What’s up with the water in the city of Milwaukie?
Many residents say it has a foul taste and aroma that make it undrinkable. City officials insist that it is safe — but only after it passes through a special water treatment system.
Milwaukie draws all of its water from seven wells located around the city. At five of these wells, tests show that they are riddled with potentially unsafe levels of carcinogenic industrial wastes, says Tom Pattee, a groundwater expert with the Oregon Health Authority, a state agency that oversees the safety of drinking water.
However, Pattee says the city treatment system is successful at stripping out the impurities, and that the health agency has found that the water is safe to drink when it arrives at people’s homes.
That doesn’t mean it suits everyone’s taste.
“It seems to have a pretty strong aroma, and the flavor has a chemical taste,” says Michelle Murdock, a resident of the Lewellyn neighborhood.
Murdock no longer drinks the water straight from the tap. Her family first treats the water with a “reverse osmosis” system that they installed. The system set them back $300, a price that she recognizes not every family can afford. Murdock thinks the city is failing to perform its duty to provide drinkable water.
‘They should decommission those wells,” she insists.
“It tastes funny,” says a mom in the Ardenwald neighborhood who asked not to be named. “It has this burnt flavor to it. It tastes chemical-ly. It’s not a common taste. No one has really been able to define the taste. I’ve talked to many residents.”
The mom says she has noticed the foul taste since “the day I moved in” in October 2013.
Others interviewed compared the taste of the water to a “kitchen floor cleaner,” and noted that it leaves a brown or black ring around the toilet that must be scrubbed every few days.
The oldest of the seven wells is failing, and two are due to be replaced in the next two years. Built from 1936 to 2008, the wells tap an aquifer known as the “Troutdale Formation” and range in depth from 290 to 481 feet. On a summer day, the city draws up to 5 million gallons.
In 1988, routine monitoring discovered that the aquifer is contaminated with unsafe levels of trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE), which are industrial solvents. Tiny concentrations of two other pollutants, tetrachloroethylene and dichloroethylene, also have been found, according to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
The city took the seven wells out of service soon after the contamination was discovered and purchased water from Portland. Milwaukie built two aeration treatment plants at an initial cost of $2 million, plus $200,000 in annual operating expenses, to remove the contamination from the groundwater. It placed the wells back in service in 1991.
Don Simonsen, the city’s water quality coordinator, says neither the DEQ nor the city has been fully certain who is responsible for the contamination, although they have identified about 200 potential sources. In 2002, the city filed suit against tool manufacturer Stanley Works, Providence Health Systems and several other entities. In 2007, the city reached a combined $200,000 settlement with Stanley and Providence.
The DEQ says it is conducting 12 different investigations of the groundwater contamination in the Milwaukie area. It also has been investigating two closed landfills in the area, both of which have received industrial wastes, possibly including radioactive material.
Murdock and others contacted the Portland Tribune to discuss their drinking water after the newspaper reported on April 7 that a nearby manufacturer, Precision Castparts Corp., has been polluting a much shallower aquifer with the same type of carcinogenic wastes found at much deeper levels less than a mile away.
The DEQ’s sampling of groundwater under the Precision Castparts twin plants at 4600 S.E. Harney St. show that PCE concentrations have been at levels that exceed drinking water standards for at least a decade and are rising.
Pattee said groundwater in that area can travel horizontally about a mile in 10 years, but its vertical travel time is unknown. Milwaukie officials say that the pollution from Precision Castparts does not pose an immediate threat to the city’s drinking water, but eventually may become a problem, and they are monitoring the situation.
Molly Gordon, who lives with her three children near the Precision Castparts plants, said the pollution “makes me nervous. I want my family to live in an area with clean air, clean dirt and clean water. As I learn more, it makes me more concerned.”
This story was first published by the Portland Tribune.