Sunday, December 7, 2003

Your drinking water must be kept safe


A water fight has broken out here over a Northern Kentucky plan to locate an outflow pipe from a new sewage treatment plant only 11 miles upstream of Cincinnati's drinking water intake. This is a serious regional concern demanding a collaborative regional compromise.

Greater Cincinnati Water Works Director David Rager is all for the new treatment plant; he just wants Northern Kentucky Sanitation District No. 1 to move its discharge pipe at least a quarter mile downstream of Cincinnati's water intake. The Cincinnati intake is on the Kentucky side of the river near the eastern Interstate 275 bridge. Two Kentucky intakes also collect drinking water near that site. Rager offers to help Northern Kentucky lobby Washington for federal funds to pay for the extra cost of moving the sewer outflow pipe.

Jeffrey Eger, sanitation director for the Northern Kentucky district, says moving the pipe downstream would add about $40 million to his $75 million project, and he argues it's unnecessary. Both sides disagree on the science of river flows, the safe distance between wastewater discharge and drinking water intakes, and the threat of pathogens in local drinking water.

Eger says Northern Kentucky's new Eastern Regional plant will greatly improve water quality by replacing a substandard Alexandria Wastewater Treatment Plant, and its ultraviolet purification system will knock out pathogens such as Cryptosporidium. A 1993 outbreak in Milwaukee's drinking water sickened more than 400,000 people and at least 54 died. Northern Kentucky sanitation officials argue Cryptosporidium, especially from livestock, comes from countless sources, and water works need to treat for such pathogens whether a wastewater pipe is nearby or not.

A scientific advisory committee to Cincinnati Water Works warns that Cryptosporidium from cattle is less virulent; that a different, nastier species, Cryptosporidium hominis; accounted for the Milwaukee outbreak; and that the new Eastern Regional plant's ultraviolet system would not be effective against that human parasite species. Rager says the water works would have to invest $30 million to $50 million on extra treatment systems, and $3 million more a year on operations. Besides, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has laid down the principle that no water system should have to provide more treatment than what's necessary to address naturally occurring water pollutants.

But wastewater officials traditionally had to meet only Clean Water Act standards, while water works officials must meet more stringent Safe Drinking Water Act standards. The two sets of officials rarely talk to each other. Rager says the Northern Kentucky Sanitation District has never notified him when sewage overflows go in the river, and the new plant will not be equipped with automatic notification devices.

The new sewage plant will have a potential discharge of 4 million gallons a day into the Ohio River. The Kentucky Division of Water will decide on the permit, but the federal EPA will have final say. They should make sure the outflow pipe's location does not jeopardize this region's drinking water supply.

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