Approximately 30 local residents attended a public meeting on Thursday, March 8, to address the City of Jourdanton being notified that its water supply had exceeded the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for combined radium.
City leaders in attendance included Interim City Manager Eric Kaiser and council members Jack Harrison, Chester Gonzales and Karen Pesek, as well as city engineer Tom Turk of M&S Engineering and Groundwater Treatment Plant Operator Richard Baker.
The Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry describes radium as a naturally-occurring, silvery white radioactive metal that can exist in several forms called isotopes. Radium has been found at very low levels in soil, water, rocks, coals, plants and food.
According to pamphlets distributed at the meeting, the city was notified of the violation by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in February 2018. The violation was for exceeding the MCL for radium in the water supply in the fourth quarter of 2017.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has established the MCL for combined radium (-226 and -228) to be 5 pico curies per liter of water. The public was notified in the beginning of March, within the required 30 days.
The MCL in the Peach Street Well read an average of 6 pico curies per liter in the last quarter of 2017. This is what triggered the violation notice from TCEQ, explained Mr. Turk.
“The Peach Street Well, the well that is in question, has been temporarily shut down. The situation that we are facing is in no way an emergency,” said Turk. “Jourdanton’s water supply is safe and you do not have to stop drinking the water. Showering, washing and other external uses are not a health hazard.”
He advised the audience that if at the end of the meeting (or any other time) they feel uncomfortable or have health concerns, they are encouraged to see their doctor about this issue.
Radium health effects stated in the pamphlet included: consumption of radium may pose a hazard to human health, as it is a radioactive element. Extended consumption of high levels of radium may cause adverse health effects.
According to the Environmental Working Group, these health effects can include bone cancer and other cancers, fractured teeth, cataracts and death.
The city engineer told the audience that the risk associated with consuming water containing 5 pico curies per liter of water of radium for one year is comparable to a chest X-ray. He added that a pico (metric unit) is equal to one trillionth.
“We’re talking about very, very small quantities of radium,” Turk said.
The EPA sets the MCLs based on studies and there are no observed health affects at 5 pico curies per liter, advised Turk.
“Jourdanton’s water supply, along with every other water supplier in the state of Texas, is tested regularly for all kinds of contaminants, including radium.”
Turk further explained that radium dissolves in groundwater and migrates into the drinking water supply.
“It is very, very difficult if not impossible to predict how groundwater moves and in what concentrations, so the presence and the levels of radium is very hard to predict. Radium cannot be seen, tasted or smelled in water and it enters the body through natural consumption like drinking and eating.”
•Present in 27 states
•Present in over 35 counties in Texas
•Present in Atascosa, Bexar, Frio and Medina Counties
•54 water systems in Texas are affected
•TCEQ has issued over 700 radium MCL violations since 2013
Jourdanton is supplied by three water wells. Radium has been present in the Peach Street Well since 2013. The Peach Street Well is the lowest producing and least used well. Turk noted that acceptable levels of radium exist in the other two wells.
The Peach Street Well has been temporarily shut down and in accordance with state regulations, customers and the public have been notified. The city, said Turk, will be meeting with TCEQ and they will want to know what the city is doing to address the issue. The city will also be initiating engineering studies for some type of replacement well.
A question and answer session followed, which lasted about one hour and fifteen minutes.
Jessica Hardy of the concerned citizen’s group Not Just Dust said there was a time gap between when the city found out, and when it released the information.
“I know by law you don’t have to do that before that time period, but why didn’t you give us the option at that time? Before you shut down the well, why didn’t you let us know it was in the water?”
Hardy asked if the well was shut down the day the city received the notice.
Mr. Baker responded he received the notice the beginning of the second week of February and he shut down the well on Feb. 15.
Someone in the audience asked how often the wells are tested to which the response was monthly.
The city engineer said as mentioned before, they will initiate some engineering studies. The city’s current thought is to drill a new well. However, they have not cleared those studies and the city does not know if that is the most economical solution so there is some work to do before reaching that conclusion.
Some of the other questions asked were when was the Peach Street Well drilled and has the city seen a progression in the rate of radium. Mr. Baker answered that the well was drilled in 1995 and it is not the city that tests for radium. TCEQ tests for radium once a year, however once the level started reaching close to 5, they started testing every month. It was asked if the radium level suddenly jumping up was a recent event. Baker explained that for the last two-three years, TCEQ has tested every month, although sometimes they wait every three months depending on the level.
