How safe is our drinking water? Investigation shows dangers are all around

Butler County residents often take clean water for granted, presuming the local supply is as endlessly abundant as the air they breathe.

Underneath the Miami Valley, and running along the Great Miami River, a giant aquifer holding 1.5 trillion gallons of water serves the needs of 3 million consumers for drinking water. Those customers include residents and businesses in Hamilton, which has won awards for some of the world’s tastiest tap water, and the MillerCoors Trenton Brewery in St. Clair Township.

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Unseen, the mammoth groundwater source is potentially vulnerable to contamination, officials say.

It wouldn’t take a major industrial disaster like the Chem-Dyne debacle of the late 1970s and early 1980s in Hamilton, where a company brought in tens of thousands of oil-drum-sized containers, with stated hopes of recycling them into other products.

Spills from the site killed more than a million fish and water animals in the river, the state said when it sued Chem-Dyne and other companies. Fires there during the 1970s worried the community, and in September of 1976, Ohio officials sued.

A 1982 federal-court settlement involving the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered cleanup by the site’s operators, and also payments by companies that had sent chemicals to the Hamilton location at what now is 500 Joe Nuxhall Boulevard. The removal of soil and later cleansing of the property — by pumping water from around the land, removing chemicals and returning water below-ground — has continued for decades, and monitoring continues, under that court settlement.

“We’re happy they’ve reduced an enormous amount of contamination,” said Tim McLelland, manager of the Hamilton-to-New-Baltimore-Area Ground Water Consortium. “Obviously, it’s not still all cleaned up, so it’s on our radar.”

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John Bui, who manages Hamilton’s drinking-water-processing operations, said the contamination has never threatened the city’s well fields. It “has been contained on that site, and it’s been monitored there,” Bui said.

Unthreatened by the chemicals are the city’s water wells that are north of the former Chem-Dyne property, as are wells the city and Fairfield uses to the south, which mostly are in Fairfield.

Hamilton won a gold medal for best municipal tap water in the world at 2010 and 2015 tasting competitions in Berkeley Springs, W.Va. Late last month, the water won a silver medal at the same competition, for second-best in the nation.

It wouldn’t take a major industrial mishap like Chem-Dyne, or Dayton’s Sherwin-Williams fire three decades ago, to contaminate the water supply.

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A train car derailment, auto crash or leaky underground petroleum tank could do it. Even chemicals from firefighting foam have been shown to be a threat in the area.

The number of spills that have been reported just in Butler County to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency since 2012 has ranged from 48 in 2013 to 59 last years, according to state records provided to this media outlet. They have ranged from minor to potentially severe.

And they can come as very unexpected surprises.

On Aug. 3, 2015, the Dixie Gas Depot at the Fairfield intersection of Dixie Highway and Winton Road had an unearthly surprise when lightning struck during business hours. The explosion shot one of the three tanks — two containing gasoline, and one with diesel fuel — into the air.

Apparently, “all it took was just a spark that caused this tank to blow up in between the other two tanks,” McLelland said. “It basically blew the concrete up into the air, and the concrete came back down on top of all three tanks, destroying all three tanks.”

The gas-price signs on display now at the Gas Depot read $0.00 , because what was a convenience store and filling station still lacks the ability to sell gas.

“We did shut off one of the Hamilton production wells, just temporarily, and it was basically a precaution,” McLelland said about the gas-station incident. “We have not seen any problems with that well, and we continue to monitor the monitoring wells in between the drinking-water wells, to make sure none of that material gets to our drinking-water wells.

“They’re cleaning up the groundwater as we speak, in fact. They’ve been working on that for at least the past six or eight months, from what I understand.”

Fairfield Fire Chief Don Bennett said the station explosion was so rare that only three such events are known to have happened. A fire chief in Nebraska contacted him to tell of one there. The explosion in Fairfield that threw a huge concrete patch into the air happened in a tank converted to diesel that had once held gasoline. After conversion to diesel, it retained the fuel-vapor-return system from the pump’s nozzle back to the underground tank, even though one no longer was needed.

Also, lightning had hit a utility pole that was surprisingly far away with such energy that the bottom of a transformer on the pole was blown off, and two woven-metal-cable guide wires to the ground were burned in half. The electricity was transmitted from there through the ground to the tanks.

The owner at Gas Depot this week, who witnessed the lightening strike and not wish to give his name, said he was glad the incident happened during business because people immediately understood the cause and realized nobody had caused the explosion on purpose. He said he didn’t know when — or if ever — he would begin selling gas.

