The recent experience of Paducah Water customers over a de minimus water standards violation is a classic example of how the regulatory swamp produces obtuse outcomes.
Last week 26,000 Paducah Water customers received a letter informing them that they may have been exposed - more than 5 months ago - to water that did not meet federal drinking water standards.
To put the matter in perspective, a measure of a compound know as TTHM at one of eight test sites in McCracken County exceeded government standards on January 2, 2014 by one-thousandth of a milligram per liter. That's one part per billion over the limit - the equivalent of a drop of water in a swimming pool - at one site in McCracken County.
As Paducah Water stated in its letter to customers, "this incident was not an emergency" but it was one that "as our customers, you have a right to know about" and, "There is nothing you need to do."
But then the letter went on to say things like "If you have a severely compromised immune system, have an infant, are pregnant or are elderly, you may be at increased risk and should seek advice from your health care providers about drinking this water."
Seriously? Five months after the incident occurred and was resolved?
There was also this: "People who drink water containing trihalomethanes (TTHMs) in excess of the MCL over many years may experience problems with their liver, kidneys or central nervous system and may be at an increased risk of getting cancer."
The result of such seemingly contradictory language was confusion and in some cases alarm on the part of water customers we spoke with.
And in another weird twist, once it was determined that notice of the violation had to be given, Paducah Water found itself having to spend $7,000 to mail out the customer letters because of regulatory requirements that such letters be sent within 30 days of receiving a notice of violation from the state. The notice hit at a time in the billing cycle that prevented the water company from simply mailing the letters with customers' billing statements.
So why the sudden (and costly) urgency to mail the letters about something that happened five months ago? And why the scary language about seeking advice from health providers and cancer risks if the violation is "not an emergency"?
Regulations, of course.
TTHM is a compound that forms in virtually all water systems when chlorine used to disinfect water reacts with organic matter in the water. It is not considered highly dangerous in low concentrations over brief periods. And that in a nutshell is the reason the letter was five months in coming. A spokesperson for the Kentucky Division of Water said it did not send a notice of violation to Paducah Water until May 22 because TTHM exists in most drinking water and the level of contamination in Paducah's was not threatening. Part of the delay also stemmed from the quarterly reporting procedure that meant the state did not learn of the Paducah violation until March.
What about all that scary language about health risks and consulting your doctor? It's regulatory boilerplate, of course. It is required in such communications, even if it produces confusion and alarm.
The state did note that Paducah Water could have notified customers in advance of receiving formal notice of violation from the state, and 20-20 hindsight says that would at least have saved the $7,000 mailing cost. But all told, the incident seems to be much ado about very little, a situation made worse by regulatory overkill.