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Category — Bad Water

Harper’s Instagram post teasing my story, “The Hidden Rivers of Brooklyn.”

Some folks living in the Gowanus watershed, at Brooklyn's western edge, dream of restoring a bit of the polluted canal’s natural function and softening its edges with vegetation. But those visions give Carl Alderson, who is coordinating the canal’s ecological restoration, bouts of agita. "What we think of as a creek system is gone,” he said. “For a softer edge to be meaningful, folks in the neighborhood will have to do one thing: stop being hip. Land values are too high for anyone to seriously consider relinquishing parcels so that they can be transformed into natural infrastructure. We have just enough room here for a few potted plants." // A kayak excursion on the canal in fall 2013 shaped Alderson’s first impressions of the Gowanus. On that day, the milky green water was stippled with skinless rats, feces, and Coney Island whitefish. When the disgusted scientist clambered out of his boat at trip’s end, he abraded his forearm on a slimy bulkhead. Within a day, the area grew itchy. Then it hardened and turned red. The infection immobilized his arm for nearly four weeks. “What an abomination is the Gowanus," Alderson later wrote me. "This restoration will be the ultimate challenge." —By Elizabeth Royte. // Read Royte's story, "The Hidden Rivers of Brooklyn," in the March issue of Harper's: (link in bio). #journalism #gowanuscanal #brooklyn #elizabethroyte Photo courtesy of Flickr/Listen Missy!

A photo posted by Harper’s Magazine (@harpersmagazine) on


February 26, 2016   1 Comment

Welcome, new fountains!

Went down the other day to see the new Whole Foods at 3rd Avenue and 3rd Street, hard by the ol’ Gowane. Nice to see the company installed several drinking water fountains –frost resistant, too — in the park that surrounds their permeably paved parking lot. Sip and savor as the smell of CSOs (which dump raw sewage into the canal following as little as 1/2 inch of rain) wafts off the turn-around basin to the south (that’s the Harvest Dome 2.0 in the background). So happy to see new fountains springing up, and looking forward to seeing more as Canal cleanup and development proceeds.

December 22, 2013   No Comments

Promised Land spoiler alert: Frances McDormand gets to PUNCH Jason Bourne!

Activists eager for Hollywood’s first drama centered on hydraulic fracturing may be disappointed by Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land, which is more a portrait of a small town under siege by corporate interests than an exposé of the controversial method of extracting natural gas. The film follows Steve Butler (Matt Damon) and Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) as they attempt to buy subsurface mineral rights in the close-knit farming community of McKinley, Pennsylvania, which sits atop the gas-rich Marcellus Shale. The town is economically depressed, and presumably ripe to be saved by energy companies offering $5,000 an acre with 18 percent royalties.

Butler is good at his job: he grew up in a farming town that shriveled after Caterpiller pulled out, and he exudes blue-collar sympathy for the struggling farmers of McKinley. Natural gas is your only salvation, he tells them; it will raise your tax base and improve the quality of schools so that your children can escape to a better future.

Things appear to be going well for the landmen (and yeah, McDormand gets to repeatedly punch Damon, in a big sisterly way, with no ballistic payback, which I found hilarious) until a frail, elderly high-school teacher (played by Hal Holbrook) raises vague environmental objections to fracking at a town meeting. Unruffled and affable, Butler assures the crowd that government regulations will keep everyone safe. The teacher responds with the energy industry’s worst nightmare: he suggests that McKinley take a vote.

Butler and Thomason shake off the white-haired prophet’s warning only to be confounded by the arrival of an outside agitator: an earnest environmentalist named Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), who pitches his own farming narrative during an open-mic session at a local bar. After letting frackers onto my Nebraska farm, Noble tells the rapt crowd, seventeen cows died, and “the land just turned brown and died.”