McLelland said the station did nothing wrong and has been very good to work with in the aftermath.

“That was probably our most notable, most recent, large issue, and the groundwater was impacted with gasoline products and diesel-fuel products,” said McLelland, who also teaches about ways to avoid spills. “The gas station owner is currently addressing that “with long-term monitoring that’ll occur for several years, to make sure it doesn’t get to our drinking-water production wells.”

Less than 14 months after the gas station’s explosion, a 25-year-old Hamilton woman crashed a Chevrolet Impala into the store building. She later was charged with driving under the influence.

On Tuesday, the owner smiled and shook his head at the unlucky incidents at his store. He pointed to a hand-written sign on the store’s wall that said, “Tough times never last, but tough people do.”

“This is a sensitive area,” chief Bennett said, referring to the aquifer. He called McLelland “very good to work with.”

Monitoring wells makes up a local surveillance system of sorts, and each is checked at least twice a year for more than 100 contaminants that could find their way into the aquifer.

Most of the time, nothing is detected. But in the spring, nitrogen is found from property owners over-fertilizing their lawns, McLelland said.

Nitrogen does make its way into the ground water during the year after property owners over-fertilize their lawns, McLelland said.

The Ohio EPA has ordered both Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the city of Dayton to take action to prevent contamination of the Mad River well fields and the giant aquifer.

But if the region’s water supply became tainted, the consequences could be long-term and disastrous, impacting the many residents and businesses that depend on clean water for their daily needs.

Cities like Hamilton, Dayton and Cincinnati with a decades-long history of industrial manufacturing face some of the most persistent threats, said Bonnie Buthker, Ohio EPA District Chief for southwest Ohio.

“One of the unique things that we have is most of our drinking water systems rely on that aquifer for their source of drinking water,” she said.

In 2004, the U.S. EPA designated the aquifer a sole source water resource, meaning it serves a large number of people and contamination could cause a widespread public health issue.

Frank Szollosi, National Wildlife Federation manager of the Great Lakes campaign, said industrial and municipal threats aren’t the only concerns to clean drinking water. Microbeads, pharmaceuticals and paint dumped through the water treatment system add to environmental woes.

While the Ohio EPA has set out a $1.7 billion water protection and infrastructure plan this year through loans and financial aid, Szollosi decried cuts to the federal EPA in the White House budget.

Three decades ago, the aquifer faced a potential environmental disaster.

Dozens of firefighters watched a Sherman Williams warehouse filled with 1.5 million gallons of paint and other chemicals burned for almost six days. They avoided spraying water on the flaming site out of fear it would wash toxic chemicals into the aquifer.

That fire led to the Multi-Jurisdictional Well Field Protection Program, which became the Source Water Protection Program, the first of which started in Dayton.

“In being an extremely valuable resource, we have to take a lot of precautions in working with our water systems to make sure that the aquifer is protected and that they don’t have contamination that is getting pulled into the system,” Buthker said.

Groundwater can become polluted and contaminated by construction and development, leaking underground storage tanks, improper disposal of hazardous waste and releases or spills of industrial waste and other chemicals.

In recent years, such agencies also received local reports of spilled paint, printing materials, acetone, beer, ammonia, white foam, grease, solvent, lime slurry and more. Buried substances hidden in trash mounds at landfills pose threats, too.

Since 2013, there have been a handful of spill reports involving firefighter foam, among the biggest threats.

Many spills are fairly minor, requiring basic clean up and remediation. But it doesn’t take much to run into trouble.

Four quarts of used motor oil can contaminate 1 million gallons of water, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. One gallon of gasoline can pollute 750,000 gallons of water.

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Thousands of chemicals are not regulated, said Kristy Meyer, Ohio Environmental Council vice president of natural resources.

“There’s hundreds and thousands of chemicals that are not regulated at the moment,” she said. “So how do we protect consumers … and protect people’s drinking water?”

More action is needed to do a better job to monitor chemicals of regional concern, post public health advisories and to set water quality standards, she said.

“It can be done and should be done,” she added. “No mother or father should worry about turning on their tap water and worrying about the safety of their kids.”

Meyers said regulators should consider the “body burden,” or total exposure of a toxin to the human body to set the limits of what’s considered safe.

“You come into contact with these chemicals in a lot of different ways and we kind of look at them as a vacuum,” she said.

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