Sunday, May 7, 2023–3:00 p.m.
-John Bailey, Rome News-Tribune-
A committee approved the location of an enhanced water filtration facility as Rome prepares to be able to fully remove harmful chemicals from its drinking water source introduced by manufacturers upstream.
The Rome Water and Sewer Committee voted to move the site for a new water treatment facility which could remove the PFAS and PFOAS chemicals in the Oostanaula River to the practice fields between the Rome Community Center and DFCS buildings on Riverside Parkway.
Rome is in the process of a $99.4 million conversion of its raw water intake filtering facility for “reverse osmosis” treatment to cope with the chemicals. As a result, the city has implemented the first phase of a multi-year rate increase for water customers to help pay for the reverse osmosis facility. In the meantime, Rome has changed its primary raw water intake pumps from the Oostanaula River to the Etowah River.
“I think this is very important that we get this taken care of and the sooner the better,” Water and Sewer Committee Chair Jim Bojo said Friday morning during a called committee meeting.
The reverse osmosis facility was originally planned for the current water treatment site on Blossom Hill then a later plan was to put the facility behind the Division of Family and Children Services building on Riverside Parkway.
“We started looking at other sites to build this new facility while we had the other facility (on top of Blossom Hill) in operation,” Rome Water and Sewer Department Director Mike Hackett said. But each of those sites had one issue or another. “We think this could be a very viable property for this project. Right now this is our best location.
The site needed several things, Hackett said. It needed to have ready access to the Oostanaula River, be able to pump water up to Blossom Hill for distribution, have enough square footage to fill the space needs and be immediately accessible to start construction as soon as possible.
The space on Riverside, which was earmarked for a new fire and police center, checked all the boxes.
“If time were no issue we would do what we set out to do,” City Manager Sammy Rich said Friday morning. “This is our top issue, I know we’ve talked fire and police and wanted to preserve the frontage.”
Rome began the process of converting its raw water intake filtering facility for “reverse osmosis” treatment in 2016, following health advisories issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regarding PFAS.
The PFOAS and PFAS chemicals, also known as “forever chemicals,” are widely used to make carpets and other items stain resistant. The chemicals have been linked to numerous adverse health impacts and break down very slowly, so they persist in the environment for a long time.
The current EPA health advisory allows 70 parts per trillion, which the city is below, Hackett said. The federal agency is expected to reduce that allowable amount to 4 parts per trillion, the minimum detection level for the EPA’s testing technology.
The issue of timeliness of the project is of the utmost importance, Hackett said. With the EPA advisory opinion looming, many communities along the Oostanaula are in crisis.
“This issue came up at Northwest Regional Commission and a lot of communities aren’t going to be able to get the amount down to the 4 parts per trillion,” Rome City Commissioner Craig McDaniel said.
Hackett said he expects a lot of communities are going to see massive water rate hikes as they attempt to cope with the issue. If Rome City Commissioners had not moved quickly, Hackett said, this community could have been without potable water.
“This could really go badly, we don’t have anyone we could buy water from,” Hackett said. “If we shut down, the city shuts down.”
The plan is to use the reverse osmosis system to remove all the PFAS and PFOAS contaminants from the primary intakes on the Oostanaula and continue to have a spare, or emergency intake on the Etowah River. Currently, the water department is pulling water from the Etowah and treating it, Assistant Water Department Director John Boyd said.
However, if there was more demand on the system the city’s water supply could not handle the demand solely from the Etowah.
“In terms of water, from time to time we go to the Etowah to take water.” McDaniel said. “Will we be able to treat the Oostanaula will be we able to treat the Etowah, or would we even need it?”
“We’ll be able to filter water from either one,” Hackett replied. “I don’t know if people know how valuable it is to have that alternate river.”
The project is currently waiting on the results from soil and boring samples, Hackett said, and if those prove to be suitable for the project they intend to begin construction.
“Right now this is our best location,” Hackett said.