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Is B-town’s Tap Water Safe? A Full Report

Are you a gambler? If so, the thirst game may be right up your alley. Rules of play are simple: just drink water.

You may elect to drink untreated water and suffer bacterial or viral disease, toxic poisoning, and even death. Or you may bet your health on chemically treated municipal water, potentially losing big time down the road as your chances of getting certain types of cancer increase. Some players hedge their bets by drinking bottled water. Easy marks, they are, especially when they learn that lots of bottled water is either taken directly from municipal sources or comes from aquifers but isn’t treated, cleansed, and regulated as diligently as municipal water is.

It’s best to be a card counter — and no one’s going to kick you out of the casino for doing so. In fact, here in Bloomington, city officials say they want the players to be card counters. Earlier this year, Mayor John Hamilton pledged to up the frequency of Bloomington’s water-quality reports because seasonally fluctuating levels of Disinfection By-Products (DBP) alarmed some people. His pet project, B-Clear, Open Data, allows Bloomington municipal water imbibers to gauge the odds of getting cancer, suffering an ailment from water-borne bacteria, or simply cringing from the taste of chlorine in their glass of tap water.

No matter which card you play, you’re taking a risk. (Smart players attach filters to their kitchen sink taps.) That’s the nature of the drinking game. Your challenge: to minimize your losses. Good luck, players. And remember, what goes into your body often stays there.

***

Last year about this time, Bloomington’s tap water became big news thanks in large part to a social media post by Erin Brockovich, a self-styled consumer advocate and subject of a 2000 biopic starring Oscar-winner Julia Roberts. “INDIANA … You are being lied to!” her post began (all sic). She went on: “Your Drinking Water has real problems not to be taken lightly.”

When celebrities speak, America listens.

City of Bloomington Utilities Department officials, Brockovich’s post asserted, lied about why the city’s tap water smelled of chlorine, lied about why the department changed its disinfection process, lied about consulting with state and federal environmental regulators before changing that process, and even lied about levels of DBPs, shown by several studies to be be potentially carcinogenic, in the water.

Brockovich’s post concluded: “They will never tell you the truth.”

Some 4,300 people have shared Brockovich’s post as of December 2016. Her charges made big splashes in The Herald-Times, the Indiana Daily Student, local news radio, and several Indianapolis TV stations. Not long after her post hit the internet, personal-injury attorney Ken Nunn — himself somewhat of a local celebrity — announced he’d been in touch with Brockovich and had submitted a list of 43 questions to city officials concerning contamination in Lake Monroe, the source of Bloomington’s water. [See sidebar at the end of this story.]

Bloomington has read and listened.

***

The vast majority of America’s municipal water systems depend on one of three methods to clean the water that comes out of the taps they serve. They are chlorination, ozonation, and ultraviolet (UV) disinfection. Here in Bloomington, the Utilities Department utilizes chlorination.

Lake Monroe, Bloomington's water source. | Photo by Lynae Sowinski

Lake Monroe, Bloomington’s water source. | Photo by Lynae Sowinski

Just south of the city, nestled between the Smithville-Sanders area and a small bay of Lake Monroe, a nondescript, factory-like structure sits in the middle of an isolated campus surrounded by security fencing. Outside the structure, three lagoon-size settling basins hold hundreds of thousands of gallons of water each.

This is the Monroe Water Treatment Plant. Here’s Bloomington’s official clean water recipe:

