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Violation of EPA Standards in Croton Drinking Water Points Out Need for Filtration

Release Date: 06/25/2003
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(#03073) Results of recent water samples from the Croton Water System taken by the City of New York show a violation of a health-based U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) drinking water standard. Most recent samples taken by the city in May 2003 of haloacetic acids -- byproducts of the disinfection process – in the Croton system were elevated enough that when considered together with monthly averages exceeded the federal health-based standard. While the levels of haloacetic acids in the system do not pose an immediate threat to New Yorkers, the violation highlights why drinking water from the croton system needs to be filtered. EPA has not assessed monetary penalties against the city for the violation, but has ordered it to evaluate methods to reducelevels of these chemicals until a Croton filtration plant is built. The City must also notify New Yorkers of the violation by the end of June

“EPA required the city to build a filtration plant ten years ago because the millions of New Yorkers that drink Croton water deserve to have the highest quality water possible,” said Jane M. Kenny, EPA Regional Administrator. “This violation shows what EPA and the city have known all along. The Croton system is vulnerable to certain types of contamination, and will likely become more vulnerable in the future. Filtration is an absolute necessity.”

Under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, New York City’s drinking water must be monitored regularly to ensure that it meets all federal health requirements, including those for disinfection byproducts like haloacetic acids. Disinfection byproducts are formed when chemicals like chlorine – which are added to public water supplies to kill harmful viruses and microbes such as E.coli and Giardia – react with organic matter in the water. People who ingest elevated levels of haloacetic acids over a long period of time may have a higher risk of getting cancer.

The city is currently designing and considering several locations for a filtration plant. When the plant is operational, it will filter out organic material that enters Croton reservoirs in Westchester and Putnam counties. A reduction in organic matter will mean a reduction in the amount of disinfection byproducts in the drinking water and higher quality water for the millions of New Yorkers that drink it.

In January 2002, EPA set the maximum level of haloacetic acids permitted in drinking water at an annual average of 0.06 milligrams per liter. Samples taken of Croton water since January 2002 have occasionally showed elevated levels of the chemicals. Samples taken in May 2003, when considered together with results over the year, brought the annual average to 0.065 milligrams per liter – an exceedance of the federal standard. EPA has also ordered the city to give EPA and the New York State Department of Health an evaluation of methods that it could employ to reduce levels of haloacetic acids until a filtration plant for the Croton system is built. The plan must be submitted by the end of July 2003.

New York City gets its drinking water from two sources: the Croton watershed, consisting of reservoirs in Westchester and Putnam counties that provide 10 percent of the city’s water; and the Catskill/Delaware watershed, consisting of reservoirs in a number of more rural counties further upstate that supply the remainder. The Safe Drinking Water Act requires surface water systems like New York City’s to be filtered unless EPA finds compelling for granting a filtration waiver. EPA recently granted an extension to the city’s waiver from filtering water from the Catskill/Delaware watershed, because it has a successful watershed protection program in the upstate counties that house this system.

Under the provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the city was required to filter the Croton system by 1993. Since New York City failed to meet that deadline, a consent decree was reached between the city, state and federal government in 1998, requiring the city to build a filtration plant on to a set time frame. According to the consent decree, the plant must be on-line by October 31, 2011, at the latest.

Federal law requires the city to mail a notice of the haloacetic acids violation to affected bill-paying New Yorkers by June 30, and to inform all other affected customers by taking out newspaper ads or through other mass media. Such notifications must include information about the risks of disinfection byproducts, and must continue every three months until the violation is corrected.