Toxic Chemicals Increase in Census Bureau Water

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(Photo: By Matt Stone/The C-J)

Article courtesy of Charlie White | September 27, 2014 |The Courier-Journal | Shared as educational material

Contamination levels in the U.S. Census Bureau’s well-water supply in Jeffersonville have increased well beyond the federal EPA’s recommended maximum level, according to the latest quarterly report from the Indiana Department for Environmental Management.

The level of a toxic chemical used in dry cleaning and other industries spiked to 8 parts per billion in a July test — well over the 5 ppb limit federal authorities list as the maximum contaminant level. It was 5.5 ppb in April.

But a Sept. 10 report from Illinois-based Environmental Consulting Group Inc. shows much higher levels — up to 870 ppb — of the volatile, likely carcinogenic chemical in a groundwater-monitoring well installed in January 2013 across 10th Street from the Census Bureau’s main building. Officials believe a spill occurred there at least eight years ago.

Many of the roughly 1,250 Census workers have been worried since they were notified about the contamination about a year ago. Consumption of large quantities of the chemical over time could lead to serious health problems, especially for pregnant women and children, experts say.

Louisville environmental consultant Mark Fackler, who is not involved in the testing at the bureau, said the chemical tetrachloroethylene, also referred to as perchloroethylene, PCE or PERC, “is just wicked, wicked stuff.”

Since the state ordered the Census Bureau to correct its contaminated water supply last year, it also started a transition to Indiana American Water Co. supply lines from its current well water, which is pumped from the ground.

“I can’t emphasize enough that the safety of our workers is our top priority,” said David Hackbarth, director of the Census Bureau’s Jeffersonville facilities, noting other property managers in the complex also were notified of contamination levels last year.

The Census Bureau has also shut off its drinking fountains and ice machines, provided water dispensers as an alternative for employees and has posted quarterly state water test results.

2014.9.10 ECG Second Sample Report Amended

Some of the hundreds of workers potentially affected by the contamination continue to worry about the health effects of drinking the water, disbelieving information from the state that there’s “no immediate risk” and the water has remained safe to drink.

“If it was no actual harm, why did they jump so quickly to provide an alternate water supply?” asked Renae Cohron, 45, a union representative who has worked at the Census Bureau for 17 years.

Latest report

The September report — obtained by The Courier-Journal from a Census worker who asked to remain anonymous fearing retaliation — was compiled after water and soil samples were taken in May and June.

Eighteen of the 26 groundwater samples and seven of the 22 soil samples consultants took had concentrations above the state’s screening level for PERC.

It also installed 21 one-inch temporary monitoring wells and five permanent monitoring wells.

PERC levels of other soil borings ranged from 199 ppb on the southeast side of the complex to less than 5 ppb on the east side. Trichlorethylene, another toxic solvent with an EPA maximum contaminant level of 5 ppb, also was detected in levels up to 64.2 ppb, or about 12 times the maximum level.

The consultant recommended a third round of testing to help determine the extent of soil and groundwater contamination, saying it anticipates the additional site investigation to begin Tuesday.

Barry Sneed, a spokesman for the state environmental department, said it agrees the contractor needs to do more work to define the nature and extent of the chemical plume.

“The boundaries of the plume have not been discovered yet,” Sneed said.

State officials believe the PERC spilled from the former One Hour Martinizing (now Sharps Dry Cleaners), 1324 E. 10th St., in the heart of Jeffersonville’s longtime business corridor.

The consulting firm that wrote the report said the groundwater flow has likely been changed by the Census Bureau pumping water from its four wells on the east side of the complex.

“It appears that the pumping of approximately 200,000 gallons of water daily from the on-site potable wells is influencing the groundwater flow direction,” the report states.

Two decades ago

In 1992, the EPA began regulating tetrachloroethylene and required all water suppliers to test for the chemical between 1993 and 1995. The Census Bureau makes about $14,000 annually from selling water to other businesses on the grounds.

State records that were online earlier this year showed Census Bureau water taken from the site’s four wells was tested several times by Clarksville-based Environmental Consultants Inc.

Results from November 1994 found levels of PERC of up to 5.2 ppb. The 1994 tests also found other harmful chemicals, such as similarly high levels of related toxins dichloroethylene and trichloroethylene.

Sneed said the state began requiring quarterly testing at the Census Bureau in 1994 and had previously required annual tests. But the state agency did not take further action at that time or require cleanup.

“The results are evaluated on a four-quarter average,” Sneed said, noting it doesn’t trigger enforcement action until that average exceeds a maximum level.

The Census Bureau’s PERC average did not exceed the maximum level for four quarters until July 2013, leading the state to notify it about a month later that it needed a corrective action plan. Likewise, the Census Bureau wasn’t required to notify its water customers until the third quarter last year, Sneed said.

Cohron said she started bringing bottled water to work shortly after she started there there because she saw “little floaty things” in the water from the now-shutoff drinking fountains.

“I’m picky about my drinking water,” said Cohron, who also has opted for hand sanitizer in lieu of washing her hands at work the past year.

No level is safe

While the EPAs maximum contaminant level of the chemical in a water supply is set at 5 ppb, the EPA doesn’t consider any level of contaminated water safe to drink.

The EPA lists tetrachloroethylene as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.” Some people who drink water contaminated with levels of it in excess of the maximum level could also have liver problems, according to the EPA.

Indiana environmental officials say their agency enforces the EPA’s drinking water standards, stressing the state has not set its own maximum levels. The state didn’t fine the dry-cleaning business thought to be responsible for the spill, but it did require it to pay for the cleanup.

“It is impossible to predict how long the overall remediation will take, as the treatment of groundwater contamination has so many variables,” Sneed said.

Roberta White, associate dean of research at Boston University’s School of Public Health, was among the committee members who contributed to the 2008 review of the EPA’s toxicological assessment of PERC.

“There seems to be general agreement in the scientific community that tetrachloroethylene is carcinogenic in laboratory animals, but there is a longstanding debate about how to interpret and use the laboratory findings to predict human cancer risks,” according to the assessment.

The committee agreed with the EPA that it’s unclear how or if tumors from chemical exposure form.

“There was much more debate that it’s a carcinogen and much less debate that it’s bad for your central nervous system,” White said in a Thursday interview.

One of the largest human studies to-date on the long-term toxicity of PERC stemmed from defective municipal water pipes in communities around Cape Cod, Mass. The pipes, White said, were sealed with a vinyl lining that eventually broke down into PERC, dissolving into, and contaminating, the water supply.

“People were exposed to the chemical for a number of years,” White said, whose fellow researchers at Boston University are among those who’ve studied its neurotoxic and other health effects.

White said PERC is a common solvent that can have both chronic and acute effects, especially on children and pregnant women. Solvents attach to the fatty part of myelin, a protective nerve coating that is then broken down, which can lead to brain damage.

“All of the organic solvents are really hard on the nervous system,” she said.

Besides drinking contaminated water, White said the toxic chemical can be absorbed into the body through showering, hand washing or even eating fruits and vegetables that have been washed with tainted water.

Some of the people studied in Massachusetts communities near Cape Cod were exposed from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. But many other spills have had lesser exposures.

“It makes it difficult to determine what would happen if people were exposed for one month” versus daily consumption over many years, she added.

The switchover

The switchover to Indiana American from well water comes about two years after the completion of a $1.2 million Government Services Administration project at the federal facility that involved replacing its water tower. Design work on that project began in 2010, Langel said.

GSA spokeswoman Cat Langel said the administration drew up a preliminary switchover project schedule in March that estimated the conversion would be completed in July, but has since been pushed back to the end of the year.

The GSA declined to say how much the switchover project is expected to cost because the estimates are considered “procurement-sensitive,” Langel said.

“Following the transfer of these services, the groundwater wells will be taken out of service in accordance with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources guidelines,” Langel said.

Work is being done this month to switch over buildings in the America Place Business Park. Other customers like Kitchen Kompact and the Army Reserve office also will be switched over, and it was up to them whether to provide alternate water supplies in the meantime after Census officials notified them, Hackbarth said.

“I think it’s being done as expeditiously as it can be done,” Hackbarth said.

Reporter Charlie White can be reached at (812) 949-4026 or on Twitter @c_write.

Census Bureau water tests

What’s in the water?

The latest test results from the Census Bureau’s main data complex continues to exceed the federal maximum contaminant level for tetrachloroethylene, a volatile, likely carcinogenic solvent used for dry cleaning.

What does it do to humans who drink it?

Studies show the chemical may increase risks of lung and bladder cancers when consumed in water. Experts say it can both chronic and acute effects, especially on children and pregnant women. Solvents attach to the fatty part of myelin, a protective nerve coating that is then broken down, which can lead to brain damage.

What’s next?

Consultants expect to do more soil and groundwater testing at the Census Bureau starting Sept. 30. It also will complete a groundwater flow analysis to determine whether the flow has changed.

 

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