Richland, Georgia — One of Georgia’s poorest towns is facing the biggest water contamination problem in state history. Richland, a once bustling hub for railroads is now one of Georgia’s poorest communities with around a quarter of its 1,700 residents living in poverty.
In the 1950s and 1960s cement and asbestos mixtures were commonly used to strengthen water pipes and pose no risk if properly maintained. However the town’s naturally acidic water scours the pipes causing asbestos fibers to flake into the water.
In 1997 workers with the state’s Environmental Protection Division tested the water supply after learning of the town’s water pipes contained asbestos when fibers began clogging water filters and meters.
Nearly 300 water systems in Georgia may contain asbestos laden pipes but records are not kept and the state does not require regular testing for asbestos in water supplies.
After initial testing in 1997, community officials applied for funding to replace the pipes but their request was denied.
Since then the pipes have begun to crumble and when another round of tests was conducted in 2002 samples returned exceeding 7 times the safe limit for drinking water.
Asbestos is a carcinogen if inhaled and little is known about the effects of ingesting asbestos fibers because asbestos associated diseases take years to manifest. The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry notes that some communities with asbestos contaminated drinking water have higher than average death rates from cancer of the esophagus, stomach, and intestines.
As the pipes continue to crumble the contamination is only getting worse. In a December 2003 test, results showed the asbestos levels exceeded EPA standards by 3,132 times. The author of the report noted it was “a level never seen before.”
A sample taken in February showed contamination at 5.1 billion fibers per liter Despite these results, mayor Adolph Mclendon says the state has ignored his pleas during the 24 years he has been mayor.
Half of the towns budget goes to maintaining the water system and they cannot afford to rates water rates considering the poverty of its residents who are mostly elderly or low income.
While some of the town’s residents avoid drinking the water, only 2 public notices have appeared (in 2002 and 2005) along with minor disclaimers in town water bills. Not everyone is fully aware of the problem as residents continue to drink from the tap.
According to the American Water Works Association, around 15 percent of water pipes in the United States contain asbestos.
Recently funding has been approved to replace the estimated 2 miles of asbestos lined pipe still used in Richland but the lasting effects of the contamination may not be known for years to come.