Experimenting with Your Health

Monday evening last the Chatham County Board of Commissioners met to hear from citizens about allowing liquor by the drink to be put to a county wide vote. Perhaps a hundred folks showed up. Those opposed, mostly church goers, were so inclined on moral grounds. They were concerned about increased drunk driving, and child safety. I would not argue with their anxiety. To be truthful, I’m troubled by some of the same issues.

But because I’m a resident of Pittsboro, there is another issue that ranks much higher on my list than liquor by the drink: water quality in Pittsboro.

If you live in Pittsboro or Siler City, you’ve received notices from your municipality that it continually violates federal drinking water standards for elevated levels of the toxins, trihalomethanes (THMs) and haloacetic acids(HAAs). The trihalomethanes cause cancer and the haloacetic acids damage the liver and nervous system. These toxins rise sharply in the blood during showers, baths and ingestion. But the damage takes many years to accumulate, so it’s easy to ignore. It reminds me of the iron workers at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site in the 50s and 60s. They couldn’t see, feel or taste atomic radiation, so there was no sense of imminent danger. Years later cancer took its toll among their numbers.

Yet, when presented with such evidence, Pittsboro and Siler City residents passively do almost nothing. We seem resigned to our fate, but fortunately the State of North Carolina is not. A fine of $30,000 hangs over Pittsboro if something is not done soon. But Pittsboro’s so-called solution could be just as dangerous as the present contamination.

The Town of Pittsboro plans to begin choramine treatment very soon. Chlorine + ammonia = chloramine. This is supposed to get rid of the health damaging chemicals mentioned above. This is doubtful. UNC Prof. Philip Singer, in consultation with Pittsboro, wrote that if THMs continue to exceed regulatory levels, “… ammonia addition will not solve the problem.” Our water source, the Haw River, is loaded with organic carbon and other pollutants that make chloramine effectiveness highly suspect..

Choramine treatment, if not carried out precisely, can also leach lead from plumbing fixtures into your water. Lead causes brain damage. Switching to chloramine has already produced frightening water lead levels in Wayne County, NC and Goldsboro. What’s worse, is that mixing chlorine and ammonia creates literally hundreds of disinfection by products yet untested. Some of those that are known cause cancer and mutation of human genes, a cause of birth defects.

Dr. Michael Plewa of the University of Illinois at Champagne calls chloramine usage “a vastly big experiment” with our health.

Health affects have already been cited where chloramine treatment has begun in Vermont and California. Severe rashes, skin blistering, asthma and other respiratory symptoms, digestive disorders, kidney and blood disease, and aggravation of immune deficiency. The complaints have been in the hundreds, which may not sound like a lot. But these sensitive people are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine for the rest of us. Acute symptoms among a minority of chloramine users is a likely harbinger of long term affects in the remaining population.

One of the most dramatic responses to chloramine was experienced by Denise Kula-Johnson in California. During her first shower in chlormine treated water, Denise fell to her shower floor unconscious from the vapors she breathed. She must now travel miles for a chloramine-free shower. (See chloramine.org for more info).

Spills of chloramine treated water have also been responsible for fish kills in streams and rivers.

Whereas chlorine and its by products are relatively easy to filter out, chloramine and its toxins require expensive reverse osmosis treatment. Few of us can afford such an option.

But here’s the kicker. Chloramine disinfection by products are not regulated by law. Therefore, no one is responsible for testing the water to make sure it’s safe. We will have to be the guinea pigs in this “experiment”

So why did Pittsboro’s Town Board of Commissioners vote to begin chloramine treatment? Because it’s the cheapest off the shelf solution; a penny wise and pound foolish choice.

But we mustn’t be too hard on them. We were warned before the last election about our water dilemma. We were the ones who elected them and in so doing refused to make the hard choice and spend the necessary money to produce excellent municipal water. The lack of vision we might ascribe to our leaders is simply a reflection of ourselves. But there’s still a chance to change direction.

If we have the wisdom and political vigor, we could combine our town’s enterprise fund and grants with a water bond by a vote of the citizens to provide the water quality we deserve.

