Proposed $22M wastewater reservoir in southern Utah is a health risk, study claims

Critics say reuse reservoir would lead to surge in cancer, birth defects, and legions of other illnesses

Ivins • A few weeks after railing against the design of a $22 million reuse reservoir proposed for southern Utah, critics are now wading into the health risks they say wind-borne chemicals from the exposed lakebed would pose to the area.

At an Ivins City Council’s work meeting last week, Ellen Arch, a pediatrician and geneticist who lives in Ivins, warned city officials about medical risks that she said would be associated with locating a reservoir filled with treated wastewater in a residential community.

Her warning follows one issued a few weeks ago by geophysicist and retired university dean of engineering, Wayne Pennington, who told city officials that the design of the reservoir the Washington County Water District plans to build on about 90 acres in Ivins between Kwavasa Drive and Highway 91 was poor and posed a flooding risk.

In her presentation to the mayor and council, Arch said the medical risks associated with locating a reservoir filled with treated wastewater in a residential community are of grave concern.

“As a medical provider, [and] with all due respect for what this council is trying to do … it would be frankly irresponsible and a bit dangerous to proceed with this reservoir before careful analysis of the soil content, careful analysis of the wastewater content of these kinds of toxins, and then an assessment of the health risks,” Arch told city officials.

Arch and certified professional geologist Daniel Krupicka prepared the report on their own time and dime for the Dry Wash Study Group, a group of residents formed to oppose the reservoir. Dry Wash Reservoir is a critical component in the district’s 20-year master plan to secure another 47,000 acre-feet of water by 2042 to keep pace with growth. By storing treated wastewater that could be used for outdoor irrigation, the reservoirs would free up culinary water to be used to supply new homes.

A toxic concern?

Among residents’ largest concerns is the district’s plan to draw down the treated wastewater in the 1,500-acre reservoir to about 300-acre feet during the hot summer months, thus exposing 47 acres of lakebed dust that the wind could carry to the surrounding area. Arch said the toxic elements found in that wastewater and dust could trigger widespread outbreaks of respiratory and other diseases.

“Although wastewater treatment plants can control conventional pollutants … there are many harmful toxins that they cannot filter. Some compounds, such as pesticides, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, microplastics, and other chemicals, are difficult to detect and remove from the wastewater stream,” Arch and Krupicka state in their report to the city.

Among the compounds they list that would be difficult to detect or remove are prescription or over-the-counter drugs, veterinary drugs, cosmetics, fragrances, sunscreen products and dietary supplements.

“The partially treated wastewater also contains carcinogens, neurotoxins, and cardiac toxins, including heavy metals such as arsenic and lead; nitrates from fertilizers and human waste; PFAS (Forever Chemicals) from man-made substances such as Teflon and waterproofing; and PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) from plastics,” according to the report. Forever chemicals, which are difficult to destroy, are linked to cancer and health issues.

Arch further cautioned city officials that prolonged and repeated exposure to dust and toxins from the reservoir’s fluctuating water levels could lead to a significant increase of exposure to carcinogens, and neurotoxins that cause cancers, birth defects, autism, Alzheimer’s, ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases, Parkinson’s disease, and a whole host of other medical problems.

Arch’s warning about PFAS was underscored Wednesday by the Environmental Protection Agency’s announcement of a new national standard that sets stringent limits on the amount of forever chemicals allowed in water. As part of President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which Congress passed in November 2021, the EPA is investing $9 billion to help communities tackle PFA contamination in drinking water. About $1 billion of that total will go to states to implement PFAS testing and treatment at public water systems.

The EPA’s announcement follows a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory issued last January calling on physicians to start conducting blood tests on individual patients to check for PFAS compounds.

Human guinea pigs?

Study group members argue that no other Utah community has allowed a reuse reservoir to be located in the middle of a residential community. Approving Dry Wash Reservoir, Arch and Krupicka argue in their report, “would make Ivins residents the unconsenting subjects of a medical experiment.”

“The first requirement for participation in a medical experiment is informed consent …,” the report continues. “It is doubtful that adults would consent to the health risks posed by the first reuse reservoir located in an existing residential area, and minor children cannot give informed consent.”

As for those who argue that St. George has been watering its golf courses with treated wastewater for years, Arch counters that much of the findings in the group’s report mirror new research and findings not available in the past. Since many of those most vulnerable to toxic dust — young families with children, the elderly and retirees — live downwind of the proposed reservoir, the pediatrician said, the city should not rush to a decision.

Before signing off on Dry Wash, Arch and others are asking for an independent study to be conducted by qualified medical professionals to assess the threat posed by airborne toxins and how, if possible, they might be mitigated by imposing requirements on the design and operation of the proposed reservoir.

In preparing the report, Arch and Krupicka collaborated with Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, who is leading a study of the toxic effects of dust from the exposed lakebed of the Great Salt Lake. Moench has offered to meet with Ivins leaders via Zoom to discuss Dry Wash. He estimates it would take a few months to assess the health risks of the reuse reservoir.

Given the recent announcements by the CDC and EPA, Moench told The Salt Lake Tribune, the concern Arch and other Ivins residents have expressed about wind-borne contaminants is not overblown or indicative of a NIMBY (not in my backyard) mentality. He said PFAS are found in virtually anything that comes from a sewage treatment plant.

“I would say the PFAS chemical group is the single greatest potential health hazard in this whole battle that Ivins residents are engaged in the Dry Wash reuse reservoir proposal,” Moench added, “because we know that PFAS compounds are in municipal wastewater ... PFAS compounds and heavy metals, which we also know are in municipal wastewater, are probably the two most potentially toxic group of hazards that those residents are concerned about.

“And their concerns are valid,” Moench continued. “If I was living down in [Ivins], I’d be right there with them and engaged in all those meetings, trying to convince public officials that [Dry Wash Reservoir] is not worth the risk.”

For his part, Ivins Mayor Chris Hart acknowledged Arch had raised some valid concerns but has yet to respond to the offer to meet with Moench. He said Ivins residents’ objections to Dry Wash have been passed on to water district officials and project engineers.

“I won’t be able to guarantee you that any of the subsequent work meetings will be consumed by this subject,” he added. “But over time, as the responses to these [concerns] come for the council’s consideration, they will be an ongoing agenda item. So we can address those as they come to us.”