  1.  Pipe 15 million gallons of water per day from Lake Monroe (aka Monroe Reservoir) into those settling basins. If the day is hot and users are taking extra showers, watering their lawns, and — yes — drinking lots of water, pipe in five million more gallons.
  2. Stir in several industrial drums full of aluminum sulfide. This causes much of the sandy and organic particulate matter suspended in the water to coagulate and sink to the bottom of the basin, a process called flocculation.
  3. Allow the water to sit in the basins for four to eight hours — less (as few as three hours) if water demand is high, more (up to 15) if it’s not.
  4. Release the water through metal strainers into several large indoor filter rooms, each containing a number of basins with four-foot-thick floors made of sand, gravel, and charcoal. Add chlorine to kill off microorganisms. Let the water seep slowly — two hours at least — through the substratum.
  5. Pass the water through transfer pumps where a second dose of chlorine is added as well as certain amounts of fluoride and other additives. Pump the water through underground pipes to a nearby five-million-gallon holding tank. Let it sit in the tank for a couple of hours to allow the chlorine to kill of any remaining organic material.
  6. Serve, after the approximately 8 hours preparation time (depending on water demand), through a complex network of water mains and feeders to more than 31,000 residential and commercial customers in the city as well as several other nearby municipalities that purchase their water from Bloomington.

***

A sample bottle used to test Bloomington's drinking water. | Courtesy photo

A sample bottle used to test Bloomington’s drinking water. | Courtesy photo

Tap water in any American municipality — although cleaned and treated, disinfected, filtered, desalinated when needed, skimmed, strained, and assayed — is often loaded with exotic- sounding substances. Here’s one list:

  • Fluoride
  • Chlorine
  • Lead
  • Mercury
  • PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls)
  • Arsenic
  • Perchlorates
  • Dioxins
  • DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane)
  • HCB (hexachlorobenzene)
  • Dacthal (dimethyl tetrachloroterephthalate or DCPA)
  • MtBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether)

Bestselling author and journalist Charles Duhigg revealed in a 2009-10 series of articles in The New York Times that the Safe Drinking Water Act, the 1974 federal law enabling the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate the nation’s drinking water, calls for cities and towns to monitor for 91 potential contaminants.

Pretty good, huh? Think again.

Duhigg asserted that of the “more than 60,000 chemicals … used within the United States,” many find their way into our streams, rivers, lakes, and eventually our water glasses. Duhigg wrote that many efforts to add new contaminants to the list of 91 “have often been blocked by industry lobbying.”

***

One of the villains in Brockovich’s post is Utilities Department Water Quality Coordinator Rachel Atz. She’s responsible for monitoring contaminants testing and reporting. She often fields phone calls from customers who might not care for the taste of their glass of water when they get home on any given night. Atz took a drubbing from Brockovich. Throughout Brockovich’s post, Atz was accused, by name and in general, of lying to the public twice.

The question is posed to Atz: Do you drink tap water at home?

“I do,” she says. A certified organic gardener, Atz is sensitive to chemical contamination of water and soil. She gets to wander around the testing lab at the water treatment plant and peruse the daily, weekly, and monthly numbers. Still, she slakes her thirst with tap water. Atz this past summer gave birth to her first child, a daughter, begging the question, Will you let your child drink tap water?

“Yeah. We meet or exceed all state and federal standards,” she says. “And generally we have good taste, too. I’m really proud of the water that we produce here. My whole family drinks the water.”

***

An Associated Press investigation, published in April, “found that nearly 1,400 water systems serving 3.6 million Americans exceeded the federal lead standard at least once between Jan. 1, 2013, and Sept. 30, 2015. The affected systems are large and small, public and private, and include 278 systems that are owned and operated by schools and day care centers in 41 states.”

The Flint, Michigan water crisis turned us all on to the danger of lead in our water. A USA Today investigation published in March identified “almost 2,000 additional water systems spanning all 50 states where testing has shown excessive levels of lead contamination over the past four years.” According to the report, tests showed American municipal and rural treatment systems serving some six million users produced water containing “excessive and harmful levels of lead.”

For pity’s sake, Scientific American once ran a piece asserting drinking too much water — no matter if it is pure or contaminated — can kill you. Literally. Bingeing on water, science journalist Coco Ballantyne wrote, can lead to a potentially fatal condition known as hyponatremia (having too little sodium in the blood).

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So, why do we even drink water?

Answer: Because we’d die without it. But, of course, up until about a hundred years ago people died just from drinking water. Lots of them.

Throughout human history, people have died from bacteria, other microorganisms, and toxins in their drinking water. Immigration and western migration crowded the North American continent in the 19th century. The crowds produced huge amounts of waste — natural and manmade. Much of it wound up in the nation’s water.

