With Charleston, West Virginia's water system catastrophe still fresh in our memories, another Rust Belt city, Flint, Michigan, finds itself in an even more unpleasant predicament. While Charleston's troubles seemed to have passed with little permanent damage or health consequences, Flint seems to be cursed by high lead levels that may remain for some time. More alarmingly, the health impacts on some children may be serious and long lasting. Neither disaster should occur in America in 2016 and, like so many other man-made environmental calamities, both were avoidable. It should cause us to take pause and appreciate the exceptional water quality we enjoy and the well-run water systems that bring it to us here in Blair County.
The Flint story is complicated. Having lost nearly 100,000 people the last half century, Flint is one of many Michigan cities that crashed after the American automotive industry faded in the seventies. Now about half the size it was in 1960, Flint has found itself in the midst of financial and social collapse. While still flush with money and people in 1964, they planned to build a pipeline to bring water from Lake Huron. But financial troubles forced them to buy water from the City of Detroit. Prompted by Flint's financial collapse, but also dissatisfied with the City of Detroit, Flint explored other options in recent years.
When they decided to buy water from a regional water company, they had to find another source of water until the new supplier could finish the pipeline. Their only other choice seemed to be extraction from the Flint River. The quality of the river water had always been a concern, but desperate times called for desperate measures. Flint began drawing water from the river in spring of 2014, still waiting for their new pipeline to be completed.
The Flint River water was high in iron and very corrosive. Flint's distribution system had many lead pipes and the corrosive nature of the water dissolved the lead, a potent neurotoxin. This might have gone unnoticed but a local pediatrician detected high lead levels in the blood tests of children suffering from a variety of inexplicable health problems. Both the Charleston and Flint tales testify to the risks that arise anytime a community draws water from a river that has passed by larger industrial cities, their sewage treatment facilities and the farmland that surrounds them.
Blair and many counties in similar geographic circumstances usually draw their water from tree-covered headwaters that generally generate high quality water, even before it undergoes any treatment. Reservoirs from Hollidaysburg to Tyrone are served by creeks and streams that originate on the forested Allegheny Front or Brush Mountain. Besides this accident of geography, Altoona Water Authority's watershed protection coordinator Tobias Nagle, explains that Blair County water systems have been proactive in avoiding problems like Flint's. Besides daily lab testing, the authority has had a corrosion control and prevention program in place for decades. Particularly when difficulties arise like those in Flint and Charleston, we should be reminded of the importance of both watershed protection and the preventive programs that help us to avoid serious water quality problems.
The water we drink was once a much simpler thing. A hundred years ago, the greatest danger to water supplies out in the country came from a misplaced outhouse or a few cows and horses. When farms were half a mile apart, natural filtration could solve a great many problems. By contrast in 2015, it's impossible for these natural filtering processes to work when people, homes and businesses are spread about this countryside.
Often, the water bubbling out of the springs of the region enjoyed that same natural filtration. But Ryan Brown's recent feature on roadside springs (Altoona Mirror, August 9, 2015) explained that those seemingly pristine waters usually are not. Interestingly, we have known about the problems with these springs for more than thirty years. Penn State Altoona Biology instructor John Lennox and Geography instructor Garry Burkle tested springs at the edge of Cambria County and all across Blair County in the late seventies. The now-retired professors found high levels of bacterial contamination and warned people of the potential health affects in their joint study.
Brown's feature article reinforced the earlier study and called attention to the ongoing struggles with groundwater contamination. It also testifies to the public's misunderstanding of the causes of contamination and the belief that water that appears clean cannot possibly be bad for you. All across Pennsylvania, places that were sparsely populated rural areas in 1900 are much different today. Scattered wells and remote springs are not so isolated anymore. Beyond the "natural" pollutants that come from animals, bacterial pollution is added to both ground and surface water by septic systems and agricultural activities.
A newer family of pollutants (that are more persistent) has become a greater problem in recent decades. These include toxic weed controls, insecticides, solvents and other similar petroleum-based chemicals, automotive fluids that run-off roads, parking lots and driveways, illegally dumped trash and even nitrate fertilizers. These chemicals are not living organisms, so chlorination or ultraviolet lights do nothing to remove them from water.
So even if the bacterial or parasitic pollution proves to be minimal, these toxic chemicals last much longer before degrading into less harmful substances. While bacterial testing is common, toxic chemical testing for homeowners and businesses is rare because of its high cost. The infrequent monitoring for these toxic chemicals is even more reason to prevent (rather than try to clean-up) this sort of pollution.
Pennsylvania registers new wells drilled throughout the state but still has no comprehensive wellhead protection laws and does little groundwater monitoring. The responsibility of monitoring private wells falls entirely upon the owner of the well. The lack of groundwater protection laws has also resulted in inconsistencies in well drilling record keeping. Several state agencies have tried to gather and compile well depths and locations over the last fifty years but a lack of staff and funding has made that difficult to do. Though the record keeping has been spotty, a listing of wells is now maintained by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. If a well was registered by the well driller, you can look up the details here.
