Complaints of brown and dirty water at some of Arkansas' prisons are likely because of high levels of iron and manganese, according to water quality experts who investigated the reports and found no indications of immediate health risks.
However, one researcher who analyzed the Arkansas Health Department's inspections at some prisons raised concerns that the reports did not paint a complete picture because of the lack of samples taken from taps in prisoners' barracks.
Family members and several former prisoners raised concerns over prison conditions -- including dirty water -- at a hearing with state lawmakers in July. One former prisoner said the water at the East Arkansas Unit in Brickeys was "not fit to take a shower in." There are no reports of anyone getting sick because of the water.
In response to a public records request by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the state Health Department released inspection reports that showed concerns about levels of iron in the raw well water at the East Arkansas Unit, and iron and manganese at the Tucker Unit. Two other prison water systems, at Cummins and the North Central Unit, turned up no parameters for concerns in the inspection reports.
Other than those four well-water systems, the rest of the state's prisons use public water systems, according to a spokesman for the Department of Correction.
The levels of iron and manganese acknowledged in the reports do not rise to the level of an immediate sanitary risk for the prisoners, said several experts who reviewed the reports for the newspaper.
According to additional data about the collected samples provided by the Health Department, iron levels at the Tucker Unit water treatment plant were measured at 2.25 and 1.44 milligrams per liter, well over the federally established maximum limit of 0.3 milligram per liter. Measurements of manganese at the unit ranged from 0.015 to 0.04 milligram per liter, above the 0.01 milligram federal limit. The test samples were taken in May and June.
The limits for iron and manganese set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are part of "secondary maximum contaminant levels," which are not enforceable by the federal agency. The EPA says on its website that violations of its secondary standards may cause people to stop drinking the water due to smell or taste, "even though the water is actually safe to drink."
"Those are naturally occurring minerals that occur in groundwater quite often," said Rex Robbins, a retired environmental engineer living in North Little Rock. "It would take a real high dose to cause human problems, but it does discolor the water really quickly."
In addition to the high level of iron and manganese detected at the Tucker Unit water system, inspectors also noted "sand in the raw well water."
The Tucker water system's treatment plant -- which uses aeration and disinfection with chlorine gas -- is also operating above the approved capacity, the inspection report notes. Robbins said strain on the treatment plant could contribute to "turbid" water.
The system's capacity is 590,000 gallons of water a day, according to the report, but its maximum demand is more than 890,000 gallons a day. The average demand on the system puts it at 95.3 percent of capacity, according to the report.
Solomon Graves, a spokesman for the Department of Correction, said in a July email that the agency was unaware of reports of the high iron levels at the East Arkansas Unit, but that iron levels were a known issue in the land surrounding the Tucker prison. He added that the prison system has a $500,000 project underway to add filtration capacity at the Tucker Unit.
"The current water supply at both the East Arkansas Regional and Tucker Units continues to pass safety tests by the Arkansas Department of Health. It remains safe for drinking, cooking, bathing, etc.," Graves said in an email.
Another expert who reviewed the reports, Dr. Wendy Heiger-Bernays of Boston University's School of Environmental Health, said the inspections -- as well as additional data supplied by the Health Department -- were inconclusive regarding the safety of the water.
Additional data spreadsheets created by the Health Department after inspections show that water samples were taken from the water treatment plant at Tucker, the training academy, the dog kennel office and a "filter room," though none indicated they were taken from the taps in the barracks where the inmates live.
At the East Arkansas Unit, the data indicate the samples were taken from a mechanics room, a staff dining area, an educational room and a wastewater-related office. Samples were also taken at several sites in Cummins, though not inside prisoners' barracks. Only at the North Central Unit, located near Calico Rock, were samples identified as coming from the barracks.
"We are unable to say anything about the quality of the water that is consumed by the prisoners since the data sheets do not indicate that any samples were collected at the taps accessed by prisoners," said Heiger-Bernays in a summary on the prison-water data written with another researcher, Hannah Fuller.
The four prisons -- and nearby satellite units operating under the same water systems -- can collectively house around half of the Department of Correction's prisoner population of 15,630.
Metro on 08/19/2018