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Officials insist Tawakoni water drinkable But Dallas utility asks for new pipeline
By Tony Hartzel / The Dallas Morning News
RAINS COUNTY - State environmental officials and the Sabine River Authority assured concerned East Texas and Dallas-area residents Friday that water from Lake Tawakoni is safe and drinkable.
Richard Michael Pruitt / DMN Terrace Stewart, Dallas Water Utilities executive director, answered questions with Rod Sands, vice president of operations for Explorer Pipeline Co. Tuesday.
"It is quality water," said Sam Barrett, manager of the waste section for the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, the state's environmental agency. "Even at water intake pipes, it is safe."
On March 9, a ruptured gasoline pipeline dumped about 600,000 gallons of gasoline about 24 miles from the Sabine-owned lake. Heavy rains moved some of it through Caddo Creek to the lake.
Since then, state and federal officials have monitored water quality and found that concentrations of the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) have dropped to no more than 1.6 parts per billion, well below hazardous levels.
Despite those assurances, Dallas Water Utilities said Friday that it still will not draw water from the lake until it can review a formal cleanup plan that should be submitted next week.
Richard Michael Pruitt / DMN The city of Dallas has been aerating water from a March 9 gasoline spill to remove the chemical MTBE from East Caddo Creek before the water gets into Lake Tawakoni.
Other small water companies that rely solely on Lake Tawakoni are drawing water again. Dallas remains concerned about MTBE concentrations that could be washed out of miles of contaminated soil and back into the water supply, said Terrace Stewart, Dallas Water Utilities executive director.
That concern has led the water utility to ask the Dallas City Council to adopt the toughest water restrictions in 50 years and build a new $12 million pipeline from Lake Ray Hubbard so summer water demands can be met. A cleanup plan could be proposed next week, but a pipeline decision can't wait because construction needs to start immediately in anticipation of a hot, dry summer, Mr. Stewart said.
"It's imperative that we ensure that the quality of water is as high as we can obtain," he said. "I'd like to have the same quality of water for our customers. Until we have that level of assurance, I'm not going to reactivate our pumps."
Soon after the spill, booms were put in creeks and earthen dams were built to contain most of the gasoline, said Rod Sands, vice president of operations for Explorer Pipeline Co. of Tulsa, Okla. The company also is aerating the water as it travels down the creek, a process that removes more of the additive.
"I don't see a problem with pulling water out of Lake Tawakoni with the current levels of MTBE," said Mr. Sands.
The pipeline company has employed its own experts to test the lake water, and the state has reviewed their results.
Soil tests to determine the full extent of the needed cleanup should be complete next week, Mr. Sands said.
"I don't feel like Dallas' proposed pipeline is necessary from the standpoint of the leak," Mr. Sands said. "It may be necessary from the standpoint of the drought conditions here.
"The water is safe out of Lake Tawakoni for the city of Dallas and all other cities."
Mr. Stewart adamantly dismissed the notion that the city is using the gasoline spill to force Explorer Pipeline to pay for the $12 million project.
"But the issue of who is going to pay for what and when is going to have to be borne out in the future," he said.
Dallas is still concerned that MTBE could be washed from soil into the lake. But concentrations have actually dropped after two recent rains, Mr. Barrett said.
Smaller cities and water agencies can install charcoal filtration - a process that becomes impractical for large users. Tests have found no detectable levels of MTBE in any of their processed water, said Mr. Barrett.
Wells have dropped six inches in Greenville, the only other city that still isn't taking water from Lake Tawakoni. Greenville will begin pumping soon and is happy with the recent state test results.
Once a formal soil cleanup plan is approved, removal should take 30 to 60 days.
Cleanup can't come soon enough, local residents say.
"It's devastating us, as we speak," said Don Tanoos, mayor of West Tawakoni.
The town has no industry, and business is down 45 percent at one marina and down 90 percent at another park, he said.
"The people from Dallas we depend on are scared to come down," he said. "If you start lowering the volume of visitors to the lake, then when the registers quit jingling, we're dead."
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), April 08, 2000
Water plan called way to guard city But experts say Tawakoni supply is safe despite spill
By Randy Lee Loftis and Terri Langford / The Dallas Morning News
The city of Dallas is talking about millions of dollars, miles of new water pipelines and mandatory water-use cuts in the wake of the big gasoline spill at Lake Tawakoni.
All this is meant to keep the public from drinking a water supply that several outside experts - including state and federal regulators - say is safe. The latest tests found no contamination in most places and only a tiny amount at a few spots.
Richard Michael Pruitt / DMN Explorer Pipeline Company has been aerating water from a March 9 gasoline spill to remove the chemical MTBE from East Caddo Creek before the water gets to Lake Tawakoni.
