Fairfield County Jail Construction Raises Water Concerns

LANCASTER, Ohio — As the new Fairfield County jail is being built on a location in downtown Lancaster, opponents of the project believe the site’s soil could be endangering the public water supply. After water crises in Flint, Mich., and Sebring, Ohio, city councilmen want to do everything they can to protect the city’s drinking water.

Under investigation are recently recorded arsenic levels at two monitoring wells at the construction site, located across from the city’s north well field and water-treatment plant, according to The Columbus Dispatch. Lancaster City Council President Robert Hedges, a retired hydrogeologist, said the arsenic levels support his argument that Fairfield County commissioners are risking the safety of the city’s drinking water because the project is being built on an old industrial site, with contaminants in the soil that could seep into the adjacent water wells.

Monitoring wells that the county installed when construction began recorded arsenic levels of 11 and 13 parts per billion at the north well field. Arsenic concentrations have varied in the past, however, according to city water-sampling records dating from 1995 that were cited in recent reports by the environmental consultants, reported The Columbus Dispatch. Arsenic has been recorded at 57 parts per billion in raw water, while city-treated water is below the allowable limit of 10 parts per billion set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), according to city water records.

Fairfield County officials and Lancaster Water Superintendent Mike Nixon said there is no legitimate concern about the jail construction damaging the water supply, reported The Columbus Dispatch, citing the councilmen’s opposition to the downtown site as reason for fear-mongering. The councilmen and other opponents to the downtown site wanted the jail built on the Liberty Center county-government grounds about 4 miles from downtown.

Arsenic occurs naturally in groundwater in the region’s glacial-till soil, but once the water is treated at the plant, the level does not exceed what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows, Nixon told The Columbus Dispatch. That is supported by recent reports by environmental consultant Bennett & Williams of Westerville, which was hired by the county, and Burgess & Niple of Columbus, which was hired by the city. Both companies reported that the sampling data doesn’t indicate any significant addition of arsenic to the groundwater, besides the arsenic found naturally in the city well field.

Although the $34.7 million project includes drilling 485 concrete-and-steel-encased pilings 55- to 65-feet deep to support the foundation, the construction method is safe and will not pollute the aquifer that provides drinking water, according to county officials.

The new, combined 384-bed jail and sheriff’s office is scheduled to be completed by September 2017. It will replace three outdated, overcrowded jail buildings, including one at the construction site. Building the new facility became necessary after the three jails failed a state inspection in 2013, after not passing one in 25 years due to issues of overcrowding.