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Marion’s issues with water testing explained

Staff writer

After a thorough review at the Record’s request, the state’s senior official in charge of public water treatment provided definitive explanations Thursday for what had seemed to be confusing lapses in testing by Marion’s water plant.

For four consecutive months last summer, the plant failed to test for bromates, a potentially toxic byproduct of some treatment techniques. Those failures were reported as “major” violations in the plant’s Consumer Confidence Report for 2023.

Normally, these also would have prompted an order to immediately notify all water customers, according to Cathy Tucker-Vogel, public water section chief for Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

However, Tucker-Vogel said in an interview Thursday, the situation had been corrected by the time the lapses were noticed, so immediate notification was not needed.

The lapses were attributed to the plant switching from having a third-party lab, Eurofins of South Bend, Indiana, analyze its samples to having the samples analyzed by KDHE itself.

Marion had stopped taking bromate samples in July of 2022 after its ozone disinfectant system failed. Ozone treatment is what can result in unacceptable bromate concentrations if not monitored.

The city resumed ozone treatment March 6, 2023, but did not resume testing for bromates until August, when it switched to having KDHE instead of Eurofins analyze its tests.

That was the period for which the plant was determined to be in violation, but because compliance is measured only every four months, non-compliance was not noticed until after the city had come back into compliance.

There were additional problems after that.

Some of the tests the city took after switching to the KDHE lab ended up being rejected by the lab because outdated sample kits had been used, Tucker-Vogel said.

These tests were repeated, sometimes as much as a month later, but the water plant was not found in violation as a result. Never in any of the bromate tests performed was a reportable amount of the chemical found, so it was assumed that no danger existed, and the lack of testing was a mere technical problem.

Layout of the testing records themselves added to confusion because of the way some of them list dates. A date showing when a test was “prepared” refers not to when the sample was taken but to when KDHE’s lab started to analyze it. A separate entry, in a different part of the form, provides the date on which the sample was “collected.”

After accounting for a need to repeat some tests to make up for those rejected because outdated test kits had been used, the city dutifully collected one sample every month even if KDHE sometimes grouped more than one month’s tests together to analyze multiple months’ samples at the same time.

Tucker-Vogel emphasized — as Mayor Mike Powers did June 19 — that the water plant has been in full compliance with KDHE regulations since August.

As reported by the Record in its June 19 issue, questions about whether the city notified customers as required also have been answered.

The city normally included a copy of its annual Consumer Confidence Report — or, at least, a direct link to where it could be found online — in June utility bills. This year, a small link was provided within May bills instead of June bills.

Some questions about water plant operations were related to the city’s lack of a full-time certified water plant operator in 2023. Jason Wheeler, who has Level 2 certification, left the city’s employ in 2022 and did not return until 2024. This does not appear to have impacted operations, however.

Other questions were related to statements made nearly 20 years ago, when the city added ozone treatment at its water plant. Officials said at the time that ozone was needed to remove toxins produced by blue-green algae at Marion Reservoir, which is the source of Marion’s drinking water.

Ozone treatment was not offline last summer when blue-green algae warnings were issued for the reservoir.

Ozone is among the most effective means for removing toxins caused by algae, Tucker-Vogel said, but it is not the only method. She noted, for example, that Hillsboro, facing the same algae challenges as Marion, uses activated carbon instead.

Last modified June 27, 2024

 

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