Radium rules may raise water costs
Communities could spend millions to reach new levels
The Associated Press
MADISON - Communities across eastern Wisconsin could
end up spending millions of dollars to comply with a federal
mandate to reduce radioactive radium in groundwater by
2006, an Associated Press review found.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agencyís orders could
drive up residential and commercial water bills by dozens
of dollars. But local officials and business owners say
fears over radium are overblown and donít justify spending
so much money on water treatment.
"People have been drinking the wells in Peshtigo
since the í60s. I donít see anybody glow at night,"
city engineer Steve Cota said.
The EPA says radium in any amount could hurt people if
"Any radioactive emission can cause cancer,"
said Miguel Del Toral, regulations manager for the EPAís
Midwestern regional office in Chicago. "We have no
Studies have linked radium, a naturally occurring radioactive
element, to bone cancer.
The element is concentrated in groundwater in the north-central
United States, including southern Minnesota, Wisconsin,
northern Illinois, Iowa and Missouri, according to the
EPA. It also could be present in groundwater along the
Atlantic seaboard from New Jersey to Georgia, the agency
Radium permeates an underground sandstone aquifer that
stretches from Michiganís Upper Peninsula through eastern
Wisconsin into Illinois and Indiana, said Don Swailes,
the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resourcesí drinking
water quality section chief. Many communities in eastern
Wisconsin from Peshtigo to Milwaukeeís western suburbs
depend on the aquifer for drinking water.
The EPA set the minimum groundwater radium level at 5
picocuries per liter in 2000. A picocurie is a unit of
measurement of radiation.
The AP examined a DNR list of 47 cities and water utilities
with radium levels above 5 picocuries. They have until
December 2006 to come into compliance or face fines of
up to $5,000 per day in violation, Swailes said.
Options range from blending contaminated water with clean
water to bring radium levels under 5 picocuries to finding
completely new water sources. Typically, the more wells
a municipality has sunk into the aquifer, the more expensive
The city of Peshtigo, for example, plans to pay anywhere
from $15,000 to $200,000 to locate and seal off sections
of the cityís two wells that draw from radium-contaminated
areas, Cota said. The city should be able to absorb the
cost within its operational budget, he said.
The Fond du Lac City Council, however, decided in September
to build a $24 million treatment plant that will blend
water from Lake Winnebago with radium-tainted water from
the cityís 16 wells.
Water users could see a $40 increase in their quarterly
bills to cover the plantís costs, City Council president
Martin Ryan said.
But the EPA never made the case that the cityís 6.5 to
7 picocuries per liter levels were truly harmful and people
donít drink enough groundwater to get cancer, Ryan said.
He called the standards "ludicrous."
"Itís like taking a two-liter bottle of soda and
taking two sips out of it and pouring it down the drain,"
Higher bills could drive water-dependent businesses out
of Wisconsin, said Joe Reitmeier, Fond du Lac Chamber
of Commerce president.
"To require communities to spend this much money
is nuts," he said.
Joe Shea, owner of Sheaís TravelMart in Fond du Lac,
said he may have to double the fees at the TravelMartís
car wash to keep it open as water bills increase.
"All this is way overkill," Shea said. "Some
of these legislators ought to go out there and see what
itís like to be in business before they pass all these
The city of Waukesha filed a lawsuit challenging the
EPA standards as too strict, but a federal appeals court
found in favor of the agency in February.
Now that city is considering an $8 million plan that
calls for drilling new wells to draw clean water. That
water would be used to dilute radium in water from existing
wells. The plan also includes installing treatment systems
at other wells, said Dan Duchniak, Waukesha Water Utility
Water bills could increase from the average $17 a month
to $18.70 to pay for the project, Duchniak said.
The Brown County Water Authority, which serves Green
Bay suburbs including De Pere, Allouez and Ashwaubenon,
is considering a $134 million pipeline to draw clean water
from Lake Michigan, authority president Ron Simonson said.
Bills could increase from about $21 a quarter to $80 to
cover the pipeline, he said.
Fond du Lac city officials have asked U.S. Rep. Tom Petri,
R-Fond du Lac, to seek more federal assistance to offset
their compliance costs. But Patrick Mullane, Petriís legislative
assistant, said thereís little chance of that. Legislation
the city wants has died on the floor of the House at least
twice since 2000, he said.
Simonson said water is still a good bargain despite higher
"Thatís less than you pay for cable TV," he
said. "And you donít need cable TV to live. You need