Kaiser said, “The level of the radium dictates how often they test it. So everything under 5 they consider that the city does not even have to notify the public because it is well within safety limits. Even over 5 is still safe to drink, but you have to let the public know that there is an issue there. When it is very low they test annually and when it goes up a little bit they test quarterly. If it gets close to 5 they test monthly.”
One audience member asked what the distance is between the three wells. Kaiser answered that one well is off of Pecan Street, about the 900 block; one well is behind the school, on the corner of Peach Street and LaGarde and the other is on CR 431.
More discussion continued between the audience and city officials on exactly what is considered safe. Hardy asked if it is safe to drink, why does the EPA have a limit.
“So people know what is safe,” answered Turk.
“Exactly, so if you are over what the EPA’s maximum is, that’s not safe,” said Hardy.
“It is the maximum at which you can have before you notify the public. It is not the maximum at which you can have before you can’t drink it. They just say that at this level, you need to notify the public, which is what we did,” Kaiser said.
Hardy said she suspects that over 20 years this can turn into bone cancer. Turk said if that is her concern, then she should see her doctor.
Janice Jones said she has been drinking Jourdanton water for 34 years and is also a nutritional consultant. She read some of the health effects from radium and said anyone who has a genetic predisposition to cancer should be concerned.
“I am so glad you shut down the Peach Street Well, but my children grew up on this water. I’ve been drinking it for 34 years. It is a concern. I am watering my vegetables with this. Radium, radioactivity is not good for your body,” Jones said.
Kaiser said he did not disagree with any of her points.
“When we quoted what the EPA says, which is at 5 there are no observable health affects… that’s their numbers. They are telling us at 5 there is no observable, adverse health effects. So, about 40 percent of Texas counties have some level of radium in their soil. It’s not anything we can control, it just happens to be there. There is nothing really that the city could have done to prevent this.”
Kaiser further explained that while the city was not required to have this March 8 meeting, the city felt having it was a good opportunity to provide good, open dialogue.
“What we need to do now is figure out how we are going to address the issue. One of the options that is available, as we have mentioned, is to drill a new well,” Kaiser said. “We didn’t have a lot of control over the fact that this has happened, but we do have control over how we react to it and how we mitigate it so that we continue to keep the water safe for you to drink.”
Jones made other points, sharing she does not believe in suing the city because when you do, you are suing yourself and it does not solve anything. She emphasized that once water is contaminated there is no going back.
“We have got to do our very best going forward to protect the water supply for ourselves, our children and grandchildren,” Jones said.
Tommy Tymrak of the Jourdanton Volunteer Fire Department commented how now there are two other wells that will increase production to take over for the one that shut down.
“Are they being monitored monthly? Are we close to the threshold with those other two wells? Is this just going to cause one of those to go off-line, then we end up with nothing, or are those wells in the same aquifer but they have no radium in them? What is the status of the other two wells?” asked Tymrak.
Kaiser said he wanted to make a point about this, as he has spoken to both Turk and Baker on this.
“When we monitor radium levels, sometimes they go up and then we’ve also seen them go down and there’s no rhyme or reason. Those levels rise and fall at certain times and we don’t have any control over those. Richard can speak to how often other wells are getting tested because he monitors that more closely than any of us. But the radium levels do rise and fall in our wells and plenty of other wells, too. As long as they are under that threshold that the EPA says, they consider it safe drinking water,” Kaiser said.
Baker said the other two wells are tested annually for radium. Those are running at about 4, sometimes less than 4, Baker noted.
J.B. Salazar with KSAQ asked, “If this was known months back, why is it that you just now notified the public? Mr. Baker said there was a notice and you Eric said by law 30 days is the time that you have to notify the public. Why didn’t you give a press release to the public?”
Kaiser asked regarding what, to which Salazar answered, “Regarding the violation here.”
Kaiser said the city received notice at the beginning in February, to which Salazar said, “That’s not what that statement up there says. It says that you knew last quarter.”
“We got the letter from TCEQ at the beginning of Feburary notifying us that we were out of compliance and had to send the notice out within 30 days,” Kaiser said.
Salazar asked if that was right.
“We’re not allowed to issue any public notices without TCEQ’s permission. They sent us a letter dated the first of February. That doesn’t mean we got the letter on the first of February,” Baker said.
