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Waukesha radium fight goes to next level
Federal appeals court to hear water safety arguments
Darryl Enriquez
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 decision.

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 standards.

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 water source."

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 contain radium.

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 with Canada.

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