After a storm, microplastics in Sydney’s Cooks River increased 40 fold



A litter trap in Cook’s River.
James HItchcock, Author provided

James Hitchcock, University of Canberra

Each year the ocean is inundated with 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic washed in from land. A big proportion of this plastic is between 0.001 to 5 millimetres, and called “microplastic”.

But what happens during a storm, when lashings of rain funnel even more water from urban land into waterways? To date, no one has studied just how important storm events may be in polluting waterways with microplastics.




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So to find out, I studied my local waterway in Sydney, the Cooks River estuary. I headed out daily to measure how many microplastics were in the water, before, during, and after a major storm event in October, 2018.

The results, published on Wednesday, were startling. Microplastic particles in the river had increased more than 40 fold from the storm.

Particles of plastic found in rivers. They may be tiny, but they’re devastating to wildlife in waterways.
Author provided

To inner west Sydneysiders, the Cooks River is known to be particularly polluted. But it’s largely similar to many urban catchments around the world.

If the relationship between storm events and microplastic I found in the Cooks River holds for other urban rivers, then the concentrations of microplastics we’re exposing aquatic animals to is far higher than previously thought.

14 million plastic particles

They may be tiny, but microplastics are a major concern for aquatic life and food webs. Animals such as small fish and zooplankton directly consume the particles, and ingesting microplastics has the potential to slow growth, interfere with reproduction, and cause death.

Determining exactly how much microplastic enters rivers during storms required the rather unglamorous task of standing in the rain to collect water samples, while watching streams of unwanted debris float by (highlights included a fire extinguisher, a two-piece suit, and a litany of tennis balls).

Back in the laboratory, a multi-stage process is used to separate microplastics. This includes floating, filtering, and using strong chemical solutions to dissolve non-plastic items, before identification and counting with specialised microscopes.

Litter caught in a trap in Cooks River. These traps aren’t effective at catching microplastic.
Author provided

In the days before the October 2018 storm, there were 0.4 particles of microplastic per litre of water in the Cooks River. That jumped to 17.4 microplastics per litre after the storm.

Overall, that number averages to a total of 13.8 million microplastic particles floating around in the Cooks River estuary in the days after the storm.




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In other urban waterways around the world scientists have found similarly high numbers of microplastic.

For example in China’s Pearl River, microplastic averages 19.9 particles per litre. In the Mississippi River in the US, microplastic ranges from 28 to 60 particles per litre.

Where do microplastics come from?

We know runoff during storms is one of the main ways pollutants such as sediments and heavy metals end up in waterways. But not much is known about how microplastic gets there.

However think about your street. Wherever you see litter, there are also probably microplastics you cannot see that will eventually work their way into waterways when it rains.




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Many other sources of microplastics are less obvious. Car tyres, for example, which typically contain more plastic than rubber, are a major source of microplastics in our waterways. When your tyres lose tread over time, microscopic tyre fragments are left on roads.

Did you know your car tyres can be a major source of microplastic pollution?
Shutterstock

Microplastics may even build up on roads and rooftops from atmospheric deposition. Everyday, lightweight microplastics such as microfibres from synthetic clothing are carried in the wind, settling and accumulating before they’re washed into rivers and streams.

What’s more, during storms wastewater systems may overflow, contaminating waterways. Along with sewage, this can include high concentrations of synthetic microfibers from household washing machines.

And in regional areas, microplastics may be washing in from agricultural soils. Sewage sludge is often applied to soils as it is rich in nutrients, but the same sludge is also rich in microplastics.

What can be done?

There are many ways to mitigate the negative effects of stormwater on waterways.

Screens, traps, and booms can be fitted to outlets and rivers and catch large pieces of litter such as bottles and packaging. But how useful these approaches are for microplastics is unknown.

Raingardens and retention ponds are used to catch and slow stormwater down, allowing pollutants to drop to bottom rather than being transported into rivers. Artificial wetlands work in similar ways, diverting stormwater to allow natural processes to remove toxins from the water.

Almost 14 million plastic particles were floating in Cooks River after a storm two years ago.
Shutterstock

But while mitigating the effects of stormwater carrying microplastics is important, the only way we’ll truly stop this pollution is to reduce our reliance on plastic. We must develop policies to reduce and regulate how much plastic material is produced and sold.

Plastic is ubiquitous, and its production around the world hasn’t slowed, reaching 359 million tonnes each year. Many countries now have or plan to introduce laws regulating the sale or production of some items such as plastic bags, single-use plastics and microbeads in cleaning products.




