Water Pressure

City of Dayton proposes changes to Source Water Protection Program

By Erin Callahan

Photo: Officials observe the damage from the Sherwin Williams fire on May 30, 1987, three days after the fire began; photo: Dayton Daily News Archives at Special Collections and Archives, Wright State University

“I drink Dayton water; that’s why I’m here.”

This is a statement Matthew Currie, an attorney with Advocates for Basic Equality, made at a city commission meeting on Oct. 15, 2014. He was there to address the proposed changes to the Source Water Protection Program, a plan designed to prevent contamination of drinking water from the Great Miami Buried Valley Aquifer.

If you live or work in Dayton, there’s a good chance you use or drink the city’s water, too. Currie is only one of more than 400,000 Daytonians and surrounding area citizens who receive clean water from the aquifer.

Currie’s voice was not the only one heard at this meeting. Several other citizens, including business owners and environmental advocates, joined him to voice their concerns. This was one of several conversations that have taken place since the changes were first proposed in May 2014.

The changes could affect the size of the Source Water Protection Area (SWPA): and introduce a variance process that could increase the amount of chemicals businesses will be allowed to keep on their property within the area, among other policy issues.

This comes as a concern to citizens, especially since Dayton’s water protection program has been recognized nationwide for its innovation. In 1997, the Source Water Protection Program was awarded the Distinguished Local Government Service Award by the Ground Water Protection Council. In 1998, the American Water Works Association awarded its first-ever National Exemplary Wellhead Protection Award in the large system category to the program. And the Groundwater Foundation has consistently designated the program as a Groundwater Guardian Community. The thought of compromising Dayton’s high-quality water, made possible by this well-awarded program, has stirred controversy since the changes were first proposed.

The City of Dayton will reach a decision about these proposed changes and determine the future of the Source Water Protection Program July 29.

History of water protection in Dayton

It began with a wake-up call.

On May 27, 1987, a fire started at the Sherwin-Williams Paint Warehouse on Dayton Park Drive and burned for nearly six days. A man operating a motorized lift truck accidently spilled several cans of flammable liquid, which were then most likely ignited by a spark from the electric motor of the truck, according to a report by the U.S. Fire Administration.

The sprinkler system and firewalls could not control the fire, and due to the building’s location over the aquifer, Dayton fire Chief Glenn Alexander ordered no water be put on the fire for risk of chemicals seeping into the soil and contaminating the groundwater. Though there was no risk of air pollution, Douglas Hall, then environmental protection manager for the Dayton Water Department, said in the report that “the early decision not to put water on this fire was clear cut.” Some contaminated water reached the Miami River caused by runoff from the sprinkler system, but much more damage was ultimately prevented. However, it taught Dayton a lesson about groundwater protection.

“It may not always be possible to allow such fires to burn when there is a high exposure hazard or an air pollution problem,” the U.S. Fire Administration reported. “Applying water to avoid a fire or air pollution catastrophe may be the lesser evil at times; it depends on the situation. Containment of water runoff should be a consideration both in prefire planning and in planning fire protection systems for a structure or complex which has significant amounts of hazardous materials.”

And so, in 1988, the Source Water Protection Program was established as a multijurisdictional program, encompassing 6,280 acres in Dayton, Harrison Township, Riverside, Vandalia, Huber Heights and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The protected area covers one year of travel based on hydrologic modeling, meaning a chemical spilled within this area could travel through the earth and reach groundwater within the aquifer in one year or less.

The major elements of the program include land use and zoning monitoring, financial incentives, business inspections, chemical inventory reporting, groundwater monitoring, time-critical investigations, groundwater and surface water studies, emergency response, multijurisdictional programs and education and community outreach. According to the City of Dayton, there has been a reduction of more than 25 million pounds of chemicals since the program’s inception.

The program has achieved a level of success, though some believe changes have become more necessary as time has passed.

Proposed changes 

As recommended by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the City of Dayton conducted a periodic review of the Source Water Protection Program and found 10 policy issues to address.

The first series of proposed changes were established with two goals in mind, according to the summary found on the City of Dayton website. The goals were to “continue to mitigate risk to water quality and safety, as well as provide flexibility to allow business expansion.”

At the first town hall meeting on July 14, 2014, Tammi Clements, director of the City of Dayton Water Department, explained that the demand for the city’s wells is down more than 25 percent since 2007, and the city proposed to reduce the SWPA by 40 percent to match that reduced demand. The proposal also included an increase in prohibited uses in the protected area and increased monitoring in the area no longer being protected.

The city received feedback from the public and put forth a revised proposal in November 2014. Revisions included a new reduction of the SWPA by approximately 25 percent, opposed to the original 40 percent, and added a minor variance process where a zoning administrator could grant businesses an allowance of up to 10,000 pounds in their Total Maximum Daily Load Inventory. 

In the months that followed, citizens, local businesses, environmental groups and board and committee members discussed the proposal and its implications on the quality of drinking water and the Dayton economy.

Economic Perspective

One of the goals of the proposal was to create more opportunities for businesses previously restricted from using the land, or from using it in particular ways, while the other sought to protect the quality of Dayton’s water. The series of conversations that have taken place since May 2014 have centered around finding a balance between these two goals, focusing heavily on the possibility and impact of risk to the groundwater.