To quote Professor Singer “Other options for addressing the problem tend to be more expensive, e.g. membrane filtration, granular activated carbon adsorption, or an ion exchange treatment. While these options are indeed more expensive, they are probably better long-term options than the quick-fix combined chlorine option.”

Joe Hackney Needs Your Help!

 

I make the above statement to incite all Chatham County citizens to urge Speaker Hackney to make the clean up of Piedmont Rivers a top priority.

Last Sunday I took the opportunity to hear N.C. House Speaker Joe Hackney give a talk about North Carolina’s economy, fiscal projections, state savings ($780 million) and what kind of shovel ready projects the state might propose for some of President Obama’s federal recovery funds. To his credit, Joe also spoke of his support for making state buildings energy efficient.

Never the arithmetician, such talk about budgets sounds to me like the adults in the Charlie Brown TV Specials. Wah-WahWah-WahWahWahWah. I know it’s important, but critical matters often get obscured in the numbers used to justify whatever action or inaction is deemed “prudent.” But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

After his talk, Speaker Hackney took questions from the 100 or so people assembled to hear him at the Central Carolina Community College (CCCC) Multipurpose Room. I asked him when the state was going to help clean up the sewage effluent discharges from the Siler City Waste Water Treatment plant that are contributing to the quiet killing of the Rocky River, 88% of which is in Chatham County. He said that by and large these were matters for local jurisdictions and the state had contributed a fair amount of money already to assist with water and sewer treatment and hoped it would continue. Speaker Hackney ended with, “It is unlikely that there will be much of that sort of money in the climate we have right now.”

So, we’re going to allow the Rocky River to die,” I asked. Admittedly this was like throwing a fastball at his head, but I had to get his attention.

One nervous giggle betrayed the tension in the room.

Well sir, we’re going to follow the law,” Speaker Hackney replied flatly.

The Speaker invoked the law like it was the answer, when in fact, the law is the problem. It is the law that has permitted the deadly pollution of the Rocky River. Legal, yet criminal.

I’m a Democrat; and I’ve voted for Joe Hackney several times; and I want to support him in the future. Speaker Hackney, please use your considerable influence to help pass the rules that have been drafted to clean up Jordan Lake. These rules will affect Chatham’s only reservoir for many years to come. The health and economy of our region can be no better than the purity of its water, soil and air. This is a pivotal moment for you, Mr.Speaker, and Senator Bob Atwater. Please insist on and fight for strong regulations that will ensure a living, thriving watershed to nourish a clean future for Chatham County.

And I’d like to also address Republicans and Democrats who think they can undermine Speaker Hackney’s position in the legislature. Members of the Friends of the Rocky River, Friends of the Deep River and the Haw River Assembly are watching you, too. Joe can’t carry the burden all by himself; we know that. We expect all of you to put your shoulders to the wheel and spend some political capital on this issue. If you don’t, the Piedmont will suffer in innumerable ways.

 

In addition to upgrades of the Siler City Waste Water Treatment Plant and the Lake Jordan Draft Rules, Governor Bev Perdue and the legislature must begin developing a master plan for the restoration of the Upper Cape Fear River Basin. The Rocky, Deep and Haw Rivers are all critically impaired. Species are disappearing as I’ve documented in this column before. This should take on Manhattan Project urgency. As climate change heats and drys our region, we must jealously guard our water resources with vision, technical expertise and unwavering commitment.

 

Water crises are happening all over the country. The Colorado River which irrigates most of the nations fresh produce in California hasn’t reached its delta since 1982. It is over-allocated, yet Western population continues to grow. The Ogalala Aquifer beneath the Great Plains is being slurped up way beyond its recharge rates. Groundwater has already disappeared in some locations, and with it the farms and businesses it used to support. Las Vegas, which means “The Meadows”, was once home to one of the great artesian aquifers in the country. It was sucked dry in a few decades. And, it was all legal. The point is, that we in the NC Piedmont can no longer depend on the produce and the water used to grow it from distant points west.

