Columbus fights to keep drinking water safe

Algae and chemicals from farms and industry create a daily — and costly — challenge for those keeping Columbus’ drinking water safe

The nitrates that flowed from farm fields and lawns into Columbus’ public drinking water last week are far from the only toxic threats.

Bacteria including E. coli, herbicides such as Atrazine, and algae must be measured, filtered and treated.

“We always have some kind of algae,” said Rod Dunn, manager of the city’s public-water-system laboratory.

>>> View a map to see if you’re affected <<<

>>> Video: Nitrate levels in water supply <<<

E. coli can cause digestive illnesses, Atrazine can cause cardiovascular and reproductive problems, and algae can taint the smell and taste of the water and cause illnesses. Last year, as part of a test program with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Columbus Division of Water also started testing for chemicals that the EPA does not regulate.

Tests found low levels of chromium, which can occur naturally but also can be caused by steel production; hexavalent chromium, which can cause cancer and comes from making dyes, plating chrome and preserving wood; and, at the Dublin Road plant, chlorate, an agricultural defoliant.

The city spends millions of taxpayer dollars annually — and passes on many of the costs to customers — to buy chemicals to clean the water and to upgrade facilities designed to make the water safe to drink.

The city spent more than $1 million in 2014 alone on powdered activated carbon, which removes algae and Atrazine.

Keeping the water clean enough to drink is a daily battle that has been going on for decades: The water department has been testing for algae since 1938.

The lab continues to evolve. For example, the city started to test for microcystin, a toxin produced by blue-green algae, in 2006. High levels of microcystin from algae blooms in Lake Erie forced Toledo officials to shut down the city’s drinking-water system last year and spend millions of dollars to keep it from reaching taps.

Even cleaning the water can produce toxins. Plant employees add chlorine to the water to disinfect it, but the chlorine reacts with organic material in the water, producing substances such as chloroform, which can cause liver, kidney and nervous-system problems.

The water system’s central lab conducts about 40,000 tests a year, said Matt Steele, Columbus’ water-supply and -treatment coordinator. Tests are performed on public drinking water three times per shift, seven days a week, at labs at each of the city’s three public-drinking-water plants.

But threats to public water continue to evolve.

Last year, Columbus and neighboring water systems won a combined $3.7 million in a class-action lawsuit with a Swiss chemical maker that produces Atrazine. For years, the herbicide ran off farm fields and into the streams and rivers that supply public drinking water. It can cause hormonal changes, according to the U.S. EPA.

Now, public-water officials say they worry about climate change. Scientists say they are seeing stronger storms that pack heavier rainfall, which means more fertilizer running off farm fields and into watersheds.

Columbus water employees also are checking for pharmaceuticals that we flush from our bodies and houses, including birth-control medications and antidepressants.

A recent study Columbus conducted with the U.S. Geological Survey found trace levels of caffeine in the public-drinking-water supply.

The city also tests for chemicals such as arsenic, asbestos and ammonia, and monitors for radioactive materials.

Last year, the city spent more than $1 million to treat water at the Hap Cremean Water Plant after algae that formed in Hoover Reservoir made tap water taste and smell like pond water.

Those algae were a strain called Anabaena. They and the algae that contaminated Toledo’s drinking-water supply last summer feed on fertilizers that flow from farms, lawns and golf courses.

Farm fertilizers include phosphorus to boost crop production, and both lawn and farm fertilizers include nitrates.

Last week, nitrate levels passed the federally accepted threshold at the city’s Dublin Road Water Plant. City officials said pregnant women and babies younger than 6 months should not drink the water in Franklin County areas served by the plant.

Public-drinking-water systems are required by the U.S. EPA to test once a month for nitrates, which can interfere with oxygen flow in infants and pregnant women. People who take medications that react poorly with nitrates could see their blood pressure drop.

Last week’s nitrate advisory was the first since 2006. Construction is underway now on a new facility at the Dublin Road plant that would allow the plant to filter nitrates in the future. It will cost $35 million and is being paid for through a series of customer rate increases.

Rick Weatherfield, administrator for the Division of Water, said the current nitrate advisory could last as long as two weeks.

Columbus Public Health handed out bottled water to pregnant women and infants through Friday, as did Franklin County Public Health. Columbus plans to resume doing so on Monday, though Franklin County does not.

At the YMCA’s Van Buren Shelter on the South Side last week, staff members handed out bottles and jugs of water to the families and children staying there. On Wednesday night, 15 pregnant women and six babies younger than 6 months were at the shelter.

A lot of people just aren’t drinking the water, period, which I can understand,” said John Bickley, CEO and president of the YMCA of Central Ohio. “The city does a pretty amazing job of purifying water 99 percent of the time, but this 1 percent is hard.”

Desiree Moore, who was staying at the shelter with her children — Azikiye, 8; Aziyion, 5; and Anayza, 4 — said she didn’t trust the tap water.

“If it’s not good for babies to drink, why is it OK for us to drink?” Moore said. “And this couldn’t have come at a worse time. It’s sports season, and it’s hot.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: