Town uses 2nd lab after discrepancies reported in tests
PINEDALE – Tests for contamination of fecal coliform in Fremont Lake continue to increase and decrease without any rhyme or reason. Despite the unknown cause, the town of Pinedale might be forced to install an “idiotic” filtration system that will not address the problem – but will increase water rates for users.
A sixth sample taken Aug. 24 has exceeded Environmental Protection Agency limits for fecal coliform to allow the town of Pinedale to maintain its water system from Fremont Lake without a new filter system.
In a call with the EPA Wednesday, Mayor Matt Murdock referred to the bureaucracy that will force the town to build a water filtration system in addition to the existing treatment facility, despite the fact the new filtration will not protect the town’s water supply.
At the Aug. 27 Pinedale Town Council meeting, council members expressed frustration and a sense of helplessness at not being able to determine the cause.
Council member Tyler Swafford called the EPA requirements “idiotic,” saying the town will be forced to build two water storage tanks and a filtration system that will not address the fecal coliform contamination.
Spencer Hartman, water and sewer supervisor for the town of Pinedale, reported at the Aug. 27 council meeting that a test from Aug. 21 exceeded 600 colony-forming units. Then only days later, a sample taken Aug. 24 showed only 76 FCU, according to the Pinedale laboratory. However, a portion of the sample was sent to a second certified lab in Billings, Mont., and measured less than 1 FCU.
Mayor Matt Murdock said for the next two weeks, water samples will be sent to both labs.
“We have to eliminate all possibilities,” Murdock said.
However, that may be too little, too late. The town’s water report for August is due Sept. 10. Murdock said in an email to council members, once received, the EPA will be informed formally the town is out of compliance. Murdock was told the town would receive a notice and an 18-month deadline to install the filtration system.
Despite acknowledgement by Jake Crosby, EPA rules manager, that very few communities can complete the filtration system in 18 months especially in a small community with winter restrictions, the clock will start ticking for Pinedale about mid-September.
If the town of Pinedale is unable to comply by the 18-month deadline, Pinedale will receive a treatment violation requiring public notice and an administrative order from the EPA.
“The only way that the Billings test result of less than 1 FCU would be considered over the local lab’s test of 76 would be if we can prove Zedi did the testing incorrectly,” Murdock said. Since Zedi has done the tests for years and is annually certified by the EPA, it is unlikely. The EPA is sending a list of checks that each lab will have to complete.
Moving forward, Murdock has already requested Hartman and the town’s engineer Hayley Ruland begin identifying engineers and agencies that can help the town determine the size of facility that is needed and the cost.
Murdock said the town can then talk to the state about emergency grants.
“I will be contacting our Congressional representatives, both for some influence and also to highlight how the law needs to be amended to some degree – probably to no effect for us,” Murdock said.
Another solution proposed years ago was switching to well water. However, that idea was discarded.
Murdock said bureaucracy appears to prevail.
Guidelines by the EPA state that fewer that 10 percent of the samples taken in a year can exceed the maximum 20 colony-forming units. For Pinedale, with weekly sampling, that means no more than five of 52. The Aug. 24 test made six tests exceeding standards since July 31. Suggestions of changing labs and disregarding the sixth test, or increasing samples taken so the 10-percent threshold would be higher were tossed out by staff and council members.
the same sample, Hartman said the sample tested by the Pinedale lab still counts as a strike, because the lab is EPA certified.
“There is no precedence for invalidating results from a certified lab,” Hartman said.
“We’ve got to figure out what is going on,” Murdock said. “If it is a long-term problem, the town will have to deal with the long-term remedies.”
Wyoming requires water samples be tested within eight hours after collection. The first sample was driven to Billings, Mont. The next two will be sent by overnight package delivery.
Since huge swings are uncommon, according to the Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA, other sources for contamination have been considered.
“We changed the bottle of bleach, thinking it may have become diluted or contaminated; we’ve gotten new beakers; we’ve looked at different employees and the methods used to collect samples,” Hartman said.
In one test, Hartman even confidentially sent samples of distilled water to the lab to ensure the contamination wasn’t happening at the lab.
Swafford said the requirements make sense for water coming from downstream rivers that have garbage and treated waste water from multiple towns or smaller lakes where algae build up. He called the EPA standards “idiotic” as they don’t apply to Fremont Lake’s situation or pristine waters.
Hartman said the standards were set by Congress years ago and may require “an act of Congress” to waive them for the town of Pinedale. Hartman added the expensive filtration will cost users and at the end of the day, water would not be as good.
“It’s interesting to study, if we weren’t on this time crunch,” Hartman said.
Water from Fremont Lake is gravity-fed to the Pinedale water treatment facility, where it is treated with chlorine and an ultraviolet system. The water is not filtered to remove larger particles. However, the chlorine and ultraviolet treatments kill the fecal coliform.
In order to be certified, the town must test the water in Fremont Lake and regularly submit samples. The town must also test water after it’s treated and at random locations as it leaves faucets.
Fecal coliform is a bacteria found in the intestines of warm-blooded animals. Tests are also done for giardia and Cryptosporidium parasites.
On July 25, tests showed the water tested positive for 3 FCU; on July 31 that had jumped to 229.
In an email to Pinedale’s staff and council members, Mayor Matt Murdock called that “strike one of 5.” By Aug. 1 that number rose to 618 FCU – strike two of six. Only one day later on Aug. 2, the number hit a high of 716 FCU. That number did not count against the town, because samples were taken from the entire length of the lake in an attempt to find the source. However, later samples taken after that, while showing declines, still counted as strikes. By Aug. 9, the number had declined to 170, but still counted as strike four.
The next test was delayed to Friday, Aug. 17, the latest possible day to test and see if the downward trend would bring numbers under allowed limits, to save the town from that fifth strike – it did, measuring less than 1 FCU.
The lake continues to be clear of giardia and Cryptosporidium parasites.
Hartman stressed the water remains completely safe to drink. No matter how much bacteria is in the lake, the town’s chlorine and ultraviolet systems ensure the water is OK to drink, he said.
Ironically, the EPA’s required fix, an expensive filtration system, requiring two tanks and special permits on public lands, will not fix the problem of fecal coliform. When the system was initially considered in 2007, the cost was estimated at that time to be $16 million.
Hartman said fecal coliform is so small the bacteria will evade that filtration and still need the chlorine and ultraviolet treatments.
The reason for the filtration requirement, Hartman said, “Bacteria hides behind sediment, which doesn’t apply to Fremont Lake.”
Murdock said. “Obviously, it is a utility; any added costs will have to be passed on to users.”