Notes on waste, water, whatever
Random header image... Refresh for more!

Category — Bottled Water

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

Colbert kicks Nestle’s butt

The media had a lot of fun with the roll-out for Nestle’s new hydration product, Resource water, aimed at “stylish, higher income” women. But no one hit all the marks the way Steven Colbert did in this segment, covering the demonization of tap water (“commie water”), the cravenness of marketers targeting a specific demographic (in this case,”carbon-based life forms from age zero to anything”), the privatization of public water sources, and the oceans of plastic waste left behind by bottled-water drinkers. Enjoy.

June 21, 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 OnEarth.org, 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

Whose Water Is It, Anyway?

 

Recently, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission announced that it was temporarily suspending 19 separate water withdrawal permits due to reduced stream flow levels throughout the Susquehanna basin (which covers land in New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland). Most of these withdrawals were linked with natural gas extraction: drilling and fracking can consume up to 7 million gallons of water per well, and wells can be fracked multiple times.

Three weeks ago the U.S. Geological Survey pronounced 61 percent of the lower 48 “abnormally dry.” In the East, where I live, we had a nearly snowless winter, and rainfall levels this spring are, so far, well below normal. I’m sorry it’s so dry, but I’m glad the SRBC has the power to quickly halt large withdrawals. In recent years in the southeast, during abnormally dry or even drought conditions, major water users like Coke and Pepsi were not asked (nor did they volunteer) to cut back on water pumping, even while residents were mandated to restrict their use.

The energy companies affected by the SRBC will scale back operations or they will find water elsewhere, as thirsty people and populations with enough money always do. Already, natural gas companies are buying water from utilities and from private landowners, hauling it away from its home watershed, polluting it with chemicals and compounds, including radioactive material that used to be underground, and then hauling it away to be “recycled” or injected back into the earth. In other words, it’s lost to the hydrological cycle forever.

Individually, these withdrawals for fracking may be small, but they could have a cumulative impact on ecosystems and local hydrology. Nationwide, oil and gas companies are fracking 25,000 wells a year. People who live in shale areas need water for residential and commercial use, of course — but that water is also needed to grow crops, and to support wildlife, wetlands and streams that feed larger rivers.

Communities with abundant fresh water — in watersheds that have been protected using millions of taxpayer and private dollars — are feeling the pressure from both oil and gas companies and, perversely, from bottling companies, who recognize that demand for their product will only rise as industrial activity contaminates drinking water. In upstate New York (where there’s currently a moratorium on high-volume, horizontal hydraulic fracturing), the villages of Painted Post and Bath are considering selling municipal water to a Pennsylvania fracking company, while the town of Ephratah is weighing whether to sell land to the California-based Crystal Geyser water company, which would build a bottling plant and tap into the local aquifer.

In Wyoming, some ranchers are making more money selling their water to fracking companies than they can make raising cattle. In Colorado, ranchers are competing with frackers to buy rights to surface water, and the price per acre-foot is rising substantially. In Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, the public water company Aqua America recently evicted 32 families from a mobile-home court in order to build a water withdrawal facility that will provide 3 million gallons a day to the fracking industry.

These water transfers — moving water away from local residents to corporate interests — have me thinking about issues of local control, private property rights, the public trust, local economies, and the future of agriculture. (Where will we get our food if this land continues to move out of agricultural production? In Pennsylvania, it’s estimated that 25 percent of dairy farmers with gas wells have abandoned farming.) I hate to prognosticate, but it’s fairly obvious: frictions in these areas will only grow more acute as the population, and its energy and water demand, grows.

Image: Nicholas_T/Flickr

May 1, 2012   1 Comment

Vended water or soda? How about neither?

In honor of World Water Day, let’s celebrate an action recently taken by a national park that should properly be interpreted as a boon to environmentally friendly water consumption.

Proponents of the right to buy whatever single-serve packaged beverage they damn well please have long argued that eliminating bottled water from vending machines will force the public to instead buy high-calorie drinks, which have a bigger environmental footprint than does bottled water. (This shift in buying behavior hasn’t yet been proven; but yes, for the record, bottled water does have a lower carbon footprint than bottled sodas, juices, or teas.)

But Saguaro National Park, just east of Tucson, has thrown the baby out with the bathwater: officials there have announced that the park will quit selling not only bottled water, but sodas as well – a decision that should eliminate up to 40 percent of the park’s recyclable waste stream. (Remember: recycling, good; reducing consumption, even better.)

