Ways to strengthen rural health care are expected to be discussed during the 2020 legislative session, which begins on Feb. 4.
— Read on www.waff.com/2020/01/08/rural-health-care-priority-ala-legislative-session/
We have all seen the stories about land in the Everglades agricultural Area thissummer. I was asked to give a presentation at a national conference in Orlando recently about water management in Florida. It was a fun paper and most of the people there were not from Florida, so it was useful for them to understand the land of water. Florida has always been a land shaped by water. Initially it was too much, which frustrated federal soldiers trying to hunt down Native Americans in the 1830s. In 1881, real estate developer Hamilton Disston first tried to drain the swamps with canals. He was not successful, but Henry Flagler came through a decade later and constructed the east coast railroad in the 1890s. It is still there, 2 miles off the coast, on the high ground. However water limited development so in 1904, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward campaigned to drain the everglades. Broward’s efforts initiated the first land boom in Florida, although it was interrupted in the 1920s by hurricanes (1926 and 1928) that sloshed water out of Lake Okeechobee killing people and severely damaging property in Miami and around Lake Okeechobee. A dike was built (the Hover dike – it is still there). However, an extended drought occurred in the 1930s. With the dike preventing water from leaving Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades became parched. Peat turned to dust, and saltwater entered Miami’s wells. When the city brought in an expert to investigate, he found that the water in the Everglades was the recharge area for the Biscayne aquifer, the City’s water supply. Hence water from the lake needed to move south.
Resiliency has always been one of Florida’s best attributes. So while the hurricanes created a lot of damage, it was only a decade or two later before the boom returned. But in the late 1940s, additional hurricanes hit Florida, causing damage and flooding from Lake Okeechobee prompting Congress to direct the Army Corps of Engineers to build 1800 miles of canals, dozens of pump stations and other structures to drain the area south of Lake Okeechobee. It is truly one of the great wonders of the world – they drained half a state by lowering the groundwater table by gravity canals. To improve resiliency, between 1952 and 1954, the Corps, in cooperation with the state of Florida, built a levee 100 miles long between the eastern Everglades and the developing coastal area of southeast Florida to prevent the swamp from impacting the area primed for development.
As a part of the canal construction after 1940, 470,000 acres of the Everglades was set aside for farming on the south side of Lake Okeechobee and designated as the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA). However water is inconsistent, so there are ongoing flood/drought cycles in agriculture. Irrigation in the EAA is fed by a series of canals that are connected to larger ones through which water is pumped in or out depending on the needs of the sugar cane and vegetables, the predominant crops. Hence water is pumped out of the EAA, laden with nutrients. Backpumping to Lake Okeechobee and pumping the water conservation areas was a practice used to address the flooding problem.
There was an initial benefit to Lake Okeechobee receiving nutrients. Older folks will recall that in the 1980s , the lake was the prime place for catching lunker bass. That was because the lake was traditionally nutrient poor. That changed with the backpumping which stimulated the biosystem productivity. More production led to more biota and more large fish. This works as long as the system is in balance e- i.e. the nutrients need to be growth limiting at the lower end of the food chain. Otherwise the runaway nutrients overwhelm the natural production and eutrophication results. Lake Okeechobee is a runaway system – the algae now overwhelm the rest of the biota. Lunker bass have been gone for 20 years.
The backpumped water is usually low in oxygen and high in phosphorus and nitrogen, which triggers algal progressions, leading to toxic blue-green algae blooms and threaten lake drinking water supplies. Think Toledo. Prolonged back pumping can lead to dead zones in the lake, which currently exist. The nutrient cycle and algal growth is predictable.
The Hoover Dike is nearly 100 years old and while it sit on top of the land (19 ft according to the Army Corps of Engineers), there is concern about it being breached by sloshing or washouts. Undermining appears in places where the water moves out of the lake flooding nearby property. So the Corps tries to keep the water level below 15.5 ft. During the rainy season, or a rainy winter as in 2016, that can become difficult. If the lake is full, that nutrient laden water needs to go somewhere. The only options are the Caloosahatchee, St. Lucie River or the everglades. The Everglades is not the answer for untreated water – the upper Everglades has thousands of acres of cattails to testify to the problem with discharges to the Everglades. So the water gets discharged east and west via the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie River.
