Monthly Archives: January 2014

Fracking Debate: How Once-Cooperative Attitudes Died

Many U.S. states with stalled fracking legislation — and probably some countries — are watching as comprehensive regulatory plans for hydraulic fracturing unfold in Illinois and California. A year ago, Illinois state legislators, industry officials and environmentalists appeared to be getting along as the state’s first regulations for the natural gas drilling process were passed, but good relations have since dissolved in mistrust. In California, after some relative harmony early on, environmental groups are trying to put the brakes on pending legislation in favor of further study. Any surprises here, as lawmakers struggle with “comprehensive” regs that try to please everyone? Not so much. Associated Press business writer Tammy Webber does a nice job of describing the situations.

RELATED NEWS: Duke fracking tests reveal dangers driller’s study missed in Texas – Bloomberg

See previous posts:

Drilling Down on Fracking: Latest News Plus Background (Jan. 6, 2014)

Fracking Across the Pond: In the UK (Jan 8, 2014)

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Filed under Environment, Fracking, Groundwater, Industry, North America, Pollution, Technology

On Tap Monday: Annual UN Water Conference in Spain

Image: UN Water

Image: UN Water

UN Water’s annual conference in Zaragoza, Spain, runs Monday, Jan. 13 through Thursday, Jan 16. This edition plumbs the depths of the relationship of water and energy as a run-up to World Water Day. The small city of Zaragoza is roughly midway between Madrid and Barcelona. I can’t make it to there myself, but I will be on the lookout for interesting news trickling out of the meetings.

As with a lot of UN endeavors, the full name and description of the event are a mouthful (and you can read much, much more fairly dry stuff at the website): 2014 UN-Water Annual International Zaragoza Conference. Preparing for World Water Day 2014: Partnerships for improving water and energy access, efficiency and sustainability.

Or, because it’s easier to navigate and gives a sense of the topics, you can just read the agenda.

World Water Day is March 22. Of course it has its own website, too.  The main “celebrations” — which include the release of a report and the bestowing of an award — will take place in Japan.

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Filed under Conservation, Environment, Europe, Events, Human rights, Industry, Research, Sustainability, Technology, United Nations, Wastewater Treatment, Water Resources, Water Shortage

UPDATED: Dangers of Leaked Chemical in West Virginia Remain a Disturbing Mystery


About 300,000 residents of eight counties in West Virginia were told on Thursday not to drink, cook or wash with tap water (but they can still flush it down the toilet or put out a fire with it, officials added — what a relief). About 7,500 gallons of an industrial solvent used to clean coal had seeped from a ruptured holding tank into the Elk River. As of Monday morning, water tests had showed improvement, but the ban is still in place.

One of the most disturbing facts about the story is that the risks to health posed by the chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, are poorly understood. Science writer Deborah Blum reports for on her frustrating search for information. David Biello sheds some light on the basic properties of the compound, which is a type of alcohol, in Scientific American.

The stories, and the comments attached, raise other important questions, directly or indirectly. How long had the tank been leaking, and how does such a failure go undetected, even for a day? (There are supposed to be alarms and other safety protocols.) How much of the chemical have residents already ingested, and what health issues could result? How culpable are the tank’s owner, Charleston-W. Va.-based Freedom Industries, and the state of West Virginia? The state gets a lot of grief for under-regulating the powerful coal industry.  (And further, in what world does it seem OK to have such chemical tanks just upriver from a water system’s intake pipes? What can the EPA do? Can “Freedom Industries” be cited for its name alone? One can only hope).

Blum also brings up the 35-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act, saying it hasn’t been updated and strengthened in all that time. Why? And, of course, what will change as a result of this spill? Unfortunately, it often takes a nightmare to wake people up to the need for action.

