Water contaminants causing community concern in Vidor

Water contaminants causing community concern in Vidor

Water is a necessity. People must drink it to live. We bathe in it. We wash our clothes, our dishes and even our children in it. We depend on our water supply and expect it to meet safety and quality standards mandated by environmental regulatory bodies.

So, when residents of the Sawmill Addition in the Pine Forest area of Vidor started receiving notices from their water provider Community Water Systems indicating the arsenic in their household water source was over the maximum contaminant level (MCL) stipulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), some were understandably concerned. Arsenic can be fatal in high doses and, even in low doses over a long period of time, can cause cancer and other deadly and destructive health issues.

“It says in the letter, ‘People who drink water containing arsenic in excess of the MCL over many years could experience skin damage or problems with their circulatory system, and have an increased risk of getting cancer,’” a concerned citizen told The Examiner. “I don’t think people realize what that means. If they live there a long time, which a lot of them do, the arsenic could make them more likely to get cancer. People aren’t taking the threat seriously.”

According to the Vidor resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, her family that lives in the Sawmill Addition switched to drinking bottled water years ago for fear of illness after receiving multiple notices on their door about high levels of contaminants.

Other Sawmill Addition residents aren’t concerned at all. Mildred Langham, 87, said she has lived in the Sawmill Addition for several decades and has never gotten sick from drinking the water in the area.

“I drink it, I bathe in it and everything,” said Langham. “It doesn’t bother me at all. I don’t even worry about. There’s too much to worry about in the world without worrying about the water.

“Why should I pay for bottled water? I pay my monthly bill, and I am going to use the water I pay for.”

That’s part of the problem, said her neighbor.

“People shouldn’t have to pay for bottled water,” she said, “but I feel like I can’t drink the tap water. I feel it’s not safe.”

Melvin Block of Community Water Systems asserts that the water his company provides to clients is safe. He said The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and EPA err on the side of caution when it comes to setting MCLs, and that is why notices were sent out to customers.

In 2001, the EPA adopted a new standard for arsenic in drinking water of 0.010 milligrams per liter (mg/L), replacing the previous standard of 0.050 mg/L. The new standard became effective in Texas in 2006. So, the current MCL for arsenic in water, set by the EPA and enforced by the TCEQ, is 0.010 mg/L based on the running annual average. The water supply for Community Water Systems’ customers in the third quarter of 2016 was 0.012 mg/L.

“It’s not a big deal whatsoever,” Block said about the arsenic level in the water. “It’s a very minute amount that it’s over the MCL. Basically, something in the EPA rules has changed … so now we have to send these notices. We’ve been doing it for years. This is the first time since we started sending these out that anyone has called about them. I think I’ve gotten three calls this time. It’s probably because everyone is more concerned after what happened in Flint, Michigan.”

The citizens of Flint, Michigan, are still dealing with a water crisis after the city experienced a series of problems with its drinking water that culminated with lead contamination, creating a serious public health concern.

According to a report from CNN, “Health effects of lead exposure in children include impaired cognition, behavioral disorders, hearing problems and delayed puberty. In pregnant women, lead is associated with reduced fetal growth. In everyone, lead consumption can affect the heart, kidneys and nerves. Although there are medications that may reduce the amount of lead in the blood, treatments for the adverse health effects of lead have yet to be developed.”

“That is nothing like what is going on here,” Block asserted when comparing Flint’s situation to that of the Sawmill Addition. “We test every month. We test for everything – bacteria, chemicals, minerals.

“Arsenic is naturally occurring in water. The arsenic level is just right over the (MCL) threshold. You would have to drink two liters a day for 100 years for it to make any difference, from my understanding. There is no immediate danger. There is no imminent danger.”

The company is “inquiring about ways to reduce the arsenic” in its water supply, according to the mandatory letter sent out to its clients.

According to TCEQ Media Relations Specialist Brian McGovern, “Arsenic is a semi-metal element that is odorless and tasteless. It enters drinking water supplies from natural deposits in the earth or from agricultural and industrial practices. The EPA has set the arsenic standard for drinking water at 0.010 milligrams per liter (mg/L) to protect consumers served by public water systems from the effects of long-term, chronic exposure to arsenic, which is based upon an average person’s consumption of two liters (about half a gallon) of water daily for 70 years (approximately one lifetime).”

McGovern explained that the EPA set the arsenic standard for drinking water at 10 parts per billion, or 0.010 mg/L, “to protect consumers served by public water systems from the effects of long-term, chronic exposure to arsenic. … MCL takes into account susceptible groups in our population, such as children, pregnant women, the elderly and people who may have existing health problems.”

McGovern stated that the Sawmill Addition is a community public water system in Orange County, which serves a residential population of approximately 72 people and 24 connections. Community Water Systems, who provides water to the Sawmill Addition, utilizes groundwater from one well as its source of drinking water.

Based on a review of TCEQ’s Water Supply Division data and as of Jan. 20, Sawmill has exceeded the arsenic MCL based on the running annual average for the second quarter 2014 through the third quarter of 2016. That means it has been at higher than acceptable levels for about two years running, according to TCEQ documentation.

Jan. 23, 2015, Sawmill Addition was referred to the TCEQ’s Office of Compliance and Enforcement by the Drinking Water Technical Review Section for exceeding the MCL for arsenic. Debbie Block of Community Water Systems was issued an administrative order, effective July 19, 2015, for failure to comply with the MCL for arsenic. Since then, the company is, for the most part, following the agreed upon order and “has complied with Ordering Provisions 2.a through 2.c, and has submitted a semi-annual progress report under Ordering Provision 2.d. As of Jan. 24, 2016, Sawmill has not provided the December 2016 semi-annual progress report. Under Ordering Provision 2.g, Sawmill has until Aug. 2, 2018, to demonstrate compliance with the MCL for arsenic.”

While the company assures clients it is looking for solutions, McGovern reports that as of Jan. 24, the TCEQ water supply division has not received plans and specifications for arsenic treatment, in spite of multiple offers of assistance.

“The TCEQ strives to ensure that all public water systems have the capability to operate successfully,” McGovern asserted. “The TCEQ contracts with the Texas Rural Water Association to assist systems with financial, managerial and technical expertise. The FMT Assistance Contract provides approximately 700 free onsite public water system assistance visits per year. Through the contract, the TCEQ provides public water systems with specific compliance assistance.

“In 2015, the TCEQ attempted to contact Sawmill (Community Water Systems) on six different occasions to offer FMT assistance regarding compliance with the MCL for arsenic, but the system did not return any of the phone calls.”

Other areas of concern

Last year in Bridge City, residents started complaining that their water was running brown. City officials and regulatory entities investigated and found a problem. The water contained iron and manganese, coloring it and creating a potential health risk.

In addition to the problems with iron and manganese coloring the water there, the city also had to issue warnings to clients that its water supply exceeded the MCL for trihalomethanes (TTHMs).

TCEQ explains, “TTHMs are a group of volatile organic compounds that are formed when disinfectants such as chlorine and chloramine are added to water during the treatment process and react with naturally occurring organic matter in the water. Some people who drink water containing TTHMs in excess of the MCL over many years may experience health problems, including an increased risk of cancer. Because long-term exposures to these chemicals in water may result in adverse health effects, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has established an MCL of 0.080 mg/L for TTHMs.”

Bridge City issued an update on the water situation Jan. 17.

“Romero Well casing is being wire brushed and cleaned. The well company is putting together a price to line 450 feet of the old casing.

“The contractor handling the iron and manganese filters for Well 4 and Well 5 are set to complete work on the week of Jan. 30, 2017. Protocols and SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) have been set so the city can move forward.”

In an effort to clear up the brown water, Bridge City approved a more than $1.4 bond to install the filtration systems at its well sites to get rid of the iron and manganese, as mentioned in the recent update, but some residents believe it was not enough. The issue even garnered national attention, with environmental activist Erin Brokovich weighing in on the matter via social media.

Sept. 2, 2016, Brokovich posted to Facebook, “Bridge City, Texas … I hate to be the bearer of bad news … but upon further investigation of the water quality conditions in your community … it is much worse that I first thought … and the Filtronics Oxidation Filtration systems you just spent $1.4 million on won’t help much either. While the new filters should remove much of the color (iron 7 manganese) … of bigger concern now is what you cannot see … the TTHM violations.”

Bridge City has stated it is working to improve the TTHM levels, as well as the brown water issue, which was a separate problem.

In other parts of Vidor south of the Sawmill Addition, residents have received multiple notices over the course of time from water provider Orange County Water Control and Improvement District No. 1, which supplies water to the majority of the municipality’s residents and schools.

According to the latest correspondence dated Nov. 10, 2016, “The Orange County WCID No. 1 (District) has been notified by the TCEQ that the water this system supplies has exceeded the maximum contaminant level for total trihalomethanes, as set out in the Commission’s Drinking Water Standards.

“The district routinely monitors for the presence of drinking water contaminants. Testing results from Quarter 3 of 2016 show that our system exceeds the standard … for TTHM of 0.080 mg/l. It is determined by averaging all the samples collected at each sampling location for the past 12 months. For Quarter 3 of 2016 the level of TTHM averaged 0.082 mg/l for sample site DBP2-01, 0.092 mg/l for sample site DBP2-03, and 0.082 mg/l for sample site DBP2-04. These test results exceed the MCL by 2.5, 15, and 2.5 percent, respectively. The fourth test site (DBP2-02) result was below the MCL.”

According to TCEQ’s McGovern, Orange County Water Control District No. 1 is a community public water system in Orange County, which serves a residential population of approximately 17,681 people and 6,774 connections, and utilizes treated groundwater as its source of drinking water.

“As of Jan. 24, 2017, and based on a review of TCEQ’s Water Supply Division data, Orange County WCID 1 exceeded the TTHM maximum contaminant level at site DBP2-03 for first quarter (January-March) 2015 through fourth quarter (October-December) 2016. The system also had TTHM MCL violations at sites DBP2-01, DBP2-02, or DBP2-04 during first quarter 2015 through third quarter 2016 but these violations have now returned to compliance.

“On Oct. 9, 2015, Orange County WCID No. 1 was referred to Enforcement for exceeding the MCL for the locational running annual average concentrations for TTHM. The commission issued an agreed order 2015-1621-PWS-E to Orange County Water Control and Improvement District No. 1 effective June 27, 2016. Under the terms of the order, the Respondent has until Apr. 8, 2018 to certify compliance with the MCL for TTHM based on the locational running annual average.”

Orange County Water Control and Improvement District No. 1 General Manager Norman Blackman spoke to The Examiner last year about the TTHMs in the water.

“We have been working to resolve the levels of contaminants in the water, but there is no immediate danger,” Blackman said in 2016. “The TCEQ requires that we send letters out if the levels are too high, but it’s based on information from preceding quarters. Even when it is fixed, clients will still receive letters based on previous findings. We have already taken steps to get those (TTHM) levels down.”

Point of comparison

While many Orange County residents continue to receive warnings about contaminants in their water supply, Beaumont is assuring its residents that all is well with the water.

“We haven’t had any real problems with the water in Beaumont,” Beaumont Public Works Director Dr. Joseph Majdalani told The Examiner. “We send out a report pertaining to the water quality once a year.”

“Lab man” Ronnie Heiman works for the Beaumont water department testing water samples and more. He agreed with Majdalani.

“Beaumont’s water is fine,” said Heiman. “We test for different contaminants in the water supply. … It meets the standards.”

The City of Beaumont says residents' water is safe to drink in spite of an "alleged noncompliance" issue reported to the municipality by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) on Jan. 20. 

According to Majdalani, the noncompliance issue resulted from "a random inspection of the recordkeeping of the City of Beaumont," which the city is currently working to resolve. The inspection was performed Dec. 13, 2016. Beaumont found out about the potential noncompliance issue Jan. 20. 

In a news release, Majdalani asserts, "Bacteriological tests were taken at all locations in questions and the results of these tests were confirmed by our certified lab as negative with no presence of any contamination found."

He indicated city staff performs "hundreds of bacteriological tests" throughout the city's water distribution system as mandated by state and federal water safety regulations. 

"At no time was the city's drinking water unsafe to drink," Majdalani concluded. 

The city's annual Consumer Customer Confidence Report provides additional information pertaining to the Beaumont's drinking water. Visit the city website at www.beaumonttexas.gov to view the report.