By BEN MITCHELL
Last month, the City of Bingen got closer to solving its persistent and massive distribution system leakage issues when a leak from a city water line was discovered after it created a sinkhole at the intersection of Walnut and Steuben streets in downtown Bingen.
Initially, Bingen Mayor Betty Barnes was quite pleased that city workers had found and fixed the leak on Feb. 21. She was still pleased, albeit less so, a few days later when Bingen residents and business owners started coming up to Barnes on the street and arriving at her house, complaining that their water smelled like rotten eggs.
At last week's city council meeting, Barnes told the council and five concerned members of the audience that she had asked Public Works Superintendent David Spratt why Bingen water now "smells like sewer."
"About two weeks ago, we fixed a major leak," explained Barnes, "and once we fixed that leak, we no longer needed White Salmon water, so we shut it down."
The city, which has been losing almost half of all the water that flows through its leaky pipes, has been buying water from White Salmon for years, to help offset its water losses. Once the Steuben Street leak was fixed and Bingen began using only its own water, the city inadvertantly dredged up another problem that had been lurking at the bottom of the Bingen wells.
The foul odor is caused by the presence of hydrogen sulfide a chemical that Bingen City Administrator Jan Brending called "a naturally occurring compound that tends to occur in older wells... what's called 'old water.'"
Brending provided a 2001 fact sheet from the Washington State Department of Health that explained hydrogen sulfide is a "colorless, flammable gas, heavier than air, which at low concentrations smells like rotten eggs."
The compound often occurs as a byproduct of anaerobic sulfur bacteria which are feeding off of decaying plant and/or animal matter. Since it is heavier than air, the gas can often collect in low-lying and enclosed areas, including wells.
This is not the first time Bingen has run into this issue. In the summer of 2007, the city also experienced an increase in hydrogen sulfide levels that prompted complaints from Bingen water customers.
Barnes assured the public that other than the smell, Bingen's water is fine and has smelled this way off and on since the 1940s.
"It's perfectly safe to drink," she announced at the meeting.
"You can't drink it!" retorted an audience member.
"If you could drink it, the water is perfectly safe to drink," replied Barnes.
Though the gas can cause health problems if inhaled in high concentrations, particularly in enclosed areas, hydrogen sulfide is soluble in water and the WSDOH fact sheet claims it's OK to drink -- provided you can stand the stench.
Klickitat County Environmental Health Director Jeff Martin, who was contacted via phone by The Enterprise on Thursday, agreed and said the state had no regulations on hydrogen sulfide amounts. He did admit, however, that he reported the issue to the WSDOH and that if citizens register "enough complaints at the state level, the state can recommend treatment."
This is a moot point since Bingen began taking steps to mitigate the smell a couple days after the complaints reached Barnes. Spratt went around and tested the city's wells and discovered the highest concentration was at the park well located on Daubenspeck Park property just off of Humboldt Street. This well was shut down.
The smell of the water abated somewhat, but Brending said a new problem arose when Spratt had issues regulating the amount of chlorine -- a chemical used to reduce the number of hydrogen sulfide-producing bacteria -- that was being added to the city's water supply. Brending said the issue was unrelated to the hydrogen sulfide problem, but was unsure what caused the rise in chlorine levels.
Paul Beneventi, owner of the eponymous pizza and sandwich restaurant on Steuben Street, was already annoyed by the sulfurous water, which he said he was concerned about affecting the quality of his dough. He grew even more irked when customers at the popular eatery complained about the abundance of chlorine in the drinking water being served.
"Over the past two weeks, I've had customers returning waters left and right," Beneventi said at the city council meeting. "In the last two days it hasn't had an odor, but the first customer on Monday morning [of March 5] took a water and spit it out, spit out on the table and said, 'Oh my God! My mouth's on fire! There's bleach in it!"
Beneventi also said the same day his wife, Tammi, took a shower and emerged from it "reeking of chlorine," as if she had just been in a swimming pool.
"I've given away... I can't tell you how many cases of water," said Beneventi, "because I'm embarrassed about the water."
Council members and city officials listened empathetically to the audience's grievances as they too have had to endure the fetid water. Brending mentioned that several other businesses besides Beneventi's had complained, including SDS Lumber.
The council made the decision to shut down the Dry Creek well located near the intersection of Walnut and Jefferson streets, in addition to the park well. The city now relies on White Salmon water and what it calls the "reservoir well" near Dry Creek just off of SR 141 in order to meet Bingen's water needs.
Council members dicussed a variety of potential options for ameliorating the hydrogen sulfide smell, including chlorination, drilling new wells in different locations or aerating the existing wells.
Council member Clinton Bryan said the city would be "investigating further into what it takes to get a decent drinking water."
Brending said she will be putting together a cost comparison of producing versus purchasing water as well as the cost of aerating the wells. She noted that the city would likely be able to provide some information on these options by the Bingen city council meeting on April 3.
According to a Monday conversation The Enterprise had with Beneventi, both the hydrogen sulfide and chlorine smells dissipated the day after the city council meeting and he said the water coming out of his taps was "the best water I've had in a long time."
That's not the only good news. During the city council meeting, Brending released preliminary numbers on Bingen's distribution system leakage since repairing the Steuben Street leak on Feb. 21. While data is still in the process of being collected, early results show for the first week after the repair, Bingen was producing 181,655 gallons of water a day as opposed to 313,639 gallons.
"If these numbers do pan out," said Brending, "it is very promising for addressing a significant portion of our distribution system leakage number."