Salazar said his question was, “Were you aware that the well had this problem prior to that? We are talking about February. Were you, was the city aware, knowing they have kids that bathe in it and drink from this well?”
Baker explained that before they got the letter, the city knew it was getting close to 5. Salazar asked if it ever exceeded 5.
“I think one time it went to 5.2,” Baker answered. “The TCEQ didn’t tell us to issue a public notice. They test it once a quarter and they go by the year.”
“But you said once it exceeds a certain value, they do it every month,” Salazar said. “So what is the truth?”
Hardy said she was confused. “The water that is in question is from the last quarter of 2017, from October to December, correct? So that was tested by TCEQ between October and December, I am assuming. So when was the first that anybody had any knowledge of this? Not the official letter that you are talking about. When did anybody have knowledge that this came back 5?”
Baker said he knew for a couple of years it was getting close to 5.
Patsy Tyramk-Daughtrey said, “According to this, the radium has been in there since 2013. We get a cumulative water report every year. I agree with what Richard is saying because of this.”
She added Baker is right- it has been running and hovering under 5 since at least four-five years.
She asked, “So have we been having a TCEQ report only once a year since 2013?”
Tymrak-Daughtrey then discussed clusters of cancers in the McCoy area.
“McCoy did not shut down that well and I know this for a fact, because I went to Austin to TCEQ and researched the fight. They sent a letter to McCoy once a month saying, ‘Shut down the well. Shut down the well.’ And I raised hell up there and I was really mad.”
She said McCoy finally did shut down its well and they never notified the public and a lawsuit was filed.
“What I am saying to you is true. If it’s 2013, then there should be a report for every month since 2013,” Tymrak-Daughtrey said.
City officials responded that their point is, the City of Jourdanton did turn off the well.
Hardy asked if it was a correct statement to say that there was just a two-week span that the water went up, knowing it was above 5.
Baker said, “They tested the water in October. I think it was 5.2.”
“In October? So from October to March 1, that is the time frame that this was above 5?” asked Hardy.
“The way I understand it, they looked at the whole year. They had four quarters and one of those quarters it jumped up too high, and that is when they sent us the letter,” Baker said.
The high one of 5.8 was April of last year.
Hardy asked how does it work when the wells mix, if that well was 5.8 and the other two wells had radium at a certain level. City officials responded in that case, the radium level goes down.
“If you mix three different wells that have radium together the level goes down?” Hardy asked.
Tommy Tymrak explained that in this case you could say the other two wells would be diluting it. However, the proximity of that well to the residents around it, you are not going to get a mixing of water coming from that well, mixing and then going back.
“So you’ve got a certain amount of people on the other part of town that aren’t going to be hit with high contamination, but the people in that part… unless I am wrong in how the water system is done,” Tymrak said.
More discussion took place from the audience and Baker on the blending and operation of the wells. Turk said that although the system is not necessarily designed to blend water, there is a considerable amount of blending that actually does go on.
“As I said earlier, there may be higher concentrations of radium in the area where Peach Street enters the system, but it should be blended rather quickly. As I said, we don’t sample the whole system so we can’t say that for a fact,” said Turk, “but that’s probably true.”
Tymrak-Daughtrey asked him to explain what he meant by blending. Turk responded it simply means mixing new water with other sources of water.
Some of the other points made throughout the meeting from the audience: notifying the Evergreen Underground Water Conservation District, exploring grants to build a new well, the Facebook event created on the City of Jourdanton page mentioned a town hall meeting but did not mention radium, and others.
Mr. Hardy commented, “Anybody that ever dealt with TCEQ knows that TCEQ is broke. It doesn’t work. So the city needs to come up with higher standards for these waters than what TCEQ requires.”
Baker said they needed to keep in mind this can be naturally occurring. Mrs. Hardy said if this can be naturally occurring from the erosion of these deposits, could all of the industry going on locally (injection wells, etc.) could that be disturbing some of these deposits? City officials and others in the audience said that nobody knows.
Regarding seeking a third party to perform an analysis besides TCEQ, Kaiser said they would entertain anything they felt would make the water supply safer.
