Rural America’s Own Private Flint: Polluted Water Too Dangerous to Drink — The New York Times #vote

Fertilizer applied to corn field. Photo credit: USDA

From The New York Times (Jack Healey):

Now, fears and frustration over water quality and contamination have become a potent election-year issue, burbling up in races from the fissured bedrock here in Wisconsin to chemical-tainted wells in New Hampshire to dwindling water reserves in Arizona. President Trump’s actions to loosen clean water rules have intensified a battle over regulations and environmental protections unfolding on the most intensely local level: in people’s own kitchen faucets.

In Wisconsin and other Midwestern states where Republicans run the government, environmental groups say that politicians have cut budgets for environmental enforcement and inspections and weakened pollution rules. In Iowa, for example, the Republican-led Legislature dismissed a package of bills that would have blocked any new large-scale hog operations until the state cleaned up its nitrogen-laden rivers and streams.

There are no precise water-quality surveys of the galaxy of private wells that serve 43 million people in the United States, but sampling by the United States Geological Survey has found contamination in about one of every five wells.

Few water-quality rules regulate those wells, meaning there is no water company to call, no backup system to turn to, and often no simple way to cure the contamination. In Flint, lead-tainted water prompted a public health emergency that led to a criminal investigation.

Homeowners say they are forced to choose between installing expensive filtration systems, spending thousands to dig deeper wells, ignoring the problem or moving.

The latest “Freshwater News” is hot off the presses from @WaterEdCO

Roman lead pipe — Photo via the Science Museum

Click here to read the newsletter from Water Education Colorado. Here’s an excerpt:

Dozens of public water systems on state watch list for lead contamination (Jerd Smith)

Forty small communities, school districts and day care centers serving 51,000 people statewide are being monitored by state health officials because of concerns about potential lead contamination.

It does not mean that these entities are violating rules governing lead contamination, only that small amounts of lead have been detected in their water samples at some point, according to Nicole Graziano, a water quality specialist at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Once that occurs, under state and federal guidelines, water suppliers must embark on a rigorous sampling program that sometimes requires new water treatment and replacement of lead service lines.

“If they’re on our list, it means they are active in our process, “ Graziano said. The rule has a long timeline, meaning that water providers can remain on the list for years as the problem is monitored, treated, and then monitored again to ensure treatment is working.

The CDPHE regulates some 2,000 public water systems statewide. Roughly 1,000 of these are subject to the federal Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), Graziano said.

Concern over the issue has risen dramatically since 2015, when Flint, Michigan, switched water sources, pushing millions of gallons of highly corrosive water through aging lead pipes, leading to a wave of contamination and a public health crisis.

Under the LCR, more than 90 percent of samples must show lead levels of 15 parts per billion (ppb) or higher in order to trigger an action order. During the Flint crisis, lead levels of 27 ppb were found, with one sample registering 158 ppb, according to published reports.

These numbers are concerning, according to public health officials, because lead isn’t considered safe at any level, particularly for children, and levels as low as 5 ppb can be dangerous. Treating lead and copper in water systems is a complex undertaking governed by the federal Lead and Copper Rule. Often these metals aren’t found in water once it leaves a treatment plant. But they can leach into the supply via corrosion as water passes through copper pipes as well as lead service lines in older homes and schools. To learn more about protecting your home or office from lead contamination here.

By far the largest entity on Colorado’s watch list is Denver Water. The utility serves some 1.4 million customers in metro Denver and has been required to sample water from its customers’ taps, conduct extensive public education efforts on protecting against lead contamination, and change out thousands of lead service lines, which are major contributors to the problem.

Earlier this year Denver Water, along with Aurora Water, the Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation District and the Denver Greenway Foundation, sued the state health department over a new requirement that it add phosphorous to its water treatment processes to reduce the potential for lead contamination. Denver Water has asked the state to use a PH-based protocol instead. Talks to settle the lawsuit are underway now.

Dozens of small communities are confronting the same problem, often with limited resources and big fears that a new, likely tougher, set of federal lead regulations is coming in response to the crisis in Flint. A draft set of these new rules is set to come out early next year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

According to the CDPHE, the systems on its watch list serve more than 51,000 Coloradans.

Among them is the scenic Idaho Springs, population 1,746. Lead showed up in its tap water more than a decade ago, according to Dan Wolf, manager of the town’s water and wastewater system.

Since being directed by the state in 2008 to boost the PH levels in its water treatment system, lead and copper levels in routinely collected samples of its tap water have been negligible, according to state records.

But the higher PH levels are causing problems with other aspects of the system, Wolf said. Increasing the PH, for instance, has created an organic reaction with the chlorine used for disinfection, resulting in a set of carcinogenic byproducts known as haloacetic acids (HAAs).

