September 2023 Vol. 78 No.9



California company fined $5 million for illegally dumping wastewater in Mississippi 

A California-based company will pay just under $5 million in fines for discharging wastewater into a publicly owned sewage treatment plant in Mississippi without obtaining a valid state permit, a federal judge ruled. 

View Inc., a glass-making firm headquartered in Silicon Valley, previously pleaded guilty to negligently discharging wastewater into a city sewer system from the company’s sole manufacturing facility in Olive Branch, Mississippi. That discharge endangered residents in the north Mississippi community and Memphis suburb of almost 40,000, federal prosecutors said. 

“When companies place profit and convenience above public safety, we will do all we can to punish that behavior and protect the public,” U.S. Attorney Clay Joyner said in a news release. “This illegal discharge of wastewater into the public treatment facility demonstrated a blatant disregard for the safety and wellbeing of citizens in our District.” 

In addition to the fines, U.S. District Judge Sharion Aycock sentenced the company to a three-year term of probation. 

The company discharges about 248,000 gallons of wastewater per day from glass-cutting, grinding, washing and polishing directly into the city’s sewer system. But the company did so without a proper permit for years, prosecutors said. 

“Unpermitted discharges of industrial wastewater can pose a serious threat to our nation’s wastewater treatment systems,” said Charles Carfagno, a special agent with the Environmental Protection Agency. 

The Mississippi glass plant opened by View Inc. was initially touted as a successful economic development project by former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. In 2010, Barbour lured the company, previously known as Soladigm, to the state with a $40 million loan, according to The Commercial Appeal. 

According to its website, the company makes “smart windows” that can lower energy costs and improve mental health. In July, the company reached a settlement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for failing to disclose $28 million in liabilities to address a defect in its windows. In a news release, the agency said it decided not to impose civil penalties because the company self-reported its misconduct. 

Three people found dead in Texas underground tank, sewer gas suspected as cause 

A Texas sheriff said that three people from Florida died in an underground tank filled with sewer gas after one of them apparently tried rescuing their dog after it fell into the hole, followed by the other two jumping in to save them. 

The bodies of two men and a woman, as well as the dog, were pulled from the tank in a cornfield on the rural outskirts of Austin. Bastrop County Sheriff Maurice Cook said the hole was a cistern with an opening roughly 4 feet wide and containing 8 feet of water, as well as hydrogen sulfide gas. 

He said the chain of events started in the middle of the night with one of the men apparently getting into the cistern to rescue the dog, which he described as a bloodhound. Clothing and boots belonging to the other two hunters were found near the hole, suggesting they removed them before also jumping in, Cook said. 

He said authorities believe the hunters were overcome by hydrogen sulfide gas in the hole and sank to the bottom. 

“There was no cover. This was just an open hole in the middle of a cornfield,” Cook said. 

Cook said the cistern had a “high level” of hydrogen sulfide. He said stagnating water and the decay of other animals that previously died in the cistern could create levels that would be deadly. 

The hunting party included a fourth person, from Texas, who did not go into the hole. Cook said that hunter told authorities the dog escaped from their truck and that they tracked it using a device on the dog’s collar. 

Efforts to recover the bodies were hampered by concerns from dive teams about the gas and the integrity of the structure’s walls, he said. The tank had “strong fumes, similar to those of a septic tank, coming from the cistern,” according to a statement from the sheriff’s office. 

Caltech research reveals underground fiber optic cables as effective earthquake detectors 

In California, an extensive network of underground fiber optic cables spans thousands of miles, serving as a vital conduit for internet connectivity. However, these underground cables possess an intriguing additional capability: they can function as earthquake sensors, detecting and quantifying seismic activity, according to a study conducted by California Institute of Technology (Caltech). 

Researchers at Caltech have recently conducted an investigation that utilized a segment of fiber optic cable to intricately analyze the characteristics of a magnitude 6 earthquake. The study successfully identified the precise timing and location of four distinct asperities along the fault line, which are regions where movement is hindered and eventually leads to the rupture of the fault. 

Zhongwen Zhan, a geophysics professor at Caltech, and his committed team have spent years demonstrating how the use of repurposed fiber optic cables may dramatically improve our ability to track seismic occurrences. Their strategy makes use of distributed acoustic sensing, a method that turns a network of makeshift seismometers out of fiber optic cables, allowing for the thorough monitoring of seismic activity. 

The study was limited to a 62-mile stretch of fiber optic cable. The team was able to learn comprehensive details on the complex dynamics underpinning a particular earthquake that took place in 2021 thanks to this piece. The results highlighted the possibility that easier access to more fiber optic connections would open the door to a better understanding of earthquake physics, advancing seismic early-warning systems. 

In Southern California’s 56,500 square miles, there are around 500 seismometers, each of which may cost up to $50,000. However, installing fiber optic lines all across the state may be like covering it with millions of seismometers, the study concluded. 

Laser emitters placed at one end of a fiber optic cable send light beams through the long, thin glass strands that make up the cable’s core in order to use the cable as a seismometer. Tiny flaws in the glass cause a very small amount of light to be reflected back to the source, where it is captured. 

Each flaw serves as a trackable waypoint along the fiber optic cable in this way. The cable is normally buried close below ground. The cable wiggles somewhat as a result of seismic waves traveling through the earth, altering the distance traveled by light to reach these waypoints. Seismologists may examine the motion of seismic waves because the flaws throughout the length of the cable function as thousands of tiny seismometers. 

