Purified or not purified, that’s the question facing us all
On March 24, The City of Fort Oglethorpe sent a letter to its residents informing them that the city’s drinking water had violated the standards for a chemical that is a byproduct of the purification process. Fort Oglethorpe buys its water from Tennessee American Water, the company that treats water it pumps from the Tennessee River and sends it to all of Chattanooga and most of Hamilton County. (Hixson pulls its water from an aquifer.)
At the end of 2015, monitoring in Fort O detected an excess of Trihalomethane (TTHM), a chemical formed when chlorine reacts with organics in water. Consumers who drink too much TTHM-laden water for too long may, according to the letter, “experience problems with their liver, kidneys or central nervous system and may have an increased risk of getting cancer.”
To be clear: it was Fort Oglethorpe’s violation, but the water originally came from Chattanooga’s water treatment plant. A notice of violation, contamination in the water—it brings to mind the Flint Water Crisis, where mistreated water pulled from the Flint River corroded old pipes leading to homes in Flint, Michigan and pulled lead into the tap water. Furthermore, Flint notified its own residents that it violated TTHM standards but the water was still safe to drink back in January 2015, Michigan Live reported at the time, before the issue of lead contamination rose to a head.
Potable water: A delicate balance
What happened in Fort Oglethorpe was minor, according to Dorothy Radar, Tennessee American Water’s supervisor for water quality and environmental compliance. As Tennessee American sends its purified water on its way through Chattanooga’s water system, it adds a measured amount of chlorine to keep the water pure as it makes the 2- to 5-day journey to residents’ homes.
THMM levels were elevated because the water sat for a few extra days in Fort Oglethorpe’s water system and the chlorine finished reacting with organic compounds.
The maximum contaminant level for TTHM is 0.08mg/L. In Fort Oglethorpe, TTHM was found at levels of 0.082. “That’s how easy it was to get out of tolerance,” said Radar.
Fort Oglethorpe said in its letter it would “begin a more aggressive program of flushing” its water system and monitor TTHM levels every month instead of the mandated quarterly schedules.
With water being a fundamental ingredient for life, and with the myriad of ways water could become impure, the incident highlighted how much Chattanoogans trust their water systems to deliver pure water day in and day out.
According to the water company and the State of Tennessee, the water pulled from the Tennessee River here is easy to treat and they doubt an incident like Flint could happen in Chattanooga. But like anything else to do with health and the environment, it’s a complicated journey to get to pure H2O.
Before Tennessee American gathers it up where Citico Creek meets the Tennessee, the surface water could have traveled hundreds of miles. For the watershed for the Tennessee River begins well inside Virginia, with water following gravity into a stream, into either the French Broad or Holston Rivers. The two rivers meet near Knoxville and the mighty Tennessee winds its way south to Chattanooga.
All the while, it’s passing cities which are tapping the river for its drinking water and then discharging treated wastewater back into the flow. Rain carries nitrates, topsoil and pesticides from farmland into the mix. And while environmental regulation is more stringent than what it used to be, the effects of old industry practices will persist in the watershed for decades to come.
When the water finally reaches Chattanooga, it is possible for hundreds of trace chemicals to be found in the water. In addition, organic material such as plant material, algae and microbes such as E. coli float through the mix.
Where is the Clean Water Act?
There have been communities in the Tennessee watershed where the quality of the river affected their drinking water, according to Renée Victoria Hoyos, executive director for the Tennessee Clean Water Network. For example, TCWN filed suit against a munitions plant in 2014 that was leeching RDX, an explosive, into the Holston River in so great quantities the chemical was found in drinking water 90 miles away, according to Hoyos.
Even if the contamination comes about through a wastewater treatment plant mistreating the water, it makes treatments plants down river spend more time and effort to ensure clean water.
There’s a lot of work left to do in terms of ensuring quality water in the Tennessee River, according to Hoyos. “Rivers aren’t catching fire anymore, which is good,” she said.
However, “We’ve not met the goals of the clean water act,” Hoyos said. “And we’ve never gotten there. We’re not even close in many cases.”
The original goals were to first, stop the discharge of pollutants into waterways and second, bring about a return of waterways that are fishable and swimmable. Still, there are sections of the Tennessee that are neither, Hoyos said.
Furthermore, new chemical compounds are created every day for manufacturing or consumer products. Little is known about what happens when they make it to the environment. And while the Environmental Protection Agency is supposed to investigate, it’s overwhelmed, according to Hoyos “They aren’t keeping up with what’s being created.”
These emerging contaminants run the gamut. During a June 21 roundtable discussion about environmental remediation, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection said environmental professionals are starting to monitor for substances like Perchlorate, which is found in explosives and fireworks, 1,4-Dioxane, a solvent used in paint strippers and some manufacturing processes, and chemicals found in consumer products like insect repellents and medicines.
Take nanomaterials, for instance. While nanomaterials have been engineered to be used to clean up the environment and deliver medicines in the body, The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences wrote on its website: “However, while engineered nanomaterials provide great benefits, we know very little about the potential effects on human health and the environment. Even well-known materials, such as silver for example, may pose a hazard when engineered to nano size.”
The TDEC studied the issue of emergent contaminants in 2010. After testing the water entering drinking water plants and comparing the findings with investigations by the United States Geological Survey, it determined levels of emergent contaminants in this area are comparable to the rest of the Southeast.
