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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: The fight for clean drinking water is a marathon, not a sprint

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Our drinking water is not a partisan issue; it is the very sustenance of our daily lives.

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“Good, I’m glad they talked to you because they wouldn’t even make eye contact with me,” I responded.

STATE OF WATER: Gwenyfar Rohler’s residence is  the site of a water sampling station via Cape Fear Public Utility Authority for 2018. Photo by John Wolfe

STATE OF WATER: Gwenyfar Rohler’s residence is the site of a water sampling station via Cape Fear Public Utility Authority for 2018. Photo by John Wolfe

In coveralls and carrying hand tools, Jock clearly had more credibility than I did as a frumpy, middle-aged woman with bad parking skills.

“Well, they weren’t happy about it, but they did finally tell me what is going on: They are putting in a sampling station.”

A few months ago, a small battlefield of little colored flags appeared on the strip of grass between the sidewalk and street in front of our house. Accompanying spray-paint lines, arrows and measurements made it clear the flags were engaged in serious business—and if we moved them, we would do so at our peril.

The dogs were curious, and Horace especially seemed to feel it was a personal challenge to mark each flag when we went on walks. I have to admit: His aim surprisingly was good.

After a few weeks of waiting to see what would happen next (would the front of our house become a giant game of Risk or Capture the Flag?), and wondering when we were going to see a bulldozer tearing up the street, we were surprised instead with a handful of disgruntled men and a work truck. When they left, we had a little green tube sticking out of the ground about shin height.

“That is our sampling station,” Jock said proudly.

We considered christening it with a bottle of champagne—an idea shelved when the possibility of the champagne bottle breaking the station lock off was mentioned. The last thing we needed was a Cool Hand Luke situation and get arrested for malicious destruction to municipal property. Somehow I don’t think the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA) would believe we were excited to welcome the station to the neighborhood. They are not a group who have demonstrated much in the way of either a sense of humor or willingness to extend a benefit of the doubt to others. (Given what they are asking from us regarding GenX, that does seem a little one-sided.)

But there we were, huddled in admiration while discussing our newest neighbor: the sampling station.

“Is this for GenX, do you think?” I posited. “No, they don’t move that quickly; bureaucracy is slow. It must be something else.”

“My guess is lead,” Jock offered. “We are in an old part of town. They want to sample on their side of the meter to see what is going on. That’s my guess.”

“I wonder if we can see a report of our sampling station?”

“That would be an interesting encore column,” Jock nodded. “Very interesting.”

A couple of weeks later I walked out the front door to find two (much happier) people with a mobile science lab taking a sample from our station. How exciting! It took a lot to calm down enough to not completely terrify them, but after a few deep breaths and counting to 10 (twice), I approached and asked if they would let me watch. They were absolutely lovely about explaining the process to an enthusiastic lay person.

In answer to the question about lead, I was informed, no, they were not testing for lead. Apparently, when the CFPUA does test for lead, it is from the pipes inside the home, not at the meter. Also, they usually look at a specific age range of houses in the 1980s because of building materials used then.

Very clearly, no, this isn’t for GenX or for lead. This is to keep tabs on the system and make sure the water is clean to drink. They wanted to know about the quality of water throughout the whole system, not just at the plant.

Our curbside scientists let the water run from the station for a few minutes then collected samples. The first item tested was the water’s PH. Jock has been trying to work with the PH and bacteria in milk these last few months; I was surprised (and pleased) the PH meter in their mobile lab was exactly like the one he has been using at Full Belly. The next sample was going back to the lab for more extensive bacteriological testing.

“Is there any way we can see what the report on the water from our station says?” I asked. You have to strike when the iron is hot—or when the water is flowing, as the case may be.

I was told I couldn’t see a report for this individual station, but I could find the report on the water system samples throughout on the CFPUA website. They packed up their materials and drove off to another sampling station, in the name of science and clean drinking water.

When I sat down to look over CFPUA’s website, I found a water quality report from 2016 and the big annual report from 2017. The 2016 report was before the Gen X story broke. It takes all the samples from stations and provides a report on what is collected in total. It is filled with tables and charts with notes about minimum and maximum ranges of chemicals that can be in drinking water; it looks pretty much like my college science labs. The 2017 annual report is a very nice commercial for how responsive the CFPUA feels it was to the GenX problem. It is interesting to read—in an Orwellian sort of way—and the graphics are very pretty. But I want to read the water quality report for 2017. I am curious how our sampling station is doing. Also, I want to know if it will be used to measure GenX?

Water has been the issue locally for 2017. It seems surprising and appropriate we got a sampling station now.

“Live Local: Drink Global” was a headline suggested by my friend, Ethan, a few weeks ago. The more I thought about it, the more on the nose it seemed. The chemicals showing up in our water are part of what connect us to a global marketplace and web. We are not going to stop using Teflon, so we are not going to stop having these chemicals around. If it isn’t made here, it is going to be made in a third-world country with even fewer regulations. We are focused on our own local water crisis right now, but our water is connected to everyone else on the planet. The fight for our drinking water is a marathon, not a sprint. But it is a sustained fight we must bend our will to.

Please, in 2018, continue to ask for answers and results from our elected officials. Continue to put pressure on them to get answers and results. Our drinking water is not a partisan issue; it is the very sustenance of our daily lives.

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