Artesian aims to address water quality concerns in South Bethany

After South Bethany residents received a surprise notification from their water company, Artesian Water staff attended a town council meeting on Oct. 11 to better explain the violation.

“Although this incident is not an emergency, as our customers, you have a right to know what happened and what we are doing to correct this situation,” the letter stated.

Water providers are required to test for a variety of substances, including total trihalomethanes (TTHMs), a combination four volatile organic chemicals, and a disinfectant byproduct that can appear when treated water sits still too long. The maximum contaminant level is 80 parts-per-billion (as measured by a rolling four-quarter average). In South Bethany, the most recent four-quarter running annual average was 92.25 ppb.

“THMs are a result of a reaction between chlorine, which is used to disinfect drinking water of natural organic matter,” said Kenny Haggerty, supervisor of the water quality department for Artesian. “Artesian is required to sample four location in the entire South Bethany system. … Only one sample for the month of September exceeded MCL. That one site that exceeded [ha] triggered the public notice.”

“People who drink water containing trihalomethanes in excess of the MCL over many years may experience problems with their liver, kidneys or central nervous system, and may have an increased risk of getting cancer,” the letter stated.

The Sept. 18 notification arrived in mailboxes a few days later. Town officials were on the phone with Artesian and the Delaware Office of Drinking Water by that Monday morning.

The Town of South Bethany does not run its own water plant. They are all serviced by Artesian. Nonetheless, town officials said they were surprised and displeased to receive the violation notice at the same time as everyone else. Artesian officials have apologized and agreed that proper protocol will be to notify the Town about any future such notifications.

“The Town didn’t even know it was going on,” said Mayor Tim Saxton. “When you got your letter, I got my letter, and I can assure you, we’ve told Artesian we’re not very happy about that.”

Artesian was first on the town council meeting agenda, to better explain the situation.

“When you put something in there about ‘elderly’ and it’s ‘carcinogenic,’ people get scared. … You get that from your water company, people get really nervous,” Saxton said.

These notifications must include mandatory language from the EPA, so “unless you work in the field, it’s a little bit challenging to understand,” said Haggerty.

Commonly found in Delaware’s shallow aquifer, total organic compounds (TOCs) are not harmful, but they’re not tasty either. Water companies and muncipal water treatment plants treat them with chlorine. But if the resulting drinking water sits stagnant in the pipes too long, the disinfectant can react to form TTHMs.

The Town of Selbyville dealt with this more frequently until they upgraded the town water plant several years ago and flushed the water system more frequently.

Since September, Artesian staff repeatedly tested the South Bethany pipes and has gotten more normal results. They will continue frequent testing until completely comfortable with the results again.

All testing is done by a state-certified lab in Pennsylvania. Artesian staff merely collect and ship the samples onward.

This past spring, there were no violations noted in the 2018 annual drinking water report. Although individual measurements ranged from 39.20 to 116.60 ppb, the highest four-quarter average in 2018 was a 77.08 ppb average.

Council Member Frank Weisgerber asked why the spike wasn’t noticed earlier.

“It’s a running average,” Haggerty said. “If we had seen this number, we would have reacted right then. … This number was off the charts.”

That means the South Bethany water will likely be considered “in violation” for the next few quarters, until the average decreases again.

“That number was so high it’s going to affect us for the next three quarters,” Saxton said.

Residents and council members asked for more communication in the future, such as publication of specific test results. The public will also see information on their 2019 annual water report, issued in the spring of 2020.

South Bethany tap water comes from different sources at different times of the year. It’s all funneled through the water tower near town hall. It’s all coming from the same aquifer, but in different locations.

During the busy summer months, Artesian pulls from wells in South Bethany. In quieter winter months, Artesian pulls from wells near Bayville/Route 54. Both wells are in the 300-feet-deep range.

The Bayville water has fewer TOCs and therefore requires less chlorine treatment. But South Bethany wells are used in summer, and they contain more TOCs, and therefore require more chlorine.

“We only run it during peak season or if we have emergencies, or something happens in the Bayville plant,” Haggerty said.

“It’s virtually the same water, just more organics,” said Jeff Price, Artesian’s manager of southern operations.

Water testing is done from street locations approved by the Office of Drinking Water. But technically, the water will be coming from different wells, since the South Bethany wells are shut down each autumn.

Historically, TTHM counts are typically higher in the summer because heat impacts the chemical process.

Even before this incident, the company was brainstorming improvements to the system.

Although TOCs can only be treated chemically, THMs could be solved with extra oxygen. The company is testing an aerator for the South Bethany plant, which would churn up the water. THMs are a volatile compound that can evaporate away when coming into contact with air.

Artesian is also testing to determine if ozone can remove TOCs.

Artesian also has intentions of building a Dagsboro distribution plant to serve that town. That region appears to have fewer TOCs than South Bethany, so Artesian could build an eastern pipeline to serve the beach.

“We’re hoping to have that system online this time next year,” Price said.

The public are welcome to call Artesian’s Water Quality office at (302) 453-6900 for more details.

Customers are also being encouraged to periodically update their contact information with utility companies. In case of an emergency, Artesian will do telephone notifications, and customers who don’t have updated contact information could be left uninformed. For instance, if a customer only gets electronic billing, they may have forgotten to switch their phone numbers when they moved full time to the beach. That’s worth correcting now, before an emergency, officials said.


By Laura Walter
Staff Reporter