Report on Potential Water Contamination Kept Secret

Report on Potential Water Contamination Kept Secret

State Health Department's assessment will not be released to public

When the Virginia Department of Health started working on the sourcewater assessment report for Fairfax County following the 1996 amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act, state officials did not expect any surprises.

After all, the possible sources of contamination to surface water used for drinking water had already been well catalogued. What the report provided was an exhaustive listing, contained in a single document completed June 14, 2002, of all the potential threats to the Potomac and the Occoquan, from which the county gets its drinking water supply.

BUT NO COUNTY OFFICIAL interviewed for this story had heard of the report and no citizen or environmental group has had a chance to review the report. Because of security concerns after the events of Sept. 11, the Department of Health has determined that the report should be kept confidential. The department sent a copy of it to the Water Authority, with instructions to show it only to local officials who have a valid reason to see it. Citizens concerned about the potential for sourcewater contamination in their neighborhoods are not able to see it.

The information released to the public, and reprinted here, is about 100 words long, contains no specific information and does not list any contaminants.

Mark Anderson, technical director with the health department, said that restricting the availability of information on the drinking water supply had been discussed before Sept. 11.

"We've just accelerated things and taken them more seriously since 9-11," he said. "The Virginia Freedom of Information Act has allowed us to exclude what information that could be useful to the terrorists."

There are maps in the report, he added, that show the location of industry, key bridges and other infrastructure which could be used as potential targets.

ALTHOUGH THAT information is widely available elsewhere, said Warfield, the Department of Health and the Water Authority decided not to send the report to public libraries or to put it in the Internet as had been planned.

The Water Authority is also expected to start a vulnerability study soon, following directives in the Homeland Security Act proposed by President George W. Bush two weeks ago. That study will identify potential weaknesses in the county's water infrastructure and will also be confidential.

"It was almost a foregone conclusion as to what the susceptibility of the sourcewater would be to contamination," said Hugh Eggborn, the engineering field director for the health department's drinking water division. "This was just the first time that there was a requirement to develop a report specifically like this."

THE REPORT details elements of land use that could contaminate the sourcewater, such as chemicals used in factories in the Potomac and Occoquan watershed, the potential for run-off from parking lots or feed lots and the susceptibility of sewer lines.

According to Jeanne Bailey, a spokesperson for the company, the report found that sourcewater had a high susceptibility to contamination. But that was not unexpected, she noted, considering the amount of development in Fairfax County and the fact that sourcewater is closest to the surface. She noted also that the Water Authority's two water treatment plants were highly effective in treating the water. A recent study of the county's drinking water found negligible traces of chemicals regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Water Authority works closely with the county, added Bailey, providing county staff with the necessary information on the watershed for staff to make appropriate land-use decisions. She noted, however, that the water utility does not advise the county on those land-use decisions.

IN CONTRAST, Montgomery County, Md., which gets its water from the same source as most of Fairfax County, the Potomac River, held two public meetings to discuss the process and results with interested citizens and environmental groups, and has made its report available to the public.

The list of “contaminants of concern” included a long-banned pesticide, Dieldrin, which has turned up in some water samples at the Potomac Water Filtration. Other contaminants of concern included Cryptosporidium, Giardia and fecal coliforms, all almost certainly present in Fairfax’s sourcewater as well.

The Maryland Department of the Environment, Montgomery’s water provider, WSSC, and consultants presented the findings of the Source Water Assessment for the Potomac Water Filtration Plant in a public meeting, identifying potential contaminants and assessing the vulnerability to those contaminants. MDE offers a phone number and staff member for information, and is seeking feedback on the report before completing a final version later this month.

The information provided by such a study could be a critical resource in protecting the river and public health, said Neal Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Audubon Naturalist Society, which has nature preserves in Clifton in Fairfax County and Leesburg in Loudoun.

“Listing contaminants and where they come from can be powerful information,” he said. “Anything that leads to sourcewater protection is a powerful tool.”

FROSTY LANDON, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said it was "inconceivable" that information in the sourcewater assessment report was not released to the public.

"If it's simply an inventory of contaminants in the water I don't see how that could possibly be related to national security issues," he said.

Although the Freedom of Information Act has been restricted in the wake of Sept. 11, those restrictions "should never be invoked for things the public needs to know for public health reasons," he said.

If there is sensitive material in the report, he added, the Department of Health should separate it from the rest of the document and release the public information.

"Lots of records have commingled confidential information and public information," he said. "The responsibility is on the custodian of the report to release the nonconfidential parts. That's longstanding Virginia open records law under the Freedom of Information Act."

John DeNoyer, a former member of the Fairfax County Environmental Quality Advisory Council, a citizen group, said he would like to see the report.

"That's kind of strange," he said. "Why make a report if nobody can see it?"

OFFICIALS WITH the Department of Health and the Water Authority refused to comment specifically on the content of the report. But Warfield said that the major threat to the sourcewater was general run-off from parking lots or animal feed lots. A particular industry in the watershed does not have that much effect on the overall quality of the sourcewater he said.

Bailey refused to say whether certain areas of the county were more susceptible than others. "That could lead to unnecessary panic," she said.

According to Warfield, however, the most volatile parts of the water supply are where the creeks enter the main surface supply.

"There is no logical connection between information on run-off from parking lots and animal feed lots and sewage discharges that may end up in our drinking water and information which could help terrorists," said Paul Orum, of the Working Group on Community Right to Know, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group. "It's too bad that our taxpayer-funded agencies would behave in that manner."