Cornell water tests safe despite lead controversy nearby

With lead reported in Tompkins County communities and schools, Cornell faculty, students and staff have been asking, “Is Cornell’s water safe to drink?”

It is safe, said Christopher Bordlemay, the university’s water and wastewater manager in the Division of Infrastructure, Properties and Planning. Cornell processes its own water from Fall Creek, using conventional treatment, and delivers water to campus as well as to portions of the Forest Home and Cornell Heights neighborhoods, he said.

Federal law requires the university to conduct periodic lead and copper monitoring and to publish a summary in the Annual Water Quality Report. Testing is conducted every three years; the water was last tested in 2014, where samples from 30 sites around campus were analyzed for lead and copper, according to Bordlemay. The next sampling round is scheduled for 2017.

To prevent lead from entering the water system from building plumbing fixtures, zinc orthophosphate is added at the university’s filtration plant to create a protective layer on plumbing systems.

Tested water samples are in compliance with regulations and are below the “action levels” of 0.015 milligrams per liter for lead and 1.3 milligrams per liter for copper, established by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. In fact, the last round of tests for the Cornell Water System showed non-detectable levels of lead in 27 out of 30 samples, with the highest reading at 0.0042 milligrams per liter for lead.

Results are reported to the New York State Department of Health and listed in the water quality report. “Because of our historically low results for lead and copper, Cornell is on a reduced monitoring frequency of sampling every three years,” Bordlemay said.

Cornell’s potable water system draws water from Fall Creek, which has a 125-square-mile watershed, and it safely provides the university – and its surrounding neighborhoods – with up to 3.6 million gallons of water per day.

When water reaches the treatment plant, it is treated with polyaluminum chloride for coagulation (to make particles larger) and sediment removal. Next in the treatment phase is the rapid mixing of the coagulant followed by flocculation (which clarifies the water) and sedimentation (that makes the suspended particles settle out of the fluid). The water is then filtered, disinfected with sodium hypochlorite, and pumped – in a clean, drinkable state – into a 1 million gallon and a 1.5 million gallon storage tank. From there, the water flows to campus via an extensive piping network.

Bordlemay has assembled a document of frequently asked questions to provide more information for the campus community. He said the Environmental Protection Agency has an excellent website for information about drinking water supplies, health effects and regulations pertaining to drinking water.


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