The nutrient and algae laden water manifests as a green slime that washed onto Florida beaches in the Treasure coast and southwest Florida this summer, algae is actually a regular visitor to the coasts. Unfortunately memories often fail in temporal situations. The summer 2016 occurrence is reportedly the eighth since 2004, and the most severe since 2013. The green slime looks bad, can smell bad, kills fish and the 2016 bloom was so large it spread through estuaries on both coasts killing at least one manatee. One can see if from the air – try this link:
As you probably know, the continuing saga in Flint has two state regulatory folks and an operator with the City of Flint under indictment. Where that goes remains to be seen, but the Attorney General Bill Schuette felt something needed to be done. But are the right people under indictment? The charges are “tampering with evidence, and misconduct in public office,” but these are employees that few know or see and they were the ones dealing with the symptoms since they did not create the problem. That means the harder question still is not addressed – there are engineers, managers and local officials who agreed to the change in water source for financial reasons, not public health reasons that precipitated this tragedy. Where is that responsibility since all indications are that the change in water sources created a situation that could not be managed easily? The question that those in Flint are likely is asking is whether the local officials going to skate on this? It is worth asking because these incidents occur every few years, and the reasons are similar – a decision gets made for financial reasons by public officials, a problem happens, and there is a series of events that is uncovered that precipitates the concern. The utility or City gets sued, but that simply means that the public (you and your neighbors) pay (and in Flint everyone was impacted, who do you collect from?). The local officials are rarely challenged about these decisions and often accountability is lacking. So the question is: is the Attorney General done, or are there bigger fish to fry in Flint? And who are those fish? Mayor? Council? Managers? Consultants? Legislators who cut regulatory funding?
How to Predict the next Flint?
In the last blog we talked about Flint’s water quality problem being brought on by a political/financial decision, not a public health decision. Well, the news get worse. Flint’s deteriorated water system is a money thing as well – the community has a lot of poverty and high water bills, so they can’t pay for improvements. They are not alone. Utilities all over the country have increasing incidents of breaks, and age related problems. So the real question then is who are the at risk utilities? Who is the next Flint? It would be an interesting exercise to see if a means could be developed to identify those utilities at risk for future crises, so we can monitor them in more detail as a means to avoid such crises.
So what would be the measures that might identify the future “Flint?” These could be things like age of the system, materials used, economic activity trends, income, poverty rate, unemployment rate, utility size, reserves, utility rates, history of rate increases, etc.? Could these be developed into a means to evaluate risk? If so, who would use it and how would we address the high risk cases? I suggest that lenders have means to evaluate this using many of these same measures, but from a risk of events, this method has not been applied. So I think this would be a useful research project. So if anyone has some ideas, time or ideas for funding, let me know. Let’s get rolling!
Speaking of water supply problems, welcome to Flint, Michigan. There have been a lot of coverage in the news about the troubles in Flint the last couple of months. However if you read between the lines you see two issues – first this is not new – it is several years old, going back to when the City’s water plant came back on line in May 2014. Second this was a political/financial issue not a public health issue. In fact, the political/financial goals appear to have been so overwhelming, that the public health aspects were scarcely considered. Let’s take a look at why.
Flint’s first water plant was constructed in 1917. The source was the Flint River. The second plant was constructed in 1952. Because of declining water quality in the Flint River, the city, in 1962, had plans to build a pipeline from Lake Huron to Flint, but a real estate scandal caused the city commission to abandon the pipeline project in 1964 and instead buy water from the City of Detroit (source: Lake Huron). Flint stopped treating its water in 1967, when a pipeline from Detroit was completed. The City was purchasing of almost 100 MGD. Detroit declared bankruptcy. The City of Flint was basically bankrupt. Both had appointed receivers. Both receivers were told to reduce costs (the finance/business decisions). The City of Flint has purchased water for years from Detroit as opposed to using their Flint River water plant constructed in 1952. The Flint WTP has been maintained as a backup to the DWSD system, operating approximately 20 days per year at 11 MGD.