Groundwater still faces many threats, making it even more important that we understand how we can help protect it.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. While that old axiom holds true for many things, it is especially applicable to storm water management. The loss of life and the staggering property damage caused by flooding in America is not something that we can blame entirely on Mother Nature. We now understand it has been our own shortsightedness at the root of floods, both the massive, infrequent ones and the nagging and more common floods.
We have built upon floodplains, removed the vegetation buffers next to our waterways and covered over the land above our creeks and rivers. The water cannot soak naturally into the soil and runs off faster, with greater force. The still-shortsighted among us see little wrong with the continuation of such folly. Most, however, now recognize that storm water management and floodplain development restrictions make sense. The money you spend and the changes you make upstream are much more cost effective than multi-million dollar flood control projects we build downstream. And like other environmental solutions, a host of smaller efforts can collectively make a big difference.
Modest sized infiltration swales and ponds next to parking lots, roadways, businesses and residential developments may seem insignificant when taken by themselves. Hundreds of smaller rain gardens in a local watershed seem even less likely to be effective. Yet they can be surprisingly effective when combined together. It is with that in mind that the Blair County Conservation District continues their educational outreach on the topic. Conservation District organizer Beth Futrick thinks it is a timely topic and hopes the good work done by local governments will continue and be enhanced. "Our local government staffs are sincerely interested in working together and exploring new ways to control storm water," Futrick explained.
Traditional large-scale storm water management, though usually effective, has not always been particularly attractive. The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, a non-profit that has worked hard to preserve the scenic treasures of Western Pennsylvania, will present ideas and approaches that will be effective and more aesthetically pleasing. In the past, much storm water control was done with "gray infrastructure," focusing on pipes and channels and structures made of concrete. (Johnstown's flood control walls are a typical example.) While gray infrastructure may be the only solution in some settings because of space constraints or other geographic factors, "green infrastructure" is much closer to the way nature slows urban runoff. Though all storm water infrastructure has to be maintained, green infrastructure tends to be less expensive to maintain when compared to piping systems, concrete structures and massive retention ponds.
Futrick is excited to have the opportunity to share some success stories and dispel the notion that sound storm water management is expensive, difficult or ugly. Futrick believes that "installing green infrastructure, such as a rain garden, is a community-friendly and effective" way to handle rainwater before it becomes flood water.
In a place nicknamed “Chemical Valley”, environmental accidents have become far too common. The chemical spill in Charleston, West Virginia is the third notable chemical accident in that region in the last five years. Nearly 8,000 gallons of the coal cleaning chemical MCHM (4-methylcyclohexane methanol) leaked into the Elk River last week, contaminating the water supply of 300,000 people in and around the West Virginia capital.
Eight thousand gallons is no small spill and is not easily diluted. The accident affected more than a quarter million people – about the same number of people that live in Blair, Cambria and Bedford counties combined. The magnitude of the disaster has prompted the public to ask how this could possibly happen. There seems to be plenty of blame to spread around.
MCHM is not classified as a toxic chemical. As a coal cleaning chemical, it is more like a detergent than an extremely toxic or carcinogenic solvent. That means that it is not as stringently regulated as other more toxic industrial chemicals. While not classified as a “hazardous” chemical, MCHM is clearly still a water pollutant and many environmental protection professionals contend that it should have been regulated as one. Unfortunately, many industrial chemicals have been innocent until proven guilty.
The facility itself went more than twenty years without a full-fledged inspection by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Part of the reason for that is that the chemicals are merely being “stored’ rather than being manufactured or transported. And speaking of the storage, many news reports have noted that it wasn’t done very well. The tanks themselves appeared to be old and poorly maintained. The secondary containment (that is supposed to stop leaks from the tank escaping into the environment) did not work either. This allowed thousands of gallons of the chemical to flow directly into the river from which Charleston draws its water.
It may defy logic and common sense, but the facility sets in the floodplain of the Elk River and is just a short distance from a major intake of the metropolitan Charleston water supply. Owner Freedom Industries may have also been slow in notifying local officials and American Water that the spill had occurred. Therefore, water was taken into the system before officials even knew it was there. Once in the system, it was impossible to get it out.
Most Blair County water supplies originate from the headwaters of our region’s river systems and our watersheds are incredibly well managed. It would seem that West Virginia state and local officials have ignored watershed protection efforts that have become routine in Blair County.
Following an accident that killed two workers at the nearby Bayer CropScience plant in 2008, the United States Chemical Safety Board recommended that a local program be developed to prevent accidents like this one. The West Virginia Gazette reported that the state ignored the recommendation and that county would not fund the program. Evidently fearing that more regulation would be costly to industry, nothing was done. The ultimate costs of this accident to the people of Kanawha County will be many times the cost of a prevention program.
