The Crap That Occasionally Turns Up In Tucson Water Might Appall You, But You'll Probably Never Know Once The Utility Goes Private.

By Paula Huff

DUE TO INADEQUATE enforcement, owners of commercial buildings are not required to test and repair water backflow-prevention devices, which means Tucson's water supply is frequently contaminated with sewage and other harmful substances, according to official documents on file with Tucson Water.

One of those other substances is lead, which, according to a microbiology report issued at recent conference sponsored by the American Water Works Association (AWWA), enters the potable water supply the same way raw sewage does--through cross-connections in the plumbing systems of commercial buildings.

When the city water main pressure drops, the experts warn, sewage, including human feces, can be sucked into the potable water lines through cross-connections with corroded or absent backflow-prevention devices.

Currents But sewage systems are not the only non-potable water systems cross-connected to the potable water supply. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, fire-sprinkler systems, which frequently consist of lead piping and/or fixtures, can leach lead into potable water via poorly controlled backflow when the city's water main pressure drops due to a broken main or increased water usage--a common occurrence in Tucson during the summer.

In 1991 the state adopted an update of the Uniform Plumbing Code to prevent such a disaster from happening. But Tucson business owners kicked and screamed about the cost--from $3,000 to as much as $100,000 in some cases--of retrofitting their buildings with the dual-valve assembly backflow-prevention devices required by the code, so the state Legislature granted Tucson business owners a reprieve from their responsibility to the public health.

SEVERAL YEARS LATER, a series of 30 samples were collected at random by an employee of Tucson Water's backflow prevention section. In 29 of the 30 samples taken, lead levels were determined to be well above the maximum legally allowable concentration levels. Due to the actions of this concerned employee, who asked not to be identified, the Tucson Weekly has come into possession of the results of water samples analyzed for concentrations of various harmful substances, including heavy metals such as arsenic and lead. These unofficial documents show that during the summer of 1993, lead levels reached dangerously high levels in local drinking water.

If you ask Tucson Water's public information office for data concerning lead concentration in the potable water supply, you'll receive a photocopied "Water Quality Analysis Chart." This chart merely lists the primary federal standards for various substances in potable water; it also lists supposed levels for these substances in Tucson's drinking water.

But the levels reported on the official water quality chart differ greatly from the results contained in the unofficial water quality analyses. In fact, the primary federal "take-action" level is only 0.015 milligrams per liter (mg/L). The chart from the public information office reports Tucson Water's lead levels at a mere 0.005 mg/L. But the results contained in analyses run by a private lab show the levels reached 6.83 mg/L on May 7, 1993, and 7.29 mg/L on May 21, 1993. This is 500 times the federal "take-action" level, and 1,500 times the level actually reported by Tucson Water.

So, why didn't the feds take action? Because these tests were run by a private lab at the request of a concerned supervisor at Tucson Water. Perhaps the lab Tucson Water normally sends its samples to reports what Tucson Water wants to hear. According to the National Resource Defense Council, "In 1991, the EPA identified 89 water systems reporting suspicious test results, but did virtually nothing about the possibility of falsification."

Falsification of water-quality test results lulls the public into believing the water is safe to drink, when it really isn't. The EPA has found contaminated drinking water is one of the most common ways lead gets into the human bloodstream. A Harvard University study in the late 1980s concluded 15 percent of lead-poisoned infants treated at one clinic got their overdose from tainted drinking water used to make the babies' formula.

The EPA has also found that lead in drinking water contributes to 680,000 cases of hypertension, 650 strokes, 880 heart attacks and 670 premature deaths from heart disease each year.

When Tucson Water violates monitoring rules for microbiological contamination, it must, according to state law, report its violation to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and also to the media. Apparently, however, when the lead levels in some city tap water reached 500 times the federal "take-action" level, not only was no action taken, but not one article appeared in any of the city's daily newspapers.

This is another example of the bungling that goes on at the organization responsible for managing our community's most precious resource.

Of course, Tucson Water is a public utility, and therefore is required to keep its records open to the public. But the local Growth Lobby, with the support of Tucson Mayor George Miller, is currently seeking to privatize this utility in an effort to ensure developers' ability to build more tract-housing subdivisions on the outskirts of town, where land is cheap, without having to worry about certifying that adequate water supplies exist, as required by state law.

Privatization of Tucson Water will not remove any lead or sewage from our tap water. It will only further remove the evidence from the public eye. TW

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