I am writing today to announce the closure of the New Mexico Independent. After three and a half years of operation in New Mexico, the board of the American Independent News Network, has decided to shift publication of its news…
Bernalillo’s water treatment system dumps sludge into drinking water
A year after the Town of Bernalillo spent at least $4.9 million to equip its two active wells with new arsenic filtration systems designed by Bernalillo-based ARS-USA, residents started complaining about a white residue in their tap water, according to Interim Town Manager and Treasurer Santiago Chavez. The new treatment system was dumping aluminum sludge into the Town’s drinking water, he acknowledged Thursday.
“I received my first customer complaints in the late summer of 2009,” Chavez told The Independent.
Bernalillo was the first municipality in the country to adopt the ARS system as a water treatment solution, despite concerns expressed by one of the Town’s engineering firms. Installation was completed in spring 2008.
The centerpiece of the new treatment system’s tubes, holding tanks and electronics is an electrical arsenic-removal system designed by a local firm, ARS-USA. The ARS “electro-flocculation” system runs water over electrically-charged aluminum plates, which shed charged aluminum atoms into the water to bind to arsenic, forming a white sludge called “floc” that can then be filtered away.
But by August 2009, its filters were becoming clogged with aluminum sludge, Chavez said — and somehow, it was escaping into the Town’s drinking water system, Town records confirm.
In August 2009 resident Paul Arsenault took a kitchen glass of tap water to Town hall, to complain about the white sediment that was clogging his home water filter and lawn sprinklers. At the bottom of the glass, which still sits on a shelf in Chavez’s office, was an inch of suspended white sludge.
“My filter is supposed to be replaced once or twice a year but I’ve been replacing it every couple of months,” Arsenault told The Independent. “It’s only gotten worse since then.”
The state Environment Department is unlikely to intervene, officials say. Aluminum poses little immediate threat to human health, so federal standards regarding the metal are considered “secondary” and are not actively enforced by the Department.
But state and town officials, and project engineer Ramesh Narasimhan, acknowledged that they were unsure whether the sludge also contains arsenic — and if so, whether arsenic bound to aluminum would be detected in arsenic testing.
“That’s certainly a concern,” Town Planning Director Maria Rinaldi said. “We just don’t know.”
The state issued a violation notice Tuesday, alerting Town officials that their drinking water’s arsenic levels exceed federal and state standards.
By summer 2009, when Chavez says he first became aware of the sludge problem, Narasimhan had known about it for nearly a year, he acknowledged Thursday.
Aluminum “breakthrough” had been a recurring problem during his pilot testing of ARS equipment for arsenic and fluoride filtration in Beatty, Nevada, according to a 2008 report prepared by Narasimhan’s firm NCS and obtained by The Independent from the Nevada Bureau of Safe Drinking Water.
Unlike the New Mexico Environment Department, which approved Bernalillo’s sole-source purchase of ARS equipment, the Nevada Environment Department raised concerns about whether the system would work.
“The pilot testing left more questions than answers,” Nevada state arsenic compliance engineer Bert Bellows told The Independent. “The (ARS) process has been dropped from consideration.”
It was unclear exactly why the sludge was passing through the filters and the pilot testing did not attempt to correct the problem, Bellows noted in an October 2009 report. ARS’s system “is a new technology and any unanswered questions should be eliminated by pilot testing prior to selection of this treatment method as a viable option,” Bellows wrote. Bellows also questioned the undocumented cost estimates that suggested ARS equipment was cheaper to operate than traditional arsenic-filtration systems, the report shows.
But the Nevada pilot test came as a surprise to Chavez and Rinaldi, who said town officials had been unaware of its existence.
“We have been working with the town since September 2008 to resolve aluminum issues and have dramatically improved the situation,” Narasimhan responded by email when asked why he had not informed Bernalillo officials of his findings in Nevada. Asked to clarify who at the town was aware of the problem, Narasimhan named Jerge and former water system operator Jan Boone.
Jerge resigned in April 2009, in the midst of a financial scandal surrounding $45,000 in questionable purchases and cash advances on a town credit card; he was subsequently hired by Narasimhan’s wife and business partner, Dale Ann Narasimhan.
“If Stephen (Jerge) was informed of the problem in 2008, I was not aware,” Chavez said. “He dealt with Ramesh exclusively.”
“The first time I heard about the aluminum breakthrough was October 2, 2009 in a meeting (with Narasimhan) where we were discussing filter studies,” Rinaldi said. “I have never seen any lab results nor have I been provided with other evidence that the microfiltration will solve the problems we continue to have.”
Since then, NCS has attempted to engineer several solutions to the sludge problem, Narasimhan said, including changed timing in the backwashing meant to flush sludge from filters and a proposed addition of a second backwash tank. A new micro-filtration membrane approach will help prevent aluminum floc breakthrough when the ARS equipment is installed on Bernalillo’s two remaining wells later this year, Narasimhan added.
“It is my hope that all of the assurances that this system will work can now be proven,” Rinaldi said. ” At the very least, everyone is watching now.”
It is unclear whether Narasimhan can completely eliminate the escape of aluminum sludge into the Town’s drinking water. Narasimhan hopes to reduce the problem by “at least 90 percent,” according to an email from his public relations representative, Joanie Griffin.
“NCS has been working with the Town of Bernalillo and ARS for the past year to further reduce aluminum levels to eliminate breakthrough,” Griffin said by email Thursday. “We have seen an improvement of about 75 percent and are committed to working on this until we have an improvement of at least 90 percent.”
Jerge did not answer emailed requests for comment.