Residents in northern Wake County have complained for years about discolored water, but Aqua North Carolina, the private utility that serves the area, blamed the problem on naturally occurring chemicals and said there wasn’t much it could do.

That could soon change.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is required every five years to examine up to 30 contaminants to determine if they’re primary drinking water concerns. Manganese, which Aqua has said is, along with iron, the primary culprit for the brown water, is on the list this year.

The EPA cites recent studies that show high levels of manganese can effect the central nervous system, posing a higher risk to children, the elderly and pregnant women.

If the EPA declares manganese a primary drinking water contaminant, Aqua could be forced to remove it from the water.

The prospect of action gives hope to Aqua customers frustrated for years by water that looks undrinkable, stains sinks and bathtubs and ruins clothes and appliances.

“With the EPA looking into the contaminants in the water, everyone will benefit,” homeowner Susie Holmes said.

Aqua serves 250,000 customers in 51 counties statewide, including the area between Interstate 540 and Falls Lake in Wake County.

The frustration of Holmes and other homeowners boiled over in June, when Aqua sought an 8 percent increase in water and sewer rates.

“I don’t mind paying for what I’m using, but I hate being ripped off,” Aqua customer Rich Vitali told the North Carolina Utilities Commission at the hearing.

“Me, personally, and my family have been impacted by brown water approximately the color of iced tea eight times in a 4½-month span,” homeowner Becky Daniel said.

The Utilities Commission’s Public Staff has recommended that the panel reject the rate increase and instead order Aqua to cut its revenue by $1.7 million. There’s no timetable for a final decision in the rate case.

Aqua officials say the utility has spent millions of dollars in the past couple of years to filter out the iron and manganese – the company also has used chemicals to mask the discoloration – and they said the efforts will be more than enough to meet any revised EPA standard for manganese in drinking water.

“The EPA has not proposed any new manganese regulations at this point, and the effort by EPA will take several years to complete,” Aqua spokesman Daniel Lockwood said in an email to WRAL News. “Aqua North Carolina’s water quality improvement program is already moving forward ahead of any regulations. The company is identifying sites that may need treatment and is developing and implementing plans for those locations that may require filtration.

“If EPA or [the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality] propose any regulatory changes or different levels, Aqua would develop plans and install treatment where needed. However, we expect that our current water quality improvement program will have already addressed those potential locations,” Lockwood concluded.

Treatment is needed in northern Wake County, where customers on Aqua’s Bayleaf well system filed 70 brown water complaints between July and September. Also, WRAL Investigates, which has examined complaints against Aqua for three years, has found some manganese levels in the company’s water that were five to 10 times higher than the recommended limit.

Holmes, who installed an expensive water filtration system in her home, said she just wants water that’s clean and safe.

“What’s the right level for manganese specifically in this area? What’s a safe level?” she asked. “Right now, it’s just a suggestion, and I’d like to know what the correct level is to protect everyone’s health.”

Source: The Associated Press

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