Read more:

UPDATE: Chemical spill muddies picture in a state wary of regulationsThe New York Times

UPDATE: Critics say spill highlights lax West Virginia regulationsThe New York Times

OP-ED: A predictable water crisis due in part to “audacious influence of industry” – Sunday Gazette-Mail

UPDATE: Hope flows as W. Va. water  showing signs of improvement after spill –

The wait continues for safe tap water in West VirginiaThe New York Times

Freedom Industries cited for Elk chemical spillSaturday Gazette-Mail

Chemical guesswork in West Virginia –

How dangerous is the coal-washing chemical spilled in West Virginia?Scientific American

Thousands of residents warned not to use water –


Filed under Environment, North America, Pollution, Rivers and Watersheds

Innovative Device Saves Lives in Philippines After Typhoon Haiyan

Image: M-100 Chlorintor, courtesy of WaterStep

Image: M-100 Chlorinator, courtesy of WaterStep

Natural disasters often knock out access to clean water, which can make thirst and disease bigger causes of death than the catastrophe itself. When a massive storm like Typhoon Haiyan strikes a large, densely populated landmass like the Philippines, the risk to health is widespread, ongoing and a huge challenge to large aid organizations.

Shipments of bottled water help, but they’re expensive to execute, they may not reach everyone, and they cause waste. That’s why WaterStep and its small water purifiers make for such a compelling story, as reported by and Fast Company. The Louisville, Kentucky-based nonprofit group sent 60 of its M-100 Chlorinators over to the stricken nation, piggybacked on a flight of volunteer college kids who would act as couriers. The devices would be distributed in remote areas by newly trained nonprofit workers from the Philippines’ second-largest population center, Cebu City, which was spared by Haiyan and has been a staging area for relief operations.

Each device, about the size of a 2-liter soda bottle, with tubes sticking out, can chlorinate about 1,000 gallons (3,785 liters) of water per hour, or 10,000 gallons (38,000 liters) per day, using some table salt and a basic power source, such as a car battery or a solar panel. The byproducts, chlorine and sodium hydroxide, can be mixed to make a saline solution or used separately as disinfectants.

Another technology created for WaterStep bears mentioning, though not necessarily in the context of disaster relief. The group distributes the Water Ball, a durable sphere with handles that can be filled with water and rolled.  In many parts of the world with limited access to clean water, women and children are burdened with the task of carrying water great distances daily; the Water Ball is meant to make it easier to carry more water more quickly.

Read more:

Andri Antoniades reports on WaterStep’s work in

Stan Alcorn writes about WaterStep for Fast Company.

WaterStep’s technologies.

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Filed under Asia, Bottled Water, Human rights, Natural Disasters, NGOs, Oceans, Technology

Water War? Dam Talks Between Egypt and Ethiopia Falter


Image: NASA

In 1979, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat said if the country ever again went to war, it would be over water. Egypt’s near-total reliance on the Nile River for water has made for tense relations with other Nile Basin countries at times, and Ethiopia’s current construction of the massive Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile tributary, upriver from Egypt, has led to speculation that war could erupt. Some experts say it probably won’t, because Ethiopia has a strong military and Egypt is no longer under the hawkish sway of Hosni Mubarak, but sabres have been rattled.

Read more:

Update: Egyptian PM says dam negotiations are ‘not over’ (Ahram Online)

Bloomberg reports on Ethiopia’s rejection of Egypt’s latest proposal asserting its right to most of the water.

Aljazeera provides background on this dispute, as well as previous clashes over the Nile.

Ahram Online quotes Egyptian official calling Ethiopian claims of dam progress a “media show.”

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Filed under Africa, Conflicts, Rivers and Watersheds, Water Shortage

Fracking Over the Pond: In the UK

Seismic fracturing, aka fracking, is controversial in the U.S. Proponents say the natural gas drilling method creates jobs and reduces reliance on foreign oil; opponents say it’s a filthy polluter and the consequences of it have yet to be known because not enough research has been done and not enough regulation is in place. The links from The Telegraph and The Guardian below are not direct responses to each other, but they are two sides of a coin, Should Britain follow the U.S.?

Torries: Do you realise fracking is nastier and messier than wind turbines? – Jenny Jones, The Telegraph

Why the UK should embrace fracking – Chris Breitling, CFO, Breitling Energy Corporation, vis a vis The Guardian

News UPDATE, Jan. 13: PM Cameron promises tax boost as incentive to drill – BBC News

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Filed under Fracking, Groundwater, Industry, Pollution, Research, Technology, Water Resources

To the Rescue in California? Solar-Powered Desalination

solar desal water fx

Image: WaterFX

When you hear about desalination, it’s usually about a large-scale effort to transform seawater to freshwater through the process of reverse osmosis. In other words, an industrial plant is built in a terribly dry place at considerable expense, and salt water is pumped in and forced through membranes to create much-less-salty water (to oversimplify). But there is another, completely different process that separates salt and other things from water using a “solar still.”

