Aluminum went into lake |

Aluminum went into lake

by Andy Bourelle

The Tahoe Keys Property Owners Association is in hot water with the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Lahontan says the association released dissolved aluminum into the lake last summer.

But instead of fighting over whether the association was negligent in operating its water treatment facility – which reportedly released the toxic metal into the water – the two agencies are working together to come up with a suitable mitigation plan.

“Lahontan thinks it was negligence, but we do not believe that,” said Janis Brand, president of the Tahoe Keys Property Owners Association’s board of trustees. “But rather than getting into a long, drawn-out fight with Lahontan we want to come up with some sort of mitigation that is acceptable to us and acceptable to them.”

Without the association knowing it, the water treatment facility released aluminum into the water for several weeks in August. Levels of aluminum in the water reached points where aquatic life could have been harmed.

Lahontan has the authority, by statute, to issue a fine of up to several billion dollars. However, Lahontan Executive Officer Harold Singer said that won’t happen.

“It is extremely unlikely that I, or the board, will impose anything even close to the maximum,” Singer said.

Lahontan and the association have had several fruitful discussions concerning a potential mitigation in place of a fine, according to Singer.

“If there is something they can do to help us reduce the amount of sediment going into the lake, that is to everyone’s benefit,” he said.

The plant draws water into its treatment facility and adds a chemical called alum, which contains aluminum, to it. Alum particles attach to pieces of sediment, and they settle inside the plant. When the water is discharged back into the lake, the alum and sediment are supposed to stay in the plant.

In August, however, the Keys used “way more alum than needed,” according to Singer, and the chemical was discharged with the water.

The Keys operated the plant for 26 days, not knowing the aluminum was being released.

The facility released 858 million gallons of aluminum-contaminated water, while the Tahoe Keys West Lagoon and Marina can hold only 480 million gallons, meaning the treatment plant pulled in water contaminated with aluminum and added more of the toxic substance to it.

The association tested the water; however, the lab studying the samples did not return the results for several weeks, an action that should typically take four to six days, according to Brand.

When the association finally received the lab results at the end of August, it stopped operating the plant.

Levels of the dissolved metal in the Tahoe Keys’ water exceeded acute toxicity levels for aquatic life but not chronic toxicity levels, meaning the pollution would not kill life forms immediately but could affect their reproduction and ability to defend themselves from predators, as well as potentially shorten their lifespans.

The contamination had returned to non-toxic levels in October.

The association is under no mandate to run the plant, but its operation is believed to benefit the water clarity and quality. While the treatment plant had not been operated in years because of the drought earlier in the 1990s and already good water quality in more recent years, the association started it in August essentially to make sure it was working OK.

Lahontan claims the property owners association was negligent because the water board warned the association the plant might have problems. Additionally, according to Lahontan, a simple “jar test” before the startup of the plant would have revealed exactly how much alum was needed, and the association should have known – before 26 days was up – that the aluminum was contaminating the water.

“They could have done more up front,” Singer said. “There are many things you can do when you start up a plant like this to determine what the alum should have been.”

The association disagrees.

“It was a series of circumstances that, of course, would never happen again,” Brand said.

The regular meeting of Lahontan’s governing board is scheduled for later this month, where the board will consider issuing a Cease and Desist Order to the association, requiring the Keys to no longer use the facility until a new acceptable plan of operation has been established for it.

“We don’t have any objection to them running the plant. We object to how they ran the plant, and the consequences,” Singer said.

Brand said the meeting is basically a formality because the association already is working with Lahontan’s staff and complying with what the Cease and Desist order likely will say.

Neither Brand nor Singer wanted to comment on what preliminary talks have revealed as potential mitigation measures. However, they are confident an agreement will be reached.

“We’re having some really fruitful discussions with the Keys people,” Singer said.

optional breakout

What: Regular meeting of the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board

When: Jan. 13, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 14, 8:30 a.m. (if necessary)

Where: South Lake Tahoe City Council Chambers, 1900 Lake Tahoe Blvd.

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