Dade Water Authority head Doug Anderton shows a chart of contaminants local water is tested and treated for. Chromium-6 is not among them. It is what's called in the industry an unregulated contaminant -- though Anderton thinks that may ultimately change.
Reports of a carcinogen called chromium-6 showing up in Dade County drinking water have been making the local Facebook rounds recently and some Planet readers have asked: Is there cause for alarm? Thus The Dade Planet paid a visit to the Dade Water Authority on Monday to ask the county water boss, Doug Anderton, if he was worried about chromium-6. The answer was ... well, sort of.
"If the customers are concerned, I'm concerned," said Anderton.
But not enough, he said, to stop drinking Dade water, he added. "What the level is here is basically negligible to levels in other states," he said.
Anyway, said Anderton, even if chromium-6 really is a danger in the concentrations found in Dade, there's nothing he can do about it at present. "My hands are tied," he said. "When and if the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] determines there's a health risk for chromium-6 and they determine the level it can be, then they'll also give us a method for taking it out of the water, for treatment. Right now, that's not even out there. There's not a treatment process for chromium-6."
Anderton said he'd received a handful of calls from customers about chromium-6, the first of them last week, before he'd heard anything about the issue himself. The flap, he said, started with a CNN story which had itself been generated by a report from a nonprofit consumer protection group called EWG (Environmental Working Group.) EWG posted on its website (ewg.org) an interactive map that allows visitors to click on their county and find chromium-6 levels in their drinking water.
Click your mouse at the top left corner of Georgia and you'll see that samples of Dade's water averaged 1.17 ppb chromium-6 vs. 0.198 and 0.201 for neighboring Walker and Catoosa, respectively. That "ppb" stands for part-per-billion, which translates to about one drop of water in a full Olympic-sized swimming pool, according to a fact sheet compiled by the California government.
So the incidence of the mineral is not what anyone could call heavy in any of the three counties. "A lot of the Midwestern states, their levels are 15, 14, 14 and a half," pointed out Anderton. But he himself was curious why Dade's should show up as chromium-6-heavier than the other two counties.
Chromium is a naturally-occurring element that shows up in the environment mostly in two chemical forms, "trivalent"--called chromium-3--and hexavalent, or chromium-6. Currently, the EPA--which Anderton explained passes its standards down through the individual state environmental agencies, in Georgia's case the Environmental Protection Division (EPD)--does not separate chromium-3 from chromium-6 in its total allowable chromium concentration of 100 ppb.
But chromium-3 is much less toxic than chromium-6, which Anderton explained is often a byproduct of manufacturing or coal-burning power plants. The dangers of chromium-6 were publicized by the 2000 movie Erin Brockovich, based on the true story of a law firm clerk who linked a corporation's sloppy handling of industrial waste containing the element to soaring cancer rates in the affected California community.
California has since become the first state to set its own chromium-6 standards independently of the EPA. The regulated state maximum is 10 ppb, but the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment recommends as a public health goal the much lower standard of 0.02 ppb.
The rest of the states, including Georgia, have no mandated maximum level of chromium-6. The Georgia EPD, through the water authorities and rural water associations, tests levels of it only every couple of years under the UCMR, or Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule. Anderton explained that the figures shown on the EWG come from UCMR3, the last such sampling, completed in 2015. The next avatar, UCMR4, is expected to begin in 2017. Perhaps, said Anderton, Dade's chromium-6 levels will test lower then.
Why? Chromium-6 is generally present in an area's water supply from industrial waste, said Anderton, but: "There's no industry between here and Valley Head, where our water source starts at," he said.
The headwaters of Lookout Creek, Dade's raw water source, are in Valley Head, Ala. "It's there 22 miles before we take it out, and then it goes another 11 miles to the Tennessee River," said Anderton. "That's it."
The other common origin of chromium-6 is coal ash. There was a coal-burning power plant, Widow's Creek, at Stevenson, Ala., which is closer to Dade than to the other Georgia counties, pointed out Anderton. "If it (chromium-6) came from that coal ash burning and going into the air, and then washing out in rainwater, it could be that when they run the new round of testing it could be a lot less," he said.
That's because Widow's Creek, like coal-fired plants all over the nation, ceased operations in 2015.
Anderton says that EPA is probably in fact already working on a standard for chromium-6 and will eventually set a maximum acceptable level. "Probably every contaminant that we're testing for went through this same series of tests by EPA before they determined, this is the level," he said. "I think the last one was radon."
Radon, parenthetically, occurs naturally in the earth, from which it leaches into drinking water, then out into the air from the tap. But it is easily dispelled with an exhaust fan and in any case not present in our part of the country in sufficient concentrations to cause much trouble.
So Anderton will remove chromium-6 from Dade's water if and when EPD tells him how much is too much and how to get it out. Meanwhile, he contacted the agency requesting a public safety statement about the chromium-6 alarm, and on Tuesday, Tamara Frank, an environmental compliance specialist with the department's Drinking Water Compliance Unit, responded with one, which Anderton shared with The Planet.
The statement noted, again, that current national standards do not separate chromium-3 from chromium-6 but that in any case: "Dade County while showing detects of chromium and chromium-6 had levels WELL under the maximum contaminant levels (MCL) established by EPA for total chromium." [Capital letters added for emphasis by Ms. Frank, not The Planet.]
As for links to cancer, The Planet looked up on a National Cancer Institute website incidents of cancer per 100,000 in Dade County with its 1.17 average ppb of chromium-6 versus Canadian County, Okla., with its 9.47 average ppb. Canadian County had 502.1 cancer cases versus Dade's 377.7 for the most current sampling period available. Dade's figures were, incidentally, the 14th lowest of Georgia's 159 counties.
Those figures may, of course, mean little. Other factors may contribute, and it was once explained to The Planet that Dade's vital statistics are often misreported because of its peculiar bordertown status, with most patients treated and in fact born in hospitals in other states.
In any case, Doug Anderton, who has worked at Dade Water Authority for over 40 years and is a past president of the National Rural Water Association, can reassure water customers that the water company has its eye on what comes out of their taps. He says that big water disasters like the one in Flint, Mich., happen because people aren't doing their jobs.
"That's one of the things that I see different about rural water in America," he said. "Rural water people have a vested interest. It's their family, it's their friends--a lot of people drink our water that we care for. We do everything that we can do to make sure it's good water."
If readers are concerned about contaminants, though, The Planet can assure them that researching water quality online will reap them a healthy capitalist harvest of sales ads for filtration systems.