Monroe Water Treatment Plant near Lake Monroe. | Photo by Lynae Sowinski

Monroe Water Treatment Plant near Lake Monroe. | Photo by Lynae Sowinski

Long before public health experts became aware of chemical carcinogens and other industrial waste maladies, human waste products had been causing major outbreaks of disease. “Feces and urine from both humans and animals carry many disease-causing organisms,” reads a Purdue University publication dealing with wastewater disposal and public health. “Wastewater also may contain harmful chemicals and heavy metals known to cause a variety of environmental and health problems. Disease-causing organisms (pathogens) from humans can enter a community’s wastewater from patients at hospitals, or from anyone who is sick or a carrier of disease. … Animal wastes often enter from farms, meat packing and processing facilities, and from rats and other animals found in or around sewage or sewers.”

To put it coarsely, the world’s water is full of shit.

All these contaminants exponentially increase the odds of disease outbreaks in a community. They are fertile breeding grounds for “bacteria, viruses, and parasites (including worms and protozoans).” That’s not all, according to the Purdue paper: “Fungi that can cause skin, eye, and respiratory infections also grow in sewage and sewage sludge. Scientists believe there may be hundreds of disease-causing organisms present in sewage and wastewater that have yet to be identified.”

The diseases caused by untreated wastewater include typhoid, cholera, hepatitis A, polio, viral gastroenteritis (among some 100 virus-related illnesses), protozoan and worm infestation in the alimentary canal, amebic dysentery, increased risk of illness in people with compromised immune systems, heavy metal acute poisoning, pesticide and chemical (including chlorinated hydrocarbons, phenol, PCBs, and benzene) poisoning.

The effects of these disorders and poisonings range from extreme discomfort to permanent disability and even death.

So, beginning in the late 1800s, municipalities unilaterally instituted drinking-water treatment programs. “We’re killing off any bad actors that may be in the water,” says City of Bloomington Utilities Department Director Vic Kelson, “particularly cryptosporidium and giardia. The two big markers in drinking water. Giardia is the one that you get when you’re on a camping trip and you drink the water out of the creek.”

Giardia is a flagellate protozoan, meaning it’s a microscopic organism with a whiplike tail. It causes giardiasis when it enters the human body, most likely through contaminated drinking water. The poor souls who suffer giardiasis can experience weakness, loss of appetite, stomach cramps, vomiting, and severe diarrhea. Symptoms can last up to six weeks. About a third of people infected with giardia actually experience symptoms. The other two-thirds are carriers and, should you take a sip of water out of a glass they’ve drunk from, well, good luck. Your odds of becoming symptomatic are 3-1. Feeling lucky?

Overall, up to 300 million people a year suffer symptomatic giardiasis.

Without treated drinking water, folks are at risk of getting sick from bacteria, viruses, and parasites. | Photo by Lynae Sowinski

Without treated drinking water, folks are at risk of getting sick from bacteria, viruses, and parasites. | Photo by Lynae Sowinski

Cryptosporidium, also a protozoan, similarly affects the bowels but also takes aim at the upper respiratory system, causing symptoms akin to those of the common cold. Worse, it can be fatal to those with compromised immune systems, especially people who are HIV-positive. Those suffering from cryptosporidiosis can harbor the microorganism in their guts after their initial symptoms have passed, with diarrhea, cramps, dehydration, fever, vomiting, and weight loss showing up again days or weeks down the road.

More than three-quarters of a million Americans suffer cryptosporidiosis each year.

Kelson’s Utilities Department operation, like hundreds of municipalities across the nation, dumps chlorine into our drinking water to kill off those bad actor protozoans.

***

Julie Roberts, longtime member of the Bloomington Utilities Service Board (USB), sent a text message to newly inaugurated Mayor John Hamilton in January. The USB oversees the Utilities Department, approving or rejecting major expenditures and notable changes in its procedures. If the Utilities Department wants to spend, say, a few million dollars to upgrade its water treatment facility, the request goes to the USB first. Roberts ran as a Green Party candidate for the Monroe County Council in 2002, so she has some eco bona fides.

