Tuesday, January 3, 2017

My experiences while serving as an At-Large member of the Gloucester County, Virginia Public Utilities Advisory Committee (PUAC) (The 3rd in a series of articles about my experiences and findings)

Our Water Treatment Facilities

We all know having access to safe, drinkable water is a necessity in sustaining human life. When we think of drinking water we think “clean”. Don’t we? Shouldn’t the plant our water comes from be clean and the water from it clean when we consume it? Of course it should. And “safe”? It has to be “safe” beyond reproach; Right? Heck yes it does. Do you know where your water comes from? Do you know what is in it? Are we paying a fair price for our water? In this and other articles I will share what I know about our local government operated public water supply system and sewer system. This article is about my first visit to our water treatment plants.

In Gloucester County, Virginia, some residences and businesses obtain water from private wells while others obtain this life sustaining element from our public water supply system. Some of our public schools obtain water from private type wells while others obtain it from our public water supply system. Many people with private wells and their children are likely to consume water from our public supply system at schools, at church, in restaurants, at the hospital, in doctor offices, at a friend’s house and so on. There are a lot of people who come to Gloucester County to visit family and friends, enjoy our historical attractions and attend various events. Many of these people also consume water from our public supply system. With so many people drinking our public water one would think our local government would do everything necessary to insure the safety, quality and availability of the water so many of us consume. That certainly “was not” the impression I was left with after my first visit to our water treatment facilities.

Our local government obtains water from two different types of sources and operates two different types of treatment plants that are located next to each other. Treated water from both sources are combined together to make up the water provided in our public supply system. Our first water source is Beaver Dam Reservoir, which began being used to supply our public water system when our surface water treatment plant was constructed in 1990. Our second source of water is the Potomac Aquifer. We have two deep wells near the water treatment plants that pull brackish (salt containing) water from the aquifer and sends it to our second type of treatment plant; our reverse osmosis plant that was placed into operation in 2003.

When I first visited our water treatment facilities in 2014, I was given a tour by then plant manager Brent Payne. Mr. Payne has since been promoted to Assistant Director of our Utility Department; in my opinion, a well deserved promotion. I have visited several such treatment plants over the years, but I have to say, our plant was without doubt, the absolute worst of them all. Most plants I have visited appeared very clean and well maintained, yet I found our surface water treatment plant to be just the opposite. Mr. Payne showed me various pictures of what areas of our plant looked like when he first began working there and it was even worse than what I was seeing as I walked through the plant. It was evident by the pictures, Mr. Payne and his people had made numerous improvements, but there was still a lot of work to be done to return our plant to an acceptable, up to date condition.

One of the larger rooms in our surface water treatment plant contains numerous large water pipes, valves and pumps that are used to control the flow of water during treatment processes and subsequent implementation of disinfected water into the public supply system. It was evident recent repairs had been made to some of the components within this room, but there was a lot that still needed attention. There were trails of water running into floor drains that were coming from small leaks in various places. There were bolts in valves and other components that were corroded and needed to be replaced several years before I first saw them. It looked like no preventive maintenance had occurred for many years. The only items in the room that looked like they had been painted in the last 20 years were items worked on by Mr. Payne and his crew. Not long after my first visit, a leak occurred in this room which sprayed water onto an electrical panel that was not designed to resist water. A short occurred in the panel, equipment was damaged and our facility and employees were placed in harms way because our local government ignored safety requirements that are diligently enforced upon private citizens and businesses.

I saw rooms inside our surface water treatment plant that were filled with various items that were piled and mixed together with zero thought of accountability, organization or value. Most of the walls throughout our plant looked dingy and as if they had not been painted for many years. The lighting was poor and ventilation seemed inadequate in most areas as it was very humid with the continuous smell of chlorine in the air. 

I went into another larger room that is primarily dedicated to storing and adding various chemicals and compounds used in the surface water treatment processes. Within this room was a smaller room that is dedicated to adding activated carbon (essentially charcoal dust) into the water treatment process. The activated carbon is contained in bags that resemble plastic lined paper grass seed sacks. These bags are periodically dumped by hand into a hopper by our employees. When they dump the bags, black dust fills the air unless there is an adequate exhaust and filter system to collect it as it comes out of the bag. No such system existed at the time of my first visit. The walls and everything else in the room were black from years of carbon dust buildup. When asked, Mr. Payne said he could not guarantee every employee utilized dusts masks, eye protection or other safety devices every time carbon was dumped into the hopper.

Activated Carbon is relatively safe to use, but prolonged exposure to carbon dust has been found to cause pulmonary disorders. For this reason OSHA has established airborne exposure limits and is the reason I wasted no time in bringing my concerns about potential health risks to the attention of our BOS and County administration. A rudimentary exhaust system has since been installed, but I have no knowledge of its make up or effectiveness.   

After visiting our surface water treatment plant we headed to the reverse osmosis plant. This newer plant appeared, at first glance, to be in much better shape than our surface water plant. Mr. Payne explained about the water for this plant coming from two nearby wells that tap into the Potomac Aquifer. He also explained that one of the wells is not used as much as the other because it was positioned in a place containing high iron content. He further explained that iron greatly shortens the life of the plant’s expensive filters. The only way to correct this problem is to drill at another location, verify the water quality and then construct the well pump house. It looks like someone previously skipped the “verify the water quality” step. I wonder how much that screw up will eventually cost us.    

Residents, businesses and others, who obtain water for human consumption from private wells, are responsible for monitoring the safety and quality of water drawn from “their” wells. Samples of private well water can be tested by our local, state government run, Health Department or by private labs like Reed and Associates in Newport News. Our local government is primarily responsible for monitoring the public system water, but the Health Department plays an “oversight” role in the monitoring process. Our public school system is responsible for monitoring water drawn from wells at our schools that are not connected to our public supply system. The Health Department also plays an oversight role in this monitoring process. Considering instances like Flint Michigan; in which local and state government monitors hid substandard test results, coupled with some of the things I have seen and learned about our public water system; I am not convinced our local government has always done the job we have paid or elected them to do.

I will share more of what I have learned about the quality of our public water in later articles. Before I close I want to share this: So far, the picture I have painted of our public water and sewer department is fairly negative. I guess it appears that way because there have been so many years of neglect. In all fairness to the people currently leading our Utilities Department, I have to say they are dedicated, knowledgeable and capable employees. They did not create the mess I am sharing with you in these articles; in fact, they have made some improvements. Our Utilities Department could use more support from our Board of Supervisors, but Utilities and the PUAC could do a much better job of publicly providing our BOS and us with an accurate, nonpolitical and complete picture of the condition and capabilities of our water and sewer infrastructure. More on that later.
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Kenneth E. Hogge, Sr.
Gloucester Point, Virginia