What is the link between fracking and dead cows? No one asks, but the momentum has turned. (We know this because the patrons eagerly join Noble as he croaks out “Dancin’ in the Dark.”) The next day, Noble shows up at the local elementary school to explain fracking to a class. But this teachable moment, for moviegoers who might not know what unconventional gas extraction is all about, is blown when Noble dumps a random assortment of household chemicals onto a miniature farm and sets it on fire. Is this the best evidence he can muster against fracking? This laughably misleading demonstration is an insult to environmental educators everywhere. Still, it’s a hit with the schoolchildren and their teacher, whose affections Noble and Butler are soon competing for.

Promised Land is now a race against time. Will Noble win over more people — including the teacher — before the town votes on whether to allow fracking, or will Butler collect enough lease signatures? The story focuses on its charismatic antagonists, but it gives short shrift to the real-life frictions — between family members, neighbors, and community members — generated by the prospect of easy Marcellus money. The people of McKinley seem strangely detached from the matter at hand: why do so many of them reject fracking — which could hold foreclosures at bay — if they don’t understand its potential to harm the air, water, and soil? Is one photo of dead cows really enough to sway them? (Promised Land was filmed in two Pennsylvania counties with several hundred active gas wells, but it doesn’t show a single drilling pad or tanker truck.)

While frustratingly vague about characters’ motivations, Promised Land challenges viewers’ expectations and stereotypes, and its plot takes some surprising twists. The movie is most successful at conveying the lengths to which a corporation will go to subvert democracy and win community approval. In their newly purchased flannel shirts, Butler and Thomason bribe a local politician with $30,000; pay an environmental activist to disappear; ingratiate themselves by playing drinking games at the bar; and even throw a country fair, complete with petting zoo, Ferris wheel, and new uniforms for the baseball team. (There’s more to the company’s depravity, but revealing it here would spoil the fun.)

Ultimately, Promised Land is more about relationships and trust than the consequences of shooting millions of gallons of chemically laced water deep into the earth’s crust. Fractivists will have to be satisfied that moviegoers will depart the cinema knowing the oil and gas industry has something to hide — even if they’re not sure exactly what it is.

This review originally appeared at, but I wanted to note here on my water blog another of the movie’s subthemes. The film opens, and closes, with an underwater image of Butler washing his face in the basin of a sink, a cleansing act of quasi-religious significance that speaks, also, to transparency. We see Butler’s distorted, tense features through the water, and we know he’s not being straight with himself or, later, the townsfolk. Throughout the film, Butler and Thomason clutch bottled water–in their jeep, in their hotel rooms. But this isn’t something the locals ever do. Is the landmen’s tap phobia generic distrust of public water supplies, or do they have deep knowledge of something gone wrong with the local water supply? Working in a field to set up the community fair, a hot and sweaty Butler rinses his hands under an old-fashioned pump, but when he cups his hands to sip (it’s easy for us folks over the age of forty to conjure the deep pleasure of that first cold-from-the-earth gulp), Thomason barks “Don’t drink that!” and hands him a single-serve bottle of Dasani, or maybe it’s Deer Park (which would be appropriate, since the Nestle-owned brand is sourced in Pennsylvania and is likely seeing increased sales, as are other private water providers in that state). It’s a small moment, but it highlights a difference between outsiders and insiders and forces us to think about perception and reality. The moment at the fairgrounds is funny, but in a land where industrial activity like oil and gas extraction is suspected of queering thousands of domestic water wells, and where drilling and fracking operations are rapidly expanding, especially in the western part of the state, water filtration and bottling looks like a promising business to get into, and Thomason’s advice may be well heeded.

January 11, 2013   No Comments

Can hydrofracking affect the plants and animals we eat?

