“Water Supply Challenges” Part Three of Five: Local streams, lakes and rivers contain dangerous levels of contaminants
ROCKVILLE – Though government officials warn people about the dangers of drinking untreated water, an investigation by The Sentinel Newspapers shows just how toxic the water is in local lakes, ponds, rivers and streams.
Scientists say contaminants in the surface water include possible cancer-causing agents, which ultimately affect the quality of the water in the Chesapeake Bay.
A series of independent tests conducted by National Testing Laboratories for The Sentinel Newspaper found as many as 18 contaminants in a body of water.
National Testing Laboratories detected total coliforms, which can contain fecal coliform bacteria, in multiple bodies of water in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
Some test results from bodies of water contain elevated levels of chloride and nitrates and also had high levels of turbidity and total dissolved solids.
Matthew Harper, principal natural resources specialist for Montgomery Parks, said both runoff from impervious surfaces such as roads and roofs, as well as leaks from aging infrastructure of Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), contributes to poor water quality and algae blooms such as those affecting Lake Needwood and Lake Frank in Montgomery County.
“It’s aging infrastructure (of WSSC), and there are breaks and leaks… from time to time,” Harper said.
Harper and Bethesda resident Rafe Petersen, an attorney who follows local storm water issues, said when WSSC sewer pipes and water mains malfunction or when there is a heavy rainstorm, sewage can end up in lakes used for stormwater management.
“It’s not just nutrient levels (from pipe breaks). Nutrients (or contaminants) from cars and other nutrient activities… is something we battle in all our streams and water bodies in the county,” said Harper.
The Sentinel Newspapers tested for nitrate and nitrite, among 34 other contaminants. The minimum detection level for nitrate used by National Testing Center was 0.5 milligrams per liter (mg/L).
National Testing Laboratories representatives said nitrites and nitrates occur naturally but fertilizer, sewage and feedlots are major sources of them in drinking water.
National Laboratories Testing tested for each nitrate as nitrogen and detected nitrates in samples from a section of the Patuxent River (3.1 mg/L) and, over in Montgomery County, samples from Rock Creek (0.6 mg/L).
Several samples of surface water in Prince George’s County contained elevated levels of chloride. The testing service said road salt might be the source.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said elevated levels of total dissolved solids can harm health of aquatic organisms, and which the MDE said is reason for concern about a body of water. Multiple testing sites tested positive for total dissolved solids, ranging from 95 mg/L to 200 mg/L, for samples submitted by The Sentinel Newspapers. Laurel Lake was the worst with 200 mg/L.
Test results indicated samples from Patuxent River near Annapolis Road in Woodbine contained calcium, magnesium, manganese, potassium, silica, sodium, strontium, hardness, total dissolved solids, turbidity, chloride, nitrate and alkalinity, iron and lithium.
Water from another location in the Patuxent River (Patuxent River Park Jackson’s Boat Landing) exceeded secondary EPA standards for aluminum, iron, manganese and turbidity but the EPA cannot enforce violation of these levels.
The Patuxent River water samples from Jackson’s Boat Landing included levels of calcium, copper, lithium, magnesium, potassium, silica, sodium, strontium, zinc, alkalinity, hardness, total dissolved solids, chlorides and sulfates.
Magnesium is commonly found in rocks such as granite, limestone, sandstone and dolomites and can contribute to the hardness of water.
For samples from an Anacostia riverbed in Prince George’s County levels of aluminum, iron and turbidity exceeded secondary EPA standards.
Samples from that Prince George’s County Anacostia riverbed contained calcium, copper, lithium, magnesium, manganese, potassium, silica, sodium, strontium, zinc, hardness, total dissolved solids, chloride and sulfate.
Greenbelt Lake (also known as Buddy Attick Lake) contained calcium, iron, lithium, magnesium, manganese, potassium, silica, total dissolved solids, sodium, strontium, alkalinity, hardness, turbidity and chloride.
Samples from Laurel Lake exceeded a secondary EPA standards elevated levels of manganese and iron.
Test results showed samples from Laurel Lake contained elevated levels of calcium, copper, magnesium, potassium, silica, sodium, zinc, alkalinity, hardness, total dissolved solids, turbidity, chloride and sulfate.
The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) reports lakes and ponds in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties contain unhealthy amounts of chemicals from runoff. MDE officials also say chemicals in the lakes can contaminate fish, leading to health problems in people who eat them.
Matthew Stover, MDE chief of water quality standards and author of the report, said some lakes contain mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB).
Jay Apperson, spokesperson for MDE, said scientific studies found mercury and PCBs harm brain development in children and neonates.
A Montgomery County-funded test determined Lake Whetstone, located in Montgomery Village, contained high levels of multiple types of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH).