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In Australia, most state governments have committed to banning plastic bags, but there are still no laws banning the use of microplastics in cleaning or cosmetic products, or single-use plastics.

We’ve made a good start, but we’ll need deeper changes to what we produce and consume to stem the tide of microplastics in our waterways.The Conversation

James Hitchcock, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why is the Australian energy regulator suing wind farms – and why now?



Michael Coghlan/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University

The Australian Energy Regulator (AER) is suing four of the wind farms involved in the 2016 South Australian blackout – run by AGL Energy, Neoen Australia, Pacific Hydro, and Tilt Renewables – alleging they breached generator performance standards and the national electricity rules.

These proceedings appear to contradict the conclusions of a 2018 report which said while the AER had found some “administrative non-compliance”, it did not intend to take formal action given the “unprecedented circumstances”.




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However the AER has since said this report focused on the lead-up and aftermath of the blackout, not the event itself. The case hinges on whether the wind farms failed to provide crucial information during the blackout which hindered recovery.

In particular, the AER is arguing the software protecting the wind farms should have been able to cope with voltage disturbances and provide continuous energy supply. On the face of it, however, this will be extremely difficult to prove.

Rehashing the 2016 blackout

The 2016 South Australian blackout was triggered by a severe storm that hit the state on September 28. Tornadoes with wind speeds up to 260 km/h raced through SA, and a single-circuit 275-kilovolt transmission line was struck down.




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After this, 170km away, a double-circuit 275kV transmission line was lost. This transmission damage caused the lines to trip and a series of subsequent faults resulted in six voltage dips on the South Australian grid at 4.16pm.

As the faults escalated, eight wind farms in SA had their protection settings activated. This allowed them to withstand the voltage dip by automatically reducing power. Over a period of 7 seconds, 456 megawatts of power was removed. This reduction caused an increase in power to flow through the Heywood interconnector. This in turn triggered a protection mechanism for the interconnecter that tripped it offline.

Once this happened, SA became separated from the rest of the National Energy Market (NEM), leaving far too little power to meet demand and blacking out 850,000 homes and businesses. A 2017 report found once SA was separated from the NEM, the blackout was “inevitable”.




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What went wrong at the wind farms?

The question then becomes, is there any action the wind farms could reasonably have taken to stay online, thus preventing the overloading of the Heywood interconnector?

The regulator is arguing the operators should have let the market operator know they could not handle the disruption caused by the storms, so the operator could make the best decisions to keep the grid functioning.

Wind farms, like all energy generators in Australia, have a legal requirement to meet specific performance standards. If they fall short in a way that can materially harm energy security, they have a further duty to inform the operator immediately, with a plan to remedy the problem.

To determine whether a generator has complied with these risk management standards, a range of factors are considered. These include:

  • the technology of the plant,
  • whether its performance is likely to drift or degrade over a particular time frame,
  • experience with the particular generation technology,
  • the connection point arrangement that is in place. A generator will have an arrangement with a transmission network service provider (TNSP) that operates the networks that carry electricity between generators and distribution networks. TNSP’s advise the NEM of the capacity of their transmission assets so that they can be operated without being overloaded.
  • the risk and costs of different testing methods given the relative size of the plant.

Plenty of blame to go around

The series of events leading up to the 2016 blackout was extremely difficult to anticipate. There were many factors, and arguably all participants were involved in different ways.

  • The Heywood interconnector was running at full capacity at the time, so any overload may have triggered its protective mechanism.

  • The transmission lines were damaged by an unprecedented 263 lightning strikes in five minutes.

  • The market operator itself did not adopt precautionary measures such as reducing the load on the interconnector, or providing a clearer warning to electricity generators.

Bearing this in mind, the federal court will be asked to determine whether the wind farms complied with their generator performance standards and if not, whether this breach had a “material adverse effect” on power security.

This will be difficult to prove, because even if the generator standards require the wind farms to evaluate the point at which their protective triggers activated, it is unlikely the number of faults, the severity of the voltage dip, and the impact of the increased power flow on the Heywood interconnector could have been anticipated.




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The idea AEMO could have prevented the blackout if the wind farms had alerted it to the disruptive potential of their protective triggers is probably a little remote.

None of the participants could have foreseen the series of interconnected events leading to the blackout. Whilst lessons can be learned, laying blame is more complex. And while compliance with standards and rules is important, in this instance, it is unlikely that it would have changed the outcome.The Conversation

Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.