Take that, Grand Canyon National Park (which recently banned the sale of bottled water — but not sodas — after a huge kerfuffle with Coca-Cola, maker of Dasani water and a $13-million donor to the National Park Foundation). Like that park and Zion National Park, in Utah, Saguaro will be installing hydration stations — those contraptions formerly known as “water fountains” — for filling reusable bottles.

If parks in some of the hottest, driest areas of the nation can take this step without fear of losing visitors to either disenchantment or dehydration, what’s stopping all the others?

 

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

March 26, 2012   3 Comments

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 OnEarth.org.

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 OnEarth.org/TheRoyteStuff

February 3, 2012   No Comments

Some things don’t go better with Coke

Last month we learned that, in an attempt to cut down on litter, the supervisor of Grand Canyon National Park was set to ban sales of bottled water within the park, starting in January of 2011. (Dasani is the brand sold by concessionaires.) But two weeks before the ban was due to go into effect, the head of the national park system balked. Dasani water would stay, out of “concern for public safety in a desert park.” (Never mind that Utah’s Zion National Park had enacted a similar ban, to great acclaim, in 2008.) Soon the relationship between Coca-Cola, which produces Dasani from tap water, and our national parks was revealed: over a period of years, the corporation has given $13 million to the National Park Foundation, a nonprofit that generates private donations for the park system.

Environmentalists are up in arms — about the continued (and continuously promoted) use of disposable plastic water bottles, of course, but more importantly about the heavy influence of corporations in public spaces and debate. There are some angry comments on blogs about the issue, and many people erroneously seem to believe that park visitors would be stripped of any water bottles they carried into the park. Not true. Nor was it likely that the death toll from dehydration would rise. The parks and concessionaries had spent $300,000 developing “filling stations” in preparation for the ban; it’s hard to escape pro-hydration messages in the park (they’re everywhere), and it’s easy to buy reusable bottles on park grounds if you don’t already have them.

For readers who can’t remember what personal hydrological conditions were like 30 years ago, suffice it to say that single-serve plastic bottles of water were not ubiquitous. And yet millions still hiked and camped, carried water, filtered water where they found it, and sometimes waited until they reached their destination (!) to slake their thirst from a fountain or sink.

I hiked and camped in the Grand Canyon in the Pre-Perrier Period. I learned, on a day that I hauled my heavy backpack more than twenty miles across the Tonto Platform and up the South Canyon rim, that thirst can be a great motivator. Our multiple water bottles had long run dry, and we were reduced to eating dry oatmeal in our desperation for calories, with five miles yet to go. All I could focus on was the ice-cold elixir that flowed at trail’s end from a fountain in the dimly lit lobby of the Bright Angel Hotel. (Reader: I survived. I hope this water fountain has, too.)

The Coca-Cola-National Parks fracas seems to be taking on a life of its own, to both groups’ detriment. Dozens of media outlets have picked up on the story, and already more than 94,000 people have signed a pro-ban petition at Change.org. Here’s hoping that the will of the environmentally minded, rather than a corporation representing the interests of its shareholders, will prevail.

Image: Sebastian Toncu/Wikimedia Commons

December 7, 2011   No 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

Much of what you wanted to know about rPET but were afraid to ask

Why don’t PET soda and water bottles (coded with a number 1) contain more recycled content? Why does rPET cost more than virgin? Is it safe to put food in a container made of 100 percent rPET? These questions, and more, are answered in this fairly comprehensive piece from Crikey (as part of the Pure Plastiky project), which deals only with bottles in Australia. Still, it –and some of the comments– should be fairly eye-opening for you readers with an interest in packaging, polymer chemistry, and the global plastic market.

In the U.S., neither Coke nor Pepsi has managed to get more than ten percent recycled content into their bottles (soft drinks or water), despite stated intentions to go higher. Coke recently curtailed production at its Spartanburg, S.C., bottle-to-bottle recycling plant — said to be the largest such facility in the world. Coke is now producing bottles made with a mixture of resin from plants and resin from fossil fuels, while Pepsi is making bottles from 100 percent plant resin (they’re meant to be recycled, not composted).  No mention of the effect of oil subsidies on prices for virgin versus rPET in the Crikey piece;  rest assured, it has some bearing.

* Photo of Cob hut with plastic-bottle roof, at Deen City Farm, by Garry Knight via Wikimedia Commons

June 3, 2011   No Comments