That’s the question I explore in the current issue of The Nation, which can be read online here. (And here’s a clip of me talking about the article on the Heritage Radio Network.) Thanks to support from the Food and Environment Reporting Network, I was able to spend a fair amount of time looking into the illnesses and deaths of livestock that live (and eat and breathe) in close proximity to shale-gas wells, which rely on secret combinations of hundreds of different chemicals, many of which are considered toxic, carcinogenic, teratogenic, or mutagenic. I spoke with ranchers whose animals died suddenly of asphyxiation or pulmonary edema, gave birth to deformed or stillborn offspring, lost between 60 and 80 pounds a week, quit producing milk for calves, lost half their tails, developed lesions and infections, and died of massive organ failure. The story raises many questions: are drilling and fracking operations sickening livestock? Can people who eat those animals get sick? Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the answers because:

a) these studies haven’t been funded

b) industry doesn’t reveal all the chemicals it uses to drill and frack

c) complete pre-drilling information on water, air and soil quality is rarely available

d) livestock owners are often reticent, or outright forbidden by nondisclosure agreements, to speak to investigators

My hope for the story is that government will respond to the concerns of ranchers, veterinarians, and scientists; require full disclosure of chemicals and compounds used in oil-and-gas operations; and allocate funds to conduct these much-needed studies.

Photo of cow that lost part of its tail — one of many ailments found in cattle following hydrofracturing of the Bakken Shale in North Dakota — courtesy of Jacki Schilke.

December 6, 2012   4 Comments

Two and a Half Cheers: Local Water Utilities Win Atrazine Legal Battle

After nearly eight years of litigation, Syngenta, the maker of atrazine, the most widely used weed killer in the world, has settled a lawsuit filed by water utilities in a half-dozen Midwestern states.

The utilities’ beef? They were paying tens of thousands of dollars a year to remove the chemical from drinking water. Regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, atrazine has been linked with low birth weight, birth defects, and other reproductive problems when consumed at levels below the federal standard. The EPA is currently reviewing atrazine’s safety: read NRDC’s take on the contaminant here and Andrew Wetzler’s (of the Land and Wildlife Program) take on the legal decision here.

If approved by a federal judge in southern Illinois, the settlement will disburse $105 million — minus attorneys’ fees — to nearly 1,900 utilities: the exact amount for each utility will be based on its past atrazine levels, the frequency of contamination, and the population served with drinking water. Syngenta admits no liability in the case and will continue to sell its product in the U.S. (The European Union has banned its use.)

The settlement, which generated 10 million pages of documents, will help utilities cover their past expenses — a significant portion of the budgets of small utilities in agricultural areas where atrazine is in heavy use. (Utilities remove atrazine by adding to their water either powdered carbon or granulated activated carbon, which absorbs the chemical and is then removed through filtration or sedimentation.)

But if farmers continue to use the herbicide, which runs off fields and contaminates both groundwater and surface water, utilities will be stuck paying to remove it long into the future. Sure, the utilities won a rhetorical point — polluter pays — but the biggest winners here are the attorneys representing the utilities. Their cut of the deal: $34.9 million.

Image: Atrazine concentration in the U.S. water supply, via U.S. Geological Survey


This post first appeared at

June 15, 2012   1 Comment

Fontaine-o-phobe? Get over it

Nancy Stoner, formerly of the NRDC and now the Acting Assistant Administrator for the EPA’s Office of Water, blogged recently about drinking-water fountains. Lamenting the disappearance of fountains in public places over the last several decades, she notes that when we lose fountains, we also lose “public knowledge about the importance of investing in drinking water systems, which provide dependable, affordable and clean water.”

In cities with tasty, healthful water, I’m all for more fountains. Drinking from a fountain is cheaper than buying bottled water; fountains take water-delivery trucks off streets, so there’s less traffic and fewer diesel emissions; they keep empty bottles out of trash cans, gutters, and waterways; tap water is healthier than other packaged beverages; and fountains remind us of the fundamental connection between the natural world and our own well-being.

But as the comments to Stoner’s piece show, there are still people who are afraid of getting sick from fountains, although microbiologists say the odds of contracting a disease this way are extremely low. (Granted, good fountain design and adequate water pressure help.) And then there are those concerned about low levels of contaminants in tap water. To this second point, I would note that large cities, where this fountain renaissance is beginning to take shape, usually have the best tap water. Why? Because they have enough paying customers, staffing, oversight, and expertise to run their systems properly: they protect their watersheds, enforce anti-pollution laws, upgrade filtration equipment, and repair infrastructure (though we all know that municipalities need many millions more to do all of this better).

