver. She has been with EPA for six years.

Fish A is a normal male fathead minnow. Fish C is a normal female fathead minnow. Fish B is a male that was exposed to female hormones in prescription drugs and looks more like a female than a male.

Fish A is a normal male fathead minnow. Fish C is a normal female fathead minnow. Fish B is a male that was exposed to female hormones in prescription drugs and looks more like a female than a male.

 

EPA Fish Team scientists: Al Garcia, Kristen Keteles, Elaine Lai, and Adrian Krawczeniuk.

EPA Fish Team scientists: Al Garcia, Kristen Keteles, Elaine Lai, and Adrian Krawczeniuk.

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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Creating a Green Urban Oasis

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Design concept for Green Infrastructure Plan in Philadelphia

By Matthew Marcus

After interning in the Office of Environmental Justice this summer, I reflected on how environmental justice issues affect my beloved home city of Philadelphia.  There are pockets of communities throughout Philly that face challenges such as poverty, unemployment, a lack of educational opportunities and crime. They also face many environmental concerns such as foul air from cars and industry and polluted streams disproportionately affecting poorer neighborhoods.  However, Philly is rising to this challenge in unique and creative ways, and deserves praise for its efforts.

Untitled-3For instance, Philadelphia is addressing waterway pollution in innovative ways. Philly has old water infrastructure that combines storm water pipes with sewage lines, and during periods of heavy rainfall or snow melt, the volume of wastewater in a combined sewer system can exceed the capacity of the sewer system or wastewater treatment plant. When this happens, combined sewer overflow (CSO) and discharge sewage goes directly to nearby water bodies. These overflows can contain not only storm water, but also untreated human and industrial waste, toxic materials and debris.

To address this problem, the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD), with support from the EPA, developed a strategy called Green City Clean Waters (GCCW) to mitigate this problem while remaining in compliance with the Clean Water Act. Traditionally, this would be done by building more “grey” infrastructure: bigger pipes underground that do nothing for the community.  The PWD has instead opted for a green infrastructure approach that simultaneously addresses many community needs. Howard Neukrug, PWD commissioner, told me that environmental and economic justice issues in poor urban areas are so closely related that they must be understood and tackled together.

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Proposed design for rooftop in Philadelphia

Green Infrastructure (GI) consists of designing urban buildings and spaces that allow storm water to permeate into the soil rather than runoff into the pipes.  Usually this takes the form of bioswales, rain gardens, or green roofs that convert impervious surfaces to pervious ones.  This green process/technique improves water quality and protects community residents from exposure to raw sewage, which is a long-term investment in public health and clean water. So far, more than 100 construction projects have been completed, converting more than 600 acres of impervious surface to green infrastructure. The result of this project will include 5-8 billion gallons of CSO avoided per year, as well as the restoration of 190 miles of wetlands, and 11 miles of streams that flow adjacent to surrounding low-income communities.

The projects’ benefits transcend water. GCCW is attempting to integrate all aspects of community planning to produce a favorable outcome to the environment and people. One can see these benefits emerging in the New Kensington neighborhood.  A large block was turned into a beautiful GI site, a LEED platinum high school was built; and now a grassroots movement has begun to make this area the greenest point in Philly.  Students’ work has improved in the new school, and the community has something to cherish together.

Another example is the Herron Park Spraygound.  Formerly an old dilapidated pool, it’s been transformed into a green square with sprinklers throughout the playground.  Children run through the fountains safely in this beautiful green oasis on hot summer days, and on rainy days, the water infiltrates into the soil.  To the community, the sprayground adds beauty and a safe recreating spot, and to the PWD, it reduces river pollution. GCCW’s approach to sustainability is beginning to affect all parts of life, and environmental justice is addressed. I am hopeful that this great work will continue in Philly and provide an example nationally to address urban EJ challenges.

About the author: Matthew Marcus interned with the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice the summer of 2013. He is currently studying his Masters of Applied Geosciences at the University of Pennsylvania.

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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