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Rural Alaska

Bethel water testing shows lead and copper levels exceeding federal standards

  • Author: Anna Rose MacArthur, KYUK
  • Updated: August 8
  • Published August 8

Bethel city water testing from September 2018 shows levels of copper exceeding federal standards in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Fitness Center water system. (Christine Trudeau / KYUK)

Bethel residents are being advised to take precautions after elevated levels of lead and copper were found in the city’s drinking water from select locations.

The city is awaiting results from additional tests and discussing solutions.

Acting City Manager Bill Howell says that the city has been meeting daily with its engineers and the Department of Environmental Conservation.

“The water in our systems is good,” he said. “It’s when it gets into people’s homes and to their faucets and that kind of thing that we can see, sometimes, that some lead or copper will dissolve in that water.”

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The city tested 10 locations in City Subdivision in September 2018. Half of those locations showed levels of lead and/or copper that exceed federal standards. Two homes exceeded lead levels. One home and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Fitness Center, which houses the community’s pool, exceeded copper levels. The Bethel Fire Station exceeded both copper and lead levels.

The federal standard for lead is 0.015 mg/L. Bethel's lead levels were 0.0332 mg/L, just over double the federal standard. The federal standard for copper is 1.3 mg/L. Bethel's copper level was 1.92 mg/L, almost halfway over the federal standard.

The metals appear to enter the water after it has gone into the buildings’ pipes. When asked if it’s the homeowner’s or city’s responsibility to fix the pipes, Howell indicated that the responsibility lies somewhere in the middle, explaining that the city’s water is very alkaline and is likely corroding the pipes and fixtures within buildings. The city is talking with its engineering firm, DOWL, about how to make the water less reactive. Howell said that each person will have to determine their own level of risk in this situation, but he offered assurance.

“I can tell you this right now, that the city is still making water and doing it under the guise of DEC,” Howell said. “And so our system still being allowed to operate at standards that the government has set forth as being allowed or safe.”

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All Bethel residents received mailed letters notifying them of the elevated lead and copper levels at the end of July, 10 months after the tests were taken in September. Under state requirements, the city was supposed to notify the owners of buildings with exceeded levels within 30 days, and all residents within 60 days.

Howell says that responsibility fell through the cracks due to turnover in the Bethel Public Works department. He has since changed city policy and placed the Public Works Director in charge of future notifications. Failing to meet these deadlines could jeopardize the city’s state funding, but Howell has not been informed of any lost monies.

Part of the city’s obligation under DEC requirements is public education. A pamphlet mailed to residents advises running faucets before drinking or cooking if the water in the tap has not been used for more than six hours.

“This is like, worst-case scenario,” explained DEC Environmental Program Manager Heather Newman. “Your water has been off all night, and that’s the first water that you drink. It’s not necessarily the water you’ll be drinking throughout the day as you’re continuing to use your faucets and so forth.”

Newman says that this method is effective at flushing out lead and copper that could leach out as water sits in the pipes. Another tip is to avoid using hot water from the tap for drinking or cooking, since it can be more corrosive than cool water.

Newman emphasized that all the locations that exceeded lead and copper levels had been tested the prior two years, and that those tests did not show elevated metal levels. The city has taken new water samples and expects the results in mid-August. The city does not test homes that use hauled water.

The community is invited to attend a public meeting with the city and the DEC during the week of Aug. 19 to learn more about the water situation and ask questions. The precise meeting date has not been announced.

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This article originally appeared at KYUK.org and is republished here with permission.

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