As legal level goes down, costs go up

Arsenic and old water

Posted: Friday, February 02, 2001

One of the last acts of the Clinton Administration was to sign into effect new Environmental Protection Agency regulations reducing the acceptable level of arsenic in drinking water. The new rule could mean communities on the Kenai Peninsula will have to scramble to adapt.

The new law is in limbo right now, though, as President George W. Bush put a 60-day hold on its implementation so his administration could evaluate and possibly repeal it. If it goes into effect unchanged, communities would have until 2006 to comply.

The current acceptable limit of arsenic, a naturally occurring heavy metal, in drinking water is 50 parts per billion, or ppb, while the new level would be 10 parts per billion.

To put that into perspective, Steve Shreiber, a program specialist with the National Rural Water Association, a water utility membership association in Duncan, Okla., said one part per billion is equivalent to one grain of salt in 1,000 1-liter bottles of soda, or one grain of salt in a 260 gallon tank of water.

The concern on the central peninsula is that since arsenic occurs naturally in relatively high amounts here, and in some cases exceeds the new levels, expensive remediation measures would have to be taken.

"There are a few different ways to treat it, but they're all very expensive," said Kenai Public Works director Keith Kornelis. "We would have to ask for a (Department of Environmental Conservation) grant to pay for it."

Shreiber said the change would cost communities thousands of dollars to bring water down to the new level.

"Small systems do not have the money to bring arsenic down to the 10 ppb range," he said. "That's one reason the rule was stopped, because there was so much outcry from small systems."

No figures were available as to what such a remediation would cost.

"We don't see the benefits from this," Shreiber said. "We don't see anybody dying from arsenic."

Dave Litchfield, an environmental specialist with the DEC, said there is not a lot of hard science behind the 10 ppb figure, or the 3 ppb level the EPA had originally proposed.

"The public water systems just went crazy, since that would affect a lot of people and cost a lot of money to do it," he said. "So the EPA backed off."

Kornelis said he too hadn't heard about any solid data that said 10 ppb was better than 50 ppb.

"There is no scientific basis for picking that number," he said. "It's more just mathematics."

Litchfield said the new regulations will definitely cause problems.

"It's hard to get that stuff out," he said. "When you talk about Kenai and Soldotna, it will take a pretty good treatment plant to do the job."

There are a handful of treatment options to get arsenic out of water, including coagulation, softeners and microfiltration, he said. The catch is that the water must be treated at its source, and in both central peninsula cities, the wells are scattered about town and would require a treatment system at each one.

According to the city of Kenai's drinking water quality report, there are no measurable contaminants in wells 1 or 2. There is 36 ppb of arsenic in well 3, which is lower than the current level, but more than three times what would be acceptable in 2006.

According to Steve Bonebrake, Soldotna's public works director, well A and the city's new test well have arsenic in levels "a freckle" above the 10 ppb level, still about one-fifth the current accepted level of 50 ppb.

Wells B, C and D are all below the proposed level.

The Soldotna City Council is moving to bring the new test well online so it can be grandfathered in as an existing well when, and if, the new regulations go into effect. That would give the city until 2006 to bring the arsenic contamination levels down to 10 ppb.

"If they say 2006 for the new levels, that's plenty of time for us to meet them," Bonebrake said.

Shreiber was quick to point out that the word contaminant is used in the water industry to mean anything that is not as pure as distilled water.

"If you put coffee in your water, you've contaminated it," he said. "If you're drinking pure water, then you're drinking distilled water."

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