Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Gravel and the Practical Application of House Bill 678

--Here's an editorial from the Great Falls Tribune today that praises new policy set by House Bill 678, a bill on public notice, fees, and state agency review of gravel pits. I was the sponsor of the bill, which was composite legislation from several different bills proposed last session, most by me. The bill was vetted and amended by industry, neighbors of gravel pits, county representatives, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, and others; it's nice to see some recognition that the bill succeeds in bringing public notice and transparency to proposed opencut mining operations.

Gravel pits: Problem presented; problem (almost) solved
Great Falls Tribune, Tuesday, January 26, 2010

It is reassuring to witness a government initiative that actually seems to be working.

Today's case in point stems from a dispute over the proposed reopening of a gravel pit and operation of an asphalt-mixing plant southwest of Great Falls, northeast of the Hardy Creek exit. Both would be temporary, serving an upcoming reconstruction project on the nearby Interstate 15.

Under a new law passed by the 2009 Legislature, gravel pits such as the one proposed south of Cascade now come under closer environmental scrutiny, and the approval process for them is much more transparent.

As a result in this case, landowners in the vicinity of the existing but not-recently-used 29-acre open-cut gravel source, as well as the county commissioners, have been notified by mail of the Montana Department of Transportation's plans. Signs notifying passers-by of the plans also have been posted near the property, and a hearing on a special use permit is set this Friday in Great Falls.

The gravel and asphalt are needed by contractor Schellinger Construction for a $16.7 million I-15 reconstruction project scheduled to begin when weather permits this spring and last into November.

We have no stake in the specifics of this case, but we would observe that roads have to be maintained, that materials for that maintenance have to come from somewhere, and that obtaining materials close to the site of the work makes economic sense. Should this gravel and asphalt operation be set up where proposed? That's for others to decide.

But we join Chris Cronin, supervisor of the Department of Environmental Quality's open-cut mining program, in applauding the operation of the new law.

Having been notified of the contractor's plans, a couple who live in the vicinity have challenged the permit, objecting to the location of the gravel mine.

"One of the intentions of the law was to make sure the public had knowledge of this early on, and that is definitely occurring," Cronin said.

Had this project come up a year ago, chances are few people would have known about it until the trucks started rolling.

Just as important, the law imposes a small tax on the product of such gravel operations, and money from that is helping Cronin's agency clear a backlog that was clogging up the works.

A legislative audit in 2008 found that only four people were responsible for overseeing about 2,000 gravel operations, and that there was a permitting backlog of about 300.

Thanks to revenue from the new tax, additional scientists have been added and the backlog is shrinking.

There's still some distance to go, but the Cascade-area gravel pit dispute shows that the solutions crafted by the Legislature can work for an informed citizenry and more efficient regulatory processes — no matter how the Hardy Creek couple's protest turns out.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Day Before Birthday!

This Hallmark card says it all for birthdays:

And in the spirit, here I am with my sister on an Easter Sunday in the 1970s. Both in pigtails, Easter dresses, and black patent Mary Janes! Oh, and I was rockin' the cat-eye glasses; they were pale pink with silver sparkles in the frames. Fancy.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Mercury Dangers, and Recycling CFLs

Have you been stockpiling your used compact fluorescent light bulbs, long fluorescent bulbs, mercury thermometers, or old mercury thermostats? Well, stockpile no more! Bozeman has a household hazardous waste collection every month!

I’ve stockpiled bulbs for quite a while now, refusing to just throw them out because of their mercury content. CFLs, like all fluorescent lamps, contain mercury as vapor inside the glass tubing. Because mercury is poisonous, even these small amounts are a concern for landfills and waste incinerators where the mercury from lamps may be released and contribute to air and water pollution.

CFLs are good because they can use at least two-thirds less energy than standard incandescent bulbs and last up to 10 times longer (average lifespan of a CFL is five years). CFLs generate 70 percent less heat, making them safer to operate. And they can save the user $30 or more in energy costs over each bulb's lifetime. But their disposal requires more care because of the mercury inside each bulb.

Bozeman’s solid waste superintendent, Steve Johnson, says that products containing mercury can be collected together (mercury thermometers, thermostats, CFLs, etc.) and taken to the Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) collection site located at the former City Landfill (on Story Mill Road). The second Saturday of each month, 9 am to 12 pm, hazardous materials can be dropped off at the site. Saturday, January 9th, 2010 is the next available Saturday for disposing of HHW. The phone number to the scale house is 587-7890.

Tell everyone you know, and recycle your CFLs safely!

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

New Year's Work on Water

My new year starts with continued work on water: water records updates for the Montana Water Court, planning the Greater Gallatin Watershed Council annual meeting (January 21), continued work on the legislative Water Policy Interim Committee (which meets this month in Helena), and info-gathering on a controlled groundwater area in Bozeman: the Bozeman Solvent Site, polluted with tetrachloroethene (PCE) by a dry cleaner 20 years ago.

Before Christmas, I attended a presentation by the Department of Environmental Quality about the Bozeman Solvent Site. The DEQ will begin an indoor air investigation in January for homes in the plume, closest to the site of the pollution, to determine if PCE vapor has infiltrated homes and affects people's health.

