Welcome to “What’s Up With Water,” your need-to-know news of the world’s water from Circle of Blue. I’m Eileen Wray-McCann.
In Germany, concerns about water supply are clouding the future of a Tesla factory key to the carmaker’s European expansion plans. The factory has been delayed for several reasons, one of which is a lawsuit filed by two prominent environmental groups. That lawsuit is now headed to court. It was filed by the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union and the Green League, who object to a 30-year groundwater pumping permit given by state regulators. The factory is being built in Brandenburg, a state in eastern Germany that’s in the grip of drought. Both river and groundwater levels have declined in recent years. The lawsuit claims that the state government did not adequately address climate change when approving a water use permit for the 5-billion Euro factory. Some of these fears may be well founded, according to Bloomberg news. The Brandenburg economy minister said that the Tesla factory has enough water for its first phase, but not enough to expand the site. Local hydrologists said new demand would stress the region’s groundwater. The factory is scheduled to receive 1.4 million cubic meters of water each year, which is enough to supply a city of 40,000 people. Local officials say they are considering new wells or tapping distant water sources for the factory. All of these issues will likely come up in the first court hearing, which is scheduled for March 4.
Legal challenges over groundwater are also playing out in the United States. In the town of (DIM-mick) Dimock, Pennsylvania, however, the issue is not the quantity of water withdrawn but the quality. The town is at the center of a long-running dispute over groundwater contamination caused by natural gas drilling and fracking. That dispute has entered a new phase, according to the Associated Press. Pennsylvania’s State Attorney General’s Office is seeking criminal charges against Coterra, one of the largest gas drillers in the state. Coterra used to be called Cabot Oil and Gas. Prosecutors are looking into a settlement that would have Coterra install water treatment systems for homes with wells tainted by methane in the water. Some residents affected by the groundwater contamination oppose this. They say that treatment systems are a false solution because of the maintenance that would be required. Instead, they want to be connected to public water. And they say the state should make Coterra pay for it. The attorney general’s case is ongoing.
This week Circle of Blue reports on a risky drinking water pathogen that has an outsized effect on Black Americans.
Legionnaires’ disease is a respiratory illness linked to bacteria that grow in the plumbing of buildings and in water distribution pipes. It’s showing up with more pronounced geographic, seasonal, and racial patterns, according to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC’s analysis covered nearly three decades of case data, and though some findings were expected, others pointed to growing trends.
Legionnaires’ disease is an illness resembling pneumonia. People are infected with the non-contagious disease when they inhale airborne bacteria that’s attached to water droplets. Researchers already knew that it peaks in the summer, affects older people, and is most common in the US from the Midwest to New England. The CDC’s analysis confirmed that those trends are strengthening. For example, The study found that seasonal peaks are becoming more distinct – a greater percentage of cases are occurring between June and November.
But to the lead author of the study, Albert Barskey, what stood out most were the racial outcomes: Legionnaires’ disease cases are higher among Black Americans.
Cases among Black Americans, when adjusted for age and population, were about 25 percent higher compared to white Americans. That gap was one of many environmental health risks with a racial divide, and it was growing. Barskey is an epidemiologist in the CDC’s Division of Bacterial Diseases. He said he found the widening disparity in cases between Black and White persons “striking and concerning.”
This CDC assessment did not explore the forces driving these geographic, seasonal, and racial trends. But Barskey noted that other studies have identified factors that are associated with Legionnaires’ cases. For geographic patterns, temperature, precipitation, and humidity play a role. The regions seeing a spike in Legionnaires’ are also experiencing increasing summer precipitation. For racial disparities, the study notes that Black Americans often live in lower-quality and older housing and suffer poorer health. These social and environmental factors for health are widespread. Other studies have shown that Black Americans are more likely to have lower quality drinking water and higher exposure to air pollutants.
There are other factors involved in Legionnaires’ disease, the most deadly waterborne illness in the U.S. Areas with lots of vacant homes add to the Legionella risk because the bacteria grow in stagnant water without adequate disinfection. Legionella bacteria live in lakes and rivers, but they become a public health problem in buildings, where they multiply in the nooks and crannies of plumbing, heating, and cooling systems. Because of that, a warming climate may provide an environmental foothold for Legionnaires’. In responding to climate change, water and energy conservation systems could have a negative influence if efforts create plumbing systems that allow bacteria to grow. Another factor in the Legionnaire’s trend lines is the advancing age of the U.S. population. People over 65 and those with weaker immune systems are more susceptible to the illness, which, on average, is fatal for about 10 percent of the cases.
Caitlin Proctor is an assistant professor at Purdue University who works on plumbing and water safety, and was not involved in the CDC study. She said that researchers need better data to understand how Legionnaires’ cases are linked with building age, water management practices, weather changes, and underlying health conditions. “The CDC data is very broad,” she told Circle of Blue. “Most cases don’t identify where the Legionella came from. Was it home plumbing? A school? Another building? Without those details, it’s hard to get into specifics.”
The CDC says that cases of Legionnaires’ Disease have been rising since 2000. Health departments reported nearly 10,000 cases of the illness in the U.S. in 2018, the last year for which complete data has been compiled. Because not all Legionnaires’ disease cases are properly identified, the actual number is probably higher. A National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report estimated the true number of Legionnaires’ cases to be between 52,000 and 70,000 each year.
And that’s “What’s Up With Water,” from Circle of Blue, where water speaks. More water news and analysis await you at circleofblue.org. This is Eileen Wray-McCann – thanks for being here.
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.