Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Air Time: Protect yourself while enjoying fireworks displays

By Seth Preston, Communications Manager, Air Quality Program

Like a lot of people, I love to watch fireworks displays. I’m looking forward to seeing several shows this 4th of July weekend, both in person and via TV broadcasts.

And, over the next several days, you can bet that folks in neighborhoods throughout the state will shoot off plenty of fireworks during their own celebrations.

While you’re celebrating, keep this in mind: Fireworks displays — the large, professional kind and the smaller neighborhood or family type — can generate high levels of unhealthy smoke.

In prior years, Ecology’s air monitors have shown high levels of fine particles in the air because of fireworks. These fine particles are made up of soot, dust and unburned fuel. Breathing them can cause or contribute to serious health problems, including:

  • Risk of heart attack and stroke
  • Lung inflammation
  • Reduced lung function
  • Asthma-like symptoms
  • Asthma attacks
  • Cancer
Ecology recommends that people with breathing problems or heart or lung disease avoid areas of heavy smoke by viewing fireworks displays from a safe distance. People who are especially sensitive should stay indoors (especially during the evening) and close the windows to avoid breathing the smoke.

Those most at risk for health effects are children, the elderly and people with lung or heart disease.

Even people who are healthy may have temporary symptoms such as irritation of the eyes, nose and throat; coughing; phlegm; chest tightness; and shortness of breath.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Gulf spill lessons: Lingering questions about damages to natural resources

By Rebecca Post, Natural Resource Damage Assessment Lead, Spill Prevention, Preparedness, and Response Program

As oil keeps gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, Ecology is continuing to identify lessons we can sleuth out from afar. Of course, those working the response to the BP Deepwater Horizon spill will get that knowledge first hand. Unfortunately, for this environmental catastrophe, Ecology and other Washington State agencies have yet to find a mechanism for getting our employees to the region to get firsthand experience.

Washington’s ‘Natural Resource Damage Assessment’ process for oil spills

My job at Ecology is focused on helping assess damages from oil spills to the public’s natural resources. I work for our Spill Prevention, Preparedness, and Response Program. In Washington, we have an established, formalized process called a “Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA)” that attempts to compensate the public for loss or injuries to their resources including:
  • Wildlife and habitats
  • Clean beaches
  • Recreational opportunities
Our NRDA process is very effective in getting money from spillers to perform resource restoration for smaller spills in Washington. Fortunately, we don’t have any oil rigs off our shores. The Deepwater Horizon spill is gigantic and comes from a continuous source 5,000 feet below the water’s surface. While we simply don’t face the same type of spill, there are still some critical NRDA lessons we can learn from the first 60 days of this environmental disaster.

In a big spill here, NRDA process will need command system structure support

The NRDA process is work that generally occurs independently of the Unified Command. In the Gulf spill, Unified Command is led by U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen. It is part of the National Incident Management System used in the United States to coordinate emergency preparedness and incident management among various federal, state, and local agencies. This is the system being used to respond to the Gulf spill and the same system we use for responding to oil spills and other environmental emergencies here in Washington. However, in any spill, there are certain aspects about NRDA that will need to be coordinated with general response work inside the command structure. A good example is working with command staff to get word out to the public, elected officials, and media to:

• Help alleviate public fears that “nothing is being done” to assess environmental damages
• Describe NRDA activities
• Outline which agencies and organizations are involved in NRDA activities

Long-term effects of dispersants in deep, cold waters a big unknown

The tradeoffs surrounding the issue of using dispersants is alive and well. The response community understands the physical process of moving oil from the surface into the water column using these chemical agents. However, the dispersant use, both in volume and duration, as well as on and below the surface of the water is unprecedented. I wonder what the final impacts will look like. The unknown effects are huge. The 1989 Exxon Valdez spill showed oil can have sub-lethal effects on many different organisms, especially in early life stages. We know little about the lethal and sub-lethal effects of the underwater oil plume and the oil-dispersant mix now in the water column in the Gulf.

