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Blog Posts: Water

August 26th, 2015

United Water’s Breach of Trust in New York’s Rockland County

By Mary Grant

At the end of July, United Water backed out of a water conservation task force in Rockland County, N.Y., in the wake of a scathing report about the company’s practices. This is its latest offense in an ongoing effort to build a boondoggle of a desalination plant, a project that could generate serious profits for the company while hiking water bills for the nearly 300,000 people it serves throughout Rockland County.

United Water, the U.S. water arm of French multinational Suez Environnement, first proposed desalinating Hudson River water in 2007. Soon after, a coalition of residents, elected officials and area groups formed the Rockland Water Coalition to oppose the company’s scheme and promote sustainable water management practices. (Food & Water Watch is a proud member of the Rockland Water Coalition.)

Last November, after years of tenacious organizing, the coalition’s efforts bore fruit when state regulators ordered the company to suspend its desalination plans and work with a county task force to study conservation measures. Earlier in 2014, Rockland County set up the Task Force on Water Resources Management to reduce water use and preserve water supplies in the county.

Around that the time, United Water CEO Bertrand Camus, Suez’s top ranking U.S. executive, promised that the company would be an active member of the task force. Explaining its involvement, a company spokesperson waxed lyrical in the local newspaper, “We are part of the fabric of the community.”

Now, the company has pulled out of the task force and says that it will pursue its own sustainability initiatives and consider the task force’s ideas but only if it can increase rates. Food & Water Watch warned three years ago that United Water can’t be trusted.

One of the company’s excuses was that it does not agree with everything that the task force says. In particular, it took exception to a report produced for the task force by an independent consultant. In response to the state’s November 2014 order, the task force hired Amy Vickers, an award-winning expert on water conservation and efficiency, to analyze United Water’s water system.

Vickers found that the company keeps unreliable records, replaces pipelines too slowly, inadequately monitors for leaks and wastes a large volume of water — an estimated 2.5 million to 3.3 million gallons a day. Her preliminary analysis determined that water conservation and main repairs could save a significant amount of water, making the company’s desalination plant of dubious value.

In response, the company vehemently attacked her findings, labeling them “overtly adversarial,” “closed-minded” and “aspirational advocacy.” Instead of studying how to address concerns raised by the report, the company went so far as to hire a firm to counter the report’s findings.

As Harriet Cornell, chair of the task force, wryly observed, “It is obvious that the independent study analyzing United Water’s data has touched a nerve and caused consternation at United Water.”

United Water’s commitment to conservation is questionable, and the company wants to charge residents for the money it sunk into a desalination plant that it now admits it doesn’t need for at least a decade.

The push is on to protect Rockland County’s water. Right now, state regulators are considering whether to order the company to completely abandon the desalination project. Check out the Rockland Water Coalition to get involved and learn more.

August 20th, 2015

A Witness to Africa’s Water Challenges

By Eric Weltman

This summer, my family took an extraordinary and illuminating vacation in Africa. We covered five countries, where we saw an abundance of wildlife, including thousands of giraffe, zebras, elephants and other animals. My personal highlight was visiting a Maasai village in Kenya where I showed a classroom of students how to juggle.

It was at this village, though, that the region’s struggles with access to water struck me hard. We witnessed women, young girls and old ladies, laboring to carry water to their homes, hunched over with jugs strapped to their backs. Our host told us that delivering water was a woman’s most important responsibility.

Indeed, water was a constant theme in our travels. In Zimbabwe, the thundering beauty of Victoria Falls astonished us, as did the crocodile-filled Zambezi River in Zambia. At the same time, we saw the prevalence of bottled water, along with the discarded bottles and stench of burning plastic from trash fires.

The facts are stark: According a 2015 United Nations report, 319 million people in sub-Saharan Africa don’t have access to safe sources of drinking water. These are nations contending with lack of basic infrastructure, such as taps and toilets. But they’re also facing new threats, from fracking in South Africa to privatization in Nigeria.

Of course, Africa isn’t alone in facing water challenges, as we see in the United States. In Detroit and Baltimore, residents are struggling to prevent water from being shut off in their homes. Communities from Florida to California are resisting fracking. New York’s Rockland County is combatting United Water’s capricious management of their drinking water system. And across the country, we are dealing with drastically reduced federal funding for water infrastructure.

