Watergate 2012: Water the concerns with the Wilkes H20?
Junior business major Jahleel Sterling does not trust the tap water on campus and noted its unique smell from his facet in University Towers.
“It’s cloudy and it stinks,” Sterling said. “It’s putrid. It smells like rotten eggs. I always use my filter.”
Students curious about water quality at Wilkes might have trouble finding test results as Administrators told the Beacon they don’t exist. Due to lack of formal complaints and serious illness, testing has never been done.
Thirty years ago, students in Dr. Michael Case’s water quality class tested the drinking fountains in the Stark Learning Center and a few other administrative buildings for metals such as iron, manganese, copper, cadmium, lead and zinc after concerns that metals might have dissolved from the pipes.
The water company at the time only chlorinated the drinking water without any filtration or pH adjustments, so metals went unnoticed.
In 1986, Case’s students found Giardia lamblia cysts, which cause diarrheal illness, on and off the Wilkes campus.
The EPA confirmed the results and in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection required Pennsylvania Gas and Water to build several new treatment plants at the cost of several million dollars.
Since then, the water in the area has improved to meet standards. Pennsylvania American, the current water company, now does pH adjustments to around a neutral pH of 7. LopH, wer levels of pH would increase the chances of acidic water that could erode the pipes.
In the years since, there has not been testing on campus dorms. While formal complaints have not been made by students, most residents often rely on filtering devices and bottled water rather than reporting issues.
“To the best of my knowledge, there’s never been any formal testing in the residence halls,” Case, environmental engineering and earth science professor, said. “There also hasn’t been a need to do that unless the students have complained of a problem.”
Case said the problem has been minimized in urban areas, but there should always be concern especially in bigger cites about the underground piping that delivers the water.
“Still when you have old pipes in the ground, there could be a little break in the pipe,” Case said. “There it could start bringing in sediment into the supply water.”
In those 26 years, students have also never filed any serious complaints, Paul Adams vice president of Student Affairs, said.
“I don’t think there’s any reason for us to think there would be an issue if the pipes were galvanized copper, pipes were being flushed all the time and if we weren’t receiving complaints from studentsabout illness or bad-tasting water,” Adams said.
“We have no reason to believe the water isn’t quality. We have in place several safety standards, but for the most part we rely on state and federal standards.”
While no complaints have been officially sent to Student Affairs, many residents on campus especially at University Towers often rely on personal filtering devices rather than just the tap.
The cloudiness that Sterling suggested might be a visible sign of contaminates. Turbidity, or cloudiness, is one of the visible signs of contamination, Case said.
“Cloudiness would mean a compromise in the connection between the water the plants provide us and the plumbing here at the university,” Case said.
“Cloudiness suggests filters aren’t working and that there might be a break in the supply pipe.”
When sophomore mechanical engineering major Jonathan Townsend first moved into Towers, he also noticed cloudy white water through his kitchen faucet and even a strange chemical odor while bathing.
“I immediately went to WalMart and got a pure water filter,” Townsend said.
“Even in the showers, I can smell chemicals or cleaners in the water. It has a sharp, chemical smell.”
Townsend has never filed a complaint because he would not know who to complain to.
“I was concerned at first, but after I spent $30 on a water filter, I have some peace of mind now,” he said.
Carbon filters, such as Brita, are only designed to use with treated water systems to remove bad taste, Case said. Bacteria is not filtered.
Joseph Pesta, interim executive director of Facilities , said all the filtering systems on campus are updated twice every year and bathroom renovations have been made in Weiss, Catlin, Sterling and Rifkin halls.
Pesta also said he’s been drinking the Wilkes-Barre tap water since 1981 and he’s “still here.”
“Since we’re on the public water system, I don’t see any need to test water periodically.”
Case also is confident in the tap water.
“I think filtered water is as good as bottled water,” Case said. “I fill my water jug from the tap in Stark.”
Even the transparency of water is not necessarily an indication of cleanliness, Case said. Only testing would properly indicate whether or not the water meets EPA standards.
“If the water is clear, you should then test for residual chlorine, and if you find that they’re reasonable, it’s safe to assume it’s safe from a microbiological standpoint,” Case said.
“Water treatment facilities take their testing really seriously and keep detailed public records.”
The presence of free residual chlorine in drinking water is correlated with the absence of disease-causing organisms.
“Plants are using minimal chlorine now, simply because filtration is so good now,” Case said. “Many places are also using ozonation to treat water. Ozone has greater disinfection effectiveness against bacteria and viruses compared to chlorination and can also reduce the concentration of iron, manganese, sulfur and eliminate taste and odor problems.”
Case and other environmental engineering professors teach the importance of water quality, but they believe a vast majority of people continue to take clean water for granted.
“Water quality here does matter. Fifty percent of the water from the Susquehanna River goes into the Chesapeake Bay. We need to educate people to conserve water and protect the watersheds in my opinion.”
Politicians are among the uninformed, Case said.
“I am extremely alarmed at the extent members of congress have taken against the EPA and water and air quality,” Case said.
“The People of the U.S. want clean water. They expect the air to be breathable. They expect their children to be able to play outside and get dirty without getting contaminated. These are reasonable beliefs in a democratic society.”
If students are concerned with the quality of the water on campus they should contact 2FIX and email their concerns to student affairs at firstname.lastname@example.org.