It’s been three decades since firefighters avoided spraying water on a burning Sherwin Williams warehouse filled with 1.5 million gallons of paint and other chemicals out of fear it would contaminate the giant aquifer that serves up to three million customers.
Nothing of that magnitude has happened since, but officials say it wouldn’t take a major industrial accident like the Sherwin-Williams fire to contaminate part of the Great Miami Buried Valley Aquifer that sits below most of this region.
A train car derailment, auto crash or leaky underground petroleum tank could do it. Even chemicals from firefighting foam has proven to be a threat here locally.
A Dayton Daily News investigation found the vulnerability of the water supply is being tested on virtually a daily basis, requiring better coordination between institutions and more awareness in the public about the critical need to protect the region’s water.
Miami Valley residents often take clean water for granted, presuming the local supply is as endlessly abundant as the air they breathe.
But while officials say the water in the region remains safe to drink, hundreds of chemical spills in recent years have caused alarm.
The city of Dayton shut down two well fields along the Mad River in the past two years – at Tait’s Hill, where city officials were concerned a nearby firefighting training site may leach a toxic firefighting foam contaminant into five drinking water wells; and at the Huffman Dam, a half mile from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where the same type of foam was sprayed in training and at crash sites.
Dayton officials say the ground water wells were shut down as a precaution and no contamination has been detected in the water consumers drink. But the Ohio EPA ordered both Wright-Patterson and the city of Dayton to take action to prevent contamination of the Mad River well fields and the giant aquifer.
Cities like Dayton, which has a decades-long history of industrial manufacturing, face some of the most persistent threats to the water supply, said Bonnie Buthker, Ohio EPA District Chief for southwest Ohio.
“One of the unique things that we have is most of our drinking water systems rely on that aquifer for their source of drinking water,” she said.
Winding through 13 counties, the vast underground waterway stretches from Logan and Shelby counties in the north along the Great Miami River watershed to the Ohio River.
In 2004, the U.S. EPA designated the aquifer a sole source water resource, meaning it serves a large number of people and contamination could cause a widespread public health issue.
“In being an extremely valuable resource, we have to take a lot of precautions in working with our water systems to make sure that the aquifer is protected and that they don’t have contamination that is getting pulled into the system,” Buthker said.
Hundreds of threats
Between January 2012 and mid-2017, the Ohio EPA received more than 440 emergency response calls about spills in Montgomery County, according to agency data.
Most calls were about spilled chemicals. Some were connected to traffic crashes or railway incidents. Other calls involved the release of nonhazardous materials.
Groundwater can become polluted and contaminated by construction and development, leaking underground storage tanks, improper disposal of hazardous waste and releases or spills of industrial waste and other chemicals.
Any threats impact numerous communities: Dayton water serves most communities in Montgomery County, including the cities of Brookville, Centerville, Clayton, Moraine, Riverside, Trotwood, and the townships of Butler, Harrison, Jefferson, Miami and Washington townships and is sold to Greene County.
Many spills are fairly minor, requiring basic clean up and remediation. But it doesn’t take much to run into trouble.
Four quarts of used motor oil can contaminate 1 million gallons of water, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. One gallon of gasoline can pollute 750,000 gallons of water.
City water department workers respond to spills around the clock and coordinate with Montgomery/Greene County Hazmat teams, Ohio EPA says. The city trains every year to react to incidents that might threaten the aquifer, officials say.
Mad River well fields at risk
Dayton leaders have voiced worries over the potential of contamination seeping into the “book ends” of the city’s Mad River well fields, home to dozens of groundwater production wells.
On the southern end, Dayton quietly shut down five drinking production wells in 2016 at the Tait’s Hill well field next a firefighting training site where a firefighting foam contaminant —polyfluroalkyl substances (PFAS) — was sprayed for years.
One hot spot in a monitoring well on the site hit 1,260 parts per trillion, well above the U.S. EPA threshold of 70 parts per trillion for lifetime exposure to drinking water.
