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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Carey Laughlin carries a water container from into his daughter's house on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020 in Summerville, Georgia.

The city of Summerville is making progress on its contaminated water supply after traces of a synthetic chemical were found in the water, with concerned citizens advocating for a transparent and effective plan to ensure everyone has clean drinking water.

Lynn Sprayberry is a resident in Chattooga County and started a Facebook group called "Chattooga Citizens for Safe Water." The group was started as a way for people in Summerville and the surrounding area to stay on top of the water issues and to share information between residents and officials at the local and state level.

It's also a way to make sure local officials know that people are paying attention and are still worried about the process of getting the water to acceptable drinking levels.

Sprayberry helped organize a conference call with Summerville Mayor Harry Harvey, City Manager Janice Galloway and Chad Sipe, a contracted engineer who is part of the city's consulting staff for the city's public works department.

On the call, Sipe emphasized the chemical found in the water supply is unregulated by Georgia Environmental Protection Division and the city wouldn't typically test for such a chemical. The reason the chemical popped up was because of a new federal regulation.

To remedy the issue, the city is trying several methods to lower the levels of the chemical by diluting the water and working with a pilot study using carbon to remove the chemical at the Raccoon Creek Water Treatment Plant.

Progress being made

At the end of January, city officials were notified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that water from Raccoon Creek showed high levels of perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid.

Those human-made chemicals are used to make carpet, clothing fabric, cookware, paper, food packaging and other materials.

The city has said the levels of both chemicals in its water supply have not increased but the EPA standards changed in 2016.

The plan is to have a new well that could provide enough drinkable water to dilute and mix with the water from the Raccoon Creek treatment plant so the levels of the two contaminants are lowered.

Eventually, a second well will have to be drilled to completely phase out the Raccoon Creek facility, Harvey said.

Early estimations for the project and a long-term solution were between $1 million and $1.2 million. Now, that number is closer to $3 million and could be more, Harvey told the Times Free Press earlier this year.

The water has been safe for most people to drink for months. The health advisory was mainly aimed at more vulnerable populations like infants and pregnant women, according to the EPA.

In June, city officials found that a test-well site on Highway 48 will be able to supply the amount of water needed to dilute the current supply and provide drinking water that will meet government standards.

As of Friday afternoon, the test well was producing 600 gallons of water per minute at a depth of over 360 feet.

The test well still needs to be developed into a production well before it can be connected to the city's main water distribution system.

The goal for diluting the water is to have the chemical threshold fall below the 70 parts per trillion, which is the state standard. On Thursday's call, Sarah Sprayberry wondered if that method went far enough to ensure people in Chattooga County will have clean and safe water to drink.

"I understand the desire to minimize the health risks, but I don't think we would have rushed to mitigate the problem if it wasn't a health risk," she said. "So looking at dilution as the solution, I'm not sure if it really is."

Sipe said having one test well that produces water without the harmful chemical is not the final solution, but it's a starting point.

"We want to continue to drive down those levels as much as we can," Sipe said. "I think the goal is to have none of this stuff in our water, but it takes time to implement that."

What happens next

The city's public works crew has laid 2,000 feet of 16-inch pipe on Filter Plant Road in preparation for the connection. Another 4,000 feet will be delivered early this month.

As of July 31, the city has spent over $128,000 on the test well, a small fraction of what estimates say is needed to fix the problem.

The city has applied for a $1 million federal emergency grant from the USDA and is awaiting the agency's response.

Good news came earlier this week when a long list of water customers came off the water advisory that was set in January. For a full list of streets that are now off the advisory, visit bit.ly/sumwater or call Summerville City Hall at 706-859-0900.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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