WMEL Water Authority receives EPA award, expresses concern for future

DECATUR, Ala. - The water utility that warned customers not to drink its water last year has won an award for going above and beyond the call of duty to provide safe water.

The Environmental Protection Agency has recognized West Morgan East Lawrence Water Authority for what the EPA calls "optimized performance" in 2016.

But from the top, we need to tell you this award has nothing to do with the crisis the water authority faced last year.

In June, 2016, General Manager Don Sims warned customers not to drink the water after the EPA lowered the standards for PFC compounds PFOA and PFOS in drinking water.

This latest award recognizes the efforts of the authority to control the water's turbidity, or the particulate matter in the water, some of it too small to be seen with the bare eye.

“And that's what this award does, we have to go above and beyond what the normal regulatory requirements are,” according to Plant Manager Janice Slater.

The turbidity you can see is generally caused by soil runoff that gets into the river, or even the sediment on the river bottom that might be churned up by a passing boat.

“We use a laser light to look and see how dirty the water is when we bring it into the plant,” Slater says. She adds, “For us, we range between what we'd call a 10 and a 20 NTU, which basically is the measurement used by the laser light to tell you how dirty the water is. When ours leaves our filters, we're at a .014 to a .012."

In their notification letter, the EPA writes “You provided customers of your system with protection against waterborne disease extending above and beyond regulatory requirements." It is the 4th consecutive year the authority has received the award.

“If you get it in at a 20 and you can get it down to a .012, you've done something,” says Slater.

Slater says there are many things they do above and beyond what is required in order to deliver the cleanest and safest water possible. She says that includes being aware of new pollutants that could show up in their water. There are other pollutants the water authority has to deal with including new and unclassified PFC compounds.

It's what you can't see, smell, or taste in the water that has some people worried. WMEL spent more than four million dollars last year installing a new granulated activated carbon (GAC) filtration system. It's designed to remove PFOA and PFOS from their drinking water. And authorities say it's working.

“When we did our pilot tests, it showed that we needed seven and a half minutes to remove the PFOA and PFOS. So we doubled that to ensure that we would remove those,” Slater said explaining all of the water they process spends 15 minutes cycling through the new GAC filtration system in addition to processing through the filtration plant. She says the GAC filters remove much more than just the two PFC compounds and gives the water a fresher taste.

Since October, 2016, when the new system went online, both PFC compounds have been at non-detectable levels in their finished water.

But a new study published earlier this year in Environmental Science and Technology, about pollution in the Tennessee River, found almost a dozen PFC compounds present in the water. Several are believed to be newly developed compounds created by local industry to replace the controversial PFOA and PFOS compounds.

The study reveals these new compounds have a slightly different molecular structure, there are fewer carbon atoms in each molecule. And there is debate as to whether or not the GAC filter system will stop these newer compounds from getting to your kitchen faucet.

“We will eventually learn more and more about these new compounds and from there we will have to change possibly the way we treat water now. Right now, everything that we've done is removing the PFOA and PFOS. And like I said, we're making better water than we've ever made, but there may come a time when we have to find another treatment process,” Slater said.

The next step up for the treatment plant is a reverse osmosis filtration system, which could cost upwards of twenty million dollars. General Manager Don Sims says his customers didn't put the compounds in the water, and shouldn't have to pay to have them removed.

There are currently no restrictions on dumping any of the PFC compounds into the river, despite the growing body of evidence regarding the health effects of exposure to PFOA and PFOS. Even less is known about the possible health effects of these newer compounds.