In Zanzibar, I was asked to lead a conversation about energy policy with other guests at the eco-lodge where we were staying. We discussed fracking as the waves of the Indian Ocean crashed on the nearby shore. We were joined by a local fisherman, who shared his concerns about pollution’s impact on his livelihood.

Food & Water Watch is proud to have helped win the passage of a UN resolution in 2010 explicitly recognizing the human right to water and sanitation. My trip to Africa further inspired me to stand in solidarity with people of all nations to build the power we need to fulfill that right.

July 21st, 2015

Give Me a Break: Renewable Energy Credits Threatened by Koch Brothers

By Mitch Jones

BlogThumb_WindTurbinesAt the end of next year government policies that have successfully aided the growth of residential and commercial solar and industrial wind are set expire. Congress can help do something about this, but powerful special interests could stand in the way. Read the full article…

July 20th, 2015

Congress’s Handout to the Bottled Water Industry

By Elizabeth Schuster

During the Congressional appropriations process it is not uncommon for members to include legislative giveaways to corporate interests such as Big Ag and the oil and gas industry. Now it’s the bottled water industry’s turn.

This year especially, the House bill to fund the Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and related agencies has received a lot of attention for being the most anti-environment, anti-government funding bill to date.

With final consideration and vote on the bill indefinitely stalled due to a controversial amendment about the Confederate flag, it’s a good time to pause and consider another hidden rider included in the House version of the appropriations bill. This one is a gift wrapped giveaway to the bottled water industry.

Representative Keith Rothfus (R-PA), put forward an amendment, passed by a voice vote, which prevents the National Park Service from implementing its 2011 policy aimed to reduce and recycle plastic bottles in national parks. Recognizing the need to reduce the parks’ environmental footprint, the policy allows the option for parks to stop selling bottled water if they complete an extensive list of requirements.

Since the policy went into effect, more and more parks have banned the sale of bottled water, opting instead for water refilling stations. Parks that have adopted this policy have reported a reduction in litter from plastic bottles. This is an important step forward in preserving the environment of our public lands and moving us away from our dependency on bottled water.

The House appropriations process is at a standstill and the amendment was already approved. But we can still stop this nonsensical amendment from becoming law. First, we can ask our representatives to vote NO on the Interior-EPA bill.  Second, we can ask our Senators to keep this language out of the Senate version of the Interior-EPA bill.

We must stop giving the bottled water industry free reign to exploit our natural resources! Take action today to tell Congress to keep bottled water out of our national parks.

July 2nd, 2015

Pittsburgh Residents File Suit Over Water Overcharging

By Brendan Agnew Faucet

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA), the provider of water service to roughly 300,000 customers, is facing a multi-million-dollar lawsuit. The suit, which seeks class action status, charges that many residents who had “smart meters” installed saw their bills skyrocket unexpectedly, some of them by as much as 600 percent.

According to the suit, the new meters, which were supposed to provide more accurate readings of water use, were prone to drastic measurement errors, in one case charging a property owner for 132,000 gallons on a vacant property. Customers who couldn’t pay these inflated bills were issued shutoff notices despite complaints to the PWSA. The suit points out that PWSA is “acutely aware” of the overbilling but “[did] not hesitate for a moment to issue ‘shut off’ notices and then arbitrarily turn off water service.

PWSA recently hired a new executive director, Jim Good, a former executive vice president of Veolia Water’s West Region. Good and Veolia were brought in to assist the city with the management and improvement of its outdated water infrastructure in 2012. The PWSA maintained governance over the system, with Veolia Water providing “day-to day management” and “diagnostic evaluations of Authority operations,” according to a PWSA press release.

Veolia oversaw management of the Authority when it began installing the new meters in April of 2014. The company makes much of its global revenue through implementing advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) technology such as the meters in question in the lawsuit. When the PWSA renewed its contract with Veolia earlier this year, the company cited its water meter replacement program as a highlight of its work in Pittsburgh, pointing to the added revenues more accurate billing could bring to the city.