The City of Bloomington Utilities Department on the south side of Bloomington. | Photo by Lynae Sowinski

The City of Bloomington Utilities Department on the south side of Bloomington. | Photo by Lynae Sowinski

Roberts had read the newspaper reports the previous fall. What’s the deal with our water? her text read, essentially.

“I just told him there were some long-standing concerns that apparently had been neglected for a really long time and I would appreciate it if we could get on this,” Roberts explains. Hamilton indeed got on it and hired the Lochmueller Group to help monitor water quality here. Consultant Black & Veatch already had been on the job, watching and testing the city’s water. Hamilton called the Lochmueller hire a “second set of eyes.”

The mayor also directed the Utilities Department to improve its processes for maintaining water quality throughout the city’s underground piping system, where bacterial or viral growth may occur and where disinfection byproducts (DBPs) may develop. It was that potential for DBP development that piqued Brockovich’s interest in Bloomington last year. Hamilton ordered the Utilities Department to put more workers in the field to maintain and upgrade the water delivery system and to report back regularly to the USB on its progress.

(The city’s water quality reports never showed unacceptably high levels of DBPs. The levels always remained lower than the EPA’s danger levels for the substances. Lay people were concerned that the seasonal trends might continue unabated and Bloomington’s water would soon exceed the danger levels.)

Julie Roberts seems satisfied today. She answers swiftly when asked if she drinks Bloomington’s tap water.

“Yes I do,” she says. “I always have.”

It’s safe?

“Absolutely.”

How do you know?

“Because I’ve seen our numbers. I trust the numbers. I’m not an engineer and I’m not a scientist but I’ve had very coherent conversations with [utilities employees]. We publish our numbers online. We run all kinds of reports. We’ve upped the frequency on a bunch of them,” she says.

***

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Vic Kelson is a science geek. He was hired by Hamilton this past spring to bring a more science-oriented background to the leadership of the Utilities Department.

“This is the best job I’ve ever had,” he says. “Originally, I’m a chemical engineer, but I’m an environmental scientist as well. I’ve got a doctorate in environmental science. I worked for a long time as a groundwater scientist. Public supply. Industrial supply. Those kinds of projects. So I’ve worked a lot on the utility side, helping design systems and plans for the future.

“Chemical engineers work on processes. So we work on anything that you’re manufacturing step-by-step in the chemical industry. That’s what a water plant is, basically. We have feedstock [source water from Lake Monroe] that we bring in. We have chemicals that we use in the process. There’s a number of steps that we move through in the process.

“When I look at the process, that’s the way I’m thinking. When we have an issue like disinfection byproducts, what I’m thinking is, what things cause DBPs to form, or form more rapidly, what are the concentrations, or what not.”

Kelson’s task was to identify where in the treatment process the DBPs were forming most rapidly. Perhaps Lake Monroe was filling up with more organic material — microscopic organisms, for example. Those little life forms can react with chlorine, before they’re killed, to form DBPs. And if the amount of organic matter in the lake wasn’t increasing, maybe the amount of chlorine added to the water was causing a DBP surge. It could be an increase in algae in the lake. “There’s a whole raft of things,” Kelson says.

Floating on that raft are factors like the water temperature in the lake or the amount of time treated water sits in pipes throughout the system.

Treated water from Lake Monroe is tested in this lab at the Monroe Water Treatment Plant. | Courtesy photo

Treated water from Lake Monroe is tested in this lab at the Monroe Water Treatment Plant. | Courtesy photo

It’s a real tightrope walk. Warmer weather and attendant warmer water temperatures result in more organic material coming into the treatment plant with the source water. The way to combat that? Add more chlorine. But adding more chlorine results in more DBPs developing throughout the system. Kelson, as well as every other water treatment manager in the developed world, is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.

