Waukesha radium fight goes to next level
Federal appeals court to hear water safety
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Waukesha - The city attorney on Wednesday will
face off in a Washington, D.C., court with lawyers for
the federal Environmental Protection Agency in a case
that could affect 600 communities with unacceptable radium
levels in their drinking water.
Officials say those communities across the country would
have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to comply
with EPA orders to lower the radium levels. Waukesha alone
would have to spend an estimated $67 million to rid its
water of radium.
Two years ago, Waukesha officials decided to go to court
to fight the EPA standards as too stringent, and the city
has since spent nearly $500,000 in legal fees and research
in an effort to disprove that radium poses a danger at
levels now found in Waukesha water.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals will hear arguments
from federal attorneys and City Attorney Curt R. Meitz,
who finds himself speaking for hundreds of other communities
that are watching the case with intense interest, but
that nonetheless have not contributed to Waukesha's legal
fees. The three-judge panel later will issue a written
A natural radioactive element, radium is found in deep
underground aquifers that provide water in many areas
of Wisconsin. The communities depending on these aquifers
fall largely within a band that curves from De Pere through
Fond du Lac to Racine County.
About 50 Wisconsin communities and private water systems
have radium problems. Those communities include Sussex,
Brookfield, New Berlin and Eagle.
Meitz said Waukesha and the other communities cannot
afford the upgrades needed to meet the federal radium
The EPA has established a limit of 5 picocuries of radium
per liter. The state Department of Natural Resources adopted
the EPA standard, which took effect in March.
The city's water has had a radium level of about 8.5
ppl to 11 ppl in recent years.
National studies have linked radium to bone cancer, although
the city has a Medical College of Wisconsin study that
contends Waukesha water is safe.
Nonetheless, Mark Nelson, a state water quality specialist,
said communities that are out of compliance have until
Dec. 8, 2003, to clean up their water systems.
The EPA standard is based on the likelihood of someone
getting cancer by drinking an average of two liters of
water from the same source for 70 years, which Nelson
says is unlikely.
"It is said to be protective," Nelson said of the standard.
"They don't want to set standards where we'll see illness.
They want to see standards where there is not a risk."
Aside from the radium issue, the city will need to find
another source of water in the future to serve the demands
of a growing population and industrial base, Meitz said.
"We've talked to the EPA in Washington, and they understand
that," Meitz said. "We need a long-term solution on our
The city can "kill two birds with one stone" in finding
a new source that's free of radium, but that will take
time and money, Meitz said.
For the city to find and finance a long-term solution,
he said, Waukesha needs to be free of the 2003 deadline.
Some communities already have taken steps to decrease
radium levels in their drinking water.
Mukwonago, for example, has begun taking water from a
shallow underground aquifer that is free of radium and
mixing it with water from its deeper and older wells that
The Village of Eagle and Waukesha are both considering
sinking shallow wells outside their municipal boundaries
and closing deep wells with radium.
Waukesha is also looking toward Lake Michigan as a potential
water source. Obtaining that water is unlikely, however,
because pumping water from Lake Michigan into areas such
as Waukesha that drain into the Mississippi River basin
is generally prohibited under federal laws based on treaties