A Drop To Drink

A gold-painted statue of the Greek goddess Hebe guards the window-lit corridor of the Athens City Water Treatment Plant.

“We saved her,” plant manager Shawn Beasley said with a smile, recounting the story of how one worker salvaged the broken pieces of this cupbearing goddess and plastered her back together, entrusting her to the refuge of the treatment plant.

Hebe’s unwavering presence––a likeness of the goddess dominates Beasley’s business card––reflects the plant’s round-the-clock public service mission.

“We’re always here,” Beasley said, gesturing to the cluster of men in jeans and work boots, slurping coffee in the early morning hours of a Wednesday. “It takes a lot behind the scenes.”

An estimated 3.8 million gallons of water is pumped from the city’s treatment plant –– a yellow-bricked facility shielded behind the State Street cemetery –– to Athens, Plains, and rural-outlier residents every day, according to the City of Athens 2014 Annual Drinking Water Consumer Confidence Report.

The entire City of Athens is supplied with groundwater extracted from 15 different production wells dispersed throughout the city. This aquifer-derived liquid is then treated with filters and added chemicals before it flows from the treatment plant, according to Beasley.

But the issue of that water’s quality, and the associated concerns of consuming this ground-sourced tap water, has gripped environmentally-conscious citizens in this county for decades––and is an issue unlikely to cool any time soon.

Ground-sourced water has an extended history of contamination, especially in resource-rich regions like Southeastern Ohio that have been exhausted overtime for their underground reservoirs of natural gas and coal. Because these operations have historically disposed of their wastes in open water sources, some residents no longer trust that groundwater for consumption.

One member of the Athens community believes poor tap water quality in the city has caused a tail defect in her pet fish. Other activists concerned with water quality issues in cities across the country have initiated Facebook groups to highlight chemical contamination in their drinking water.

Yet the pull for reducing bottled water wastefulness is still present. A youth-driven movement from Ohio University’s Athens Campus is championing a straight-from-the-source mentality, openly opposing the consumption of bottled water.

“Those bottled water companies that tell you your bottled water is so much safer to drink because it’s not from your tap––they’re lying to you a lot of the time,” Leah Wilson, an Ohio University senior studying urban planning, said one afternoon in a local coffeehouse.

“In a way, you’ve already paid for this water, but they’re going to charge you three or four times more for it.”

Wilson is keen on establishing a Take Back the Tap initiative on the OU Athens campus and has been coordinating with the university’s recycling and sustainability offices over the last several months to make that dream become a reality.

“I think this is the next step for the university,” Wilson said. “I want to offer a solution.

Take Back the Tap is a national Food & Water Watch initiative adopted by over 60 colleges, according to the company’s website––though Wilson argues that number has reached close to 90 college campuses.

The movement intends to educate individuals on the privatization of water sources, ban bottled water from all campus consumer sources, and empower those same individuals to respond with more sustainable lifestyle choices.

“You get a lot of mixed reactions,” Wilson admitted, saying she’s received several dirty looks from passersby carrying water bottles when she’s tabled the Take Back the Tap cause.

But she’s not so easily deterred. “If you just give us a moment, we can explain this to you,” she said. “This is about educating people. This is part of the college experience.”

Plant Manager Beasley champions tap water consumption, too––though it doesn’t come as much of a surprise, considering his current position in the industry.

“We’re lucky, we have a good source of water,” Beasley said, referring to the aquifer-acquired water churning noisily through the facility. “It’s already filtered in the sand.”

Treatment of surface water differs from aquifer-extracted water, according to Beasley’s explanation. Because the water from an aquifer trickles down through layers of porous rock, much of the impurities are already filtered by the time it’s collected.

Beasley’s crew monitors the groundwater’s pipe-facilitated journey in this never-ending, cyclical process.

First, the water undergoes an aeration treatment and stripped of its iron, manganese, and physical deposits. Then, it flows through a filter meant to soften the concentration of water particles even further. Chlorine and fluorine are added to preserve quality and taste before it’s tunneled out and distributed via an underground pipe system.

“Bottled water is so wasteful,” Beasley said. He compared spending a dollar on a single bottle of water to spending a penny on a gallon of tap water. “Part of our public outreach, we do educational events for kids,” he added. “And you can actually purchase a flyer [that] lays out at least 10 points for why tap water is better than bottled water. Better physically, better tasting, but also better for the environment.”

But not everyone in Athens buys the idea of tap water consumption.

“You can’t just bottle tap water,” Tom Halderman, plant manager at AquaFalls Bottled Water, said several times. “A lot of people think that you’re … just buying good tap water … It’s normally people that are not educated about water and how it works.

Located roughly two and a half hours from Athens, Halderman’s Fairborn, Ohio, bottled water operation supplies Lewellen Services in Logan, Ohio, with an estimated 4,600 gallons of purified water every three weeks, according to Halderman’s count. The City of Athens, as well as Ohio University, receives a portion of this bottled water delivery.

“We deliver thousands of gallons of purified water to the Athens area each week,” Andy Vita, president of Lewellen’s Services Inc., said in an email. “We have several coolers placed at the university, and deliver our bottled water to storage locations.

Halderman and Vita argue that the process of bottling water makes a “huge difference” to the overall quality of the drinking water.

“City water is not pure drinking water,” Vita said. “They remove iron and sulfur but allow many other minerals to remain in your drinking water.”

Vita provided a list of elements characteristically removed with reverse osmosis membranes––a feature found in the purified drinking process––that included sodium, calcium, nickel, chloride, and cyanide.

“We have consumed tap water for years, but we have learned that we can have better water, and we have the choice not to be satisfied with minimum standards,” Vita said. “That is why the bottle water industry has grown to what it is today. People want better drinking water.”

Halderman argued that the bottled water process offers an unparalleled taste experience to the consumer.

“I promise you––you’ll know,” Halderman said, challenging consumers to set out a cup of tap water and purified bottled water for a week and note the visible disparities.

Halderman also openly opposed critics who claim that his industry merely sells bottled tap water. “That’s not the case whatsoever,” he stated.

Water consumption issues have remained topics of intense discussion likely since the first groundwater wells were established in the City of Athens in 1894.

According to a 2003 Ohio EPA groundwater investigation, the presence of manmade contaminants has been found in the Athens aquifer well water in previous assessments. Based on the lack of protective clay above the aquifer and the presence of potential contaminant sources located in the aquifer’s vicinity, it has a high susceptibility to contamination.

“Consumption is a huge issue in Athens,” said Andy Alexander, a Scripps Howard Visiting Professor in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.

Alexander started an online journalism project on campus last year in response to community conversations about water quality.

Dubbed the OU Water Project, the online site’s objective is to facilitate local debates about water consumption in a credible, objective design.

“It’s being talked about in every community,” Alexander said. “We’re on to a good topic.”

Back at the plant, Beasley points out yet another controversial aspect to the water distribution business: regulation.

“As far as a governing body on bottled water, I’m not so sure there is one,” Beasley said. “There’s really no guarantee that bottled water is any better, at all.”

For now, the public must decide if the consequences of bottled water consumption––environmental degradation, fossil fuel dependence––outweigh the potential risks associated with drinking tap-supplied water.

“It’s just a matter of not having the knowledge to make better decisions for yourself and the environment,” Wilson said. “I feel like OU is ready to deal with this, but some people are less open to the idea of making a huge change.”

This analysis story was written for an Ohio University E.W. Scripps School journalism class. The article has not been published in any form. 

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