Editorial: Utilities must comply promptly
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Posted December 12, 2006
Three years ago, the state signed consent orders with 42 public and private water utilities that required the utilities to be in compliance with federal standards on radium by Dec. 8. Failure to do so could result in prosecution by the state Department of Justice and daily fines of up to $5,000. As of Dec. 7, only 13 were at or near full compliance, according to a state official.
We suggest two things regarding the utilities that missed the deadline. First, state officials should give the benefit of the doubt to utilities that are making a good-faith effort to get into compliance soon, giving them the time to do so without severe financial punishment. Second, utilities that have been moving forward too slowly should be fined in an effort to get them to provide water to their customers that meets federal standards. After all, utilities have been aware of this deadline for three years.
Radium is a naturally occurring element that is found in groundwater and has been linked to bone cancer. The federal Environmental Protection Agency tightened its standard on radium several years ago, leaving many communities out of compliance. Furthermore, as utilities go deeper into the deep aquifer, more radium could show up in their customers' water. Radium has been one of the main issues in the debate over sending Lake Michigan water to communities outside the natural basin of the Great Lakes.
Meeting the new standards is difficult and expensive. New Berlin, for example, could spend up to $4 million to get the radium out of three municipal wells. The City of Waukesha is spending $13.5 million to improve an existing well and drill new wells to improve water quality. City officials say they could be in full compliance by early 2008.
The Waukesha and New Berlin water utilities are among the 29 to which the state Department of Natural Resources sent a warning letter recently. The letter asked each utility to report on what is being done to comply with the consent order and how long it will take to reach full compliance. Utilities have until Friday to send that report. Other utilities that received the letter include those in Brookfield, the city and village of Pewaukee, Eagle, Germantown, Hartford, Sussex, Delafield, Union Grove and Waterford.
The utilities in question should respond swiftly and without obfuscation. We trust that most of them are working diligently toward solving a difficult problem. Those that are - and are close to being in at least partial compliance - should be allowed to finish their work within a reasonable time frame without additional expense from heavy fines. A community that is already spending serious money on the problem and under severe budgetary restraints isn't going to have an easier job if the state levies a heavy penalty on taxpayers.
On the other hand, any community that has spent the past three years dithering deserves to pay a significant penalty. Sometimes, only enforcement provides the necessary kick in the pants to get something done.