Water, water, everywhere, but is it safe to drink?
Recent contamination threatens Berks water sources
By Anthony Orozco
Journalist for Berks Vital Signs
November 4, 2019 – While farming has a reputation for impairing local waterways, Berks watersheds also face an ongoing onslaught from other manmade threats and contamination risks:
- Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection fined Sunoco $148,000 (since this report was published, this link has been disabled) for negatively affecting water wells in Berks, Chester and Lebanon counties. The construction of Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 pipeline, built to transport natural gas liquids east from western Pennsylvania and neighboring states, tainted 16 private wells.
- In June 2019, Oley Township-based construction company owner Matthew Barrasso admitted to falsifying water quality reports on water mains his company installed in Wyomissing and Lancaster County.
- The U.S. Navy dumped 4,300 tons of PFA-contaminated soil from the former Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove into Mascaro’s Pioneer Crossing Landfill in Birdsboro earlier this year. The landfill, which overlooks the Schuylkill River, is “lined” with a material designed to prevent leaching, or having contaminants seep from the landfill into the river. Berks has one of the highest concentrations of landfills in Pennsylvania, with the majority of the trash coming here from outside of Berks and outside of the commonwealth.
- The Muhlenberg area has had a reputation for lead contamination caused by the Exide Technologies battery plant in Laureldale. The company was held responsible for widespread lead contamination of the surrounding air, soil and surface water. Exide has completed mandatory cleaning operations on hundreds of homes and parcels over the past 10 years. A 2017 investigation by the Reading Eagle (since this report was published, this link has been disabled) found lead levels to be higher than regulated levels, though the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) disputed the collection methods of those findings (since this report was published, this link has been disabled). That investigation also found the Muhlenberg School District and the state have failed to annually test the high schools’ grounds for lead contamination after discovering buried battery casings on the property 15 years ago. The EPA continues to examine surrounding areas and is currently testing groundwater for lead contamination.
- DEP is almost halfway through a year-long testing initiative, inspecting more than 300 water systems across the state. That testing is looking for particularly common and toxic chemicals known as PFAS and PFOS.
Nature presents its own hazards.
Municipalities and institutions such as universities and prisons that must meet specific standards are required to obtain permits for discharges of storm water from their storm sewer systems. Over the past year, those systems have been put to the test. A historic amount of rain in Berks caused some sewer plants to overflow into waterways (since this report was published, this link has been disabled).
Water system violations
Water systems are at risk of being poorly monitored and poorly managed, allowing people to drink water that has high levels of contaminants or disinfectants.
The EPA has an online list of water system violations by state and county that date back two decades. There are hundreds of violations of private and community water systems in Berks County listed in that database.
The community water system in Berks with the largest number of violations has been Lenape Hills Trailer Park, Washington Township, with 436 violations. The system serves 44 people. Violations at Lenape Hills included failure to report certain chemicals in the water, failure to notify consumers of those chemicals, and failure to monitor for certain materials.
Community water systems in Berks with more than 100 violations and serving more than 500 people:
Muhlenberg Township Municipal Authority: 148 violations (21,000 people served)
North Heidelberg Water System: 143 (1,350)
Womelsdorf Robesonia Joint Authority: 131 (7,070)
Caernarvon Township Authority: 121 (4,245)
Fleetwood Borough Water System: 120 (4,218)
Lyons Borough: 120 (500)
Maidencreek Township Water Authority: 118 (7,505)
Boyertown Municipal Authority: 110 (8,000)
Birdsboro Municipal Water Authority: 106 (5,353)
Source water protection plans
Source water protection plans identify a community water system’s source of water. They also evaluate what geographic areas should be protected and what steps should be taken to preserve the water’s quality. The plans also identify existing contamination threats, possible contingency plans if the water source is corrupted, and long- and short-term goals for the protection area.
Currently, only 30 of the nearly 80 community water systems in Berks have source water protection plans in place:
|System Name||Source water municipality||Population served||Source|
|Reading Area Water Authority||Ontelaunee||87,000||surface water|
|PAW Penn District||Spring Township||29,525||ground water|
|Western Berks Water Authority||Shillington||25,000||surface water|
|PAW Glen Alsace||Exeter||23,750||ground water|
|Muhlenberg Township Municipal Authority||Muhlenberg||21,000||ground water|
|Mount Penn Municipal Water Authority||Mount Penn||10,400||ground water|
|Kutztown Borough Water||Kutztown||8,600||ground water|
|Boyertown Municipal Authority*||Boyertown||7,775||ground and surface water|
|Maidencreek Township Water Authority||Maidencreek||7,337||ground water|
|Womelsdorf Robesonia Joint Authority||Womelsdorf||7,070||ground water|
|Wernersville Municipal Water Authority||Wernersville||6,357||ground water|
|Birdsboro Municipal Water Authority||Birdsboro||5,353||surface water|
|Hamburg Municipal Water & Sewer Authority||Hamburg||4,990||ground water|
|Fleetwood Borough Water System||Fleetwood||4,218||ground water|
|Caernarvon Township Authority||Caernarvon||4,139||ground water|
|Oley Township Municipal Authority||OLEY||2,204||ground water|
|Shoemakersville Borough Water System||Shoemakersville||2,150||ground water|
|RAWA-North Heidelberg||North Heidelberg||1,350||ground water|
|Village of Pleasant Hill||Tilden||1,200||ground water|
|Bernville Borough Authority||Bernville||1,010||ground water|
|Lyons Borough||Lyons||500||ground water|
|Maxatawny Township Municipal Authority||Maxatawny||425||ground water|
|WBWA-Mohrsville Water||Centre||375||ground water|
|Laurel Health Resources||Tilden||240||ground water|
|PAW Golden Oaks||Fleetwood||100||ground water|
|Country View mobile home park||Longswamp||98||ground water|
|Geisingers mobile home park||Hereford||90||ground water|
|Urban Acres mobile home park||Alsace||80||ground water|
|Meadows at Bethel mobile home park||Bethel||50||ground water|
|Valley View mobile home park Blandon||Richmond||50||ground water|
* In queue to obtain plan
Part III in this series looks at the challenges of maintaining safe water systems, community water systems versus private wells, fluoridation, and a plan to replace water lines in Reading that contain lead.