During the magnitude 6 Antelope Valley earthquake of 2021, the team of researchers looked at the light signatures passing through a section of fiber optic cable in the Eastern Sierra Nevada. The cable’s equal to 10,000 seismometers allowed researchers to determine that the M6 earthquake was really composed of a series of four minor ruptures. A typical seismic network was unable to identify these so-called “sub-events,” which were similar to tiny earthquakes. 

The team was able to produce an accurate model of the M6 earthquake based on the recorded seismic activity thanks to collaboration with Nadia Lapusta’s group, led by Lawrence A. Hanson, Jr., Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Geophysics. The time and precise positions on the fault zone of the four sub-events were displayed by the model. 

Officials approve settlement with utility for 2019 gas main explosion 

The Public Utility Commission has approved a revised settlement totaling nearly $1 million with a gas utility over a 2019 explosion in western Pennsylvania that reduced a home to rubble and injured five people. 

Canonsburg-based Columbia Gas took responsibility for the July 2019 blast in North Franklin Township, saying it had failed to install a key piece of equipment in the home while workers nearby upgraded a gas main. Officials said the home lacked a pressure regulator, and when the new system was engaged there was a leak that led to the explosion. 

The homeowner, a neighbor and three firefighters were hurt in the blast, which also damaged cars and nearby homes. Columbia’s insurance company earlier paid out more than $3 million to cover the damage, with $2 million to cover the property damage and another $1 million for personal injury and emotional distress. 

Commissioners in December had rejected an earlier proposed settlement reached by commission staff with the utility, saying they wanted more information about the extent and cost of damage and about how the company had remedied deficiencies identified during this and other incidents. 

Water infrastructure across the country vulnerable to climate change 

The crack of a summer thunderstorm once comforted people in Ludlow, Vermont. But that was before a storm dropped eight inches of rain on the village of 2,200 in two days last month. And it was before the devastation of Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. Now a coming rainstorm can stir panic. 

The rainfall that walloped Vermont in July hit Ludlow so hard that floodwaters carried away cars and wiped out roads. It sent mud and debris into homes and businesses and forced officials to close a main road for days. 

Thankfully, the facility that keeps the village’s drinking water safe was built at elevation and survived. But its sewage plant fared less well. Flooding tore through it, uprooting chunks of road, damaging buildings and sweeping sewage from treatment tanks into the river. Even now the plant can only handle half its normal load. 

It’s not just Ludlow. Water infrastructure across the country is vulnerable as climate change makes storms more unpredictable and destructive, flooding coastal sewage systems. 

“Wastewater systems are not designed for this changing climate,” said Sri Vedachalam, director for Water Equity and Climate Resilience at Corvius Infrastructure Solutions LLC. “They were designed for an older climate that probably doesn’t exist anymore.” 

A big reason is geography. Wastewater systems — which deal with sewage or stormwater runoff — are often near water bodies because that is where they discharge. But this makes them vulnerable. 

Wastewater systems typically are at the lowest point in the community,” Vedachalam said, noting they often flow by gravity. “In many cases, if you have a really large storm, those are the ones that do get flooded first.” 

When storms drop inches of rain onto lakes and rivers over a short period of time, water and debris can clog wastewater systems, power can be knocked out, and service disrupted. 

The fact that the nation’s water pipes are aging adds to the risk. The engineering society estimates that a water main breaks in the U.S. every two minutes, leading to six billion gallons of lost water each day, or enough to fill 9,000 swimming pools. 

Recent federal spending packages commit billions of dollars to upgrading the nation’s water systems, but the roughly $55 billion for upgrades in the Biden administration’s $1 trillion infrastructure law represent a fraction of what’s needed to address climate-related risks to water and sewage systems. Part of the reason is that other problems — such as lead pipes — need urgent attention. Often, they have little to do with a changing climate, said Olsen. 

And while larger cities such as Boston and Chicago can fund new projects in part by raising rates on customers, smaller cities and towns have to find other funding sources — often through state or federal grants — to avoid driving up bills, according to Adam Carpenter, manager of energy and environmental policy at the American Water Works Association. 

Granite wins $215 million contract to improve Ohio sewer infrastructure 

Granite has been awarded an approximately $215 million contract by the city of Akron, Ohio, to construct the Northside Interceptor Tunnel Project (NSIT) to aid in preventing combined sewer overflows from entering the Cuyahoga River during typical storms. Project funding will come from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s Water Pollution Control Loan Fund (WPCLF). 

The NSIT, a crucial component of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s mandated Consent Decree, is set to revolutionize the city’s sewer infrastructure and significantly reduce combined sewer overflows (CSOs). The project’s primary structure, a 16.5-foot internal diameter tunnel located along the Cuyahoga River, will play a pivotal role in addressing CSOs by collecting overflows at four locations and storing them. 

The project encompasses various components that will ensure its efficacy and success. Key elements include 6,660 linear feet of precast-concrete-segmental-lined rock tunnel with a finished inside diameter of 16.5 feet, designed to accommodate both dry and wet-weather sewage flow, as well as store combined sewage. 

The project is planned to begin in September 2023 and is expected to be completed in July 2027.

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