The deep ocean is difficult to study. The potential for oil to remain there for a long time is quite real. In the Gulf of Mexico, the ocean surface is much warmer than the deep ocean. Warmer temperatures facilitate faster degradation. By keeping oil dispersed in colder water, there’s the possibility that degradation will take longer. Dealing with those trade-offs are new. From an NRDA perspective, the long-term impacts are critical to determine but not always easy to do. We need long-term scientific research to answer questions about the environmental impacts of oil and dispersants in a deep, cold water environment.

Should have ready agreements in place with our academic institutions here

Scientists and other assets such as research vessels from academic institutions were recruited early during the Gulf spill. Most vessels were on a federal project contract before the incident happened. Washington would be well-served to have prearranged agreements with academic institutions to use their people and equipment to help Washington State during a large spill. These resources would help build our depth of bench and ensure the brightest minds are conducting the scientific studies needed for a good NRDA case.

Getting early baseline data about resources crucial

Since the BP Deepwater Horizon spill started in federal waters, they were in the lead. However, as oil started to threaten the waters of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi, federal agencies had to start working with their state counterparts to collect baseline data. There was a great window of opportunity to accomplish this before any oil hit the beaches. In Washington, we have early assessment teams that can grab early baseline data on resource conditions. These baseline data are important pieces of the damage assessment puzzle. We need to continue to refine our process because those early data are vital and we may have the only teams on scene in the early hours. It is critical that we have data that are legally and scientifically defensible, accurate, and appropriate. We may not have the lead time they had in the Gulf.

Need protocol for testing surface washing agent use in Pacific Northwest

Our Northwest Area Contingency Plan which guides oil and hazardous material spill responses in the Pacific Northwest does a poor job addressing the use or testing for surfacing washing agents. Response efforts at the Deepwater Horizon spill are using chemical agents for various aspects of the clean-up and equipment decontamination. Our policy in the Pacific Northwest is silent on the use of these agents or even the methods for going about testing them.

Single source for wildlife information

Initial body counts of dead, captured, and released wildlife were posted to the web by individual contractors in an uncoordinated fashion. Unified Command finally:
• Developed their own tracking sheet
• Posted it to the response web page
• Shut down all ad hoc postings.

This ensures credible data is being generated for public consumption. While BP may be hiring contractors to do wildlife operations, Unified Command should be involved in verifying data and what’s released to the public. To avoid accusations we’re somehow hiding information from the public, this data needs to be verified, credible, and released early.

More NRDA lessons daily

There are new revelations every day that I could add to this list. Oil found in low concentrations at low sea depth cannot be classically “fingerprinted” back to the well blow-out source oil. This implies that potentially new chemical analysis procedures may be coming. The impacts to cultural resources will also be interesting to follow. We are trying to keep our fingers on the pulse of this event and tease out how Washington can learn and be better prepared for spills. The magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon event is so large it seems overwhelming.

Sharing lessons learned from the Gulf

We intend to keep blogging about the lessons learned from the Gulf and how they apply here in Washington. You can send us an email if there is a topic you want to hear about.

Friday, June 18, 2010

What we know about toxic chemicals reaching Puget Sound from rivers and stormwater

By Mindy Roberts, Environmental Engineer, Environmental Assessment Program

image of equipment retrieving water quality samples from a river that flows to Puget SoundA lot of attention has focused on the amount of toxic chemicals reaching Puget Sound from surface runoff from stormwater and rivers that drain to the Sound.

So how much goes in?

Simple question, but not a simple answer

It’s a simple question with a surprisingly complex answer because the information available evolves over time.

