This is Eileen Wray-McCann for Circle of Blue. And this is What’s Up with Water, your “need-to-know news” of the world’s water, made possible by support from people like you.
In Iran, oil and gas are abundant underground, but development of those resources is stalling because water is scarce. Reuters news service reports that at least a dozen petrochemical, fertilizer or refinery projects have been slowed or shelved by water supply issues. This assessment was based on state media reports, interviews and published information.
Iran is keen to avoid U.S. sanctions on crude oil exports by processing its oil into secondary products, like petrochemicals. Reuters calculates that crude oil exports have dropped by 80 percent because of the sanctions. But efforts to expand these secondary products puts pressure on already limited water resources. Refineries and processing plants need water to cool their operations. Converting crude into a gallon of gasoline can take nearly three-quarters a gallon of water. And that water needs to come from somewhere. Taking water away from the thirstiest industry, agriculture, is politically risky. Last year, farmers in central Iran demonstrated against government water policies when rainfall declined by 25 percent.
Social Security Investment Company is a state agency with 200 subsidiaries and large energy investments. Last year, it reported challenges including sanctions and water shortages. It said that some projects “were not economically feasible as they were initiated to create jobs in unsuitable locations.”
For example, a planned $500 million petrochemical plant near [fih-ROO-zah-Bahd] Firouzabad is only 10 percent complete after 10 years because of miscalculations about its water needs, which cannot be met in its current location. The plant lies inland, in Iran’s dry southern region. The idea was to produce a million tons of ethylene annually. That could require over twice as many tons of water each year.
The Iranian government wants to protect its vanishing groundwater by moving the petrochemical plant to the coast where desalinated water is available. But local authorities and a religious leader have objected, and the project is at a standstill. A former deputy vice president for the environment told Reuters that agencies do not properly coordinate development plans, and that the economic pinch of the sanctions had pressed officials to prioritize jobs over water and the environment.
The delay in building the Firouzabad plant has put a choke on four other projects that had planned to use the ethylene it would produce. Those projects, known as “offtake plants”, would have added their own pressure on the area’s dwindling water supplies. A project manager for the Firouzabad plant told Reuters that after 12 years of delay, “we are practically facing a failed project.” But, he said, the proposed relocation site near the coast lies empty.
In some places, projects will continue despite water stress. The Shazand refinery in central Iran drilled deep to access groundwater last year. This reduced supplies for farmers and upset environmentalists. Shazand Petrochemical said on its website that in order to reduce groundwater use, it planned to tap a local dam when it is full and to use wastewater from nearby cities.
In Australia, a lawsuit over PFAS contamination will be the largest class action the country has ever seen. Up to 40,000 people across Australia are suing the government over losses in property values caused by PFAS pollution.
PFAS are a group of chemicals that are used in products such as non-stick coatings and fire-fighting foam. These fire suppression foams were used at military bases across Australia for about three decades, between the 1970s and the 2000s. Joshua Aylward is the head counsel for the firm leading the class action, which focuses on eight bases. He told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that PFAS have left the boundaries of these military bases and leached into communities. He said “it’s in the rivers and the creeks and the fish and the people. It’s in everything that they test around these bases.”
PFAS chemicals do not break down in the environment. Unlike Australia, other countries such as Germany, Britain and the United States have linked PFAS with adverse health effects, such as cancer. Aylward said that not only are Australians devastated to know that they have been drinking contaminated water for years, they find they are trapped: they can’t sell their homes and leave. The stigma of PFAS pollution has destroyed the value of their homes. Even if they were to find a buyer, he said, they couldn’t get enough money to pay off their mortgage. One resident in western Australia told the ABC that their family is stuck. They can’t borrow in order to move, and that banks aren’t lending to people to buy homes in the area.
The ABC said two studies done by the government recommend buying out those who wish to relocate, or offering compensation for those living and doing business in contaminated areas. However, there does not appear to be a consensus on what constitutes safe or unsafe levels of PFAS. The attorney for the class action suit said that Australia lags behind most of the Western world in developing health standards for PFAS.
On its website, the Australian Defense Department says that there is “limited to no evidence of human disease or other clinically significant harm resulting from PFAS exposure at this time.” And yet, the same agency has prepared reports that offer significant information on the health risks near its military bases. The reports include advisories against eating local eggs, or exposing children to water during outdoor activities.
Erin Brokovich is an American activist known worldwide for her battle against corporate water pollution in the 1990s, dramatized in a film titled with her name. She is supporting the Australian class action suit, saying the government’s position is inadequate and its message confusing. She told the ABC, “They give warnings: don’t eat the fish, eat limited fish, don’t drink the water — but on the other hand, you’re telling people it’s safe.” And, she said, governments need to respond.
This new class action suit will be filed by Christmas. Australia’s Defense Department is already being sued over PFAS by groups in New South Wales, Queensland and the Northern Territory. A spokesperson for the Department said it is working with the PFAS Taskforce in the Department of the Environment and Energy, adding that PFAS is a national issue that goes beyond the Defense Department.
Brokovich said she hopes there will be less finger-pointing and more solution-finding. “It can be done.” she said, “It feels daunting and it is daunting, and we’ll never get anywhere if we keep hiding and we have no transparency and no trust that true information is being given to the people.”