“Lead is not a significant issue for us anymore,” Wolf said. “But treating for lead and copper is causing higher levels of disinfection byproducts.”

In response, Idaho Springs has asked the state to allow it to operate at a lower PH level, a request the state hasn’t ruled on yet, Wolf said.

Two other entities on the list, Elk Creek Elementary School in Pine and Bearly Tawl Day Care Center in Evergreen, have shown elevated levels of lead at some locations in their buildings in 2016 and 2017 respectively, and both are being closely watched. Subsequent tests at both facilities have shown lead levels well below the action targets, according to state records.

Bearly Tawl did not return a call seeking comment. But Jefferson County Schools’ spokeswoman Diana Wilson said the school district has moved quickly to replace faucets and drinking fountains at Elk Creek and other schools to reduce lead levels and that all of its schools are now on a rotating sample schedule so that any elevated lead levels can be identified and addressed.

Like hundreds of other school districts across the state and the nation, Jefferson County opted to use state grant money to test for lead.

“We were concerned about the age of our buildings,” said Diana Wilson, executive director of communications at Jefferson County Public Schools. “Most of them are more than 50 years old.”

In general, 50 years ago is when lead piping was outlawed, due to health concerns. Buildings constructed since then aren’t likely to have lead pipes, although some may contain copper pipe fittings.

As drinking water concerns continue to echo across the state, some communities have opted to move forward and replace all lead service lines even though they are not on the watch list. Two years ago, the town of Paonia in Delta County, which relies on underground springs for its water, saw its water source reclassified under a new set of regulations designed to address concerns over groundwater contamination.

The new classification meant it had to redo a significant portion of its water system, using bonds and grants. As part of that $4 million redo, it opted to go ahead and replace all of its lead service lines, according to Paonia Town Administrator Ken Knight.

“In a lot of small communities, their infrastructure is at the end of its life expectancy. But the fact of the matter for us is that we are going to be in very good shape.”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

@Denver Water, Aurora in dispute with state over lead treatment — @WaterEdCO

Roman lead pipe — Photo via the Science Museum

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

Denver Water and three other organizations are seeking to overturn a state order that directs Denver to adopt a strict new treatment protocol preventing lead contamination in drinking water.

Denver is not in violation of the federal law that governs lead, but it has been required to monitor and test its system regularly since 2012 after lead was discovered in a small sample of water at some of its customers’ taps.

In March of this year, after Denver completed a series of required tests and studies, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) ordered the utility to implement a treatment protocol that involves adding phosphates to its system. It has until March of 2020 to implement the new process.

Denver, which serves 1.4 million people in the metro area, has proposed instead using an approach that balances the PH levels in its treated water and expands a program replacing lead service lines in the city. Old lead service lines are a common source of lead in drinking water.

Treating lead and copper in water systems is a complex undertaking governed by the federal Lead and Copper Rule. In Denver, for instance, there is no lead in the water supply when it leaves the treatment plant. But it can leach into the supply via corrosion as water passes through lead delivery lines and pipes in older homes. Denver has 58,000 lead service lines in its system. Lead has continued to appear in samples it has taken at some customers’ taps, according to court filings, though not at levels that would constitute a violation of the federal law.

Eighty-six samples taken since 2013 have exceeded 15 micrograms per liter, including one tap sample which measured more than 400 micrograms per liter, according to court filings. The 15-microgram-per-liter benchmark is the level at which utilities must take action, including public education, corrosion studies, additional sampling and possible removal of lead service lines.

In response to the state’s order, the City of Aurora, the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District and the nonprofit Greenway Foundation, which works to protect the South Platte River, sued to overturn it, concerned that additional phosphates will hamper their ability to meet their own water treatment requirements while also hurting water quality in the South Platte. Denver joined the suit in May.

Because Denver Water services numerous other water providers in the metro area and participates in a major South Metro reuse project known as WISE, short for Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency, anything that changes the chemical profile of its water affects dozens of communities and the river itself.

Among the plaintiffs’ concerns is that phosphate levels in water that is discharged to the river have to be tightly controlled under provisions of the Clean Water Act. If phosphate levels in domestic water rise, wastewater treatment protocols would have to be changed, potentially costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, according to a report by the Denver-based, nonpartisan Water Research Foundation.

From an environmental perspective, any increased phosphate in the South Platte River would make fighting such things as algae blooms, which are fueled by nutrients including phosphorous, much more difficult and could make the river less habitable for fish.

But in its statement to the court, the CDPHE said the state’s first job is to protect the health of the thousands of children served by Denver Water in the metro area.

