The story behind the hexavalent chromium discovery in the Hannibal and Louisiana water systems is instructive to those who observe government.
BASF Corp. officials did what was required of them last May and alerted state regulators when hexavalent chromium was detected after a chemical incinerator was cleaned. Missouri Department of Natural Resources analysts found that the leak was small enough it would not threaten public health.
That might have been the end of the episode had it not been for the DNR’s public relations boo-boo last summer. The DNR failed to notify people at the Lake of the Ozarks that dangerous levels of E. coli were detected in the water. This was a hot topic for weeks in the news media. It also led to a Missouri Senate hearing on Wednesday — the first day of the 2010 legislative session.
During the hearing, Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savanna, asked DNR Director Mark Templeton what he knew about the release of chromium in a waterway. Templeton said he did not know about any such release, but after the hearing was alerted by staff members about the BASF release. Lager was contacted with Templeton’s updated information. Lager then spoke with reporters at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who came out with a story on Thursday.
Long before last week’s hearing, someone at the DNR apparently got concerned about the chromium release. After all, a failure to see the E. coli results as a serious health threat led to a virtual train wreck for the DNR. Scientists in May had done mathematical models that showed the chromium entering the Mississippi River near Palmyra would be so diluted that it was benign. But after the E. coli scandal, it seemed prudent to do actual water tests.
Water samples were collected in the cities of Louisiana and Hannibal in the days before Christmas. A laboratory in Washington state had to do the testing because it is one of the few that can find extremely small quantities of hexavalent chromium.
The highest level detected so far, after a second sample was collected in January, was 0.6 parts per billion in the Hannibal system. Missouri’s water standards set 100 parts per billion as the maximum amount of chromium allowed in drinking water. That is 166 times higher than what has been found in Hannibal’s water.
Is the water safe to drink? All the health officials say it is.
Is there a need for more testing? DNR officials seem to think so, and have pledged to keep looking for the source of the pollution. They’re also considering whether some of the hexavalent chromium is the result of water treatment procedures, which are approved by the state.
DNR Communications Director Judd Slivka said it is puzzling that “hexavalent chromium levels were higher in the treated water than they were in the raw water supplies.”
So this won’t be the end of the story. Continuing tests and a reassessment of water treatment procedures will keep this issue alive for some time to come.
If the DNR had reported a problem last May, it might have raised fears needlessly. But by failing to report the problem, the agency opened itself up to criticism for failing to take the threat seriously … or failing to trust that most people could handle the news.
Sometimes government agencies are going to lose, no matter what they do.