Environment

The small western Kentucky city of Marion has been facing an ongoing water shortage for months, and now local officials in recent weeks have been dealing with reports of discolored tap water coming out of residents’ faucets.

The Crittenden County seat lifted a weeks-long boil water advisory for its water system in August and stopped distributing bottled water to residents earlier this month, telling the community of less than 3,000 people the tap water is safe to drink.

But the city shut down their water plant on Sept. 7 because of reports from the community of red-tinted, discolored tap water. Marion City Administrator Adam Ledford in an interview Wednesday said the issue was caused by a buildup of the mineral manganese in the city’s water plant filters, which were processing the heavy metal from raw water in local lakes.

“The raw water was actually a lower level of manganese than what was passed the filters. So we were actually adding manganese to the water — not taking it out,” Ledford said. “It’s very helpful to be able to identify that problem and have a corrective action in place to resolve it.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates manganese in drinking water as a “secondary contaminant,” meaning such contaminants in water are “not health threatening” but can affect the color, taste and smell of the water and “may cause a great number of people to stop using water from their public water system even though the water is actually safe to drink.”

According to the Kentucky Division of Water and the EPA, manganese in drinking water can have a bitter metallic taste and can discolor water brown and black and cause staining of similar colors on laundry, porcelain, dishes, utensils, glassware, sinks, fixtures and concrete. In one Oklahoma community last month, residents reported yellow water coming out of faucets which local officials also attributed to manganese.

Manganese is naturally found throughout the environment and is needed in trace amounts in humans and animals for normal bodily functions. It can cause neurological problems in very high levels over long periods of time. The EPA sets an non-enforceable limit for the heavy metal in drinking water at .05 milligrams per liter for “aesthetic considerations” and “are not considered to present a risk to human health” at the EPA’s suggested limit.

Ledford said the city is hiring a company to clean the water plant filters early next week to address the issue, and the Kentucky Division of Water is reworking the water treatment to better treat the excess manganese from the raw water.

In a statement, a Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet spokesperson said Marion’s water plant would not come back online until “the manganese treatment is under control.”

“The water plant will be washed out/acid cleaned next week to remove the manganese deposits that were caused by a prior treatment attempt,” the spokesperson said. “In order to properly [remove] the manganese, Marion will be increasing their sodium permanganate (pre-oxidant) 6-7x to meet the demand in the raw water. They will also switch to a ferric-based coagulant that is more conducive to manganese removal.”

Marion was pulling raw water from Old City Lake, the community’s backup water source, and Lake George, the city’s previous primary water source that was drained in April but had partially refilled from rainfall. Up until Sept. 7, the city was using both processed lake water and processed water from the nearby Crittenden-Livingston County Water District. With the water plant’s closure, Ledford said Marion is currently getting all of its water — about 190,000 gallons each day — from that neighboring water district.

With water conservation still being advised by local officials, the city system is only using about 70% of the water it would under normal circumstances. Marion is still working toward a long-term water supply solution, which could include getting water in the future from the city of Princeton, the Crittenden-Livingston County Water District or rebuilding the Lake George levee that was previously breached to again have the lake serve as the city’s primary water supply.

Ledford hopes in about a week to ten days that the cleaned filters and the new water treatment will see “a significant improvement in water quality out of the plant moving forward.”

Despite messaging from city and state officials that the discolored water is still safe to drink, some Marion residents don’t trust the tap water.

Evelyn Hayes Water.jpg
Evelyn Hayes/Provided
Evelyn Hayes, another Marion resident who has complained of discolored water, shows a bowl of yellow-tinted water taken from her bathroom faucet the morning of Thursday, Sept. 15.

Marion resident Dianne Adams in a Wednesday interview said the color of her tap water has improved in recent days but still has a yellow tint to it. She isn’t using the water for drinking or cooking and only recently started using the tap water for laundry.

“It looks like somebody had urinated in it,” Adams said. “I have taken a bath in it when it was really yellow looking and I’ve just felt, when I got out of it, it was just like I felt as dirty as when I got in it.”

Adams also sends her 7-year-old granddaughter to a local school with bottled water so that she doesn’t have to drink the tap water, and she brought a case of bottled water for her granddaughter’s classroom. She plans on still using the about three-weeks worth of bottled water she previously received from the city.

After being told about the manganese issue, she said she isn’t sure when she’ll feel comfortable using her tap water.

Kristi Beavers, who runs a local car wash in town, said about a day before the city’s water plant had shut down, she filled up a water tank for her car wash. The water she put in “discolored the whole tank” and looked like “chocolate milk.”

“I’m like, ‘Well, you know, nobody wants to wash their car in this, let alone their bodies and their clothes and drink it or anything like that,’” Beavers said.

Beavers said she’s moved out of the community since Marion’s water shortage began but has heard other people in town have had issues with discolored water.

At a special Marion city council meeting on Monday, Kentucky Division of Water environmental scientist Jackie Logsdon told those at the meeting that manganese in the water was “an aesthetic issue” and “not a health issue.”

“I know that discolored water is ugly, and I understand that you don’t want to drink that. And I wouldn’t want to either,” Logsdon said at the meeting. “If we have any question about the water quality, we will make sure that some kind of notice is issued.

“I assure you I would never tell anyone the water was safe if I wasn’t sure that it was.”

Ledford said he hasn’t heard of any complaints of discolored water since the water plant was shut down, but he encourages residents to reach out to the city if they’re continuing to experience issues. The official said the city can then help residents better discern the cause of the discolored water, such as if a home’s water heater hasn’t been flushed out recently.