A solution to a vexing contamination problem at the Catawba River Water Treatment Plant has apparently been found, according to officials.
However, levels of the contaminant are still higher than normal.
A hearing on the issue was held by the Department of Health and Environmental Control last week. The hearing was required after the water treatment plant failed to meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards for the level of trihalomethanes in the drinking water for more than a year. No fines were levied against the plant at the hearing, according to Mark Knight, head of the Lancaster County Water and Sewer District.
"It went well," Knight said. "We shared with DHEC what we are doing, and what we are going to do as we carry on and try to complete solving the problem."
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DHEC officials did put the plant under a "consent order" which requires the plant to create a written schedule of how and when the trihalomethane problem will be solved. For several months, the plant has been lowering the pH of its untreated water to attempt to lower the level of trihalomethanes. But that is just a temporary fix, said plant director Mike Bailes.
The permanent solution is to change the plant's water treatment technique. It's a change officials had hoped to implement eventually, he said, but because of the consent order from DHEC, planning will begin immediately.
Lancaster County residents were notified in June that their drinking water contained higher than allowable concentrations of trihalomethanes, which occur as a byproduct of chlorine interacting with organic matter in water. Studies have shown that long-term exposure to high levels of trihalomethanes can cause liver, kidney and nervous system problems and lead to an increased cancer risk.
It will take between 18 and 24 months for the plant to change to a new treatment technique, Bailes added.
"We have to do pilot studies on the different options, design it, get it approved by DHEC, then go out for bids for construction," Bailes said. "It won't be like building a new plant or anything, but it's still a capital expense. It's a capital expense we've expected. It's not a surprise. It was our intention all along."
The cost of the improvements at the plant will be covered by the Lancaster County Water and Sewer District and Union County, who each have half ownership of the plant.
In the meantime, trihalomethanes levels in the water throughout Lancaster County continue to be elevated.
The City of Lancaster is the only area in Lancaster County that is not affected.
"They are gradually ticking down so we are still confident," Bailes said.