Penn State, State College addressing chromium in water

A view of the water tower under construction outside of the Stuckeman Architecture Building Friday, Sept 23, 2016, at Penn State.
A view of the water tower under construction outside of the Stuckeman Architecture Building Friday, Sept 23, 2016, at Penn State. psheehan@centredaily.com

A national environmental group says there is a carcinogen in Centre County water.

The organization is the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit focused on driving change through “consumer choice and civic action.”

The chemical is chromium-6. If it sounds familiar, you probably saw “Erin Brockovich,” the Academy Award-winning movie about the woman who helped a California community win a lawsuit over its polluted water.

But while Pacific Gas and Electric, the company behind the dumping of hexavalent chromium, settled the suit for $333 million in 1996, that isn’t the only way it can get into the water system.

According to Brian Heiser, assistant executive director of the State College Borough Water Authority, the chemical can be naturally occurring. He can’t swear that is where the amounts showing up in local tests are coming from, but it’s what he suspects.

“Knowing where our wellfields are and knowing there is no industry around, I would think it is natural,” he said.

SCBWA is one of three places that showed up on the interactive EWG map showing amounts all over the country. The highest concentrations are in California’s Merced (11.41 ppb) and Yolo (13.62 ppb) counties and Cleveland County, Oklahoma (29.59 ppb). But Centre is one of dozens that popped up in Pennsylvania.

The other local systems are Penn State and the Pennsylvania-American Water Co. in Philipsburg.

SCBWA had the highest average of the three, with 24 samples taken from 10 locations over a six-month period in 2014. The average concentration was 0.37 parts per billion, with the highest being 0.60 ppb from the Nixon Wellfield facility.

At Penn State, the average was slightly lower at 0.30 ppb, with the highest reading being 0.38 ppb. In Philipsburg, numbers were considerably lower, with an average of 0.024 ppb and the highest sample showing 0.06 ppb, up from zero at the same distribution system three months earlier.

But numbers mean nothing without context. There is measurable chromium. Is it out of line?

Heiser says the issue is that chromium isn’t something that is regulated the way other components might be, but that’s something that seems to be changing.

“The figures for our levels of chromium-6 posted online are the result of a special request made by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2014 to perform chromium-6 monitoring under the third Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring regulation, which required many — but not all — public water systems to monitor chromium-6 for a one-year period,” said Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers. “Penn State complied and, as these published results show, our levels are far below the EPA federal standard of 100 ppb.”

So is it something to worry about?

EWG says yes.

“Human studies by government and independent scientists worldwide have definitively established that breathing airborne chromium-6 particles can cause lung cancer, and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration sets strict limits for airborne chromium-6 in the workplace,” the group says. “Whether inhaled or ingested, it can also cause liver damage, reproductive problems and developmental harm.”

It’s also something that both Penn State and SCBWA are addressing.

“The current construction of our new water treatment plant has installed a nanofiltration feature to remove chromium to an even greater degree and further improve the quality of our drinking water,” Powers said.

Penn State started major renovations to its water and wastewater system in 2015, including increasing capacity and making everything more eco-friendly at a cost of $61.6 million. The project is expected to be complete by the end of the year.

SCBWA is also making plans to change but is not quite as far along.

“People need to be aware of it, just as we are, and to that end, (we are) in the process of evaluating our treatment facilities and future planning. It appears now that we will be constructing an additional filtration plant and also updating another filtration plant that we currently operate and when we do our pilot testing, we will be evaluating the technology that we want to look at for chromium-6 reduction,” Heiser said.

That pilot testing is planned for 2017. Heiser said the authority is getting estimates for the improvements, but no numbers have been approved by the board at this time.

“We are being proactive because we recognize there are emerging contaminants,” he said.

According to EWG, the “public health goal” for the chemical should be 0.02 ppb, a number determined by scientists in California, where the chemical is limited by law at 10 ppb.

“EWG's analysis of the test data estimates that water supplies serving 218 million Americans — more than two-thirds of the population — contain more chromium-6 than the California scientists deemed safe,” the group said.

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce