What’s in the water in Woods Cross?

A Salt Lake City suburb weighs environmental risk as it grapples with drinking water contamination.

  • The water supply in Woods Cross, Utah, has been contaminated by low levels of PCE since the 1980s. The pollution originated at this drycleaner, just over the town line in Bountiful.

    Andrew Cullen
  • The Silver Eagle refinery in Woods Cross is visible from the site of the city's recently approved water treatment plant, meant to clean the water of any PCE.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Woods Cross officials held a series of public meetings to inform residents about the possible solutions to the PCE contamination in March, 2013.

    Andrew Cullen
  • From left, Woods Cross resident Brian Rau, consultant Greg Seegmiller, city administrator Gary Uresk, and public works director Scott Anderson talk during a public meeting about PCE contamination in the town's water supply.

    Andrew Cullen
  • The Silver Eagle refinery looms over a subdivision in Woods Cross, where residential and industrial real estate are never far apart.

    Andrew Cullen

Woods Cross, Utah, might best be described as industrial suburbia. Oil pipelines burrow beneath tidy streets, and a refinery tower's flare is visible from a booth at the Paradise Bakery and Cafe. There's a paint manufacturer, an interstate highway, freight trains hauling asphalt and crude, and some of the nation's worst winter air quality. The solidly middle-class residents of Woods Cross may not enjoy these aspects of their lives, but they generally tolerate them. After all, they chose to live here.

Now, there's a new problem: A decades-old chemical leak from a drycleaner has contaminated the city's drinking water aquifer with a plume of the industrial solvent tetrachloroethylene, or PCE, prompting the Environmental Protection Agency to declare it a Superfund site, one of three in the area. At high-enough concentrations, PCE can be carcinogenic and cause kidney, liver and immune and nervous system problems.

However, the PCE-tainted water is tapped for only a couple months out of the year, and even then at concentrations too low to be considered harmful. That's why the federal agency won't help pay for a $4 million filtration system to help fix the problem. Yet the townsfolk, despite their tolerance of other environmental hazards, have enthusiastically agreed to pay for the system, expected to be functioning by next summer. The situation illustrates how the residents weigh the PCE problem against other dangers, and exhibits a key difference between how regulators and most citizens respond to environmental risk. The health risks may be very low, but if you knew your water contained even a smidgeon of poison, would you want to drink and bathe in it?

This dense Salt Lake City suburb found out about the PCE in the late 1980s, when the chemical appeared in two municipal water wells, which were immediately turned off. In 2007, after years of study, the EPA finally put the plume on its Superfund list. (PCE pollution is responsible for nearly a third of all listings.) The agency dug up enough contaminated dirt to fill about 20 pickup trucks and began debating how to clean up the plume. The owners of the drycleaner, which is still operating, can't cover the costs.

Most of the year, the town's water comes from uncontaminated sources. But to meet higher summer demand, it also turns on a contaminated well, sending low concentrations of PCE through showerheads and into drinking glasses. Even then, the concentrations of PCE remain below the agency's legal limit of 5 parts per billion, and the tap water meets Safe Drinking Water Act standards. That explains the EPA's seeming lack of concern. "EPA comes in when there is a serious and dangerous immediate threat to health," says Peggy Linn, the EPA's community involvement coordinator for the Superfund site.

That doesn't sit well with Woods Cross. "I want to be able to say to our people, 'We don't have anything in our water,' " says Gary Uresk, city administrator. Residents agree: In April, a large majority said they were willing to pay $6 to $15 more on their monthly water bill for a filtration system to remove most of the PCE. But it also raises the question: Why worry about the water when there are greater risks all around?

"I've thought about this quite a lot," says Uresk. "The residents of Woods Cross would be better off health-wise if they were going to pay $10 a month to do something with the air." Contaminated water, though, is somehow more troubling.  Even most of the toxicologists and epidemiologists I talked to said they'd pay to clean the water, too, if they lived in Woods Cross -- even after acknowledging that the health risks at such low concentrations were almost negligible. "We are driven by emotion, and that's the way that we humans make decisions," says resident Christopher Lynx Arroyo, whose family history of cancer influenced his vote to treat the water.

Four years ago, Woods Cross faced a genuine environmental threat: One of the refineries exploded -- twice -- breaking windows and cracking nearby foundations. "People were furious," says Mayor Kent Parry, but the outrage subsided as residents figured out there wasn't much the city could do. After all, the refinery had been there long before the subdivisions that surround it, and people knew about that risk when they moved in. But as a newer, involuntary risk, the PCE plume is different, says Bob Benson, an EPA toxicologist.

EPA officials tasked with deciding whether to build an expensive treatment system would likely consider things like maximum contaminant levels,  neurological damage threshold, and concentrations at which cancer risk becomes one in a million. But ultimately, the decision here may have come down to the fact that a simple solution actually exists -- unlike with so many other hazards. "It is something over which we have control," Parry says. "We spend the money, we build the treatment facility, and the PCE is gone."

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