Joe Hackney and his colleagues must show wisdom and vision now to avoid want and deprivation in the future. But Joe must know he has the support of his constituents to make a bold stand on our water supply. Call, write, or email Joe and support him in this stand!

The Shape Of Things To Come

I doubt that the name Maude Barlow rings a bell with many of you. It didn’t with me until a recent conversation with Dr. Hal House, President of Chatham County-based Integrated Water Strategies (IWS). Barlow, in her book, The Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water, asserts that water will be the “oil of the 21st century.” Square that with the United Nation’s declaration that access to clean water is a basic human right. They are the irresistible force and the immovable object, and clash they soon will. Reconciliation of such a dilemma will mean a complete reevaluation of our relationship to water.

Water, in the U.S. anyway, is as cheap as dirt yet more valuable than gold. Our bodies are 70% water, but if you asked someone whether they’d like to have 70% of their weight in gold or water, they’d choose gold most likely. This is the perfect demonstration of inverted values. We have turned nature on its head and have based our entire economy on a false value whose expiration date draws near.

But here in Chatham County someone is beginning to work out the solution: the aforementioned Dr. Hal House. I want to recognize Dr. House and IWS as one of the gems of Chatham County.

As a graduate student, Hal House helped pioneer the science and construction of miniature wetlands, using plants and their resident bacterial populations to filter wastewater and make it reusable.

In the first major demonstration of his innate skill to solve thorny environmental problems, Hal designed the wastewater filtration system housed at his current office site in 1996. In a beautifully landscaped patio and adjacent green house, 1200 gallons of wastewater per day is cleansed by the system without noise, odor or any evidence that such a miracle is taking place. Since then, IWS has refined the process and has installed several systems here in Chatham. The implications of Dr. House’s process for our world-wide dilemma are profound!

Let’s start at the pocketbook. This low energy biological system will save enormous amounts of money. If a developer can incorporate wastewater treatment and recycling for non-potable uses into the landscaping of a new tract, he doesn’t have to pipe the water to a sewage treatment plant. Major savings! The residents realize substantial savings as well by using about 60% less water. The aesthetics of the community are enhanced by the cleansing gardens to boot.

Storm water and rainwater can also be directed into the system which relieves creeks, rivers and reservoirs from the pollution carried by that input. Pollution, instead of being diffused into our life support system would be localized and sanitized at its source. Rivers like the Rocky, Haw and Deep could be restored to their original, pristine conditions.

These mini-wetlands also serve as both sinks and delivery systems for excess fertilizers like nitrogen and phosphorous that damage local watersheds. These elements remain in a closed system and continue to feed the plants and bacteria that clean the water.

Municipalities could reduce the size of sewage treatment plants or perhaps forego them altogether and save on unnecessary infrastructure investment. Previously worthless land that won’t “perc” and thus not accommodate septic systems would regain value and usefulness.

Can you imagine what a beautiful place Chatham could be? Healthier streams and rivers would again teem with species that had all but disappeared. It would be like turning the environmental clock back a hundred years or more. Property values would soar and the concomitant benefits would be incalculable. Such success would surely spread to surrounding counties and states.

We are on the cusp of a revolution, and we have a County Commission that is right in step. Two Chatham schools, J.S. Waters and Chatham Central are already using systems built by IWS. The new Chatham library will also host its own IWS wastewater treatment system. But perhaps the most valuable component to this water recycling strategy is the design and building of a county-wide reprocessed water distribution system. As water savings accumulate, the surplus would be fed into circulation for nonpotable use elsewhere with credits assigned to the originator.

This is the conjunction of cost, value and each citizen’s right to clean water. Without such conservation the future challenges of population growth and global climate change may defeat belated efforts to deal with them. Remember, in the long geological time table of this epochal ball game nature bats last.

Now is the time not only for Chatham County to vigorously pursue this revolutionary course, but for Governor-elect Perdue to support this technology and protect North Carolina’s water resources. The wisdom inherent in mimicking processes that are billions of years old is a no-brainer.

As I recall my conversation with Dr. House, perhaps the most encouraging words he spoke were, as he referred to his work,

We’ve only just scratched the surface.” When you think of it like that, the future is exciting indeed.


