Report finds pollutants lurking in S. Florida tap water
An environmental group’s report found that dozens of chemicals show up in tap water, but utilities and regulators defended the safety of South Florida’s drinking water.
(MIAMI HERALD) More than 100 pollutants, from farm herbicides to factory solvents, have shown up in Florida tap water during the last five years — many barely detectable, but more than a quarter exceeding federal standards at least once, according to a report compiled by an environmental group.
Miami-Dade, among the largest utilities in the country with 2.1 million customers, recorded no violations. Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale and four other utilities in Miami-Dade and Broward counties reported only a handful of violations in thousands of tests since 2004.
But all the systems also detected from 11 to 17 chemicals — some repeatedly and others occasionally — at levels above U.S. Environmental Protection Agency health guidelines. Those aren’t legal limits, but more-stringent benchmarks that would virtually eliminate any risk of cancer or other illness over a lifetime of drinking a system’s water.
The most common:disinfectants used in water treatment, followed by assorted other toxicsubstances such as cyanide, arsenic, radium and barium.
Olga Naidenko, a senior scientist for the Washington-based Environmental Working Group, said because most EPA standards are based on annual averages, formal water quality violations are rare and mask wider unreported concerns, such as unregulated chemicals and seasonal spikes that could pose public health risks.
“What they are saying to you is they are in compliance, and they usually are,” said Naidenko, one of the lead researchers for the report, which EWG posted online this month in a comprehensive data base. “We feel like this is giving a more complete picture of what is happening in Florida and what is happening in the country.”
The database shows that 316 chemicals have been detected in drinking water nationwide. There are no federal or state standards for more than half of them.
The number of chemicals detected in South Florida was roughly triple the national average but better than two North Florida utilities the EWG ranked among the worst of the 100 largest municipal systems nationwide: JEA in Jacksonville at No. 91 and, dead last, Emerald Coast in Pensacola, with 45 chemicals detected overall, 21 topping EPA guidelines. Neither recorded water quality violations.
Utilities and state and federal regulators don’t dispute the numbers, compiled from some 20 million regular tests that 47,677 water plant operators filed to state water and environmental agencies.
But they called EWG’s report and rankings misleading and skewed to overstate potential risks.
Dee Ann Miller, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which monitors drinking water quality, said utility customers in Pensacola and Jacksonville had nothing to worry about and that Florida has “some of the highest quality and safest drinking water in the United States.”
“To imply these utilities are supplying unsafe drinking water is both irresponsible and simply not true,” she said in a written statement.
Rafael Terrero, assistant director of Miami-Dade’s Water and Sewer Department, which ranked No. 46 on the list of 100 “big city” systems serving more than a quarter-million people, said the county water beat EPA standards by a wide margin.
“To me, it’s excellent water,” he said.
The EPA and DEP have been at odds over a court-ordered plan by the federal agency to impose nutrient standards for Florida surface waters, but both defended oversight of tap water.
They said EWG, which campaigns for tougher toxicity standards, crunched the numbers to suggest the widest number of problems — placing too much weight on the number of chemicals, including many at trace levels, and the EPA guidelines that aren’t intended as legal limits.
For most carcinogens, the guideline to eliminate any health impact is close to zero. That goal, said Terrero, is too expensive to justify.
“How the hell can you get zero? You’d have to go to something like a bottled water and pay $4,000 for it,” he said. “If we’re going to treat something to get rid of all this, we’ll be to a point where people couldn’t afford water.”
Overall, 22 different chemicals were detected in Miami-Dade, about average for South Florida utilities.
About half were by-products of chlorine and ammonia treatment to remove bacteria and pathogens. Most of them are suspected carcinogens at high levels or linked to other illnesses. Miami-Dade’s tests on average detected only a third of the amount allowed under EPA’s legal standard — based on a 1-in-10,000 chance of developing cancer from drinking two liters a day for 70 years — but periodically exceeded no-risk guidelines.
The trade-off of reducing disinfectants, the EPA said, would be less protection from the pathogens they kill.
Most remaining chemicals such as barium, an unregulated mineral that can occur naturally but also in mining and industrial waste, showed up sporadically and at levels some 50 to 100 times below no-risk EPA guidelines.
Miami-Dade has had other issues that didn’t show up in the report, most recently a plume of benzene, typically associated with blasting or fuel spills, found in rock pits near the county’s largest well field. The contamination, detected in 2005, forced the county to shut down several wells for years.
In 2003, the department, in negotiations with the DEP, also agreed to spend $400 million to fix persistent leaks from an underground sewage injection in South Miami-Dade that threatened to taint drinking water supplies.
Four South Florida utilities — Florida City, Coral Springs, Dania Beach and Pembroke Pines — ranked among 20 in the state with the highest number of chemicals.
Florida City, which supplies only about 10,000 people, had the third largest number — 38 — but 30 were detected only once in 2005, all below EPA legal limits but above the lifetime risk-free guidelines. The array suggests some sort of agricultural pesticide spill.
Jacksonville’s JEA and Emerald Coast, the two utilities ranked in the bottom 10 nationally, both dismissed the EWG report.
Kevin Holbrooks, JEA’s director of compliance, said the analysis penalized utilities for testing frequently and for a wide array of chemicals.
The average utility conducted 420 tests. JEA ran 17 times more tests and detected 23 chemicals — some naturally occurring in the Floridan Aquifer that the utility draws from, he said.
“That’s 23 hits out of 7,000 test results,” he said. “Percentage-wise, our numbers are better than most.”
However, in annual reports, both utilities cautioned that some contaminants could pose heightened risk to people with health problems, especially illnesses that suppress the immune system — a boilerplate warning repeated by most utilities.
The EPA said it will decide by 2014 whether to write legal limits for up to five new contaminants in addition to the 114 it already regulates. If is does, it would be the first update since 2000.
Environmentalists, saying the data exposed holes in water-quality reporting and enforcement, argue more needs to be done and faster.
Naidenko said with chemical detections rising, regulators need to be considering the impact of exposure to more than one contaminant at a time, and one-day or seasonal spikes that could harm newborns and children.
“The issue we see is being really proactive about what is in the water and how we can protect it,” she said.