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VALPARAISO | Recent tests of water from faucets in older homes turned up five cases of excess copper, a Water Department official said Tuesday.

This is the first time five unacceptable samples have been found since the Valparaiso Water Department began testing for lead and copper in 1989, Water Treatment Team Leader George Brown told the city's Utilities Board on Tuesday. The utility must develop a plan to combat the problem, and has until Monday to notify the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

The utility must test 30 homes for the two metals every three years. Only certain older homes qualify for testing, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards allow for up to three samples to show higher levels than allowed.

"After a couple of phone calls with IDEM and going to the EPA website, we reached agreement to increase the amount of phosphate in the treatment and do some increased monitoring for other things like temperature, alkalinity and such," Brown said.

Adding phosphate coats the pipes and reduces the corrosiveness of the water. The utility uses one part per million of phosphate and will double that to two parts per million, Brown said.

The city has until 2015 to correct the problem, and then it must test 60 homes for two years to make sure no problems exist.

In addition to the expense of more testing, the utility will have to spend more to increase phosphate -- one of the most expensive chemicals used. The utility spends $4,000 for a thousand-gallon supply, which lasts about 1.5 months.

Finding more homes to test could be a problem because the utility already has difficulty finding 30 people, Brown said. If residents in the homes to be tested install a water softener and don't tell the utility, their water will fail because of the corrosive nature of the softener salt, he said.

The tests are done after the water has been shut off for at least six hours, and the first quart from the tap is used.

High copper levels might cause an upset stomach but are not as serious as high lead levels, Brown said. Customers can protect themselves by running the water for a couple of minutes before using it, he said.

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