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Mike Bailes said he's as frustrated as residents in trying to figure out why a particular contaminate keeps showing up in higher than usual numbers in the county's drinking supply.
Bailes, Catawba River water treatment plant director for the Lancaster County Water and Sewer District, said the plant has been testing new chemicals in the treatment process. It could be another week before utility officials know if the process is working.
Trihalomethanes, a by-product of the treatment process, have been higher than allowed by federal standards for the past year in samples taken from the county. Trihalomethanes are created when chlorine mixes with organic material, such as decaying leaves and algae from the water pulled from the Catawba River, where Lancaster County gets its water supply.
"It's not an immediate threat," Bailes reiterated. "It's not a pollutant. It's Mother Nature."
Residents have been calling the plant demanding answers. The Lancaster County Water and Sewer District recently sent out a public notice in customers' water bills about the higher than normal trihalomethane levels.
"Everyone has been talking about it, but there's still no answer," said resident and LCWSD customer Kathryn Plyler. "We need to have an answer."
Plyler has been calling the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, the Environmental Protection Agency, local, state and federal officials trying to get an answer.
Plyler stopped buying bottled water several months ago to help the environment by reducing the number of plastic bottles her family throws away. She said she's been told that people have to drink the contaminate for many years for it to have an effect.
"But we have been drinking years of it," she said. "I've been so frustrated. Nobody's doing anything."
The state's view
Richard Welch, DHEC's drinking water compliance manager in Columbia, said without hesitation that utility officials here are working hard to find the source of the problem to bring the water back into compliance.
That includes changing chemicals used to treat the water and lessening the time that the chlorine and organics mix, creating the trihalomethanes.
But due to higher water temperatures in the summer, trihalomethanes are often at higher levels. That's because warm water aids in the chemical reaction between the chlorine and organic material in the water.
"It's a battle," Welch said. "It happens more in the hot-weather months."
Trihalomethanes are higher as a rule in the Southeast, because there's more vegetation and warmer temperatures, Welch said.
"I would reiterate that it's barely over" the allowed level, Welch said. "Organics by themselves aren't harmful."
The Catawba River treatment plant has newer technology than others in the state, and DHEC has a good working relationship with the Lancaster County Water and Sewer District, Welch said.
"It's one of the better run plants in the state, and it's received numerous awards from us for treatment. I would really call them a 'Cadillac' plant," he said.
Welch said DHEC is careful not to discount people's fears when it comes to their water supply.
He said that research shows that over time, trihalomethanes can cause problems, such as cancer or bladder infections, but that's over 70 years.
"We haven't found a smoking gun sort of thing," Welch said. "It's not something that could hurt them tomorrow."
Could drought be to blame?
Samples of drinking water taken at the city of Lancaster's water treatment plant, which gets its water from the LCWSD's Catawba River plant, have been in compliance, said director Mack McDonald.
Like Bailes, he's scratching his head as to why the tests of the same water supply are showing different results.
"It's the same exact water," McDonald said. "We haven't had any problems."
The Catawba River is at its lowest flow level in the 26 years that Bailes has been working with it.
With low flow, less organic materials are swept out of the water, meaning there are more organic materials in the water when it comes into the plant for treatment. The trihalomethanes are created when those organic materials mix with it during the treatment process.
The plant has been operating since 1993, and this is its first violation. The plant has changed equipment due to the problem, and that hasn't helped.
"It's got to be the drought," Bailes said. "We're into it over a year now."
Bailes said now is the best time to reiterate the importance of water conservation to improve water levels in the Catawba River.
"We need to conserve water from now on," he said. "The Catawba River is not an everlasting supply."
Contact senior reporter Jenny Hartley at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (803) 283-1151