Officials investigate water complaint
October 6, 2011
Town of Minden officials were out testing water near a new affordable housing complex on Tuesday in hopes of solving the mystery behind a “rotten egg” smell that has become a nuisance, although not a clear health risk, to multiple tenants.
“Your nose tells you it’s hydrogen sulfide,” said Town Engineer Bruce Scott. “It’s terribly obnoxious to have in the water but not a health hazard as far as my understanding.”
John Wheeling, a 58-year-old disabled retiree, moved into the 21-unit Mahogany Court Apartments 10 months ago. The complex, located on the edge of Westwood next to Douglas High School, opened in October 2010.
“I had clean water when I moved in, but it just built up,” Wheeling said. “In May, it was clearly evident.”
Wheeling said he banded together with other tenants in the building to address the issue.
“Everyone was very upset. It was smelling like sewage out of the faucet every morning,” he said. “I can actually smell sulfur on my breath. It’s a smell you can’t quite get rid of. I don’t think a person should turn on the water faucet and smell rotten eggs.”
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Last week, Weststates Property Management, which manages the complex, issued a statement regarding the matter.
“Three potability tests have been run by the Nevada State Health Laboratory and have confirmed that the water is potable,” said Missi Pollender, Weststates vice president and director of compliance. “Initial thoughts that the water heaters were creating the odor were explored by replacing the anode rod and flushing the tank in a sample unit; however, this did not eliminate the odor permanently. The contracting plumber and engineer were consulted as well as the public works superintendent of Minden, and no health or safety issues have been found. Additional tests are being run, the investigation continues, and possible ways of addressing the smells are being explored. However, at this time there is no evidence of any unique health threat posed by the water beyond those of other users of Minden public water.”
Facility owner Pacific West Communities issued a similar statement last week as well.
“Additional tests are presently being run and troubleshooting continues, but at this time there is no factual evidence that there is an immediate problem with the water,” the company said in a press release. “Mahogany Court Apartments is a new construction building that was built in 2010 in full compliance with all current building, plumbing, and mechanical codes with inspections performed by the local building department as well as other regulatory agencies.”
Although both Scott and Wheeling suspect the foul culprit is hydrogen sulfide, no test results have been made available to confirm that. Hydrogen sulfide is a poisonous gas that can result from a breakdown of bacteria associated with sewers and swamps. At high concentrations, it can be lethal. Dissolved in water, however, it is considered a nuisance; it typically does not reach dangerous levels.
Joe Pollock, program manager of environmental health for the Nevada State Health Division, said hydrogen sulfide has no maximum contaminant level (MCL) in drinking water.
“It’s not something that makes people ill or kills you,” Pollock said. “This is an aesthetic problem, a secondary standard. According to the Town of Minden, whatever is happening with the water is happening after the hookup at the curb and is the responsibility of the apartment complex.
“The bottom line is that the water coming from Minden meets drinking water standards. Something in the water is not meeting secondary standards when it comes out of the tap. It’s really an issue the owner needs to deal with. It’s a landlord-tenant issue more than a health issue.”
Pollock said he understands the frustration of tenants but has no statutory authority to correct the situation.
“It’s similar to mold,” he said. “We get calls about mold all the time, usually in rental units. But we can’t do anything. The Legislature hasn’t addressed mold, and we don’t have the statutory authority. It’s really a civil issue.”
Vince Guthreau, public information officer for the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection, also said there is no standard for hydrogen sulfide in drinking water, although there is a maximum contaminant level for sulfate.
“We received a letter from a complainant on the issue,” Guthreau said. “We’re compiling data to respond directly to the letter, but we have so little jurisdiction over this.”
Scott said the Town of Minden wants to ensure there’s no greater problem with the water outside of the apartment complex. He said there have been similar problems in the past, although the random nature of the smell has prevented officials from locating a specific source.
“It’s a real elusive kind of thing to track down,” he said. “We don’t know where the source is. We haven’t had other people in adjacent buildings with the same kind of issues, so it’s hard to tell if it’s something originating in the building or coming from somewhere else.
“We can’t identify any part of town or particular area as the source. What we do seem to find is that some of the complaints come in with relatively new construction, where possible residual contamination or bacteria got involved somehow in regards to the construction process or materials in construction.”
Scott said there is no requirement in Douglas County that new construction be disinfected. He said disinfecting is allowed for under state law but not mandated.
“One thing we’re looking at for Minden is taking that extra step,” he said. “These bacteria aren’t always active in cooler water, and most of our water is cooler. The literature tells us they usually do better in hot water and are more noticeable.”
Scott expects test results to be available next week. He said Minden is testing water not only from the apartment complex but from neighboring properties as well.
“As the water purveyor, we’re making darn sure to do everything we can to help solve the problem,” he said.