Municipalities and residents depending on wells to supply all or part of their water needs still have no answer from a federal agency about whether stricter guidelines will be put in place governing chromium-6 in drinking water.
A year ago, nearly to the day, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson announced that “it is likely that EPA will tighten drinking water standards to address the health risks posed by chromium-6,” according to the agency's website.
Cathy Milbourn, an agency spokeswoman, offered few details about when drinking water standards could potentially tighten up, saying only that a decision should be reached in 2012.
The agency's website shows that a final ruling is due in January, but Milbourn wouldn't provide an exact date for the decision.
Documents available online show that studies released in 2008 by the National Toxicology Program are the genesis of Jackson's announcement in December 2010.
But the announcement from the agency came on the heels of a study released by the Environmental Working Group, which had tested drinking water in 35 U.S. cities for the contaminant.
The nonprofit's study was released Dec. 19, 2010.
Norman tests high
Norman, the largest suburb of Oklahoma City, tested the highest in the study.
According to the organization, Norman's drinking water showed levels of chromium-6 at nearly 13 parts per billion.
Chromium-6 became infamous in 2000 with the release of “Erin Brockovich,” which starred Julia Roberts as the title character. The film was set in Hinkley, Calif., depicting people being sickened by chromium-6 in the water.
Chromium is a metallic element found in soil, plants, animals and rocks. It can be used in making steel, metal plating, leather tanning and in wood preservatives, according to the agency's website.
Most city officials say that chromium-6 in local water supplies is so low it is almost undetectable.
But cities still could be affected by the EPA ruling.
In Norman, which lost roughly half of its water wells in 2006 when the federal agency lowered what were considered acceptable levels of arsenic in drinking water, tightening the drinking water standards too much could cost the city untold amounts of money.
Ken Komiske, the city's utilities director, has said repeatedly since the news broke that Norman's drinking water is safe.
He's also said that any sweeping action by the federal agency could cost Norman a lot of money to come into compliance.
“It depends on what that level is,” Komiske said shortly after the nonprofit released its study. “The more they lower it, the more expensive it becomes. The more they lower it, the more wells we may have to take offline.”
In Norman, groundwater piped up from the Garber-Wellington Aquifer, which lies beneath much of central Oklahoma, is an important component of the city's water system — accounting for nearly 20 percent of the supply.
Well water is mixed with treated drinking water and goes directly into the distribution system, Komiske said.
“We've exhausted our supply at the lake. ... We're using our total allotment,” Komiske said. “Groundwater is essential to supplementing surface water. ... That's why we're always looking for another source.”
Oklahoma City water officials say they aren't concerned about chromium-6 showing up in dangerous levels.
The state's largest city uses only lakes and reservoirs — or surface water — to meet its growing demand.
“We're concerned, we're watching what's being done,” said Monte Hannon, the city's water quality superintendent. “But that's just one of the reasons we don't use water wells.”
Hannon said water wells don't recharge fast enough for a place the size of Oklahoma City.
“In aquifers, that water was there for millions of years,” he said. “When you start pumping on it really hard, it's not going to recharge that quickly.
“Groundwater is just not renewable as quickly as surface water.”