The City of Flint joined the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) in 2010. The KWA consists of a group of local communities that decided to support and fund construction of a raw water pipeline to Lake Huron. The KWA was to provide the City of Flint Water Treatment Plant with source water from Lake Huron. An engineer’s report noted that a Genesee County Drain Commissioner stated that one of the main reasons for pursuing the KWA supply was the reliability of the Detroit supply given the 2003 power blackout that left Flint without water for several days. Another issue is that Flint no say in the rate increases issued to Flint by Detroit. Detroit’s bankruptcy may also have been a factor given the likelihood of increased prices. While discussion were ongoing for several years thereafter, the Detroit Free Press reported a 7-1 vote in favor of the KWA project by Flint’s elected officials in March, 2013. The actual agreement date was April 2013. The cost of the pipeline was estimated to be $272 million, with Flint’s portion estimated at $81 million.
The City of Detroit objected due to loss of revenues at a time when a receiver was trying to stabilize the city’s finances (in conjunction with the State Treasurer). In February 2013, the engineering consulting firm of Tucker, Young, Jackson, Tull, Inc. (TYJT), at the request of the State Treasurer, performed an analysis of the water supply options being considered by the City of Flint. The preliminary investigation evaluated the cost associated with the required improvements to the plant, plus the costs for annual operation and maintenance including labor, utilities, chemicals and residual management. They indicated that the pipeline cost was likely low and Flint’s obligation could be $25 million higher and that there was less redundancy in the KWA pipeline than in Detroit’s system. In 2013, the City of Detroit made a final offer to convince Flint to stay on Detroit water with certain concessions. Flint declined the final Detroit offer. Immediately after Flint declined the offer, Detroit gave Flint notice that their long-standing water agreement would terminate in twelve months, meaning that Flint’s water agreement with Detroit would end in April 2014 but construction of KWA was not expected to be completed until the end of 2016.
It should be noted that between 2011 and 2015, Flint’s finances were controlled by a series of receivers/emergency managers appointed by the Governor. Cutting costs was a major issue and clearly their directive from the Governor. Cost are the major issue addressed in the online reports about the issue. Public health was not.
An engineering firm was hired as the old Flint River plan underwent $7 million in renovations in 2014 to the filters to treat volumes of freshwater for the citizens. The project was designed to take water from the Flint River for a period of time until a Lake Huron water pipeline was completed. The City of Flint began using the Flint River as a water source in May of 2014 knowing that treatment would need to be closely watched since the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey, and the City of Flint Utilities Department conducted a source water assessment and determined the susceptibility of potential contamination as having a very high susceptibility to potential contaminant sources (take a look at this photo and see what you think).
Flows were designed for 16 MGD. Lime softening, sand filters and disinfection were in place. Everything sounded great. But it was not. Immediately, in May and August of 2014, TTHM samples violated the drinking water standards. This means two things – total organic carbon (TOC) in the water and additional chlorine being added to disinfect and probably reduce color caused by the TOC. Softening does not remove TOC. Filtration is not very effective either. High concentration usually needs granular activated carbon, ion exchange or membranes. The flint plant had none of these, so the carbon staying in the water. To address the TTHM issue, chlorine appears to have been reduced as the TTHM issue was in compliance by the next sampling event in Nov 2014. However, in the interim new violations included a total coliform and E. coli in August and September of 2014, and indication of inadequate disinfection. That means boil your water and lots of public outcry. The pH, salinity (salt) and other parameters were reported to be quite different than the Detroit water as well. A variable river system with upstream agriculture, industry and a high potential for contamination, is not nearly as easy to treat as cold lake water. These waters are very different as they City was to find. What this appears to indicate is that the chemistry profile and sampling prior to conversion and startup does not appear to have been fully performed to identify the potential for this to occur or this would have been discovered. This is now being suggested in the press.
