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This section of the South Fork New River is just downstream of the proposed site for the town of Boone’s planned raw water intake — near the Riverside Restaurant in the Brownwood community.

Photos BY ANNA OAKES



Originally published: 2014-06-17 20:21:04
Last modified: 2014-06-18 09:27:39

River impacts among intake concerns

by James Howell

Critics of the town of Boone's planned raw water intake on the South Fork New River have raised concerns about the environmental impacts of pharmaceuticals such as birth control in treated wastewater.

But researchers say they lack substantial evidence that the planned intake would increase estrogen levels in the river.

Since the mid-2000s, Boone has planned a 4 million-gallon-per-day intake on the South Fork New River in the Brownwood community near Todd and the Ashe County line. The intake would be the town's second on the South Fork New River and would be located downstream of the town's treated wastewater discharge site.

New River Keepers Inc. is a new nonprofit that formed to oppose the water intake project. One of its founding members is Frank Packard, who cites a commentary paper published by Appalachian State associate professor Shea Tuberty in his critiques of the project.

The paper written by Tuberty several years ago indicates that feminization of fish species in the New River is occurring near the Boone wastewater treatment plant.

According to Tuberty, scientists have little information about the impacts of pharmaceutical chemicals that mix in to local water supplies. What is known is many of the compounds have been shown to have adverse effects on humans and aquatic wildlife.

"This new area of toxicology is especially important to keep in mind as we plan and build the water infrastructure that will sustain Boone and surrounding communities for decades to come," according to Tuberty's paper.

According to Tuberty's commentary, the pharmaceuticals include a wide range of compounds,  including antidepressants, estrogens, pain killers, antiseizure and heart medications. Also, industrial waste products, fire retardants and antibiotics contain compounds that can adversely affect humans and wildlife.

"The results indicated that 60-66 percent of male hognose and white suckers immediately below the wastewater treatment plant effluent are being feminized; tests with rainbow trout have yet to be conducted," Tuberty said in his paper.

George Santucci, the president of the New River Conservancy, said rising estrogen levels in the river water is a valid concern.

Santucci said estrogen levels in water increase near populations of young women, thanks in part to pharmaceuticals such as birth control, which can end up in the water supply.

"There's estrogen in every single river in this country, in quantities that it should not be," Santucci said. "It's compounded, certainly, where there are populations of young women, and a university town would certainly be a place like that."

According to Santucci, there are other compounds chemically aligned with estrogen, such as a compound used to make plastic soft, such as with plastic bags. When this compound interacts with fish tissue, it can have the same effect as estrogen.

However, Santucci does not believe the intake facility will cause estrogen levels to increase downstream.

 "The wastewater treatment plant doesn't manufacture estrogen," Santucci said. "If Boone uses more water, it's because it has more people, and if there's more estrogen in the water, it's because there's more people, not because there's more water."

Boone Intake
The proposed water intake facility has garnered controversy since the project was first announced.

One of the concerns about the proposed water intake facility at Brownwood is that some water will cycle through the system multiple times. This is due to the proposed intake facility being placed 23 miles downstream from the Boone wastewater treatment plant.

Some members of New River Keepers Inc. are concerned that water cycled through the system multiple times will lead to higher concentrations of pharmaceuticals, such as estrogen, in the water.

"Not that we can prove," Santucci said. "We've tried."

In his paper, Tuberty says elevated levels of estrogen causing fish to be feminized decreases downstream.

"Although preliminary tests have shown that pharmaceutical estrogens in the river just below the wastewater treatment plant are right at levels known to cause, it is unlikely that these levels persist very far downstream due to dilution, adsorption to organic matter and breakdown by microbes and sunlight," Tuberty said in his paper.

"Although the release of some of these compounds from every wastewater treatment plant is undeniable, the long distance persistence in the water downstream, and thus their possible adverse effect, is in question," according to Tuberty's paper.

Estrogen study
Water samples collected downstream from the Boone Wastewater Treatment Plant show very small amounts of estrogen, if any, in the river, according to an ASU associate professor.

Carol M. Babyak, an associate professor of analytical chemistry and environmental chemistry at Appalachian State University, said water samples collected from the New River do not indicate elevated levels of estrogen.

According to Babyak, her students took water samples of the New River downstream from the Boone Wastewater Treatment plant. In all, five samples, also called collection events, were taken during a nine-month period starting in July 2013.

 "We're confident in our ability to detect small amounts of estrogen," Babyak said, "and we haven't found anything."

According to Babyak, she and her students utilized the solid phase extraction method to separate compounds from the water. They then used LC-MS (liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry) to analyze the samples.

According to Babyak, she and her students can analyze contaminants in water up to 10 parts per trillion.

According to Babyak, this doesn't indicate water from the New River is completely estrogen free. However, measuring at 10 parts per trillion and not detecting estrogen means the levels are probably very low.

 "If it's there (estrogen), it's very low," Babyak said.

However, Babyak said she and her students "haven't done extensive testing."
According to Babyak, she has toured the Boone Wastewater Treatment Plant, and said the plant is following the regulations set for them from what she could tell.

 "I'm pretty confident the wastewater facility is doing a good job," Babyak said.

However, she acknowledged wastewater plants are not required to remove pharmaceuticals from wastewater, one of the concerns voiced by members of New River Keepers Inc.

 "It would be nice if they would look for pharmaceuticals," Babyak said, "but right now, they're not required to."

Still, Babyak said it is unlikely the intake facility will cause increases in estrogen levels.

 "Remember, we're talking about a big river," Babyak said. "I'd be concerned about that if it was a closed reservoir or something like that."
Santucci agreed with Babyak's findings, and said it would be interesting for researchers such as Babyak to conduct more studies and find more information about how intake facilities affect the New River.

 "If you look at Jefferson (water system), they're very typical. They have an intake on the river, and then they have a discharge on the river," Santucci said. "The discharge in is below the intake, so you don't drink your effluent."

 "But the other side of the story is that this intake (Brownwood's proposed intake) is 25 miles down stream of Boone, so there's a long mixing zone for this stuff to dissipate, and other streams to feed in, and volumes to increase and dilute all this stuff," Santucci said.

Also, according to Santucci, Las Vegas will be switching to a completely 100 percent recycled water system in the near future. This means researchers across the country will be able to study the environmental impacts of a recycled system.

Comments from Boone officials, including Mayor Andy Ball, concerning Tuberty's paper and water sample collections were unavailable by presstime.