An aerial view of Bethel. (Creative Commons photo by Holy Trinity Orthodox Church)
The most recent results from Bethel’s City Subdivision water tests are in, and it’s good news: They show copper and lead levels now meeting federal standards. A large infrastructure project last fall is the suspected cause of why the levels had gone up.
In 2016 and 2017, copper and lead levels in City Subdivision water were fine; tests fell within the public health limits set by the federal government. Then, in the fall of 2018, the levels spiked above these standards.
There was something else happening around that same time that Bethel’s Acting City Manager Bill Howell suspects caused the increase.
“The institutional corridor coming online could have affected the overall treatment of the system,” he said.
The institutional corridor expanded the city’s water distribution system to begin piping water to several large buildings along Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway, including the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation facilities, the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge building and the Yukon Kuskokwim Correctional Center.
At the time that the city was testing City Subdivision’s water for copper and lead in September 2018, the city was also testing the institutional corridor. The project nearly doubles the amount of water pumping through the City Subdivision water treatment plant. Suddenly the city was treating a lot more water, and the way the city was treating that water could have made the water more corrosive.
“Changes in treatment can affect pH,” Howell explained. “They can affect how much chlorine and other compounds we’re adding to the water, so there might be a bit of an adjustment period for that.”
It looks as if the city’s current treatment methods have stabilized the water. New tests taken the last week of July 2019 from the same locations as the initial tests show decreased levels of copper and lead, now meeting federal standards. And the most recent tests did not detect any lead or copper coming from the City Subdivision water treatment plant, meaning that any lead or copper would be getting into the water from the piping system in a home or building.
“Because it is the fixtures and the plumbing in people’s houses that cause this,” Howell said.
How long the copper and lead levels were elevated in City Subdivision’s water is undetermined. It could have been any time between the testing in the fall of 2017 and July 2019, when the water looked fine. The city is working with DOWL Engineering and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to further analyze why the levels increased.
All three entities are hosting a joint public meeting at Bethel City Hall on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 5:30-7 p.m., to provide more information and answer questions.
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