October 2011, Vol. 23, No.10

A wastewater intervention

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There has been growing concern about the presence of microconstituents such as pharmaceuticals in wastewater and their possible impact on the aquatic environment and public health. But some scientists say these trace amounts of pharmaceuticals can serve a useful purpose, by providing better insight into the extent of illicit drug use in a region, and educating the public about the wastewater treatment process and whether these microconstituents really pose a threat.

In June, scientists at the Norwegian Institute for Water Research (Oslo, Norway), released some of the findings of their DrugMon project in the Environmental Science & Technology Journal. The scientists used a biomarker-based tool, effluent monitoring, modeling, and epidemiology to establish the level of drug use in several Norwegian communities. The scientists tracked cannabis; cocaine; amphetamine; benzodiazepines; other drugs, both illicit and legal; and their metabolites in effluent from two wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) in Oslo for a year, using analytical techniques such as liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry.

“We chose to use the metabolites of the drugs where possible since these help us tell whether the drug has been used or not,” explained Kevin V. Thomas, research manager of ecotoxicology and risk at the Norwegian Institute for Water Research and leader of the DrugMon project.

 The team measured when drug usage was at its peak. “For example, we have looked at whether we can see the effects of specific events such as festivals,” Thomas said.

The team discovered that cocaine use peaked in the summer months and during the festive periods of December and January. Amphetamine use varied throughout the year. The use of the party drug ecstasy peaked during May, “correlating to the high school celebration period,” Thomas said. The allergy medicine cetirizine experienced a broad peak in usage during summer months.

Thomas said the DrugMon project and studies like it have an important objective.

“Estimating the scale of community drug use is important in assessing the needs for law enforcement, public health, and education,” Thomas said. “The accurate estimation of drug use patterns in society is currently reliant on questionnaire-based data collection together with statistics from hospital admissions and the records from police seizures, and we — and others — hope to develop wastewater analysis to the stage where it can be used as a complementary approach to those that currently exist.”

Drawing a more accurate picture

Caleb Banta-Green, a research scientist at the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute at the University of Washington (Seattle), conducted a similar study to the DrugMon project in Oregon in 2008. His team now is building upon these findings and gathering more data.

Banta-Green and the other scientists analyzed effluent samples from 96 municipal WWTPs in Oregon during a 24-hour period. The plants represented 65% of the state’s population. The team tested the effluent for evidence of methamphetamine, cocaine, and ecstasy.

Banta-Green said they chose to track drugs that were “important from a public health perspective and what we thought we would be able to extract or detect.”

Although the team would have been interested in also tracking other drugs such as heroin, “heroin is a drug that breaks down very quickly so it’s almost impossible to detect,” he said.

Banta-Green said the drug use patterns that the team recorded in 2008 followed his hypothesis closely. “Meth was seen throughout the state,” he said. “Cocaine was in about 80% of most cities. Ecstasy was found in cities with bigger populations and towns with college populations.”

The team is now trying to determine how to produce a reliable annual estimate of drug use in a region based on effluent sampling so that other researchers can conduct similar regional studies. In 2009, the team did its first experiment with 20 cities (10 in Washington state and 10 in Oregon) where they sampled effluent once a week. The team occasionally varied the days of the week the samples were taken to see which days produced relatively similar results. “We were also trying to determine if you sample half as much, say once every 2 weeks, how it would affect the confidence you can have in the results,” Banta-Green said. They are still analyzing these results to determine what margin of error sampling less often produces.

Banta-Green said the major benefit of analyzing wastewater samples instead of the traditional method of conducting drug use surveys and looking at in-patient and arrest records is that you can more easily access populations in much smaller cities.

The previous focus for this research had been on larger cities because the belief was that drug use was a big city problem, but there has started to be a shift, Banta-Green explained. Cocaine is still more prominent in big cities, but methamphetamine is more common in smaller cities. Effluent samples help to better document this phenomenon.

But the methodology also has its limitations. “You don’t know the subtlety of the pattern of drug use,” Banta-Green said. He said researchers do not know who in a region is using drugs and how much they are using, but this type of data gathering is still a good starting point.

It lets communities know which areas require more focus from a public health and law enforcement perspective, Banta-Green said.

Educating the public

While some scientists are conducting studies to educate the public about drug use, others are hoping to educate them about microconstituents, wastewater, and the wastewater treatment process.

“There has been some sensationalizing in the coverage of these topics in the news,” said Lisa M. Colosi, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Virginia (Charlottesville).

To combat this, Colosi and one of her graduate students spent 2 years creating the online module VPharmCalc. Module users type in their home addresses and are told which WWTP in Virginia is the closest. They then are given estimates of the concentrations of many over-the-counter and prescription drugs in that WWTP’s effluent.

