Arsenic remains a risk in Vale water

Vale’s drinking water still shows more arsenic then allowed under Federal standards but the city is already working on a plan to revamp its water system in an effort to reduce the mineral. (The Enterprise/Kristine de Leon).

VALE – Something’s amiss at the Vale airport, the site of the city’s new water treatment facility.

Standing just west of the airstrip, roughly 250 feet away, an unassuming blue metal building offers relief from the furnace-like conditions outdoors. Inside, workers wearing hard hats toil away like a colony of ants.

They have an important mission: Save Vale’s arsenic-tainted water supply.

Water sample data dating back to 2013 show that the city’s wells have a long history of water problems, with arsenic levels considered unsafe by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The city of Vale samples and tests its drinking water four times a year. In the latest round of testing, Vale’s water contained arsenic levels ranging 12 to 20 parts per billion. The results meant the city had to send a letter to its 730 water consumers, telling them that their water contained excessive levels of arsenic that technically violated safe drinking water standards. City officials, though, insist that the water is safe.

“What’s ‘high’ levels depends on what you consider is ‘high,’” said Jack McElvary from the city’s Public Works Department. He explained that the concentrations of arsenic are tiny, measured in quantities of parts per million or billion, far below a lethal dose.

“All drinking water have some small amount of arsenic,” he said. “If you have it in large doses, it could be bad for you.”

McElvary, who joined the city’s public works in 2017 as a senior utility worker, explained that eastern Oregon has relatively high levels of arsenic in groundwater. He maintained that the city’s arsenic level was just past the threshold that requires public notice, and so he isn’t too concerned.

“The average arsenic level in Vale is around 14 parts per billion,” McElvary continued. “So we’re technically 4 parts per billion over the standard, which is very low.”

He added that the city was within the acceptable federal standard for arsenic until the EPA reduced the allowed concentration of arsenic in drinking water.

“We were already below the limit and, for a long time, the maximum amount of arsenic you can have was no more than 50 parts per billion,” he said.

But the EPA changed its safety standard in 2001 and reduced the maximum concentration to 10 parts per billion of drinking water. Since then, the city of Vale has tested positive for levels of arsenic that are considered unhealthy.

Arsenic can be found everywhere. It’s a natural element of the Earth’s crust and occurs naturally in groundwater basins. But it can also be industrially generated and released into the environment through pesticides, agricultural applications and mining. For Vale, it doesn’t help that the hydrologically closed basins of eastern Oregon are particularly vulnerable to high concentrations of arsenic. Long known as a deadly toxin at high doses, a number of studies indicate that arsenic can become a carcinogenic agent, even at extremely low concentrations.

“At low doses, it could lead to long-term chronic issues, like increased risk of skin cancer, lung cancer and bladder cancer,” said Dave Farrer, public health toxicologist with the Oregon Health Authority. Regular, ongoing low-dose exposure also has been shown to impact pre-natal growth and child neurodevelopment. When local water utilities find violations, federal law requires them to notify the public that long-term exposure to arsenic concentrations above 10 ppb increases the risk for cancer, said Farrer.

However, he and his researchers at the OHA do not know if the lowering the standard from 50 ppb to 10 ppb has led to any significant health benefits in rural areas of eastern Oregon. Farrer added that many cities in rural areas had been in compliance before the new EPA arsenic rule came into effect and that some of these smaller water systems were just slightly over the arsenic limit. However, he said there are ways that cities could address high arsenic levels but admits that might require expensive technologies.

Most small public and private water facilities in Malheur County have installed ion exchange systems or reverse osmosis systems, according to OHA. But Vale has a different story.

“Vale is complicated,” said Bill Goss, drinking water specialist at OHA. “(The city) actually had a treatment system installed in 2006 in which the EPA funded the majority of the costs but then failed, and they had to start from scratch and build a new treatment facility.”

In 2003, the EPA chose Vale as the testing ground for arsenic removal technology. The agency installed an ion exchange system designed to remove arsenic and nitrates, but the system only ran from 2006 to 2010.

“It just couldn’t keep up,” McElvary explained, holding one of the filter contraptions to show the failed sieve.

While the EPA financed the $395,000 cost of the new arsenic removal, the city had to pay over $240,000 for a new building, an evaporation pond, and a brine waste treatment facility, according to an EPA final performance evaluation report.

But when the arsenic treatment system failed, the facilities were no longer put into use.

Currently, Vale has no way to remove arsenic from its drinking water supply. But long-term fixes are in the works.

With money from the federal government for the Water System Improvements Project, the city has contracted T Bailey Inc. to build a new water filtration system, according McElvary.

Despite some blistering hot weather, construction is moving along at a fast pace at the new water treatment facility. Inside, several workers recently opened sandbags to fill a large blue tank.

“This new tank that we’ll be using is a sand filter, where the (arsenic)treatment is going to take place,” said McElvary, pointing to the large tank at the center of the room. “It’s like a swimming pool-type sand filter. But instead of a swimming pool, or basic sand filter that filters out bacteria and bugs, this one’s designed to filter out arsenic.”

The special sand would cut arsenic levels in Vale residents’ drinking water that consistently hovers just over the safe drinking standard.

Bill Goss, a drinking water specialist at OHA, said that Vale has been cooperative with the state in trying to meet the safe drinking water standard.

“We have a bilateral compliance agreement with Vale,” explained Goss. “The city has an agreement with OHA that it will install the necessary treatment facilities by a certain time.”

Because of Vale’s willingness to address the arsenic problem, the city hasn’t been penalized by federal or state regulators. However, it has had to spend a lot of money to comply.

For example, the new water treatment project required a new pipe system, stretching from the Washington Street Well Station to the Vale airport, where the new water treatment facility is being built.

“The road had to get torn up so we could put the new pipe for the well,” McElvary said. “And that cost the city a lot of money.”

A long stretch of new pavement can be seen along West Street, where 8,000 feet of pipe went in.

“I look at things like, if the government or government entity is going to demand you to do something, then I feel that they should have to pay for that instead of putting the burden onto us, the community,” said McElvary. He noted that “Vale is poor.”

City Manager Katy Lamb said water customers will help pay for the new system – an extra $7 a month. McElvary said that the new water treatment plant is estimated to cost $8.5 million and also will allow customers to use more water.