FEATURE / OP-ED
— How a peaceful term like ‘Harmonic Mean’ could change the water you drink, rivers you paddle, and Jefferson County’s rafting and tourism industries.
If there were any doubt whether newly minted West Virginia Governor Jim Justice would follow the Trump administration’s lead on dismantling environmental regulations, he cleared that up in his state of the state address February 8. The telling moment came when Mr. Justice openly declared war on the workers in his administration who are charged with enforcing permits and rules designed to protect public health and water supplies.
He went so far as to criticize the appearance of environmental inspectors, deriding them for having beards (hey, this is West Virginia; retired men move here just so they can grow facial hair). Justice said that the job of whiskered Department of Environmental Protection employees is to say yes to industry permit requests—not as much to ensure that permits followed state laws.
It is against this backdrop that the West Virginia legislature began its 2017 session. Several measures would directly impact drinking water, fishing and wildlife, and swimming and boating. One in particular, SB 246 (and its House counterpart HB 2506), could undermine the Wild & Wonderful brand that brings tourist dollars to the state. It could also impact the rafting industry that brings people and money to Jefferson County.
SB 246 begins with a technical term called “critical design flow,” and moves to a name that sounds almost musical, even yogic—Harmonic Mean—to calculate how much pollution can be dumped into drinking water supplies.
Read this line of text, then let’s parse through it: “For implementing human health criteria for the protection of drinking water, permit limits shall be calculated using the harmonic mean flow, and the secretary may determine the point of compliance for a permittee’s discharge at the downstream boundary of a mixing zone determined without regard to limitations on spatial area or overlapping discharges that extends to, but not beyond, a point one-half mile upstream of a public water supply, unless the public water supply agrees in writing to an extension of the mixing zone to a point no less than five hundred yards upstream of its intake.
The Dilution Solution
Hidden in that technical jargon is the idea that rivers serve as vast mixing zones, where pollutants are diluted as they flow downstream. According to this “dilution solution,” enough mixing will make water potable through conventional treatment by cash-strapped water utilities. This is known as design flow.
The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System limits the amount of toxic pollutants that can be discharged by industrial sites into rivers. The amount of dilution available in the river is a key part of the calculation. Typically, more water means more dilution availability.
Even for the same river, flows vary widely throughout the year, from droughts to floods. Permit writers must select one “critical design flow” for each river to calculate the dilution available. Currently in West Virginia, to be protective of human health, the critical design flow is an estimate of a drought flow. This makes sense, right? If you want to be on the safe side when it comes to dilution, you base on what “safe” means when there is less water in the river.
SB 246 / HB 2506 proposes to drastically increase the critical design flow to an estimate of the average flow, or “Harmonic Mean Flow,” instead of the flow that has been used for years. For some rivers, this change could mean a presumption that the river can dilute 20 times more pollutants than currently allowed. Based on a 2006 study of water flows by Jeffrey B. Wiley of the North Branch Potomac gage near Cumberland (MD), the waterway would see an increase of five times the dilution factor. That’s Shepherdstown’s water supply.
Consider this. We’re talking about some of the most toxic and carcinogenic substances known—substances that are particularly harmful to pregnant women, fetuses, and children. They include:
Dioxin: known to cause neurological defects and malformations of human embryos.
Lead: is transferred across the placenta and increases risk of spontaneous abortion, premature birth, birth defects, and delayed mental and physical growth.
Arsenic: also crosses the placenta, and may result in spontaneous abortion or stillbirth.
Benzene: has been found in umbilical cord blood and linked to spontaneous abortion and stillbirth.
A lot of people, myself among them, have a hard time believing you can actually get a permit to discharge toxins and carcinogens into public waterways. But that’s the world we inhabit. Still . . . if we have a standard for how to safely dilute these substances that is workable, do we need to multiply the amount of them discharged by a factor of 5, 10, or even 25?
That’s what would happen if we calculate critical design flow based on the average flow for the entire year. Allowable discharges would be the same in floods, normal flows, and drought. That’s what averaging does. That’s the old saw about what happens to average annual income when Bill Gates is included: Five teachers are having a beer in a local bar; the average income of the bar’s patrons might be $56,000. Bill Gates walks in and orders a Miller Lite. Now the average income in the bar is more than $33 million a year. It works the same way for harmonic mean flow as it pertains to water pollution.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends using harmonic mean—but with seasonal adjustments for flow to account for drought and low-flow periods—in their permitting regulations. After all, the dilution-solution concept relies on enough water flow to actually dilute the pollutant. It doesn’t make sense, say water scientists, to allow the same amount of pollution when rivers are flowing at, for example, 20 percent of normal volume, as when they’re flowing at higher volumes.
Okay, for you math majors out there, we’re talking about mean flow, not average. But that only strengthens my point. We’re talking a lot more allowable pollution under the proposed change. For us in Jefferson County, again, the number is five times more dilution available to increase toxic discharges.
Crowding in the Mixing Zones
Here’s another thing about the bill. It allows more toxic dischargers to locate closer together and closer to drinking water intakes. ”Mixing zones” are currently used in the permitting process to give leeway to use dilution as a way to discharge toxins in higher amounts. But current rules are carefully designed to prevent multiple industrial sites from discharging in close vicinity and to protect drinking water sources from these toxins.
That would change. It would make a veritable wild, wild West out of Wild & Wonderful.
And, to me, that’s the biggest danger. Increasingly, the most prosperous states are those with a regulatory framework to protect public health and a diversified economy. We won’t attract 21st century employers when the world views us as a backward place with toxic water.
So why would we roll back our drinking water standards? Some industries say that we need to pollute more to create more jobs. West Virginia needs clean water and economic opportunities that support long-term prosperity. There is no evidence these changes will meet our needs for advancing economic growth. West Virginia should take pride in clean water as one of its most valuable assets. Increasing toxins in our water does not promise a pay-off; it only promises we will have more pollution threatening the health of our people.
What will happen to our local rafting and paddling businesses when word gets out, should this change make it through legislature? You can almost read the billboards: Visit West Virginia; we just increased the legal limits on mercury, lead, arsenic, and dioxin in our water. Drink up; enjoy our rivers, too.
Whose jobs will be at risk then? If you work in a hotel, a restaurant, an outfitter, Hollywood Casino, or other businesses dependent on tourists, it could be yours. Your delegate and senators, I’m sure, would like to hear from you on this.
— David is former editor of The Observer and a consultant to West Virginia Rivers Coalition, which provided technical and policy background for this column.