Meanwhile, “We always try to stay ahead and identify what is the newest thing on the horizon we need to address,” said Daphne Kirksey, external affairs manager for Tennessee American Water.
The EPA, for its part, picks out three to four dozen chemicals at a time and checks on water plants across the country to see if the chemicals are in their waters, and at how high a concentration.
Yes, Radar said, a whole slew of chemicals like Tylenol, aspirin and caffeine can be detected in the water, but it’s in the parts per trillion level—trace amounts while lead levels are tracked at the parts per billion level. Emerging contaminants is an issue that arrived with the development of better technology to better measure the water, technology that’s expensive to use, said Radar.
The issue just highlights an under recognized fact about the water cycle: It’s a cycle and the water coming out of the tap was used by someone or something six months, or 10 even 200 years before.
And making sure that ever-cycling water is safe to drink is where Tennessee American Water’s job begins.
Before coming to monitor the water quality in Chattanooga, Radar worked in four other water treatment plants, including ones in Blunt and Knox County. Compared to other places, it’s easy to keep Chattanooga’s drinking water at a level of consistent quality. “The Tennessee River here is pretty steady because of the volume because it takes a lot to change it,” she said. The number of suspended particles in the water is generally quite low. Bacteria is “extremely manageable.”
The Tennessee is clean compared to rivers like the Ohio or the Mississippi where there’s a number of large cities by the water.
Tennessee American tests the water hundreds of times a day, monitoring metal levels in nearby creeks, checking E. coli levels.
There are four factors Tennessee American examines for water quality, according to Radar. First is turbidity, or the percentage of suspended particles there are in the water. Then the water must be balanced so Tennessee American will check the PH of the water. Too high, too acidic, and the water can eat away at metal pipes, causing the water to run red with rust.
Similarly, the company will also check to make sure there’s enough corrosion inhibitor in the water. Water systems are old. In places like Nashville and Washington, D.C., for example, some sections of the system are built with wooden pipes, according to Radar. Other materials could include ductile iron, PVC, and like in Flint, either lead pipes or pipes joined together with lead-based solder. It was the corrosiveness of the water from the Flint River that caused lead to enter that city’s drinking supply.
Finally, Tennessee American checks to make sure there’s enough residual chlorine to preserve the water all the way to its destination.
It’s a system with 30 pump stations and 30 water storage tanks on hills and mountains across this area to keep water pressure consistent, a system that requires about 40 to 45 million gallons a day.
“Our challenge is that we’re big and we have to keep water moving constantly,” Radar said.
And Tennessee American is quick to tout its accomplishments. For 16 years in a row, the American Water Works Association awarded the plant for its water quality through Tennessee American’s participation in the Partnership for Safe Water, a program that encourages treatment plants to meet tougher turbidity levels than what the EPA set.
TDEC Doesn’t Anticipate Another Flint
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation sees the pollutant levels in the river around Chattanooga as “generally low” and the drinking water system here as “very good,” according to an email from TDEC Deputy Communications Director Eric Ward.
As part of its responsibilities, TDEC issues permits and inspects sites like Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant (where Chattanooga’s wastewater goes) in order to ensure what they are discharging into the Tennessee doesn’t adversely affect the water quality downstream.
Ward continued, “The Chattanooga utilities have a long history of treating water with a good compliance record and utilize polyphosphates for corrosion control, therefore, we would not anticipate something like Flint happening in Chattanooga.”
Every three years, Tennessee American tests for lead and copper levels in the water coming out of Chattanoogans’ tap. With 2013 being the last time it was checked, Tennessee American sent bottles to a list of homes and asked residents to take a sample of the water after it sat in their house’s pipes for at least six hours, giving time for lead—if it’s in the pipes—an opportunity to seep into the water.
It will be the first time after the Flint water crisis hit the headlines that Chattanooga’s water will be tested for lead. Tennessee American will know results by October, results that will be published in its annual water quality report for 2016.
There’s hosts of trace chemicals, sediment, bacteria in the river water. And contaminants such as TTHM and lead can emerge after the water leaves the treatment plant. Standing in the middle and treating that water requires “24-hour vigilance,” Kirksey said.
After all that effort, is Chattanooga’s water pure? Strictly speaking, no. Instead, the water is treated to meet standards set by the EPA, according to a water quality Q&A on American Water’s website. But according to Kirksey, tap water is more regulated by the EPA than what the FDA enforces in bottled water.
In 2006, the EPA issued a new regulation mandating water treatment plants test for the microbial pathogen Cryptosporidium, which is found in surface waters across the nation. If there was an excess of the pathogen, water companies were supposed to use more stringent filtration processes. Tennessee American determined those steps were not needed for Chattanooga’s water system.
Still, Tennessee America issued a caution in its 2015 Annual Water Quality report:
“Some people may be more vulnerable to contaminants in drinking water than the general population. Immuno-compromised persons such as persons with cancer undergoing chemotherapy, persons who have undergone organ transplants, people with HIV/AIDS or other immune system disorders, some elderly, and infants may be particularly at risk from infections. These people should seek advice about drinking water from their health care providers.”
In 1887, Chattanooga moved the intake for its water supply upriver from the downtown to its current location. It was cutting-edge water-treatment technology in an age before chlorine was even first used to purify potable water.
“We’ve been here for 129 years and we’ve never had a notice of violation,” Radar said.