Trihalomethane was detected in Bethlehem’s Clapper Road water treatment plant. The compound often appears when chlorine is added to water with algae, river weeds or decaying leaves. Though often present, higher volumes of the compound has been linked to cause cancer. Tricia Cremo/Spotlight
BETHLEHEM — A cancer-causing chemical was found present in the town’s water supply, but town officials warn residents not to overreact.
Trihalomethane (THM), a chemical that has been linked to cancer, was recently found to be at elevated levels at the Clapper Road plant, one of the town’s two water plants.
All of Bethlehem’s water supply is interconnected. This means every person in town theoretically receives the same infected water, as do those who live in municipalities that buy Bethlehem water, such as in the Town of New Scotland.
According to Department of Public Works (DPW) Commissioner George Kansas, those who live close to Wemple Road are most at risk, as this is where the violation was found. But, he said, drinking the chemical does not pose any immediate health risks.
“It would take drinking two liters, or a half gallon, of water with 100 parts per billion of THM [more than found in town] every day for 70 years to have three additional cancer cases out of 10,000 people,” said the DPW Commissioner. This statistic from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which sets limits on amount of chemicals allowed in municipal water supplies.
News of THMs in Bethlehem water is nothing new, said Town Supervisor John Clarkson at the Wednesday, Feb. 24, Town Board meeting.
“It is not a matter of great concern,” stated the supervisor. “Here in Bethlehem we’ve been looking at this issue for quite some time, and we are slightly above the evolving federal standards on [THMs], which are disinfection byproducts,” he explained.
THMs are created when disinfectants like chlorine are added to water. When added too early in the filtration process, THMs are created when the disinfectant interacts with organic materials (like leaves and algae). About 70 percent of municipalities including Bethlehem use chlorine to disinfect water, said Kansas.
Since updated EPA regulations on water were released in 2013, the town has been saving for the estimated $10 million cost of upgrading water and sewer facilities in town. Improvements have already been made at the New Salem Water plant, the town’s second water plant, located in the Town of New Scotland. Now, the town is in the process of executing plans for improvements at the Clapper Road plant, where the water violation was located.
“Three years ago an engineering firm was contracted. Pilot studies have bee done to figure out what the best way to make repairs. And, total completion of the design should be completed by this fall, so that that town can start construction in the spring,” said Kansas. This plan has been approved by the EPA and the county and state health departments.
However, some in town strongly object to the slow pace at which these improvements are being made.
“I’ve been aware of the situation with this water. I know that the water department has sent notice of this, and I know that it’s been put in our bills, but I have a few concerns,” began resident Emerson Martin, of Selkirk, a former engineer. “I don’t trust the New York State Health Department and I’m not sure I trust all the information you’re giving us. They have not told the truth with the chemicals in Petersburg. They held that from the public,” he said in calmed anger.
“This chemical is dangerous. If you really research this chemical, you’ll find that in some cases it has caused miscarriages in women. It’s a volatile chemical, and a lot of people don’t know this, but when you take a shower, this chemical is precipitated in your air. It can cause various kinds of cancer, including liver and kidney. People with compromised immune systems, it can cause them major, major problems.”
“This is something that the town should have put out and it was not put out probably because of scare tactics. It’s been two years and they have just come up with a plan to solve this problem now. They say it’s going to be another two or three years to complete a plan that will solve this problem. Why does it take five years to put our citizens here in this town in jeopardy with our children – my grandchildren – in jeopardy?” he said angrily, at one point pointing to each board member individually. “That totally ticks me off.”
“There isn’t a short term imminent threat or danger to the public because of this situation,” replied Kansas. “The regulation was set because there is a long term or lifetime increased risk of developing certain forms of cancer and other health risks because of this water.”
“As regard to how long solving the problem will take, the Town Board has made commitments,” said Clarkson. “We made commitments in 2012 and 2013. We have already made major repairs at the New Salem plant, and we have been figuring out with engineering studies how to make the improvements at Clapper Road and how to make them quickly.”
“You can’t make major repairs to a water treatment facility overnight,” added Kansas.
Yet, even though the town has been preparing to address the issue for some years now, with recent water crisis in Hoosick Falls and Flint, Mich., this recent EPA violation at Clapper Road, which revealed the high THM content has caused quite a stir.
“Frankly, some people have called here with the events in Hoosick Falls and Petersburg and Flint, Michigan,” said Clarkson, while Kansas also admitted that his department has also received its share of calls.
However, one should not compare the THMs found in Bethlehem to the chemicals found elsewhere. In the case of Hoosick Falls, factory byproducts released into public water supply are at the root of the town’s rise in cancer diagnosis and subsequent class action lawsuit.
“It’s like comparing apples to oranges,” said Commissioner Kansas, of comparing Bethlehem to Hoosick Falls.
In Bethlehem, new EPA guidelines are the root of the issue. “These laws were more stringent and look at the sites themselves, as opposed a system-wide average,” said Kansas, adding that the town is not and was not opposed to the update, and that the problem should not be seen as a failure on the part of the water department.
“We test at areas where risks are more likely, as EPA regulations dictate, and plans for improvements to filtration target these areas,” said Kansas.
At Wemple Road, “That stretch there has large pipes but pretty low water demand, so that water tends to sit there [longer]” before looping back up River Road and onto the Clapper Road facility.
Again repeating that this is a serious issue and his department is trying to address the issue, Clarkson said, “We do take this very seriously, which is why we’ve been working on it and we have an investment plan of over $10 million for the water plants, including Clapper Road.”
F.A.Q.s on THMs and Clapper Road improvements are available on the town website.
DPW Commissioner George Kansas will be giving a presentation on water system upgrades and the issue of THMs next week, Wednesday, March 9, at 7 p.m.