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What's in the water?

By Karen Garcia
Chilkat Valley News
The Borough of Haines is experiencing spikes in cancer-causing disinfection byproducts in their public water supply. Inletkeeper's Clean Water Program Director talked with Chilkat Valley News reporter Karen Garcia about that and other drinking water issues.

The Haines Borough weathered an E. coli scare last week, but there are other contaminants of concern in the town’s water.

Like many rural Alaskan communities, the borough is struggling to control levels of potentially toxic byproducts in its water. The byproducts form when organic matter in water from Lily Lake and the Piedad spring mixes with chlorine added to treat water for dangerous bacteria and viruses.

According to reports submitted by the borough, levels for two byproducts in the town’s water have exceeded standards established by the Environmental Protection Agency three times in the past year.

The byproducts of concern are called trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids. According to the EPA, some people who for years drink water containing high levels of trihalomethanes could experience liver, kidney or central nervous system problems and increased risk of cancer.

Prolonged exposure to haloacetic acids also can lead to an increased risk of cancer, according to the EPA.

People can be exposed to the byproducts through skin contact and inhalation, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cindy Christian, program manager for DEC’s Drinking Water Compliance and Monitoring Department, said the state calculates enforceable limit violations on an annual, average basis. Even though Haines has experienced spikes in byproduct levels during quarterly reporting, the state doesn’t register a violation if the annual average is below EPA’s limit.

“Even though some quarters have exceeded the (EPA limit), the running annual average has not. So, technically, they are not in violation of the rule,” Christian said.

Haines resident Jessica Kayser Forster, a community development and human health consultant, said when looking at the past and present monitoring reports, it is clear public health goals for some of the chemicals are being exceeded. Even though they aren’t technically violations, the quarterly spikes still represent a public health concern, she said. “We are still being exposed over the long term.”

Kayser Forster has worked as executive director of the Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition and as a consultant for the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council. Her job includes helping towns and tribes address water issues.

Kayser Forster recently brought her concerns to the borough and met with manager David Sosa, water/sewer treatment operator Scott Bradford and interim public facilities director Brian Lemcke. Kayser Forster was encouraged to see the borough was aware of the byproducts issue and was taking steps to address it, but said she’d like to see consumers made more aware of what they can do on an individual level to protect themselves.

“Maybe it would be beneficial to inform consumers based on the quarterly monitoring reports and not on the annual average, because the health impacts come from exposure over the long term,” Kayser Forster said.

Older people, as well as pregnant women, children and immuno-compromised individuals are especially susceptible and should be especially aware of the risks, Kayser Forster said. With a median age of 48.5, the Haines Borough is the oldest community in Alaska.

“If the general public knows, ‘Okay, these are the public health goals. When we go above these public health goals, some populations will experience health impacts.’ Then those populations, if they choose to, can take greater (precautions),” Kayser Forster said.

The EPA sets public health goals and enforceable limits for contaminant levels. Goals represent the level at which, if surpassed over the long-term, no adverse health effects are likely to occur. Goals are the “ideal” standard to meet. Enforceable limits are the maximum levels allowed by law, and take into account constraints like finances and resources. Limits represent the “realistic” standard.

Limits for trihalomethanes are 80 parts per billion. Haloacetic acids have a limit of 60 parts per billion. Some of the “subcategories” of these two types of disinfectant byproducts have public health goals of zero parts per billion.

According to the Department of Environmental Conservation, a borough quarterly water sample collected March 23 registered a haloacetic acid level of 65 ppb, above the EPA’s limit of 60 ppb. The prior sample, from Dec. 16, 2014, showed haloacetic acids at a concentration of 85.7 ppb.

A Sept. 23, 2014 quarterly sample found trihalomethane at 92.5 ppb, above the EPA’s limit of 80 ppb.

Cook Inletkeeper’s Clean Water Program Director Rachel Lord said public health standards are always changing. Lord cited an example with EPA’s arsenic regulations.

