FOX 25 Investigates: Oklahoma water
NOBLE — There is a chemical in the water in thousands of households across central Oklahoma. It is odorless and tasteless, but potentially toxic. And right now it is perfectly legal to be in the water. Only now are scientists looking at the potential health effects of what so many people have been drinking for years and a Fox 25 Investigation uncovered new details about the extent of the contamination and what other, potentially dangerous, chemicals Oklahomans have been drinking.
Our story began with a request; to look into the health problems in the small Cleveland County community of Noble. Dozens of people wrote to Fox 25 in the early months of our investigation about their battles with cancer, or the diagnoses of others who lost the battle with rare diseases.
One story is particularly concerning. It involves one of the most uncommon cancers striking multiple times. This search for answers begins shortly after Amy Jarvis graduated from Noble High School.
"If one thing in particular defined me in high school, it was track I loved to run it was my release," Jarvis told Fox 25.
Running was her medicine, but at the age of 19 she learned there were some things running could not cure. "They told me that i had a malignant tumor and at 19 I didn't know what malignant meant and I asked and they told me I had bone cancer," Jarvis recalled.
Amy would spend years going through surgeries to not only remove the tumor but to try to save her leg; they didn't work. She would eventually have to amputate her leg that had carrier her through life's previous troubles.
The night before I went to have the surgery done for my leg, I ran a mile," Jarvis said, "The last 800 meters of that on my old track, hurt immensely but I didn't know if I would ever run again so I wanted to do it one last time."
Jarvis' cancer was rare. Only about 800 people a year get it, of those about 400 cases are children. She thought she was just unlucky, until a few years later when she found out the same rare cancer had struck again, and again in Noble. "A friend of mine, I went to school withshe called me. I remember that phone call and she told me she had been diagnosed with osteosarcoma," Jarvis said. It was just a few years before that call the two had been roommates.
Soon reunions of noble's class of 1988 became full of stories of people in the small town who had cancer or whose family members had been diagnosed. "Why are so many being diagnosed and it all came back to remember when we were in high school and they told us about the water," Jarvis said.
Noble's water meets all current health standards, but it's drawn almost exclusively from the Garber-Wellington aquifer. That is an underground water source that is spread beneath much of central Oklahoma and is known to be high in heavy metals.
Fox 25 reviewed thousands of pages of water records from Noble to see what water issues the community has dealt with over the past two decades. The search revealed a document created in 1986 which showed the town had to shut down water wells due to unsafe levels of naturally occurring uranium. The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, did not begin regulating uranium in water until 2000, the city's report indicated it was the Oklahoma State Department of Health which ordered the shutdown of the wells.
But beyond uranium, the aquifer is also rich in other metallic elements like arsenic, selenium and chromium. Chromium is an element many people remember because of Hollywood through the story of story of Erin Brokovich and Hinkley California, a town polluted by a form of chromium known as chromium 6 or hexavalent chromium.
The Hinkley of Hollywood was shown as a small desert community of a few thousand people. They had homes, community centers and parks. Hinkley today is far from a Hollywood happy ending.
We pulled into Hinkley just after dark. There is only a single store that remains open. The elementary school down the street has tall gates padlocked shut since the school shut down a few years ago. The town is slowly disappearing.
"My grandma died from a brain tumor and my mom died of cancer," Chris Gardner told us. Gardner works the night shift at the Hinkley Market. It's a gas station and convenience store that doubles as a small hardware store of sorts.
Gardner grew up in the Mojave Desert and used to swim in the HinkleReservoirir. He moved into the community too late to join the lawsuit. He says his job at the store will likely end soon because there isn't enough business to keep the doors open.
"I'm thinking about leaving," Gardner told Fox 25, "I'd want to go somewhere up north, I've been around this desert for a long time so I want to go somewhere it's nice trees, grass and clean water you know."
To the outsider it would appear the only thing still left fully functioning is the Pacific Gas and Electric plant. That plant was declared to be the source of original chromium six contamination. The company spent millions cleaning up the water and says it now meets California's rigorous new hexavalent chromium standards.
"I still wouldn't trust it, even though they said it's good now, I still wouldn't trust it," Gardner said.
In Hinkley the source of the chromium is known, but in Oklahoma the case is not so simple. Chromium is a naturally occurring element and parts of the Garber-Wellington Aquifer have higher concentrations.
"There is a lot of hex chrome around the country and Oklahoma seems to have some of the highest levels," said Renee Sharp, the research director for the Environmental Working Group.