Solar desalination technology isn’t new, but a company called WaterFX* is trying to put it to a new use in water-challenged California, and, potentially, everywhere, according to an interesting article in Forbes (link below). The company’s effort is about selling its scalable Aqua 4 system to growers and water districts, who can use it to recapture, purify and reuse agricultural run-off (that is, the copious amount of water used for irrigation that picks up salts, fertilizer and other impurities that make it problematic to reuse without damaging crop yields). The company’s small-scale pilot project with California’s  Panoche Water District was able to produce nearly 500 gallons of clean water per hour, and the district plans to launch a larger project with the company, according to the article below.

Read more about how the sytem works in Peter Kelly-Detwiler’s* piece for Forbes.

Read more about WaterFX* at its website.

(*Note: Peter Kelly-Detwiler is a partner at NorthBridge Energy Partners, LLC. This post is not an endorsement of that organization or of WaterFX.)

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Filed under Agriculture, Conservation, Desalination, Industry, North America, Technology, Water Resources, Water Shortage

Taxing Bottled Water to Link the Luxury to the Human Need

Image: LeeBrimelow

Image: LeeBrimelow

With the At the Waterline blog, I’m writing about water issues as I learn about them. Almost every day, I learn something new. It’s exciting, but it also makes me feel perpetually late to the party. Today I saw that people have been entering “Jorge Viñuales” into the blog’s search box, so I looked him up. That led me to a 13-month-old YouTube video entitled, “A Tax on Bottled Water: Jorge Viñuales at TEDx Zurich.”

In the video, Viñuales, a lawyer and law professor (see credentials below), suggests a small transactional tax on bottled water that would be used “(1) for the protection of the natural infrastructures that maintain the water cycle, i.e. wetlands, (2) for direct local water distribution and sanitation projects (e.g. for the coordination of inter-city projects), and (3) for research on water efficiency, decontamination and alternative techniques (e.g. exploitation of melting iced-water).”

Citing the $50 billion European bottled water market as an example, Viñuales says that a 3% tax could raise $1.5 billion (presumably annually). Viñuales acknowledges that some people think we all should stop drinking bottled water entirely, but he argues that “sermonizing” people is not the best way to effect environmental policy change. As such, he suggests what seems like a more practical step, in order “to link water as a luxury to a real problem … access to water as a human need.”

Whether bleeding bottled-water companies financially would work in practice, and do enough to fund programs to help those in immediate need as well as discover new or more efficient ways to get freshwater, are other questions — ones that a 12-minute TED talk can’t cover in any depth. Viñuales did mention, however, his work on a legal framework to manage freshwater resources trapped in ice (e.g., towing icebergs; extracting freshwater from icebergs is a serious subject of study).

Viñuales is a practicing lawyer, the Harold Samuel Professor of Law and Environmental Policy at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, and a Visiting Professor of International Law at The Graduate Institute, Geneva, Switzerland, during the academic year 2013-2014. Two of Viñuales’ most recent books are Foreign Investment and the Environment in International Law (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and Harnessing Foreign Investment to Promote Environmental Protection: Incentives and Safeguards (Cambridge University Press, 2013, co-edited with P.-M. Dupuy),

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Filed under Bottled Water, Events, Industry, Law, Oceans, Water Resources, Water Shortage

Drilling Down on Fracking: Latest News Plus Background



Not to be too Mr. Moto* about it, but it’s no exaggeration to say that the expansion of fracking, aka hydraulic fracturing, has been extremely controversial. The relatively new drilling practice, developed about 60 years ago but widely employed only within the past decade or so, involves pumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into the ground at each drill site to break up shale and release natural gas that had previously been inaccessible. It’s the subject of much protest over groundwater contamination and other potential ill effects. The fracking industry says the practice is safe and praises it for reducing oil imports, while environmental activists loudly warn of eco-catastrophe-for-profit and a disastrous delay in the quest for renewable energy sources amid worsening global warming.

