OLEAN, NY – The use of large amounts of lead in New York state public water systems ended with 1986 federal legislation, but the effects of lead contamination continue to reverberate in the Olean community.
Prior to 1986, many industries would dump various water contaminants into the environment, contaminating the soil and aquifer, or groundwater, said Dale Walker, senior operator of the Olean Water Filtration Plant.
The corrosive nature of water causes various contaminants, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), lead and copper, to enter the water supply, Walker said. An operator at the Olean plant for 17 years, Walker said many industries would dump trichloroethylene (TCE), a colorless VOC, into the environment.
“The Environmental Protection Agency stepped in and gave an administrative order to the cooperating industries [who were penalized for TCE contamination] so they would put in treatment processes at the well sites that strips [TCE] off,” Walker said.
Walker helped write the Olean plant’s 2015 annual drinking water quality report. The plant treated and delivered 666,048,000 gallons of metered water to 15,000 people in the City of Olean, Town of Olean and Town of Portville in 2015, according to the report.
Walker addressed the recent elevated lead levels found in Portville Central School District’s water samples, as reported by the Olean Times Herald.
“The lead that you typically find in water does not actually come from the water itself,” Walker said. “When we send it out of here, there’s no lead in the water. Typically, that’s what happens.”
Lead contamination typically occurs after the water has been treated and when the water is delivered to buildings, Walker said.
Walker said the EPA and New York state requires that raw and finished water – untreated and treated water, respectively – be tested annually. However, the City of Olean tests both every other month.
Theodore Georgian, a professor of biology at St. Bonaventure University and an Olean resident, teaches a course on Olean’s municipal water supply and toured the filtration plant with his class. After reviewing the water report, he said he thinks Olean’s water supply is fairly secure despite the contamination of TCE in the raw water.
“The level of that contaminant is dropping rapidly over time,” Georgian said. “Apparently, they are almost to the point where they can do without that treatment. There’s no other obvious serious contaminant.”
Georgian said Portville’s plumbing is likely to blame for the elevated lead levels.
“There’s a difference between the municipal water supply, the distribution system—the piping that gets it to people, and people’s plumbing,” Georgian said. “[Portville’s] plumbing, in my view, starts at the water main under the street. It’s the pipe taking the water into a building and then all the plumbing inside of the building and that almost is certainly where Portville is having problems.”
Jalisha Terry, a freshman on Bonaventure’s women’s basketball team and a Flint, Michigan, resident, trained this summer during Flint’s water crisis.
“It was tough once we found out [the water was contaminated with lead]. My family was devastated,” Terry said. “They couldn’t believe this was happening. We actually had to bathe in that stuff for a while and we didn’t know at first.”
Terry, who attended high school in Flint, said she did not recall anyone else on her team being affected by the lead contamination. She said the school’s water fountains were shut down and replaced by water filters.
“Certain [zip] codes had [water contamination], like the water would be orange sometimes or the water would stink and smell like eggs,” Terry said. “It would be terrible.”
Terry said her household received cases of water from the state and national organizations due to Flint’s extensive media coverage, but the donations were not enough.
“Even though that was generous, water bottles aren’t going to help. It’s just water bottles,” Terry said. “We could drink from that, but it’s hard to brush your teeth from it. You have to take five minute showers. You had to use all of that water [from the water bottles], heat it up and then take a bath. That was frustrating and hard.”
Heather McDivitt, assistant athletic director for academic support and student services at Bonaventure, said hydration is especially important for student athletes.
“For a student athlete, hydration is very important both before competition and after competition or workouts or weightlifting,” McDivitt said. “Student athletes need access to good drinking water throughout the day.”
McDivitt, an Olean resident, said the water quality can vary widely, depending on whether residents receive city or well water.
“I think in this part of the country, it’s kind of a case-by-case basis of what you have access to and how clean your water is,” McDivitt said.
McDivitt said St. Bonaventure provides all student athletes with Gatorade water bottles and has an agreement with the Coffee Exchange, Inc., a Jamestown company that provides and replaces large water jugs in student-athlete study hall rooms.
“How can we make fresh water available?” McDivitt said. “How do we make it easier for the student athletes to make good food choices? Part of that is just staying hydrated – and then how do they do that? It’s having access to good, clean water.”
Walker said he works to make access to clean water in Olean possible.
Walker said he adjusts the pH of the raw water to form a small amount of scale. The scale creates a layer of protection for the water from the metal in the pipes.
“Having [lead and other contaminants] in [the pipes] can leech into the water and then it will be found when you drink it,” Walker said. “The more stagnant the water is, the more leaches into it. That’s why we try to treat the water so it’s not corrosive.”
Walker said the plant follows the regulation as stated and aims for transparency in the water filtration process.
“It’s our goal to keep the water safe for everybody and right now the big thing is the lead and copper,” Walker said.
Terry said she is glad to now be living on campus at St. Bonaventure.
“Besides being here on the basketball team on scholarship, one thing I can do is actually take showers without having to worry about any lead,” Terry said. “The water fountains are good. The water is good, so I have no problems with the water here. I’m adapting to it now. This is good.”