By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – One in 10 Northeast Mississippi water utilities racked up state violations last year for high water contaminant levels or failing to properly monitor and report data.
It’s an improvement from the previous year when one in seven of the region’s 185 water utilities received violations, according to the Annual Public Water System Compliance Report, issued in July by the Mississippi Department of Health.
The report covers January through December 2011.
A partial version is available on the department’s website. The full version, which was provided later to the Daily Journal, is available on DJournal.com.
“Statewide, I really think it’s kind of stayed the same,” said Melissa Parker, the department’s director of Environmental Health. “All and all, we’re still seeing the same amounts of violations we have seen over the years.”
Mississippi has roughly 1,200 public water systems. Of them, approximately 145 received a combined 250 violations last year.
Twenty-four of those violations occurred in Northeast Mississippi, shared among 19 different utilities. That’s versus 39 violations among 26 utilities the previous year.
All public water systems – whether they’re operated by a private nonprofit entity like North Lee or a public one like the city of Tupelo – 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.
Bacteria and chemical infractions are more serious because they have public health effects that could be related to them, Parker said.
“Our biggest challenge is with the disinfection byproducts,” Parker said, “because most of the systems that have those problems are small systems, and the treatment available is incredibly expensive.”
Ten of the region’s 24 violations were for bacteria and chemicals. Of those 10, two were for high levels of disinfection byproducts and the rest involved the presence of coliform in the water.
Coliform is a bacteria which itself is harmless but indicates that other potentially dangerous bacteria are present.
Fourteen of the region’s violations were for failure to monitor or report.
North Lee County Rural Water Association had three violations, more than any other system in the region. But each occurred prior to last fall’s upheaval resulting in a new manager and board of directors.
One of the state’s largest rural water providers with some 4,400 customers, North Lee changed its procedural and operating system after its manager and entire board of directors resigned amid allegations of corruption by employees.
Each of North Lee’s violations – two for coliform in the water; one for not properly monitoring coliform – occurred before the full transition.
The previous year, North Lee had received four violations, all for coliform in the water.
Since then, the embattled utility also has improved its overall capacity rating, which is a 0-5 scale assigned by the state Department of Health for technical, managerial and financial oversight. North Lee scored an overall 4.3 in June – up from 3.3 last year.
“Next year we’re shooting for a perfect score if possible,” said North Lee’s new manager Jim Banker, who also sits on the new board. “It was a big deal for us to make those corrections and move forward. It comes from organization. Everybody is on the same page now.”
Other water utilities in the region with multiple violations are the Burleson Mobile Home Park in Lee County, Chalybeate Water Association in Tippah County and Northeast Itawamba Water Association in Itawamba County. All had two violations.
Some utilities that had multiple violations in the previous report dropped to just one or zero this time. Among them are the town of Pittsboro and Lafayette Springs.
A majority of systems followed all the rules and provided water that met every state and federal guideline, according to the report.
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, during a previous interview.
Sharlot had explained that her agency doesn’t regulate aesthetic conditions like color, odor or sediment. While unpleasant, those problems don’t threaten public health and safety.
NOTE TO READERS ON PDFs: “The full report includes past violations that appear because some action was taken to correct them during the covered period. For example, a 2010 violation might show up because the system was returned to compliance in 2011. Readers also will notice thousands of violations for Combined Uranium. These appear because of a compliance issue in the state’s lab several years ago. The lab has addressed the issue and is retesting all systems in the state. Many of those tests occurred in 2011, which is why they appear on the report. Uranium was NOT detected in any of these systems. But because some action was taken on the prior violation last year, they appear on the report. “