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Bernalillo faces rising arsenic levels, second state drinking water violation
The state Environment Department will issue a second arsenic violation notice to Bernalillo in the coming week, Drinking Water Bureau compliance manager Mike Huber told town officials and engineers Tuesday at a meeting held in the Department’s Rio Rancho field office.
“We’ll be issuing another violation to Bernalillo for Well 4,” Huber said, referring to one of the Town’s two currently used wells. The Department already issued a violation notice for the Town’s other active well, Well 3, last week.
A sample of water from Well 4 collected by the Department Dec. 1, 2009 had an arsenic concentration of 37 parts per billion, narrowly missing an “instant violation” threshold of 40 parts per billion, Huber said. Combined with other samples taken earlier in 2009, the finding brought the average arsenic concentration above 10 parts per billion, the maximum allowed under state and federal regulations.
The arsenic standard is based on long-term bladder and lung cancer risks, Huber said.
Bernalillo’s contract project engineer Ramesh Narasimhan was unhappy with news of a second violation, he said.
“That reading of 37 just leaves a question in my mind,” Narsimhan told Huber. “We’ve had issues with consistency but never like that. It’s not representative. I have a real concern with issuing a violation based on that.”
But the state checked quality control records for the lab test in question and would “stand behind” the finding, Huber said.
The state is also eager to assist in Narasimhan’s efforts to identify and fix both the arsenic problem and an issue with aluminum sludge from Bernalillo’s water treatment facilities leaking into the Town’s water supply, Huber was quick to add.
The impending violation notice is just the latest headache for Narasimhan.
Narasimhan’s Phoenix, Ariz.-based firm, NCS, recommended the Town purchase an aluminum treatment-based arsenic-removal system produced by a local Bernalillo firm, ARS-USA, despite concerns by another of the Town’s engineering firms, which had refused to recommend the new system. The other firm had recommended an iron treatment-based system instead. The Town spent at least $4.9 million installing the ARS system recommended by Narasimhan, but arsenic levels have not fallen into compliance with federal drinking water standards and consumers started complaining about aluminum sludge in tap water.
The water treatment system’s water filters are becoming clogged with the aluminum sludge produced by ARS’s aluminum “electro-coagulation” equipment and aluminum sludge is escaping into the Town’s tap water, Narasimhan said.
That is due to problems with the facilities’ downstream filters, which were engineered by Narasimhan, rather than ARS’s equipment, ARS-USA Managing Engineer Eric T. Vogler said.
“We’re just a subcontractor in this project,” Vogler said. “ARS does not design, build, endorse, or sell any technology (like) filtration other than electro-coagulation reactors.”
Rising Arsenic Levels in Bernalillo, Rio Rancho wells?
Arsenic levels in pre-treatment water from both of Bernalillo’s active wells have jumped during the past three years, Narasimhan said, further compounding the beleaguered town’s efforts to meet drinking water standards.
Arsenic levels at one well, Well 4, have risen from 11 to 16 parts per billion since 2007, Narasimhan told The Independent. Arsenic in Well 3 rose from 18 to 21 parts per billion, Narasimhan said.
“I haven’t seen anything like it before in my experience,” Narasimhan said.
One of Rio Rancho’s wells, Well 12 in the Enchanted Hills neighborhood — less than a mile from Bernalillo’s Well 3 — has also seen increasing arsenic concentrations, Narasimhan said.
Asked if increasing demands on the aquifer shared by Bernalillo and Rio Rancho may be responsible for the change, Narasimhan initially refused to speculate.
“I don’t want to comment on that,” he said, smiling grimly. “But something subsurface is happening.”
As water is pulled from the wells, water may be pulled into them from new, arsenic-rich zones of the aquifer, increasing the wells’ arsenic levels, Narasimhan suggested.
Among several other options, Narasimhan is now considering supplemental iron treatments to control arsenic levels, he acknowledged — an approach that another contractor had recommended in an engineering report scuttled by former Town manager Stephen Jerge.
“We’ve got to have an immediate fix while we work with the state to find a (permanent) solution,” Narasimhan explained.
Town officials would prefer to see the wells retrofitted with micro-filtration membranes that could control the aluminum and arsenic problems without introducing other chemicals into the water, Treasurer and Interim Manager Santiago Chavez said. But that could cost more than $650,000 and it is unclear where the funding would come from, Narasimhan and Chavez said.
The Town spent at least $4.9 million to equip its two active wells with the current treatment facilities in 2007 and 2008, and is contracted to spent another $9.2 million to install the same equipment at two older wells that will be revamped to meet growing demand and provide a backup source of water should the active wells become unavailable.
After the meeting Tuesday morning, Huber and news reporters toured Well 3, one of the Town’s active wells. Huber asked to see plans and specifications for the current water treatment systems, and said he plans to bring state engineers to Bernalillo to study them.
Asked after the meeting about the Arizona Cardinals jacket he was wearing, Narasimhan, who had provided Jerge and another Town employee with Cardinals playoff tickets last year, grinned and shrugged.
“I love the Cardinals,” he said.