Yes, we continue to find contaminants in our drinking water, but that’s partly because we have the technology to detect contaminants at parts-per-billion, or even parts-per-trillion, levels. Can these low levels harm us? That’s the gazillion-dollar question: so far, the jury is out on pharmaceuticals in our waterways. Meanwhile, the EPA is investigating the regulation of hexavalent chromium, tightening the regs on atrazine, and screening an array of suspected endocrine disruptors that could end up in our drinking water. The studies are expensive, they take a lot of time, and the consequences of increased regulation are mind-boggling. (To remove hexavalent chromium from drinking water in parts of California’s Coachella Valley, for example, would cost more than $275 million and necessitate a water rate increase of 74 percent.)

Yes, we can remove anything from water if we run it through enough money. But millions of Americans drink from residential wells and can’t afford to test their own water, let alone treat it with special filters. (Read about nitrate-contaminated water as an environmental justice issue in “Not a Drop to Drink,” by moi, in the spring issue of OnEarth.)

Water contamination is an almost overwhelmingly complicated issue. But the situation isn’t hopeless: we can stop polluters, clean up contaminated aquifers, and filter harmful contaminants either at municipal plants or at our kitchen and bathroom faucets — a far less costly solution, considering that we don’t drink the vast majority of the water piped to our homes. And we can continue to promote fountains — both as a public service for the thirsty, and as a reminder that safe water is a resource upon which we’re absolutely dependent, and that we all hold in common.

Image: Mugley/Flickr

This post first appeared at

March 11, 2012   1 Comment

From Sinkhole to Stimulus: Fixing Our Water Systems Will Get Jobs Flowing

Much ink has been spilled on the deplorable state of the nation’s drinking water and wastewater infrastructure — and the terrifying sums ($390 billion according to the sometimes-hyperbolic American Society of Civil Engineers) it will take to remedy the situation. The EPA estimates $188 billion is necessary to manage stormwater and preserve water quality nationwide.

Yes, it’s a lot of money, but there are some positives attached to that pricetag: it’s not only going to bring us cleaner, safer drinking water, says a new Green for All report called Water Works. Spread over five years, that investment would also generate $266 billion in economic activity and create close to 1.9 million jobs.

Green for All: Water Works

Water Works functions as a primer on our infrastructure woes (from cracked pipes to sinkholes to combined sewer overflows), focusing on green infrastructure as a major part of the solution. The good news — if you’re a glass-half-full type — is that there has never been a better time to tackle these problems: borrowing money is cheap, construction costs are down (because of increased competition for jobs), and unemployment is high.

But where will we get the money? From municipal bonds, state revolving loan funds, higher rates for consumers, and other (nonspecified) “fee-based approaches,” says Water Works. (The report shies away from the polluter fees proposed in Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer’s Clean Water Trust Fund.) Government spending will add to the national debt, but it will doubtless pay off in the long term with healthier people, a cleaner environment, and the avoided costs of filtering ever-dirtier water.

At any rate: do we have a choice?

Age and neglect have caught up to our water systems, some of which date back to the end of the 19th century. Climate change wreaks havoc even with relatively youthful infrastructure: extreme heat, drought, and deluge all cause pipes to shift and crack. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave both the nation’s drinking-water infrastructure and its wastewater in­frastructure a D-minus in its 2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.

Across the country, more than 700 pipes fail every day. Breaks cause major inconvenience: water mains are shut off, basements flood, roads are closed, and neighborhoods sprint for the supermarket to buy bottled water. Leaking pipes also waste a lot of expensively cleaned water: 6 billion gallons of a year, according to the U.S. Geological Society — enough to provide the daily water needs of our ten largest cities.

Sometimes, failing pipes exact a harsher price: this past January, a Russian mother and her toddler fell 12 feet into the earth when a sidewalk over a ruptured drainpipe suddenly collapsed. Although the woman was rescued from the sinkhole, it took divers and emergency workers more than a day to find the body of her son, who had been swept by rushing waters through subterranean pipes to a sewage collector.

