Owensboro Municipal Utilities addressed the Utility Commission Thursday after reports of contaminated drinking water circulated through local media.
OMU is required to report unregulated contaminants, chemicals and microbes that may be present in drinking water, but are not currently subject to EPA drinking water regulations, every five years. In 2004 and 2009 any unregulated contaminants found in OMU’s drinking water were not detectable.
According to OMU spokeswoman Sonya Dixon, while those contaminants were reported to the EPA as mandated, they were not required to be recorded in OMU’s water quality report because levels were undetectable. In 2014, seven unregulated contaminants reached detectable levels, calling OMU to not only report them to the EPA, but also record them in their water quality report to the community.
The contaminants called into question by local media, hexavalent chromium and molybdenum, were detected in higher levels than the minimum reportable threshold defined by the EPA.
Specifically, OMU reported 1.4 ug/L of hexavalent chromium when the minimum EPA reporting level is .03. Molybdenum was reported at 140 ug/L when the minimum EPA reporting level is 1.
But OMU said they still remain in complete compliance with EPA standard guidelines.
“We would not be delivering water to your home if it was not safe,” Dixon said.
According to the EPA, hexavalent chromium, or Chromium-6, occurs naturally in the environment from the erosion of natural chromium deposits and can also be produced by industrial processes. Molybdenum is a naturally-occurring metal that can be found in small amounts in rocks and soil. It is also present in plants, animals and bacteria. According to Dixon, molybdenum is even an additive in vitamins.
General Manager Kevin Frizzell said the EPA adds unregulated contaminants to its list of reportable tests each year. Frizzell said 2014 was the first time hexavalent chromium and molybdenum were required to be reported.
Required to report unregulated contaminants every five years, OMU is set to test drinking water again this summer. Should detectable levels of unregulated contaminants be found again, OMU will report the findings in its water quality report made available to the public in May 2020.
Hexavalent chromium and molybdenum were also detected in the groundwater testing of ash ponds at Elmer Smith Station, conducted under the EPA’s Coal Combustion Residuals Rule. Ash ponds are collection basins in the ground for the ash byproduct of burning coal. According to Frizzell, OMU routinely hauls away settled ash from those ponds.
“In that groundwater testing we are looking for compounds in a list provided by the EPA that are detected at ‘statistically significant levels,’” Frizzell said.
In recent testing, OMU detected molybdenum at a statistically significant level near the ash ponds. Chromium was detected, but not at a statistically significant level. Frizzell also added that the contaminants found in the drinking water were only found in wells closest to the power plant.
Despite finding significant levels of both hexavalent chromium and molybdenum in the drinking water and again significant levels of molybdenum in the tested areas around the ash ponds, Frizzell said the EPA does not require OMU to take any action.
Owensboro Times spoke with John Mura, executive director of the Office of Communication at the
Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, who said his office regulates water utilities like OMU based on maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) that are set by the EPA or by state statute. There are no MCLs set for these two substances.
“These are not regulated chemical contaminants,” he said. “Occurrence data are collected through the federal UCMR (Unregulated Contaminant Monitor Rule) to support the EPA Administrator’s determination of whether to regulate particular contaminants in the interest of protecting public health. EPA is now weighing the collected data on them to determine if they need to be regulated in the future.”
Mura said his office is looking into the possibility that OMU’s contamination came from its ash ponds, which he said is not routine.
But Frizzell said OMU has not made any determination if the ash ponds are the source of the two unregulated contaminants in the drinking water.
“We can’t definitively say that,” Frizzell said. “What we can do is the testing that is required and provide remediation or a corrective action plan.”
Frizzell said that plan is already in place. With the anticipated closing of Elmer Smith Station by 2020, coal ash will be reduced by one-third when the first plant is closed in June. The second plant will be retired in June 2020. At that point, the ash ponds located at the decommissioned plant will be removed. Frizzell said this process at other retired coal-fired plants means covering the ponds and converting them to ash landfills.
“What we are going to do voluntarily is remove all of that ash when we close Elmer Smith,” Frizzell said, adding that this will happen regardless of how the OMU board votes to decommission Elmer Smith. “So if, and that’s an if because we haven’t proven anything, but if the power plant is the source of these compounds, we are going to remove the source.”
In the meantime, Frizzell said there is no threat to OMU customers’ drinking water. Frizzell said the same is true for county water districts, who actually purchase water from OMU. Should a customer have questions about the contaminants they are encouraged to call 270-926-3200 to speak with an OMU representative.
“I absolutely drink a lot of OMU water,” Frizzell said. “At these levels, the EPA has not seen fit to regulate these contaminants. We are in compliance with all of our regulations and we are not concerned that our customers are being negatively impacted by drinking OMU water in any way, shape or form.”
Given the concern about these contaminants, Frizzell said OMU has kicked off a drinking water system master plan study, which was announced at Thursday’s Utility Commission meeting.
“The focus is groundwater,” Frizzell said. “That will include where are our new wells are going to be, quality and quantity of water. We are going to actively be looking at what contaminants may be in the water.”
The last master plan study is what led to the decision to expand OMU’s Cavin Plant. OMU’s Plant A, which provides two-thirds of the utility’s capacity, was built in 1905 and is deteriorating. It was decided to maximize the newer treatment facility, Plant B — or the Cavin Plant, built in 1994 — from treating 10 million gallons of water per day to 30 million. This will allow the Cavin Plant to take on all of Plant A’s treatment so that it may eventually be shut down. The $46 million expansion is currently underway and is expected to be completed in the next 18 months.