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Highlights from the Week's News

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How Taking a Walk Can Clean Water

April 14, 2024

EPA Takes First Step to Regulate “Forever Chemicals” in Water

Last week, for the first time ever, the EPA finalized rules requiring the removal of certain PFAS chemicals from drinking water. PFAS chemicals have been used since the 1940s to make, among many items, non-stick cookware, firefighting foams, waterproof clothing and fabric. PFAS compounds can get into food from biosolid fertilizers produced by water treatment facilities that are used on agricultural lands.

Sign warning about PFAS contamination in a Michigan river  | Credit: MountainFae/Creative Commons

The compounds are linked to human health issues such as liver disease, cancers, and development damage to infants and children including low birth weights. PFAS have spread into air, water, and soils, where they persist and don’t break down hence their nickname, “forever chemicals.”  

To remove PFAS, water utilities will collectively have to spend $1.5 billion per year, which the EPA estimates will prevent about 10,000 deaths over decades and reduce illness. Water utilities say the new rules will lead to increased rates for consumers.  

However, the Biden administration’s effort does not prevent PFAS pollution by industry or force it to pay for cleanup. According to recent research, PFAS manufacturers knew by 1970 that the chemicals were toxic when inhaled or ingested, 40 years before the public health community was aware. But the manufacturers downplayed the evidence. In addition, as the Guardian reports, the new rules address only six compounds of about 15,000 that exist and are vastly unregulated or studied. The PFAS industry has settled some lawsuits by agreeing to pay up to $15 billion to upgrade municipal systems.

"Archaic Plumbing" Adds to Colorado River Problems

The Colorado River Basin faces yet another challenge, compounding problems caused by aridification and drought. The plumbing at Glen Canyon Dam, which creates Lake Powell, the second largest reservoir on the Colorado River, may be too old and unreliable to allow any flow should water levels drop below a certain point. The result could threaten delivery of water to people and large agricultural operations.

Glen Canyon Dam  | Credit: Adbar/Creative Commons

There are two sets of outlets on the dam. The higher ones are used to generate electricity, which is the usual way the river passes through, but there may not be enough water to operate them, if dryness continues to decrease reservoir levels. The only way water could then flow through the dam is through lower outlets which were designed in the 1950s for temporary use during construction. However, those tubes were damaged during a recent experiment that released water to restore eroded beaches in the Grand Canyon. Consequently, the tubes may be incapable of meeting water demands.

A recent memo from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said that “…there are concerns with relying on the river outlet works as the sole means of sustained water releases from Glen Canyon Dam.” Zach Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council told 8NewsNow that the archaic plumbing inside the Glen Canyon Dam is the most urgent water problem facing the 40 million people of the Colorado River Basin.

The Arizona Daily Star reported that Brenda Burman of the Central Arizona Project, said the Bureau of Reclamation found thinning in the dam’s pipes, cavitation, and sedimentation problems at the tubes’ lower end where water is released. Cavitation produces shock waves that are powerful enough to damage steel.

There are possible solutions to re-engineer the outlets, but they would be costly. Calls to decommission and remove the dam will likely find renewed support.

Environmental Crisis Averted in Baltimore Bridge Collapse...So Far

On March 26, the operators of a cargo ship, the Dali, issued a mayday call saying the vessel had lost power as it was leaving the Port of Baltimore. The massive ship struck the Francis Scott Key Bridge, causing it to collapse and plunge six construction workers filling potholes into the Patapsco River. Three of the men—all of whom were from Central America and Mexico—remain missing.

A responder works onboard the Dali during salvage and wreckage removal operations for the Key Bridge Response in Baltimore, Maryland, April 10, 2024. |  Credit: Key Bridge Response 2024 Unified Command photo by Coast Guard Petty Officer First Class Lauren Steenson

The Dali was carrying more than one million gallons of fuel and 4,679 shipping containers, 56 of which were filled with hazardous materials. Fourteen of those containers carrying soaps and perfumes were breached during the crash but have been recovered, according to the Unified Command overseeing the cleanup, which includes the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, among others.

Records obtained by the Baltimore Sun show no evidence of fuel or hazardous materials leaching into the river from the ship, but there are concerns that lifting its bow stuck in the mud could kick up toxic sediment from Baltimore’s industrial past. Bill Dennison, of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, told the Sun, “It could have been a lot worse” for the environment, but fortunately most of the area’s wildlife don’t live near where the Dali accident occurred.

Currently, efforts are focused on removing containers from the ship to reduce its weight and allow access to the parts of the Key Bridge still resting atop the vessel.

An interesting side note—one of the cranes helping with the cleanup was built to recover a sunken Soviet submarine. More than 50 years ago, the “Chesapeake 1000” played a vital role in a secret CIA mission code-named Project Azorian. Get the full story at the Washington Post.

A Ten Minute Walk Can Deliver Clean Water

When disaster strikes, one immediate need is for safe drinking water, which could be challenging to access without power or with damage to infrastructure. But according to new research, a ten-minute walk could save the day.

The walking-electrification-induced electroporated disinfection (WEED) method for the in situ inactivation of bacteria and viruses in a portable water bottle. |  Credit: Sang-Woo Kim/Yonsei University in South Korea

Researchers from China and South Korea have developed a bottle that can disinfect water using static electricity generated by a person taking a stroll. As New Scientist explains, the team took a reusable 500-milliliter water bottle and put an electrode on the inside and a small piece of aluminum on the outside. When a person grips the aluminum on the bottle and starts walking, electrostatic charges from the friction between their shoes and the ground flow along a copper wire to the electrode to create electric fields, which in their test, were strong enough to kill or inactivate over 99.9999 percent of bacteria and viruses in river water within ten minutes—and faster if the walker picked up their pace.

In their so-called “walking-electrification-induced electroporated disinfection or ‘WEED’” method they found the type of footwear affected the amount of electrostatic charge collected, with rubber-soled shoes having significantly higher electrical output than shoes made from leather. Although humid conditions reduced the disinfection levels, the authors say that with an estimated cost of $2 per bottle, the method could be a “handy” way to provide fresh water in disaster-stricken or rural areas.