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Washington County hamlet's residents worry about safety of tap water

Jason Cato
| Monday, Feb. 23, 2015, 12:22 a.m.
Jason Cato/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Pat West, 70, discusses the water coming out of the kitchen tap in her Millsboro home. State authorities say the Tri-County Joint Municipal Authority, which provides water for West and more than 3,000 other customers in Washington and Fayette counties, needs to improve procedures to remove potentially carcinogenic chemicals from its product.
Jason Cato/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Pat West, 70, discusses the water coming out of the kitchen tap in her Millsboro home. State authorities say the Tri-County Joint Municipal Authority, which provides water for West and more than 3,000 other customers in Washington and Fayette counties, needs to improve procedures to remove potentially carcinogenic chemicals from its product.

Sunlight spilled through a window into Pat West's darkened kitchen as she filled a glass with water.

“It smells fine. It looks fine,” said West, 70, holding the etched glass to her nose and peering at it. “I still drink the water, but my kids won't.”

West and her husband, Don, raised 13 children in their two-story house in Millsboro, a hamlet in East Bethlehem, Washington County.

Theirs is one of four houses on Harmony Avenue, where the Wests have lived since 1959. Between them and the Monongahela River is Tri-County Joint Municipal Authority, which is under orders from the state Department of Environmental Protection to reduce potentially carcinogenic chemicals in the water it pumps to homes.

“We have been talking to them about this for a long time, but we can only wait so long,” said John Poister, a DEP spokesman. “We're talking about the safety of the water. People expect to turn on their tap and get clean water.”

At issue is the amount of total trihalomethanes, or TTHM, in Tri-County's water supply. Trihalomethanes are a byproduct formed when salty bromides or decaying organic matter drawn from river water mix with chlorine, a disinfectant used to kill disease-causing microorganisms.

“We're working closely with DEP to remedy the problem areas,” said Dave Bojtos, hired in September as director of the water authority, which is more than $6 million in debt.

Tri-County served about 3,500 customers in and around East Bethlehem, Beallsville and Centerville in Washington County, as well as Luzerne, Fayette County.

TTHM levels in its system have been within federal guidelines since fall, Bojtos said, noting that the chronic problem area is around Scenery Hill. Modifications in using pumps and turning over the reservoir system more often are among the steps taken to mitigate the problem, he said.

More costly modifications to the water plant could be required, he said.

Another option would be to buy water from elsewhere, such as neighboring supplier Pennsylvania American Water. Bojtos said that is not being considered at this point.

“I'm going to work extremely hard to suffice this operation down here and make it work,” he said. “That is my goal.”

The Environmental Protection Agency in 1979 set standards for TTHM at 100 parts per billion. EPA lowered the standard to 80 ppb in 1998.

A review of annual state records for water provided by Tri-County in the past decade shows that TTHM levels exceeded federal levels every year — once in 2012 and more than seven times in five other years. Five TTHM-level readings from the past two years were double the federal limit.

The EPA and scientists warn that high TTHM levels have been linked to several types of cancer, including bladder. Some researchers have linked it to miscarriages and birth defects. Prolonged exposure — typically more than a decade — is required for such health consequences, experts say.

The Pennsylvania State Correctional Officers Association is involved in an arbitration case in which the union claims an SCI Fayette guard developed kidney cancer from the prison's drinking water, which is supplied by Tri-County.

Pat West grew up in Millsboro and said she always has consumed the local water. She successfully battled uterine cancer as a young woman, and her husband has prostate cancer. A daughter who lives two doors away had a hysterectomy because doctors discovered precancerous cells, she said.

“There are so many people in our town dying of cancer,” Pat West said.

Washington County does not have a health department and has never researched cancer rates of people served by Tri-County or other water authorities, said county Administrator Scott Fergus.

“We have not — from anecdotes or studies,” he said. “We don't know anything.”

The state Department of Health is monitoring the Tri-County situation, agency spokesman Wes Culp said.

“There does not appear to be an immediate or acute risk,” Culp said. “The health risks linked with TTHMs in water are very small, compared to the risk of potentially deadly infectious diseases in drinking water that is not disinfected.”

DEP in 2008 implemented a more stringent, quarterly TTHM monitoring system, Poister said.

“That's when we really started seeing this problem,” Poister said. “We knew it was there. But that is when we began focusing on it.”

TTHM levels throughout the region spiked in 2008 and 2009 — largely because drilling wastewater from fracking, high in bromides, was not effectively treated before it was released into the rivers, Poister said. That problem largely was eradicated, he said.

“The organic matter in our waterways is the chief culprit here,” Poister said, noting decaying leaves, tree limbs, fish and sewage. “Every water authority battles this problem. Tri-County is working very hard, but it isn't easy for them.”

Jason Cato is a writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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