"We are saying absolutely that the water is safe to drink," said Patrick Crimmins, spokesman for Texas' state environmental agency.
So why is Dallas pushing plans to dramatically rearrange its far- flung water supply reservoir system in the aftermath of the spill?
Simple, said Dallas' water chief, Terrace Stewart: to protect the public from a chemical that he says is poorly understood.
"I'm not going to make the city of Dallas a guinea pig," he said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concurs with state experts on the water's safety. So does an expert who tracks water contamination for hundreds of water utilities in California, ground zero in the war over the water-polluting gasoline additive MTBE.
Levels are so low now that "it shouldn't be a problem," said MTBE expert Krista Clark of the Association of California Water Agencies, whose members deliver 90 percent of that state's water.
But Dallas officials want to speed up a long-planned, $180-million water pipeline to distant Lake Fork and build a second one for $12 million to tap nearby Lake Ray Hubbard - and, as some City Council members suggested - they're discussing making the company whose gasoline line broke pay for the work.
Both new lines might help the city during droughts more often than they would help avoid polluted waters. But city officials deny that they are trying to cash in by sending Tulsa-based Explorer Pipeline - whose pipe break fouled Lake Tawakoni - the bill for new water supplies that the city needed anyway.
Richard Michael Pruitt / DMN Jack Tatum, development coordinator for the Sabine River Authority of Texas holds a report on the ruptured pipeline. The report details the spill as well as lake sampling results.
Such suggestions are "ludicrous," Dallas' Mr. Stewart said.
Explorer Pipeline president Scott VanDyke said that while the company is willing to clean up the mess and is working diligently, taking daily water and soil samples, it won't buy the city a new pipeline.
"No, because we don't think it's necessary," he said.
Start of crisis
The crisis started around midnight March 10 about 4 feet below the ground in a dark field 10 miles or so outside of Greenville.
A 24-inch pipeline - carrying gasoline for a client that Explorer won't identify - broke for reasons that federal investigators haven't determined. By the time Explorer closed the valves, as much as 600,000 gallons had soaked into the ground and into a creek that feeds Lake Tawakoni, 24 miles downstream.
The spill - through a 1-foot by 4-foot gash - was quickly stopped. Federal investigators shipped the ruptured pipe section to Washington, D.C., to see why it broke. The 29-year-old pipeline, now fixed, is once again pumping gasoline, jet fuel and other chemicals from the Texas Gulf Coast to Chicago.
Explorer is working on long-term cleanup plans.
Lake Tawakoni (pronounced Tah-WAH-koh-nee) is about 60 miles east of Dallas and provides about one-third of Dallas' daily drink of up to 800 million gallons.
The morning after the spill a thunderstorm flushed contamination down East Caddo Creek as emergency crews watched helplessly. Dallas quickly shut the intake, falling back on four other reservoirs already stressed by a long dry spell.
The biggest worry wasn't the gasoline itself; it was MTBE - a chemical put in gasoline to help clear the air in smoggy cities such as Dallas. Methyl tertiary-butyl ether dissolves easily in water and tastes and smells awful, by most accounts.
MTBE levels in Lake Tawakoni were high at first - up to 1,500 parts per billion (ppb). By Thursday, however, the Sabine River Authority, which owns the lake, found none at all in most of it and no more than 1.6 parts per billion anywhere - far below any published level of concern.
It's entirely safe to drink the water, state and federal experts said, and to eat fish from the lake, noted the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Levels in the lake now "present no health concern whatsoever," said Jeff Saitas, executive director of the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission.
But Mr. Stewart, Dallas' water chief, said that until he's convinced that all the MTBE is gone and no traces are in the water supply, "we're not turning those pumps back on, period."
Last Wednesday, Mr. Stewart told the City Council that the city also needs to build new pipelines to lakes not affected by the spill. The council could vote Wednesday.
City officials backed their argument with handouts showing MTBE readings that were then 10 days old - and had already been replaced by newer, much lower ones, state officials note.
Several council members demanded that Explorer pay for the new water lines - and suggested a lawsuit if Explorer doesn't agree.
Mr. Stewart, who said only that the question of who ultimately pays is unresolved, insisted Friday that the city hadn't planned a new Lake Ray Hubbard pipeline until the spill.
He said that it would provide an excellent drought safety net. Summer is the thirstiest season, he said, so "to ensure we have water, we need to move forward with the plan."
But he said public safety is why he wants the project now.
Mr. VanDyke said Explorer shouldn't fund Dallas' drought plans.
"If they're doing those lines because it's an alternative for the drought situation, I can understand that situation," he said. The chemical-tainted soil could be removed within 30-60 days by either heating the MTBE out of the soil with kilns or removing the soil and taking it to a landfill.