“The maximum contaminant limit set by EPA used to be 50 parts per billion. Then, not that long ago – 15 years ago or something – they dropped it to 10 parts per billion,” Lord said.

“We learn things all the time through science that we didn’t know before. That’s, I think, one of the challenges as a water systems operator and as DEC. They operate under these regulations, and those regulations are hopefully based on the best available science. The best available science changes as we learn things,” Lord said.

One of the most important steps a municipality can take is keeping customers informed about their water, even when there aren’t technical violations.

“They are paying for that public water. As a consumer, I would want to know why are we having this problem, what are the effects of this problem, are you doing something about it, and if I’m not comfortable with the regulations or the timeline, what can I do about it?” Lord said.

Haines’ water/sewer treatment operator Scott Bradford declined to comment.

Residents concerned about concentrations of disinfectant byproducts can buy tap filters and shower filters. It is important to buy the type that filters volatile organic compounds (VOC). Letting tap water run for a while also can help, as disinfectant byproducts build up when water treated with chlorination sits in pipes containing more organic matter.

Todd Cook has worked in the water treatment business since 1997. He serves as water/wastewater superintendent for the City of Homer, and has worked in Sitka and Cordova.

Because drinking water in rural Alaska often comes from surface sources rife with organic matter, high levels of disinfectant byproducts are found in water systems across the state, Cook said. “I saw this pretty much everywhere.”

In Homer, disinfectant byproducts have been an ongoing issue. At one point, in an attempt to address the issue, the Homer treatment facility started adding a coagulating agent to the water, which bound to the organic matter and made it sink so it could be filtered out of the water before being treated with chlorine.

The coagulating agent, though, increased the water’s acidity. When the water ran through some of Homer’s aging lead and copper pipes, it caused corrosion, spiking the water’s lead content. The disinfectant byproduct levels dropped, but the lead levels went up, Cook said.

“It’s challenging for the operators,” Cook said. “Every treatment plant has to figure out that balancing act.”

Homer also has adjusted pumps to prevent water from sitting in holding tanks for a long time. Water that sits continues to build up more disinfectant byproducts. “We’re trying to only produce water that we are using so that we don’t have water just sitting. We’re trying to keep it moving,” Cook said.

Homer annually flushes its entire distribution system, Cook said. “(Byproducts) also produce in pipes, where organic matter hangs out. Flushing knocks that slime and biofilm loose. It scours those out. By doing that, we’ve noticed that our byproducts have gone down substantially,” he said.

Even though Homer hasn’t been violating regulations, the city does keep people apprised of the issue. “We are letting people know that occasionally our samples are above the maximum contaminant level, even though we haven’t violated the annual average.”

Haines Borough Manager David Sosa said the borough has been trying to keep less water in its holding tanks so water will cycle more frequently. Water department employees also have been flushing areas like Skyline, where many people leave during winter, causing water to sit in the pipes for longer.

“We want to make sure people understand that steps are being taken to make the system more efficient, more effective and safer,” Sosa said.

The next step, Sosa said, is keeping people more informed about their water. “I think that’s something we can commit to do: as we become informed, keep the public informed and give them the opportunity to make the choices for things that matter to them.”

“As a municipal utility, we want to make sure first and foremost that we are meeting the standard that’s required by the law,” Sosa said. “And then that we are providing as much information as possible to the consumer so that we can help the consumer be as safe as possible and be as aware as possible.”

Kayser Forster said she is thankful her information was received well and the manager is committed to informing the public and customers. Ideally, Kayser Forster said, she would like to see the borough explore more options, including removing more organic compounds before chlorination occurs.

She also suggested looking into carbon filtration systems, UV treatment, ozone or duplicate sand filters and investigating alternative water sources. “However, all of these options take money and resources and it is up to the community to prioritize drinking water and encourage the borough to allocate those resources.”