Arsenic news raises city's water worries


Published: Sunday, January 18, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 18, 2004 at 1:07 a.m.
Last week's announced discovery of arsenic in groundwater near the Cabot-Koppers Superfund site has raised the stakes for environmentalist concerned with the long-term health of Gainesville's drinking water supply.
While no one is suggesting city taps are soon to spew pollutants, the proximity of the contaminants - found between a federally regulated waste dump and the Murphree Wellfield, which supplies water for 135,000 residents - are cause for measured concern, some city and county officials say.
"If there's a problem with our water," City Commissioner Tony Domenech said Thursday, stressing that he believes supplies remain safe, "then you will see the hairs stand up on the back of my neck."
But instead of shedding light on how to protect the region's environmental and human health, the findings and timing of their disclosure, made to the City Commission by Gainesville Regional Utilities on Tuesday, appear to have generated more questions than answers.
For starters, local officials agree that it's too early to link the elevated levels of arsenic in GRU's monitoring wells to the Cabot-Koppers site, at Main Street and NW 23rd Avenue. GRU began testing the wells last year after learning that wood-treating chemicals, including arsenic, had been found in groundwater below the waste site.
The monitoring system was established because scientists believe groundwater below the Cabot-Koppers site flows to the northeast, and over a 25- to 50-year period could eventually reach the city wellfield.
"There is a possibility that (the arsenic) could be from the Koppers site, but there is also a possibility that it could be from a natural source," said Allan Biddlecomb, environmental sciences manager and a vice president of Jones, Edmunds and Associates in Gainesville, which has been contracted by GRU to conduct further testing on the arsenic-tainted wells.
One indication supporting claims that the arsenic could be associated with non-Superfund sources, Biddlecomb said, is the lack of other Cabot-Koppers pollutants found in the wells, which are 1,500 feet and 4,500 feet from the Superfund site, and about two miles from the Murphree.
"There's other things at the Koppers site," he said, such as naphthalene, acetone and benzene. "We tried to sample for those, and we really didn't see anything."
Biddlecomb said that while plans have yet to be finalized, methods to determine the source of the elevated arsenic include resampling or constructing additional monitoring wells, as well as examining soil and rock samples pulled from the original wells to test for materials with high arsenic content.
"There is not an alarming concentration, but they are high enough to say 'huh, we need to figure this one out a little better.' "
For decades, scientists have been aware that contamination lurked beneath what is now the Cabot-Koppers Superfund site. In 1983, the EPA designated the area a federal cleanup priority, identifying wood-treating chemicals - including arsenic, a known carcinogen - in the soil below.
Contamination from the site has been linked to Cabot Carbon, a pine tar and charcoal production facility that operated from the early 1900s until 1967, and Koppers Industries, a wood treatment plant and wood preservation site still in operation.
Last year, Beazer East Inc., a Pittsburgh-based company that briefly owned the Koppers Superfund site and is now responsible for its cleanup, determined that arsenic had made its way into the Floridan Aquifer, the underground source of water for many in North Florida. Additional testing is under way, and Beazer is expected to present its latest findings to county and federal officials in coming weeks.
Despite the site's history, and new evidence that suggests arsenic and other Superfund-related chemicals may be moving in the Floridan toward the city wellfield, no one is ready to say Cabot-Koppers is the source of the elevated arsenic.
"First of all, there's questions about what the data means," said Chris Bird, director of the county's Environmental Protection Department. "There's questions about whether it's valid data. Where these wells are located, we don't know what's going on in between."
He added: "My first reaction without looking at the data was that this might be related to the Superfund site. But as our staff has had a chance to look at the data, (it's become clear) there is definitely a need to resample."
While city and county groundwater experts agree that more study is needed, however, the news hasn't been friction-free.
According to the utility, the arsenic detected near Cabot-Koppers was found at levels ranging from 19 to 44 parts per billion, first in November and again in December. The readings were within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's current drinking water standard of 50 ppb, but above the 10 ppb standard scheduled to go into effect in 2006.
(President Bill Clinton announced the lower arsenic threshold in 2001, saying it "will provide additional health protections" for Americans, including protections from cancer, cardiovascular disease and other health problems.)
Ed Regan, GRU's assistant general manager for strategic planning, said that the amounts of arsenic found were within allowable levels, and that the wells were sampled multiple times before the results were reported to ensure their accuracy.
"We are very concerned about this whole situation," Regan said Friday. "The good news is that these monitoring wells are very far away from the water supply. The bad news is that we found something."
Bird, on the other hand, has taken issue with what he says was a failure by GRU to report the data in a timely fashion.
"We are extremely disappointed that GRU failed to notify our agency until the day they released this to the public," the EPD director said, noting that he first learned of the contamination when a Sun reporter called his home Tuesday evening.
Despite a county requirement stipulating that such findings must be reported to EPD within 24 hours of discovery, he added, "GRU appears to have been withholding this arsenic data from us."
Greg Bruno can be reached at (352) 374-5026 or greg.bruno@gvillesun.com.

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