The change in water quality and treatment created other water quality challenges that have resulted in water quality violations. Like most older northern cities, the water distribution system in almost 100 years old. As with many other municipalities at the time, all of the service lines from the cast iron water mains (with lead joints) to end users homes were constructed with lead goosenecks and copper lines. Utilities have addressed this with additive to prevent corrosion. In the early 1990s water systems were required to comply with the federal lead and copper rule. The concept was that on the first draw of water in the morning, the lead concentration should not exceed 0.015 mg/L and copper should not exceed 1.3 mg/L. Depending on the size of the utility, sampling was to be undertaken twice and a random set of hoses, with the number of samples dependent on the size of the system. The sampling was required to be performed twice, six months apart (note routine sampling has occurred since then to insure compliance). Residents were instructed on how to take the samples, and results submitted to regulatory agencies. If the system came up “hot” for either compound, the utility was required to make adjustments to the treatment process. Ideally water leaving the plant would have a slightly negative Langlier saturation index (LSI) and would tend to slightly deposit on pipes. Coupon tests could be conducted to demonstrate this actually occurred. As they age, the pipes develop a scale that helps prevent leaching. Most utilities tested various products. Detroit clearly did this and there were no problems. Flint did not.
The utility I was at was a perfect 100% non-detects the first time were tested. We had a few detections of lead and copper in samples the second time which really bothered me since the system was newer and we had limited lead in the lines. I investigated this and found that the polyphosphate had been changed because the County purchasing department found a cheaper product. I forced them to buy the old stuff, re-ran the tests and was again perfect. We instructed our purchasing department that saving a few bucks did not protect the public health, but the polyphosphate product did. Business and cost savings does not trump public health! Different waters are different, so you have to test and then stay with what works.
Now fast forward to Flint. They did not do this testing. The Flint River water was different that Detroit’s. Salinity, TOC, pH and overall quality differed. Accommodations were not made to address the problem and the state found no polyphosphates were added to protect the coatings. Veolia reported that the operations needed changes and operators needed training. Facilities were needed to address quality concerns (including granular activated carbon filter media). As a result the City appears to have sent corrosive water into the piping system, which dissolved the scale that had developed over the years, exposing raw metal, and created the leaching issue. Volunteer teams led by Virginia Tech researchers reported found that at least a quarter of Flint households have levels of lead above the federal level of 15 ppb, and as high as 13,200 ppb. Aging cast-iron pipe compounded the situation, leading to aesthetic issues including taste, odor and discoloration that result from aggressive water (brown water). Once the City started receiving violations, public interest and scrutiny of the drinking water system intensified.
The City Commission reportedly asked the receiver to switch back to Detroit water, but that request was initially rebuffed and the damage to pipes continued. Finally in October 2015, the water supply was switched back to Detroit and the City started adding additional zinc orthophosphate in December 2015 to facilitate the buildup of the phosphate scale eroded from the pipes by the Flint River water. But that means the pipes were stable, then destabilized, now destabilized again by the switch back. It will now take some time for the scale to rebuild and to lower lead levels, leaving the residents of Flint at risk because of a business/finance/political decision that had not consideration of public health impacts. And what is the ultimate fate of the KWA pipeline?
Just when things were starting to look up (?), in January 2016, a hospital in Flint reported that low levels of Legionnaires’ disease bacteria were discovered in the water system and that 10 people have died and another 77 to 85 affected. From the water system? A disinfection problem? Still TOC in the water? The lawsuits have begun but where does the problem lie? Let’s look at Walkerton Ontario for guidance in the aftermath of their 2000 incident.
First it is clear that public health was not the primary driver for the decisions. Treating water is not as simple as cost managers think. You need to understand what water quality, piping quality and stabilization you have and address the potential issues with new water sources. Membrane systems are very familiar with these challenges. Cost cannot be the driver. The Safe Drinking Water Act does not say cost is a consideration you use to make decisions. Public health is. So the initial decision-making appears to have been flawed. Cost was a Walkerton issue – cost cannot be the limiting factor when public health is at risk.
The guidance from consultants or other water managers is unclear. If the due diligence of engineers as to water quality impacts of the change in waters was not undertaken, the engineering appears to have been flawed. If the engineer recommended, and has lots of documentation saying testing should be done, but also a file full of accompanying denials from the receivers, another flawed business decision that fails the public health test. If not, I see a lawsuit coming against the consultants who failed in their duty to protect the public health, safety and welfare.
The politics is a problem. A poor community must still get water and sewer service. Consultants that can deal with rate and fee issues should be engaged to address fairness and pricing burdens. Was this done? Or was cutting costs the only goal? Unclear. The politics was a Walkerton issue.