The Bozeman Solvent Site is located north of West Main Street and east of North 19th Avenue and extends north of the East Gallatin River. It includes the shopping center (now the Hastings/CVS stores). Soil and groundwater at the site have been contaminated by PCE and PCE has been detected in indoor air at the shopping center.

By way of history, a dry cleaner in the Buttrey Shopping Center in central Bozeman released PCE, a solvent and degreaser, into the city sewer line and into a septic field in the 1980s. The toxin contaminated the soil and groundwater, and the plume of contamination now extends 2 1/2 to 3 miles, to the north of the East Gallatin River. In 1990, an assessment was done to determine if the site could be declared a Superfund site; in 1994, it was declared one. Since 1998, the plume and surrounding area has been a controlled groundwater area (CGA), with restrictions on use of groundwater: no drinking wells, and all previous well-users must be connected to the municipal water supply. The sewer line and septic tank were removed, but not before the contamination spread. Contaminated soil and water are still on-site, and the plume grows.

Tetrachloroethene (PCE) is a carcinogen. Long-term exposure can cause leukemia and cancer of the skin, colon, lung, larynx, bladder, and urogenital tract. Long-term exposure may also damage the central nervous system, liver, and kidneys; can cause respiratory failure, memory loss, confusion, and dry and cracked skin. Short-term exposure to high levels of perchloroethylene can cause buildup of fluid in the lungs, eye and respiratory irritation, severe shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, vomiting, headache, dizziness, sleepiness, confusion, difficulty speaking and walking, and lightheadedness. (From the National Library of Medicine, http://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/text_version/chemicals.php?id=22)

PCE can break down in an anaerobic environment, but groundwater and homes with indoor air are aerobic environments. PCE sinks in water because of its poor water solubility and its high density. Thus, it may accumulate in and be carried by groundwater and surface water. PCE is classed as very hazardous to water. It is toxic to aquatic organisms and decomposes slowly to form trichloroacetic acid and hydrochloric acid.

PCE can degrade when its chlorine atoms are lost; from four chlorine atoms to three, it becomes trichloroethene (TCE); from three to two chlorine atoms, dichloroethene (DCE). Most unfortunately, degradation will not occur in the Solvent Site situation because the environment is not anaerobic. Our PCE stays PCE and volatizes to vapor.

PCE volatizes from liquid to a vapor form, and indoor air vapor collects from contaminated soil and groundwater. The depth to groundwater is shallow in the area, 5-25 feet, which contributes to the problem; it keeps moving the contaminant, and keeps it too close to the surface.

Major human exposure is from inhalation of contaminated urban air, especially near point sources such as dry cleaners, drinking contaminated water from contaminated aquifers and drinking water distributed in pipelines with vinyl liners, and inhalation of contaminated indoor air in metal degreasing and dry cleaning industries.

PCE tests in our north central neighborhood yielded shocking results. Soil vapor probes 9-12 feet below the surface and above groundwater showed staggering numbers. The EPA standard for levels of PCE acceptable for human health exposure are 4.1 micrograms per cubic meter. Montana DEQ determined that a level ten times higher, 41 mg/m3, would be acceptable. But the tests showed levels as high as 1700 mg/m3. One of the DEQ staff said that they thought the lab equipment had malfunctioned when they first saw that number. But no, it really is that high. An "acceptable" limit of 4.1, and a test result of 1700.

Municipal water is now provided to the homes in the neighborhood, the sewer line and septic tank have been removed, but the site is still contaminated, and there are restrictions on any groundwater use. Now the focus is concentrations of PCE in indoor air.

I asked about continued contamination removal. Soil removal, which is unmanageable just for the scale of such a project, is not an option because the PCE, which sinks lower than the groundwater table, would still be in place and would still migrate up, through new, clean soil.

I asked if anything neutralizes PCE. Is it possible to inject compounds into the contaminated soil and water and counter the PCE? No.

I asked how much material remains on the original site. Can we remove the soil from the septic site, if that would help to relieve the amount of PCE that will contaminate the plume for years to come? How large will the plume become? What are the concentrations down-grade?

The mitigation for vapor intrusion is venting the vapors out. That means pressurizing a home or business so that PCE vapors don't come in, or if the PCE is detected inside, continuously blowing the indoor air out.

I asked about the effects of PCE on human health and that aspect of the indoor air testing. The response from DEQ: "That's not within DEQ's scope to do." I was referred to the Department of Public Health and Human Services, to ask if they could provide some help for the human health effects. Hmmph.

Since the meeting, I've been in contact with DEQ staff about establishing a dry cleaner clean-up mitigation fund, much like state's Petroleum Storage Tank Cleanup Fund.

If I'm re-elected, I'll pursue a solution to PCE contamination. There's a site in Livingston, too, with PCE vapor intrusion, and my DEQ contact says that there are many, many potential sites in the state rife for PCE contamination.

Know that I'll keep on this issue for the health of my friends and neighbors, wherever they are in the state, and for health of our water.

On a separate note, here's a hawk on my porch fence this morning, scoping the backyard for tasty songbirds and squirrels, both abundant here.