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By Lady Wa Wa
When a commodity as vital to life as clean water is at stake, we would be wise to be overly cautious rather than rely on government agencies to protect us.
From Love Canal, N.Y., (the nation’s first Superfund site) to the U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., news stories abound of disastrous situations where authorities failed to warn residents of unsafe water in a timely manner, or even attempted to cover up or downplay the hazards. Meanwhile, unsuspecting residents became ill drinking and bathing in polluted water.
Yet, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 59 percent of survey respondents view the Environmental Protection Agency favorably. In other words, they believe the EPA informs and protects them. Pew conducted the survey Jan. 7-11 among 1,504 adults nationwide.
I suspect the 6,000 residents of Glendive, Mont., are less trusting of the EPA and their local government since a ruptured Bridger Pipeline Company pipeline poisoned their town’s drinking water supply in January with benzene, a human carcinogen found in oil and gas.
Benzene in nature
Often, industry professionals and government agencies point out that so-called hazards such as radiation, ozone, mercury, lead and benzene, to name a few, occur organically in the environment. A poster produced by Environmental Programs at Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center states that benzene is produced naturally by volcanoes and forest fires and does not build up in living organisms.
“It is also present in many plants and animals and in fossil fuels such as coal and oil. Benzene evaporates very quickly into the air. It can pass into the air from water and soil. It reacts with other chemicals in the air and usually breaks down within a few days.”
This makes benzene sound benign, doesn’t it? The information poster concludes by stating that benzene can cause cancer and disrupt the immune system in humans.
Yellowstone River and benzene
The Bridger pipeline split on Jan. 17, 2015, spilling approximately 30,000 gallons (some sources say 50,000 gallons) of crude oil into the Yellowstone River four miles upstream from Glendive. Glendive’s treatment plant officials did not issue an advisory against drinking the carcinogenic tap water until 48 hours after the catastrophe, according to news reports.
According to the EPA, the 12-inch diameter, ½-inch-thick pipeline broke between two block valves approximately 6,800 feet apart where the line crosses under the river.
“To date, response crews have collected 548 barrels of oil (about 23,000 gallons) out of more than 1,200 barrels that could have been released. Most of the oil recovery was from within the pipeline after it was shut down. Additional oil has been recovered from on-ice recovery efforts.”
The EPA says workers conducted water sampling at the Glendive Water Treatment Plant and environmental specialists took water samples along the river at the site of the release and at select points downstream. “Additional environmental sampling will also be conducted to determine the extent of the spill's environmental impact and to guide future response and recovery plans once the ice breaks up.”
"Brief" water contamination
The EPA said Glendive’s public drinking water supply was “briefly contaminated soon after the spill when volatile organic compounds, specifically benzene, showed up in early sampling results.” Solutions were put in place to mitigate these VOCs and the water treatment plant has since been decontaminated and the main distribution lines flushed through the city's fire hydrants.
“Residents were instructed to flush the pipes in their homes and businesses and advised that they could continue using their water as normal. DEQ has confirmed that the municipal water delivery system now meets standards set out by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.”
The EPA ordered additional monitoring equipment to install at the intake to detect VOCs and other oil constituents entering the system, sounding an alarm that will trigger a shutdown of the treatment plant if benzene levels reach 2 ppb (less than half of the benzene maximum contaminant level).
The EPA also sampled 10 shallow groundwater wells near the break. No VOCs were detected.
Ten days later, city water was again deemed safe.
Not safe for all creatures
A month later, however, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks advised fishermen to use caution when deciding whether to eat fish they caught in the area affected by the spill. In February, detectable levels of petroleum were found in tests of fish pulled from the Yellowstone River downstream from the broken pipeline.
Apparently, the fish didn’t read the EPA’s press release certifying the water as safe to use.
The state agency said sampling for contaminated fish – as well as cleanup of the spilled oil – has been difficult because ice covers most of the river downstream from the spill site.
FWP fisheries biologists were able to catch several species of fish at sites downstream from the break. The fish were sent to laboratories in Billings and Wisconsin, which tested the edible muscle tissue and internal organs for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – or PAHs.
“Published research indicates that petroleum compounds can accumulate in fish for 40 or more days after a spill. FWP will resume catching fish after the ice leaves the river and test tissues for PAH accumulation.”
The agency said petroleum compounds can also be passed on to fish through the food chain when micro-organisms, insects, worms, crustaceans and other aquatic animals absorb petroleum compounds then eaten by fish.
The advisory was issued as a precaution, instructing anglers to tend toward conservative decisions and prudent practice when it comes to the health effects of the oil spill.
Lois Gibbs, the Love Canal housewife who rallied neighbors in a 3-year fight to force legislators to listen and the EPA to evacuate 833 households from their highly toxic, dioxin-laden neighborhoods, said in 2008, "The federal government's failure to prevent harm for American citizens is unacceptable: When will government learn to err on the side of caution instead of risk equations?"
Gibbs, the founder/executive director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, was speaking about the Food and Drug Administration’s decision that bisphenol-A (BPA), a common plasticizer used in a variety of consumer food and beverage containers, is safe for babies.
Seven years later, a newly published study reported an association between BPA with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in children. The study, by researchers at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine (RowanSOM) and Rutgers New Jersey Medical School (NJMS), shows that BPA is not metabolized well in children with ASD.
Perhaps we cannot rely on government agencies to keep us safe from all hazards lurking in our environment. But, we can be proactive. First, have your water tested.
Home water filters are available today that can eliminate dangerous pollutants, whether they occur naturally or from horrific oil spills, leach from chemical dump sites or seep into the groundwater from landfills.
As Lois Gibbs says, wouldn’t we also be wise to err on the side of caution?