Veolia has become notorious for unfair billing practices and mismanaging water systems, prompting a host of U.S. cities to cut ties to the company. As part of a larger utility transformation, the city of Indianapolis famously cut its engagement with the company more than a decade short in 2013, following similar accusations of overcharging and misconduct. Other cities have dropped Veolia over service complaints, while residents of Baltimore and St. Louis successfully fought to keep their cities from contracting with the company.

Pittsburgh residents have also seen spikes in water and sewer rates over the past year. The PWSA implemented a 4 percent rate increase this year, reportedly to cover costs of infrastructure updates, according to a report by Pittsburgh’s Tribune Review. Despite the rate increases, just prior to the litigation, PWSA hired Jim Good as its permanent head with a salary of $240,000 a year, plus potential bonuses, making him Pittsburgh’s second-highest paid government official, eclipsing even Mayor Bill Peduto, who is paid less than half as much.

The city will scale back Veolia’s contract as Good takes on a more central role and as the authority fills the remaining management positions. Hopefully, the public managers will work to improve affordable access to water in Pittsburgh.

Brendan Agnew is a Food & Water Watch summer water research and policy intern and a recent graduate from American University

June 10th, 2015

How The Release of The EPA’s Draft Assessment on Drinking Water Impacts Was Spun

By Hugh MacMillan

1The subtitle of the EPA’s press release announcing the assessment — presented by the Obama Administration as the topline finding — read as follows (emphasis added):

“Assessment shows hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources and identifies important vulnerabilities to drinking water resources.”

Media reports ran with this framing of the assessment, and a barrage of headlines whitewashed fracking as safe. This outcome, which has delighted both the oil and gas industry and the financial elites who are banking on decades of fracking, was the result of multiple levels of EPA and Obama Administration spin.

Although still deeply problematic, the framing of the major findings in the actual text of the nearly 1000-page assessment was very different than the topline of the press release. The actual assessment states (again, emphasis added):

“From our assessment, we conclude there are above and below ground mechanisms by which hydraulic fracturing activities have the potential to impact drinking water resources. … We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States. … This finding could reflect a rarity of effects on drinking water resources, but may also be due to other limiting factors.” (p. ES-23)

That is, for the EPA’s press release, the major finding of the assessment was changed from “we did not find evidence” to the “Assessment shows” there is no evidence.

In reality, what the assessment shows is that, at almost every turn, the efforts of EPA to evaluate the impacts due to the “above and below ground mechanisms” were thwarted. At times, the agency was thwarted by circumstances out of its control, but in many other cases the agency’s own timidity is to blame.

The Spin Within The Assessment

The conclusive use of the phrases “widespread, systemic” and “rarity of effects” in the actual draft assessment is what enabled the Obama Administration to whitewash fracking with a small but enormously consequential change in the phrasing for the press release.

The implication is that, for the EPA and the Obama Administration, only problems that are deemed “widespread, systemic” warrant proactive concern about the current direction of energy policy.

To this point, the lead caveat in the summary of the assessment’s findings is:

“In particular, data limitations preclude a determination of the frequency of impacts with any certainty.” (p. ES-22)

The nearly 1000-page assessment is littered with additional caveats specific to each of the “mechanisms” identified as “having the potential to impact drinking water resources.” For example, the EPA’s assessment of impacts from 457 spills identified as related to hydraulic fracturing contains the following caveat:

“Of the volume of spilled flowback and produced water, 16% was recovered for on-site use or disposal, 76% was reported as unrecovered, and 8% was unknown. The potential impact of the unknown and unrecovered volume on drinking water resources is unknown.” (p. 7-33)

On the question of contamination of underground sources of drinking water due to the migration of shale gas, the assessment states:

“In most cases, the methane in the [water] wells likely originated from intermediate formations between the production zone and the surface; however, in some cases, the methane appears to have originated from deeper layers such as those where the Marcellus Shale is found.” (p. 6-17)

The assessment goes on to conclude:

“Evidence shows that the quality of drinking water resource may have been affected by hydraulic fracturing fluids escaping the wellbore and surrounding formation in certain areas, although conclusive evidence is currently limited.” (p. 6-57)

But with with the conclusions clouded by “data limitations and uncertainties” — including of its own making — the Obama Administration has succeeded in dismissing the impacts to drinking water resources from fracking as not “widespread” and “systemic.”

