Why Some Indiana Residents Don’t Drink the Water

It may be the mercury

By Shannon George

INDIANA, Pa.- Some local residents fear for their health when they drink Indiana’s tap water

“I don’t drink the water here,” said Indiana resident and IUP Spanish education major Nicholas G. Gallo, 19, as he lifted a bottle of Aquafina to his lips during a Feb. 18 interview at The Commonplace Coffeehouse & Roastery at 1176 Grant St. “I’ve heard growing up that we’re not supposed to drink the water around here.”

Gallo’s tap-water hydrophobia may be justified.

Armstrong County, located northwest of Indiana County, ranked first nationwide in coal-fired power plant mercury emissions, according to a 2003 Environmental Protection Agency Toxic Release Inventory report made available in a Sept. 8, 2005, press release from PennEnvironment, a state environmental group with offices in Harrisburg and Philadelphia.

Indiana County ranked fourth.

Nearly half of the 2003 mercury emissions in Pennsylvania were a product of the Reliant Energy Keystone plant in Shelocta, in Armstrong County, the report said.

“Its 1,200 pounds of mercury emitted made it responsible for nearly 20 percent of the state’s power plant total,” according to the report.

A 2007 EPA report said that Keystone’s mercury emissions have decreased since 2003. The power plant emitted 846.4 pounds of mercury in 2007, a 29.5 percent decrease since 2003.

For 2007, Keystone moved down to rank 18th nationwide in top mercury emitters, the EPA reported.

When airborne mercury is blown into a wet environment, the toxic pollutant mixes with the moisture in the atmosphere and is sent back to the surface in the form of acid rain, explains the Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site.

Health hazards associated with mercury poisoning include complicated brain development of children and unborn babies, damaged organs and blood poisoning, according to the EPA’s mercury safety Web site.

A 2006 status report on the mercury found in rain water from the Environmental Resources Research Institute of Penn State University in State College found that the maximum weekly mercury deposition for Cresson Mountain in Cambria County, Indiana County’s southeast neighbor, was the highest of the 200 test sites in Pennsylvania until testing stopped in 2006.

Indiana and Armstrong counties were not included among the test sites.

But the Homer City Water Authority, southeast and downwind of the Keystone plant in Indiana County, is not required to make any extra effort to test its water, despite the well-documented presence of mercury in surrounding areas.

“We have to do testing for mercury, maybe once a year,” said Barry Holt from the HCWA in a Feb. 20 phone interview. “We don’t specifically treat for mercury.”

A Consumer Confidence Report must be given to each customer after testing is completed, Holt said. The reports are completed every July.

“It doesn’t list any contaminants specifically,” he said. “Only if it is detected.”

Holt said that Homer City’s water is always under the mercury limit.

The Safe Drinking Water act, passed by Congress in 1974, allows 2 parts per billion of mercury, or .002 mg, to be present in water.

A U.S. EPA report made available by the National Tap Water Quality Database online said that Pennsylvania American Water Co. in Indiana found .2 parts per billion of mercury, one-tenth the maximum allowed, in the water in 2002. But it could find no detectible mercury prior to 2002. No information is available after 2003.

The water company received a violation in 2003 for a failure to monitor, according to the EPA’s national violations database.

It served about 26,742 people, more than any other Indiana County water service provider at the time.

Unlike Gallo, Indiana resident and Indiana Area Senior High senior Isaac H. Yung, 18, is not concerned about by the possible presence of mercury in the tap water.

“I don’t really care that much,” Yung said, sipping a glass of water at Perkin’s Restaurant on Oakland Avenue, Feb. 19. “It’s just impractical for me to stop drinking tap water.”

Brian M. Corl, 21, an IUP computer science major from Centre County, also has no intention to change his drinking habits.

“I try not to drink tap water as is,” Corl said in a brief interview held at a 2nd floor water fountain in Leonard Hall on Feb. 16. “I’ve heard about the mercury problem in Indiana and I try not to drink the tap water, but if that’s all I have, then I don’t go out of my way to get bottled water.”

Shannon George, a 2009 graduate of the IUP journalism program, is from Bellefonte.

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