By Emily Le Coz | NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Roughly one in seven Northeast Mississippi water providers got slapped with state violations last year for everything from contamination to monitoring failures.
Leading the pack were the Lafayette Springs Water Association, North Lee County Water Association and the town of Pittsboro – all with four violations each.
Lafayette Springs, a nonprofit corporation in Oxford, got two violations for failing to test the water for bacteria and two because it didn’t test for chlorine.
Pittsboro, in Calhoun County, had one for failure to file its annual Consumer Confidence Report, one because it didn’t monitor disinfectant levels in the water, and two for having bacteria in the water.
North Lee, which is under state and federal investigation for a series of alleged wrongdoings, earned all its violations for bacteria contamination.
Bacteria and chemical infractions “are more serious because they have public health effects that could be related to them,” said Melissa Parker, deputy director of the Mississippi Department of Health Bureau of Public Water Supply.
“If you have multiple failures to monitor,” Parker added, “that shows the system isn’t taking the steps they need to take to make sure public health is protected. It’s not necessarily a public health threat, but because that monitoring hasn’t been done, we don’t know.”
Northeast Mississippi has 215 public water systems operated by 182 entities. Twenty-six of them earned violations last year from the Department of Health, according to the agency’s annual Public Water System Compliance Report, which was released in April.
Nineteen systems got dinged only once; seven had multiple violations.
All public water systems – whether they’re operated by a private nonprofit entity like North Lee or a public one like the municipality of Pittsboro – must regularly monitor for bacteria, chemicals and other contaminants that could affect consumer health and water quality.
Systems that fail to monitor, erroneously monitor or submit late findings to the state get a violation for each infraction. So, too, do those that detect bacteria in the water, or whose chemicals and contaminants exceed the maximum allowable amount.
Systems also can get slapped for not notifying the public of these violations or not filing their annual Consumer Confidence Report by July 1, as required by the state.
None of the state’s public water systems violated the inorganic contaminant rule, which sets maximum allowable levels for a host of dangerous products like arsenic, cyanide or lead. Nor did any exceed maximum levels of cancer-causing radionuclides like radium or uranium.
And while none detected high levels of a host of organic chemicals with potential long-term health consequences, the Copiah County Water Association failed to monitor them last year. It was the only one in the state to get dinged in this category.
A majority of the Mississippi’s systems last year followed all the rules and provided water that met every state and federal guideline.
That doesn’t mean it was sparkling clean, but it was legally safe to consume.
“Our only role is to make sure you have safe drinking water,” said MSDH spokeswoman Liz Sharlot, explaining that her agency doesn’t regulate aesthetic conditions like color, odor or sediment. While unpleasant, those problems don’t threaten public health and safety.
Yet they’re among the most frequent complaints by customers to the Mississippi Public Service Commission, which works with water systems to improve those conditions – even if temporarily.
And they’re more common in groundwater systems as opposed to those using surface water. That’s because groundwater doesn’t require the intense treatment that surface water does, so naturally occurring minerals like iron and manganese remain in the supply where they can leave sediment and cause the red or brown color.
Ditto for the hydrogen sulfide gas, which can make water smell like rotten eggs.
Those issues had plagued Tupelo’s water supply before it switched from groundwater to surface water in 1990, said Tupelo Water amp& Light Superintendent Greg Reed. It previously drew from the Eutaw and McShan aquifers but now purchases surface water from the Northeast Mississippi Regional Water Supply District, which extensively treats it at a facility in Peppertown.
Tupelo is among a handful of systems statewide to use treated surface water. The vast majority – 80 percent – use groundwater that come from the state’s network of underground aquifers, according to the U.S. Groundwater Protection Council.
Some 2,800 million gallons are pumped from Mississippi aquifers every day.
“Many rural homes also depend on groundwater that is obtained through the use of shallow domestic water wells,” the GPC said. “These shallow wells are typically providing water from a shallow water table or unconfined aquifer system and are extremely susceptible to surface contamination and leaking underground storage tanks.”
The Environmental Protection Agency ranks every well’s contamination susceptibility from low to high. In Lee County, the wells belonging to the Verona and Turner Industrial Park systems earned the best rankings. Some of those belonging to Palmetto and North Lee earned the worst.
But those systems can install filtration systems and implement other treatment programs to reduce color, odor and sediment. The downside to such measures often is cost.
“Most are still pleased with groundwater,” Parker said. “I don’t see Mississippi changing from a groundwater state to a surface water state anytime soon.”