Limitations of Federal Government’s Own Making

The Obama Administration has not only slanted the narrative around the pollution documented in the study, it has failed to ensure that the EPA gather adequate data.

This failure is not just due to the fact that oil and gas companies — riding a legacy of decades of political influence peddling — enjoy exemptions from key statutes in all the major environmental laws. Rather than compel companies to cooperate, the EPA’s assessment is hamstrung by the vagaries of relying on the voluntary cooperation and disclosures by industry.

For example, because after-the-fact studies of contamination are difficult, the EPA had planned prospective studies, which would include baseline data on water quality and elaborate monitoring over time, from drilling and fracking the well to production. But the agency was not able to come to terms with any companies over site access or plans for monitoring and oversight.

Importantly, to see precisely why and how contaminants are leaking from some fracked wells, the EPA would likely needed to have monitored hundreds of individual wells as closely as technologically possible. Nonetheless, oil and gas companies would not accept the spotlight and close regulatory scrutiny on their fracking operations even once.

This is remarkable given that, according to the EPA’s own Inspector General, a primary reason that the agency withdrew its emergency order against Range Resources, regarding a case of contamination in Parker County, Texas, was that the company had agreed to participate in the assessment. The EPA’s failure to complete that investigation adds to the agency’s failure to carry out investigations, after the fact, of contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming and Dimock, Pennsylvania.

Ban Fracking

The Obama Administration has chalked up the experiences of those who have been living with contamination as nothing more than collateral damage, and as the result of rare effects. The assessment is nonetheless clear that such collateral damage to water resources, both recognized and unrecognized, will continue to mount as a result of both accidents and routine operations.

Among the uncertainties acknowledged in the assessment is that more contamination may be yet to come:

“Given the surge in the number of modern high-pressure hydraulic fracturing operations dating from the early 2000s, evidence of any fracturing-related fluid migration affecting a drinking water resource (as well as the information necessary to connect specific well operation practices to a drinking water impact) could take years to discover.” (p. 6-56)

This amounts to unacceptable risks to vital drinking water resources.

In dismissing concerns about such impacts on drinking water resources, including those made clear in the assessment, the Obama Administration has upheld its vision for the country: decades more widespread and systematic drilling and fracking, to maximize the extraction of unconventional oil and natural gas.

The oil and gas industry and the financial industry share this vision. Together these bastions of political influence continue to sink billions of dollars in infrastructure to build out demand for unconventional oil and gas.

The bitter irony is that decades more climate pollution, locked in by such sunk costs, will bring impacts on drinking water resources that are certain to be widespread and systemic.

Take action today to tell EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to correct the misleading press release about the study.

June 5th, 2015

The EPA’s Fracking Study, Explained

By Wenonah Hauter
BLOGthumb_1506_EPAphotoDon’t be fooled. Headlines in the New York Times and other news media about the EPA’s long-awaited study on the impacts of fracking on drinking water are another tragic case of not looking beyond the timid agency’s spin. Despite the lack of new substantive data and the limited scope of the study, the EPA did find instances of water contamination and outlined the areas where this could happen in the fracking process.

Rather than seriously undertaking its mission, the EPA’s headline and conclusions in the study reflect the agency’s on-going narrative about the safety of fracking. The agency asserted in the report on the study that there were no “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources.” They based this outrageous conclusion on the limited industry controlled data and analysis that was included in the poorly designed research project.

The multi-million dollar study did not answer the fundamental questions about the pollution of water from hydraulic fracturing. The oil and gas industry pressured the agency in the design of the study, narrowing its scope and focusing it on theoretical modeling conducted by researchers that often conduct research favorable to the industry.

In a shocking display of the power of oil and gas interests, they successfully blocked the agency from gathering data from direct monitoring of fracking operations. Rather than demanding that companies like Exxon (the largest fracker in the U.S.) or Chesapeake allow them to monitor water wells near fracking operations, the EPA caved to industry pressure. For the study to be meaningful, the agency needed to conduct baseline water testing at prospective wells that would provide a snapshot of water quality before fracking and that would be retested after a year or more after oil or gas production began.

Geoffrey Thyne, a geochemist and a member of the EPA’s 2011 Science Advisory Board, a group of independent scientists who reviewed the plan for the study, remarked on the failure of its design: “This was supposed to be the gold standard. But they went through a long bureaucratic process of trying to develop a study that is not going to produce a meaningful result.”

