Climate Change Chronicles: Of Babies and Bathwater

March 12, 2019

Remember the acid rain worries of the 1970’s? Reaction led to clean-up laws and regulations. A slew of tax-exempt pollution control bonds were sold so that coal-fired utilities could scrub their smokestacks before toxic smoke reached the environment. Remember Love Canal? The toxicity of the contaminated canal led the federal government to eventually buy out homeowners. “Superfund” was created to clean up other toxic waste sites – combining private money with government. What about Leaking Underground Storage Tanks (or LUSTs)? Discharge of PCB’s? The federal government passed a series of water and wastewater pollution acts the 1970’s and 1980’s. State-based revolving loan funds were later created and seeded with federal monies in order to facilitate upgrades of our water and sewer infrastructure. 

The track record elsewhere has not been as direct. Concern over spent nuclear fuel from power plants (and military sites) has never been fully resolved. While Congress discussed and approved the use of a central repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada for waste from the 99 commercial nuclear facilities in the U.S., the program has never been funded. Furthermore, since the federal government signed contracts with utilities, failure to provide an active site that could receive spent fuel became subject of litigation. A U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that utilities did not have to continue paying into the nuclear waste recovery fund until the Department of Energy complied with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act that designated Yucca Mountain as the official repository, or Congress acts to change the law. As a result of this breach of contract with nuclear utilities, the federal government was charged with reimbursements amounting to up to $29 billion over ten years from 2015-2025. (These funds are “off budget” and do not count towards annual congressional spending limits and the cost figures assume resolution in 10 years.) In the meanwhile, radioactive spent fuel are currently stored in many local “hot sites”.

We have come far with cleanups, but there’s a far more to go. Love Canal is still leaching toxic chemicals nearly 40 years later. Recent pollution of the Flint, Michigan water system brought to light that lead was not only present in the drinking water there, but in many other places as well. In fact, a recent study from the Harvard T.H.Chan School of Public Health showed that 50% of the schools tested in the state of Oregon had samples with lead content above the state’s “action” level. In Washington, D.C. 78% of schools had samples above acceptable levels.

Today, the connections among carbon emissions, global warming, sea level rise and extreme weather are too abstract for many to grasp, although scientific evidence from many different sources is quite incontrovertible. The consequences of carbon and other polluting factors become harder to accept when pitted against our love of cars and well-funded special interests. Unfortunately, some consider climate change to be a “hoax” including some of our elected leaders.  

To bring the discussion down to earth, we look at the recent “red tide” bloom along Florida’s west coast.  We also hone in on a related and widespread issue with combined sewer systems around the country.

This past year, beautiful Sarasota and surrounding beaches were beset by an unusually large red algae bloom. While the bloom might have been an anomaly (who knows), a significant level of beach-related tourist business was lost; including the area’s restaurant industry and fishing activities.  The bloom also caused respiratory issues and some individuals are reportedly re-considering purchasing real estate in western Florida.

At a recent symposium hosted by the University of Southern Florida Sarasota-Manatee and sponsored by the Global Interdependence Center, Cumberland Advisors, Lenny Landau, a local resident and long-time aircraft engineer for GE, shared his deep-dive research effort to put the puzzle pieces together.  He analyzed the causes of and possible solutions. 

According to Landau, the red tide is from a form of algae, “karenia brevis”, which only originates in the Gulf of Mexico and is the only documented algae bloom that concurrently kills fish, poisons shellfish and causes human respiratory illness. He explored the factors that feed and nurture the algae. For one, the dead fish poisoned by the algae serve as further nutrition, causing a cycle of fish kills and growth of the bloom. Second, it’s not so much the fact that waters are warming in the Gulf, rather, the water hasn’t gotten cold enough in the winter to reduce growth of the bloom. The presence of other nutrient chemicals feed the bloom.  These include nitrogen and urea, which are found in agricultural fertilizer and human waste. 

This factor brings us to another significant problem: recently increasing extreme weather and its effect on our many combined sewer and storm water systems. According to a report from the EPA, there are 860 municipalities in the U.S. that combine their storm water with sewer systems. These systems collect rainwater, industrial wastewater and domestic sewage in one pipe. The wastewater and storm water are then typically transported to a treatment plant and returned to waterways and the oceans after treatment. When extreme rainfall overwhelms a system, overflow mixes with sewage and gets discharged into water. Dubbed CSO, or combined sewage overflow, heavy rains also sweep up chemical fertilizers from agricultural areas in addition to other untreated waste that then discharge into waterways.

Experts predict that we are likely to see continuation of extreme and wetter weather. All our efforts to isolate toxic waste can be nullified by one of these storms, washing a nasty soup of debris and chemicals across a broad geographic region. Much of our water, sewer, storm water and drainage systems were not built with this intensity of storms in mind. A number of local governments are beginning to finance upgrades to make their water and wastewater systems more resilient.  But more action is needed across all levels of government. 

If you are skeptical about these connections, just Google the terms “boil water alert” to see how many communities have been affected by contaminated water. An official from New Orleans recently said, “just imagine what a ‘boil water alert’ does to business during Mardi Gras or Jazzfest.”


Click here to see the original posting of this blog entry on The Public Purse, posted on March 8, 2019.

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