“Most people would probably consider that solution to be one that would go the wrong direction,” said Kaiser. “Most people would say, if you are going to find your own company and pay them to test your water, they are going to tell you what you want. TCEQ is going to give us the answer that is pressed to them. So when we ask them to tell us how much radium is in the water, they are going to tell us. I think that is the purpose of having a state agency do it, but if there was a way that we could stay within guidelines that the state gives us and make our water safer, then we would certainly be open to listening to that.”
Kaiser said the purpose of the meeting was to hear ideas from the audience and let them know what the city is doing, because the city feels it is doing everything it can.
Salazar said, “Your children are in the balance, you decide. We’re going to pay for someone to come, he may be a clown, but you guys have to make this decision because TCEQ comes but once a month. I don’t find how you guys can determine this and I studied chemistry in college. Radiation is bad, bad, bad, not good. You can’t see it, you can’t smell it. You don’t know if those pipes have radiation in them. I’m no expert, but I would get somebody to do this, whether you like the outcome or not, it could be something then you could make your decision.”
Tymrak-Daughtrey asked if they knew this in 2013, and she was on council from Nov. 2013-Nov. 2015, why was radium ever mentioned at any council meetings?
“Is this one of those things ignored and buried under the desk and look at us right now? Who knew and who didn’t tell? Who didn’t put it forth and here we are broke trying to face the problem of drilling a new well,” said Tymrak-Daughtrey.
Radium has existed in the water supplies in Jourdanton for a long time, but below acceptable levels, said Turk.
More discussion ensued for another half an hour. One audience member said this issue is bigger than Jourdanton and will probably occur more and more often. They also discussed how other counties in Texas are having this issue. Turk said the City of Brady has had a problem with high levels of radium in their water for some time now.
Mr. Tymrak pointed out how TCEQ was not concerned enough to have a representative at the meeting.
“Can you explain to the people what exactly is taking place and how serious this is? People on one side think the sky is falling, and from y’all’s side it’s like, ‘It’s not anything to worry about. It’s not a health hazard.’ We’re getting two sides, but TCEQ is the one in the middle. Is there a way that we can have somebody here and have a town hall meeting with TCEQ so they can address the health risks and everything that goes along with this?” asked Mr. Tymrak.
Kaiser said Tymrak would need to address that question to TCEQ, why they do or do not come to these meetings. Kaiser said he had no problem requesting that.
“We were asked if we can do more than what TCEQ requires. I can tell you I think everybody at the city is taking this seriously since we got the notice. I mean it’s pretty much been everybody’s priority everyday since we’ve got the notice to come up with a solution, so I don’t think that anybody is dismissing it as not being important. I can tell you Mr. Baker, Mr. Turk, myself and Mr. Schorsch sat in a meeting the day we were notified. The first question that came out of my mouth was, do we have to shut off the well? No, we don’t. I said, Richard can we shut off the well and still provide enough water? He said, yes we can and I think everybody agreed that that was the prudent thing to do. Even though TCEQ doesn’t require it, we took that step because we felt it was the right thing to do. If there is some wiggle room where we can exceed what TCEQ requires and we are able to do that, we certainly will do that. I don’t want anybody to walk out of here thinking that anybody at the city thinks this is not an important issue. We think this is a very important issue,” Kaiser said.
Mrs. Jones discussed how our aquifer used to be free-flowing, but it no longer is. She said industry, fracking, sand mines etc. use a lot of water. She advised others to purchase a reverse osmosis system for their house. This will help take out 90 percent of radium out of your water.
Towards the end of the meeting, Hardy said when the lines get flushed out, if the radium is high, can this cause a problem in the water shed further down? City officials responded they didn’t think so.
Kaiser said what he wanted to leave everybody with is, “The city is taking this very seriously. We are using every resource available to us to try to come up with the best solution, the most effective solution to keep our water safe. The water that is coming out of your faucets right now is safe to drink according to TCEQ and the EPA and we will do everything within our power to continue to keep it that way. Radium is in the ground. We can’t control where it’s at and we don’t always know where it’s at, but 40 percent of Texas counties have radium in the ground and so those counties deal with the same issues to one extent or the other. We will continue to keep this a priority and that is the main thing. We wanted to be able to answer your questions tonight and let you know that while we don’t want you to panic, we take it as a serious problem and we’re going to dedicate the appropriate amount of time to make sure we come up with a solution to it. My kids drink this water. I drink this water. I’ve had cancer. I want to make sure that what I’m putting in my body is safe and what my kids are drinking is safe, as well as what your kids are drinking is safe.”