Energy & Environment Health

Tap water delivered by more than 2,000 water systems across the Ohio Valley contain pollutants, many harmful to human health, even though they mostly meet federal drinking water standards. That’s according to a newly-updated database released by the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization.

Millions of residents in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia are being exposed to small amounts of chemicals and contaminants, including those linked to cancer, the group found.

“Just because your drinking water has passed federal standards or it gets a passing grade, it still might pose risks to your health,” said Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist with EWG.

The 2019 Tap Water Database draws upon water quality data collected by utilities nationwide. The directory was first published in 2005 and has been updated multiple times. The latest update, published Wednesday, includes new data from 2016 and 2017 and analyzed data collected since 2012.

Chemicals linked to cancer, including hexavalent chromium, total trihalomethanes and nitrate, were found in the water of millions of people in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia at levels the advocacy group argues could be of concern.

While just a handful of pollutants at a handful of water systems were identified at levels above standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Stoiber argues federal regulations over drinking water are largely outdated. The last tap water standard was set almost two decades ago.

“A lot of them may be outdated or based on not the most current science, so they might not be protective enough of our health,” she said. “Some of them haven’t been updated for decades or they may have been based on analytical detection methods that are now outdated.”

Greg Kail, directs communications for the American Water Works Association, a nonprofit, scientific and educational association, whose members include water utilities, water treatment technology companies and academics. He said many of AWWA’s members share the EWG’s concerns over the safety of drinking water.

But he said drinking water safety is largely dictated by laws including the Safe Drinking Water Act, a federal law that protects the quality of drinking water in the U.S. As science has improved, water utilities are detecting more pollutants, but finding something in tap water doesn’t always mean it threatens human health over the course of a lifetime.

“It’s important to always strive, and as we understand research, to make sure standards are protective of public health,” he said. “The reality is in order to have a scientific process, we need to understand human health impacts, where contaminants occur and at what levels.”

Two of the most commonly found contaminants in the Ohio Valley —  hexavalent chromium and nitrate — are often found when water utilities use surface water as their source for drinking water, Stoiber said.

“If there’s natural organic matter, which could be things like leaves or algae or other decaying, natural things, that can combine with the disinfectants and make chemicals that can harm your health,” she said.

In addition to being byproducts of the water disinfectant process, Stoiber said nitrate is also naturally-occurring and can enter source water from agricultural runoff. Hexavalent chromium, she said, can also enter source water naturally or by releases from industrial plants. Both chemicals can increase one’s risk for cancer.

Both hexavalent chromium and nitrate can be removed from drinking water by installing a carbon water filter at home, Stoiber said.

EWG also assessed the worst-offending water systems using data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online, or ECHO, database. To rank the top offenders, the group also factored in violations by utilities of the Safe Drinking Water Act and the amount of time it took to correct violations.

Across the Ohio Valley, small water systems, many serving a few thousand, and in some cases just a few dozen people, were the top violators.

In Ohio, six contaminants exceeded EWG’s health guidelines at the Byesville Water Department, which serves 4,615 people. None of the contaminants identified by the data exceeded federal standards, although only one pollutant has a set federal guideline.

The utility spent two quarters over the last three years in significant violation of federal drinking water standards. A request for comment was not immediately returned.

In West Virginia, the top seven water systems with the most violation points, according to EWG, all serve fewer than 500 people.

In Kentucky, the Pikeville Water Department topped the EWG list. Four contaminants — arsenic, nitrate, radium 226/228 and total trihalomethanes — exceeded EWG’s health guidelines, although not federal standards.

A representative from the City of Pikeville did not respond to a request for comment.

The database also showed that over the last three years the water utility has spent in significant violation of federal drinking water standards.

Of the more than 2,000 public water systems in the Ohio Valley, 12 percent are either considered “serious violators” or have had faced formal enforcement actions within the last 5 years, according to the ReSource’s analysis of the EPA ECHO database.

EPA defines “serious violations” as public water systems with “unresolved serious, multiple, and/or continuing violations.”

Across the region, the struggles of small rural water systems — many built by coal companies in the early 1900s — are well documented. As jobs leave those communities, water operators struggle to pay for costly upgrades. For some communities, boil advisories have been in place for years.

In Martin County, Kentucky, many residents say water from the tap is often undrinkable. But residents have the eighth highest average water bill out of the 141 districts regulated by the state’s Public Service Commission, according to a report published last month.

“Rural systems are going to face challenges of economies of scale,” Stoiber said. “We know that they aren’t going to have the resources or the budget to deal with a lot of tap water issues that a larger utility is going to have.”

An analysis published last month by three environmental groups found more than half of West Virginia counties rank among the worst in the nation for violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Systems nationwide serving less than 3,300 people accounted for more than 80 percent of all Safe Drinking Water Act violations, according to the study. Even smaller systems, serving less than 500 people, were reportedly responsible for more than 60 percent of all SDWA violations, and for 50 percent of health-based violations.

Based at WVPB in Morgantown, WV, Brittany Patterson covers all things energy and environment.