Arsenic level spike results in violation
Required testing of Cairo’s drinking water supply has revealed that the level of arsenic contamination went above the maximum level allowed by state and federal regulations last spring. Cairo city leaders received an official “Notice of Violation” from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Environmental Protection Division and Watershed Protection Branch on Oct. 5. Despite the breach, the water is still safe to drink for most people, according to information from the D.N.R. Only the very oldest and youngest water consumers may need to take caution along with those who have severely compromised immune systems.
When it comes to naturally occurring arsenic in drinking water supplies, “the maximum contaminant level is 10 ppb (parts per billion),” states Lewis Hays, program manager of Georgia’s Watershed Compliance Program. Cairo’s water sample test results from the quarter that began April 1 and ended June 30, showed Cairo’s arsenic level was 11 ppb.
“Cairo has been hovering at or above the MCL (maximum contaminant level) for several quarters,” states Hays.
Although the arsenic content exceeds the highest approved amount allowed under the Georgia Rules for Safe Drinking Water, information from the Georgia E.P.D. states, “This is not an emergency. If it had been, you would have been notified within 24 hours. However, some people who drink water containing arsenic in excess of the MCL (maximum contaminant level) over many years could experience skin damage or problems with their circulatory system, and may have an increased risk of getting cancer.”
The state is penalizing the city for the violation by requiring city leaders to notify their water customers of the breach by mail, issue an additional form of public notice, and create a corrective action plan.
Chris Addleton, manager of the City of Cairo, says letters explaining the situation were mailed to the city’s 4,500 water customers on Tuesday. Addleton says the same information will be posted at city buildings.
On Tuesday morning, the city manager met with other community leaders to alert them. Officials with the Grady County Commission, Grady General Hospital, Grady County Health Department and Grady County Board of Education met with Addleton and city public works officials to tell them about the arsenic level test results so they can answer any questions their employees and constituents may have.
City leaders have known of the potential arsenic issue since approximately 2013, and started taking steps to protect residents. “We’ve got a means to treat for it and get rid of it,” said Addleton, “we just need to get it finished.”
The city is in the process of building a new water treatment plant and ground water storage tank facility that will have the capability of treating for arsenic, the first such system in Georgia. The plant will be located at Cairo Municipal Airport and is expected to be completed next fall 2016.
For nearly three years, Cairo’s municipal water supply has undergone quarterly testing by the state to determine how much naturally occurring arsenic is seeping into the ground water supply. Although all public water systems test for arsenic, the frequency depends on the water source and test results.
“Most ground water systems with negligible concentrations (of arsenic) sample every three years. There are about six water systems that sample quarterly due to arsenic concentrations at or near the maximum contaminant level,” explains Hays. He says most that test in excess of 10 ppb, but do not go above 13 ppb.
Darin Todd, Cairo’s public works superintendent, says the spring quarter test results are the first he knows of here that exceeded the maximum level. Todd says the city, which initially tested on a yearly basis for arsenic levels, began testing quarterly about two years ago “when our levels got closer to the MCL.”
Todd says 250 ML of water is collected each quarter from the city’s water supply as it enters the distribution system and put into a plastic bottle supplied by the E.P.D. The bottle is boxed up with an ice pack and shipped overnight to the EPD lab in Atlanta where it is tested not only for arsenic, but also for other inorganic compounds such as chromium, sodium, iron, mercury, manganese and more.
Addleton briefed the city council on the violation at Monday night’s council meeting.