Crime data analogy

Think of it like this: “How much crime is there in Washington?” A simple question – but how readily available is that information, and how will the answer be used?
  • The first step is to find all available information on crime statistics at the state level to look at overall patterns and figure out what’s missing. You learn things from this initial pass. The information may answer some questions while raising even more. Inevitably, some parts of the state or particular crimes are underrepresented or not specific enough.
  • The next step is to seek out the missing information by compiling new information from additional sources. You wouldn’t know what those gaps are until you finish the first phase. You focus your effort on the biggest gaps and the biggest areas of uncertainty. This leads to better information, but now you find out that some counties track crimes differently or more thoroughly than others.
image of a man testing for toxic chemicals in river water samples

Step by step, patterns do emerge

Where do you focus your resources? Each stage shapes your understanding of a complex topic like crime patterns based on the best available information. The first phase might indicate whether overall crime in the state is up or down, but those patterns don’t hold for all crimes or for all areas of the state.

A single value like “up 10 percent” may be accurate but doesn’t help if your job is to reduce violent crime in one county or report on car thefts in a particular city. We need information at all of these levels to decide where to put our collective resources to reduce the biggest risks.

Understanding toxic pollutants to Puget Sound crucial

We need to know the levels of toxic chemicals entering Puget Sound for many reasons. For instance:
  • Are the levels a problem for humans or for fish?
  • If so, what are the major sources to target with finite resources?
  • What regions?
  • What land uses?
  • How much to reduce?
The first step is determining how much reaches Puget Sound or streams or lakes, but an even larger question we still must ask involves risk. What are the most important pollutants or crimes to control first and where should we focus our efforts? We could just reduce crime as a general statistic, but we need to prioritize -- what crime causes the most harm? First we need to know how much and what type of crimes are occurring.

Stepping stones for identifying toxic risks to Puget Sound

When Ecology, the Puget Sound Partnership, and others began asking the initial question “how much” several years ago, we did not have a readily available answer. In 2006, we began a project that includes not just toxic pollutants in surface runoff but also in fish and sediment, as well as human health concerns. The region could not wait five years for a final assessment, so we approached the toxics project in phases:

Phase 1: Initial estimates

Phase 1 provided us with initial toxics load estimates. We learned that when we add up the contributions from all chemicals and across all sources to Puget Sound, surface runoff (both river inputs and stormwater) is the dominant overall toxics source compared with other pathways (like wastewater and atmospheric deposition) and contributes millions of pounds per year. These other pathways may still be important for particular chemicals or areas. Phase 1 also identified areas where we needed more information.

Phase 2: Digging deeper into land-use contributions

Once we knew the importance of surface runoff, Phase 2 delved deeper and focused on what different land uses contribute. We learned that while surface runoff from forested lands represents the bulk of water reaching Puget Sound, residential land contributes disproportionately higher levels of pollutants including:
  • Heavy metals like copper, lead and zinc
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAHs)
  • Plasticizers
  • Herbicides
  • Oil and grease
That’s a significant finding because it helps us focus our management resources on residential land-use activities. Surface runoff from commercial-industrial and agricultural lands also carries disproportionately high levels of some toxic chemicals. While the specific numbers evolved, Phase 2 still found that millions of pounds of toxic chemicals reach Puget Sound each year.

Phase 3: Finding out what’s in that surface water runoff

We designed Phase 3 to collect new water samples from surface runoff from these land use types to improve the data available. We selected representative areas of the Puyallup and Snohomish River basins and will finish monitoring in summer 2010. The findings will be released this fall – don’t be surprised when the load numbers change.

Dynamic studies equal changing numbers

So why do these numbers change? It’s because the information that becomes available improves over time. We don’t know what gaps to fill until we compile the known information. And sometimes the underlying patterns change as well. Will the information ever be perfect? No.

Take crime reporting. It, too, changes over time – as do underlying crime patterns. Crime-fighting tools are evolving right now to capture new patterns like the rise in identity theft and cyber crime so they can be managed effectively. It doesn’t mean that other crime-fighting tactics should cease.

