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Great Lakes Article:

Communities ordered to reduce radium in water
53 owners of wells must provide plans for compliance
By Don Behm
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
06/30/03


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 this month.

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 officials said.

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," Duchniak said.

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 Lakes states.

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 ratepayers."

Not all of the municipalities face costs of tens of millions of dollars.

"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 Bill Nabak.

Water in four of those wells exceeds the federal radium standard.

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, Nabak said.

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 contain radium.

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