December 22, 2010 - Bend Bulletin - Avion questions chromium findings

December 22, 2010
December 22, 2010 - Bend Bulletin - Avion questions chromium findings

Avion questions chromium findings

Tested samples not from water source for majority of Bend residents; company says samples may have been compromised

By Scott Hammers / The Bulletin
Published: December 22. 2010 4:00AM PST

Representatives of the Avion Water Co. say they’re concerned about a new study that found potentially dangerous levels of a cancer-causing compound in its water but are not yet convinced the research is scientifically sound.

The study, commissioned by the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group, tested water drawn from the taps of homes in 35 cities across the country for hexavalent chromium, a compound that has been widely used for a variety of industrial applications but also occurs naturally in some areas.

A sample drawn last spring from the Avion system — which serves approximately 10,820 residential customers in southeast Bend and 1,316 commercial, irrigation and fire protection customers — measured hexavalent chromium at 0.78 parts per billion, 13 times above a proposed California standard for hexavalent chromium in drinking water.

Based on initial information from the Environmental Working Group, The Bulletin reported Monday that the test was done on water provided by the city of Bend’s system, which supplies water to the overwhelming majority of Bend residents.

The Environmental Protection Agency does not currently regulate hexavalent chromium in drinking water, but the release of the study earlier this week prompted two California senators to send a letter to the EPA urging the agency to adopt an enforceable standard.

Rebecca Sutton, senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, said her organization elected to perform the tests in communities where previous tests of the water supply detected “total chromium” — a measurement that combines hexavalent chromium and its less-toxic cousin, trivalent chromium. Working through the organization’s donor lists and friends and relatives of its staff, the Environmental Working Group had volunteers in the 35 selected cities draw water samples from their household taps.

Sutton said volunteers were sent clean bottles and were instructed to run their taps for several minutes before collecting samples. Samples were packaged with a freezer pack and sent to a laboratory by overnight mail, she said.

Manager Jason Wick said Avion Water Co. conducts monthly tests for overall chromium and hasn’t found evidence of either compound since 1979. Samples taken from a household tap can potentially be contaminated by compounds found in the pipes in an individual home, Wick said, and may not indicate any problems at the water source.

“All testing we do is taken at the wellhead, because if you don’t test at the wellhead, you introduce whatever’s in the home’s plumbing into the test results,” Wick said. “So I can’t tell you if the test results are anything or not.”

Sutton said running a tap for several minutes should eliminate the potential for contaminating the sample with substances found in a home’s pipes, but Wick said he’s not sure if it would necessarily eliminate compounds found in such small concentrations.

Wick said he’s urged customers to be patient while Avion investigates the work done by the Environmental Working Group and performs its own tests.

“It did raise a red flag, and we’re looking into it,” he said. “However, there’s not a lab in Oregon that can test to the minute level this test tested to.”

City spokesman Justin Finestone said city officials spent all day Monday and several hours Tuesday unsure if the sample identifying hexavalent chromium had come from its water system. Finestone said the city performs regular tests for total chromium, as required by the EPA, and has always been well below the acceptable level set by the federal government.

Hexavalent chromium may be best known as the substance found in the drinking water of Hinkley, Calif., during the mid-1990s and traced to a natural gas compression station operated by Pacific Gas & Electric. Pacific Gas & Electric settled a class-action lawsuit brought by Hinkley-area residents for $333 million, an episode that was dramatized in the film “Erin Brockovich.”

Scott Hammers can be reached at 541-383-0387 or at

Published Daily in Bend Oregon by Western Communications, Inc. © 2010

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