***

Disinfection byproducts come about when chlorine or its spawn, chloramine, are added to the municipal water supply. These chemicals are highly reactive, so much so that they even form new compounds with the very substances they’re supposed to kill. Among the new forms created when chlorine or chloramine (an ammonia derivative created by marrying hydrogen atoms to chlorine atoms) react in the city’s underground piping system are scary-sounding things like total trihalomethanes (TTHMs) and haloacetic acids.

Brockovich, in her social media post, mentioned TTHMs as a particular problem in Bloomington’s drinking water. Chlorine and chloramine react with microscopic life forms as well as algae, river weeds, and decaying leaves in water to form the likes of chloroform, bromoform, and other substances classified as TTHMs.

“In the case-control epidemiological studies conducted prior to 1993,” the UN’s World Health Organization reports, “associations were found between ingestion of chlorinated drinking-water [sic] and the incidences of colon cancer for those aged 60 years or more … and bladder cancer among non-smokers.” Those cancer risks resulted from ingestion of TTHMs.

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The Environmental Working Group adds: “More than ten human epidemiological studies have indicated that these chemicals are associated with rectal, bladder, or pancreatic cancers, and a 1993 article in the American Journal of Public Health estimated that annually, 10,700 rectal and bladder cancers may be caused each year by disinfection byproducts like the trihalomethanes.”

The longer water remains in contact with chlorine or chloramine, the more the concentration of TTHMs increases.

Babu Sriniva Madabhushi, writing for the National Environmental Services Center at West Virginia University, explains how these DBPs develop: “The quantity of byproducts formed is determined by several factors, such as the amount and type of organic material present in water, temperature, pH, chlorine dosage, contact time available for chlorine, and bromide concentration in the water.”

So, TTHM concentrations in drinking water increase in bigger distribution systems where water remains in their piping networks for a longer period of time. Bloomington’s distribution system is of medium size. Water in its piping system can spend enough time in that maze of pipes for TTHM concentrations to reach the EPA’s danger levels. TTHM levels approached the danger zone in the fall of 2015. The reason? Warmer water temperatures had led to an increase in organic material in our source water. The Utilities Department countered by adding more chlorine. The result? Increased DBPs, a distinct swimming pool smell in our drinking water, and a scathing social media post by Brockovich.

The archive of studies conducted in the last quarter century on the cancer risks posed by TTHMs in drinking water is enormous and daunting to pore through for the layperson, a group that includes this reporter, the vast majority of tap-water drinkers in Bloomington, Mayor Hamilton, and Brockovich. The best conclusion a layperson can come to is that TTHMs in our water indeed are serious dangers, but the EPA’s danger levels for them reflect the statistical probability of contracting any of a number of different cancers if you, the tap-water drinker, swallow TTHMs over those danger levels daily for many years.

Bloomington’s TTHM levels have yet to match or exceed those danger levels in any water quality report.

The city’s water quality reports have yet to show unacceptably high levels of DBPs, which have remained lower than the EPA’s danger levels for the substances. | Photo by Lynae Sowinski

The city’s water quality reports have yet to show unacceptably high levels of DBPs, which have remained lower than the EPA’s danger levels for the substances. | Photo by Lynae Sowinski

Like every other municipality in the developed world, Bloomington walks a tightrope between providing disinfected drinking water and trying to avoid disinfection byproducts. Prior to last year’s brouhaha over DBPs, Bloomington treated its drinking water with three doses of chlorine. Now the Utilities Department has reduced the chlorine to two doses.

“What happened was, to control DBPs from forming in the plant, we discontinued the initial chlorination step,” Kelson says. “So now we only chlorinate going to the filters and then the [final] chlorination …. We’re not disinfecting in the [intake] basin. The side effect of that is the basin can now grow algae. What that means is we’re going to have to clean the basins more often than we used to. It isn’t threatening to you, but [algae] gums up the works. Some of it sloughs off and then it ends up gumming the filters.

