Refunds for stinky water? No, says Chairman Brown

As Fayette County’s odorous tap water problem has extended into its second week, Fayette County Commission Chairman Steve Brown insists that it is safe to drink and that the county, upon request, will come out and perform a water quality test on individual homes that scans for bacterial and other contaminants.

There have been no “positive” tests showing contaminants on any of those tests, Brown said.

“We’re very sure there are no health effects. It’s just nuisance odor and taste,” Brown said.

The county has bled off about 4 million gallons from the water system that is being stored in a well as part of the effort to get clean-smelling water back into the system. The system has also begun a “heavy filtration” process to get rid of the smelly, foul-tasting water.

Brown stopped short of promising to give a credit to water customers as an incentive for them to turn on their taps to clear their lines.

“We have discussed that,” Brown said. “We have not committed to doing it, but we have discussed it.”

The problem is that home lines are so small, it will take a long time to bleed away the smelly water, Brown said.

The water system has flushed fire hydrants on a round-the-clock basis, but that process will not help residents who are between a hydrant and the end of the line, Brown noted. Residents in that situation face a “prolonged” period before the water will be flushed out of the lines, Brown said.

“They hydrant only flushes the water coming to the line, it does not backdraw the water going from the line,” Brown said.

Once the problem was discovered, the county shut down water intake from Lake Peachtree and began diverting more water into the system from Lake Horton, which comes from the south Fayette water treatment plant, officials have said. The problem is definitely not coming from the new Lake McIntosh reservoir, Brown added.

Brown acknowledged that businesses were being hurt by the odor-filled tap water, as some have taken to issuing customers bottled water and cooking with water from other sources than the tap.

“I’m feeling very bad for the restaurants, some of whom, I assume, don’t even have filtration leading into their fountain drinks,” Brown said. “And if that’s the case, it’s even worse for them. Obviously we have a great deal of empathy for the position they’re in.”

Brown said the smelly water problems originated in Lake Peachtree when water temperature changes caused organic compounds to be stirred up in the water near the intake that transports the water to the Crosstown water treatment plant.

Although the plant’s filter system removed the physical compounds, it was unable to eliminate the smell, Brown said. He insisted that there was no “operator error” at the plant.

Brown also said it was not a matter that the county fell short on its lake dredging responsibilities. The county plans to dredge the lake this summer, which will remove sediment that has accumulated on the bottom over the past 10 or so years.

“This is an act of God, it is a natural occurrence,” Brown said. “It is like tornados, lightning strikes and floods. It’s an act of nature.”

Part of the problem is that Lake Peachtree is fairly shallow to be a reservoir, about 10 feet at its deepest, Brown noted. In deeper reservoirs it is less likely for organic compounds to become a problem, he added.

On top of the organic compounds stirred by the temperature change, there was also a gigantic amount of water entering the system due to rains both here and upstream, Brown added.

“I can tell you because I have personally gone out and checked this, 24 hours a day they’re opening these hydrants,” Brown said.

The county has more than 600 miles of water pipes underground, and it takes a good bit of time to get them cleared out, Brown said.

Brown noted that the county uses between 20 and 30 million gallons of water a day.

A similar occurrence happened about 10 years ago, Brown said, reiterating that the problem is naturally occurring and not an error that occurred at the water plant.

“The good thing is, it’s not a health hazard, it’s not a health risk,” Brown said. “It’s a severe inconvenience but it’s not a danger to anyone’s health.”

Brown said the water system was hoping the problem would have gone away by now. But judging by comments on The Citizen’s Facebook page, the problem has gotten worse in some areas of the county. Citizens are reporting that they are buying bottled water and even churches are having to import water.

“Some areas may have it longer than some other areas, because we’ve had more opportunities to flush because of the hydrants,” Brown said.

Not all Fayette County subdivisions and homes are served by fire hydrants. Some older ones in particular are not near a fire hydrant, and in case of a fire the county fire department will use a tanker truck to shuttle water from the nearest hydrant to feed fire engines.

If an incident were to occur that compromised the water to the point where people shouldn’t drink it, the county has a telephone alert system that can broadcast a phone message if necessary, Brown said.