Total chromium is a combination of chromium 3 and chromium 6, or chrome 6 is also called hexavalent chromium," Sharp explained, "It's tricky because chromium 3 is generally nontoxic and chromium 6 is toxic."
Because of the element's ability to switch forms, the EPA only regulates total chromium. However the process of how it turns from nontoxic to toxic is still being studied. "There is some evidence to suggest that the chlorination process may be actually transforming some chrome 3 in the water into hex chrome," Sharp said.
Documents obtained by Fox 25 from the late 1990s show test wells dug in the Noble area tested above the current EPA guidelines for total chromium. After and EWG study that found high levels of hexavalent chromium in Central Oklahoma, Noble did its own testing. One result from the city's records indicates a 12.1 parts per billion level of chromium-6.
"I think it is disappointing that there hasn't been more acknowledgment that there really may be an issue here that needs to be looked at," Sharp said.
The state of California set a public health goal for hexavalent chromium at 0.02 parts per billion. That level is set at a one-in-a-million risk for cancer. The goal is also assuming cost is no object to filtering out chromium. Central Oklahoma's hexavalent chromium levels are more than 600 times that goal.
"At this point we don't really have a concrete health effects data," said Shellie Chard-McClary of the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality. Chard-McClary said the state's research on the effects of chromium is limited.
"We have not seen anything from the health department that indicates an illness cluster related to any waterborne issue," Chard-McClary told Fox 25.
The state health numbers on cancer rates in Cleveland County, the area with the highest concentrations of metals, are not out of step with national cancer rates. However those numbers only reflect stomach and other intestinal cancers that have been linked to cancer through the ingestion of chromium. Other research, including a report by the EPA, shows chromium as an element can collect in bones. Some reports link it to bone cancer.
Even though California says hexavalent chromium is dangerous, Oklahoma simply cannot do the same research.
"We don't have the manpower to do it, we don't have the research facilities to do it and we certainly don't have the millions and millions of dollars that it takes to do a study like that," Chard-McClary said.
The EPA, however, is testing Oklahoma's water and studying the impact of chromium-6 as part of a national study aimed at potentially setting a federal guideline for hexavalent chromium. "I expect to see some kind of chromium 6 rule," Chard-McClary said, "I couldn't even begin to speculate, based on where it is today, the timeline I think would be at least a couple of years I think."
Any hex chrome standard would come at a cost. While California's current health goal is 0.02 ppb, the official regulation of hexavalent chromium is set at 10 ppb, which is a more affordable goal for cities to reach in terms of cleaning up the water.
Cost will be the issue communities like Noble will have to deal with if the EPA sets a Chromium-6 guideline. "If that did happen I believe almost all of our wells would be in violation and then again we would be looking at how to provide water to our residents," said Noble City Manager Bob Wade.
In Noble, the water isn't collected and treated like it is in bigger cities, like Oklahoma City or even Norman. Instead the water comes straight from wells, which are tested to make sure they meet all the EPA standards.
"I think every municipality wants to feel like that you are providing a very safe product for your citizens and like most of them, I live here and drink the water myself," Wade told Fox 25.
Wade says there has been some talk in the past about creating a regional water treatment plant if there are new standards, but before taking on such an expensive proposition he says he wants to see what the EPA's scientific studies find before anyone blames chromium-6 for all their health problems.
"You really have to back off and look at the true science on what you are doing rather than rush out because it is politically popular to spend money," Wade said.
"We totally recognize that there are some economic considerations but if you really look at the costs...the cost of a treatment system is low in comparison," Sharp said in response to questions about the economic feasibility of water treatment.
"We're in the 21st century and we're still drinking water that could be poisoning our children poisoning our elders and it doesn't make sense to me," Jarvis said.There are ways to protect your personal drinking water. Home filtration systems are available that can remove chromium-6 and many other dangerous contaminants. These types of filters would be especially helpful for anyone operating a private well which do not have to be tested like municipal water sources. The EWG has a website that allows users to search for what water filters will remove contaminates you are concerned about.
The Oklahoma DEQ has a website where you can search for information about your municipality's water test results, including how the community ranks when it comes to total chromium. You just need to enter your city's name in the search box.
The research is still limited on the cancer-causing potential of chromium by ingestion, but for those who have battled cancer and witnessed their friends, relatives and neighbors cope with the same diseases the race for answers cannot end soon enough.
As for people like Amy Jarvis, she wants those answers not only for herself, but for the others who seem to be getting sick more often. She says her life is getting back on track, thanks to her friends from Noble, and her last run.
"That last run got me through I think," Jarvis recalled, "Because I told myself this will not be the last time you run and I hope I didn't fib to myself."