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama called on Congress to pass legislation to repair the nation’s infrastructure. He proposed footing the bill with half the money we’ll save from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the Congressional Budget Office, that’s about $440 billion dollars between 2012 and 2021. It’s not enough, but it’s a good start.

Image: Chris Upson/Wikimedia Commons

This post first appeared at

February 3, 2012   No Comments

SH*T: Possibly the world’s most underrated resource

Rose George, author of 2008’s shockingly forthright and shockingly entertaining The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters, has a bone to pick with hydro-philanthropists, whether species Hollywood (Matt Damon excepted) or species Rotary Club. They’ll raise money to dig wells for thirsty Africans, but they’re loath to address the dire need for adequate toilets (or their culturally appropriate equivalent).

And yet: two thirds of the world’s population has no toilet or latrine, and diarrhea kills more children annually than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. (If that’s too abstract a number, picture a jumbo jet full of children crashing every two hours, every day.) Feces are indeed, as George notes, “a weapon of mass destruction.”

In “Shit: A Survival Guide,” the monothematic fall issue of Colors magazine, George introduces readers to sanitation evangelists and to the brave folks who clean our sewer pipes and alleyways. She also considers the roles of fear and shame in toilet use and looks at the wide world of alternatives to a porcelain throne (meet the flying toilet).

More than a cultural tour of toileting and its discontents, the magazine explores a smorgasbord of dichotomies: shit kills and it saves lives; it pollutes water and promotes plant growth; it stinks and it can be used to cook food. A graphically hip précis of Big Necessity, the Survival Guide goes well beyond the usual lamentations for decent toileting facilities to question some basic assumptions about where, when, and how we go. It’s become common in urban green circles to question the wisdom of using expensively treated drinking water — especially in water-short places — to flush away human excrement, but George forces us to question the morality of flushing away such a valuable fertilizer. There’s phosphorous and nitrogen in them thar feces.

To buy a copy or preview parts of the quarterly, go to the Colors Magazine website.

(November 19 was World Toilet Day, which is meant to draw attention to the importance of sanitation around the world. Check out Matt Damon “talking sh*t” [or typing, via twitter and facebook] for an entire week at Meanwhile, WaterAid and Amnesty International have launched Give A Crap About Human Rights, highlighting the rights to water and sanitation in the context of housing and women’s rights.  Learn more about the day that dare not speak its name at

November 20, 2011   2 Comments

Murky and murkier

After reading the following news items, I’m thinking that investing in companies that make top-notch and easy-to-maintain water filtration equipment might be a good idea.

Last week,  Environmental Health News reported on widespread contamination of private wells with naturally occurring elements like arsenic and manganese. In its first-ever effort to track two dozen elements, the U.S. Geological Society discovered that “13 percent of untreated drinking water contains at least one element at a concentration that exceeds federal health regulations or guidelines. That rate far outpaces other contaminants in well water, including industrial chemicals and pesticides.” For public water systems, the presence of these elements is less concerning, since utilities test for and remove those for which the feds have set standards. But the 60 million Americans who rely on private wells are on their own: a good reason to expand the list of contaminants you ask your local lab to test for — annually. Read the USGS report and peruse its element maps here. Contact your state drinking-water program to find a state or EPA-certified lab to test your well water (and then buy the appropriate filter if the results don’t please you).

On the other side of the world, the island groups of Tuvalu and Tokelau have declared water emergencies. La Nina weather patterns have reduced rainfall, and what groundwater remains has turned brackish from rising sea levels. (Tuvalu, you may recall, was the first nation to formulate a climate-change evacuation plan.) Citizens are rationing water, says the Washington Post, crops are wilting, and fruit trees, a major food source, are suffering. Portable desalination plants have been ordered. Meanwhile, residents are drinking bottled water.