“Since we moved the chlorination point, the disinfection byproducts have been at a lower concentration than they were a year ago. [That’s] in the DBP reports that we’re issuing. As these concentrations come up, we have to be vigilant in making adjustments at the plant to try and push them back down. That’s reviewing our chlorination process, reviewing coagulation, and also considering now that we’ve got algae, which is a new source of carbon that we didn’t have before, we want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to eliminate any of those sources of DBPs.”

Kelson adds that the department has upped its efforts to cleanse the piping system by flushing fire hydrants, quickly repairing breaks in the water main, and constantly maintaining and upgrading the integrity of the system.

***

When Kelson is thirsty, he flicks the nearest cold water handle on and places his Utilities Department-imprinted water bottle under the tap, filling it.

“I always drink tap water,” he says. “I drink tap water everywhere I go because it’s heavily regulated. Utilities have to meet standards set by the EPA.

“Our drinking water is extremely good. That’s what my kids have always drunk. That’s what I drink. And I feel safe.”

Kelson takes a slug from his water bottle. He holds it up and admires its remaining contents, and says, “I can fill this bottle 15 times for a penny.”

Comforting words from the person responsible for delivering safe, clean water to thousands of sinks and garden hoses in Bloomington and surrounding areas. You may wish to be so comforted whenever news breaks about dangerous levels of lead being found in some city’s water supply or when the EPA once again declines to add potentially toxic chemicals to its list of toxic substances municipalities must test their water for.

The thirst game is fraught with risk. Choose your poison wisely.

Water Skeptics

By Michael G. Glab

In late 2015 and early 2016, the city was hit from two sides by criticisms of its water. One broadside came from nationally known consumer advocate Erin Brockovich and the other from local attorney Ken Nunn.

As mentioned in the main piece, Brockovich claimed Bloomington’s drinking water “has real problems not to be taken lightly.” She added, “You are being lied to!… They will never tell you the truth.”

Chief among Brockovich’s claims was that the city’s water smelled of chlorine likely because of “high levels of volatile disinfection byproducts [sic].”

City of Bloomington Utilities water quality coordinator Rachel Atz responds: “”The EPA’s maximum contaminant level [for DBPs], the highest level allowed, is based on a running annual average for each sample location. … Bloomington’s water never exceeded the maximum contaminant level for DBPs, and CBU has never received a violation for DBP levels.”

Nunn says he felt compelled to submit a list of pointed questions about the city’s drinking water because “my water smelled bad when it came out of my faucet.” He adds, “I believe there are some water issues here and they are camouflaging that fact.”

Click here for a copy of Nunn’s Freedom of Information request to the city regarding water issues, dated February 16, 2016. His original submission of dozens of questions was sent to the city in December 2015.

[Editor’s Note: A request for these questions was not received in time for publication. This will be updated if the questions are provided.]

Click here for the response from City Attorney Patricia M. Mulvihill to Nunn’s 43 questions.

After receiving responses to his questions, Nunn observes, “A bunch of double talk. Why don’t they speak my language and tell me the water is very high quality?”

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Contributors
Michael Glab
Michael G. Glab has been an independent writer since 1983 when he wrote his first article for the Chicago Reader about professional wrestlers. His in-depth personality profiles became a staple in the Reader over the next two decades. Today, he hosts a WFHB radio interview feature called “Big Talk” and is the brain behind the blog, The Electron Pencil. WFIU’s David Brent Johnson has described Big Mike as “a hip town crier” who writes “in a colorful, intelligent working class vernacular.”
Lynae Sowinski
Editorial Director at Limestone Post
Lynae joined Limestone Post in the summer of 2015. She works with all contributors and manages the editorial content for the site.

A Bloomington native, Lynae graduated with honors from Indiana University’s School of Journalism in 2012 with a minor in sociology. She started her editing career at Bloom Magazine as a high school intern and, over the course of almost eight years, advanced to the position of associate editor. Among other duties, she managed the website, magbloom.com, which won Best Journalism Website in 2012 from the Indiana chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Lynae recently retired from skating with Bleeding Heartland Roller Derby, where she was on the organization’s board of directors as vice president of marketing from 2013 to 2014 and president from 2014 to 2015.
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