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New Legislation Aims to Tackle Coal Ash Pollution

Water Nerd @ Thursday, April 22, 2021 at 2:00 pm -0400

Emma Johnson | Scientific Contributor   

After a drainage pipe burst at a Duke Energy coal ash containment basin in North Carolina in 2014, the nearby Dan River turned black. 39,000 tons of coal ash – the waste created in the process of burning coal to make electricity – poured into the river for a week, coating the banks in sludge and infusing the water with toxic pollutants like arsenic, iron, and lead. The river was a source of drinking water for communities in North Carolina and Virginia, who were worried about the effect of the spill on their health. Duke was still working on cleanup and restoration projects five years after.

Coal ash spills remain a worry today as coal power plants remain in operation around the country. To begin rectifying this enormous problem, Rep. Steve Cohen (D) from Tennessee introduced a bill to the U.S. House of Representatives on April 8 to “amend the Solid Waste Disposal Act to ensure the safe disposal of coal combustion residuals.” 

The bill would put back coal ash protections that the Trump administration had removed. Some of these include requiring power plants to pay for cleanup costs, prohibiting unlined waste ponds, and requiring regulatory oversight of coal ash facilities. The bill would also prevent coal ash ponds from being located near groundwater and increase public participation and protection for disadvantaged communities.

A 2019 study from the Environmental Integrity Project listed ten sites with the worst coal ash-contaminated groundwater, which spanned nine states. Using public industry data, the study found that the coal ash at 242 of 265 power plants examined contained unsafe levels of one or more toxic pollutants. In addition, more than 95% of coal ash storage ponds are unlined and 59% are built either beneath the water table or within 5 feet of it.

Coal ash also disproportionately affects poor communities and communities of color. 70% of coal ash ponds are located in low-income communities and more then 200 are known to have contaminated waterways, according to Appalachian Voices. People who live near these ponds can have elevated risks of cancer, lung and heart problems, and other serious health concerns.

In a statement about the bill, Cohen remarked on the danger that these spills pose, saying: “The measure I am introducing strengthens protections outlined in the 2015 Coal Ash Rule and protects communities by mandating safer and faster disposal of this dangerous waste product of electricity production.”

Cohen’s bill is waiting to be heard by the House Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change and must make it through both the House and the Senate before it goes to the President’s desk for a signature and turned into law.

For advocates working to clean up coal ash around the country, this bill represents a big step in the right direction for addressing this long-standing pollutant. Christine Santillana, Legislative Counsel at Earthjustice, said, “This legislation aims to correct decades of coal ash mismanagement that has left communities around the country exposed to the toxic chemicals in our waterways.”

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Please Stop Using TDS (or ppm) Testers To Evaluate Water Quality

Analies Dyjak @ Tuesday, August 23, 2016 at 2:42 am -0400
Eric Roy, Ph.D.|  Scientific Founder

***Updated on February 5, 2020***

We get quite a few questions about TDS/ppm meters (like this one) and TDS measurements. While we love when people take steps to learn more about their water, some people (including journalists from reputable publications- Example #1 & Example #2) have used TDS/ppm meters to draw false conclusions about water quality, which incited fear in people already in the midst of a terrible water quality crisis. In this article, we answer the questions that we get asked the most about TDS measurements and TDS meters. If you're curious about water filters that address meaningful contaminants in tap water, check out this recent water filter study by Duke/NC State. 

What is TDS? What Does A TDS/ppm Meter Measure?

TDS stands for Total Dissolved Solids which is related to the total charged mineral content of water. TDS can be easily determined by measuring the conductivity of a water sample, which is exactly what inexpensive TDS probes do. TDS meters typically display the total amount of dissolved solids in parts per million or ppm. If you start with deionized water (which has a TDS of zero), and expose it to minerals that contain sodium, calcium, and magnesium... the water's TDS or ppm rises. This is why there's no such thing as deionized water in nature. Depending on a region’s geology, natural TDS/ppm levels can vary across the US, and this variability has nothing to do with the water quality (except in extreme cases when the water is too salty to drink).

What Does a TDS/ppm Meter Not Measure?

Because TDS/ppm is an aggregate measure of charged compounds in water, uncharged things like motor oil, gasoline, many pharmaceuticals, and pesticides do not contribute to a TDS/ppm measurement. Most relevant to current nationwide water quality problems, TDS/ppm meters do not detect PFAS in drinking water. For example, the glass on the left in this article's header image contains deionized water with Malathion (an organophosphate pesticide) dissolved into it at 100 times higher concentration than allowed by the EPA for drinking water, and the TDS/ppm probe reads 000.

