Toxic chemicals flowing into Va. waters
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  1. #1
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    Default Toxic chemicals flowing into Va. waters

    http://hamptonroads.com/2012/03/repo...wing-va-waters

    It this is where we stand today, how bad was it before?

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    That's absolutely sickening... literally, and figuratively.

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    This post is describing data submitted to EPA through a national program known as the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). Begun in 1988 through the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), the TRI contains information on releases of nearly 650 chemicals and chemical categories from industries, including manufacturing, metal and coal mining, electric utilities, and commercial hazardous waste treatment, among others. Facilities must report release and other waste management information if they:

    • Have 10 or more full-time employees or the equivalent;
    • Are in a covered North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) code; and
    • Exceed any one threshold for manufacturing (including importing), processing, or otherwise using a toxic chemical listed in 40 CFR Section 372.65. (Additional information can be found in 40 CFR Section 372.22.)


    Each year, industries within the scope of the TRI must report releases of the listed chemicals to different environmental media, such as air, surface water, groundwater via underground injection, land via land treatment, impoundments, or other mechanisms. EPA makes the TRI data readily available through its TRI Explorer tool http://www.epa.gov/triexplorer/facility.htm. Users can extract data from different geographic regions, for subsets of the chemicals, or for different industry sectors.


    I have never been a fan of the TRI program. It collects data and adds it up into annual totals without putting those data into any real-world context. When you take a moderate daily amount of a contaminant and scale it up to an annual total, it immediately is larger by a factor of 365. Let me give a few examples.

    1. You live in a house with three other family members. Each family member urinates and defecates 0.5 lbs of ammonia each day. That is not much. But when you multiply that by 4 and by 365, you reach a number of 730 lbs of ammonia per year. That does sound like a serious amount.

    2. A hypothetical company located near Frederick, MD discharges 100,000 gal per day of treated wastewater from its manufacturing plant. The plant has an NPDES discharge permit issued by the MDE that allows discharges of several toxic substances in amounts that protect water quality. Assume cadmium has a limit of 0.2 mg/l, chromium has a limit of 0.5 mg/l, zinc has a limit of 1 mg/l, and ammonia has a limit of 10 mg/l. If you convert those low concentrations into lb/day, you get 0.17, 0.42, 0.83, and 8.3 lb/day respectively. Adding them together as the TRI does, you get 9.7 lb/day, or 3,541 lb/year. That total sounds ominous, yet it was released to surface waters gradually over an entire with the permission of a regulatory agency that studied the discharge's impact on water quality.

    Let's place that number into a larger context. The discharge enters the Potomac River somewhere near Frederick, MD. According to the USGS stream gauge at Point of Rocks, the Potomac has a long-term average river flow at that location of 9,536 cfs - cubic feet per second (the units used for river flow). That average flow in cfs can be converted to 6,162,849,792 gallons per day (6.2 billion gal/day). Multiplying that by 365 gives you 2.26 trillion gallons per year moving past that point. That volume of water has weight too. Converting gallons to lbs, there are nearly 19 trillion lbs/year of water moving past that point in the river. When viewed in that context, 3,541 lb/yr of toxics released to the river and mixed with 19 trillion lb/yr of river water does not sound like nearly as serious an issue.

    The point of this discussion is not to say that water pollution is an acceptable thing. Rather it is intended to point out how easily data can be manipulated to prove either side in an argument. By combining releases from many different facilities and then multiplying daily releases by 365, the resulting numbers become very large. To the untrained observer, those numbers are frightening and awful. When viewed in context, however, the number are not such gloom and doom.

    Should our society continue to work to reduce water pollution - yes.
    Are all Virginia and Maryland waters horribly contaminated - no.
    John Veil
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    I see what you mean. I'm certainly not an expert on much of anything, so almost 16.5 tons of toxins dumped in the New River every day just sounded like alot to me.
    In my mind, I was thinking of a 10 wheeled dumptruck, which I think carries about 12 tons... even over the course of a day, had he backed up to the river and dropped his cargo, every day, people would be going apesh!t.

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    John, I have met you, and I have a feeling that you are a truthful man. Please translate all your calculations, concerning Virginia polluting to
    some kind of layman's conclusion. in other words, is this a problem or not, in your opinion?
    .
    I am willing to put my trust in your honesty and your knowledge. Please tell us :
    * this is moderately bad.
    * this is nothing to worry about.
    * this is something that we should start writing letters about.
    .
    Thank you for applying your knowledge and ability to this situation.
    Thomas Granger 410 627 0504

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    Tom -

    Here is my opinion. I don't expect that everyone else or even most will agree, but here it is. I managed MDE's program on industrial water pollution control during the mid and late 1980s. I wrote industrial discharge permits starting in 1980 before moving into a management position. At that time, we were seeing an improvement in Chesapeake and Baltimore Harbor water quality from its 1960s condition (very bad). The federal Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 giving rise to regulatory programs like the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) that required permits for all industrial and municipal discharges. Given a few years for those permits to come into effect, and some additional time for the dischargers to upgrade their wastewater treatment technologies, the late 70s to early 80s was the time when the biggest leap in improvements began to kick in. Today, 30 years later, those same facilities have had their permits tightened at least once more. The historical "bad guys" have generally been brought under control. But in most cases, the easy and inexpensive solutions have been applied already. The cost for each incremental unit of pollutant removal is many times higher than the cost to get out the original pollutant removal.