SACRED WATERS

Those of you who’ve perused this column in the past know that I often focus on the challenges facing our water resources in the Upper Cape Fear River Basin. Lake Jordan, the Haw, Deep, and Rocky Rivers and their tributaries from counties around comprise this system. Many nationally significant natural areas and endangered species knit this wonder together. As my understanding of this complex marvel of creation grows, I am compelled to share it.

A few days ago, the North Carolina Rules Review Committee, in a 4-3 vote, approved the long-awaited draft regulations to begin cleaning up Jordan Lake and its branch contributors. Although this is a momentous milestone in the process, some heavy legislative lifting remains to implement the plan. As shameful and unbelievable as it may be, diluting the strength of the rules will be a priority of some state senators and representatives; and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Jordan Lake is chronically challenged by several sources of pollution. Tons of sediment from construction sites, farms and storm water drains wash into its network every year and smother fish and other aquatic organisms. Excess nitrogen and phosphorous feed algal blooms that suck up oxygen, pushing many species toward endangerment or extinction. Sewage sludge, masquerading as agricultural fertilizer, containing an unknown witch’s brew of toxic chemicals, also finds its way into Jordan. Other pollutants leaching into our water include pharmaceuticals, automotive waste, and pesticides, the quantities of which no one can venture even an educated guess.

Nearly a million people live in and around the watershed, and that number is predicted to increase by many thousands in the near future. A burgeoning population will only intensify current problems unless the Jordan Lake Draft Rules are implemented and strengthened.

In a recent interview with Haw River Assembly Executive Director, Elaine Chiosso, I could hear relief in her voice at the approval of the rules. I also heard weariness and apprehension. Ms. Chiosso and legions of committed citizens have worked for years against daunting adversaries for the integrity of our life-support systems. Who are these adversaries of clean water you might ask?

Powerful industrial and municipal players have fought against doing anything to clean up their pollution to ensure that neighbors downstream enjoy clean water, too. Resistance from Greensboro, Burlington and Durham has been a regular impediment to the process. Kudos to the Chatham Board of Commissioners for being a positive influence throughout the proceedings. But perhaps the intransigence of the resistant boggles your mind as it does mine.

Of course, it boils down to money. But it’s deeper than that. Petty pecuniary concerns are rooted in the radical separation of human beings from our god granted, nurturing earth. Long ago we divorced ourselves from the intimate connection to what sustains us in order to transform earth, air and water into mere commodities to be bartered. In the bargain we profane and disable the very processes that keep us alive.

Once upon a time, before our command of coal and petroleum, humans propagated and passed down a sacred relationship to the earth. Before Columbus the Iroquois Nation considered the welfare of their descendants seven generations into the future before making a decision. For us it’s the quarterly bottom line. Chief Seattle, the great Suquamish leader, proclaimed that “the earth does not belong us, we belong to the earth.” This world view might seem quaint, a vestige of a “primitive” people who succumbed to our more industrious attitudes. I would argue the exact opposite!

The survival of Chatham depends on our remarriage to these long-forsaken values. These values are: that the earth, water and air which sustain us are sacred, and that we can no longer jeopardize our future by betraying our heritage for a few coins. The rivers, dirt and air of Chatham County must once again be exalted above a market place that trades them to trash.

It’s hypocrisy for us to oooh and aaaah over pristine wilderness where it can still be found. Chatham was once pristine, and can be again as we elevate its wonders to a status of reverence.

Goals along that path in regards to our great river basin would be: reinventing our processes for dealing with sewage and waste. Treating waste to a minimal standard and then piping its filthy effluent back into our rivers is simply stupid. Alternatives exist. Transforming waste into energy is a good place to start. Creating stronger incentives to encourage organic farming would eliminate the need for fertilizers and chemicals that foul our waters. Direct all storm water into ponds and natural wetlands, allowing nature to clean it for free before it reaches our reservoirs. Ban the use of toxic sewage sludge as fertilizer.

