Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Fecal Matters: A No-Contact Advisory for Port Washington Narrows, Kitsap County

BEACH Program Update

On 2/20/2018, Kitsap Public Health District issued a "no-contact" advisory for Port Washington Narrows due to a combined sewer overflow. The no-contact advisory will be in place through February 23rd. Signs are being posted at public access points including Lions Field, Evergreen Park, and Lents Landing. The public is advised to avoid contact with the water in the affected area.

Contact with fecal contaminated waters can result in gastroenteritis, skin rashes, upper respiratory infections, and other illnesses. Children and the elderly may be more vulnerable to waterborne illnesses.
Stay updated about water quality at your beaches by keeping up with us on our blog Fecal Matters, on Facebook, or join our listserv.

Julianne Ruffner, our BEACH Program Manager, is available at 360-407-6154 or julianne.ruffner@ecy.wa.gov for questions.


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Progress on the persistent problem of PCBs

Back in 2015, Ecology released a set of recommendations to address the toxic chemicals known as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Over the past several months, we reviewed those recommendations, and found that Washington is making slow progress toward getting PCBs out of the environment.

Some caveats: Getting rid of PCBs in many cases requires conducting a comprehensive survey of, for instance, every light fixture in a building, or testing caulk and paint on the outside of a building. Understandably, this makes it difficult for organizations to be completely confident they’ve truly examined every inch of a building. And it means that we lack information about a lot of buildings and equipment that have not received that level of scrutiny.

Given that PCBs were banned more than 40 years ago, you might wonder why it’s taken so long to actually get rid of them. The answer speaks both to why PCBs were so widely used and why they’re such a toxic threat. Simply put, these chemicals are just really, really persistent – they stick around forever and don’t break down.

Back in the mid-20th century, that was considered a benefit, not a problem. Adding PCBs to your paint or caulk or using them in electrical transformers promised long-lasting performance. Of course, we eventually figured out that using highly toxic chemicals in all sorts of common products was not a recipe for a healthy environment.

PCBs can cause cancer and other health effects, and they tend to build up in the food chain, increasing the impacts on apex predators like orca whales – and people. Because of this, and because of their longevity, PCBs are a concern even at extraordinarily low concentrations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s water quality standard for PCBs in Washington is 7 parts per quadrillion. A quadrillion is a 1 followed by 15 zeros. It’s a hard number to even wrap your mind around – it’s been compared to picking up one grain of sand from an entire beach.

Tackling toxics

To tackle this problem, Ecology and the Washington State Department of Health developed a chemical action plan for PCBs, with input from industry, environmental groups and other organizations. After more than a year of study, the agencies released the 2015 recommendations.

Several of the recommendations were straightforward, such as looking in schools and public buildings to check whether any of the fluorescent light fixtures in these facilities were decades-old leftovers that still used PCBs in their transformers. Some of the recommendations were much more challenging, such as addressing the minute quantities of PCBs still being created as byproducts of common manufacturing methods – such as making certain pigments and dyes.

School lights remain an ongoing concern and spotlight the difficulty of documenting PCB eradication.  While we believe Washington schools have gotten most of them out, there have been documented instances of PCB-leaking fluorescent light ballasts.

Safer chemistry begins at home

These same ballasts may linger in out-of-the-way closets or basements in our homes, in our garages or in public buildings. Now is a good time to check! The Environmental Protection Agency provides tips to help identify ballasts that may contain PCBs:

  •     Ballasts manufactured before July 1, 1979 may contain PCBs
  •     Ballasts manufactured between July 1, 1979, and July 1, 1998, that do not contain PCBs must be labeled "No PCBs"
  •     If a ballast is not labeled "No PCBs," it is best to assume it contains PCBs unless it is known to be manufactured after 1979
  •     Ballasts manufactured after 1998 are not required to be labeled
You can find more tips on the U.S. EPA’s website: Polychlorinated Biphenyl (PCB)-Containing Fluorescent Light Ballasts (FLBs) in School Buildings

Slow progress

All of this is not to say that we haven’t been making progress: The Department of Health offered workshops for school districts on the risk these obsolete light fixtures represented, and the Washington Department of Commerce included replacing these lights as a preferred use for its energy efficiency grants. Many other school districts had already replaced their 40-plus-year-old light fixtures with newer, more energy efficient models.

Large electrical transformers – the kind you find on a electrical pole or at a substation – also used to use PCB-containing oil. Avista, the utility that serves much of eastern Washington, reports that it has tracked down and removed all of these transformers. Seattle City Light says that it has removed more than 7 million pounds of PCB-containing electrical equipment, and that it continues to hunt down any that remain. Ecology is still assessing what progress other utilities in the state are making.

