City water quality expected to pass EPA standards

Ani Ajith

Evanston officials expressed confidence that results of city water tests, set to arrive Friday, will show acceptably low levels of the same pollutant involved in the Erin Brockovich exposé, as per U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards.

Prompted by reports of high concentrations of the pollutant, hexavalent chromium, in Chicago water last December, city officials submitted water samples to an independent laboratory.

Kevin Lookis, the assistant water superintendent in charge of the Evanston Water Treatment Plant, said the results will most likely fall between the reported levels in Chicago and Milwaukee water samples, since there is less industrial ground runoff here.

Hexavalent chromium, or chromium (VI), gained notoriety as the carcinogen at the heart of the Erin Brockovich case. As reports of high chromium levels in Chicago tap water surfaced in local media late last year, the U.S. EPA released a statement confirming the agency was reviewing its chromium standard in light of new scientific studies on human capacity to absorb and mitigate effects of chromium-6.

The current EPA standard for acceptable levels of chromium in drinking water is 100 parts per billion; public health authorities in California have proposed a limit closer to 0.2 ppb.

In response to resident concerns over the levels of chromium-6 in Evanston water, the utilities department presented a video and data at the Jan. 24 city council meeting detailing the Evanston water quality laboratory’s efforts and procedures to keep chromium and other pollutant levels well below the minimum level dictated by EPA standards.

Evanston’s water treatment plant draws and treats water from Lake Michigan and serves more than 360,000 residents of Evanston, Skokie and Northwest Water Commission member communities. In the video presentation, Lookis noted the lab has achieved 100 percent compliance with Illinois inspection standards in the past two audits. The plant has the capacity to process 108 million gallons of drinking water a day and operates 24 hours a day each day of the year.

Two operators were stationed at the plant during the recent blizzard. Lookis said the turbidity, or cloudiness, of Lake Michigan water spiked as storm front winds “churned up” what city officials call “one of the world’s most valuable sources of fresh surface water.”

Fluoride is added to the city’s water supply during treatment “to promote dental health,” utilities director David Stoneback said. This level may drop in the near future if the EPA adjusts its standards – a move Evanston would welcome, since fluoride is expensive, he said.

Evanston’s plant does not have all the equipment required to carry out many of the quality tests mandated by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Lookis said most municipal treatment plants, including Chicago’s, simply cannot afford to pay millions for some machines, so Illinois certifies private labs around the country to test samples for certain contaminants. Evanston’s water samples are tested at an Underwriters Laboratory facility in South Bend, Ind.

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