DNREC updates regulations to prevent water contamination

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Changes to DNREC regulations will require additional inspections of water valves in Milford

At a recent City Council workshop, Larry Lutz, Chairman and CEO of HydroCorp, Inc. about changes to DNREC regulations regarding backflow prevention in an effort to prevent water contamination. Some of the changes will require additional water testing by the City of Milford.

“Last year, the state of Delaware passed a regulation requiring that all regulations must have a comprehensive backflow prevention program,” Lutz said. “The purpose of the program is to keep the drinking water safe and that’s really it. It’s a health and safety issue.”

Lutz explained that his company had been in the business for almost 40 years, assisting utilities with setting up and managing this type of program. The goal was to be sure that water running through pipes in the city was safe to drink and to identify any hazards that may exist that could lead to cross-contamination.

“People use water for many things,” Lutz explained. “We use it in car washes, in dental offices, laboratories, food processing, all sorts of things. All of those connections are called cross connections and if they are not installed properly, water may flow backwards, known as backflow. The purpose of this program is to ensure customer satisfaction and to avoid any types of problems, like lawsuits, anything like that with someone getting sick. That is the worst possible situation. It is also to maintain regulatory compliance. The overall program is designed for, number one, public health and safety, eliminate plumbing hazards, water quality assurance, regulatory compliance.”

Lutz provided details on how water could become cross contaminated, explaining that if a cross connection was improperly installed, good drinking water could mix with process water. Councilman Todd Culotta asked what process water was and Lutz stated that it is water that is not used for drinking purposes but for other reasons. Public Works Director Mike Svaby provided Sea Watch and Perdue as examples of businesses that used large quantities of water for their regular processes. Once the water was used for the manufacturing processes at this location, it is no longer potable. Although the company can reprocess the water and reuse it, which they often do, it cannot be used as drinking water any longer.

“Part of a cross connection and control program is doing on site assessments,” Lutz said. “The assessments are specifically for external connections, looking outside buildings at underground irrigation systems, for example. The protections are designed to prevent the water used in an irrigation system, which will have all types of fertilizer, insecticides and animal waste from coming back into the building and mixing with drinking water.”

Councilman Jason James asked if the new regulations were already in place and Svaby stated that they were required to be completed by February 2024. The city wanted to get ahead of the program so that it was already in place before the deadline. Because this would require some customer education, Svaby felt it would be beneficial to begin letting people know about the regulations and begin addressing any concerns immediately. Lutz pointed out that anything inside a building would be the responsibility of the owner of the building while outside connections would fall to the city. He explained that under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the city had a responsibility of ensuring that drinking water delivered to the meter was safe. Once it passes through the meter, it becomes the responsibility of the building owner to maintain safe drinking water.

“You say the drinking act is a federal regulation, that the regulations Delaware passed requiring municipalities to do this is federally regulated,” Councilman Andy Fulton said. “What is the end game for the municipality? How do we say, “You have to fix this.” And what do we do if they say they would not? Do we have to shut them down?”

Lutz stated that the municipality would have the power to shut off water to a facility that did not agree to correct a problem. Svaby stated that since this was a new requirement, there would need to be some education of the public. He also commented that large manufacturers already had requirements similar to these and that if a company like Sea Watch or Perdue had a problem, the city would stop delivering water until they could repair the issue.

“We obviously wouldn’t do it at nine o’clock in the morning on a weekday,” Svaby said. “We had an issue before, and we coordinated with them at an off time since that is what worked for them. They are more than happy to comply with a coordinated shut off of their various water inputs. This is going to be handled in exactly the same way. I think Larry may be referring to some smaller businesses or, ultimately, when we get to residences, you may have some pushback from them. And those we just have to do outreach and provide education.”

Councilman Culotta commented that he was confused as he believed this was related to commercial enterprises and that backflow prevention on a residence did not seem necessary. Lutz used the irrigation example again to point out that if a residence had an irrigation system, they may be drawing from a well or pond. Councilman Culotta explained that anyone on town water would get irrigation water from a second connection to which Lutz stated that may not always be the case.

“This is great when you say most people will comply,” Councilman Culotta said. “So, you go into a restaurant and say “I see you have a coffee machine hooked up. That could cause cross contamination. You should have an internal backflow prevention. Restaurants now have a certain requirement for plumbing. Plenty of restaurants don’t have that because they have been in business for years, so they are grandfathered in. How do you go in and say they need a backflow prevention, or we are going to shut you down. I mean it may be five years form now by the time this happens, but the point of the matter is, it could happen. This is more government interjection that may or may not be necessary.”

Svaby explained that the backflow prevention inside a building would be a requirement of the health department and the plumbing code. He stated that his department might recommend corrections if they see something.

“There have been plenty of problems with soda machines where people have gotten sick from improperly installed soda machines, but we are not going to make recommendations on that,” Svaby said. “We’re not shutting anyone’s water off because of an improperly installed soda machine. We are only concerned with the incoming water.”

Councilman Jason James questioned what responsibility the city had if the inspectors did find a problem inside a building, like an improperly connected soda machine, especially if there was a risk of someone getting sick. Lutz explained that the inspectors looking at backflow prevention would not be looking at soda machines and that those issues would fall to the Board of Health. Councilman James wondered if this could lead to problems since the inspectors who work for the city could see a problem, but if they ignored it, could it still fall back on the city.

“We’ve actually had this issue within the last year or two,” James Puddicombe, City Engineer, said. “A couple of folks got sick. The Department of Health notifies the city, and the city has a duty to isolate that area. The Department of Health goes through testing to verify our system is not contaminated. Once they clear the system, the city turns the water back on and everything is resumed. We do work directly with the Department of Health when those situations arrive.”

Councilman Brian Baer asked if the valves in question would be monitored in real time and Svaby stated that they would be tested annually as there is really nothing to monitor. The cost for the program is nominal, according to Svaby, under $2,000. Councilman Dan Marabello asked if this was going to be a requirement of new residential buildings in the future. Puddicombe explained that there would not be a requirement for backflow preventers, but dual check valves would be required which were the residential equivalent. Apartment complexes would have something similar.

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