The vulnerability of the Tennessee River and our drinking water

The vulnerability of the Tennessee River and our drinking water

June 10th, 2014 in Opinion Times

The Tennessee-American Water Company's Citico water treatment plant is located next to the Tennessee River near downtown Chattanooga.

The Tennessee-American Water Company's Citico water treatment plant...

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

Tennessee-American Water Co. passes with A's on its annual drinking water quality report for Chattanooga. But a clean water group laments that "good enough for government work" doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement.

According to the water company's 2013 report, Chattanooga's drinking water passes federal requirements on all monitored substances and two disinfection byproducts. The company also disclosed levels on 13 other substances it is not required to report, such as alkalinity, aluminum, potassium and others.

But the readings for one type of carcinogenic chemicals -- trihalomethanes -- are too high for comfort, according to Tennessee Clean Water Network Executive Director Renee Hoyos. There are further steps government and water utilities could take to make it cleaner, especially when it comes to the chemicals used to clean up the water, she said.

"Some of the products for disinfection can be as nasty as the pollution. There's concern there because they are trying to disinfect it for one thing, but that creates these other compounds that could harm human health in the long run," Hoyos told Times Free Press reporter Louie Brogdon last week for a report that published Monday. "You might not get dysentery this week, but you might get cancer six years from now."

Even experts agree that an "A" rating doesn't mean the water is free from contaminants, especially since the standards federal and state inspectors test look only at 90 contaminants mostly set in the 1970s.

Since then, numerous chemicals have come on the scene, and much has been learned about a growing soup of pharmaceuticals that is routinely showing up in water here and across the country. Those substances include everything from antibiotics to hormones to an industrial chemical known as PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) used in making non-stick cookware and stain-resistant carpeting that now is known to be a developmental toxin and suspected carcinogen.

In 2009, regulators weren't required to test for those emerging concerns, but the Environmental Protection Agency released a list of 104 additional chemical contaminants and 12 microbes, including pharmaceuticals and PFOA compounds -- pollutants that already had been found in samples from the Tennessee River and Georgia's Conasauga River. EPA's list of new contaminants was whittled from about 7,500 chemicals and microbes, officials said.

The EPA said agency scientists and policymakers would make regulatory decisions by 2013 for at least five of the proposed 104 contaminants. We're still waiting.

Mark LeChevallier, director of innovation and environment stewardship for American Water Co., the parent company of Tennessee-American, conducts lab tests on water samples from the 32 states where company's facilities are located, and in 2009 he applauded EPA's announcement. He said American Water had been tracking the pharmaceutical and personal care products issue for more than a decade, but without standards for emerging concerns and even for EPA-approved standard testing practices, the company's research was hampered.

On the other hand, the trihalomethanes that just this past year were found to be rising in our water already have standards -- and with Tennessee-American's data, we know we are pushing the limit.

Trihalomethanes are made when chlorine disinfects organic material in the water that is pulled from a drinking water source such as the Tennessee River. Long-term exposure to high levels of these chemicals can harm the liver, kidneys and central nervous system -- and may cause an increased risk for cancer, according to Tenn-Am's drinking water quality report for Chattanooga.

The maximum federal limit for average trihalomethane levels in drinking water is 80 parts per billion. For perspective, that's no more than 80 drops of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Readings here ranged from 34.8 to 106.9 ppb, with seven of 33 quarterly samples rising above the limit. But our "A" grade is based on an average of those 33 quarterly samples, and the average is 76.4 ppb -- up from 46 ppb in 2012. In that Olympic pool, this past year was just 3.6 drops away from being at that safety limit.

Daphne Kirksey, spokeswoman for the water company, told Brogdon that residents should not be alarmed by the trihalomethane levels. The 80 ppb limit is based on a yearly average, and of the 33 quarterly samples taken, seven were over 80 ppb.

"Having a result above 80 is not alarming, but we released that for full disclosure," she said. The company also has been creating annual reports for decades -- including 25 years before the reports were federally required.

We applaud that, but as Gary Burriss, an environmental specialist with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said, the Tennessee River is a big system with a big potential for pollution. The river's main stem is 652 miles long, and its tributaries add hundreds more miles.

Clearly we have a rising concern, and we cannot rest on today's "A" grade-- or wait for EPA to play catch-up.