Was the water being treated properly? Water quality testing would help identify this. Clearly there were issues with operations. Telling the state phosphates were used when they were not, appears to be an operations error. Walkerton also had operations issues as well. A major concern when public health is at risk. Veolia came to a similar conclusion.
The state has received its share of blame in the press, but do they deserve it? The question I have is what does the regulatory staff look like? Has it been reduced as the state trims its budget? Are there sufficient resources to insure oversight of water quality? The lack of provincial resources to monitor water quality was an issue in Walkerton – lack of oversight compounded local issues. That would then involve the Governor and Legislature. Politics at work. Likewise was there pressure applied to make certain decisions? If so, politics before public heath – a deadly combination.
So many confounding problems, but what is clear is that Flint is an example of why public utilities should be operated with public health at the forefront, not cost or politics. Neither cost of politics protect the public health. While we all need finances to pay for our needs, in a utility, money supports the operations, not controls it. We seems to have that backward. Private entities look sat controlling costs. Public agencies should look at public service first; cost is down the list. We need the operations folks to get the funds needed to protect the public health. And then we need to get the politicians to work with the staff to achieve their needs, not limit resources to cut costs for political gain. Ask the people in Flint.
So is Flint the next Walkerton? Will there be a similar investigation by outside unconnected people? Will the blame be parsed out? Is there a reasonable plan for the future? The answers to these questions would provide utilities with a lot of lessons learned and guidance going forward and maybe reset the way we operate our utilities. Happy to be a part of it if so!
In an interesting twist of fate, USEPA caused a spill on the Animas River when a staffer accidently breached a dike holding back a solution of heavy metals at the Gold King mine because the misjudged the pressure behind the dike. Pressure? The spill flowed at 500 gpm (0.7 MGD), spilling yellow water spilled into the river. Downstream, the plume has travelled through parts of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, and will ultimately hit Lake Mead. Officials, residents, and farmers are outraged. People were told not to drink the water because the yellow water carried at least 200 times more arsenic and 3,500 times more lead than is considered safe for drinking. The conspiracy theorists are out. The pictures are otherworldly.
But they are all missing the point, and the problem. This is one of hundreds of “legacy disasters” waiting to happen. We are just surprised when they actually do. A legacy disaster is one that is predicated on events that have happened in the past, that can impact the future. In some cases the far past. There are two big ones that linger over communities all over the west and the southeast – mines and coal. Now don’t get me wrong, we have used coal and needed metals form mines. That’s ok. But the problem is no one has dealt with the effects of mining or coal ash for many years. And then people are upset. Why? We can expect these issues to happen.
One major problem is that both are often located adjacent to or uphill from rivers. That’s a disaster waiting to happen. The King Gold mine is just the latest. We had recent coal ash spills in Kingston, Tennessee (TVA, 2008) and the Dan River in 2014 (Duke Power). The Dan River spill was 30-40,000 tons. Kingston cleanup has exceeded a billion dollars. Coal ash is still stored at both places. Next to rivers. We had the federal government build ion exchange facilities in Leadville, CO and Idaho Springs, CO to deal with leaking water from mine tailings from the mountains. Examples are in the hundreds. The photos are of the two coal spills, mine tailings that have been sitting the ground for 140 years in Leadville and one of the stormwater ponds – water is red in Leadville, not yellow.
When the disaster does occur, the federal government ends up fixing it, as opposed those responsible who are usually long gone or suddenly bankrupt, so it is no surprise that EPA and other regulatory folks are often very skeptical of mining operations, especially when large amounts of water are involved. We can predict that a problem will happen, so expensive measures are often required to treat the waste and minimize the potential for damage from spills. That costs money, but creates jobs.
For those long gone or bankrupt problems, Congress passed the Superfund legislation 40 years ago to provide cleanup funds. But Congress deleted funding for the program in the early 2000s because they did not want to continue taxing the business community (mines, power plants, etc.). So EPA uses ARRA funds from 2009. And funding is down from historical levels, which makes some businesses and local communities happy. The spectre of Superfund often impacts potential developers and buyers who are concerned about impacts to future residents. We all remember Love Canals and Erin Brockovich. Lack of development is “bad.” They ignore the thousands or jobs and $31 billion in annual economic activity that cleanup creates, but it all about perception.
