Borough seeking to improve quality of water in area schools

Posted: Sunday, November 05, 2000

While anxious families await blood test results to determine lead levels, Kenai Peninsula Borough maintenance workers continue their long-term battle against water problems.

About 260 children in kindergarten through sixth grade were sampled for potential lead poisoning from water at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School in Soldotna on Thursday and Friday.

That school, however, is not the only one with water problems. Several of the 40 borough schools are on bottled water because of poor tap water quality, reported Malcolm McBride, the borough's maintenance contracts coordinator.

He described the peninsula's natural water as "aggressive," meaning it is acidic enough to corrode plumbing and dissolve trace metals.

The maintenance crews have finished installing the new sodium silicate treatment system they hope will cure the K-Beach school's water. The system is due to go online this weekend, he said.

It will inject the chemical, also called "water glass," to coat the insides of the pipes and prevent further metal leaching.

The borough, which maintains the public schools, uses two other chemical treatments for problem water. One uses zinc orthophosphate in a manner similar to the sodium silicate. Another adjusts the pH, or acid-base balance, of the water.

Besides K-Beach, here is McBride's assessment of the status of the other schools on bottled water:

n Sterling Elementary -- Borough crews will install a new treatment system there as soon as they finish with K-Beach. They plan to complete the installation over Christmas break.

n Chapman Elementary -- The Anchor Point school has a multiple system emphasizing pH adjustment, but problems linger.

"They have been on bottled water for the past four years," McBride said. "It (the system) has lowered the levels, but not quite enough."

The borough plans to install a new zinc orthophosphate system, he said.

n Nikolaevsk -- Last winter, the school east of Anchor Point went back on bottled water. A treatment system was installed over the summer. The borough is waiting for more clean sample results before resuming use of the tap water.

n Nanwalek -- The village water supply needed treatment, and the borough installed a zinc orthophosphate system. The outcome is pending, he said.

n McNeil Canyon Elementary -- A zinc orthophosphate system was installed at the school in December 1998. The school east of Homer is about ready to go back to tap water, pending a second round of clean test results.

n Moose Pass -- The tap water has problems with metals and odor.

"I don't think anyone in Moose Pass drinks water," McBride said. "They will always be on bottled water. We may have to try putting in a new well there."

The borough also is keeping a wary eye on water at Skyview High School just south of Soldotna, McBride said.

Its tap water exceeds guidelines for copper. That metal is an inconvenience, but not a health hazard. Although large amounts of it may upset stomachs, it is dangerous only to people with a particular, very rare metabolic disease, he said.

The previous worst incident with school water contamination was in the south peninsula Alutiiq village of Port Graham. The entire village water system, which includes service to the school, came under scrutiny after tests in December 1993 found unacceptable lead levels.

Port Graham School Principal Wayne Young offered hope for other schools battling water problems.

Port Graham was the first peninsula school put on a zinc orthophosphate system, according to McBride.

Four years ago, the school went back to using its tap water, Young said.

"That system they put in really does work," he said. "For the past four years, we've had no problems whatsoever."

McBride said the borough is confident it has identified all the problem systems and ways to fix them. Other schools are on city water systems and have not shown any signs of taint so far.

But other concerns loom on the horizon.

Pending changes in water regulations on the federal level could pose a problem for the Kenai Peninsula.

The changes would reduce the allowable limits of trace arsenic in drinking water. The problem is that the natural background levels of arsenic in some peninsula ground water exceeds the most stringent levels proposed.

McBride is skeptical of the pending changes.

"They are making that change with no data to support it," he said.

If the strict, new arsenic standards are adopted, they will be expensive for Alaskans to meet. The alternative would be for municipalities to notify people that their water fails arsenic safety standards.

"I don't think that would go over too well with the public," he said.

In the meantime, McBride recommends that people worried about public water supplies should look closer to home.

"Anybody who is concerned should probably test their home water," he warned. "And you should always run your faucet until it runs cool."



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