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Town of Ithaca to notify residents of chemicals in water tank


Drinking water stored in a tank in Ithaca was reported to contain volatile organic chemicals resulting from repainting as recently as Feb. 18, but the tank is still in service, and the agency that runs the water system is telling customers there is no reason for alarm.

According to a copy of a letter obtained by The Journal from the Town of Ithaca to customers of the Ridgecrest Road tank, there is no immediate health concern associated with the concentration of chemicals. The three volatile organic compounds detected -- m-xylene, o-xylene and ethylbenzene -- are above the 5 parts per billion maximum contaminant level established by the New York State Health Department, according to the letter.

However, the federal Environmental Protection Agency maximum level allows a higher level, 700 ppb for ethylbenzene and 10,000 ppb for xylene, the letter states. The concentration of ethylbenzene was 5 ppb and was 24.8 ppb for xylene in the most recent sample results from Feb. 18, according to the letter.

The tank is run by the Bolton Point Water System and General Manager Paul Tunison said there is no reason for customers to be alarmed.

"This is not a danger for the people served by the tank," he said. "It could be a problem if a person drank water with these levels over the course of their lifetime, but it is not a problem in this case. If it was, we would have taken the tank off-line."

Town of Ithaca Public Works Director Jim Weber said he could not comment until the letter is sent to customers.

The tank has 520 service connections and primarily serves the area along Danby Road, Tunison said.

The chemicals got into the water when the tank was recoated with paint in the fall. The coating was approved by the American Water Works Association and the New York State Department of Health, according to the letter.

The recoating was completed Nov. 15. Test results Dec. 14 indicated the concentration of these chemicals was above the state-allowed maximum. The tank was emptied Dec. 15 and refilled Dec. 28. Tests then determined the concentration was below that maximum but was detectable. The tank was placed back into service on Jan. 3.

On Jan. 31, further tests the county Health Department required revealed that concentrations of ethylbenzene, m-xylene and o-xylene were above the maximum level.

Further drying of the paint coating should remove the chemicals, according to the letter. Higher temperatures are also required to complete the curing. The county Health Department is continuing to monitor the levels, the letter states.

When high levels were detected Dec. 14, Bolton Point was not required to inform customers because the tank was off-line, said Liz Cameron, director of environmental health at the county Health Department.

There are different guidelines for recoating, said Steve Maybee, public health engineer at the Health Department.

"There is a section in the code that says after a tank painting, a higher MCL (maximum contaminant level) is allowed for up to 60 days from when the tank goes back on-line," he said.

There was no immediate public health concern, said Cameron. That and having the water for fire-fighting were factors in the determination, Cameron said.

Ithaca environmental advocate Walter Hang said compounds other than only those tested for could be present, and he expressed concern about the type of paint used.

"Why in the world are they using paint to coat the inside of a water tank if it contains toxic chemicals?" said Hang, president of Toxic Targeting in Ithaca. "This really calls for a comprehensive investigation and it is simply shocking that there was no public notification."