“The addition of orthophosphate will reduce lead at consumers’ taps by approximately 74 percent, as opposed to the cheaper treatment favored by plaintiffs [PH/Alkalinity], which will only reduce levels by less than 50 percent,” CDPHE said in court documents. “This is a significant and important public health difference, particularly because there is no safe level of lead in blood…Even at low levels, a child’s exposure to lead can be harmful.”

How much either treatment may eventually cost Denver Water and others isn’t clear yet, according to state health officials, because it will depend in part on how each process is implemented.

Denver, Aurora and Metro Wastewater declined to comment for this story, citing the pending lawsuit.

The Greenway Foundation did not respond to a request for comment.

In late July, all parties agreed to pause the legal proceedings while they examine water treatment issues as well as the environmental concerns raised by higher levels of phosphorous in Denver Water’s treated water supplies. If a settlement can’t be reached by Nov. 1, the lawsuit will proceed.

Jonathan Cuppett, a research manager at the Water Research Foundation, said other utilities across the country may be asked to re-evaluate their own corrosion control systems under a rewrite of the Lead and Copper Rule underway now at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The newly proposed federal rule is due out for review later this year or by mid-2019.

Cuppett said the changes may lean toward more phosphate-based treatment for lead contamination. In fact, the EPA issued a statement in March in support of the CDPHE’s order to Denver Water.

“Within the [Lead and Copper Rule] there are a variety of changes that may be made. Depending on what those changes are other utilities may have to evaluate their strategy again or more frequently. And if that is the case, we may see more of this issue where someone is pushing for phosphorous for control for public health, creating a conflict of interest with environmental concerns,” Cuppett said.

Colorado public health officials said they’re hopeful an agreement can be reached, but that they have few options under the federal Safe Water Drinking Act’s Lead and Copper Rule.

“The [Lead and Copper Rule] is a very prescriptive, strict rule,” said Megan Parish, an attorney and policy adviser to CDPHE. “It doesn’t give us a lot of discretion to consider things that Metro Wastewater would have liked us to consider.”

South Adams County Water and Sanitation shuts down 3 wells citing PFC pollution

Typical water well

From 9News.com (Allison Sylte):

A news release about the contamination was distributed on Friday morning. This comes after the South Adams County Water and Sanitation District found perfluorinated compounds (commonly known as PFCs) in water samples from certain shallow groundwater wells. These chemicals are known to pose significant health risks if people are exposed to them – especially expectant mothers and young children.

Now, the Environmental Protection Agency, Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, and the Tri-County Health Department are working to find the source of the contamination.

However, health officials say the water distributed to the 50,000 customers in the South Adams County Water and Sanitation District is safe after three wells with the highest concentration of the PFC chemicals were shut down earlier this month. This means the district is taking 40 percent of its water supply from Denver rather than the usual 20 percent.

The concern now, according to South Adams County Water and Sanitation District Water Systems Manager Kipp Scott, are private wells and the people who use them – which is what prompted the advisory to the public in the first place.

“When we find something that is of a concern like this, we notify the health department,” Scott said. “The concern is, we are treating for that chemical here and removing it to levels below the health advisory, but the concern is with other people that maybe using wells that are not on our system and supplied water by our district.

Scott said some wells tested positive for PFCs in May. When that happened, they tested the treatment process – and results took five weeks to come back. Next came contact with the health department.

Brian Hlavacek, the director of environmental health at the Tri-County Health Department, issued a statement to 9NEWS that said:

“Tri-County Health Department is working closely with EPA, CDPHE and SACWSD to identify the extent and source of contamination. TCHD is working to identify private drinking water wells in the initial area of investigation in order to sample for PFC’s. Sampling could begin as early as next week as we identify any wells. Residents who receive their water from a private drinking water well, are near this area, and are concerned about PFC levels can call Tri-County Health Department at 303-288-6816 or email questions to ehwater@tchd.org.”

Summitville Mine Superfund Site update: #Colorado to take over project for $2 million a year

Summitville Mine superfund site

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

After 27 years of EPA control, Colorado is preparing to take over the full financial burden — a forever bill for $2 million a year — of a high-mountain cyanide gold mine that became one of the West’s worst environmental disasters.

The re-shaping of ravaged alpine tundra at the Summitville Mine through a $250 million federal Superfund cleanup stands out because scores of other toxic mines in Colorado still are contaminating headwaters of western rivers each day.

But this fix requires constant work. Colorado must pay the $2 million, a bill that the EPA has been handling, starting in 2021 for cleaning a fluctuating flow of up to 2,100 gallons a minute of toxic water that drains down a once-pristine mountainside.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will use the money to run a silver-domed $18 million industrial water treatment plant built at 11,500 feet elevation in a wild and spectacular valley, surrounded by snow-splotched jagged peaks.