Even though these toxic metals are charged when dissolved in water, a TDS/ppm meter does not give meaningful information about their presence or concentration in water. There are two main reasons for this:

  • A TDS/ppm meter is a nonselective measurement and cannot differentiate among different ions. A more sophisticated piece of equipment is needed to perform those types of measurements. The value of 184 that was measured using a TDS meter in a prominent Huffington Post Article was not the lead concentration… it was the water's natural TDS level (which is dominated by minerals like calcium, magnesium, and sodium).
  • A TDS tester is not sensitive enough to measure toxic levels of lead, chromium-6, or arsenic, even if they are present in a sample. This is because the reading displayed on an inexpensive TDS meter is in parts per million, while things like lead, chromium-6, and arsenic are toxic at part per billion concentrations (1000 times lower). Using a TDS meter to measure ppb lead concentrations in tap water is like trying to use a car’s odometer to measure a child's height…. It's the wrong tool. For example, the water sample shown on the right hand side of this article's header image has lead levels that are 100x the EPA limit, and the TDS reading teetered between 000 and 001.

To reiterate: Meaningful lead and arsenic measurements cannot be made using a TDS/ppm meter (or any other handheld device). They must be measured by trained staff in analytical laboratories that use much more sophisticated scientific equipment. Hydroviv Undersink filters are NSF/ANSI 53 certified to remove lead from drinking water.

Do Hydroviv Filters Lower TDS/ppm?

No. Hydroviv’s filters selectively filter harmful things from your water (like lead, chromium-6, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, petroleum products, disinfection byproducts), and things that make water taste and smell bad (chlorine, chloramine, sulfur). Hydroviv’s home water filtration systems don’t remove minerals like calcium and magnesium because there’s no reason to. In fact, we use some types of filtration media that actually add minerals to the water, so TDS/ppm levels in water filtered through a Hydroviv system are sometimes slightly higher than unfiltered water.

Should I Buy a TDS/ppm Meter To Test My Drinking Water For High TDS Levels?

No. There is absolutely no reason to drink low TDS/ppm or deionized water. If you are concerned about water quality, put the money toward the purchase of an effective drinking water filter that removes harmful contaminants from your water.

What If I Already Have a TDS/ppm Meter?

If you have a TDS/ppm meter (like this one), we recommend giving it to a curious child who has an interest in science! Use this opportunity to teach them about dissolved minerals by encouraging them to test different types of water (e.g. distilled, rain, river, lake) and try to explain their findings! Feel free to reach out to us at (info@hydroviv.com for educational ideas involving TDS meters).

Other Great Articles That We Think You'll Enjoy:

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EPA Proposes New Definition of "Waters of the United States"

Analies Dyjak @ Friday, February 15, 2019 at 3:01 pm -0500

Analies Dyjak & Matthew Krug

February 14th 2019: The Department of the Army and the Environmental Protection Agency posted the newly proposed “Waters of the United States” rule to the Federal Register. At its core, the proposed EPA WOTUS rule limits the water that EPA can regulate and monitor. By narrowing the scope of WOTUS definitions, this basically gives industries a roadmap of where it’s okay to pollute without the need for permitting. This is a big deal for the 45 million Americans who rely on well water for drinking and bathing. So, why should you care about the definition of waters of the United States?

"Waters of the United States"

This definition, also known as “WOTUS” has been up for debate for decades, and it’s interpretation has seen several Supreme Court cases. This proposed rule determines what waters the federal government is able to regulate and monitor. Generally, “waters” have traditionally been navigable waters such as oceans, rivers, ponds, and streams. As our scientific understanding of hydrology has improved, the scope of what are considered “waters” has expanded.

What Is Not Protected Under The Proposed Rule?

WOTUS definitions name certain waters as “excluded,” which, in this case, means they do not have a surface water connection. This means that groundwater, ephemeral streams, ditches, prior converted cropland and some wetlands and ponds are not included. This is a continued rollback of environmental regulations - and the 2019 EPA WOTUS rule proposal may have the farthest-reaching implications of all.

How Does This Proposed Rule Affect Drinking Water?

This rule puts the 45 million Americans that use private wells as a primary source of drinking water at risk. Private wells are not regulated by federal, state, or local governments, and agencies are not required to test for contaminants or ensure “compliance.” A 2006 study by the USGS concluded that private wells are already contaminated with various types of agricultural runoff, solvents, fumigants and inorganic compounds, the most common being arsenic and nitrates. Arsenic is a naturally occurring organic compound, that enters groundwater as bedrock weathers overtime. However, nitrates are used in fertilizers and enter both surface and groundwater from agricultural runoff. 8.4% of the wells tested in this study were in exceeded the federal standard for nitrates (we have an article dedicated specifically to nitrates in groundwater). Further, EPA does not provide recommended criteria or standards for private well users. By rolling back protections, private well users are being further kept in the dark.

How Did They Arrive At this Rule?