MTBE has been in some of the nation's gasoline supplies since 1979, when it debuted as an antiknock compound to replace lead.
Congress gave it a boost in 1990. A new law said that gasoline sold in the smoggiest areas had to have a higher oxygen content to make it burn cleaner.
By 1996, about 85 percent of the reformulated gasoline sold in smoggy cities, including Dallas-Fort Worth, had MTBE added to it in order to meet the federal requirement.
Some experts disagree, but the EPA says the additive has worked. It lowered emissions of a number of highly toxic compounds, such as the notorious, confirmed cancer-causing benzene, the EPA notes. And MTBE- containing gasoline has cut smog in many areas, the agency says.
But MTBE has a nasty downside: It pollutes water. Most pollution comes from leaking underground tanks. Many lakes have gotten a shot of MTBE from gasoline spills at marinas and from the emissions of older generations of watercraft.
Only rarely has contamination comes from a big pipeline break.
Concern has been so universal - and the publicity so negative - that President Clinton now says the country will stop using MTBE.
The EPA doesn't have a legally enforceable rule for how much MTBE is allowed in drinking water. But the agency says people might start complaining about the taste and odor at levels around 20 to 40 parts per billion.
"It has a turpentine-like taste," said Tom Poeton, an EPA engineer in Dallas.
Some people can sniff MTBE in their water at lower levels. Texas officials say 15 ppb is a better target. California favors 5 ppb.
A few people in a California study could taste or smell it with as little as 2 ppb, but for most it was about 20, said Ms. Clark, regulatory affairs specialist for the Association of California Water Agencies.
California water officials have led the charge against MTBE, citing tainted wells in a state that depends heavily upon groundwater. In nearly each case, Ms. Clark said, California utilities that shut off water supplies had MTBE levels far higher than those in Lake Tawakoni: 50-100 ppb in South Tahoe, up to 70 ppb in east San Diego County, a stunning 200,000 ppb in private wells in Glendale.
Cutting off a supply for 2 ppb or less is actually a way to soothe public fears rather than actually protect people, Ms. Clark said. "We don't want one person to smell it," she said. "No one wants to be saying, 'Yeah, it tastes bad, but it doesn't hurt you.' "
The question of MTBE's health effects in drinking water is less clear. The EPA classifies it as a potential cause of cancer, although that's far from proven.
Most studies dealt with animals, not people - and examined inhaling MTBE fumes, not drinking water, noted the EPA's Mr. Poeton. From those results, however, the EPA concludes that it takes a lot of MTBE to hurt people.
The amount that the EPA says most people could taste or smell, 20-40 ppb, would have to increase 20,000 to 100,000 times to cause people the kinds of health problems found in lab animals, the EPA said. That's roughly the same margin of safety that the federal government builds into its drinking water rules to prevent cancer.
What that means, said Mr. Poeton and EPA spokesman David Bary, is that the EPA isn't worried about the water.
But Dallas is worried about what's still in the soil. Every time it rains, Mr. Stewart said, the lake might get a fresh dose.
"We're really in a pretty critical situation here," Mr. Stewart told the council.
However, California's years of experience with groundwater contamination suggests that that won't happen, Ms. Clark said. MTBE moves quickly through the soil rather than clinging to it, so the biggest portion probably washed down the creek and into the lake in the first few days, she said.
"It's a good thing it happened in an area that uses surface water," she said. "If anybody needed to use that groundwater, you'd be in a world of hurt."
The EPA also said it's seen no sign of tainted soil feeding more MTBE into the lake.
The Sabine River Authority hasn't tested for MTBE in Lake Fork, Dallas' future supply, but it will do so now, said Donnie Henson, the authority's operations manager. He predicted very low levels.
That would jibe with findings for 46 other Texas lakes that state officials and the U.S. Geological Survey published last October.
Most results were extremely low - less than 1 ppb, very similar to the latest Lake Tawakoni readings. Three reservoirs had levels higher than Lake Tawakoni's - Lake Travis, Lake Houston and Lake Lavon. Their readings, all lower than 3 ppb, raised no health concerns, state and federal officials said.
West Tawakoni resident Laura Buterbaugh, co-owner of a bait shop near the lake, said talk of possible contamination has meant a 50-percent drop in business compared with last year.
"The reports on TV and in the news - the publicity in general, has hurt business," Ms. Buterbaugh said. "The water's fine . . . We're still drinking it, and we've seen the EPA people drinking the water, so we assume if there was something wrong they would tell us."
Dallas' Mr. Stewart still says he isn't sure the water is safe.
"When it comes to water and public safety . . . I think my stance is the most prudent way to proceed," he said.
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), April 09, 2000.