How pollution testing may have gone astray

West Point in Seattle is Washington's largest treatment plant. Although it is in compliance with state limits on pollutants in the wastewater it dumps into Puget Sound, other shortcomings have kept it from winning a state award for perfect performance.
Ned Ahrens/King County

SALT LAKE CITY – Sitting by a table in his basement office, a silver-shocked Peter Maier pulls out four colors of Legos to illustrate how all life is built mostly of oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen and carbon – and how one, nitrogen, can be a big pollution problem when not properly handled at sewage-treatment plants.

Clean Water: The Next Act

He rattles through a brief history of modern sewage treatment, including how what he learned in his native Holland gave him great pause when he moved to America in 1978 and saw how sewage was being treated here. Or, to be more precise, how sewage was tested here.

He quotes the late Edmund Muskie, a chief architect of the Clean Water Act, who said during a Senate speech as the legislation neared passage 40 years ago this month:

“Streams and rivers are no longer to be considered part of the waste treatment process.”

Byline: 

One man’s crusade to stop water pollution by getting sewage testing right

Peter Maier, a Salt Lake City-area engineer

Peter Maier, a Salt Lake City-area engineer, has crusaded for three decades to improve testing of sewage, which he says would show the need for additional pollution cleanup to protect U.S. waterways under the Clean Water Act.

SALT LAKE CITY – If Peter Maier is right, sewage treatment plants across the country are performing a crucial scientific test incorrectly, resulting in widespread pollution of lakes, rivers and streams in violation of the federal Clean Water Act. And they’re doing it with the express approval of the federal government.

Clean Water: The Next Act

At the heart of the engineer’s contention: Our sewage-treatment plants fail to clean up urine.

For three decades Maier has aggressively, even abrasively, pushed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to require different testing of sewage dumped by wastewater treatment plants. Maier says the tests must take better account of how much oxygen the pollution takes out of the waterways where it is dumped, and how much it will encourage the growth of algae that can lead to fish kills.

At stake, Maier says, is whether the country can come closer to meeting critical requirements of the Clean Water Act, passed 40 years ago this month: cleaning up waterways to be fishable and swimmable.

Over those four decades, algae blooms and fish kills have become more common. Scientists increasingly blame this on an overabundance of nutrients in wastewater. One is phosphorus. Another is nitrogen. And nitrogen, Maier says, is being largely ignored because of a botched testing method.

“The way they test now, you get false and misleading information,” Maier said.

Byline: 

Cities And Towns Still Struggle To Control Sewage 40 Years After The Clean Water Act

Paul Gilliland is the mayor of the Eastern Washington town of Harrington. He's pictured collecting a sample of water that will flow into a lagoon. The mayor is getting certified to operator Harrington's wastewater plant.
Courtney Flatt/EarthFix

HARRINGTON, Wash. — When a fire breaks out, Fire Chief Scott McGowan is on the call. He’s on the spot when a sewer line breaks and somebody has to fix it. He is in charge of the drinking water plant that serves the 420 people in the small Eastern Washington town.

Clean Water: The Next Act

And he doubles as the wastewater treatment operator, not as glamorous as being fire chief, but it’s part of his job description.

McGowan’s backup at the wastewater plant? Until the city can hire another worker, that would be Mayor Paul Gilliland. He already handles most of the wastewater plant’s paperwork and is studying to earn an operator certification so he can be a full-service mayor.

Harrington is just one of many communities across the Pacific Northwest that is operating on a tight budget and trying not to violate it’s wastewater pollution permit.

One of the main goals of the 1972 Clean Water Act was to stop “point-source pollution.” That’s the sewage and industrial waste pumped out of pipes and into the nation’s waterways.

To help communities build and upgrade wastewater collection and treatment systems in the years after the Clean Water Act’s passage, the federal government handed out billions of dollars in grants. But most of those federal grants are gone, replaced by loans. At the same time, those federally subsidized municipal wastewater systems have aged.

Byline: 

Whooping Cough Vaccine Failures Increasing

Editor's note: For more than two years, San Diego's I-Newsource has led the reporting on possibly the worst whooping cough epidemic in half a century. Here in Washington state, the incidence of the disease is more than six times the national average, and on April 3, a pertussis epidemic was declared by the Washington State Secretary of Health. The article below is the work of I-Newsource and KPBS and is republished with permission.

Children across the country may need yet another booster shot — a seventh inoculation — to protect against whooping cough, a disease that is spreading across the nation in what may be the worst epidemic in more than 50 years.

New research confirms the whooping cough vaccine is failing at a higher rate than expected, and scientists are considering adding a seventh dose to the national immunization schedule published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Two recent studies have found the majority of people getting sick are up to date with their immunizations.

KPBS and Investigative Newsource foreshadowed these findings in an investigation in 2010 when whooping cough cases had reached epidemic proportions in California, killing 10 babies and sickening some 9,000 people.

The investigation raised serious questions about the effectiveness of the vaccine, reporting that a majority of the people diagnosed with the illness in San Diego County and across California had been fully immunized against the disease.

Byline: 

Five to Read on Immigration

We're not the only ones looking closely at U.S. immigration policy and the many facilities around the country that process deportations. Here are five of the most incisive pieces we've read recently:

Byline: 

Feminized Fish: A Side Effect Of Emerging Contaminants

Rivers in America have stopped catching on fire. Big industrial polluters have been reined in. Overall, water quality has improved under the Clean Water Act.

Clean Water: The Next Act

But for all of its successes, the landmark environmental law was never designed to control contaminants that emerged after its 1972 passage. These pollutants are affecting the environment in new and different ways.

Consider the feminized fish of Puget Sound.

Byline: 

Polluting The Water With Toothpaste, Shampoo, And Drugs

OREGON CITY, Ore. — Dave Sohm’s house is immaculate. Every tool in the garage has its own hook. The kitchen countertops gleam.

But in his house –- as with most houses –- toxic chemicals are hiding in plain sight.

Sohm wants to know where. Clean Water: The Next Act

“I’m curious about what things there are,” he says. “I don’t know what impacts I may be having that I’m not even aware of.”

Jen Coleman, an outreach director for the Oregon Environmental Council is at Sohm’s house to help. Armed with a list of chemicals that have toxic effects on people and the environment, Coleman digs through cabinets, checks ingredient lists and compares them with contaminants that have been found in local waterways.

First on her list is a chemical called triclosan. It’s found in antibacterial soaps, toothpaste and deodorant. And it can be toxic to fish.

Byline: