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Some of our smallest water systems have biggest contamination problems

Plenty of small-town systems have super-size problems coming out of the tap, and they don’t always get better – even when targeted for special assistance, or enforcement, or both.

As Flint’s ongoing crisis continues to dominate a better-late-than-never conversation about the safety of public drinking water supplies across America, a new report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s internal audit arm makes clear that our worst problems aren’t confined to larger cities.

Plenty of small-town systems have super-size problems coming out of the tap, and they don’t always get better – even when targeted for special assistance, or enforcement, or both, by the EPA and its state regulatory partners, according to the agency’s inspector general.

“Small community water systems” are those that serve between 25 and 3,300 customers each, and there are 42,199 of these across the country. Indeed, among the nation’s 51,000 municipal water systems of all sizes, these small ones outnumber larger ones by 4 to 1.

And while their individual customer bases are small, the aggregate is not: 24.4 million people.

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Nor are their problems dinky. As of October 2011, EPA classified 2,252 of the nation’s small community water systems as serious violators of federal drinking water standards – a determination that, by federal law, is supposed to result in either a correction of the problems or a formal enforcement action within six months.

Of those serious violators, 193 were classed in Tier 1 for health risks so significant – typically involving nitrates, fecal coliform or other microbial risk – that the systems had been given 24 hours to notify their customers of the problems. Also, you would think, to prepare for an enforcement action from EPA and/or the state agencies to which it typically delegates oversight authority for drinking water quality.

But fully three years later, the inspector general found in last week’s report, only 43 of the Tier 1 violators – 22 percent – and been brought back into compliance with federal standards.

The pace of inaction

Taking a closer look at Kansas, Texas and Puerto Rico, which together had 84 systems on the Tier 1 list, or about 40 percent of the total, the results were worse. Only a dozen systems had improved enough to achieve compliance – six in Texas, five in Kansas, one in Puerto Rico – while the other 72 had not.

And zooming in still closer on a sample of 30 troubled systems (10 from each state/territory),  the analysis found little evidence that higher authorities were applying much pressure to correct the difficulties:

Within our sample, 10 of the systems never received a formal enforcement order, only three of 20 enforcement orders met the timeliness standard in the Enforcement Response Policy, and few cases were escalated by the EPA or state when noncompliance persisted. Without assurance that necessary enforcement action has been taken, human health risks may continue at these small community water systems.

Even where more appropriate responses were made, other factors kept the system from attaining compliance.  Here’s an example to make you glad you’re not among the 182 customers of the water system in Weinert, Texas.

EPA had listed Weinert as a violator back in 2008 because of high levels of nitrate, which among other bad things can kill infants. Not quite four years later, in December of 2012, EPA got around to issuing a formal enforcement order.

Two state agencies, the Water Infrastructure Coordination Committee and the Water Development Board, then offered some assistance to Weinert, and city officials got a $350,000 loan to upgrade their system infrastructure.

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Then they decided instead to purchase water to blend with supplies from their own wells. Then they found out that drought might cause their supplier of purchased water to cut back.

As a result, Weinert officials also plan to install a filtration system to reduce nitrate levels. Because the project would not be finished within the compliance scheduled time frame, Weinert officials requested, and the EPA granted, the compliance schedule extension until June 30, 2016. According to the EPA, construction was to begin in January 2016.

Despite this progress toward compliance, Weinert officials expressed concern about the system’s sustainability. Weinert relies on agriculture producers to purchase water for revenue, and officials expressed concern that as water rates rise, in part to fund the compliance fixes described above, farmers will drill their own wells, reducing the use of Weinert public water and reducing the revenue Weinert needs for loan repayment.

A well in a horse corral

But even that might be better than being on city water in Bayamoncito, Puerto Rico, where 180 households contend with a continuing problem of high coliform bacteria counts. EPA put it on the serious violators list in 2008, but the system still lacks a certified operator, and among other failings neglected to collect compliance samples for most of 2014.

This system remained in violation for total coliform as of March 2015, and at the time of our visit was under a boil water order. However, Bayamoncito did not certify that it notified the public about the risks faced from drinking the contaminated water and how to mitigate the risks, per the Public Notification Rule. During our visit to the system in January 2015, we observed a horse corralled at one of the two wellhead sites with no exclusionary fencing. The horse manure in the area presented a direct risk to the well from coliform pollution.

This system may not have adequate funds for operation and maintenance. According to the most recent sanitary surveys, the system charges each household a monthly fee of $15. If each household pays the fee, the system would receive $2,700 in revenue each month. However, the cost of electricity is $2,600 per month. The system operator indicated that the system relies on an agricultural subsidy to pay the electrical bills.

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I tried without success to find a document listing all of Minnesota’s small community water systems that were tagged for serious violations. However, I did find several instances of fine reporting on the overall issue of small-town water problems by newspapers in the USA Today Network.

One of them, which I missed when it was brand new, was published 10 days ago in the St. Cloud Times, under Jenny Berg’s byline. Her focus was on small Minnesota systems that scored too high for lead, and the list ran to about two dozen names.

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The full report by EPA’s Inspector General, “Drinking Water: EPA Needs to Take Additional Steps to Ensure Small Community Water Systems Designated As Serious Violators Achieve Compliance,” can be found here [PDF].