Three miles north and one year later, the city shut down seven drinking wells at the Huffman Dam well field over concerns potential contamination at Wright-Patterson could migrate into the wells. At Wright-Patt, the single highest hot spot was at a firefighting training site which reached 7,600 parts per trillion in a monitoring well, according to Treva Bashore, an environmental program manager at Wright-Patterson.
The city demanded the Air Force act more quickly to prevent contamination of the Huffman Dam aquifer beyond testing. Among the demands, nearly $1 million in reimbursed costs for testing and further studies. Under federal law, the Air Force contends it cannot cover the expense.
Wright-Patterson officials have outlined a number of actions they’ve taken they say show they’ve reacted quickly to concerns, from expanding a network of monitoring wells to track contamination and to building a $2.7 million water treatment plant to reopen two groundwater wells that had been closed on the base that exceeded threshold levels.
The base is planning an expanded network of groundwater monitoring wells this summer.
“We are moving as quickly and as aggressively as we can on this issue,” said Marie Vanover, a base spokeswoman. “…If contaminants go off base, we will take aggressive action.”
The lack of immediate action to the city’s demands is disappointing, said Michael Powell, director of the city of Dayton’s water department.
While Wright-Patterson has put into place some actions, it doesn’t address stopping tainted groundwater migrating off base property, he said.
“The Ohio EPA and the city would like to see some immediate actions on their part to take action to alleviate our concerns about contaminants leaving base property heading towards the well field,” he said.
Buthker said Wright-Patterson could be more “pro-active” on the issue.
Clark County and Ohio EPA officials tested several private household groundwater wells near Springfield Air National Guard Base in late 2016 and did not detect traces of the firefighting foam contaminant, Shaffer said.
Some of the properties that make the Great Miami Buried Valley Aquifer such a good source of water also make it vulnerable, said Mike Ekberg, manager of water resource monitoring and analysis with Miami Conservancy District.
The aquifer is sand and gravel, which is porous and permeable and transmits water and contaminants quickly and relatively easily into the water supply.
In the event of contamination, it could be extremely costly to eliminate contaminants from the system, Ekberg said. The old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” really applies to groundwater because it would be very difficult to clean up the aquifer if it became polluted, Ekberg said.
The key is smart land-use planning in sensitive areas around community well fields to limit or prohibit certain types of industrial activities that involve dangerous chemicals, he said.
Some communities are doing a good job protecting the water source, Ekberg said, but noted that others can do better.
“There are communities in our region that are taking a really active role in it, and there are other communities that could probably do more,” he said. “As a whole, we can always get better.”
In some parts of the region, the groundwater shows evidence of “human impact,” including elevated levels of nitrates, which are likely coming from agricultural runoff and waste water discharge, he said.
Dayton modified its source water protection plan in 2015.
The changes, which shrank the protected area and created new variance standards, were highly controversial but were supported by members of the business community and city leaders. They argued that the changes are enhancements based on the best and latest science and predictive modeling and 26 years of experience.
The aquifer is marketed as one of the Dayton region’s biggest assets. Large numbers of jobs are tied to the underground resource.
The business community was highly involved in the process to ensure the regulations were updated and strengthened to protect a vital asset, said Stephanie Keinath, director of public policy and economic development with the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce.
Preventative measures include education, early-monitoring systems, increased investment in safety training, best practices in storage and waste removal, reduction of chemical loads and constant communication, Keinath said.
“I cannot say that an accident may never occur that could potentially impact our system,” Keinath said, “however, I’m extremely confident that we have the right infrastructure and investments in place to immediately address any issues of concern and to protect our citizenry.”
Critics, however, said the changes weakened the regulations protecting the region’s water.
“I am incensed that businesses would drive demands for changes that endanger our city, our infrastructure and our residences,” said Dayton resident Jackie Susnik at a 2014 town hall on the proposed changes.
Dayton’s top water users are major employers. Cargill Inc., the largest user in the city, processes 50 million bushels of corn annually, most of which is from farmers close to the city.
As a wet corn mill, the company uses about 3.5 million to 4.0 million gallons of water every day, and releases that much to the Dayton waste water treatment plant daily, said Doug Myers, Cargill Dayton facility manager.
“We rely on having access to clean water to make our food products,” he said.