The proposed EPA WOTUS rule is primarily based off a majority opinion by Justice Scalia in the Supreme Court case Rapanos v. United States. Scalia’s interpretation favored “traditional waters,” and steered away from Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus theory.” In his majority opinion, Scalia wrote that federal protections should cover:

“...only those wetland with a continuous surface connection to bodies that are waters of the United States.”

Who’s Driving?

The American Farm Bureau dominated the conversation at the press conference for the proposed EPA WOTUS rule in early December of 2018. Industries lobbied hard to limit the scope of jurisdictional waters. In a political landscape where there is an abundance of legislation grandfathered in to protect the chemical, fossil fuel, and agricultural industries, it should come as no surprise that the current administration did not break from tradition. The agricultural industry is not the only institution who will benefit from this proposed rule. Chemical manufacturing companies have to go through a rigorous permitting process determined by state or federal governments (NPDES) which regulate pollution. But now, with a clearly defined and reduced scope of what constitutes a water of the United States, these companies are able to map out how to circumvent regulation.

The federal government has designated this as “economically significant”

This means that the proposed rule with have an annual effect on the economy of $100 million or more. 

Our Take:

This proposed WOTUS definitions puts the 15% of the country at further risk of groundwater contamination. This population of people are now on their own in terms of monitoring their drinking water and keeping up with land use changes. Our science team will be submitting public comments on this proposed rule, which will be available on our website in the upcoming weeks. We encourage our readers to do the same thing! CLICK HERE for the link to the WOTUS public comment page.

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5 Reasons Why Bottled Water Isn't The Solution To Drinking Water Contamination

Analies Dyjak @ Friday, January 4, 2019 at 1:59 pm -0500

Analies Dyjak  |  Policy Nerd

Whenever severe water contamination impacts a community, people (and media outlets) tend to jump to bottled water as the only water contamination solution. The bottled water industry has managed to convince vulnerable consumers that their product is inherently safer than what’s coming out of their taps. Oftentimes, this isn’t the case. So why is bottled water bad? The reality is that bottled water is associated with a host of ethical, environmental and regulatory problems. Drinking bottled water is not a long-term solution to water contamination, and we should critically examine its role as water quality crises continue to pop up across the country. Here are our main problems with the bottled water industry to give you a better idea of why bottled water is bad.

1)  Bottled Water Companies Use The Same Source As Tap Water

According to the FDA, bottled water companies are permitted to package and sell water from municipal taps, artesian wells, mineral water, natural springs, and drilled wells. Surprisingly enough, they aren’t required to disclose the source water itself. If you’re looking for transparency, municipal systems are required to publish an annual Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) that discloses characteristics about the source water, treatment techniques, and other distribution information. The bottled water industry also frequently packages and distributes groundwater from dug wells. Groundwater can often be more susceptible to pollution than surface water because it’s not regulated by the federal government. Groundwater acts as a catchment for surface water runoff and agricultural pollution, not to mention its increased risk of arsenic contamination.

2)  Bottled Water and Tap Water Have Almost Identical Standards

People are often surprised to learn that there’s virtually no difference between the regulations for bottled water and tap water. The Environmental Protection Agency regulates tap water and the Food and Drug Administration regulates bottled water. The allowable concentrations of contaminants are identical for both, with the exception of lead. The standard for lead in bottled water is 5 parts per billion, as opposed to 15 parts per billion in tap water. This is because during bottling production, water should never come in contact with older lead service pipes the same way municipal water does. Arsenic can be present in groundwater as a result of natural weathering of bedrock. Exposure to arsenic in drinking water can result in cancers in various organs, including skin, bladder, lung, kidney, liver, and prostate. Non-cancerous health effects include neurological damage, such as peripheral neuropathy.

3)  Impacts On The Environment

It’s well-documented that single-use plastic water bottles wreak havoc on the environment. Plastics are made from petroleum, which is a fossil fuel and a non-renewable resource. Companies often tout their commitment to reducing plastic consumption by weight, but this has no bearing on the volume at which it’s produced. You may be familiar with “Trash Island,” in the Northern Pacific Ocean. This phenomenon is the result of decades of poor waste management and excessive production of various types of plastic. According to a 2016 study by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish by the year 2050. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) is the main ingredient in plastic water bottles. PET takes over 400 years to decompose in the environment and its constituents can often take longer to degrade. Chemicals like Bisphenol A (BPA) have since been phased out of plastic production, but are still very much present in the environment and will continue to be released as older plastics degrade.

4)  False Advertising

Marketing schemes deceive consumers into believing that companies use pristine source water. The packaging uses carefully curated images of mountain-top creeks and streams to suggest pure, untainted products. The reality is bottled water hardly ever comes from the sources depicted on the label.

