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Hope in a Bottle

  • Residents in Tornillo, Texas, a rural border town, are fighting for safe drinking water. Their concerns: Arsenic, their families, their health and responsive officials.

When Myrna Sifuentes goes grocery shopping, there’s one thing that’s almost always on her list: water. Her household of five goes through three cases of bottled water per month.

“I try to go to SAM’s Club so I get a better deal,” she said.

Like pretty much everyone in Tornillo, Texas, a border town of about 3,400 residents and southeast of El Paso, the Sifuentes family doesn’t drink water from the tap or cook with it. Tornillo is a colonia, which in Texas is an unregulated development in a rural area.

Olivia Igueroa Martina and other residents of Tornillo, Texas gather at a community meeting to talk about safe drinking water for their families. Photo courtesy of AYUDA (Adult and Youth United Development Association)

Several years ago, Sifuentes began getting notices from the El Paso County Tornillo Water Improvement District in her bill. They said that results showed arsenic levels in the water were above what is allowed by law. The notices, sent in English and Spanish, read, in part:

“This is not an emergency. However, some people who drink water containing arsenic in excess of the MCL [maximum contaminant level] over many years could experience skin damage or problems with their circulatory system, and may have an increased risk of getting cancer.

“You do not need to use an alternative water supply. However, if you have health concerns, you may want to talk to your doctor to get more information about how this may affect you.”

Although water district customers were not told to stop drinking the natural resource, the possibility of skin damage, increased risk of cancer and circulatory problems was enough to encourage people to seek other sources.

In a community where the median annual household income is around $19,000, the cost of buying clean water added up. Households can spend between $80 to $100 a month on bottled drinking water, said Cemelli de Azatlan, a community activist in El Paso.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates arsenic levels in public drinking water. On Jan. 22, 2001, EPA adopted a new standard for arsenic in drinking water at 10 parts per billion (ppb), replacing the old standard of 50 ppb.

The rule became effective on Feb. 22, 2002, but water systems were given until Jan. 23, 2006 to comply with the new 10 ppb standard.

A water system violates the maximum contaminant level for arsenic rule when the running annual average of its water quality samples exceeds 10 mg/L (milligrams per liter) of arsenic. A running annual average takes into account four consecutive quarterly samples.

For years, families in Tornillo, Texas have been spending $80 to $100 per month to buy bottled drinking water because they're concerned about arsenic levels in the water in their homes. One catch: Despite the health concerns over arsenic, residents are still paying money for the water. Equal Voice News Photo by Amy Roe

According to records from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), water from the Tornillo district has exceeded the maximum contaminant level for arsenic from the fourth quarter of 2006 through the fourth quarter of 2014, making for a total of 33 violations.

Links to Cancer

Exposure to arsenic is linked to cancer of the lung, bladder and skin. Some research has connected exposure to arsenic in drinking water with cancers of the kidney, liver and prostate. Skin and gastrointestinal problems are among the most common health effects of long-term exposure to arsenic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But even exposure to levels of arsenic far lower than the federally-mandated maximum may have severe health impacts over the long term, some studies have shown.

In 2009, The New York Times analyzed studies commissioned by the EPA and found “the drinking water standard is at a level where a community could drink perfectly legal water, and roughly one in every 600 residents would likely develop bladder cancer over their lifetimes.”

In Tornillo, residents voiced concerns about health problems, especially with their children, saying they were worried the issues might be linked to arsenic in the water.

Sifuentes said her teenage son has endured a rash for the past two years. At one point, the school district provided students with bottled water, but that’s no longer the case, Sifuentes said. Now, she sends her kids to school with their own bottles and reminds them not to consume water out of the drinking fountain.

“We’ve all complained about the water,” she said. “We’ve complained that we’re actually paying for the water and it’s not good enough to drink.”

The Dangers of Arsenic

Arsenic is a chemical element that occurs in minerals. It can be found in rocks, soil, water, air, plants and animals. It also can be released into the environment from agricultural and industrial sources.

In 2001, the Environmental Protection Agency adopted a new standard for arsenic in drinking water at 10 parts per billion (ppb), replacing the old standard of 50 ppb. The rule became effective in 2002, but water systems were given until 2006 to comply with the new standard.

The EPA has acknowledged that small water systems would comprise the vast majority of systems out of compliance when the new standard went into effect. The EPA said it would offer financial assistance to the water systems and “compliance period extensions” to small systems.

According to Texas environmental officials, “Options to remove naturally-occurring contaminants are usually very costly and take some time to obtain the funding and other resources needed to achieve compliance. Systems that exceed the arsenic standard are required to identify options to reduce the arsenic levels in their treated water.”

Several factors put residents of colonias, or developments in rural areas, at greater risk for exposure to arsenic in their drinking water. Customers of the Tornillo water system get their water from wells, which tend to have higher concentrations of arsenic than surface water sources, like lakes and reservoirs. Also, agriculture and industry are common sources of arsenic in groundwater.

The El Paso area has both.

– Amy Roe

Members of the grassroots group AYUDA (Adult and Youth United Development Association) have gone door-to-door in Tornillo, talking to people about drinking water and listening to their concerns. AYUDA has advocated on behalf of the water district’s customers, urging them to share their water woes with local leaders.

“We’ve been pushing, talking to politicians, trying to get other people involved,” said Amy Meeks, an organizer with AYUDA.

Thanks in part to their efforts, help is on the horizon. Late last year, the North American Development Bank (NADB) announced that a $3.25 million grant from the EPA will support the construction of an arsenic treatment facility for the Tornillo water district.

The facility is scheduled to open a year from now. It will lower the level of arsenic to 6 ppb, well under the maximum limit allowed by law, said Franciela Vega, water district business manager.

The project will also eliminate “discharges of approximately 5,600 gallons per day of inadequately treated and untreated waste water,” according to the terms of the grant.

“We’re very excited,” Vega said. “We’ve been working on this for a long time to try to get the funding.”

The EPA is providing the grant through the Border Environment Infrastructure Fund (BEIF), which is administered by the NADB. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, the United States and Mexico created the NADB to improve health along the border.

Vega said the water district, which has 960 connections, has long sought a grant from the water development board to address high arsenic levels.

“They had a ranking system and other projects always ranked above ours,” she said.

The road to compliance has been a long one. In 2008, the water district was referred to the TCEQ’s Office of Compliance and Enforcement for enforcement action for the arsenic maximum contaminant level violations. In 2011, the system was referred to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for “formal enforcement,” according to information provided by TCEQ.

“As of February 2, 2015, the EPA is working with the system to return to compliance with the EPA issued order,” according to a statement provided to Equal Voice News by a TECQ spokesperson.

For the residents of Tornillo, safe, drinkable water couldn’t come soon enough. Seeking relief for a rash that covers her daughter’s body, Belém Elias took the child to an allergist and dermatologist and tried some creams for the girl.

Nothing has helped.

___________

Amy Roe is the reporter for Equal Voice News. Maria Rigou, the social media marketing manager for Equal Voice News and Marguerite Casey Foundation, contributed to this report. The top photograph was made by Amy Roe.

2015 © Equal Voice for America’s Families Newspaper

 


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