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What are results of water tests?

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By Chris Sardelli

csardelli@thelancasternews.com

After much debate last summer over the effects of contaminate levels in the county’s water supply, Margaret Smith has been left wondering if there is still anything to worry about.

Smith, a Van Wyck resident, has been in constant communication for months with professors from the University of South Carolina at Lancaster, as well members of the Lancaster County Water and Sewer District, hoping to find out if her water is safe to drink. Every time she received an e-mail from an official regarding the problem, she would post it on public bulletin boards to let other residents know more about the issue.

The issue she’s worried about involves contaminates called trihalomethanes. Last year, the LCWSD sent out a public notice in its customers’ water bills notifying them about high levels of the contaminate, levels that had been higher than allowed by federal standards.

This contaminate is created during the treatment process when chlorine mixes with organic material, such as decaying leaves and algae in water pulled from the Catawba River.

Smith said her postings have been generating interest from her community.

“People started to notice,” Smith said. “They came to find out we were being poisoned.”

Smith said she is angry with the LCWSD for failing to notify the public about the problem immediately.

“Last summer, they sent out a notice in our water bills nine months after they knew it,” she said. “Don’t take nine months to notify the public.”

She is also upset there has been no official word on results from tests conducted on water samples last fall. The last time Smith said she heard about the subject was when Sen. Mick Mulvaney, R-District 16, attended a discussion on water issues last fall. Smith said representatives from the S.C.DHEC promised to hold further meetings, but never did.

“They haven’t shown us any more results,” Smith said. “Where are the lab results, either from the lab or state? Show us the results. They were trying to say the problem was because of the drought and it could be, but I don’t know.”

Concerned about the health of her three dogs, Smith has even contacted the National Institutes of Health and spoken to a veterinarian. The doctor told her no studies had been done on the effects of trihalomethanes on pets.

“There’s no research on how it affects gardens, vegetables or dogs or cats,” she said.

One of the main officials Smith has been conversing with over the last year is Mike Bailes, Catawba River water treatment plant director for LCWSD. The two have discussed the water filtration system, as well as precautions she could take if she was concerned about the levels.

“Bailes told me to boil my water, but the newsletter that was sent out said it was safe to drink,” she said. “How long until we see clusters of cancer in this area?

“This is a very serious thing that they’ve swept under the rug,” she said. “I’ve tried to educate everyone to either boil their water or get a filter.”

Bailes, who helps manage the water filtration system, said his plant conducts checks on the trihalomethane levels every month. He said the water levels are back to acceptable standards.

“We’ve been in compliance since last year,” Bailes said. “We had great results through what we did. We’re still working on it.”

After testing several new chemicals in the treatment process, Bailes said the levels dropped last fall and have remained there. He said the quarterly average of trihalomethanes in the county’s water supply is .059 parts per million.

The running annual average, for the last four quarters, is .058 ppm.

In comparison, the water supply was at .089 last year when the problem arose. The EPA requires a trihalomethane level of .08 or less ppm. Therefore, he said the levels are very safe.  

“We don’t know everything about what caused it, but we did some treatments that helped lower the numbers,” Bailes said. “The drought was a big contributor. The rain has helped us more than anything.”

Last year, Bailes had mentioned that because of the drought, the Catawba River was at its lowest flow in more than 20 years. With low flow, less organic matter is swept out of the water, which means the water has more material in it when it comes to the plant. This was the plant’s first violation since it began operating in 1993.

Bailes said the plant is considering trying one more chemical treatment, but it still needs to be approved by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. An engineer at the plant is drawing up plans for the process, which Bailes hopes to have in place by August.

He said the reason the LCWSD probably hasn’t notified customers about the improved water results is because it can be expensive to develop and mail a notification to its thousands of customers.

In response to residents like Smith who are concerned about contaminate levels and curious about the treatment process, Bailes said the water treatment plant is developing its own Web site. He expects the site, www.crwtp.org, could be up and running within the next two weeks. On it, residents will be able to check everything from drought statistics to frequently asked questions about water treatment.

“We’re real close with it. It just needs a few more tweaks,” he said.

Contact reporter Chris Sardelli  at 416-8416