Getting at the byproduct PCBs that continue to be produced in pigments and other materials is a trickier project, but progress is being made there as well. Ecology has conducted two studies testing common consumer products for PCB byproducts.The bad news is that we found very low levels of PCBs – in the parts per billion range – in a wide range of products. Not all similar products contained PCBs, however, so it may be possible to improve manufacturing processes to avoid creating these byproducts.

Ecology and the Washington Department of Enterprise Services are developing new state purchasing guidelines to help the state buy products without PCB byproducts, as directed by a 2014 state law.

There’s still a lot of work to be done on PCBs – including doing more monitoring to look at PCB levels in the environment, and biomonitoring to study PCB levels in people. It’s likely to be a long, long time before we no longer have to worry about this toxic legacy. Knowing that we are making progress, however, should give us hope that we can get there.

Learn more:

By Andrew Wineke, Hazardous Waste and Toxics Reduction

Friday, February 9, 2018

Eyes Under Puget Sound: Critter of the Month – The Sea Mouse

A Sea Mouse from above, labelling the head, setae and elytra. The latter two are visible because part of the body covering is removed.
This juvenile Aphrodita specimen has
had some of its dorsal (top) covering
removed, exposing the elytra beneath.
This month, love is in the air – and in the mud! With a scientific name that originates from Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of love, we think the Sea Mouse is a perfectly lovable addition to the fauna of Puget Sound.

Worm and fuzzy

Kingdom Animalia; Phylim Annelida; Class Polychaeta; Order Phyllodocida; Family Aphroditidae; Genus Asphrodita
The Sea Mouse may be brown and fuzzy, but that is about all it shares with its mammalian namesake. Believe it or not, the Sea Mouse is actually a marine segmented worm, or polychaete! This is more obvious if you flip it over on its back, exposing its segmented underside.

Sea Mice are members of the family Aphroditidae - one of several families of scale worms, characterized by elytra (scale-like plates running down their backs). However, the Sea Mouse’s elytra are completely hidden under a tangled mat of hair-like setae and mucus that cover the worm’s dorsal (top) surface.

Pulling the wool over your eyes

Two views of a sea mouse. One from above, shows the body covered in what looks like fur. The other shows the fleshy, segmented underside.
TOP: Aphrodita japonica captured at 70 me-
ter depth, west of Yellow Island, WA. Photo
courtesy of Dave Cowles, wallawalla.edu.
BOTTOM: A juvenile Aphrodita sp., showing
its fleshy, segmented underside.
As the Sea Mouse crawls along in the sediment, its setae pick up mud and silt particles and other debris, adding to its woolly appearance. In fact, you can barely make out any features under this dorsal covering, but if you look underneath the hairs at the worm’s front end, you can see a tiny head with a single antenna, a pair of sensory appendages called palps, and two pairs of eyespots.

The Puget Sound species of Aphrodita are typically scavengers, using their palps to search around in the mud for delicious dead things to munch on. However, some species of Sea Mice found elsewhere in the world are predators, eating other polychaetes and small crabs.

Mouse trap

On the polychaete size scale, the Sea Mouse is actually pretty hefty, with some growing to about 15 cm (6 inches) long. They live in soft sediments, like mud or sand, generally in shallow depths (to about 120 meters in Puget Sound). Although we sample in these areas, we rarely see sea mice in our benthic grabs. However, when we do, we have to examine them closely under a microscope to make sure we identify them correctly. We look at the number of segments, the length of the antennae and the type of setae to distinguish the three species we see in Puget Sound: Aphrodita japonica, A. negligens, and A. parva.

Of mice and men

The head is shown, with palps on either side labeled.

Head of an Aphrodita specimen, dorsal
(top) view.
The Sea Mouse has two kinds of setae:
  1. Long, soft hairs that cover its back.
  1. Tough, hollow bristles made of chitin that stick out of its parapodia, or feet.
In the Shimmering Sea Mouse, Aphrodita aculeata (which does not occur in Puget Sound, but, rather, in the Atlantic), these bristles are bright iridescent colors, which may be a defense mechanism to scare away potential predators.

A close-up view of Sea Mouse bristles.
Close-up of bristles around the
bottom of Aphrodita negligens
A. aculeata’s amazing bristles may have other uses too – for humans! Researchers in Norway have found that the properties which give the worms’ hairs their iridescence also lend themselves very well to nanotechnology – the science of studying and controlling very small things, like atoms. The Sea Mouse’s bristles can be used as tiny wires (called nanowires) to conduct charged ions, making them potentially useful for building miniature electronic devices such as in-vitro health sensors and computer processors. Talk about a mighty mouse!