Yet even with the study’s poor design and the deceptive headlines, the 600-page document does include concrete examples that fracking does indeed contaminate groundwater resources, a fact already confirmed by numerous studies based on existing scientific data. The study confirmed cases of water contamination with five after-the-fact, or retrospective, case studies, each focused on a community where residents have complained about water problems for years. This embarrassingly limited review of the impacts from spills and releases, water withdrawals, and issues with waste disposal provide proof that fracking negatively impacts our water resources. They included:

  • Drinking water monitoring wells had “chemicals or brine” from a blowout that occurred during fracking operations in Killdeer, ND.
  • “Up to nine out of 36” wells considered in a Northeastern Pennsylvania case study “are impacted by stray gas (methane and ethane) associated with nearby hydraulic fracturing activities.”
  • In Southwestern PA, wastewater pits and other storage sites caused chloride contamination. Regarding stray hydrocarbon gas found in domestic water wells, the EPA determines it was from shallower gas formations, not the targeted shale formation, but whether nearby drilling through the shallower formations led to such contamination remains unanswered.
  • At the same time as hydraulic fracturing operations in Wise County, TX, two water wells were impacted by increased presence of brines.

This incomplete and inadequate study is an embarrassment for the Obama Administration and the EPA. It falls far short of the level of scrutiny and government oversight needed to protect the health and safety of the many millions of Americans living in watersheds impacted by fracking — nearly ten million within one mile of a fracked well, according to the study.

Unfortunately the study and related media coverage will provide the industry more cover for continuing its poisoning of our nation’s drinking water via widespread drilling and fracking. Oil and gas industry foxes have once again been allowed to call the shots at the EPA’s henhouse, and protect their vision for widespread fracking, with what the EPA now confirms to be over 25,000 new oil and gas wells each year.

Simply put, the EPA admits that fracking has been found to contaminate water, but its incomplete analysis and false characterization of its findings greatly downplays the severity of the problem. Industry’s pressure on the agency has politicized what is a basic public health concern. Putting a resource as precious and universally important as drinking water at risk is simply unacceptable, and the EPA, which is charged with protecting Americans from environmental risk, should be working to do everything it can to safeguard these vital water resources. This study is fodder to continue our ongoing fight to ban fracking everywhere.

May 28th, 2015

Cutting Off People’s Water is Just Damn Wrong

By Wenonah Hauter

Food & Water Europe Works to Protect Human Right to Water

Separated by over 500 miles, Detroit and Baltimore share a few common qualities. Both once thriving steel towns, the cities now face major economic problems. While a recent Pew poll ranked Detroit worse than Baltimore across several important indicators such as unemployment, median household income, poverty and those without health insurance, both of these cities with large African American populations are hurting. This is particularly evidenced by one indicator not featured in Pew’s poll that nonetheless speaks volumes about the overall health of each city—residents of both cannot afford to pay their water bills.

Last summer, thousands of Detroit residents who were behind on their water bills lost access to water service, and in March, Baltimore announced it would disconnect water service for 25,000 customers. If you’ve followed this issue in the mainstream media as we have, you’ll know that many publications are reporting “delinquent payments” as the cause of this crisis. But what they’re actually both experiencing is water affordability problems.

Many of us take for granted the fact that when we turn on the tap, water flows out of it. But many low-income people in the United States can no longer count on that. Instead, they must choose between spending their limited financial resources on transportation to low wage jobs, or heating their homes; between buying medicine and keeping their water on. It’s a perpetual losing battle and in many cases, water falls by the wayside.

In Detroit, nearly 40 percent of residents and more than half the city’s children live in poverty. The city’s unemployment rate as of February 2015 is 12.5 percent—more than twice the national rate. Over the last decade, water and sewer bills there have more than doubled. Nearly a quarter of all Baltimoreans live in poverty and one-third of Baltimore households earn less than $25,000 a year. Yet the typical household paid about $800 dollars a year on water and sewer services, as water rates have tripled over the past 15 years and continue to increase. The economic conditions in these cities simply prohibit many from being able to afford water service.

The United Nations Development Programme set a threshold for affordable water and sanitation at three percent of household income. Water rates in each city exceed that by considerable margins.