Perhaps you’ve seen actor Mark Ruffalo at the anti-fracking forefront (here’s his CNN opinion piece with Greenpeace exec Phil Radford, from April 2013). And then there’s the feature film “Promised Land,” written by stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski and directed by Gus Van Sant. Previously, Josh Fox’s HBO documentaries about the largely unregulated industry, “GasLand” and “GasLand 2,” saw some acclaim. The fracking industry responded in kind, underwriting the film “TruthLand,” a pro-industry rebuttal to Fox. The likes of Popular Mechanics Scientific American and Discover have tried to clarify points of contention.

Meanwhile, a new study finds that more than half of Americans still know nearly nothing about fracking (below). I, for one, still have a lot to learn. It strikes me as an under-policed industry racing for purchase and profit ahead of federal, state and local regulation that should, eventually, mitigate fear and damage done — hopefully sooner than later (again, Mr. Moto speaks). But some say it’s already too late for regulation, and only bans will be effective.

Recent fracking news:

Fracking contamination found in water wells in 4 states – The Associated Press

In at least four U.S. states that have nurtured the nation’s energy boom, hundreds of complaints have been made about well-water contamination from oil or gas drilling, and pollution was confirmed in a number of them, according to a review of complaints in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Texas that casts doubt on industry suggestions that such problems rarely happen. The lack of detail in some state reports could help fuel public confusion and mistrust.

U.S. EPA unlikely to step up fracking enforcement efforts for now, say analysts – Reuters

Federal regulators are unlikely to step up enforcement of potential water contamination cases linked to natural gas drilling — despite new concerns about water safety — given a lack of political will and limited resources to pursue such cases, analysts said.

Study shows fracking is bad for babies – Bloomberg

Researchers from Princeton University, Columbia University and the Massachusetts Institute for Technology looked at Pennsylvania birth records from 2004 to 2011 to assess the health of infants born within a 2.5-kilometer radius of natural-gas fracking sites. They found that proximity to fracking increased the likelihood of low birth weight by more than half, from about 5.6% to more than 9%. The chances of a low Apgar score, a summary measure of the health of newborn children, roughly doubled, to more than 5%.

Study finds few know what fracking really is – Caspar Star-Tribune (Wyoming, U.S.)

A survey published by researchers at Oregon State, George Mason and Yale universities found that more than half of respondents reported knowing little or nothing of fracking. And almost 60% said they had no opinion on the subject.

Colorado communities could ban fracking under new proposed amendment – The Huffington Post

A proposed amendment to Colorado’s constitution that would give municipalities the power to ban or restrict fracking and other industrial activities would be the first of its kind nationwide if it passes.

(*Moto = Master of the Obvious)

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Filed under Environment, Fracking, Groundwater, Industry, North America, Pollution, Research, Technology

China Raises Water Prices for Top Users

Image: Houhai, Beijing, by D. Snow

Image: Houhai, Beijing, by D. Snow

In case you missed this Wall Street Journal report yesterday: “To Conserve Water, China Raises Prices for Top Users.”

It’s worth noting that China is merely raising its comparatively low water rates, and mainly for those who use the most water. It’s a new, three-tiered pricing structure, announced Friday, that is part of larger plan to restructure utility pricing nationwide. The water rates are considered low because they amount to 0.5% of disposable income. By comparison, Australia’s rates are 8.6%, Japan’s are 2.9%, the U.S.’s are 2.8%, and South Korea’s are 1.3%.

Note, also, that most people in China don’t drink tap water. They drink bottled water. I was amazed to be told of this and witness it when I visited Beijing and Yunnan Province in 2012. That’s more than a billion people filling landfills and that huge Pacific Ocean garbage patch with plastic. Experts say the new pricing structure is likely a precursor to upgraded drinking water standards in the country, which, with new investment in infrastructure, could be in place as soon as 2015, according to the WSJ report.

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Filed under Asia, Climate Change, Groundwater, Water Shortage