These concentrations are based on mass balance estimates, not actual measured concentrations, Colosi said. They are based on estimates of how much of a particular drug is consumed nationally, how the drug is metabolized, and how much makes it into the effluent.

The researchers included 200 brand name drugs and 200 generic drugs in their list. “Because many of these generic and brand name drugs have the same active ingredient, they were grouped together,” Colosi said.

The drugs that continually rank the highest in the VPharmCalc module are metformin, for the treatment of diabetes; amoxicillin, cephalexin, and azithromycin — antibiotics used to treat certain bacterial infections; and gabapentin, a drug used to help control seizures in patients that have epilepsy.

Colosi said even though they are trying to provide a relatively accurate snapshot of drug concentrations in effluent and the precise location of where the wastewater from each address is treated, the VPharmCalc module has some limitations. For instance, many rural areas pump to smaller WWTPs, but these plants did not provide information about their inflow to the University of Virginia researchers. So, these rural areas had to be grouped in with larger wastewater treatment plants in proximity, possibly producing inaccurate results. Also, in urban areas with complex collection systems, the team had to make approximations of where the wastewater from a given address was treated based on limited data they received from the WWTPs.

Visitors to the website also can learn about the wastewater treatment process and whether drug concentrations have an impact on public health. “But we were limited in how much we could explain on one site,” Colosi said. “Basic environmental literacy is key.”

LaShell Stratton-Childers , WE&T



Improving water quality in the Mississippi River basin

U.S. EPA is giving more attention to Mississippi basin states, but nutrient criteria are not expected in the near future

On July 29, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rejected a petition from environmental groups requesting that the agency regulate nutrients to curb the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Two days later, scientists announced that this year’s zone of low oxygen water spread over 17,520 km2, above average but not record-sized. The news comes as states in the Mississippi River basin ponder whether EPA may be forced to step in and set nutrient targets as it has in Florida. But for now, the agency is continuing to work cooperatively with the states while occasionally reminding them that it can wield Clean Water Act (CWA) authority to force action, experts say.

Although nutrients also harm upstream water, the low-oxygen waters that develop every summer at the mouth of the Mississippi River off the Louisiana coast are the ultimate symptom of nutrient overenrichment in the river’s 31-state basin.

Most of the nutrients that drive the dead zone come not from Louisiana, but from upstream states such as Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana, said Walt Dodds, an aquatic ecologist at Kansas State University (Manhattan). Agriculture accounts for more than 70% of the nitrogen and phosphorus delivered to the Gulf of Mexico, while urban sources, including wastewater treatment plants, deliver only 9% to 12% of the nutrients, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

EPA notified states in 1998 that if they did not adopt numeric criteria for nutrients by 2003, the agency could enact its own standards. But among the 31 states in the Mississippi River basin, none has statewide numeric criteria for nitrogen, and only Minnesota and Wisconsin have statewide numeric criteria for phosphorus, according to EPA. Nine states have site-specific numeric criteria for select waterbodies. “Nutrient criteria and TMDLs [total maximum daily loads] are key to compel states to start working together on a mix of voluntary and mandatory measures to cut nutrients,” said Mark Gorman, a policy analyst with the Northeast-Midwest Institute (Washington, D.C.), a nonpartisan think tank.


A need for coordination and leadership?

The EPA-chaired Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force was put in place in 1997 to enhance coordination and action among the states, but “the 10 states on the main stem of the river aren’t coordinating, in part because some of the states don’t even consider the Mississippi River to be within their purview,” said Dave Dzombak, an environmental engineer at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh). Their scarce financial and staff resources are spent mostly on the rivers and lakes within the interior of their state, and no one is pressing them to pay attention to the Mississippi River, he said.

The National Research Council has written a series of reports pointing out that there is a need for federal leadership in looking at water quality across the entire Mississippi River basin and in the northern Gulf of Mexico, Dzombak said. “The reports recommend that EPA step up and establish a mechanism for facilitating states to meet and share information about monitoring and regulatory approaches,” he said. The reports say that there are a number of CWA authorities that are not being used by EPA, such as the responsibility to bring states together to discuss the consistency of their water quality criteria and the extent to which they protect waters in downstream states.

These recommendations are relevant to the environmentalists’ petition, which called for numeric standards for nutrients and a TMDL for the Mississippi River — a calculation of the amount of nutrients the waterbody can absorb and still remain healthy.

However, in its response to the petition, EPA reiterated the message it sent out in a March 16 memo to all EPA regional administrators titled Recommended Elements of a State Framework for Managing Nitrogen and Phosphorus Pollution. “The opening premise is that EPA is reaffirming its historic approach of working in partnership with the states, while in effect, holding in its back pocket the ability to push the issue if it doesn’t see adequate progress in setting numeric nutrient criteria,” Gorman said.