What’s particularly tragic and frustrating about the water shutoffs in Detroit is that they could have been avoided. In 2006, the Detroit City Council approved a Water Affordability Plan, supported by the Michigan Welfare Right Organization and the People’s Water Board. The DWSD chose to implement its own plan instead, directed towards households at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The plan’s major flaw is that it’s only applicable after a customer is facing or experiencing a water shutoff. Similarly, the 10/30/50 water plan developed last year by Mayor Mike Dugan and the DWSD also requires households to already be behind on their bills to qualify.

In Baltimore, one-third of residents cannot afford their water rates based on this UN metric. Baltimore’s existing low-income assistance program is also inadequate. The city currently offers a grant of $161 to certain low-income residents who are behind on their bills. But the typical annual household water bill after accounting for the grant is $643—still unaffordable to many, particularly the one in five households that earn less than $15,000 a year.

Why wait that long? Why wait until the house is burning down to make sure it’s supplied with figure extinguishers? Why not make water more affordable so that nobody is ever forced to choose between going hungry or enjoying unfettered access to safe, clean, affordable water? Water is not a privilege, after all. It’s a human right, as recognized by the United Nations.

It is clear that instead of shutting off water service to low income people, both cities need more effective assistance programs. The Water Affordability Plan proposed by Detroit community advocates is preventative, allowing water customers to avoid have their water service shutoff. The plan is based on income, and qualification is determined by the ratio of a household’s utility bill to its income. What’s key here is that a customer doesn’t have to already be in default to qualify.

The larger issue however, is that local water bills are increasing because federal funding to community water systems has declined dramatically. The federal share of capital investment in water systems peaked in 1977 at 63 percent, but fell to a record low of 7 percent in 2006 under the Bush administration. After a slight boost in 2010 to 12 percent from the Obama administration’s economic stimulus plan, it fell to 9 percent last year. Water service is too important to be left to the whims of politics, which is why we need a steady, dedicated source of federal funding in the form of a water trust fund. The experience of those in Baltimore and Detroit who are without water illustrates this very point.

For more information on Detroit’s water problems, read our new issue brief, Detroit Needs a Water Affordability Plan. For more information on Baltimore’s water problems, read this issue brief. Tell elected officials to stop the water shutoffs by taking action here.

May 26th, 2015

Exclusive: Water Defense Video Shows Tar Balls, Oil Slicks Near Kern County Irrigation Site

By Darcey Rakestraw

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times published Water Defense’s results of testing it has conducted on recycled oil field wastewater used to irrigate crops in California. Over a two-year time period Water Defense’s Chief Scientist, Scott Smith, collected samples from treated water sold to the Cawelo Water District. The results? The water contained powerful industrial solvents toxic to humans—higher than he’d seen previously at oil spill sites. Industry officials and the water district told the Times they think the water is safe for crops, citing that they are complying with testing requirements.

In a video released today, Scott takes us to the meeting point of the freshwater and the recycled water for irrigation. Scott told us the tar balls and oil slicked water he saw were just like what he witnessed from the Gulf oil spill. We talked to him about how this practice has been monitored, and what this news means for advocates for our food and water.

Darcey Rakestraw: You’re obviously passionate about exposing water contamination from the oil industry. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved in this work?

Scott Smith: The world is running out of clean water and we must educate millions of people quickly if we are to protect our water resources for future generations. I am passionate about diagnosing water contamination problems and solving them with environmentally responsible solutions. The real problem in California and many other states stems from elected officials and regulators not serving the best interests of the people they represent, allowing the oil industry to pollute while refusing to adequately test the water or enforce proper testing.

My life and business were wiped out in oil contaminated flood waters in 2006. When I realized that there was no effective technology to remove oil from water, I became obsessed with developing a technology that could. developed one based on biomimicry, which was adopted in the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster in 2010. My invention helped preserve and protect the sensitive wetlands of the Gulf Coast.

While working side by side with fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico, I witnessed people getting very ill from the oil contaminated water and yet the water was being declared free of oil using testing methods that were incomplete and gamed. Believe it or not, it was the elected officials and regulators that were gaming the test results.

