April 1, 2003

C.U. Drinking Water Violates EPA Regulation

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Last week, a test of Cornell’s water treatment system revealed a concentration of haloacetic acids in excess of the maximum level set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Cornell’s drinking water was found to have an annual average of 63 parts per billion (ppb), violating the annual limit of 60 ppb.

Cornell students, staff and faculty received an e-mail last week alerting them to the violation and instructing them that no immediate action needed to be taken. According to the EPA, water which has high levels of haloacetic acids may increase the risk of cancer for those who consume it over an extended period of time.

‘Not … Acute’

“It’s not an acute problem,” said John Andersson, director of Environmental Health Services for Tompkins County. “The law is new; it just came into effect in January of 2002. The state has announced no individual is at a higher risk than anyone else, and no one is being asked to take any special precautions.”

Student Concern?

According to Henrik N. Dullea ’61, vice president for University relations, students do not seem to be overly concerned about the safety of their drinking water.

“We have heard little from students or staff about this issue, since there is no need to boil water or take other corrective actions, and the problem is being successfully addressed by University staff,” Dullea said.

The University has its own water treatment system which supplies water to the entire Cornell campus. In addition, there are two other water treatment systems in the immediate area. One serves Lansing, Cayuga Heights, Dryden and most of the Town of Ithaca, while the other system serves the City of Ithaca. The city’s water system has violated the same standard, and its customers have been informed of the problem as well.

Haloacetic acid is created during the treatment process when chlorine, used as a disinfectant, reacts chemically with organic material which exists in the water naturally. Haloacetic acids are a byproduct of that reaction.

Plant operators are preparing to adjust their systems in order to eliminate the high levels.

“There are a lot of things that can be done, and usually we try to do things that are the simplest first,” Andersson said.

Currently, the disinfection process occurs at the beginning of the treatment system, before some of the organic material is removed. Operators believe that by moving the disinfection process toward the end, they will be able to remove more organic material prior to the addition of chlorine and thus achieve lower levels of haloacetic acids.

Although technically the Cornell water facility must answer to the EPA regarding the contamination issue, in this case the problem will most likely be handled by the Ithaca-area facilities.

“The EPA is aware of the violations, and they are aware of what’s going on,” Andersson said. “The state has spoken to them. We expect that this will be handled on a local basis because everyone is cooperating.”

“We should get a reduction in the amount of haloacetic acids,” he added. “It won’t go to zero, because you can’t remove it all, but it should keep them under the contamination level.”


Archived article by Jeff Sickelco