EPA is placing new emphasis on working with states to achieve near-term reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus loadings, said an EPA spokesperson. “The EPA recognizes that states are generally in a better position to address local issues regarding nutrient reductions, manage their jurisdictional waters, and to work with their constituencies and stakeholders,” she added. This flexible approach may be exemplified by Iowa’s take on nutrient criteria.


Iowa gives nutrient criteria a try

“Using EPA’s recommended method for calculating nutrient standards can produce solid, scientifically defensible numbers that may be troubling to resource managers in agricultural states when they realize nearly all their waters are impaired and will require a massive budget for remediation,” said John Downing, a limnologist at Iowa State University (Ames). However, the state of Iowa has used another approach by linking water quality to recreational assets to which citizens attribute great value.

In 2007, a panel of scientists, convened by EPA Region 7, released a report recommending nutrient benchmarks for lakes in four Midwestern states, including Iowa. The benchmarks, 700 µg/L for total nitrogen, 35 µg/L for total phosphorus, and 8.0 µg/L for chlorophyll-a, were not acceptable to some Iowa state agency staff because they would cost so much to attain, Downing said.

At the same time, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR; Des Moines) recently had completed a process to classify state lakes for restoration, explained Joe Larscheid, chief of fisheries at DNR. Sponsored by EPA, the program brought in Iowa State University experts to integrate data on water quality and its economic value. Scientists assigned a water quality score to 132 Iowa lakes based on nutrient levels, total suspended solids, and depth of clarity as gauged by a Secchi disk, a device that indicates lake water quality. The scores divided the lakes into those with poor or good water quality.

A panel of outside experts convened by DNR found that the breakpoint between good and bad water quality was a Secchi depth reading of 1.5 m, but agency staff downgraded it to 1 m, Downing said. “The adoption of the 1-m Secchi disk number may be a substantial degradation of the quality level suggested by DNR’s own blue-ribbon panel,” he said. But it will be easier to attain than a clarity goal of 1.5 m.

Researchers then surveyed 8000 Iowa households to determine which lakes they visited and how often, said Joe Herriges, an economist at Iowa State University (Ames). The value placed on water quality was measured by the distance that people were willing to drive to get to a lake with good water quality, Herriges said. The researchers also asked people to rate the water quality of the lakes they visited on a scale of 1 to 10. Residents with no training in science gave lakes similar ratings as the scientists had, Herriges said. His economic model also showed they were willing to pay a lot for good water quality.

Impressed that Iowa lakes generate more than $1.6 billion of spending annually, the Iowa Legislature responded with more than $8.6 million for lake restoration. And the scientific analysis fed into the DNR effort to address nutrients in Iowa’s lakes, said Lori McDaniel, supervisor for DNR’s water quality standards program. “Our rule is a Secchi depth reading not less than 1.0 m 75% of the time it is measured and chlorophyll-a not exceeding 25 ppb 75% of the time,” she said. If a lake doesn’t meet these criteria, then the state can evaluate the lake to see if it is nitrogen or phosphorus or something else that is causing the lake to exceed the standards.

If the rule is approved, it could be implemented by November, McDaniel said. While Iowa’s criteria don’t set numeric limits for nitrogen and phosphorus, they do provide a numeric measure of clarity that protects the health of the state’s lakes, she said. “I think that EPA’s bottom line is to establish numeric goals for nutrients at some point in time, while recognizing there are different ways to accomplish the same thing,” McDaniel said.

Meanwhile, a new USGS study shows that nitrate transport to the Gulf of Mexico has increased 9% in the last 30 years, despite efforts to rein in the nutrient.

Janet Pelley , WE&T


Shareholders make their mark on water issues

Through shareholder resolutions, investors advocate more corporate responsibility in hydraulic fracturing, coal ash disposal, and water scarcity issues

Shareholders have shown increasing interest in corporate responsibility, believing that the social and environmental actions of the companies in which they invest affect the bottom line. These shareholders typically make their convictions known during proxy season, when many file resolutions urging companies to engage in more responsible behavior or disclose more information. This year, investors filed resolutions on many water- and industrial wastewater-related issues, such as natural gas hydraulic fracturing, coal ash disposal, water usage, and environmental sustainability.

“We’ve seen a significant year-to-year increase in the number of resolutions [of this nature],” said Brooke Barton, senior manager of Corporate and Water Programs at Ceres (Boston).

Ceres, a nonprofit organization that leads a national coalition of investors, environmental organizations, and other public interest groups, has been tracking these types of shareholder resolutions for the past 8 years. In 2004, Ceres recorded 22 environmental resolutions. By the 2011 proxy season, investors had filed 109 resolutions.

“What’s happened in the last decade is an explosion of support of these topics within the social and environmental space,” said Heidi Welsh, executive director of the Sustainable Investments Institute (Boonsboro, Md.). “If you look at support among mainstream investors, it has significantly increased.”

Barton agreed that support for these measures crosses the investor spectrum.