You may call this extreme. I call it a manifesto for life; the life and future of Chatham County. Let’s not cripple ourselves by the corrosive compromises of low standards, but rather re-create the Eden we were meant to enjoy and protect. By such action, we will flourish in health, prosperity, and happiness.

Water Cooperation is the Answer

With about 7,000 housing units approved but as yet unbuilt in Chatham, our county board of commissioners is grappling with the problem of providing enough water for new residents. The first thought was to upgrade the current water treatment plant on the east side of Jordan Lake with about $30 million dollars already set aside for the project. But with other municipalities in the region facing similar challenges, the idea of building a regional water treatment plant on the west side of the lake that would serve several cooperating partners has started to get some play. With David Hughes, Chatham County Public Works Director, and John Morris of the state Division of Water Resources taking the lead, earnest negotiations should begin within the next few months, according to Hughes.


Jordan Lake has a designated water supply of 15 billion gallons. David Hughes told me that the “safe yield” of the lake is about 100 million gallons per day. Sixty-three million gallons is already allocated. That leaves just 37 million gallons to be divided up between either competing or cooperating partners. Chatham County currently uses 6 million gallons of water per day. With this plan, the county is hoping to procure rights to an additional 9 mg/d that should see us through until about 2050. 

At this point, nobody seems to know what the whole thing would cost, but one thing is clear to prospective partners Durham, Chatham, Pittsboro, Chapel Hill, the Orange Water and Sewer Authority and Carrboro: it’ll be a lot cheaper to build cooperatively than if it’s every entity for itself. But of course, you know it won’t be a simple process. As neighbors in the region get wind of talk about divvying up Jordan’s remaining capacity, watch for Greensboro and Fayetteville to also make requests. 

As Hughes told me, “It’s not unusual for everybody and his brother” to want to get into the negotiations when water is being allocated. 

Hesitancy on the part of some of the prospective partners is already evident. Apprehensions already exist about what kind of growth we will have in the area as we make plans for our long-term water use. Mayor of Carrboro, Mark Chilton, is concerned with the proliferation of low density living where water sucking, sprawling lawns predominate. He wants to see a strong regional commitment to sustainable water use. “Jordan is the last reservoir of it’s kind in North Carolina. Let’s not use it all up and then talk about conservation. That’s what we’ve done in the past. Water is the limit to growth, not just for the Triangle but for the U. S.” 

Senior Pittsboro Town Board member, Gene Brooks, is ready to listen to proposals, but wants to safeguard Pittsboro’s position in future negotiations. “I would assume that you would want to be very careful so that you could retain autonomy. Some times in these ventures the smaller members don’t have much say. I would want to know more about the proposal. But that being said we shouldn’t miss the golden opportunity to work with regional partners on such an issue.” 

Pittsboro is in a difficult position. The town draws it’s water from the Haw River, not the best of water sources. Pittsboro water has persistently violated the law with high levels of trihalomethanes, a suspected carcinogen. The town is working feverishly to avoid a $30,000 fine levied by the state of North Carolina for these violations. A cooperative water treatment venture would serve the town in two important ways: better water quality for less money. 

I would echo Mayor Chilton’s concern. The 37 million gallons yet to be allocated from Lake Jordan may sound like a lot, but it’s not. Especially when climate change will very likely bring hotter, dryer conditions to the Piedmont. Smart conservation techniques must be at the forefront of this proposal or we’ll repeat the mistakes of the past. Let’s stay under our allowable water budget and have some in reserve for a not-so-rainy day. 

Chatham County Commissioner George Lucier is hoping to meet with Goldston, Siler City and Pittsboro soon to begin inter-county negotiations for the new water treatment plant. Lucier maintains that Chatham doesn’t need four existing water treatment plants and would do better to throw in with this cooperative undertaking. 

The wise conservation of our water resources will be a true test of the collective mettle of our regional leadership. Success in this endeavor will pave the way for greater cooperation on other important issues like transportation, commerce, air quality and land use policy. Cooperative, cohesive communities gain a reputation of trustworthiness, stability and reliability. These attributes will position our Piedmont neighborhood in good stead when it comes to making choices about development. We will be able to choose the best industries that fit our locale. We’ll have the clout and resources to build sustainable communities that model the best of what North Carolina has to offer.

