Communities ordered to reduce
radium in water
53 owners of wells must provide plans for compliance
By Don Behm
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
More than 50 owners of public and private wells in Wisconsin
must decide by December how they intend to reduce the
amount of radioactive radium in drinking water served
to their nearly 500,000 residents, the state Department
of Natural Resources says in notices of violation mailed
Replacing wells or installing treatment systems to remove
radium and reduce the lifetime risk of cancer for residents
could cost the municipalities or other owners of wells
hundreds of millions of dollars in the next three years
as they work to meet a final December 2006 deadline, local
Most of the 53 communities are in eastern Wisconsin -
from Waterford in Racine County north to Brookfield in
Waukesha County and Germantown in Washington County and
up to Fond du Lac and De Pere. They pump water from saturated
sandstone deep underground, according to Don Swailes,
chief of the DNR's drinking-water quality program. All
rock contains radium, but water held in some deep sandstone
aquifers has accumulated the highest doses.
Next month, Swailes and other DNR officials will begin
negotiating compliance plans with each of the well owners.
Two of them are state-connected - the Ethan Allen School
in Wales and the Southern Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally
Disabled in Union Grove.
By December of this year, officials with the 53 water
systems must have signed consent orders that establish
a timetable for meeting the federal standard of no more
than 5 picocuries of radium per liter of water, Swailes
said. A picocurie is a measure of radioactivity, or the
pace at which a radioactive element such as radium disintegrates.
"The consent orders will be legally enforceable,
and if deadlines are not met, the DNR could penalize a
municipality," he said. The range of penalties could
be from $1,000 to $5,000 a day.
The original federal deadline for complying with the
standard was December 2003, but the DNR negotiated a three-year
extension for state communities.
"We're bending over backward to make sure public
health is protected while allowing communities to research
and implement the most cost-effective way of meeting this
radium requirement," Swailes said.
Waukesha alone faces a price tag of $75 million to $135
million for the compliance options being studied by the
city, said water utility general manager Daniel Duchniak.
"Our residential water rates could double or triple
in a few years," he said. "We are pursuing federal
and state funds to help pay for this" and soften
the blow to customers.
One costly option is to treat water to remove radium.
"But with water levels declining in the sandstone
aquifer, this is not a viable long-term option,"
Another alternative would be to develop new wells west
of the city that would draw water from saturated sandstone
containing much less or no radium.
Waukesha also could ask Milwaukee or Oak Creek to sell
it Lake Michigan water. This option, however, faces political
obstacles in addition to a high cost.
Waukesha is outside the Lake Michigan drainage basin,
so any water piped there would be considered a diversion.
Any new diversion needs the approval of each of the Great
The city had challenged the federal radium standards
in court but lost the battle in February when the U.S.
Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., dismissed the case.
Waukesha will not appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme
Court, Duchniak said.
"We're done fighting the regulation," he said.
"We're working toward a long-term solution for our
Not all of the municipalities face costs of tens of millions
"Some communities with radium violations are not
using wells found in violation of the standard, and those
communities might only need to abandon such a well to
comply with the federal law," Swailes said.
Green Bay is one example.
Though the city provides its residents with Lake Michigan
water containing no radium, Green Bay maintains nine wells
as an emergency backup. None of the wells has been used
in five years or longer, said water utility general manager
Water in four of those wells exceeds the federal radium
Nabak does not want to abandon any of the wells, however.
Green Bay could sell water at a profit to nearby municipalities
if the DNR would allow it to store treated lake water
in each well field, he said. The water, which would be
withdrawn when needed, would not be stored long enough
to accumulate unhealthful levels of radium.
This technology, known as aquifer storage recovery, is
used in 14 other states. This inexpensive below-ground
storage could take the place of costly treatment plant
additions, surface storage tanks and reservoirs.
The benefit to Green Bay also would help seven Brown
County communities facing the radium compliance deadline,
The City of De Pere, Villages of Howard, Ashwaubenon
and Allouez, and Towns of Lawrence, Ledgeview and Bellevue
all received notices of violation this month.
If they could not buy water from Green Bay, each of the
seven municipalities would consider either treating wells
to remove radium or joining together to build both a pipeline
to Lake Michigan and a regional treatment plant.
Ongoing tests of storing treated water in one Green Bay
well will be completed by July 2004, and Nabak is optimistic
that DNR officials will approve use of the technology
after that time.
Germantown Public Works Director Bert Caverson said one
of his community's two wells in deep sandstone contains
excessive amounts of radium and has not been used in the
year he has worked for the village. The well is maintained
for future use.
Village consultants have studied treating water from
the well to remove radium or blending its water with the
flow from another well to dilute the concentration of
radium to acceptable levels, Caverson said. Reconstructing
the well, to prevent pumping water from the layer of sandstone
with highest radium levels, also has been investigated.
Three other wells in a shallow dolomite aquifer do not