About the Author
Pamela Russell was, until her retirement in 2012, a scientist in the Office of Environmental Information at the Environmental Protection Agency. She is also a member of long standing in the Red Circle, the Washington area’s Sherlock Holmes society. She was the project manager for the development of myRTK, and wrote a draft of the first story as a way to communicate to the public how interesting and useful this tool might be as well as how to use the application. She wrote the second story to show how another interesting and useful tool, TRI explorer, might be used to address local chemical concerns. She retired before pursuing their use by the Agency. The first story was inspired by the “Adventure of the Copper Beeches” in which a young woman consults Sherlock Holmes about accepting a position in a home with a toxic atmosphere (psychologically speaking). The second story looks at how The Silver Blaze mystery might have unfolded in another time and place, minus the villain with the lancet. She has rewritten them for your enjoyment. She left in the bits about using the EPA tools to encourage readers to try them. They were made for the public.
Ms. Russell has retired from EPA and is no longer affiliated with the Agency. EPA is not responsible for the content of these stories. The Red Circle now publishes them because the public has a right to know.
Two stories from the notes of Dr. J. Watson
The Atmosphere at Copper Beaches:
Sherlock Holmes Considers Neighborhood Pollution
by Pamela Russell
It is now 2013 and we know that Sherlock Holmes, or rather his latter day namesake, is alive and functioning in either London or New York City or both (by now the original Sherlock could have lots of descendants). The one in London has a better wardrobe (that coat!); the one in New York has a prettier Watson. The modern Sherlock has at his fingertips an array of technological tools – no more nipping around the corner to the British Library Reading Room, or checking records at Somerset House – least if the case is located in the United States and the desired records a related to releases of toxic substances. For example, early in a case, Sherlock asked Dr.Watson to scour the newspapers for any unusual tidbits that might have bearing on the case. Now for some cases Watson has an additional tool based on the newspapers’ persistent claim that the public has a right to know. “My Right-to-Know” (myRTK) is a web-based application accessible to any member of the public from a smart phone or computer.
In a recent case, Sherlock Holmes responded to the inquiry of a pretty governess concerning the neighborhood where she is about to take up a position. Her mysterious new employers were residing in Copper Beaches, Florida, and desired a “real English governess” for their son. The young woman had heard stories about terrible pollution in the United States and wondered if she should accept the position.
To assist in the decision making, Watson went to m.epa.gov/myRTK and on the search page typed in “Copper Beaches, Florida.” A map showing the famous (fictional) beach resort came up, with blue map pins showing the location of facilities that report to the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI); gray map pins show facilities that hold major permits from EPA’s Air, Water or Solid Waste Programs but do not report. Clicking on the “List” tab, Watson found a list of facilities that release toxic substances into the local environment. Selecting one of the facilities, he brought up a facility summary that included some context information on the facility, and data on the compliance record of the company. For TRI facilities he could also see information on the releases, the chemicals involved, the amounts released and whether the releases were made into air, water or land. Check marks next to the chemicals showed whether there are carcinogenic or other possible health effects. Clicking on the chemical provided more details on the health effects. Returning to the facility summary page, Watson was able to determine the compliance status of the facility and inspected the enforcement database report on the facility by clicking “More” in the Compliance Status section.
Watson was nothing if not thorough. After checking all the chemicals at all the facilities near the employer’s address, he was concerned about one that reported releases of benzene, a known carcinogen that has other health effects. Checking the Enforcement data he sees that the facility has a Clean Air Permit and is in compliance with all permits and regulations for the last three years. It has been inspected regularly by Florida State officials and has complied with its permit. Watson knew that the permit allows the facility to release only those levels for benzene determined by EPA to be admissible, including a margin of safety. He briefed Holmes on what he found.
When the pretty governess returns, Holmes advises her to accept the position. There is no absolute guarantee of safety, he tells her, but it appears that reasonable precautions have been taken to limit the releases of hazardous chemicals to a level that is not harmful to humans. He suggests that she be alert to anything unusual at the facility, to check the TRI annual reports for the facility each year when they are released. “As the Americans say ‘Constant vigilance is the price of Freedom,’” Sherlock told her “or, in this case an annual check of the data.” Because the young woman will be working in a bilingual part of the city, he advised her that myRTK is also available in Spanish. She thanked him, and Dr. Watson courteously escorted her to a waiting cab.
The Adventure of the Silver Blaze II
The Dog That Did Not Bark in the Night
by Pamela Russell
April of 2012 was cool and rainy in London. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson had just settled down to a comfortable evening at home when Watson’s phone rang. The call was from Alton McHutchinson, a veterinarian friend who had been Watson’s roommate as an undergraduate. McHutchinson now had a prosperous practice that included several racing stables.
