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 $14 million arsenic treatment system not working, tests show
Stephen Jerge resigned as Bernalillo’s Town manager last April, after reporters discovered his $45,000 in questionable purchases and cash advances charged to a town credit card. But Jerge’s credit card bill may prove to be a drop in the bucket compared to the tab he left the town holding for no-bid deals with Bernalillo-based ARS-USA. It now must spend millions to install ARS’s arsenic-removal equipment at all four of the town’s wells.
Taxpayers shelled out at least $4.9 million to install filtration systems on the two currently used wells in 2007 and early 2008. Bernalillo was the first town in the country to adopt ARS’s system, despite concerns by one of the Town’s engineering firms.
Two years later, the system has not consistently brought arsenic levels in the Town’s drinking water into compliance with federal and state regulations, lab tests show.
This week, the state Environment Department issued a formal violation notification to the Town, demanding that residents be notified within 30 days that their water exceeds the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s safe drinking water “maximum contaminant limit” of 10 parts per billion for the carcinogen.
Despite questions about whether or not the system works, however, taxpayers are about to pay for its installation on Bernalillo’s two other wells.
Just months before he resigned last April, Jerge negotiated an additional contract with ARS to use their equipment on a third currently unused well, town officials say and records show — one of two older wells being brought back into use to accommodate anticipated growth in future demand and to provide backup water supplies should something go wrong with the current wells.
The town council approved a $9.2 million construction contract Feb. 1 for Archer Western to install the ARS system on both remaining wells, for a total price tag of at least $14 million.
But Interim Town Manager Santiago Chavez and Planning Director Maria Rinaldi told The Independent they are unconvinced the system works.
“This was supposed to be a pilot project,” Rinaldi said. “But then Jerge came in and all of a sudden it was the system for arsenic removal before we had any test results from the pilot.”
In 2005, a year before Jerge was hired, the Town had agreed to a pilot project to test mobile, trailer-mounted ARS equipment on just one of the Town’s wells, to see whether the system would reduce arsenic levels to meet EPA standards. The ARS system runs water through batteries of electrically charged aluminum plates, which release charged aluminum into the water to bind to arsenic, creating a fluffy white “floc” sludge that can then be filtered out of the water.
But Project engineer Ramesh Narasimhan — whose firm NCS has received more than $798,000 from Bernalillo since 2007, according to town records — has repeatedly failed to show town officials lab test results that would show whether or not the system works, Rinaldi said.
“(He) kept promising to turn over the lab results, but we’ve never seen them,” Rinaldi said Thursday. “I’ve been screaming and yelling for those since this thing landed in my lap (after Jerge’s resignation) and to date I have not received any lab results from NCS.”
The lab tests were not found among town records opened to The Independent for inspection last month.
Rinaldi said she had to turn instead to the Town’s wastewater treatment plant’s effluent lab tests for an idea of arsenic levels in the Town’s tap water. The wastewater exceeded arsenic levels of 10 parts per billion during 10 of the 18 months since the ARS systems were installed, the wastewater lab tests show.
“We have nothing to satisfy me that this technology is working,” Rinaldi said. “When the town council approved the new contracts (Feb. 1), I was asked point-blank if I would recommend this system. I said I could not recommend it.”
Through his public relations representative, Joan Griffin, Narasimhan insisted Thursday he had shared the lab reports with Town officials.
“During the first 90 days the systems were in operation in early 2008, NCS performed extensive sampling of (the currently used) wells, and the results were shared with the Town of Bernalillo,” Griffin told The Independent via e-mail Thursday. “Additional tests were performed in 2009 and those results were also turned over to town officials.”
Asked which specific Bernalillo officials were given the test results, Griffin would not answer directly.
“They were given to the project managers that NCS was working with,” Griffin said in an apparent reference to Jerge and former town water operator Jan Boone. “We have no idea why records are no longer in the town’s files.”
Narasimhan did disclose lab reports for November 2009 to The Independent last month, in response to public records requests. Those lab reports show that arsenic levels in treated water from one of the Town’s active wells, Well 3, exceeded federal limits on more than half of the 14 days samples were taken, with an average arsenic concentration of 13.8 parts per billion. Arsenic concentrations ranged from a high of 55 parts per billion to a low of 6 parts per billion, according to the lab reports.
Narasimhan dismissed his higher results as lab errors.
But the state Environment Department issued a violation notification Tuesday based on its own lab testing of water from Well 3, based on an average arsenic level of 10.9 parts per billion between April 2009 and Dec. 2009.
Narasimhan thinks that violation was “unfair” and pointed out that average arsenic levels exceeded 10 parts per billion largely because of the April sample’s 13 parts per billion finding, which Narasimhan attributed to operator error at the water plant.
The August finding of 9.8 parts per billion listed in the violation notification was just under the 10 parts per billion limit.
The town had no choice other than to agree to install ARS equipment because Jerge negotiated a binding contract with ARS prior to his resignation, Rinaldi and Chavez said.
“The predicament we find ourselves in now is that if we tried to pull out of the ARS contract, we could lose $4 million in (federal stimulus) money,” Rinaldi said.
“Find a new engineer and starting from scratch would’ve meant we couldn’t make the timing work on the (federal stimulus) opportunity,” Chavez added.
In addition to capital outlay money from the state Legislature and federal loans, Bernalillo has secured $4 million in federal stimulus money to repair its two older wells and equip them with ARS arsenic filtration systems. The money will also go toward a larger pipeline connecting the older wells with the Town’s current water distribution network.
At Narasimhan’s recommendation, the Town also plans to install additional micro-filtration membranes on the older wells, in hopes of reducing arsenic levels and the amount of aluminum sludge escaping into drinking water.
The state did not sample Bernalillo’s water between January and April 2009. Typically, violation notifications are not issued by the state unless the average concentration of samples from four consecutive quarters (representing one year) exceed 10 parts per billion.
“We believe the arsenic sample violation is unfair,” Griffin said Thursday. “It is the (Environment Department’s) responsibility by law to collect the samples. Since NMED did not perform the function and collect samples in the first quarter of 2009, the Town was unfairly hit with this violation.”
That’s simply not the case, state Environment Department Drinking Water Bureau compliance manager Mike Huber said.
The state collects many chemical compliance samples to assist New Mexico’s water systems but is not required by law to do so, Huber said.
Federal regulations state that if the four consecutive quarterly samples required to calculate an annual average are not collected, then compliance is assessed using three samples, Huber said.
“The ultimate responsibility for complying with the drinking water regulations lies with the water system, regardless of who collects the compliance samples,” Huber said.
“NCS will do extensive testing of wells 3 and 4 to achieve our goals and achieve a final resolution,” Griffin said. “We hope to have this completed in the next three weeks.”
Jerge did not respond to emails requesting comment.