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Great Lakes Article:

Radium rules may raise water costs
Communities could spend millions to reach new levels
The Associated Press
11/28/03

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 itís ingested.

"Any radioactive emission can cause cancer," said Miguel Del Toral, regulations manager for the EPAís Midwestern regional office in Chicago. "We have no choice."

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 said.

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 treatment becomes.

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," he said.

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 laws."

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 general manager.

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 bills.

"Thatís less than you pay for cable TV," he said. "And you donít need cable TV to live. You need water."

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