5)  Ethical Dilemma

Nestle, a company with a long track record of unscrupulous business practices, owns deep aquifers throughout California, a state which has been experiencing drought-like conditions for several decades. The expensive equipment purchased by Nestle allows the company to extract water in a way that tribes and municipalities cannot afford to do. Similar companies have been known to use their purchasing power to acquire land, pushing tribes and municipalities out of the conversation. Problems arise when drought-stricken or contaminated communities are unable to afford the same resources as bottled water companies.

Our Take:

While bottled water offers some measure of immediate relief to a severe drinking water crisis, it is in no way a long-term water contamination solution. Companies often sell the same water that’s feeding municipal systems. Not to mention, EPA and FDA have almost identical regulations for both tap and bottled water. There’s also an inherent cost associated with bottled water, which varies depending on the brand. Finally, a huge part of why bottled water is bad is that scientific data confirms the importance of reducing plastic pollution on a global scale. Municipal providers offer greater transparency and are required to disclose information about the source water.

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Problems We Found In Omaha, Nebraska Drinking Water

Analies Dyjak @ Wednesday, August 1, 2018 at 3:22 pm -0400

Analies Dyjak, M.A.  |  Water Nerd

For Hydroviv’s assessment of Omaha, Nebraska drinking water, we collected water quality test data from the city’s Consumer Confidence Report and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. We cross referenced Omaha's water quality data with toxicity studies in scientific and medical literature. The water filters that we sell at Hydroviv are optimized to filter out contaminants that are found in Omaha's drinking water.

Where Does Omaha Source Its Drinking Water? 

Omaha draws its tap and drinking water from the Missouri River, Platte River, and the Dakota Sandstone aquifer.

Lead in Omaha’s Drinking Water

Lead enters tap water through older lead service pipes and lead-containing plumbing, soldered joints, and fixtures. Based on the 2017 water quality report, lead levels in Omaha ranged from 0.5 to 14.9 parts per billion. 10% of taps had levels over 6.4 parts per billion, which is barely in compliance with the loose EPA standard of 15 parts per billion. However, if you were to ask toxicologists, pediatricians, or the CDC they would all tell you that there is no safe minimum level of lead. Lead is a neurotoxin that can have serious developmental effects on children.

Arsenic in Omaha’s Drinking Water

Arsenic is a heavy metal that typically leaches into groundwater as surrounding bedrock naturally weathers overtime. According to the most recent data, Arsenic concentrations ranged from 1 to 3.93 parts per billion in Omaha drinking water. EPA set a Maximum Contaminant Level of 10 parts per billion for Arsenic, but several health and regulatory agencies believe this level should be reduced to 1 or even 0 parts per billion. Arsenic is a toxic substance that is linked to a long list of health problems in humans. For example, arsenic can cause a number of different cancers (e.g. skin, bladder, lung, liver, prostate), as well as create non-cancerous problems with cardiovascular (heart/blood vessels), pulmonary (lungs), immune, neurological (brain), and endocrine (e.g. diabetes) systems. Hydroviv recommends purchasing a filter that is optimized to remove Arsenic from your drinking water, especially if you’re serviced by a private well.

Disinfection By-Products in Omaha’s Drinking Water

When water treatment facilities sanitize the water with chemicals such as chlorine, different contaminants can be created. These types of contaminants are called Disinfectant by products or DBPs. They are split into two categories: Total Trihalomethanes (TTHMs) and Haloacetic Acids-5 (HAA5). Concentrations of TTHMs averaged 40.2 parts per billion but were detected as high as 66.5 parts per billion. HAA5 concentrations averaged 19.6 parts per billion but were detected as high as 37.6 parts per billion. For a bit of perspective, EPA set a Maximum Contamination Level of 80 parts per billion for TTHMs and 60 parts per billion for HAA5.

Chromium 6 In Omaha’s Drinking Water

Chromium 6 is an unregulated toxic metal that's associated with metal processing, tannery facilities, chromate production, stainless steel welding, and pigment production. Concentrations of Chromium 6 were found to be ranging from 130 parts per trillion to 1400 parts per trillion. These levels are nearly 70 times higher than the concentration determined to have a negligible impact on cancer risk. EPA has acknowledged that Chromium 6 is a known human carcinogen through inhalation, but is still determining its cancer potential through ingestion of drinking water. Lung, nasal and sinus cancers are associated with Chromium 6 exposure. Ingestion of extremely high doses of chromium 6 compounds can cause acute respiratory disease, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, hematological, hepatic, renal, and neurological distress which may result in death.

Synthetic Organic Contaminants in Omaha's Drinking Water

Di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate was also detected in Omaha's drinking water. This chemical is known for its ability to make plastic flexible. A toxicology report has shown that this chemical is known to cause reproductive problems in young males, stomach pains, and is labeled as a probable carcinogen. EPA set a Maximum Contaminant Level of 6 parts per billion for this contaminant. The Omaha water quality problem report detected concentrations of these chemicals ranging from less than 2 parts per billion to 3.11 parts per billion.

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