But squabbling about Superfund ignores the problem. We continue to stockpile coal ash near rivers and have legacy mine problems. Instead we should be asking different questions:
WHY are these sites permitted to store ash, tailings, and liquids near water bodies in the first place? EPA would not be inspecting them if the wastes were not there.
WHY aren’t the current operators of these mines and power plants required to treat and remove the wastes immediately like wastewater operators do? You cannot have millions of gallons of water, or tons of coal ash appear overnight on a site, which means these potential disasters are allowed to fester for long periods of time. Coal ash is years. Mine tailings… well, sometimes hundreds of years.
One resident on the news was reported to have said “Something should be done, something should be done to those who are responsible!” Let’s start with not storing materials on site, next to rivers. Let’s get the waste off site immediately and disposed of in a safe manner. Let’s recover the metals. Let’s start with Gold King mine. Or Duke Power. Or TVA.
A project I am currently involved with looks at the impacts of climate change on public health in southeast Florida. The initial grant focused on looking at socially vulnerable populations and the impact on chronic diseases these groups from climate change. The question was whether climate change, which in southeast Florida is basically sea level rise, would have an impact on health issues. On the face of it, the correlation between chronic health conditions and climate seems tenuous although the statistics support the link between chronic health impacts and socially vulnerable populations. But what is interesting is that in general, the climate vulnerable topography and the socially vulnerable people do not correlate. This may be a southeast Florida issue, but it is the less socially vulnerable who live in the climate vulnerable topography.
Those familiar with the history of southeast Florida know that makes sense because of the beaches. The beaches are topographically vulnerable but eh wealthy want to live there anyway. But the problem is more pervasive. The data actually can be mined further to reveal that the older homes (1940s-1960s), generally smaller and of lower value, were traditionally built on the high ground. Turns out our ancestors were a little smarter than we thought – they actually thought this out. Aside from Henry Flagler building the railroad on the high ground, most of the cities were located similarly – on the coastal ridge. Drainage of the Everglades permitted the western migration of residences – newer and larger, but at lower elevation and mostly reliant on drainage across the ridge to the ocean via canals. But as sea level rises, the water moves more slowly.
The question that must be asked then is what happens as this housing stock ages? We already see some newer communities, primarily built for retirees, moving to relieve themselves of the 55+ designations to allow the housing stock to be sold – the children of the retirees don’t want the property and desire to sell it – often quickly. To increase speed of sales (and ultimately retaining some value), eliminating the 55+ opens younger families to move in. However the lower value of the properties makes them conducive to migration of people who are social vulnerability, so migration may be toward social vulnerable people moving to topographically challenged property. That portends poorly for the link between climate and health in the future.
Two issues arise from the research. First future health vulnerability from climate may be more related to vectors and waterborne disease than chronic health effects. That expands the health vulnerability to all populations. The second issue is that storm water, sewer roadway and water infrastructure may relieve some pressure on these topographically vulnerable properties, but the people who are moving to then will have significantly less ability to pay for those improvements, creating a political conundrum that will that a significant amount of leadership to overcome. That means that resiliency must be built into infrastructure and redevelopment projects now, to address future conditions. Building in resiliency is not currently being considered by local planners and engineers because the situation is not well understood and a 50 year planning horizon is not the norm. Also, it would likely create a firestorm of fuss from developers who would pay the costs, which discourages good planning.
Finally, if things accelerate, wealthier parties may begin to see a retreat from vulnerable eastern beaches to higher ground as being a reasonable concept. However the high ground is currently occupied by socially vulnerable people, creating a potential area of conflict over the fate of displaced residents who’s social status may force them toward the vacant, topographically vulnerable properties. This is a future problem for planners, developers and officials approving new development with an eye to displacement a concept not in the current thought process. Thinking about vulnerability means a lot of infrastructure must not only be constructed, but maintained meaning local public works and utility budgets will need to increase in kind. That means higher rates and charges to populations that may have limits to their ability to pay Stay tuned…..