Improper Water Treatment Caused Lead And Copper To Enter Bethel Drinking Water

Aug 22, 2019

After the City of Bethel doubled the amount of water flowing through the City Subdivision water treatment plant in fall of 2018, it failed to properly treat it, leading to the water pulling lead and copper into the city's drinking water.
Credit Anna Rose MacArthur / KYUK

This week, the City of Bethel held a meeting to address public concerns regarding Bethel’s water test results. State officials, along with the city’s engineers, explained why copper and lead levels increased in the water last year and what homeowners can do to protect themselves.

Here’s the timeline of events:

In September 2018, the city tested the water at 10 sites in Bethel's City Subdivision. In October, the results showed that half the sites had levels of lead and/or copper exceeding federal standards. In December, the city contracted DOWL Engineering to fix the problem. DOWL conducted its first water test in late January and conducted two more tests in February and March. The city notified the public of the high levels in July 2019, months later than required under state regulation. Also in July 2019, the city re-tested the water. The tests showed lead and copper levels were meeting federal standards by that time. 

Here's what happened:

The City of Bethel began testing the institutional corridor last fall, a project that supplies water to buildings along Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway. The project doubled the amount of water flowing through the City Subdivision water treatment plant. But for months, the city failed to properly treat the water, leading to it pulling lead and copper into the city's distribution system.

“With the institutional corridor coming online last fall, we did have a little figuring out things phase,” said Chase Nelson with DOWL Engineering. “So the water goes out the pipes, and then it goes into everyone’s households and has contact with copper fixtures and lead solder.

Nelson says that the lead and copper was coming from these fixtures and solder. Testing showed no copper or lead in the water coming from the treatment plant, which meant the problem came from how the water was being treated.

“Everyone talks about pH, and that’s one measurement of how aggressive a water is, how acidic or basic a water is,” Nelson explained. “But there are other things that we measure called the langelier and risinger indices.”

Those indices were high, and a chemical activity was causing the water to pull lead and copper ions from the pipes. DOWL suggested adding calcium carbonate to the water. By spring, the water had stabilized. Bethel’s water system is unique in that the water is constantly circulated to prevent freezing. When the water gets too aggressive, the likelihood of lead and copper leaching into the water goes up. 

“It circulates in the mains. It circulates in the service lines that go to the house,” Nelson said. “All this means that a lot of water is being exposed to fixtures and pipes and all that.”

Because those pipes are above ground, that water is circulating fast, about one foot per second. And in winter, those pipes are heated, which makes the water more likely to pull those metals from the pipes.

The water now meets federal standards for lead and copper, but these metals are still in the water. The numbers are not at zero. Cindy Christian with the Department of Environmental Conservation explained what homeowners can do to reduce their lead exposure. 

“One would be to only use cold water,” she said. “A higher temperature does allow more minerals to be leached from your pipes or your fixtures. The other thing is to clean out your aerator.”

Aerators are the screens at the end of faucets, and debris can get caught there. Another suggestion is to flush your pipes by running your water for a couple minutes anytime that it has sat in the pipes for six hours or more. Homeowners can buy water filters certified by the EPA to remove lead and copper, and homeowners can also change their faucets. 

“If you have a faucet in your home, especially your kitchen faucet, where most people get their water, that was installed or bought before 2014, you might want to consider getting a new faucet,” Christian said.

In 2014, federal regulation reduced the amount of lead that could be in faucets to 0.25 percent.

Speaking at the town meeting, Jonathan Bressler, with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, addressed health concerns related to lead. 

“Water is not the only source of exposure,” he explained. “Lead is in many things, such as paint. It’s in aviation gas. It’s in fishing weights. It’s in ammunition.”

Bethel tests more children for lead than most places in Alaska. In 2018, no children in Bethel tested positive for a high lead level. For the state, that means a blood lead level of five micrograms per deciliter. Children with high lead levels over a sustained period of time can develop cognitive and behavioral disorders. 

“A spike in a child’s lead level that goes up and comes back down is generally not very concerning,”  Bressler said.

But for parents Bryan and Joan Daniels, it is concerning. They had their first child last year. When they took him for his one-year wellness check-up, he registered a blood lead level of three micrograms per decimeter. That’s higher than the national average of two for children.

“So it wasn’t above the five, but it was much greater than we would expect,” said the father, Bryan Daniels.  

Daniels said that he and his wife bought lead test kits and tested every surface of their home. Everything came back negative.

“We have done everything in our known toolbox of things to figure out where his lead level came from,” Daniels said. “And my wife through her whole pregnancy and breastfeeding has been drinking the water. My son has been drinking the water. So the only thing that we can think of is it is through the water.”

Acting City Manager Bill Howell says that the city has put in preventative measures. They’ve stabilized the water, and the Bethel Public Works Director is now in charge of notifying the public of water test results. New water expansion projects, like the one installed for the institutional corridor and the one planned for Bethel’s Avenues Subdivision, are installed using plastic rather than metal pipes. And the state has placed the city on a more rigorous testing schedule. Instead of testing 10 locations each year, the city will have to test 20 locations every six months.

There are two certified laboratories in Anchorage that test for lead and copper in water. They are ARS Aleut Analytical (907-258-2155) and SGC Laboratories (907-562-2343). To get a water test kit, call the lab. They will ship the kit out with instructions, and results are returned in about two weeks. The City of Bethel does not test homes that use hauled water.

Listen to the full public meeting here.

Correction: A previous version of this story said that the blood lead level is measured in micrograms per decimeter. That is incorrect. Blood lead level is measured in micrograms per deciliter.