Philadelphia suburbs learn of water contaminants : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

By Evan Halper and Chani Katzen

INQUIRER SUBURBAN STAFF An environmental coalition says tens of thousands of public water customers in the Philadelphia suburbs learned last fall their drinking water contained unsafe levels of contaminants - detailed in new reports required by federal law.

The national Campaign for Safe and Affordable Drinking Water, which studied those reports in 20 states, said this week that three Pennsylvania water suppliers had piped water contaminated with lead, copper or tetrachloroethylene in levels exceeding federal safety standards.

The water authorities - in Coatesville, Chalfont and Doylestown - failed to meet federal drinking water standards in 1998, the environmentalists said.

Officials from the state Department of Environmental Protection said yesterday that those contaminant levels were never high enough to seriously threaten public health. DEP also said the municipalities had taken steps to clean up their water.

The coalition also questioned why many public water customers did not even get the new reports that list whatever has shown up in tests of their water supply, as required by federal law.

A dozen water companies in Pennsylvania did not file any reports, according to the DEP.

The reports said that public water tests in Coatesville revealed lead levels as high as 28 parts per billion - nearly double the federal "action level" of 15 parts per billion.

DEP supervisor Mark Johnson said high lead levels have been a problem in Coatesville since 1996. He said the city's water authority had sent mailings to customers informing them of the harmful effects of lead.

"Theoretically, the people in Coatesville have been made aware of this," Johnson said.

Exposure to lead is particularly harmful to young children and fetuses, according to the Federal Agency for Toxic Studies and Disease Registry. Lead exposure has been linked to decreased mental ability, learning difficulties, and reduced growth.

Johnson said that the Coatesville Water Authority was trying to treat the water with chemicals that would, in effect, neutralize lead that leaches into the water from older home plumbing pipes. "It takes time for changes to make their way through the system," he said.

In the meantime, consumers are encouraged to run their tap water before drinking it to flush out any concentrations of accumulated lead. Johnson said that the levels detected and reported were not high enough to warrant switching to another water supply.

Water in Chalfont and Doylestown Boroughs tested in excess of federal levels for copper, the DEP said. And in Chalfont, a quarterly test in 1998 also showed high levels of the potential carcinogen tetrachloroethylene, but subsequent tests did not show such elevated levels, so no action was required.

Johnson said both boroughs had taken steps to address the copper problem. Levels in Doylestown have continued to remain high in some subsequent tests, he said, and DEP has cited Chalfont for poor monitoring.

Johnson said the copper levels detected in both boroughs were far below the amounts associated with such health effects as nausea and vomiting.

The coalition groups, including Philadelphia-based Clean Water Action, complained that most water companies around Pennsylvania did a "mediocre" job of making the reports user-friendly and telling consumers what contaminants were tainting their water.

"Some of the utilities issued reports that were really difficult to read," said Gabrielle Giddings, program director of Clean Water Action. "And, almost none of the utilities conveyed the risk factors for the contaminants."

The reports were mailed to consumers around the country last fall, under a 1996 amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act. The environmental coalition analyzed 89 of them in a study released Tuesday.

The campaign's study focused mainly on how well companies filled out their reports, based on federal guidelines. Campaign officials gave a letter grade to each.

Giddings said most of the reports left out required information about water contaminants, where they come from, and possible health effects. She said the Pennsylvania findings were similar to those in 19 other states studied.

Seven area utilities received failing grades for inadequate health warnings and poor distribution of the reports.

They include the Philadelphia Suburban Water Co.; Ambler Borough; Chalfont Borough; the City of Coatesville Authority; the Lower Bucks County Joint Municipal Authority; Middletown Township; and the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base at Willow Grove. The water authority in Hulmeville, Bucks County, failed to file a report.

An official for Philadelphia Suburban, which mailed out different reports on its various water sources, said his company was "really disappointed" to be singled out. Giddings said Philadelphia Suburban failed because it did not include contamination sources.

But Thomas Yohe, the company's vice president, said the reports were sent out before the federal guidelines were issued last March.

"Nobody knew that had to be included when the reports were written," Yohe said. He also said it was difficult to pinpoint the exact source of the contaminants, but the company would include possible sources on its next report.

Eighty-three companies also received notices of violation for not submitting the reports on time or not filling them out properly.

-- Martin Thompson (, March 16, 2000

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