Ecology and its partners develop tools to understand overall toxics patterns as the initial step in determining whether the levels of toxic chemicals are problematic. “The answer” could vary by chemical and by area within the Puget Sound region. And “the answer” will depend if you are a spawning salmon, a subsistence fisherman, or any of the millions of residents, human or other, in the Puget Sound region. The best available information evolves over time. It’s a necessary part of the transparent scientific process.

The numbers lead us toward a better strategy

Gathering good information on the amount of toxics pollutants entering our Puget Sound waterways is a great step in finding new and better ways to reduce toxics. We are taking the next steps right now to identify the biggest sources of these toxics and what harm they are doing to the things we care about. For some toxics, we already had enough information to take action, such as mercury and some flame retardants that build up in our bodies and environment, or copper from brake pads that harm salmon. With this additional information, we can continue to focus our efforts on controlling the sources of those toxics that contribute the most harm.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Local girls inspired to pursue environmental careers

By Erika Holmes, Community Outreach & Environmental Education Specialist, Nuclear Waste Program

Ten high school girls from the Tri-Cities area traveled deep into the Umatilla National Forest in northeastern Oregon this week to learn about post-high school opportunities in the field of natural resources. Staying three days at the Buck Creek Cabins, attendees hiked, ate camp grub, hung around the fire at night, and met with representatives from Northwest environmental organizations at the first Environmental Career Camp for Young Women.

Ecology was fortunate enough to be invited to this forward-thinking event. Driving down beautiful wooded backroads dodging mule deer bucks with velvety antlers, I pulled into the Corporation Guard Station with just enough time to set up our presentation. Returning from a hike with camp coordinator Deanna Engelmann, the girls were ready to hear about opportunities at Ecology.

The eager soon-to-be juniors and seniors learned about public service, Ecology’s mission and our youth programs, and the history of Hanford. To give the girls a taste of what it’s like to work for Ecology’s Nuclear Waste Program, I also discussed my job and highlighted three other women in the office: hydrogeologist Suzanne Dahl, geologist Nancy Uziemblo, and permit writer Kristi Wold. The program’s popular groundwater model was also available for them to explore.

Funding for the camp came from a grant secured by the Kennewick School District which then partnered with Umatilla National Forest and the Mid-Columbia River National Wildlife Refuge. The goal is to make this an annual event. I just hope I can join them for the hike next time!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Cleanup expert returns from 'vacation' in Gulf

By Seth Preston, Communications Manager, Toxics Cleanup Program

Ecology’s Andy Kallus just got back from a vacation in Venice.

No, not the famed Italian city — the little town on Louisiana’s far southeast coast, where he worked for nearly three weeks as a contractor on perhaps the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

Andy is the Toxics Cleanup Program’s baywide coordinator for Puget Sound Initiative work in and around Port Gardner Bay in Everett. He took vacation from Ecology to do some work for Weston Solutions Inc., his former employer. Weston Solutions is contracting with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for cleanup work on the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Andy’s job involved taking water and oil samples at various locations off Louisiana’s coast. He also conducted reconnaissance for oil-affected areas.

“I was on the boat every day, sampling for petroleum, dispersants and water quality,” Andy said Monday, June 7, his first day back at Ecology.

One day, Win McNamee, chief photographer for Getty Images, tagged along on the boat. He shot images of Andy and others as they went about their daily work. (One of the photos accompanies this post.)

Photos of Andy were displayed nationwide on the ABC News, National Public Radio and MSNBC websites, as well as in the pages of USA Today.

The boat from which Andy did his sampling was owned and piloted by a local fisherman. Venice, La., is a small town of about 500 people that depends on the fishing industry and activities linked to the nearby off-shore oil rigs.

Tiny Venice was full of cleanup contractors, media, federal responders, BP workers, and onlookers. Andy said the disaster’s effects are devastating for the area.

