Section: Opinion

COLUMN: Local water management demonstrates need for vigilance

In the past month, the news has been filled with stories of leaks and accidents contaminating water, the largest being the train accident in nearby East Palestine, Ohio. Just last Friday, thousands of gallons of chemicals were spilled into the Delaware river, potentially impacting the drinking water for Philadelphia’s residents east of the Schuylkill River. These nearby disasters draw attention to problems that can arise from water contamination, including our own local management of waste near water sources. The East Palestine derailment arose because of corporate influence that appears to have affected the regulations for the shipping for the shipping and movement of industrial chemicals, spotlighting how the United States regulates potential water and environmental hazards. For both our neighbors and ourselves, we should be vigilant about the safety of our drinking water. Here in Knox County, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) has acted on concerns over the Mount Vernon’s large store of lime sludge adjacent to the water treatment plant.

The Village of Gambier (and consequently Kenyon College) receives its water from Mount Vernon. The town’s water system operates on a series of wells, largely grouped in a field, except for one other well that is located behind the wastewater treatment plant. Our water is sourced via those wells from the aquifer beneath us, which the Gambier Village Drinking Water Consumer Confidence Report For 2021 states is highly susceptible to contamination “due to the sensitive nature of the aquifer … and … existing potential contaminant sources identified.”

Mount Vernon’s well system includes one notable hazard: Termed in the town’s Drinking Water report as the “sludge lagoon,” this is a store of 30,000 tons of dried lime material, a byproduct from the water treatment plant. The town hauled the lime sludge from the plant’s onsite lagoon to a temporary site on Delaware Road directly next to the water treatment plant, behind which both the Kokosing River and the aforementioned well are located. Due to a citizen’s complaint, the OEPA investigated and ordered the town to remove the sludge (an order the town fought with litigation). Placing a large, poorly-contained store of potential contaminants next to the river and one of the town’s drinking wells in the face of the aquifer’s existing vulnerabilities gave rise to OEPA concerns and orders. 

It is unclear due to lack of data if lime sludge is toxic, and some health hazards have been associated with it, according to the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (used by OSHA for workplace chemical safety) — but lime can be caustic. Some toxicology studies with rats show behavioral effects and blood changes with lime sludge ingestion, but there is a lack of data needed to firmly classify it as a “toxic material.” Clearly, though, the OEPA has concerns about the sludge’s release into the environment and potential impacts.

During the OEPA’s review last year of the town’s plan of compliance with the mandated timeline for removal (which they found to be unacceptable and in need of revision) the lime storage flooded after heavy rains. The lagoon overflowed the surrounding embankments and demonstrated the containment concerns of the site. The management of this material has the attention of the EPA, and the agency’s actions show its worries over the town’s initial plans to manage it. The sludge removal, needed for the town to reach compliance with the OEPA’s General Permit Operating Conditions in a way that avoids adverse environmental effects, began in the last weeks of 2022. Mount Vernon has responded to the OEPA’s removal timeline (spanning over a year), and as of last December, Mayor Matt Starr said that the city is ahead of schedule on meeting that order. Following these OEPA findings and orders, the director of utilities for the city of Mount Vernon resigned. 

With these concerns fresh in mind, we at Kenyon must be conscious about how we treat our watersheds, aquifers and rivers, both locally and nationally. The poor placement of these large quantities of lime sludge at the edge of our wells and aquifers by the city of Mount Vernon should be a point of community concern, just as it was to the OEPA. Maintaining awareness and involvement in local government, especially as that is how our water and waste are managed, is a necessary part of ensuring the safety of our natural resources, and that oversight can help to mitigate potentially harmful mistakes.

Guthrie Richardson ’25 is a columnist for the Collegian. He is a political science major and is from Chapel Hill, N.C. He can be reached at

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