When I discovered this, I felt obligated to educate the rest of the world in order to drive changes in water testing. I made it my life’s mission and developed new testing methodologies that could not be easily gamed and could detect the full gamut of chemicals in the water, from oil and related chemicals to endocrine disrupting metals and metalloids. You can’t solve any problem until you identify the problem.

DR: How did you join up with Water Defense?

SS: In 2013 during the ExxonMobil Pegasus pipeline oil spill in Mayflower, Arkansas, I was testing and identifying oil and chemicals downstream while the regulators and elected officials were declaring the water safe and clear of contamination. I ended up on a few YouTube channels and in the news. It was at this time, John Pratt and Mark Ruffalo of Water Defense found me, reached out to me on Twitter, and set up a meeting with me later in the year. Shortly after that they asked me to join them at Water Defense. We have done a lot of work since then on putting together a system that will empower people and communities to know how their water is being harmed by polluters. Mark told me this was where the environmental movement was weak. They did not have good, easy to deploy, independent and relatively inexpensive water testing. Most polluted communities had to rely on state agencies or the polluters to get test results. We saw in Dimock, Pennsylvania how the state agencies were withholding test results to keep from embarrassing themselves. They did not want to take responsibility for the contamination that was happening on their watch.

In all my travels I have come to see that this is the norm. We came to realize that we must let data lead the debate and that we were not getting great public water data. This is a game changer. Water does not lie. We can’t solve the problem without knowing what the problem is. Now we are armed with credible data. We can give that data openly to the public. Now they can debate with real science that is free from political contamination. They can literally take control of their own water quality. That changes everything. We have to put polluters on notice. We are watching you. We are there. The jig is up. They cannot be expected to regulate themselves and the entire way we monitor water on the state level could use real updating.

DR: How did you decide to focus on this issue (testing recycled wastewater used on California crops), and how did you commence collecting and testing the samples cited in the Times article?  

SS: Initially, a few people concerned about the issue contacted me. They wanted to know if the recycled oil wastewater sold to farmers and used in the irrigation of crops (i.e. almonds, tangerines, grapes, etc.) being promoted by the fossil fuel industry and state officials was free of chemicals of concern. I always viewed California as a leader in protecting the environment and quite frankly could not even believe what people were telling me. I thought that in no way could it even be possible that oil wastewater could be used to irrigate the food we eat everyday throughout the country. Since the Gulf oil spill in 2010, I have been to over 50 disasters where I have conducted water testing. So, I agreed to go to Kern County, California to investigate. Needless to say, I was absolutely shocked when I found myself surrounded by food crops with the smell of oil coming off the irrigation water. It was worse than what I smelled during the BP Gulf oil spill. When the test results came back we found dangerous and toxic chemicals in the irrigation canal system. This water was presumably already treated. The levels of these toxic chemicals exceeded what I have tested in official oil spill disasters. But this was not even an official oil disaster in Kern County. This was irrigation water to which workers and the community were exposed. If this were any other industry or a company not involved in oil production, regulators would have stepped in and fined the responsible party and/or shut them down. Its incredible.

DR: Were you alarmed by the findings, or did you expect the wastewater to show these levels of contamination?

SS: I found it incomprehensible that not only does the State of California allow this to go on, but that municipalities within the State actually brag about the practice of using oil wastewater for irrigation with incomplete and inadequate water testing.

DR: In a video on the Water Defense website, you talk about how companies and local officials typically take “instantaneous” water samples from the surface to test for contamination, but your testing involves testing the entire water column over time. Can you expand on why this approach is better?

SS: The instantaneous water testing is equivalent to a split second picture or a still camera. Water Defense cumulative water testing, on the other hand, is essentially a video security camera that monitors what exactly is flowing through the water over time. It is not an issue of Water Defense testing being better per se, but more complete in that if the chemicals are in the water, cumulative water testing will find them. While the instantaneous testing is helpful, and has its place in the toolbox of water testing, you can easily get a non-detect for that split second in the water when there are actually dangerous chemicals present. Instantaneous testing is subject to variability versus cumulative testing, and this can lead to false non-detects for instantaneous testing. Lastly, if testing isn’t ongoing and independent, it is impossible to know what is in the water. The good thing about our testing is that it’s very easy to deploy and very difficult to foul. We also happen to be independent. We are just trying to get the truth out to people and let them decide for themselves. People deserve to be told the truth. We believe water doesn’t lie. When testing is given priority then we can solve the problems.

