by Somak Roy
The City of Bethlehem’s water comes entirely from surface sources, namely the Wild Creek Reservoir and the Penn Forest Reservoir in a watershed that covers 17 square miles. This primary water supply is located 22 miles north of the City. The Tunkhannock Creek and Monroe County provide a supplemental supply of water to the Penn Forest Reservoir.
The sources of drinking water (both tap water and bottled water) include rivers, lakes, streams, ponds, reservoirs, springs, and wells. As water travels over the surface of the land or through the ground, it dissolves naturally occurring minerals and, in some cases, radioactive material, and can pick up substances resulting from the presence of animals or from human activity.
Contaminants that may be present in source water before the city treats it include Organic chemical contaminants, including synthetic and volatile organic chemicals, which are by-products of industrial processes, and can also come from gas stations, stormwater runoff, and septic systems.
From 2015 to 2019, chromium, hexavalent chromium, and strontium levels have been consistently on the lower end of the allowable spectrum. However, trihalomethane levels have been on the high end, and the acceptable ranges set by the EPA is constantly changing. Trihalomethanes are a chemical group that are a byproduct of mixing chlorine and organic matter and are related to fracking wastewater. Wastewater generated by hydraulic fracking is known to have high amounts of trihalomethanes that are still present even after the water treatment process. This chemical has been proven to have such negative health effects as various forms of cancer. Bromodichloromethane is part of the family of the chemicals known as trihalomethanes which are regulated by PaDEP and are monitored and included in the Consumer Confidence reports. It is important to ask why the allowable range of trihalomethanes is changing every year. Could this range be changing to accommodate increases in concentrations in source water?
In 1991, EPA published a regulation to control lead and copper in drinking water. This regulation is known as the Lead and Copper Rule (also referred to as the LCR). Until 2019, when lead jumped from 2.0 -7.0 ppb, the level of lead and copper in Bethlehem was relatively constant and had been since 2013. Although the levels are still significantly below the Recommended Exposure Limit, it’s important to ask what happened in 2019. Why did the level of lead increase and how do these fluctuations reflect human behavior?
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the method being used to extract natural gas from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale geological formation. Fracking is controversial and is banned in New York, as well as places like Vermont and some European countries. Dozens of children and young adults have been diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma and other forms of cancer in a four-county area outside Pittsburgh where energy companies have drilled more than 3,500 wells since 2008.
Awareness is important, in particular, wider public awareness and better understanding of these impacts. Some positive steps are already being taken to keep our water safe. In November 2019, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said his administration will spend $3 million on a pair of studies to explore the potential health effects of the natural gas industry. At the water recycling plant in Lycoming County, a facility where wastewater is efficiently treated and studied, some shale gas producers are trying to protect the environment by collecting the fracking fluid and sending it to actual waste facilities.
Recycling and reusing shale-produced water as initiated by the Marcellus shale industry is now the standard practice of PA shale companies in order to lessen the environmental impact of the shale industry. However, it is baffling to see how few studies are done with the 600 chemicals used in fracking and their effect in drinking water. Given this information, one cannot conclude that fracking will have no impact on the Bethlehem water supply in the future.
Just like for the 600 chemicals used at fracking sites, more research must be done on chemicals such as trihalomethanes to fully understand their potentially harmful impacts to the human body. Sudden increases in contaminant levels, such as the elevated concentration of lead, should become a top priority. Our water may be safe for now, but in order to ensure that this remains true, we all need to be aware of what can and will taint our water supply.