"What [Flint] has highlighted is that systems can be gamed. ... I think we're doing a good job, but it never hurts to do a review." -- Ed Hallock, program administrator of the Department of Public Health Office of Drinking Water.
It’s easy to take a glass of water for granted.
But the drinking water crisis in Flint, Mich. has shown how dependent Americans are on effective and transparent monitoring of public water systems.
For Ed Hallock, program administrator of the Department of Public Health Office of Drinking Water, it’s a reminder to stay vigilant.
“What [Flint] has highlighted is that systems can be gamed,” he said. “The EPA is sending out additional guidance now. We’re reviewing that. We’re reviewing all of our practices and procedures, and we’ll be talking to the water systems to make sure we’re in compliance.
“I think we’re doing a good job, but it never hurts to do a review.”
Under the 40-year-old Safe Drinking Water Act, all public water systems must monitor drinking water for contaminants, and violations must be reported to the public. Delaware has had authority over its inspections since 1978, a right it maintains by meeting or exceeding EPA requirements.
In Delaware, the ODW monitors and enforces the Act’s standards, Hallock said.
He said the agency regulates about 485 public water systems throughout the state ranging in size from cities like Wilmington, Dover, Laurel, Delmar, to small water systems – so-called transient noncommunity systems like Royal Farms and Shore Stop gas stations with their own wells.
The ODW plans and develops new treatment systems or upgrades, inspects water systems, trains operators and responds to emergencies. It carries out the majority of water quality monitoring. Some larger water systems do their own and report the findings to the ODW.
Community water systems that serve more than 1,000 people have to collect their own coliform, nitrate and fluoride samples, and samples aligning with national lead and copper rule standards. Depending on the contaminant, systems are monitored monthly, quarterly, annually or once every three years. Those serving larger populations tend to need more frequent readings.
Dover water operator Jim Hunter tests a water sample. The city draws its water from three aquifers via 21 separate wells.
The water actually tastes fine right out of the ground, said water production supervisor John Sisson. “It’s naturally filtered,” Sisson said. Other than adding fluoride and then chlorine to retard bacterial growth, “we don’t have to do a lot to it.”
If contamination is found, the water system must notify customers, explain the violation, inform them of actions they should take, tell them when their system is expected to return to compliance and provide a contact name and number. This public notice can be given by mail, but can also include radio, TV or newspaper and social media.
Violators may also receive an order to take corrective action. What’s done varies depending on the contaminant identified, but can include anything from disinfection to the introduction of corrosion controls to drilling a new well entirely. As part of this, they’re required to outline how and when the problem will be rectified.
Repeat violations can result in fines ranging from $100 to $10,000 per day.
Cleaner water, clearer data
A list of drinking water notices and violations is available on the Department of Health website. A sub-list contains violations that have been corrected – although the ultimate responsibility for informing customers lies with the operator.
Every community water system is required to prepare and issue an annual consumer confidence report, sometimes called a water quality report.
They provide information to customers on all contaminants detected in the water in the previous calendar year, regardless of whether there was a Maximum Contaminant Level violation.
These must be made available to customers – either by sending them, having them available on request or posting online – by July 1 each year. Operators who fail to submit these reports or file inadequate ones are tagged with monitoring violations; there were 27 in as many systems in 2014.
“If any customer requests [a water quality report] from their water system and the system refuses to give it to them, they can call our office and we’ll give it to [that customer],” Hallock said. “And we’ll have a talk with that water system about it to make sure they’re aware of their responsibilities.”
For its part, the state is required to prepare an Annual Compliance Report, which details numbers of violations of MCLs, treatment techniques and monitoring violations. The report is published by July every year for the previous calendar year, and is available online at the Department of Health website.
For the latest sampling data, however, Delaware Drinking Water Watch is one place to turn. Available for the last five years, the searchable database pulls the info from the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Information System database.
“It helps the water systems create their [consumer confidence] reports and helps the customers learn more about what’s going on,” Hallock said. “The idea is to make the water sample results more readily available to the public. Anybody can log into that and look up their water sample results for their water system and any in the state.”
Click here for Drinking Water Watch It provides latest sampling data – measured amounts in milligrams per liter – for specific contaminants from individual water systems. Searching for a specific water system shows violations and enforcement actions in the past on the left-hand side of the web page.
However, the database is limited; for example, it doesn’t allow queries by all violations of a particular type across multiple systems.
Context, too, can be lacking; fields displayed show the reading of a contaminant in milligrams per liter, but not the relevant MCL or action level for that contaminant – making it difficult to qualitatively judge each reading.
Hallock said this is a shortcoming of data being pulled directly from the EPA.
“Maybe in future iterations we can look at trying to make that more clear, what a violation is, and what the MCL or action level is, but right now we don’t have the ability to modify it.”