Update (Tuesday, Aug. 13, 4:18 p.m.) — Anna Rose MacArthur, KYUK-Bethel
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. (Read more.)
Bethel residents are being advised to take precautions after elevated levels of lead and copper were found in the city’s drinking water from select locations.
The city is awaiting results from additional tests and discussing solutions.
Bethel Acting City Manager Bill Howell said that the city has been meeting daily with its engineers and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
“The water in our systems is good,” Howell said. “It’s when it gets into people’s homes and to their faucets and that kind of thing that we can see, sometimes, that some lead or copper will dissolve in that water.”
The city tested 10 locations in City Subdivision in September 2018. Half of those locations showed levels of lead and/or copper that exceeded federal standards. Two homes exceeded lead levels. One home and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Fitness Center, which houses the community’s pool, exceeded copper levels. The Bethel fire station exceeded both copper and lead levels.
The metals appear to enter the water after it has gone into the buildings’ pipes. When asked if it’s the homeowner’s or city’s responsibility to fix the pipes, Howell indicated that the responsibility lies somewhere in the middle, explaining that the city’s water is very alkaline and is likely corroding the pipes and fixtures within buildings. The city is talking with its engineering firm, DOWL, about how to make the water less reactive.
Howell said that each person will have to determine their own level of risk in this situation, but he offered assurance.
“I can tell you this right now, is that we’re still making water. The city’s still delivering water, and we’re doing that under the full watch of the Alaska DEC,” Howell said. “And so our system is still being allowed to operate, because the water in our system still meets the standards that the government has set forth as being allowed or safe.”
All Bethel residents received mailed letters notifying them of the elevated lead and copper levels at the end of July — 10 months after the tests were taken in September. Under state requirements, the city was supposed to notify the owners of buildings with exceeded levels within 30 days, and all residents within 60 days.
Howell said that responsibility fell through the cracks due to turnover in the Bethel Public Works Department. He has since changed city policy and placed the Public Works director in charge of future notifications. Failing to meet these deadlines could jeopardize the city’s state funding, but Howell has not been informed of any lost funding.
DEC Environmental Program Manager Heather Newman emphasized that all the locations that exceeded lead and copper levels had been tested the prior two years, and that those tests did not show elevated metal levels. The city has taken new water samples and expects the results in mid-August.
The city does not test homes that use hauled water.
The city of Bethel and the DEC will hold a public meeting later this month to provide more information about the water situation. The precise meeting date has not been announced.
How to reduce risk of exposure
Part of the city’s obligation under DEC requirements is public education. A pamphlet mailed to residents advises running faucets before drinking or cooking if the water in the tap has not been used for more than six hours.
“This is, like, worst-case scenario, your water’s been off all night, and that’s the first water that you drink,” explained Newman. “It’s not necessarily the water you’ll be drinking throughout the day as you’re continuing to use your faucets and so forth.”
Newman said that this method is effective at flushing out lead and copper that could leach out as water sits in the pipes.
Another tip is to avoid using hot water from the tap for drinking or cooking, since it can be more corrosive than cool water.