Changes highlight arsenic problems

Fed standards stricter, water stays the same

Posted: Tuesday, November 06, 2001

If you read the fine print on a future city water bill and find a reference to arsenic levels exceeding federal standards, don't panic.

The arsenic is not new; the federal standards are.

New, stricter guidelines the Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday on permissible arsenic levels in drinking water have major ramifications for the Kenai Peninsula, because much of the water here is marginal.

Several wells fail the current safety standards, which allow a maximum of 50 parts per billion of arsenic in drinking water. More, including wells now in use by the cities of Kenai and Soldotna, fail the more stringent regulations, which call for a 10 ppb limit.

One part per billion translates roughly to one drop of water in a 10,000-gallon swimming pool.

The cities are moving to meet the new requirements, which will not be enforced until January 2006. Kenai and Soldotna each has a problem well.

How much fixing those problems will cost city taxpayers is not yet clear.

"We do plan on being in compliance at that time," said Keith Kornelis, Kenai's public works director.

"We have one well, well house 3, that is out a bit."

That well, located near Beaver Creek, tests as having 36 ppb.

"We have two wells that do not have any arsenic at all," he added.

Kornelis is talking to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. One question is an ambiguity in the regulation. It is unclear whether each well must be tested individually, or if the city can combine its water sources prior to testing, which would dilute the arsenic to an acceptable level, he said.

If Kenai can pool its samples, no action may be needed. But if not, a new well or a treatment system will be necessary.

"There are numerous ways of treating it," he said.

Kenai has not yet begun shopping for treatment systems and is looking to the EPA for guidance.

The agency plans to offer technical assistance to small towns such as the ones in Alaska. The assistance will include grants, advice and research to develop better treatment options.

"We hope the cost will come way down," Kornelis said.

"We are certainly not the only ones having this problem."

Soldotna is in a different situation.

That city has five wells. One gives readings that hover near 10 ppb, three are well under the new limit, but the fifth averages 22 ppb, said Soldotna's utility manager, Rick Wood.

Wood is cautiously optimistic. He has been braced for the change in the arsenic rule for a long time.

"We've been preparing for it for about a year and a half," he said.

Soldotna has been testing each of its wells quarterly to get a complete picture of their arsenic content.

The city's ace in the hole is a new well it just drilled. Originally, Wood planned the sixth well as an exploratory one. But its water came in so pure and abundant, he decided to add it to the supply system, pending final test results.

His plan is to use the new well to replace the well showing the arsenic. The old well will be held in reserve but disconnected from the reservoir.

"The only time that would be used would be if we had a fire or if we were short of water," he said.

Wood expects the new well to be supplying water to Soldotna consumers by early December. He is waiting for more laboratory test results before completing the hook up.

"Before we put it online, we'll know what's in that water," he said.

He cautioned that the arsenic levels sometimes change in wells as they flow. Usually the metal content decreases, but there is a chance it could go up.

If that happens, Soldotna could be forced to look at filtration systems, an option he hopes to avoid because of the expense.

A filtration facility could cost the city millions of dollars. Even if an EPA grant paid to build it, it would have annual operating costs, he said.

But on the other hand, a filtration system would benefit residents by removing iron and manganese, giving them better water overall.

"We'll be killing two birds with one stone," he said.

"... (But) the people need to be aware, that if we have to go to a full-fledged treatment, the money has to come from somewhere. We will know by midsummer what direction we have to go."

The proposal to change the arsenic guidelines has been controversial nationwide.

The 50 ppb limit was set back in 1942, and the EPA considered it an "interim" standard until more studies could be completed.

In 1999, the National Academy of Sciences released a review of arsenic studies and recommended a more stringent standard of 5 parts per billion. Scientists based the request primarily on studies of cancer and arsenic in Taiwan. Those studies concluded that about six people in 1,000 would get cancer because of arsenic at levels of 200 ppb in drinking water.

That would be the equivalent of about 300 cancer cases in a population the size of the Kenai Peninsula Borough's.

The Clinton administration proposed the 10 ppb standard in January just before the president left office.

The Bush administration put the change on hold and requested a new analysis of the costs and benefits of a change. Alaskans tended to oppose the regulation changes because of their predicted major impact here.

The new reports, released in September, confirmed the previous recommendation. In its summary, the National Academy of Sciences authors concluded that cancer risks from arsenic at the 50 ppb level, while small enough to be difficult to detect, are higher than those challenging the tighter standard claim.

EPA Director Christine Todd Whitman announced the new rule Wednesday.

She said the review of the regulations reinforced the basis for the decision, according to an EPA press release.

She noted that nearly all the water systems affected by the new rule are small towns that serve less than 10,000 people each.

The EPA estimates the cost of complying with the new rule in small towns will range from $38 to $327 per household per year. To minimize the impact, the agency has pledged technical assistance, training and grants.

"The Bush administration is committed to protecting the environment and the health of all Americans," Whitman said.

"This standard will improve the safety of drinking water for millions of Americans and better protect against the risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes."

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