The plant houses huge stainless-steel vats of burbling brown sludge. Toxic metals are chemically coaxed and filtered out. Plant operators haul 4.1 million pounds a year of concentrated waste back up South Mountain (elevation 12,550 feet) in trucks for burial. This muck contains more than 690,000 pounds of cadmium, lead, copper, aluminum, iron, manganese and zinc. It is toxic metal that otherwise would flow down and degrade the Wightman Fork of the Alamosa River.

Colorado also must oversee the artificial covering and drainage ditches across 1,100 acres of tundra scarred by open-pit mining. Mountainsides ripped and slashed to remove gold and silver have been re-contoured by contractors using bulldozers, and re-planted with native vegetation — the engineering equivalent of plastic surgery to make the place look as good as possible…

The hand-off of responsibility for Summitville from the EPA to CDPHE in 2021 will mark a turning point in dealing with a severely damaged landscape using the nation’s Superfund system for handling disasters.

This project was set in motion before Congress in 1995 killed automatic funding for Superfund cleanups.

Complete restoration to a pre-existent state is considered impossible and the government aimed at best-possible repairs.

“That was what the EPA and the state worked to do: bring it back to a sustainable protected state. Once there is mining in an area, it has long-term impact,” said Fran Costanzi, an EPA official who managed the Summitville cleanup for four years. “We worked to bring water quality back and also the vegetation into a long-term stable state.”

An EPA spokesman issued a statement placing Summitville “among the more illustrious, or perhaps infamous, examples of the environmental damage a large mining operation can cause when resources for safely managing contamination sources disappear. The EPA’s initial response was an emergency situation in which the site was literally abandoned by the operator — in winter-time conditions — with a cyanide heap leach pad eroding into a headwaters stream.

“After years of work and investment, we’ve essentially reclaimed a watershed in one of the most beautiful parts of the state. Protecting those gains will continue to require our attention.”

Alamosa River. Photo credit: Wenck

The cleanup improved water quality to where fish can live in Terrace Reservoir, about five miles below the mine, and in the Alamosa River.

CDPHE officials now are required to monitor conditions.

The financial burden falls to Colorado because the Superfund process shifts responsibility to states after initial federal remediation. Colorado lawmakers have arranged to pay about $2 million a year by tapping revenue derived from fees paid at municipal and other landfills around the state…

At Summitville, Rio Grande County eventually will own the 1,100-acre site. State and county officials have been setting up placards conveying the history of mining in the area with an emphasis on environmental damage and evolving efforts to repair harm.

Colorado’s North Clear Creek & Tuthill

For 150 years, the North Clear Creek in Black Hawk, Colorado has been contaminated from historic mining. A new water treatment plant that came online in 2017 is removing 350lbs of heavy metals every day from the stream with the hopes of reestablishing a brown trout population. The facility uses Tuthill’s Blower Packages to aerate the water to remove the heavy metals more easily. Learn more about Tuthill’s products here: https://www.tuthillvacuumblower.com/i…

The facility was built and run by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Environmental Protection Agency. The Colorado Department of Transportation was integral to this project.

CDPHE fines Western Sugar $2 million

Fort Morgan manufacturing facility. Photo credit: Wester Sugar Cooperative

From KNOPNews2.com:

The Western Sugar Cooperative has been fined $2 million as part of a settlement of air, water and solid waste violations and non-compliance found at the company’s Fort Morgan, Colo. plant.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment announced a settlement between the department and Western Sugar in a release Friday.

Violations of Colorado’s Colorado’s Air Pollution Prevention and Control Act included exceeding the state’s regulatory odor limits. Water quality violations include discharges of pollutants, including fecal coliform and sulfide, which significantly exceeded the company’s permit limits. The department also cited Western Sugar for unauthorized spills, and said water quality violations likely contributed to odor issues affecting Fort Morgan residents.

In addition to air and water quality violations, CDPHE says Western Sugar operated two large waste stockpiles of coal ash and precipitated in violation of state solid waste regulations. The piles of the manufacturing by-products are visible from Interstate 76 and Route 52…

Under the terms of the settlement, Western Sugar agreed to:
– Identify and implement wastewater treatment.
– Eliminate and/or properly dispose of waste stockpiles and any new waste generated through its processes.
– Investigate groundwater and soil impacts, and implement corrective measures if necessary.
– Implement and comply with an odor management plan.
– Retrofit existing coal-fired boilers with natural gas burners.
– Establish financial assurance.
– Provide funding for a local water quality restoration project.
– Accept suspension of its environmental permits or licenses if it fails to comply with certain terms of the settlement.