In California, water managers desperate for new sources of supply are contemplating… Superfund sites! According to the Whittier Daily News, the Walnut Valley Water District is considering buying water pumped and treated from polluted areas of the San Gabriel Basin. “Parts of the basin have been polluted with perchlorate and other contaminants leaked by the aerospace and defense industries that used to dominate the region, resulting in one of the nation’s biggest Superfund sites.” Other U.S. cities are already purifying sewage effluent and the brackish water that occurs thousands of feet below freshwater aquifers. How do they clean the water? With ultrafiltration and reverse osmosis, which removes the vast majority of things that should worry us. (Filtration plus reverse osmosis is the method used by Aquafina, Dasani, Nestle Pure Life, and other major bottled-water brands to further “purify” tap water that already meets federal drinking-water standards.)

Unfortunately, reverse osmosis is expensive, it uses a great deal of energy, and it produces a lot of unusable waste in the form of brine (and probably worse, in the case of that California Superfund site). It’s all well and good to agitate for better watershed protection and tighter controls of discharges to surface and groundwater, but faced with naturally occurring, harmful elements, and saltwater intrusion, and limited quantities of fresh water for growing populations, I’m afraid that filtering will be a big part of our future.

Photo via Irving Rusinow/National Archives

October 10, 2011   7 Comments

Gudgeon in high dudgeon


Almost every place scientists have looked for the residue of pharmaceuticals in our waterways, they’ve found them: in wastewater, in drinking water, in high-elevation mountain streams, and in rivers at the bottoms of watersheds.

The drugs come from people, who ingest and then excrete them; from the dumping of unused drugs down toilets; from leaking septic tanks; and from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which regularly treat their chickens, cows, and pigs with antibiotics and hormones that then leach into soil and water. Many of the drugs have been shown to harm aquatic life, causing premature spawning in shellfish and feminizing male fin fish.

Over the last few years, studies in India and in New York state have revealed another source of drugs: waste water discharged from pharmaceutical manufacturing plants. A new study, reported in Nature News this week, shows the same thing happening in France, where one would think the discharge of pollutants would be more tightly regulated.

One would be wrong. Neither wastewater treatment plants nor drug manufacturers, in the US or the EU, are required to monitor or limit their discharge of pharmaceuticals. It’s clearly time for that to change, as levels of drugs near manufacturing plants were far higher than levels near treatment plant outfalls. (According to Nature News: “Downstream from the [French] factory, the researchers found that on average 60%, and in one case 80%, of the fish had both male and female sexual characteristics. Upstream of the effluent discharge, such intersex fish made up just 5 percent of the populations.”)

While reporting on drugs in our waterways for OnEarth in 2006, I was told by a spokesperson from the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association that redesigning drugs to break down more readily into less harmful components would be difficult: “There’s a trade-off in terms of having molecules break down readily versus having a stable molecule that does its work as a medicine and has a reasonable shelf life.”

If the drugs can’t change, how about better pre-treatment before discharging waste? The European Commission is considering tighter regulations on such discharges; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, never keen on the precautionary approach, is continuing to study the fate of scores of different drugs and their metabolites in our waterways.

At a recent panel on extended producer responsibility at the National Conference of State Legislatures, a representative from PhRMA — perhaps anxious about assuming liability for drugs’ unintended downstream impacts — maintained that the levels of these compounds in waterways was barely detectable. That may be true, but scientists are detecting scores of different drugs using sophisticated lab equipment, and fish —  especially the wild gudgeon (Gobio gobio), the focus of the French study — are detecting them all on their own and reacting to them in ways likely to hinder their reproductive success. In short, our unwillingness to take swift action may soon drive these creatures locally extinct.

UPDATE: To learn more about improvements to prescribing and dispensing practices, with an aim to reducing the entry of drugs into the environment, check out “Green pharmacy and pharmEcoVigilance: Prescribing and the Planet,” by Christian D. Daughton and Ilene S. Ruhoy. The paper appears in Expert Review of Clinical Pharmacology, 2011, 4(2):211-232.

Image: John Morris/Flickr

August 19, 2011   No Comments