DR: What did you think about the response of water officials quoted in the article? They seemed to downplay the findings.

SS: I really feel for the water officials as they are in a tough spot. They are confused and scared. I look forward to working with them in a cooperative and transparent way to preserve and protect the precious and declining water in California. There is no reason to be confused or scared because we can all work together to monitor the contamination and stop it. This doesn’t have to be this way. But someone has to be responsible here. Someone has got to oversee what is happening here. There seems to be a huge lack of oversight. It may cost more money on the front end, but when people start getting sick it’s only going to cost that much more. We don’t want to wait for the worst-case scenario, when all it takes is a little bit of common sense to know that if you aren’t careful you will be harming people.

DR: What other projects are on the horizon for you and Water Defense that you’d like to tell us about?

SS: I have never been more optimistic and excited about the future because it is our plan to make Water Defense open-source cumulative water testing a common thing. This is not rocket science. The Water Defense testers can be deployed by anyone. They are pretty much fool proof. We want to empower millions of people to be citizen scientists and monitor all the waterways in the country. In a few months, we plan to formally launch the “We Are There” campaign. It will be focused on taking action in the field with citizen scientists to deploy Water Defense open-source cumulative water testing to find water contamination. We want to bring people together to remove and stop the contamination. I have also recently consulted with the EPA on the proposed changes to oil and chemical spill regulations. This would include adoption of open-source cumulative water testing along side the grab sampling being used today.

The good news is each person that reads this can take part in changing the laws to better preserve and protect our water. By writing to his or her elected officials and demanding they contact the EPA to support these changes, people will be doing a lot to keep this type of thing from continuing to happen.

To learn more about Water Defense, visit their website, waterdefense.org.

To take action to protect California’s water, sign our petition to Governor Jerry Brown asking him to ban fracking.

May 13th, 2015

How Fracking Could Ruin Your Vacation

By Hugh MacMillan

preview FB_1505_PubLandsNJ-FBLink-C1As the start of summer draws ever closer, Americans and international tourists will begin to flock to U.S. National Parks, Forests, and other public lands for summer vacations, recreation and appreciation of our natural heritage. But there is something threatening the future of these lands and the communities that surround our national parks. Fracking.

President Obama’s Bureau of Land Management finalized thin, new rules for regulating fracking on public lands back in March. When these rules were proposed in 2013, more than 650,000 public comments were delivered demanding an outright ban on the practice instead. By the end of 2014, oil and gas companies had leases on over 34 million acres of U.S. public land. Over 200 million more acres – about a third of all federal land – can be targeted with drilling and fracking.

Here are a few more key statistics taken from Food & Water Watch’s new fact sheet that was released today:

  • About 20 percent of U.S. oil and gas reserves and resources are beneath federal public lands;
  • In 2014, companies drilled 2,544 new onshore oil and gas wells on federal land;
  • Almost 90 percent of wells on federal lands are fracked, and regulators are inspecting less than half of the wells they identify as having high-risk of environmental impacts;
  • More than 2 billion gallons of water — about 3,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth — is mixed with chemicals and injected beneath public lands each year;
  • Likely about 100,000 gallons — or over 18 truckloads full, assuming 130-barrel tanks — of liquid wastes spilled onto public lands each year;
  • Production of oil, natural gas and natural gas liquids (e.g., propane, butane, etc.) in 2013 from federal public lands led to more than 292 million tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent greenhouse gas emissions, or about what 61 million cars emit in a year; and
  • Counties with larger amounts of federal lands protected from oil and gas extraction had significantly higher per capita incomes, with about $1,000 extra in each person’s pocket for every 25,000 acres protected.

The figures on public lands and fracking are alarming, but there is hope to protect these cherished places and to stop the climate pollution from such extraction from happening. On Earth Day, U.S. Reps. Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), members of the Safe Climate Caucus, introduced the Protect Our Public Lands Act, H.R. 1902. The legislation is the strongest anti-fracking bill introduced in Congress to date and would ban fracking on federal public lands.

Tell your member of Congress to cosponsor the Protect Our Public Lands Act, and stand up for our beloved national treasures.



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