The catastrophic Johnstown Flood of 1889 was 125 years ago last weekend and the anniversary should cause us to take pause. For the greatest disaster to hit Pennsylvania in recorded history was not a natural disaster at all but an avoidable accident caused by greed and carelessness. While the storm that led to the disaster was a notable one, it by itself, would have never caused even a tiny fraction of the damage and carnage that the flood ultimately caused.
The true culprit in the nightmare was the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club and their well-to-do members. The club was an exclusive and somewhat secretive organization made up of about fifty affluent Western Pennsylvania business men. The group included corporate executives whose names are still well known: Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon, Henry Phipps, Andrew Carnegie and Sammuel Rea among them.
The dam was originally built by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and was used as a reservoir for the canals at the end of the Allegheny Portage Railroad. It was abandoned by the state and the club eventually purchased the lake and surrounding property in 1879. The discharge pipes were removed just before the club bought the property and sold for their scrap value. With the pipes removed, there was no way to practically drain the lake and do repairs when the need arose. It would seem that repairs were desperately needed, as historic accounts note that the dam leaked frequently. It was patched as leaks developed, usually with straw and mud.
To make matters worse, the dam was lowered to allow the construction of a road across the breast. Fish nets that were stretched across the spillway ended up being traps for debris that would contribute to the dam’s failure. It may be impossible to estimate the collective worth of the exclusive group of businessmen that had ownership interest in the lake, but it clearly was many, many of millions of dollars. Yet the millionaire members were unable to muster the funds to maintain or repair the dam, despite warnings that it might fail.
The lessons from the flood may be clichés but they are important lessons just the same. An ounce of prevention clearly is worth a pound of cure. Even if the dam repair or replacement approached or exceeded six figures, this would have been a paltry amount compared to the $17 million (in 1889 dollars) in damage. If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. Each of the members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club committed a horrible sin of omission that resulted in not only incomprehensible damage, but 2,200 deaths.
A crisis or disaster will force action. The dam that collapsed on that dreadful night would not be permitted to exist in Pennsylvania (or most other states) today. There are now regulations, not for just the dams themselves but also for dumping things into or altering the paths of waterways. The simplistic often criticize such regulations. Not surprisingly, you'll never hear complaints from those flooded by an altered waterway or live downstream from a dam.
For more history on the flood, visit the National Park Service or the Johnstown Area Heritage Association.
It is difficult to have intelligent conversations or make informed decisions if you don't know the facts. Logical as that may seem, too often people (sometimes politicians) state facts that only tell part of a story and draw conclusions based on the portion that supports their position. While this is clearly true of many subjects, it is certainly so of environmental issues. One such topic that impacts all of us is water. Water resources in this part of Pennsylvania are especially interesting because of the diversity of where it comes from, where it goes and how it gets there.
Altoona is actually at or near the headwaters of several watersheds. (Watersheds in this use of the word refers to an area that drains a river and its tributaries, rather than the area that feeds a reservoir or lake.) Right in the middle of the city is the drainage divide between two of the major tributaries of the Juniata River. The divide roughly follows 14th Street and is marked by the Altoona Water Authority's two storage tanks near the old Keith Athletic Field and next to Prospect Pool on Dutch Hill. Water flows naturally in the Authority's pipes toward Pleasant Valley and downtown. It also flows from these tanks southwestward toward Eldorado and Lakemont (the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata drainage basin) and northeastward toward Juniata and Greenwood (into the Little Juniata River drainage basin). Sewage and stormwater flow the same and it's the reason why two sewage facilities must serve greater Altoona.
Blair County, however, is also near several other notable drainage divides. The divide between the Potomac River watershed and the Susquehanna (of which the Juniata is a subset) is just south of Bedford. The headwaters of Evitts Creek, just over the mountain from Manns Choice, eventually drain into the Potomac, while nearby Shobers Run runs into the Raystown Branch of the Juniata. The most notable of our drainage divides may be the one that wanders across the highlands of Cambria County. The Eastern Great Divide separates the Susquehanna River/Atlantic Ocean drainage from the Ohio River/Gulf of Mexico drainage. Rain that falls in Ebensburg and Cresson ends up in the Gulf, while precipitation that falls in Loretto and Gallitzin eventually flows into Chesapeake Bay and the western Atlantic.
It may be the surface geography that influences where water goes, but it is the sort of rock which the water passes over and through that changes its chemistry and taste. Where it encounters limestone (in Sinking Valley and Morrison's Cove) it tends to be harder. Since limestone is often riddled with crevices, sinkholes and other large voids, water can also flow quickly through limestone. By contrast, sandstone (like the Tuscarora Sandstone on Brush Mountain) is very porous. However, the pore spaces are very small, meaning that the water moves through it slowly. Shales, being made of flat laying clay particles, slow water movement nearly to a stop. Much of the Logan Valley is underlain by shale and is the reason why many wells in Altoona's valley struggle to produce strong flows of water.
The Department of the Interior's "Streamer" website is an interactive page that allows visitors to trace the path of any river or large creek in the United States. Visit the site to see where your water goes.