“It’s considered one of the best places in the world to go fishing... They’ve closed it now to fishing. It’s affecting everyone’s livelihoods down there,” Andy observed. “The local people are especially devastated by this since the majority of them had to completely rebuild after hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.”

“You take something away from it — being around it, seeing the people. And it’s just beginning.”

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Neah Bay emergency response tug funding: Ecology expects seamless transition

By Kelli Gustaf, Spill Preparedness Planner

News of the devastating impacts surrounding the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has me thinking about oil spill preparedness in Washington State. For the past year, the maritime industry has been diligently working on a plan to fund a year-round emergency response towing vessel stationed at Neah Bay, Washington.

I’m happy to share that in less than a month, the private, state-regulated maritime industry in our state will take over the funding to keep an Emergency Response Towing Vessel (ERTV) permanently stationed at Neah Bay. The transition from public funding to the private sector starts Thursday, July 1, 2010.

Important safety net

The ERTV is a critical safety net to keep disabled ships from running aground and spilling oil in the western Strait of Juan de Fuca and Washington’s outer coast. There are few, if any, emergency response assets that can be quickly called on to assist vessels in distress in our waters west of Port Angeles – except for the Neah Bay tug.

Here’s what it means for the public:
  • A high-capability ocean-going tug will be permanently stationed at Neah Bay year round to assist oil tankers and large cargo and passenger vessels that lose propulsion or maneuverability.
  • Instead of taxpayers shouldering the burden of funding a tug, the responsibility will be picked up by our maritime industry, which poses the greatest risk of an oil spill.
  • There will be no break in service. This means potential spill impacts to environmental, economic, and cultural resources including tribal and coastal communities, the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, Olympic National Park, national wildlife refuges, and critical fish and shellfish habitat areas in the western Strait of Juan de Fuca and our outer coast will be minimized.
  • The Department of Ecology and the U.S. Coast Guard can still deploy the industry funded tug as necessary to support vessel emergencies.

Some tug history

The Washington State Legislature has provided funding to Ecology to station an emergency tug at Neah Bay since 1999. At first, there was only enough funding to keep a tug at Neah Bay during the winter season when the weather was the most treacherous. Beginning July 1, 2008, the Legislature provided $3.6 million – enough funding for a full year of service for the first time. The contract was extended for another full year from July 1, 2009, through June 30, 2010.

Tug proves its mettle

The tug now is completing the last days of its public contract with Ecology. During the last 10 years a tug has been stationed at Neah Bay, and has stood by or assisted 45 ships either completely disabled or with reduced maneuvering ability. During 11 responses, a tug attached a tow line to take physical control of the disabled vessel to safely tow it to a harbor for repairs. We estimate the Neah Bay tug has helped prevent several million gallons of oil from being spilled in some of our most sensitive waters. Ecology developed a map showing where these responses have been made during the past decade.

Getting ready for the transition

When Governor Chris Gregoire signed Senate Bill 5344 on March 24, 2009 – also the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill – the law required industry to file progress reports in October and December 2009 that addressed methods for assessing costs, limitations and developing a response system for deploying the tug. These reports were submitted.

By August 2010, the state-regulated maritime industry was also required to incorporate the Neah Bay tug into their oil spill contingency plans with Ecology detailing the emergency response tug system, tug notification process, a commitment to include the emergency response tug in oil spill response drills, and to report to Ecology whenever the tug is deployed. We recently provided industry with key guidance to update their contingency plans.

Maritime industry agree how to fund private tug

Through negotiations, industry worked to identify a mechanism for funding the tug. Under the current contract the Western States Petroleum Association, which represents companies that ship oil in bulk, will pay 57% of the tug costs while the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, which represents cargo shipping companies, will pay 43%.

Ecology can penalize vessels that violate their contingency plans

While we can penalize state-regulated vessels if they operate in our waters without an approved contingency plan or violate the provisions of their existing plan, we anticipate the transition from a publicly-funded tug to a private one at Neah Bay will go seamlessly.