As his story unfolded, it turned out that Dr. McHutchinson wanted the help of Watson’s current roommate, Sherlock Holmes. The vet had accompanied Silver Blaze II, a champion race horse, to Kentucky in the United States to run in the Kentucky Derby. A.M., as the vet was known, was an early riser. On the first day of the horse’s acclimation period, A.M. came into the stable before dawn to a scene which greatly disturbed him. The dog did not bark at him, even though A.M. was a newcomer to the farm where the horse was stabled. The poor animal was curled in a tight ball of anguish. The two stable cats were both dead or near enough to it, and Silver Blaze wasn’t looking very fit either. The vet drew blood from all the animals and sent it out for toxicology tests and infectious agent scans, as well as other blood chemistries. Then he tried as best he could to ease the suffering of the animals.
The tests came back positive for ethylene glycol, which a search of the stables found in the water, but not the food. Suspicion fell on A.M.’s son Patrick, known as P.M., an aspiring vet himself. P.M. had accompanied A.M. as an assistant and to share a vacation after the race. Since P.M. was a night person, he took the evening shift checking on the valuable horse, and had been in the stable the night before the animals became ill.
The exhausted A.M. started treatment immediately. Silver Blaze was looking much better and there was hope that the dog would also survive. The cats were buried with some ceremony by the nieces of the farm manager, and P.M. was arrested for cruelty to animals. For a young man who had been raised caring for animals, this was a very disturbing charge. A.M. was at the end of his rope – could Sherlock help? Leaving Watson behind to scour the web for information on ethylene glycol, Sherlock flew to Louisville, Kentucky, where he was met by A.M. and driven to the farm.
Sherlock first interviewed P.M. He had been in the stables checking on Silver Blaze II after his long flight. He considered sleeping in the stable to comfort the horse with a familiar face, but the stable staff disapproved. “When you entered the barn, did the dog bark?” Sherlock asked.
“He sort of whimpered. He looked like he had had a long day. One of the stable lads brought him some water,” replied P. M.
The tired vet then introduced Holmes to the farm manager, Ms. Maxx Russell. Ms. Russell told Sherlock that here was some ethylene glycol in the garage that was used as antifreeze in the winter, but it was in a locked cupboard that had not been disturbed. Then he asked where the farm got its water. The farm manager replied that the water for the house came from the municipal water supply, but for the stable, it came from an old well on the property. The well stood near the pond that the children used as a swimming hole and next to a creek that flowed into the pond. After a long drought, which had nearly dried up the well, heavy rains had caused the pond and stream to overflow their banks, in turn flooding the well. Sherlock shook his head, “So the horses and stable animals were drinking water contaminated by the overflow from the pond and the stream?”
Sherlock called Watson to see what he had found on the sources of ethylene glycol in the area. Watson had turned to the TRI Explorer (http://iaspub. epa. gov/triexplorer/tri_release. chemical) and searched for ethylene glycol releases in Kentucky. Following instructions in the “Step-by-Step” tutorial (http://www. epa. gov/enviro/triexplorer/triexplorertutorial/index. html - the tutorial can be accessed from the short menu on the upper right of the page) he obtained a list of facilities which he arranged in descending order of ethylene glycol releases by clicking the down arrow at the top of the release quantity column. Watson discovered the largest releaser of ethylene glycol in the state was located only a few miles from the farm. Testing of the pond water showed not only ethylene glycol, but other chemicals associated with the plant. The same mix of chemicals showed up in the horse’s water.
“What can I do – sick horses, dying dogs and dead cats and a hazardous chemical to clean up!” Ms. Russell was distraught, “It's going to take some super funding to clean this up, and I doubt the insurance will address all the expenses!” One of the stable lads overheard this and replied that his “Uncle Sam” has a Superfund for this. Providing the number 1-800-424-8802 for the National Response Center (NRC) to report spills of hazardous materials, he said, “Don’t ask how I know. ” Watson called to say that he had already reported the release using the NRC’s on-line reporting tool: http://www. nrc. uscg. mil/nrchp. html.
After consulting with the state environmental program, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent an on-scene coordinator (OSC) to assess the situation. The Enforcement Office began checking all the permits of the local manufacturer and sent out an inspector to the company. By the time Sherlock left, EPA had begun a removal action at the farm pond and upstream at the factory, and the company had been cited for violation of its water permit.
P.M. was released from jail and all charges dropped. Silver Blaze II won the Kentucky Derby. As a reward for his research, the horse's owner gave Watson a silver plated notepad computer with a silver flame stamped on the cover. Sherlock received a platinum horseshoe tie pin set with diamonds. The EPA staff refused all gifts, but they did have the satisfaction of making the environment safe for horses, dogs, cats and people.