THE BUZZ: Water Watch

By on December 6, 2016

Town on heightened EPA inspection after routine water tests show elevated level of benzene.

Left: Bill’s Standard 2007 plume map. Right: Bill’s Standard plume map circa October 2015.

Left: Bill’s Standard 2007 plume map. Right: Bill’s Standard plume map circa October 2015.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – News about increased levels of a hazardous, cancer-causing agent in the town’s drinking water supply leached out to the public last week in much the same fashion, perhaps, as benzene finds its way through silt soils and into groundwater. The average citizen has been bathing in and drinking the spiked water since at least mid-summer (if the latest sampling is correct) but town officials say there is no cause for alarm. “Our water is safe,” said John Ryan, the town’s water utility manager. “I’ve been dealing with [the EPA]. “One out of our seven wells came in with a flaggable amount of benzene. It’s still well below every boundary of the Safe Water Drinking Act.” Still, questions about the tested water sample linger.

The elevated reading for benzene was discovered from a sample taken on July 12, 2016 at well No. 5 near Flat Creek. That’s the main drinking water well for the town of Jackson. It’s located under the array of solar panels in the middle of Karns Meadow.

The water sample was submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency. The reading came back with a 1.6 mg/L for benzene. That is triple the trigger/detection level set at .5 mg/L by the federal government, but still well below what would be considered contaminant level: 5 micrograms per liter.

Lisa Kahn, EPA’s regional drinking water program manager, said the Town of Jackson was notified of the elevated reading on July 27, though Kahn said the agency was “a little bit late” in informing Ryan that samplings would now need to take place quarterly instead of the usual twice a year. That news came in an email from environmental scientist Kendra Morrison of the EPA to Ryan and Mayor Sara Flitner dated November 28. The email to a town elected official (Flitner) became part of the public record, and local news agencies pounced on it within days.

Ryan insists there is no cause for concern and the test was likely flawed. Kahn confirmed that the town has never had a benzene reading this high and it is not uncommon to have a false alarm detection level. Ryan has since ordered new water tests (expected back in two weeks) that may prove the readings are in error. Town officials also issued a press release stating, “Town drinking water safe.”

Leaky history

Benzene is a byproduct of gasoline (it’s used to boost octane levels) and a known carcinogen. It has been found in more than one place in the town’s groundwater. At least two old gas station sites are ground zero for “benzene plumes,” where the chemical has leached its way through permeable soils and groundwater, spreading for dozens of city blocks.

One such plume was created by Bill’s Standard, an old gas station operated by Bill Hansen on West Broadway and Millward through the 70s and 80s. Hansen began noticing an unexplained and unaccountable fuel inventory loss not long after opening the fuel station. He thought his employees were stealing from him.

“We had all sorts of drivers coming and going and we never had leak detection go off,” Hansen recalled. Through the years, Hansen repeatedly called DEQ and other state and local officials, but investigations turned up no definitive answers. “Finally, I filled the tanks and pumped no gas for 24 hours. That’s when I knew. We dug up everything.”

The leak, occurring between 1973 and 1985, dumped some 187,000 gallons of gas in the Jackson aquifer, 30 to 40 feet below ground. To date, DEQ has spent more than $6 million on this Jackson spill, according to DEQ records.

Through the 2000s, the plume was growing and headed toward Karns Meadow and well No. 5. In 2007, then-town engineer Shawn O’Malley said the plume had made it only as far as underneath the Brew Pub, and it would take it at least eight years to get to Karns Meadow, if it got there at all. It’s now nine years after that prediction.

Benzene has also turned up at Hoback Junction where a drinking water well supplying Hoback Market was declared contaminated after a test by Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality found 60 times the max allowed in spring 2014.

Tetrachloroethylene (PCE)—a manufactured chemical widely used in the dry cleaning of fabrics, metal degreasing and taxidermy—was found in the groundwater around the Virginian Lane-Gregory Lane area in 2002-03.

Calling in the experts

“Naturally, you don’t want any of this in your water,” Ryan said, “but according to the state geologist, he doesn’t see how it could have possibly gotten in there. Benzene floats and I’m at 120 feet in a deep alluvial well.”

The Planet checked with state geologist Tom Drean who said he’s never talked with the Town of Jackson about its municipal water supply, and it’s not something his department would normally get involved with. “Maybe he meant State Engineer’s Office,” Drean suggested.

“We deal with quantity, DEQ handles quality,” said George Moser at the State Engineer’s Office. Moser was able to provide detailed information on everything about well No. 5 except the chemical makeup of the water pumping through it. “It’s drilled to a depth of 148 feet, with sampling screens set between 96 and 146 feet below the surface, and static water at five feet deep. Pump test yields 3,000 gallons a minute, so it’s a fairly productive well.”

Wyoming DEQ’s Hal Hatfield was able to confirm that “Bill’s Standard Plume” as the agency officially refers to it, was shrinking and had not reached water well No. 5. “It looks like it’s been knocked back considerably,” he said.

Ryan said he did not know the name of the state geologist he spoke with who assured him benzene would not be found that deep in his well. The Planet checked with Morrison, who said a geologist was provided as a consultant by the EPA during a conference call with Ryan. Morrison cautioned the analysis was speculation deriving from a scenario without “site-specific information” and the geologist had “no basis to determine any possible impacts to the well.”

Ryan said he is not ruling anything out at this point but still believes follow-up tests will show July’s reading to be an anomaly. “It may be human error. It could have been somebody had Magic Marker on their finger and then touched the sampling lid,” Ryan said. “The town’s water is completely safe to drink.” PJH

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