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 Malaysia, it has been a year since a tire recycling facility illegally dumped toxic waste into a river, and residents who were sickened by the chemicals blame the government for what they call an inadequate response to ongoing environmental and health damage. The South China Morning Post reported that over 5,000 people in the southern Malaysian city of Pasir Gudang fell ill last March after 20 to 40 tons of chemical waste was sent into the Kim Kim River. The chemicals released toxic fumes that forced all 111 schools in the city to close.
The illegal dumping follows a pattern of recent environmental degradation in Pasir Gudang. The number of factories in the area has soared in the last decade, as has pollution in the waterways.
Fishermen and the families of ill children are suing the state government for compensation over the illegal dumping. Fishermen complain of depleted fish stocks, while many children continue to have health problems due to the chemical exposure. Those problems range from fevers and asthma to nerve damage.
In the United States, a federal judge ruled in favor of Indian tribes and environmental groups in a closely-watched lawsuit over the Dakota Access oil pipeline.
Judge James Boasberg of the D.C. Circuit Court revoked permits for the controversial pipeline, ruling that a more thorough environmental review is required before the project can continue operation. Approval of the pipeline sparked months of protests in 2016 that were centered on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose lands in North Dakota would be crossed by the oil conduit. The tribe had sued over the 12 hundred mile pipeline, which would also cross the Missouri River as it carried oil from North Dakota to Illinois. Leaks from the pipeline, said the tribe, could poison their water sources.
In siding with the Standing Rock Sioux, Judge Boasberg said that previous assessments by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the companies that own the pipeline are insufficient. The Hill reported that the environmental review now required could take years to complete. A judge will now decide whether the pipeline will be allowed to stay in operation as the case progresses.
In Turkey, the government reviewed bids to begin building a massive shipping canal on the outskirts of Istanbul. The 28-mile Kanal Istanbul is a pet project of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. It will connect the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and provide an alternate cargo route to the congested Bosporus Strait. The cost for the canal is reportedly $11 billion. Reuters reports that companies have submitted bids to reconstruct two historic bridges that are located in the path of the canal.
The mega-project has drawn sharp criticism on several fronts. Environmentalists worry that linking the two water bodies with a canal will ease the transfer of pollutants and endanger a lake that serves as a source of drinking water. They also fear that construction would damage a large lagoon that is habitat for migratory birds. Nevertheless, Turkey’s environment ministry approved the canal in January. The mayor of Istanbul objects to the decision. He’s a member of the opposition party and pointed to potential disturbance of drinking water sources. He also criticized the national government’s devotion to a huge engineering project when the economic damage from the coronavirus pandemic is beginning to be felt in Turkey’s largest city.
This week, Circle of Blue looks at the challenges facing small water systems during the coronovirus pandemic – and the resourcefulness that comes to the rescue.
The call for help came to the Alabama Rural Water Association on March 19. Shana Ray, mayor of the tiny town of Gordon, had learned that the town’s water system operator was in self-quarantine because of potential exposure to the new coronavirus during a vacation in Hawaii. A member of Gordon’s maintenance staff was filling in, checking chlorine levels and ensuring that the system did not break down. But to comply with state and federal rules, Gordon needed something it did not have at the moment: a certified operator to run the water treatment plant.
Mayor Ray’s request eventually reached the desk of Robert White, executive director of the Alabama Rural Water Association. The association is an indispensable resource for small towns like Gordon, and typically provides technical support and training. During the coronavirus outbreak, the association is also acting as a matchmaking service for water utilities that are short-staffed because of illness and quarantines. It is one of several rural water associations around the country that are making lists of volunteer water systems operators who can step in during the pandemic emergency.
The potential for staffing shortages in the coming weeks and months is the top concern of water utility leaders. That’s according to a survey conducted by the American Water Works Association. The New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board is one of the largest utilities so far to acknowledge a staffing problem connected to the outbreak. The board announced last week that it does not have enough workers to read meters, and so water bills will estimated.
In the town of Gordon’s case, White acted quickly. He found an available certified operator living nearby and got people in touch the next day. White said that, to his knowledge, Gordon is the only water utility in the state that has needed a temporary operator because of a coronavirus quarantine.
For many water utilities, this is new terrain. White explained that emergency planning for the coronavirus is very different from emergency planning for other disasters. After a hurricane, for example, volunteers rush into a town to fix broken pipes and bail out water. With the virus, though, the advice is to stay away and keep social distance. Said White, “It’s something we typically don’t encounter in other scenarios.”
The town of Gordon, population 364, is wedged into the southeastern corner of Alabama, near the borders of Florida and Georgia. Mayor Ray told Circle of Blue that the relief water treatment operator there is going to stay indefinitely. Over 80 percent of the town’s residents are senior citizens, who are more susceptible to Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. As a precaution, Ray has already closed the town’s senior center and is holding Town Council meetings via conference call.
Ray said that the town’s usual water operator lives in Blakely, a larger community in Georgia that’s about 25 miles northeast of Gordon. Blakely has recorded one death from Covid-19 and it imposed a shelter-in-place order on March 24. The operator was showing symptoms but tested negative for Covid-19. For now, Gordon will continue with the relief operator provided by the Alabama Rural Water Association. Town clerk Lorie Mock sees the association as a life-saver, helping them keep the water system going without interruption. She told Circle of Blue, “I can’t say enough good things about them.”
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 circleofblue.org and make a difference through your tax-deductible donation.
Eileen Wray-McCann is a writer, director and narrator who co-founded Circle of Blue. During her 13 years at Interlochen Public Radio, a National Public Radio affiliate in Northern Michigan, Eileen produced and hosted regional and national programming. She’s won Telly Awards for her scriptwriting and documentary work, and her work with Circle of Blue follows many years of independent multimedia journalistic projects and a life-long love of the Great Lakes. She holds a BA and MA radio and television from the University of Detroit. Eileen is currently moonlighting as an audio archivist and enjoys traveling through time via sound.