By: Dany Burgess & Angela Eagleston, Environmental Assessment Program

Critter of the Month

Our benthic taxonomists, Dany and Angela, are scientists who identify and count the benthic (sediment-dwelling) organisms in our samples as part of our Marine Sediment Monitoring Program. We are tracking the numbers and types of species we see in order to understand the health of Puget Sound and to detect any changes over time.

Dany and Angela share their discoveries by bringing us a Benthic Critter of the Month. These posts will give you a peek into the life of Puget Sound’s least-known inhabitants. We’ll share details on identification, habitat, life history, and the role each critter plays in the sediment community. Can't get enough benthos? See photos from our Eyes Under Puget Sound collection on Flickr.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Everett area could get nearly $4 million for habitat restoration

Proposed settlement available for public comment through March 2

Port Gardner Bay and Lower Snohomish River Estuary looking south 
from Everett's Preston Point.  Source: Port of Everett, 2017
A proposed settlement, now available for public comment, could provide nearly $4 million to fund restoration sites in Port Gardner Bay and the Snohomish River damaged by industrial pollution.

Three companies – Kimberly Clark, Jeld Wen, and Weyerhaeuser – voluntarily entered into a consent decree with the Port Gardner Trustee Council to compensate for natural resource damages.

The Trustee Council, consisting of state and federal agencies and tribal governments, is part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration process that we and other natural resource trustees use to restore, recover, or protect natural resources and habitats affected by contamination. In Washington state, more than 600 acres of habitat projects have been built due to Natural Resource Damage settlements with polluters.

The Trustee Council, which includes Ecology, Fish and Wildlife, the Tulalip and Suquamish Tribes, U.S. Departments of Justice and Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, evaluated the injury to aquatic natural resources in the Everett area, as allowed under state and federal regulations.

The Trustees intend to use the settlement funds for the Blue Heron Slough Restoration Project, a proposed restoration on Steamboat Slough and Union Slough in the Snohomish River estuary, which will restore about 340 acres of intertidal, marsh, and riparian habitat and benefit birds, fish, and other aquatic life. The project was chosen as part of the Restoration Plan of 2016.

The proposed settlement consent decree is now available for public comment through March 2, 2018. You can review the proposed consent decree and provide comments at the Department of Justice website. If you would like more information about the settlement, contact Jeff Krausmann at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at jeff_krausmann@fws.gov or 360-753-6053.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Boots on the ground: Two deployments, two different roles

By Eric Rushton, Washington Conservation Corps AmeriCorps member

WCC AmeriCorps members have been serving in Puerto Rico for 30-days at a time since October 2017, assisting communities after Hurricane Maria made landfall in September 2017. WCC AmeriCorps members will return home this month from deployments to Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

An avid hiker, I joined the Washington Conservation Corps last fall to learn how to build and improve trails around my hometown of Issaquah. During the recruitment process, I learned my crew would be supporting more than trail projects: We were set to deploy to the U.S. Virgin Islands in the first week of our 11-month term to assist with hurricane relief efforts.

The prospect of being away from home for a month didn’t concern me, especially since I had served five years in the U.S. Navy where I only saw my home on occasion. Helping communities on the islands of St. Thomas and St. John proved to be rewarding, illuminating, and challenging. WCC AmeriCorps members are serving with a local volunteer organization, All Hands and Hearts. Together we assisted homeowners who needed storm-damaged materials and trees removed from their homes and properties.

A second mission: Puerto Rico
WCC AmeriCorps member Erin Harris uses her
Spanish skills to set up assessment appointments.
Photo contributed by Eric Rushton.
Two months after returning home from the U.S. Virgin Islands, we got another opportunity to assist communities affected by hurricanes, this time in Puerto Rico. We arrived on Jan. 12 as part of WCC’s third mission assignment in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Similar to my previous deployment, the local residents are facing damaged property and a variety of other challenges.  Our team of 48 WCC AmeriCorps members is serving alongside AmeriCorps members from St. Louis, SBP, and the California Conservation Corps.

Unlike my last deployment, where I served in the field interacting directly with the community, I have been given the opportunity to serve in the command center, or Joint Field Office (JFO), as public information officer and deputy operations chief. I’ve experienced how the command staff bears the brunt of responsibility in handling incoming information and requests from the community, issuing daily work orders, and generally ensuring the mission is a success for everyone.