MDE found PCBs in fish from Piscataway Creek, a tributary to the Potomac, in the Lower Patuxent River and in the Montgomery County portion of the Potomac River.
Although Rock Creek is not a source of drinking water, water from it flows into the Potomac River.
In its investigation, The Sentinel Newspapers found levels of total coliform and E. coli bacteria above the maximum contaminant level for water to be safe to drink in Rock Creek.
Laurel Lake, Lake Whetstone, the Patuxent River near Annapolis Rock Road in Woodbine and the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia River contained total coliform bacteria and E. coli bacteria above the maximum contaminant level for water to be safe to drink. Turbidity and manganese also showed up in the water though the levels were not high enough to trigger action by the Environmental Protection Agency. Results also showed samples contained manganese.
Samples from the Patuxent River contained aluminum, iron and manganese but not high enough to be enforced by the EPA.
Water collected from the Potomac River in Poolesville contained total coliform.
Lake Whetstone, Lake Frank and Lake Needwood as well as the Potomac River contained between 21 and 40 mg/L of e coliform bacteria, which is more than four times the minimum detection level.
The Northwest Branch of the Anacostia River contained 75 mg/L of sodium, which can cause health problems, according to National Testing Laboratories. It contained 130 mg/L of chloride.
The MDE found two types of what it considers one of the worst contaminants, PCBs and mercury, in several lakes and ponds in both counties.
A few Montgomery or Prince George’s county water bodies contain elevated levels of mercury or PCBs, and EPA officials say both are known to cause health problems.
The MDE has ranked the Rocky Gorge Reservoir, owned by WSSC and located in both counties, the worst for fish contaminated with mercury in the state since 2010. The amount of mercury in fish at Rocky Gorge Reservoir is too high for people to eat the fish, according to MDE officials who cited the EPA.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, PCBs are colorless, odorless substances that can vary in thickness and have been known to cause numerous serious health problems in animals, including cancer and damage to the reproductive, immune, endocrine and nervous systems and other parts of animals’ bodies.
Stover advised local governments that they need to address dozens of incidences of chemicals in Prince George’s and Montgomery bodies of water under section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act because they are too high and could hinder the improvement of the Chesapeake Bay.
Twenty incidences of water bodies had levels were so high, the MDE placed a mandatory limit on the levels of specific contaminants in water bodies because of the harm they could do to either the environment or to human health.
Two lakes in Montgomery County, Lake Needwood and Lake Frank, are under advisories because they contain algae that produce a chemical that can make humans and dogs sick if ingested.
In Montgomery Village, consultants from Montgomery County said Lake Whetstone contains severe amounts of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon.
Harper said the chemical from the algae does not make the water dangerous to people who are slightly exposed to it.
“It’s not like, if the water touches your skin it starts to burn,” Harper said. “We’re not trying to keep people off the water by any means, it’s just sort of making people aware of what we know.
“I don’t personally see it as a huge risk, but in a wrong situation, if someone’s been spending a lot of time in there… It’s hard to know what people do in there in their free time.”
According to authors of a 2014 MDE report, bodies of water in urbanized areas tend to be in the poorest condition.
Harper said the algae bloom, though it has appeared annually since 2009, disappears on its own seasonally, so park staff did not label it a priority to address.
MDE spokesperson Jay Apperson said there would be signs posted along the Anacostia warning people that eating the fish might make them sick.
However, he said people vandals repeatedly defaced or took down the signs, so none have been posted in the last 10 years.
Apperson said department staff put up fish advisories at the river to warn fishermen that pregnant women and young children should not consume the fish due to levels of PCB and Mercury, but vandals also defaces or removed those signs too.
MDE staffers send fish advisory information to people along with new fishing licenses, and information is available on the websites for the MDE, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
According a report on samples of Lake Whetstone sediment tested in 2011, the sediment of the lake contains elevated amounts of various types of carcinogen Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon, as well as three metals.
In 2011, Montgomery County officials considered using sediment dredged from the lake as fertilizer in a local park. The County arranged for consultants to test the sediment, at the request of residents who live near the lake.
Test results showed the lake sediment contained elevated levels of PAH that exceeded MDE and EPA standards for residential areas.
County officials arranged instead for contractors to deliver the sediment to a special storage facility for contaminated substances and sediment.
To view “Water Supply Challenges,” Part 1 of 5, “Get the Lead Out,” click here: https://www.thesentinel.com/mont/newsx/local/item/4143-get-the-lead-out
To view “Water Supply Challenges,” Part 2 of 5, “It’s Not Sexy,” click here: https://www.thesentinel.com/mont/newsx/local/item/4186-it-s-not-sexy