Gary Brandeberry, former shop manager of the Gem City Metal Spinning Company, shared his experiences at the Oct. 15 city commission meeting. He explained his company was located in the SWPA and was investigating an expansion plan that required 16,000 pounds of regulatory materials for use in new equipment. They went before the Board of Zoning Appeals and requested a variance, even offering to offset the 16,000-pound increase with a 20,000-pound reduction at another facility they owned. However, the request was denied.

The business later relocated to another facility in Dayton outside the SWPA and received funds to assist with the cost, however, Brandeberry said they were not sufficient to cover the total cost of the relocation. Moving businesses outside the area is an option, though unless every business is relocated, Brandeberry insists risk will still exist.

“A more realistic and cost-effective approach would be to have a variance process that allowed for growth, while at the same time continuing to invest in technological advances to reduce or manage risk,” he said. “Our water supply must be protected, but at the same time we cannot continue to pretend the property owners in the area are without any rights, especially since many were present before the ordinance was passed.”

Mike Gearhardt, vice president of JBK Manufacturing Company, expressed similar thoughts.

He addressed sources other than businesses that pose a risk to the groundwater, including railcars, road tankers and septic systems in the well field. Federal laws control road and rail, he said; a local ordinance does not.

“There are many risks that are beyond our control, and the current ordinance does not guarantee safe water,” he said, citing information from former City Manager Earl E. Sterzer. “There are 130 million pounds used by 320 businesses in the protection area. Unless that number is taken to zero, there is going to be risk.”

He argued that measuring chemicals by the pound is not effective, and there is no scientific evidence that pound limits have contributed to or improved water quality. Even today, the water must be treated for use before it reaches faucets for use.

Furthermore, “per a CH2M Hill [Sustainability] Report, there [is] almost an infinite number of treatment system configurations to provide adequate protection to the water supply,” he continued, and advancements in technology and treatment could be used to reduce risk.

Both Brandeberry and Gearhardt acknowledged the importance of the protection program and business flexibility, though others did not agree with their views on how to manage risk.

Environmental Perspective

Monica Snow, a vice president of Preservation Dayton, emphasized that risk management is not enough. Although trucks and railcars travel over the aquifer carrying chemicals, she said that is no argument for allowing businesses to possess more chemicals or allow any kind of business to move in the area that the city no longer wants to regulate.

“We’re asking the city not to add more risk, but commit additional resources that decrease it,” she said. “Humans and technology fail. An accident of some magnitude is inevitable. Major regions in the country are rationing water and in the meantime, our policy makers want to weaken one of the great economic development assets that we have.”

Similarly, Currie’s biggest concern is with the variance and how it will work in practice when it could potentially allow more chemicals for businesses over the SWPA. As an attorney, he said he focuses on the language of the proposal. If a variance is not going to create substantial risk to the groundwater, the zoning administrator could choose to grant it. Currie found two ambiguous terms in this statement.

“There is no clear definition of ‘risk’ or ‘substantial,’” he said in an interview with Dayton City Paper. “Someone would have to show proof of substantial risk, and the water department would weigh in. Though regardless of what they say, the business could appeal it to a judge who could interpret the language differently. The statement warns against substantial risk, but anything lower than that will still allow an amount of risk.”

Dusty Hall, an environmental advocate who played a key role in developing the Source Water Protection Program in the ‘80s, agreed the program could use some updating, but it shouldn’t include more chemicals in the SWPA.

“If a business had a pressing need to have more chemicals, it would certainly be a great candidate for a conversation about relocation,” he said. “If you want to be pro-business, you help those companies find a place where they can go with less regulatory pressure.”

Hall suggested rather than allowing more risk, the city should take the method they know works and build on it for current and future generations. Instead of a one-year time of travel, he recommended adding 24 more years.

“A generation is 25 years, so if we were protecting water for the next generation, we would be looking at a 25-year time of travel. To create boundaries that are based on one, two or five years seems so incongruous with today’s thinking about sustainability across generations,” he said.

These environmental activists expressed optimism for the future of Dayton’s economy. Although water usage is currently down 27 percent, they say they hope to protect the valuable resource for when the city bounces back, and they urge citizens to be mindful of what may go into their drinking water. Hall compared drinking water to examining labels at a grocery store to find the healthiest option, while Currie emphasized preservation.

“Once you lose protection, you can’t get it back,” Currie said.

Now what?

The City of Dayton is currently deliberating their decision, which will be made July 29. While they may or may not choose to move forward with the revised program, the other jurisdictions would have the option to implement it or not.

Regardless of the outcome, several individuals and groups came together to discuss the issue, and Commissioner Joey Williams commended their cooperative efforts at the October 15 meeting.

“I’ve been on the commission for 13 years and heard a lot of debate back and forth over topics,” he said. “That had to be one of the best, if not the best example of the community coming out and expressing their opinions in a very eloquent, passionate, well-prepared and intelligent way. It makes me proud to be a part of this community.”

For more information about the proposed changes to the Source Water Protection Program, please visit daytonohio.gov.


Reach DCP freelance writer Erin Callahan at ErinCallahan@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP freelance writer Erin Callahan at ErinCallahan@DaytonCityPaper.com

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