INSIDERS: How Safe is the Water in Leon County?

Posted at 9:06 AM, Feb 16, 2016
and last updated 2017-12-13 05:24:28-05

TALLAHASSEE, FL (WTXL) -- The contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan has grabbed the attention of cities nationwide, bringing concerns about ensuring the safety and quality of their own water supply.

The situation in Flint has jeopardized the health of children and adults, forcing residents to use bottled water to drink, cook with, clean with and bathe in.

An aging infrastructure is partially to blame, but could what happened in Flint happen in Leon County?

In 2015, the City of Tallahassee won the state's best tasting drinking water contest.

So, how is Leon County keeping tabs on its water quality?

For a year, residents in Flint have been dealing with high levels of lead in the city's water supply.

Dr. Mark Anthony Jones, a pastor from Flint's Mount Union Missionary Baptist Church, was invited to a ministers' conference in Tallahassee in early February 2016, during which he expressed frustration with the growing situation in his city.

"Rich suburbs get pure water, but on the inner city, we get poison," Jones said.

Homeowners across the country have reached out to companies like AirMD to check their own water. The Florida-based company tests samples from properties, checking for bacteria and heavy metal levels.

"It highlights the emphasis that homeowners and individuals have to really try to police themselves," said scientific director Simon Hahassey, "so, they need to be aware of these factors."

But could Tallahassee be a future Flint? City officials say no way.

Through extensive testing, ample funding and an abundant water source, the city says the water is -- and has been -- safe.

"We're protecting the city's health to the farthest degree that we can," said Joni Synatschk, a water quality expert with the City of Tallahassee.

Unlike Flint, which gets its supply from surface water, Tallahassee draws its water from an aquifer 350 feet underground. The city pumps that water through 27 wells.

The water is tested and then gets small amounts of chlorine and fluoride mandate by the state and federal government.

"We monitor the water extensively, just to make sure that there's no changes as it goes through the system," Synatschk said.

The water then enters the city's distribution system. From there, the system is connected to service lines, which reach homes and businesses.

Every year, the city takes tap samples to measure them for lead. Tallahassee's 2015 annual report shows one part per billion (ppb). The federal threshold is 15 ppb. Compare this to Flint, where some samples were 150 ppb - 10 times that amount.

But what about other chemicals? In 2011, Dr. Vincent Salters, a Magnet Lab scientist and FSU's director of geochemistry, tested more than 40 water samples in Tallahassee, finding higher than expected levels of chromium-6.

Chromium-6 is a chemical that has been linked to cancer, most well known through the 2000 film Erin Brockovich.

Salters said chromium-6 levels found in the 2011 study registered between 0.8 and 1.4 ppb. Tallahassee's 2015 annual report shows the same figures.

"The levels are still 100 times less than what the EPA limit is, before they need to take action," Salters said.

The City of Tallahassee insists its water is safe to drink, investing more into improving its quality.

In January 2016, the city commission updated its 20-year Water Master Plan, approving more than $47 million to upgrade the system.

"We have the funding," Synatschk said. "We have the adequate monitoring. We have the dedication of the employees to make sure that the system is protected."

The City says it's been improving downtown infrastructure through the Water Master Plan, replacing older parts under key streets including Tennessee Street, Pensacola Street, and Martin Luther King Boulevard.

When it's all said and done, the system will be fully updated in 2035.