spy vs. spy, lobbyist-style

I wrote recently about the attempt by the last coal-fired steamer on the Great Lakes, the SS Badger, to circumvent environmental laws that would force it to upgrade to a modern propulsion system.  I really find it hard to justify such an outdated and messy mode of transportation, which dumps 509 tons of coal ash in Lake Michigan every year (an average of nearly one and a half tons per day).  That’s a lot of ash.

Well, the language to exempt the SS Badger from EPA’s oversight was stripped from a U.S. House of Representatives bill just last week.  Advocates from Michigan and Wisconsin had added an amendment to a Coast Guard reauthorization bill to exempt the ship, as a National Historic Landmark, from EPA oversight.  However, the reauthorization bill was passed without the amendment, meaning that the Badger’s permit to operate expires on December 19th, no exceptions.

Apparently, a rival ferry with diesel-powered engines, Lake Express, appealed to its own representatives, including one from Milwaukee, to vote out this amendment.  Lake Express offers ferry service about $50 more than the SS Badger, for service about 1.5 hours shorter (2.5 hours vs. 4 hours).  In a public statement, Lake Express noted that in the SS Badger’s own correspondence with the EPA, the company said it could pay for equipment to eliminate the need to dump coal ash by upping their ticket prices by just $4 per customer — which would still be much cheaper than Lake Express.  In other words, it’s less about the money and more about the effort…

The conclusion from all of this is, two rival companies appealed to rival lawmakers, and despite what might seem like corruption of the legislation process, the best outcome was reached, as far as protecting human health and the environment.  Whether you call the SS Badger’s National Historic Landmark status a loophole or an earmark, it was not successful.  The process works…

nostalgia for coal ash

For those of us who like to think back on “the good old days”, try a ferry ride on the last coal-powered steamship on the Great Lakes, on Lake Michigan between Ludington, Michigan and Manitowoc, Wisconsin.  The ship has been granted a reprieve from standard environmental laws that allows it to burn coal and dump its coal ash in the lake as it goes along.  That’s “only” 4 tons per trip, or 509 tons annually, and just like the good old days, the ash is laced with arsenic, lead, mercury, and other heavy metals.  If you’ve been feeling far too removed from pollution, and would like to recall the US before environmental regulations stifled small businesses like this one, the S.S. Badger is the ship to take.

It seems that four years ago, the ship’s owners promised EPA to upgrade their ship’s propulsion system to diesel.  The ship already had an exemption to state air quality standards to allow its black exhaust in the air, and the owners had previously rejected an offer for state funding to convert to diesel in 2001, claiming that they wanted to operate “without governmental assistance”.  But the EPA deadline is quickly approaching, with no update in sight.  Now that they didn’t get $14 million in stimulus funding to make the same upgrade, they’ve shifted to subverting EPA’s enforcement; they’ve spent $290,000 on federal lobbyists since 2008, according to records compiled by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.

Though the latest round of supplications to EPA insists that they’ll store the ash onboard by 2017 and convert to liquified natural gas in the more distant future, the owners are really trying to register the S.S. Badger as a National Historic Landmark out of EPA’s reach.  The application says that the ship’s “historical propulsion system” is “under threat” by the EPA.  It does not mention that this one ship’s 509 tons of ash far exceed the 89 tons of coal, limestone, and iron waste that all other Great Lakes freighters discharge to the lake annually.  Combined.

Political support for the “historical” ship is mixed, with just enough power in the opposition (notably, Sen. Dick Durbin, the assistant Senate majority leader) to keep the ferry from being written into loopholes of budgets for federal agencies.  To me, this is an example of a company trying to act above the law.  Its responses to EPA are disingenuous and incompatible with the National Historic Landmark application.  Is anyone out there nostalgic for the days when our cities were covered in dark soot clouds from coal-fired industry without any environmental regulation?  I find the argument for preservation of a historic coal boiler specious — this is about being cheap and staying above the law, plain and simple.  I hope EPA throws the book at them.

drugs in drinking water

One of those news items that tends to freak out the general public is the idea of pharmaceuticals and personal care products (e.g., shampoo) in our water supplies.  There’s birth control in the water!  There’s ibuprofen in the water!  There’s Prozac in the water!  Time to panic, indeed.  What the news media doesn’t report (and, I suspect, doesn’t understand) is that the concentrations we’re talking about here are low.  Reeeeaaallly low.  Let’s think about a generic liter of water (a liter is a little more than a quart, for the metrically challenged out there).  A generic liter of water weighs about 1 kg / 1000 g / 2.2 lbs.  In the environment, it could easily have 100 mg (0.1 g) of calcium carbonate dissolved in it.  Calcium and carbonate are considered major ions in drinking water.  More minor ions include chloride (about 9 mg per liter in my drinking water supply (0.009 g)) and fluoride, added for dental health (about 0.8 mg per liter – 0.0008 g).  The drinking water standard for lead, which is a known toxin, is 15 micrograms (ug) per liter (= 0.015 mg = 0.000015 g).

The levels of pharmaceuticals that are being detected in water sources are on the order of nanograms per liter.  That’s right, a one-thousandth of a microgram, a one-millionth of a milligram, a one-billionth of a gram, a one-trillionth of a kilogram.  Since that liter of water weighs a kilogram, we talk about ng per liter as “parts per trillion”.  Frankly it’s a modern miracle that we can even measure stuff at these trace levels, and the advances in aqueous analytical chemistry are the only reason we know that some of these compounds are out there in the environment.  (Side note: in true chemistry, there is no such thing as a concentration of “zero”.  Instead, concentrations are not detectable by current technology.)

Don’t let the small concentrations fool you — these compounds are able to do damage at these uber-trace levels…but so far we’ve only seen evidence of damage to fish and amphibians.  When you think about our lifestyles compared to those of fish and amphibians, it kind of makes sense — we’re not the ones constantly bathing in the water in question.  We spend an awful lot of time exposed to air rather than water.  So take a deep breath (no pharmaceuticals in the air, knock on wood) and keep drinking tap water.

This gets tricky when it comes to regulations.  EPA is charged with protection of “navigable waters” under the Clean Water Act, and generally has developed standards for tap water and treated wastewater that protect human health and, to a lesser extent, the environment.  The Clean Water Act itself was born from environmental disasters like the Cuyahoga river catching fire and giant foam piles in rivers and lakes, but most of today’s regulations are about people, a subject most of us can agree upon.  I think it would be a striking development for EPA to begin regulation of trace levels of pharmaceuticals for the protection of aquatic life — there are plenty of non-environmentalists who couldn’t care less about some transgender frogs but sure do care a lot about their water and wastewater bills.

The main solution to these trace contaminants is additional wastewater treatment, whether at a treatment plant or in a septic system, since these point sources are the largest entry point for these compounds into the water supply.  Drugs are designed to deliver the target dose into the body, assuming some fraction of the active ingredient will not be absorbed by the body and will pass through to wastewater.  I don’t think we would ever decide to take lower doses of drugs to protect the environment (again, your cancer or a transgender frog?  I’d probably vote for your cancer, too).  In an odd development, I appear to be advocating for UV treatment of wastewater, once again.  (I did not see that coming, for the record.)

So what’s the conclusion?  Trace levels of pharmaceuticals are out there, but they aren’t high enough to affect human health.  They are high enough to affect fish and amphibians, and it will be interesting to see if EPA develops wastewater discharge limits to protect aquatic life from these compounds.