Arsenic threats lurk in peninsula wells

Posted: Tuesday, November 06, 2001

Forget anthrax. Here on the Kenai Peninsula, the invisible threat may be arsenic Mother Nature slipped into the water.

Arsenic threats on the peninsula have been known for a long time, but new federal rules and scientific reports give new urgency to an old problem.

Wells in Sterling, Nikiski and northeast of Kenai have tested with high levels of the poisonous metal.

"They are sort of randomly distributed," said Roy Glass, the hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

He is one of the authors a USGS fact sheet released last month. Titled "Distribution of Arsenic in Water and Streambed Sediments, Cook Inlet Basin, Alaska," it contained plenty of disturbing news for the Kenai Peninsula.

The new report summarizes water testing results from the 1960s to the present in areas west of the Kenai Mountains, in the Anchorage area, on the west side of Cook Inlet and in the Matanuska Valley.

Although surface water, sampled from streams, had safe levels of arsenic, the picture for wells was different.

Of 109 Kenai Peninsula Borough wells sampled, 9 percent flunked the old water standard of 50 parts per billion of arsenic and, when the new, 10 ppb standard is adopted, 40 percent will be out of compliance.

The highest reading of all, 150 ppb, was from a coal field on the inlet's west side.

The other troublesome wells cluster in the populated areas of the central peninsula.

About 10 years ago a task force tested numerous wells, especially in the industrial area of Nikiski and near the Sterling waste site.

"In that area, yes, we have noticed that arsenic is high," Glass said.

He cautioned that the way sampling has been done may make the situation look worse than it is. No systematic testing has been done, and studies tend to concentrate testing in areas suspected of having problems, such as Sterling.

Another study cited in the report looked at the amount of arsenic in streambed sediments. Using numbers from a Canadian study for comparison, the USGS concluded that samples from the lower Kenai River and the mouth of the Ninilchik River had enough arsenic to potentially affect fish and wildlife.

"I wouldn't be alarmed about it, but it is high," Glass said.

He recommended that people not eat bottom feeding fish such as sculpins from those areas. But fish that pass through, such as salmon, would not be affected, he said.

Where else the arsenic might be lurking is anyone's guess.

The studies agencies have done are limited in scope.

When private parties get their water tested on their own, the results are confidential and not reported to agencies such as the USGS or Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, which monitors public water supplies for their compliance with the federal Environmental Protection Agency standards.

Glass said it is a money issue.

"We do not have any money to go out and sample wells. There are no plans to go out and study it on a local, state or federal level, that I know of," he said.

Property owners are responsible for making their own decisions regarding testing and using water supplies.

"Private well owners, which most of these are, do not have to stop using their water if its higher than allowed," Glass said.

He warned that people buying homes should request tests of the water. An honest seller should reveal water quality test results, but some people would rather avoid unpleasant complications and many skip such optional tests.

"Get your well tested," he said.

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