    There are other water pollution contributors that are more difficult to regulate. Municipal sewage plants have a more difficult time coming up with funds to upgrade than do most industries. Many regular citizens gripe loudly if their water and sewer bill goes up by 50% to pay for the new treatment systems. Stormwater discharges from city streets have been regulated somewhat but continue to add pollutants following heavy storm events. Air pollution contributes pollutants too. At one time researchers estimated that 20% of all the nitrogen entering the Chesapeake Bay watershed came from atmospheric dry fall and rain fall. Agriculture contributes significantly, but not in urban regions.

    With that as backdrop, here is my conclusion. Water quality today in most Chesapeake areas is okay -- not excellent, not hideous. Depending on your personal perspective, the level is higher or lower on that scale. Some rural locations (e.g., lower eastern shore) have relatively few pollutant sources and are still in very good condition. Certain urban areas, like Baltimore Harbor and Hampton Roads, tend to have more large dischargers than the rest of the bay region. It is not surprising to find more water quality impairment in those areas.

    Like it or not, the worst contributor to water pollution is human population. There are far more people living in the watershed than there were 100 years, 50 years, or even 10 years ago. Each person needs a place to live, food, clothing, and all the other material goods we like. Stores, factories, restaurant, cleaners, and many other commercial operations locate near where people are living. The natural habitat and ground cover are removed and are replaced by more impervious surfaces. Most of our national laws place a balance between performance standards and economic viability -- the cost to improve water quality to colonial era standards would be prohibitively expensive, if possible at all. Further few of our politicians have the nerve or will to adopt new laws that are so strict they put a few companies out of business (lost jobs) or make Maryland a business-unfriendly place.

    Unless we can control population, I suspect we will see a gradual downhill slide in water quality over the next half century. That does not mean that we cannot push the current poor performers to improve. But even if each contributor improves incrementally, the total number of contributors will continue to rise, leading to either level or increasing total pollutant load. As stated before, this is my personal opinion. Feel free to draw your own conclusions.
    John Veil
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    You cannot argue that we are not dumping large amounts of pollutants in the water. No matter the actual pounds, gallons or whatever measure used, they ranked Virginia as the second worst offender in the country. We are 49 of 50.

    This classification is comparitive not quantitative and after Virginia received an "F" qualification in a state integrity investigation, I am disgusted with the state.

    Being so close to Washington and the decision makers, you'd think that the state would have it's act together. It seems that the exact opposite is the case. I thought that corruption in government was just a Hampton Roads phenomenon, but it is apparently state wide and reaches beyond the governmetn.

    Virginia the Corruption State. Virginia the Pollution State.

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    Remember, the solution to pollution is NOT dilution. That philosophy has gone the way of the dodo. Or perhaps the oyster.

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    Quote Originally Posted by BILL H View Post
    Remember, the solution to pollution is NOT dilution.
    Although environmentalists and media pundits having been making this statement for nearly half a century (and admittedly it has a catchy ring to it), it is not completely true. Mother Nature relies upon dilution every day in every part of the world -- how come fish don't die when they poop in the water? Because the pollutants in their poop are quickly diluted by the surrounding water to innocuous levels. Once the concentration of most chemicals becomes low enough, it ceases to be harmful, and often becomes food for some other organism (that is precisely what the term "biodegradable" means).

    The federal Clean Water Act does not prohibit discharges of toxic materials -- rather it prohibits discharges of toxics in toxic amounts. This is a critical distinction. Most wastewater regulatory programs in this country and elsewhere in the world rely on the scientifically justifiable concept of dilution, dispersion, and mixing zones. Discharges coming out of a pipe do not necessarily need to be clean enough so that a fish can live in it directly. But the water quality outside of an approved mixing zone must meet state water quality standards. The permit writer calculates how much dilution is available under low-flow conditions and allows some credit for dilution.

    I don't want to sound like I am defending polluters. But if dischargers, whether industries or municipal sewage treatment facilities are following the laws and regulations, and are complying with their issued permits, that sounds like the system is working. And dilution is most definitely part of the system and solution. It is lots of fun to make emotional arguments and strive for the moral high ground. However, there is value to understanding the technical, scientific, legal, and policy background of those issues.
    John Veil
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    Native Watercraft Manta 14 and Slayer Propel 13

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    So there are permits that allow the dumping of 16+ tons of toxins in the New River each day?
    That sounds so crazy to me.
    On google maps it didn't seem like a very large river. Long, yes. But not large. So that made me wonder where the dilution comes in.

    And if these are just the toxins that are permitted to be dumped, I then begin to wonder about the increased load of pollutants as a result of the runoff mentioned earlier...

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