“It’s a range of fiduciaries, including state pension funds and even state treasurers. These are people who are managing money for the long term, for people’s retirement, and therefore understand that increasingly, many environmental risks play out in the value of a company’s performance over the long term and that they need to manage their holdings to reflect these long-term risks,” Barton said. “Also, they are, by and large, what you would call universal owners. They own a stake in almost every corner of the global equity market, so the impacts of one sector, in terms of creating environmentally negative externalities, will have an impact on the profitability, performance, and costs of other industries and sectors that rely on shared resources.”

These environmental externalities include water quality issues, climate change, and carbon emissions, Barton said, and they all have an effect on the economy.


Fracking — a major issue

A big topic of interest this year for shareholders has been hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, the process by which fluid and propping materials are pumped into the ground to create fractures that allow more natural gas to flow through rock for natural gas drillers. There has been much controversy about what to do with the wastewater that results from hydraulic fracturing: Treat it at municipal wastewater treatment plants, treat it at industrial wastewater plants, deep-well inject it, or recycle it onsite.

Investors are concerned about “fracturing practices and the potential associated water and air pollution,” Barton explained. They also are worried that the natural gas drilling industry has not been transparent enough about the risks it faces because of fracking, she said. These risks include a regulatory environment that could become stricter over time. The industry may not be prepared for more rigorous regulations. Another risk is that companies that are not operating responsibly and transparently with good environmental practices eventually could lose their license to operate in some parts of the country, she said.

“We are already seeing big political battles in New York state about drilling in the Marcellus Shale,” Barton said. “More globally, entire countries like France are deciding that shale gas fracturing is too risky to permit at this time. So there is an interest and concern [by investors] that shale gas drillers should raise the level of transparency and raise the level of environmental practices to make sure they have long-term licenses to operate.”

Welsh said there were 10 resolutions filed during the 2011 proxy season related to hydraulic fracturing. Of those, five were voted on by the shareholders and five were withdrawn after shareholders and their respective companies were able to reach an agreement, she said. The average vote in favor of these resolutions was 41%.

“That’s really high for shareholder resolutions,” Welsh said. “In the old days, it was a big deal for a resolution to get 10% of shareholders’ support.”

Green Century Capital Management Inc. (Boston), which manages two mutual funds for investors, has filed resolutions on hydraulic fracturing in the past.

“Green Century first worked on hydraulic fracturing in mid-2009 with the Investor Environmental Health Network after we began to see media stories raising concern about the issue,” said Larisa Ruoff, director of shareholder advocacy. The investment adviser started proposing shareholder resolutions on the issue for vote in spring 2010.

The New York State Comptroller’s office, which is the trustee of the $140.6 billion New York State Common Retirement Fund, also filed resolutions during the 2011 proxy season with Carrizo Oil and Gas Inc. (Houston) and Cabot Oil and Gas Corp. (Houston) on fracking.

“Hydraulic fracturing can potentially poison local water supplies, pollute the air, and leave us with a waste management nightmare,” said Thomas P. DiNapoli, New York State comptroller, according to a Ceres press release. “Shareholders and the public need to be assured that companies fully appreciate the regulatory, legal, environmental, and reputational risks at stake. Natural gas is a crucial part of the nation’s energy supply, but it has to be extracted the right way.”

The Carrizo Oil and Gas resolution received 43.7% of shareholders’ votes. The Cabot Oil and Gas resolution was withdrawn in response to the company’s agreement to provide better disclosure on the potential consequences of fracking.


On the horizon

Another major emerging topic that seems to be on the minds of shareholders is coal combustion waste/coal ash disposal, which includes both wet and dry storage. The issue can be very controversial. For instance, Maryland announced in January that it would sue Mirant Mid-Atlantic LLC (Dickerson, Md.) for groundwater and surface water contamination by fly ash produced at the company’s coal-run electric plants. The state believes this ash, which was buried in landfills in Montgomery and Charles counties in Maryland, led to higher levels of selenium and chloride in test wells.

“Coal combustion waste is a particularly big concern [for investors] because of the possibility that the coal waste will be reclassified as hazardous material, and that could have a huge economic impact on related companies,” Welsh said.

But Welsh noted that support for some topics such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions definitely has decreased during the 2011 proxy season. “This may be due to the demise of the climate change bill,” Welsh said. Investors may be less concerned about the eventual passage of the carbon tax, he said.

As more shareholders file environmentally conscious resolutions, the pressure is put upon companies to take the initiative and act more environmentally responsible and more transparent.

With more resolutions, “I think it is likely in some cases that [topics such as water scarcity] will be discussed more in [Security Exchange Commission] filings where they see material risks because that’s where this type of information should go,” Barton said. “But we also see increased voluntary reporting through sustainability reports, annual reports, and other kinds of communication mechanisms.”

LaShell Stratton–Childers , WE&T

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