As we get new information, we’ll keep you posted. And if you have thoughts about the benefits or drawbacks to an industry-funded tug – or just general questions, please let me know at kelli.gustaf@ecy.wa.gov.

For more information, see Ecology's Spills Program and Response Tug webpages.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Ecology to host Green Chemistry training for middle school educators

by Ken Zarker, Pollution Prevention, Hazardous Waste and Toxics Reduction program

Do you know a middle school science educator or have a personal interest in environmental education? If so, please contact me to help recruit teachers to attend the state's first Green Chemistry educators' workshop at Ecology's Lacey building July 27-29.

Ecology is partnering with several organizations to host this world-class training program. The course, “Chemistry with a Conscience: The Science of Shampoo" is a three-day training that provides middle school teachers with knowledge and methods for bringing Green Chemistry to their students.

The middle school unit covers science, math, language arts, and social studies themes of Green Chemistry through a business simulation. The units have been classroom tested and are currently being used by teachers in multiple countries and in many different learning environments.

Brooke Carson and Rachel Pokrandt of the Beyond Benign Foundation and the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry are collaborating with Ecology, the Environmental Education Association of Washington and several other partners to help establish K-12 science educator training in Washington.

For more information:
Contact info: Ken Zarker, ken.zarker@ecy.wa.gov, 360-407-6724

Dishwasher detergents are now lending a hand to clean water

by Brook Beeler, environmental educator, Eastern Region Office

Have you noticed? The detergent industry has changed the formula of your favorite dishwasher detergent product. Look around, now you’ll only be finding the new, low-phosphate formulas on the grocery shelves.

This change affects everybody who runs a dishwasher in their home kitchen.

So what?

Phosphorus is a water pollution problem because when it gets into our waters, it acts like a fertilizer to algae and other aquatic plants in fresh water. When these plants and organisms die, their decay uses up oxygen, suffocating our fish and other aquatic life.

And sewer treatment plants can’t remove all of the phosphorus that arrives in untreated water.

Statewide and beyond

So starting in July 1st, Spokane and Whatcom counties won’t be the only counties in Washington state to require the sale of low phosphate automatic dishwashing detergents for residential use. The new law goes into effect for all of Washington and 15 other states on July 1.

In an ongoing effort to improve water quality in our lakes, rivers, streams, and marine waters, Washington will stop the distribution and sale of dishwasher detergents that contain more than 0.5 percent phosphorus. Because soaps designed for washing dishes by hand are already phosphorus-free, the new requirement affects only soaps used in automatic dishwashers.

The Washington Legislature passed the law in 2006 and it went into effect in Spokane and Whatcom counties in July 2008.

The new limits on phosphorus in dishwasher detergent are an extension of phosphorus limits already in place for laundry detergent. By reducing phosphorus in our everyday household products, we can reduce nutrient pollution.

We’re on a roll

The Soap and Detergent Association tell us the rest of the United States and Canada are also jumping on the new low-phosphate dishwasher detergent diet!

Removing phosphorus from dishwashing detergents is just one action being taken to protect Washington’s Waters from pollution. The simplest way to reduce phosphorus in water is to not put it in there in the first place.

The other 15 states joining Washington in the move away from phosphate-laden detergents July 1, 2010 are Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Want all the details on the dishwasher detergent law? Visit our reducing phosphorus webpage. You find resources and learn how alternative products work.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Around the Sound: Rayonier sampling plan progress

By Marian Abbett, Site Manager

Just a quick update for those following the site cleanup...
On May 21st Ecology returned comments on Rayonier’s draft work plan for sampling soil and groundwater. We need to better understand contamination on the former mill property before looking at what cleanup options make sense.

According to the cleanup schedule, Rayonier’s final sampling work plan is due by July 20. This will allow samplers to work during good weather months.

If you’re new to the Rayonier Mill cleanup, check out a recent fact sheet and our other blogs.