TEXAS--Update...West Tawakoni Gets Shipment of Water, Officials Say Chemical Levels Safe After Spill

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West Tawakoni gets shipment of water

Chemical levels safe after spill, officials say


By Brenda Rodriguez / The Dallas Morning News

Thousands of gallons of water were hauled into a small Hunt County town Thursday after its water supply from Lake Tawakoni was shut off. The supply showed signs of contamination from a gasoline spill last week.

Authorities said that even though high levels of the gasoline additive MTBE - used to clean air - were detected in the northwestern reach of the lake, it still did not pose a health threat.

"We are not talking about a health issue here, even at those high levels. . . . We are talking about real taste and odor problems," said Tom Kelley, spokesman for the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. "The concern is taste and odor. . . . Nobody wants to drink water that has a turpentine flavor."

Tanker trucks filled with water from Dallas and Sulphur Springs were being brought to West Tawakoni and the water was to be pumped into the town's storage facility. Additionally, a water tanker truck was parked at City Hall so the town's 930 residents could fill containers, city officials said.

West Tawakoni officials shut down the town's intake valves from the lake at about 9 p.m. Wednesday.

Mr. Kelley said it is difficult to know whether the MTBE would spread to other parts of the lake. That's why they will continue to take samples and monitor the situation, he said. There were no other reports of contamination at the lake as of Thursday afternoon.

Levels of 271 parts per billion of MTBE were detected late Wednesday at West Tawakoni's water utility intake at the lake, authorities said. According to the TNRCC, drinking water containing levels as high as 240 parts per billion of MTBE over a lifetime would not have adverse health effects. Significantly higher levels for short-term exposure would also be without adverse health effects, TNRCC officials said. But levels as low as 15 parts per billion could cause odor and taste problems in drinking water.

Dick Gillespie, city administrator for West Tawakoni, said town officials have been flooded with telephone calls from residents who want to know whether it is safe to drink the water. His answer: yes.

West Tawakoni gets all of its water from the lake. Officials are asking residents to conserve as much as possible.

"We have it rigged up to where the tanker trucks can empty into the storage system. That way the customers do not lose any water, any supply," Mr. Gillespie said. "We have not hit a panic button at this point in time."

He said the situation is under control, adding that he did not know how long the city's intake would be shut down.

A manager at a grocery store said residents have been buying bottled water since the contamination along the northern edge of the lake was first reported this week. The manager, who did not want to be named, described residents as concerned.

The lake provides water for more than 10 cities, towns and water companies, including West Tawakoni and Dallas. Dallas, which gets 25 to 30 percent of its water from the lake, has had its intake cut off since shortly after the gas spill.

A pipeline, owned by Explorer Pipeline Co. of Tulsa, Okla., broke early Friday and spilled about 500,000 gallons of gasoline into a wheat field and into East Caddo Creek. Most of the gasoline has been stopped by booms in the creek about four miles upstream from the lake, and absorbent pads and vacuum trucks are being used to clean up the fuel.

Low-level MTBE contamination was first found Monday in the area where the East Caddo Creek runs into the lake . Higher levels were discovered Wednesday.

"The numbers were looking real good. The numbers from the creek where it comes into the lake, those had dropped down. We were thinking we were in good shape," said Jack Tatum, development coordinator with the Sabine River Authority, which owns and operates the lake.

"We are hoping as this [the MTBE] moves through into the lake it is going to dissipate and the numbers will drop," Mr. Tatum said.

A portable lab for testing samples from the lake has been set up at West Tawakoni, officials said.

"We are continuing to monitor," he said. "It's been a night-and-day activity."

David Bary, spokesman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said crews are continuing and concluding their "mop up" along the East Caddo Creek. Officials said they think that last week's heavy rains pushed the plume containing the compound downstream quickly before special dams could be constructed.

"The timing of the storm [last Friday] was such that there was simply not enough time to get adequate barriers in place and those that were in place were simply washed away," Mr. Bary said. "The only way to have prevented MTBE from entering the lake through the creek was to have an impenetrable wall at the mouth of the creek . . . or at a point further up the creek. That was something that was simply unavailable to the responders last Friday at the time that the storm hit."

Last year, a government advisory panel and the EPA recommended to Congress that the use of MTBE be reduced substantially because it dissolves easily in water and turns up in tap water when gasoline has leaked or spilled.

MTBE is used in so-called reformulated gasoline required by the EPA in all or parts of 16 states, including Texas. That accounts for about a third of the gasoline sold in the nation.

In addition, the additive has been shown to cause cancer in animals, even though it is not clear to researchers whether those findings are applicable to people. It can be smelled at very low concentrations, and it makes water smell so bad that most will refuse to drink it.

That is one reason California last March ordered oil companies to phase out the additive by 2002. A University of California study showed that the additive has affected at least 10,000 ground-water sites throughout that state.


-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), March 17, 2000


Thank you for your excellent coverage. This article answered many questions for a lot of people. You are appreciated.

-- Etsi Waya (etsiwaya@koyote.com), March 18, 2000.

You are sincerely welcome Etsi. Thank you so much for your kind words.

Best wishes, Dee

-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), March 18, 2000.

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