Embracing responsibility
Day after day, responsibility is the word and feeling of the day. My colleagues and I take to heart the responsibility we have to Puerto Rico and our fellow citizens who have been affected by the hurricanes. We have the responsibility to equip our AmeriCorps members with the supplies, information, and direction they need to help as much as possible before this whirlwind of grit and sweat comes to an end.

This responsibility drives each of us minute by minute, and the stress wears on us as the days go by. But the great thing about being part of a team is that we get to lift each other up throughout the day!

We can only be successful if everyone is successful. Every day I hear conversations and see actions by each one of us that builds up our team. This was true when I was serving in the field removing debris in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and I’m happy to report that it’s true as I serve in a command staff position in Puerto Rico. Does it trickle down, or does it trickle up? It’s both. We all can affect the success of this or any mission by the individual actions we take, no matter which role we find ourselves in.

WCC AmeriCorps members gather for a briefing on how to properly re-seal a concrete roof.
Photo by Liz Esikoff.

Join the WCC
Do you want to help the environment, meet great people and make a difference in your community? We are now accepting applications for six-month WCC AmeriCorps members! Learn more and apply online today. See photos of the types of projects WCC members support during their service in our WCC projects Flickr set and WCC featured projects story map.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Fecal Matters: Windjammer Park is CLOSED to Water Contact Recreation, Island County

BEACH Program Update

On February 5, 2018, Island County Public Health issued a no water contact health advisory for Windjammer Park. This closure is in response to a sewage spill that discharged into Oak Harbor. The public is advised to avoid contact with the water in the affected area until the health department has removed the closure signs posted at this beach.

Contact with fecal contaminated waters can result in gastroenteritis, skin rashes, upper respiratory infections, and other illnesses. Children and the elderly may be more vulnerable to waterborne illnesses.

Stay updated about water quality at your beaches by keeping up with us on our blog Fecal Matters, on Facebook, or join our listserv.

Julianne Ruffner, our BEACH Program Manager, is available at 360-407-6154 or julianne.ruffner@ecy.wa.gov for questions.

“How much clean air do we need?”

That was the question Lee Iacocca asked Congress when he was vice president of Ford in the late 1960s. He objected to the federal Clean Air Act, which passed in 1970, because he thought it would cripple manufacturing.

In the beginning

A few years earlier, in July 1967, Washington had passed its own Clean Air Act. The Department of Ecology didn’t exist yet. Instead, the responsibility to protect the state's air was distributed among a number of county-based air pollution control boards that enforced federal, state, and local air quality rules.

Before those local air pollution control boards were formed, our skies were filled with dense smoke and particles coming out of smokestacks from industry. Air pollution was so bad (How bad was it?) it created visibility hazards on the roads and foul smells in cities of all sizes.

“Imagine hanging your white sheets outside to dry and coming home to find them covered in mud droplets, or your car covered in soot,” said longtime Air Quality Engineer Al Newman. The lumber industry had old inefficient boilers that spit out harmful, black, carbon-filled smoke. In addition, concrete plants and other industries had less advanced pollution control technology, and rules weren’t as protective of human health as they are today.

Some of the air pollution control boards merged into larger agencies serving major regions, like Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula. Others stayed county-based, such as Benton, Spokane, and Yakima. Counties that didn’t form boards were regulated by the state Air Quality Control Board, which eventually became part of Ecology when the agency was formed in July 1970 — five months before EPA was created. We’ve got bragging rights! It was the same year as the first Earth Day. 

That state Air Quality Control Board and the air quality control section from the Washington Department of Health became Ecology’s Air Quality Program. Our mission is to “protect, preserve, and enhance the air quality of Washington to safeguard public health and the environment, and support high quality of life for current and future generations.” Ecology's Eastern and Central Regional Offices now regulate air quality in much of Eastern Washington, except Benton, Spokane, and Yakima counties. Northwest Regional Office regulates San Juan County. Tribal governments protect air quality in their areas, with technical assistance from EPA.

Keeping the air clean

Ecology and seven local clean air agencies help keep the air clean by:
  • Developing and enforcing rules about air quality.
  • Regulating harmful emissions from vehicles, burning, and industrial activities, and reducing greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.
  • Issuing air quality permits. Inspecting – and fining, when necessary – businesses and industries that have those permits.
  • Tracking air quality using about 70 air monitoring stations.
  • Developing plans to maintain and improve air quality.
  • Informing the public about air conditions.
  • Educating the public about making healthy, clean air choices.
Everyone deserves to breathe clean air.
By Miriam Duerr | Air Quality