In an effort to address elevated levels of arsenic and discoloration in the city water supply, Kenai is set to open a new water treatment plant and well in the coming months.
It took almost a decade and several extensions of a final compliance date for the city to find a new water source after the Environmental Protection Agency announced it was going to lower the measurement for acceptable amounts of arsenic in public water systems in 2002.
The new well and one already in place at the new treatment plant tap into an aquifer under Beaver Creek.
Kenai City Manager Rick Koch said the plant should be running by July and residents should notice an improvement in their water color by then.
The newest well is expected to begin adding water into the system by October and when it does, the high-arsenic wells the city operates will go offline, although there are plans to eventually add a third well to the same aquifer, Koch said.
The two wells have tested for arsenic levels between three and seven parts per billion, well below the EPA’s requirement of 10 parts per billion, Koch said.
The bulk of the project, more than $3.6 million, was financed through a municipal matching grant program administered by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
Koch said the final cost of the project was about $5 million.
Beth Verrelli, Department of Environmental Conservation project engineer for communities on the Kenai Peninsula, said each year cities apply for grant funding to improve their water systems and the department gathers a committee which scores the applications and submits a final list to the governor for approval.
Kenai’s funding application neared the top of the list because of its non-compliance with federal regulations on arsenic levels in the water.
“Violation of state and federal regulations are the main reason they scored so high and were able to get the funding,” Verrelli said. “Coloring was not an issue.”
Funding for the grant program is tight and Verrelli said most often the money is allocated to communities that are closest to beginning construction on projects that involve becoming compliant with safety regulations, especially smaller communities which often struggle to comply with each new regulation.
“We are funding just the most vital, important projects on the list,” she said.
Susan Bulkow, environmental program manager in the Compliance and Enforcement section of the Department of Environmental Conservation, said the city had been proactive in trying to address its arsenic issue.
“They started working on a proposed solution to the problem before the EPA deadline date for meeting the lower arsenic levels,” Bulkow said. “They drilled several exploratory wells and pilot tested a potential arsenic removal treatment system.”
Originally, Kenai was required to meet the new standard or apply for an exemption by 2006, so when the test wells and the arsenic removal system failed to pan out, the city applied for the exemption.
“They applied for an exemption and then asked for an extension, then we entered into what we call a bilateral compliance agreement,” Bulkow said.
She said the city had demonstrated consistently that it was taking steps to address the issue.
Unfortunately, in finding a water source that would provide lower arsenic levels and meet the city’s peak water demands, the city ran into another problem, high water color.
Koch said this color was something residents had been very vocal about and was most likely caused by tannins, or naturally occurring organic materials.
“The number one issue for our utility customers is they don’t like this color,” Koch said.
The water treatment plant has a filtration system in place that uses a coagulant that binds to the tannins, allowing them to be caught in a sand filter, Koch said. Each of the three tanks in place was originally thought to be operational for about 8 hours a day, however recent testing has shown 12-hour runs to be possible before the tank has to be taken offline and cleaned.
“That’s a big deal operationally because these chemicals aren’t cheap,” he said.
While the EPA doesn’t currently require that city water systems treat for aesthetic water-quality issues like water color, Bulkow said if there were enough customers complaints the Department of Environmental Conservation could require treatment.
“Arsenic is known to have a long term public health risk whereas with the secondary contaminants such as high water color, the level of public health risk has not been established,” Bulkow said. “Ultimately on secondary contaminants when there is some consumer complaint or the water is considered unpalatable we can require treatment.”
Bulkow said the new water treatment plant was a proactive move on the city’s part, as her department had received complaints about the water aesthetic but had not yet made any decision to require treatment.
“Our biggest challenge has been one that is an aesthetic issue,” Koch said. “It’s not technical, it’s not health, people don’t like that our water has color in it.”
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.