In northern Thailand, the once-magnificent Mekong River has dwindled to its lowest levels on record as drought and a new dam take their toll. This year’s monsoon was late, and last week, the Xayaburi Dam began operations as the first hydropower plant on the lower Mekong.  Xayaburi took nine years to complete, and has been controversial all along. Scientists and environmentalists warned that the dam would have serious effects on fish, sediment and water levels. At the same time the new dam went online, parts of the Mekong slowed to a trickle, even though the rainy season was just ending. Those responsible for the dam say it’s not to blame for the failing river. Downstream in northern Thailand, protesters disagreed. They fear the Mekong is in danger of dying, and fisherman note the connection between the start of commercial operations and the river flows wavering.
Nearly all the power generated by Xayaburi, which is in Laos, will be sold to Thailand. The dam is one of at least nine hydropower plants planned or being built along that section of the river. Reuters news said “The new spate of dam-building is poised to turbo-charge already-fraught water and food security disputes after years of worry about the 11 existing Beijing-built dams on the upper Mekong in China are choking the river on which millions depend for their livelihoods in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.”
The Mekong River Commission, a regional water agency, said that river levels are significantly below normal for this time of year. They are expected to fall further and the agency expressed concern for the upcoming dry season.
Brian Eyler is a senior researcher and author of “The Last Days of the Mighty Mekong.” He told that the lower part of the river is at a “crisis point” until the rains return next year and that the push for dams has further stressed an ecosystem already weakened by drought. The dams, he said “are causing the Mekong to die a death of a thousand cuts.”
This week, Circle of Blue looks at Legionnaire’s Disease in America, and the limits of water management to prevent it.
Before Legionnaires’ disease hit an agricultural fair in western North Carolina in September, no one had any idea of the danger.
Fairgoers and state health officials alike were oblivious to the health risk that lurked in the plumbing of the Davis Event Center, the structure at the heart of the outbreak. That’s because the building’s water had never been tested for Legionella. Andrea Ashby, a North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services spokesperson, confirmed this fact to Circle of Blue.
Once North Carolina health officials noticed the disease cluster in late September, they sought information to supplement their data. The outbreak has sickened 142 people and killed four. An investigation linked Legionnaire’s disease to hot tubs displayed at the Davis Event Center, an exhibition hall at the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center, near Asheville.
Legionnaires’ disease, which resembles pneumonia, and Pontiac fever, a milder illness similar to the flu, both spread through the inhalation of water droplets that contain the bacteria. North Carolina health officials believe that people at the Mountain State Fair, which was held at the agricultural center between September 6 and 15, were exposed when they walked by the hot tubs and breathed in the steam.
The hot tubs were a transmission site, but the bacteria was also found in the plumbing at the Davis Event Center. Water samples taken from a women’s bathroom faucet showed Legionella, though it was a genetically different strain than the one affecting people who got sick in the outbreak.
The lack of water testing before the outbreak is not unusual. The United States does not have many regulations for monitoring plumbing for Legionella. The rules that do exist largely target the healthcare industry.
People involved in Legionella testing and monitoring said that outside of healthcare, building owners don’t do much to prevent bacterial growth in their plumbing. Russell Nassof is the founder of the health risk consulting firm RiskNomics. He told Circle of Blue that standards and industry best practices are followed haphazardly. “With respect to other industries, sadly we typically only get involved when there’s an issue. Very rarely do we get companies that are being very proactive.”
Why would a building owner not be more vigilant about their plumbing? Nassof said that ignorance is gradually becoming less of a defense as more outbreaks occur. But, especially for smaller operators, it also comes down to a lack of time, money, staff, and other resources.
As the founder of HC Info, whose software tracks building water management, Matt Freije sees inertia on the part of building owners. They are not motivated to move until after an illness strikes. He doesn’t foresee much change until owners are obliged to take precautionary measures. “The writing is clearly on the wall,” Freije told Circle of Blue. “Most of them are not going to do anything they don’t have to do.”
Legionella bacteria are present in rivers and lakes, but they flourish in warm, stagnant water inside building plumbing and fixtures. Legionnaire’s is the deadliest waterborne illness in the country. The overall death rate for the disease is about one in 11, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But for those who get sick in a healthcare setting, the rate is more like one in four. The number of reported cases is rapidly increasing, up five-fold since 2000.
The healthcare industry serves the people who are most vulnerable to Legionnaires’ disease, and was the first to take comprehensive steps on prevention. But it did so only at the prompting of the federal government.
In June 2017, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services began requiring hospitals and nursing homes that receive Medicare payments to take action. They needed to have plans for maintaining their building’s plumbing, for testing water sources, and for identifying areas at risk of Legionella growth. In 2014, the Veterans Health Administration required Legionella management plans and quarterly water testing at the more than 1,200 federal veterans’ healthcare facilities.
These sorts of water management rules could be expanded, some argue. In August, a committee of Legionella experts said that all public buildings should have water management plans for preventing the growth of Legionella. Such rules, they noted, already exist in France.
The Western North Carolina Agricultural Center, where the September outbreak occurred, falls into the public building category. It is owned by the state and operated by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Grant Newhouse is the CEO of Sustainable Water Solutions, a water treatment company. He thinks that the North Carolina outbreak may bring the issue home to an audience that didn’t have it on the radar before.
“I don’t know how many purveyors of fairs knew to think about Legionella,” Newhouse told Circle of Blue. “That list would be very, very short. But I think that next year many more will.”
And that’s What’s Up With Water from Circle of Blue, which depends on your support for independent water news and analysis. Please visit and make a difference through your tax-deductible donation.