Warrington votes to eliminate chemicals in drinking water


Warrington supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday night to pursue a strategy of removing all perfluorinated compounds from the town’s drinking water.

The supervisors approved an authorization for town officials to initiate talks with the nearby North Wales Water Authority to purchase 2.1 million gallons of water a day, which would meet Warrington’s average daily demand.

The decision follows the initiation of similar plans in neighboring Horsham and Warminster townships. All three communities have been dealing with water contamination since 2014, when unregulated chemicals perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) were first found in public drinking water supplies. The Navy and National Guard Bureau have claimed responsibility for the contamination, as the chemicals are suspected to have originated in firefighting foams used at a trio of former and current military bases in the area.

Since 2014, five wells in Warrington’s public system have been taken offline because they contain the chemicals above 70 parts per trillion — the limit recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency. That leaves just three Warrington wells in operation, and they average 19.8 ppt of the chemicals, according to township officials.

Customers in the eastern district of the township– east of Folly Road and Elbow Lane — receive about 35 percent of their water from those wells, and 65 percent from the North Wales Water Authority. Residents in the western district receive 100 percent of their water from the North Wales Water Authority, whose water has not been found to contain the chemicals.

Just 24 hours before Tuesday’s meeting, Warrington officials had addressed a crowd of about 300 residents in the auditorium of Central Bucks High School South. There, officials with the town’s water and sewer department laid out two possible options. One would leave the three remaining wells online, and in effect change nothing about the level of the chemicals currently in the drinking water. A second option would take those wells offline, replace all well water with North Wales water, and leave the five most highly contaminated wells as back-up after the military installs carbon filtration systems designed to clean out the chemicals.

Several residents spoke in favor of the second option Tuesday night, and chairwoman Shirley Yannich said Tuesday that their requests were heard.

“The board clearly heard what the public was saying last night, and that’s why the professionals worked through the night and early morning to put this together for us,” Yannich said.

But the switch to North Wales water is hardly a done deal, officials said Tuesday. The township needs several infrastructure upgrades before it can successfully make the transition, township solicitor Terry Clemens said.

“Among the things we have to do is get an interconnection system and booster pumps that are able to handle the quantity of water that would be necessary to meet all the water needs. That system is in design,” Clemens said.

Information handed out at Monday’s meeting stated the infrastructure could be in place by the middle of 2017. However, there’s also the issue of paying for it. Officials Tuesday did not offer any cost estimates for the infrastructure upgrades or additional water purchases, but Clemens did say the Air National Guard appeared split on what it would agree to pay for.

To date, the Air National Guard has agreed to pay just shy of $6 million to install a carbon filtration system for the three wells above the EPA’s 70 ppt advisory level and purchase replacement water in the meantime. But Warrington has submitted a proposal for more, Clemens said.

In a meeting with the Air National Guard, Clemens said military representatives didn’t give “much push back” on a request for additional carbon filtration systems, or the other necessary infrastructure upgrades.

“We got a lot of push back in terms of them funding over a 10 year-plus horizon, taking all the water from the (North Wales) authority,” Clemens said.

If other towns’ plans are any indication, long-term water purchases could have substantial costs. In June, Horsham voted to increase its water purchases from the North Wales authority from 400,000 gallons a day to 1.2 million gallons — an 800,000-gallon increase at a cost of up to $1.2 million a year.

The motion passed by Warrington on Tuesday also included language authorizing town officials to pursue additional funding sources and required, at a minimum, weekly updates to the supervisors on progress.

Then there’s the matter of the ability of North Wales to meet the demand. The utility has also entered agreements with Horsham and Warminster to provide millions of additional gallons as those townships work to reach non-detectable levels in their water.

Clemens said that based on discussions so far, it appeared the North Wales authority would be able to meet the demand after completing its own infrastructure upgrades.

“We’ve been having discussions with North Wales Water Authority for probably about three months,” Clemens said. “They’ve indicated that they have most of the capacity that we need, and that they will gear up to provide all of the capacity. But this is going to be an incremental kind of thing.”

Asked by one resident why the township couldn’t install temporary carbon filtration systems on the wells in the meantime, officials said that it can take months or even years to go through the bidding, design, construction and testing processes.

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