Regional Water Cooperation

 

 

With about 7,000 housing units approved but as yet unbuilt in Chatham, our county board of commissioners is grappling with the problem of providing enough water for new residents. The first thought was to upgrade the current water treatment plant on the east side of the lake with about $30 million dollars already set aside for the project. But with other municipalities in the region facing similar challenges, the idea of building a regional water treatment plant on the west side of the lake that would serve several cooperating partners has started to get some play. With David Hughes, Chatham County Public Works Director and John Morris of the state Division of Water Resources taking the lead, earnest negotiations should begin within the next few months according to Hughes.

 

Jordan Lake has a designated water supply of 15 billion gallons. David Hughes told me that the “safe yield” of the lake is about 100 million gallons per day. Sixty-three million gallons is already allocated. That leaves just 37 million gallons to be divided up between either competing or cooperating partners. Chatham County currently uses 6 million gallons of water per day. With this plan, the county is hoping to procure rights to an additional 9 mg/d that hopefully will see us through until about 2050.

At this point, nobody seems to know what the whole thing would cost, but one thing is clear to prospective partners Durham, Chatham, Pittsboro, Chapel Hill, the Orange Water and Sewer Authority and Carrborro: it’ll be a lot cheaper to build cooperatively than if it’s every entity for itself. But of course, you know it won’t be a simple process. As neighbors in the region get wind of talk about divvying up Jordan’s remaining capacity, watch for Greensboro and Fayetteville to also make requests. As Hughes told me, “It’s not unusual for everybody and his brother” to want to get into the negotiations when water is being allocated.

Hesitancy on the part of some of the prospective partners is already evident. Apprehensions already exist about what kind of growth we will have in the area as we make plans for our long-term water use. Mayor of Carrboro, Mark Chilton, is concerned with the proliferation of low density living where water sucking, sprawling lawns predominate. He wants to see a strong regional commitment to sustainable water use. “Jordan is the last reservoir of it’s kind in North Carolina. Let’s not use it all up and then talk about conservation. That’s what we’ve done in the past. Water is the limit to growth, not just for the Triangle but for the U. S.”

Senior Pittsboro Town Board member, Gene Brooks, is ready to listen to proposals, but wants to safeguard Pittsboro’s position in future negotiations. “I would assume that you would want to be very careful so that you could retain autonomy. Some times in these ventures the smaller members don’t have much say. I would want to know more about the proposal. But that being said we shouldn’t miss the golden opportunity to work with regional partners on such an issue.”

Pittsboro is in a difficult position. The town draws it’s water from the Haw River, not the best of water sources. Pittsboro water has persistently violated the law with high levels of trihalomethanes, a suspected carcinogen. The town is working feverishly to avoid a $30,000 fine levied by the state of North Carolina for these violations. A cooperative water treatment venture would serve the town in two important ways: better water quality for a less money.

I would echo Mayor Chilton’s concern. The 37 million gallons yet to be allocated from Lake Jordan may sound like a lot, but it’s not. Especially when climate change will very likely bring hotter, dryer conditions to the Piedmont. Smart conservation techniques must be at the forefront of this proposal or we’ll repeat the mistakes of the past. Let’s stay under our allowable water budget and have some in reserve for a not so rainy day.

Chatham County Commissioner George Lucier is hoping to meet with Goldston, Siler City and Pittsboro soon to begin inter county negotiations for the new water treatment plant. Lucier maintains that Chatham doesn’t need four existing water treatment plants, and would do better to throw in with this cooperative undertaking.

The wise conservation of our water resources will be a true test of the collective mettle of our regional leadership. Success in this endeavor will pave the way for greater cooperation on other important issues like transportation, commerce, air quality and land use policy. Cooperative, cohesive communities gain a reputation of trustworthiness, stability and reliability. These attributes will position our Piedmont neighborhood in good stead when it comes to making choices about development. We will be able to choose the best industries that fit our locale. We’ll have the clout and resources to build sustainable communities that model the best of what North Carolina has to offer.